Long Range Load Development

Written by Sierra Bullets Product Development Manager Mark Walker

Walker1
Since I just put a new barrel on my F-class rifle this spring, I figured it might be a good time to discuss load tuning for long range shooting. Getting the most accuracy out of your rifle is one of the most important aspects of load tuning. For long range shooting in particular, using a load that produces the least amount of vertical variation is vital. There are several steps to the process that I use, so I will go through the basics of each.

When I first get a new barrel installed, I like to determine what the loaded cartridge “jam” length is. I do this by taking an empty case (no powder or primer) that has been neck sized with the proper bushing (I like to shoot for 0.002 smaller than the loaded cartridge neck diameter) and seat a bullet long in it so that the throat of the rifle will move the bullet back into the case when I close the bolt. I close the bolt several times until the bullet stops moving back into the case at which point I use a comparator with my calipers and get a length measurement on the cartridge. This is what I consider to be the “jam length” for this barrel and chamber. I came up with 3.477 as the “jam length” for this particular barrel.

Next, I will fire form some brass using a starting load of powder and bullets seated to “jam” while breaking in the barrel. My barrel break in process is not very technical; it’s mostly just to get the brass formed and the rifle sighted in. I do clean every 5 rounds or so just because I feel like I have to.

Once I have the brass formed, I use them to load for a “ladder “ test to see what powder charge the rifle likes. With a ladder test, you take your starting load and load one round each with a slightly increasing amount of powder until you reach your max load for that cartridge. You then fire each round using the same aiming point to see where the bullets start to form a group. For this barrel and cartridge, I started at 53.3 grains of H4831SC powder and increased the load by 0.3 grains until I reached 55.7 grains. I always seat my bullets to “jam” when doing a ladder test. We will determine the final seating depth in another test later. It’s usually best to shoot this test at a minimum of 200 yards because at closer ranges the bullets will impact too close together making it hard to determine which load works best. I shot this test at 300 yards.

Walker2072 copyAs you can see from the target, the lightest load #1 had the lowest velocity and impacted lowest on the target. Shots #2 and #3 were a little higher and in the same hole. Shots #4 thru #6 were slightly higher yet and all had the same elevation. Shots #7 and #8 were the highest on the target however pressure signs were starting to show. For some reason shot #9 went back into the group and the chronograph didn’t get a reading so I ignored that shot.

When picking a load, I am looking for the most shots at the same vertical location on the target. As you can see that would be shots #4 through #6 so I would pick a powder charge from those shots which would be 54.2 grains to 54.8 grains. As a side note, shots #2 and #3 are only 0.851 lower so I wouldn’t be afraid of using one of those loads either. I settled on 54.5 grains as the load I wanted to use. It’s right in the middle of the group so if the velocity goes up or down slightly, the bullet should still hit in the same place on the target.

Now that we’ve settled on a powder charge, I want to find the seating depth the rifle likes. I usually start at jam length and move the depth in 0.003 until I get to 0.015 deeper than jam.  I load 3 rounds at each depth using the 54.5 grain powder charge and shoot a group with each depth at 150 yards. As you can see from the target, the first two groups are not good at all. Next one looks good and is the smallest group on the target.  The next three are not quite as small but the vertical location on the target is almost the same which indicates a sweet spot which will help keep the vertical stringing to a minimum on target. I went with 3.470 which is right in the middle once again and should give some flexibility with the seating depth.

Walker3074ASo after all of that, my load is 54.5 grains of H4831SC and a cartridge length of 3.470. I plan on loading up enough ammo to shoot five groups of five shots and see exactly how this load works on target as well as what the extreme velocity spreads are over several groups.

I sincerely hope some of this information helps you to get the best accuracy out of your rifle. I do not take credit for coming up with any of this, a whole lot of good shooters use this same method or a variant of it when working up their loads.

For more information about load development, please contact the Sierra Bullets technical support team at 1-800-223-8799 or by email at sierra@sierrabullets.com.

