The following article on reloading for the AR15 was composed by friend and fellow high power shooter Sean Leighton. Sean has been competing in service rifle matches for many years. He is a Distinguished Rifleman having obtained that honor, and his Master classification, with the M1A. His current NRA classification is High Master which he earned while firing an AR15 at Camp Perry in 1998. Sean also has a background in competitive bench rest and I know some of his reloading techniques draw on that experience as well. I think you will find his article informative and well written.
RELOADING THE 223 REMINGTON FOR HIGHPOWER RIFLE COMPETITION
by Sean T. Leighton - High Master, Distinguished Rifleman
The Basic Philosophy
There are differences, namely a match rifle can have a longer barrel and you can move its gas port closer to the muzzle. This can change optimum powder charges and bullet velocities, but in a practical sense it's not particularly relevant. It is only common sense that what works in one rifle should work in another essentially identical rifle. You will never regret purchasing quality equipment. There are tools you need and then there are tools that would be nice to have. Hand loading can be as simple or complex as you have the time and money to make it. This is a hard lesson to learn for the diehard competitor, but in general, simple is best.
That Gleaming Jewel, The Cartridge Case
Luckily, 223 brass is cheap, easy to come by. The majority of people use Winchester, IMI, or once fired military Lake City cases. Each case has its merits. Winchester brass is well made, and has good case volume. IMI brass is robust with slightly smaller case volume, and is priced right. Surplus Lake City cases are also of good quality with good case capacity (in contrast to Military 308 match brass which is heavier than most commercial brass) and very inexpensive, but you must remove the primer pocket crimp before seating a primer.
It can be cleaned simply by putting some bore solvent on a rag and wiping the case or by throwing the cases into a vibratory tumbler. A worthwhile addition to this process is to brush out the case neck. RCBS makes a plastic brush and handle or you can use the handle with a worn out brass bore brush (clean it with degreaser first). Cleaning the case neck saves wear and tear on your sizing die expander button and makes seating the bullet easier.
Now comes the resizing operation which can make or break everything that follows. To resize a case, you need a reloading press, full length sizing die, case lubricant and a case micrometer. I have my preferences regarding which equipment will give the hand loader the best performance but other equipment may do the job just as well. The best presses I know of are the Bonanza Co-Ax and the RCBS Rockchucker in that order. Each is a solid press that with proper care will last a lifetime. For sizing dies, I prefer the Bonanza full-length resizer however the Redding dies have a very good reputation. I have experimented with various case lubricants, both spray-on and wipe on, and each time I come back to Imperial Sizing Wax. A little goes a long way, it does not build up in the die fast, and it provides excellent lubrication. I also use molybdenum disulfide as a case neck lubricant but powder graphite also works. An added but necessary expense is a case micrometer, either from Mo's or RCBS or at the very least, one of the Wilson type gages.
I think a digression here is important. If you're going to compete with an AR15 in Highpower Rifle Competition, you need to full length size your brass, period. The rifle must function flawlessly for over 80 rounds without cleaning and any small amount of accuracy picked up from neck sizing a case will not be worth it, even for use during the single load Highpower stages.
To set up the sizing operation, measure several cases (that have been fired in you rifle) with the case micrometer. Even though the cases may differ in length by 0.001 to 0.002 inches, measuring several cases will give you an average measurement. Insert your die into the press and turn it down until it touches the shell holder, then turn it back most of one turn. Lube a case being careful not to get sizing lube on the case shoulder. Dip the case neck into a small amount of moly/graphite and size the case. Wipe off the lube and measure the sized case with the case micrometer. Move the sizing die up or down in the press until you can reliably get a case that is sized 0.003 to 0.004 inches less than the measurement taken with the fired cases. This is why the case micrometer is so important. Without a case micrometer, most handloaders have no real idea just how much sizing is taking place and will therefore have a tendency to over-size a case. Over-sizing a case will needlessly work the brass, possibly allow an excessive headspace condition, and certainly reduce case life. The gig with the case micrometer is that once you set up your sizing die, its not really needed again. It does come in handy later on if you use different brands of brass (Winchester brass will behave differently than Federal brass for example) or measure brass that is near the end of its life since well used brass is work hardened and does not always maintain consistent dimensions after sizing. Make sure you clean the sizing die every 50 to 100 cases. Also, if there is to much sizing lubricant on the case, the extra lube will build up and dent the case. Once the sizing operation is done, either wipe the case with a rag or tumble the cases in corncob media.
Now that the case has been cleaned and resized, it must be checked for length. This operation is required since every time a case is resized, it will lengthen by 0.002" to 0.004". At some point the case length measurement will exceed the maximum case length which is 1.760" for the .223. Measure the case length with a micrometer or caliper. If the measurement exceeds the maximum case length, the case needs to be trimmed to 1.750". There are a number of trimmers, both manual and powered, made by the different reloading companies. For manual trimming, I have used the Forster product but any of the others will do the job. Simply follow the directions supplied with the trimmer and trim the cases to the recommended length. Unfortunately, most if not all case trimmers leave a burr at the case mouth, which has to be, removed to seat a bullet. The tool for this job is a chamfer tool, which like most of the other tools is available from a number of companies. Wilson and RCBS make a good chamfer tool. Chamfer the outside of the case neck first leaving a light bevel, then chamfer the inside of the case mouth leaving a light bevel also.
One last step to the case prep is to clean out the primer pocket. Spent primer residue, if left in the primer pocket could prevent the primer from seating properly and protruding from the case. In service rifles, a primer must be seated 0.002" to 0.005" below the head of the case. A "high primer" could and can be prematurely detonated by the firing pin becoming what is known as a slam fire. A number of tools are made for cleaning primer pockets but a couple twists with a small screwdriver will remove the majority of the residue.
Busting a Cap, The Primer
Once the case is cleaned, resized, trimmed, and the primer pocket cleaned the next step is seating a primer into the case. Any number of tools are available to do this job which range from the primer arm on most reloading presses to custom hand tools that can regulate the depth a primer is seated in the case. Accuracy studies have shown that the primer has to be seated to the bottom of the case primer pocket and must not be crushed into the primer pocket. If the primer is not seated to the bottom of the case primer pocket the firing pin will drive the primer into the primer pocket varying the primer detonation and in many cases significantly effecting accuracy. Hand priming tools allow the handloader to feel when the primer bottoms out in the primer pocket. For Highpower, bench mounted priming tools have more advantages over the hand tools. The bench mounted tools allow a similar feel while seating a primer, have feed tubes which can be loaded without having to touch the primer (the handloader must have clean hands as the oil on your skin can contaminate the primer), and can prime a greater number of cases quickly and efficiently. As for primer brands, a majority of competitors have settled on Winchester small rifle or Remington No. 7 1/2 (unlike the 308 where Federal No. 210M's were used extensively). This is not to discourage use of other brands of primers as other brands will most certainly work well but as stated previously, this is what a majority of competitors are using and which do work. One last thing to do after you prime a case and before it is placed back into the loading block is to run a finger over the case head. This takes a fraction of a second and assures there is no mistake with a primer seated above the case head.
Stoking the fire, The Powder
When it comes to powder, the AR15 is more versatile than the M1/M1A because of its gas verses piston system of operation. Specifically, you can use a wide range of powders with different burning rates but the same principals apply in selecting a powder, namely a slower powder for a heavier bullet and filling 100% of the case volume. To narrow the focus of this section, the recommendations are directed at loading for the full course Highpower event. For Short course (100 yds) events, most AR15s will shoot just about any bullet well enough to be competitive. Experimentation and load development for the short course could be endless.
Going by the numbers
One of the great things about the AR15 at this time is that while commonalties in assembling accurate match loads exist, no single standard load has come forth as the end all to be all. With the M1A you dumped 40.5 to 41.5gr. of 4895 in a case, stuck a Sierra 168 on top and shot it. On the rare occasions that 4895 didn't work, you used 4064 and that was that. Not with the AR15. A number of powders are being used with the heavy bullets successfully. They include extruded powders such as 4895 (IMR, Hodgdon, and surplus), Varget, Reloader 15, Vihtavorhi N135 and N140 and to a lesser extent ball powders such as Winchester 748 and Accurate Arms 2520. The astute handloader will note that each of the powders listed has nearly the same burning rate. For full course competition, the extruded powders generally provide less temperature sensitivity and more uniform velocity, which is important on hot summer days.
One of the main reasons why the M1A shot so well with a standard load and bullet was because of the extensive experimentation and development put into it by the Military. The rifle was practically designed around the military match M118 loading. With the AR15, the civilian market has taken the lead developing innovations in rifle improvements and high ballistic coefficient bullets. But it has still been the military that has taken these innovations and proved them in the crucible of competition.