Disclaimer: Load data represented here may not be safe in your rifle.

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9 Responses to Long Range Load Development

  1. Davis Bush says:

    Good info. Since we do not as individuals have any access to pressure testing equipment this is a good way to test for consistent pressures. “Vertical string” is generally attributed to seating depth once the powder charge is determined. Done in order to keep a constant as a baseline is a very good indicator. Note over time throat erosion will necessitate a change in seat depth.
    p.s. your barrel is NOT worn out.

    Next article should be on temperature/elevation changes on load performance.

    If people will stop informing others on good load development it would make it easier for me to beat them !!!!

  2. David (Rupe) Ruppel says:

    Mark, Thank you for explaining this so well! I have tried to figure out load developement using the ladder method by reading several write ups, but til now I could never wrap my Gray matter around what they were trying to explain. Your explaination with your targets helped so much that I now understand what I’m looking for and what I should be doing. Thank you for spelling it out for me and please keep load developent articles coming!
    Thanks
    Rupe

  3. John Snell says:

    I’ve been experimenting with OCW and OBT theories, and using QuickLoad to predict and explore load behavior. Your method and results are right in line with my findings. Several shots of different loads hitting near the same elevation is consistent with an Optimum Charge Weight (OCW) load, which often falls near an Optimum Barrel Time (OBT), and since changing seating depth actually changes barrel time slightly, this is a tweak to achieve an OBT node. Besides outstanding groups, I’ve found much lower Extreme Spreads (ES) when a load meets these criteria and in addition I’ve found that such a load will continue to produce small groups for more shots between cleaning than any other load, and does so by a wide margin.

    Thanks for publishing a simple short and accurate method of load development!

  4. Pingback: Ogive me some guidance please... - Ruger Forum

  5. Eric says:

    What is your rifle’s caliber? Which bullet?

  6. John T. Simmons says:

    Dear Mark,
    Thanks for sharing a super process and your results. Frankly, the way that you use jam-length loads to break in a barrel would frighten my reloading friends. They might think that one needs to use shorter cartridges to begin with. I, however, think that it is a brilliant way to work up the load for a new barrel. By starting out with jam length loads and basing your max. load on that C.O.L., then you get a safer, working-load charge weight for the shorter cartridges that you load once you determine the optimum C.O.L..
    I have not yet discovered neck sizing dies that have inter-changeable bushings for different sizes. Please advise. Sincerely, -John Simmons

  7. Eric Christianson says:

    Redding and Forster both make high quality neck sizing bushing dies, Forster will custom polish their full length sizer dies to whatever neck dimensions you specify (for a reasonable fee). Lee makes a collet and mandrel type neck sizing die that minimally works the brass and is not as sensitive to case neck wall thickness as standard or bushing style dies. The Lee dies are very inexpensive. If you wish to increase the neck tension with Lee collet dies, you will need to order additional (smaller dia.) Lee mandrels.

    • John Simmons says:

      Thanks a million Eric!
      I spend so much time working that I rarely have time to read up on the finer points of reloading, so I didn’t realize what you shared about Lee collet and mandrel dies even though I had seen them advertised. Also, I had not heard of the Redding and Forster neck sizers with the bushings. The concept makes sense to me since I do get info from Sierra load manuals and rifle blogs. I have a good micrometer and I use it. Again, thanks and safe and accurate shooting to you. Sincerely, -John Simmons

  8. kenneth kephart says:

    Mark,
    Wonderfully informative!!
    I’m shooting a Stevens 200 in 7mm-08, and a Savage 111 in 7mm Rem Mag. Although both are “hunting” rifles I have been shooting many 3shot groups attempting to find the right powder charge, and COL for both of these rifles.
    Alas I’m using Alliant powder, and bullets weighing anywhere from 120-160 grains.
    The issue with Alliant(even though I like this powder) is the large range from min to max loadings.

    With your help, I’m well on my way to much better accuracy out of both rifles!!

    Thanks

    Ken

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