For the 200 and 300yd phase of the National Match Course (NMC), the Army has yet to find an economic alternative that will beat the Federal Gold Metal Match with the Sierra 69gr. bullet. The qualifying rumor is that they only use the Federal match that is loaded with extruded powder vice the lots of Federal match that is loaded with ball powder. Cartridges that were "accidentally dropped" by military competitors and then "found" by me and disassembled would seem to support this fact.
The 600yd. stage of the NMC is another matter altogether. Through experimentation, the Army has developed a standard load which they call "V-8", and have used for the past couple of years. This load is a new Lake City military primed case, a heavy charge of Vihtavorhi N-135 powder, and an 80gr. Sierra. Emulation of this load (albeit reduced somewhat), has proved very successful in every rifle I have tried it.
With regard to specific powder charges, I think it is wise to backpedal a little from my previous statements about the similarities of rifles and loads and simply state that each rifle must be approached differently. Get a reloading manual or two and follow their directions by using the starting charge for the specific powder and bullet weight and work up cautiously from there.
The competitor has two basic choices in how to weigh a charge of powder. The most common method is to use a balance beam type scale or an electronic scale and weigh each individual charge. While this is time consuming, this method is accurate and recommended for loading 600yd. ammunition. Something to remember about powder is that it is as much volume dependent as weight dependent.. You don't have to be absolutely precise, weighing to plus or minus one tenth of a grain is more than sufficient.
To speed up the process, many competitors use a drop type powder measure. A powder measure is definitely handy to have when loading the large amounts of ammunition the average Highpower competitor goes through in a year. Typically, these measures do not weigh extruded powders as well as ball powders and as such require a degree of technique on the part of the user. For short range and practice ammunition, the small variations in charge weight are not consequential so long as the charge weight is below maximum. This type of measure is available from all the major reloading tool manufacturers. A popular powder measure is the Redding BR-3 which has a micrometer adjustment knob allowing charge settings to be recorded so that they can easily be redialed in should the measure be used for weighing different powders.
A cautionary note is in order here, different lots of the same powder can give different weights with the same setting on the power measure. Be sure to recheck the charge weight on a scale when using different lots of powder. Also, recheck the charge weight at five or ten round intervals since differences in the powder column of the measure can significantly effect the uniformity of the weighed charge.
Topping it off, The Bullet
The success of the AR15 in NMC competition has been due in large part to the introduction of heavy, high ballistic coefficient bullets. Originally the only bullets available were the Sierra 69gr. and Hornady 68gr. bullets. These bullets performed well out to 300yds, and still are viable as competitive bullets today as witnessed by the Military team's use of the Federal match. However, these bullets could not compete with the 30 caliber bullets at 600yds because of their sensitivity to wind. This deficiency was corrected with the introduction of the Hornady 75gr. , Sierra 77gr. and 80gr. bullets. The 75 and 77gr bullets are perfect for 200 and 300 yds. while the 80 gr. bullet gets the job done at 600yds.
For the well healed competitor, Berger Bullets and JLK make a number of very low drag (VLD) type bullets. These bullet types include flat base, boattail, and magazine tolerant ogive bullets. There are a number of advantages to these bullets, which include higher ballistics coefficient, and uniformity since they are custom made one at a time. The down side of VLDs are they cost more and they can be much harder to set up because the thinner bullet jacket used in their manufacture makes them sensitive to excessive bullet jump.
Getting the bullet into the case requires a seating die. There are a couple different types and variations as would be expected from the different manufacturers. My preferences for a seating die are (in order by price) a Forster/Bonanza bench rest die, Forster/Bonanza Ultra Seater, and the Redding Competition die. A standard seating die does not support the case as the bullet is being seated. Obviously, this defeats all our careful work sizing the case and can greatly decrease the concentricity of the loaded cartridge. Each of the dies mentioned has a sliding sleeve that supports and aligns the cartridge case with the bullet. The Ultra seater and the Competition die also include micrometer tops so the seating depth can be changed from one setting to another in a repeatable manor. Micrometer tops make it easy go from seating short range loads to long range loads and back, just dial in the correct depth and your ready to go. Of the listed dies, the Redding seating die is practically a work of art. If you can afford it, get it.
A word of advice on seating dies that could save you a lot of aggravation. The seating stem of the die must contact the outside circumference of the bullet at some point on the bullet body to assure the bullet is being seated at a consistent depth. Some seating stems are not counter bored deep enough to handle VLD shaped bullets. If this is the case, only the bullet tip will contact the stem. It must be remembered that modern match bullets vary slightly in length caused by how the tip of the bullet jacket is formed (this physical anomaly does not effect accuracy). A typical box of Sierra Match bullets may vary as much as 0.015" from the shortest to the longest bullet in the box. Consequently, your seating depth will vary by the same amount. The fix is easy, drill the counter bore hole deeper to prevent the tip of the bullet from touching. Enough said.
Setting up loads for Rapid fire is relatively easy, the bullets must be seated deep enough to prevent the cartridge from hanging up in the magazine. The cartridge overall length need only clear the magazine by 0.010" to 0.015" to function reliably. This functioning requirement rules out using those bullets with a "pointier" ogive like the Hornady 75 gr. A-Max, or the 80 gr. Sierra. Because of the long length of these bullet types, they would have to be seated far into the case taking up valuable space meant for powder. Not to fear, the Hornady 75 gr. and Sierra 77 gr. HPBT bullets have the proper profile and give up very little in ballistic efficiency out to 300yds.
Setting up 80gr. bullets is another matter. To achieve the highest degree of accuracy, it is necessary to seat an 80gr. bullet between 0.005" and 0.015" off the lands. The old way of achieving this set up was to coat the bullet with soot or a black marker, seat the bullet long, chamber the cartridge, and keep adjusting the seating length down until the lands no longer made engraved marks on the bullet. Essentially, this was hit or miss since the bullet could already be into the lands several thousands before any visible engraving took place.
This dimension can be found more accurately with the help of a Stoney Point tool and a bullet comparator. The Stoney Point tool will provide a more precise measurement of just where a particular bullets ogive touches the rifling. The bullet comparator is used to provide a measurement off the bullet ogive instead of the tip of the bullet. So if a different bullet from the box were to be used in setting up the seating die based on an overall length recorded from the Stoney Point tool, the actual ogive to rifling dimension may not be near the actual measurement we worked so hard to find.
I think I would be remiss if I didn't add one final though regarding bullets and short range. While the heavy bullets are accurate, it seems like overkill to shoot them in 100 yard reduced courses. A good bullet for the short course is the Sierra 52 gr. Match King. The bullet is accurate in fast twist barrels and you can use the cheaper fast burning ball powders like AA2200 or AA2230. This setup gives the shooter two pluses, less cost and even lower recoil. Good points for a shooter just starting out and wanting to get allot of practice.
The need for Speed
The newbie competitor just starting out in the sport has to set priorities. If you want to advance fast, spending all your spare time reloading won't cut it. Practicing positions and dry firing are what helps beginners advance through the lower classifications. Hence to need to reduce time spent reloading and maximize time spent practicing. Enter the progressive reloading machine. As far as this equipment goes, buy Dillon. I have yet to hear a good word about any other manufacturer’s progressive reloading equipment. I will present my own opinion on using a progressive that may not jive with other opinions. To each his own. I believe it is best to prep the case on a single stage. Progressives are great with straight walled cases but there are just too many things that need to be done to a bottle neck case. Coupled that with smearing sizing lubricant in the powder dump die and seating die and your just asking for trouble. With a prepped case, you can seat a primer, dump powder, and seat a bullet with each pull of the handle. Sure, technique is required, but with careful set up and experience, you can reload a ton of cartridges quickly and with impressive consistency.
Reloading for Long Range
The full NMC goes out to 600 yards and the Long Range National Match Course (LRNMC) goes out to 1000 yards. That’s a far piece. The old saying in Highpower is that matches are won in standing and lost at 600. I have found that the up-front part of the NMC just does not require extensive and detailed reloading technique. Once you find an accurate load, load a lot of it and get out and shoot it. The 200 and 300 yard targets are generous in size and just don't need that extra 1/8 to 1/4 moa. from a "perfect" handload. What counts at these ranges is practice and you can't practice if you don't have the ammo.
The 600 yard line is another animal altogether. Not only is good shooting technique required, but your ammunition must be as uniform as possible. Even small variations in bullet velocity will result in substantial changes in shot placement on the target.
So what do you have to go through to make good ammunition for the 600 yard phase? Luckily, only a few extra tools and a couple extra steps in the process are needed. I figure that you only shoot 22 rounds at a time anyway so it's worth it to go the extra mile.
To begin, you should start off with 100 or more new cases from the same lot. Weight each case. It is a tedious process but if you commandeer the kitchen table and spread out a large piece of paper (like the back of an SR-1 target), it's easy to write down case weights (like 94.1, 94.2, etc.) and set the cases down in a column behind the number. Just don't bump the table once you start. An electronic scale really speeds things up so if you have one or can borrow one, use it. When the task is done, separate the cases into the largest groups that you can with the smallest case weight variance. The rule of thumb is to keep groups of weighed cases within 1% to 1.5% of each other. Typically 100 cases will be roughly divided into 2 groups of plus or minus 1.5 grains. A few cases will be out of the norm and will be culled. As cases are culled, put them in a pile to be used for practice only. I believe weighing cases is critical to long range performance. Uniform case volume is critical to uniform combustion of the powder charge, which leads to uniform velocities.
Now that our cases have been segregated by weight, we need to check the case wall uniformity. Prior to checking uniformity, the cases will have to be full length resized to uniform the case neck. Some cases have case walls that are thicker on one side. This "out of round" condition will effect the overall straightness of a loaded round. Sinclair International makes a nice tool to measure neck wall concentricity, which is an indicator of the overall concentricity of the case. The rule of thumb for this operation is to cull any case with a measurement greater than 0.002". Benchrest shooters uniform case necks by neck turning their brass. Essentially, a neck sized case is slipped over a mandrel and a cutter shaves the brass down to a uniform thickness. Neck turning brass will create a number of problems for the Highpower shooter and should be avoided by all but the most experienced handloader.
A step that I add for fired long range cases it to chuck a brass bore brush into an electric drill and run it into the case neck. This REALLY cleans the case neck. When the case is run into the sizing die, the expander button just glides through the case neck. Measurements indicate this additional step helps to increase neck wall concentricity. I don't do all my cases this way as the process tends to burn out brushes about every one hundred cases and is somewhat time consuming. For short range rounds, a regular plastic brush works well enough, but there is a difference. Try it, you'll see.
Now we have cases with uniform weight and neck wall concentricity but we're not done yet. American case manufacturers punch the flash hole. This process tends to leave a burr on the inside of the case. Tests have shown that the burr can disrupt the flash of the primer and intern effect the ignition of the powder. This effect only becomes apparent at long range. Therefore, the inside of the flash hole needs to be beveled. RCBS and Sinclair both make tools to do the job. Basically, the tool is inserted through the case and into the flash hole, twisted a couple times, and the job is done.
The primer pocket area still requires one more step. When the primer pocket is formed, the bottom of the pocket can be concave. Several companies make a primer pocket uniformer. This tool cuts the primer pocket to a uniform depth and squares up the bottom of the pocket. I can say that this step will not improve your accuracy. However, once the primer pocket is uniform, the tool can be used for cleaning residue out of a fired case saving a lot of time in the process. I have a Sinclair uniformer attached to a power screwdriver and it saves so much time cleaning primer pockets that I uniform all my cases.
Finally we're done, right? Wrong. One last step is needed for that perfect round. Prior to the case being primed and charged, the case mouth needs to be chamfered. This process of beveling the case mouth was discussed earlier. The problem with a standard chamfer is the angle may be too steep to properly guide in a long, high ballistic coefficient bullet. A company called K&M Services manufactures a 4-degree, controlled depth taper tool. Properly set up, this tool gives the inside of the case mouth a smooth taper, easing bullet entry into the case. Again, this is something you can actually feel when seating a bullet into a tapered versus non-tapered case mouth. Lyman also manufactures a special "VLD" chamfer tool. While I have never used this tool, it should work as long as you are careful not to remove too much metal.
There it is folks, ideas and lessons learned on reloading accurate 223 ammunition for the Highpower game. Follow the guidelines provided and you will have nailed down one of three requirements to become a Distinguished Marksman. The other two requirements, good equipment (including a match grade rifle), and mastery of the shooting positions require money and experience. All three facets of Highpower Rifle competition are tied together with discipline. That's what makes the game interesting. See you at the Ready Line.