Monday, January 31, 2011

.223 handload workups

It was a nice day at the range today. A bit windy as usual there, but otherwise it was nice shooting weather.

As mentioned a couple posts ago, I'd worked up loads with a few different powders and a couple of different bullets. I got the chance to take them out to the range today to see how they ran. I got a bunch of 5-target sheets from Midway with my last order. These utilize five 3 15/16" bullseyes on cheap newsprint-quality paper. They're very inexpensive, so are great for testing load workups.

I had two powders I did workups with for the Winchester 55 grain FMJ-BT bullet: IMR 3031 and Hodgdon Benchmark. I was surprised to actually find useful and accurate loads in both powders.

I'd not had a lot of faith in IMR 3031, as the key benefit of the powder when it was sold to me is that it burns clean. That is a nice characteristic, but certainly not the primary factor for me when choosing a powder. Using the Lee manual as a guide, I made a workup from 23.0 to 24.8 grains, in increments of 0.3 grains. The top end of this is a compressed load. I don't understand the dynamics of compressed loads very well, other than the fact that some powders don't work well with compression, while others do. OAL for this set was 2.230".

I had the chronograph out and had my spotting scope handy to see the results of my work. I made my way through the 3031 group, not seeing anything particularly notable as far as grouping size was concerned. I did see that my shots were grouping a little low and left, so made some adjustments just before the last group of the batch. I ended up over-adjusting and pulled the second shot, which hit a little too high and ricocheted off the bottom edge of the top post above my target. This caused all sorts of nasty tearing on the target, and I figured it didn't matter much, considering the performance of the powder up to this point. I finished up the string and moved on.

I brought all my targets home for review, going through the data for each one. I saw that the last string of the IMR 3031 showed a much tighter spread and Standard Deviation than the rest. Average velocity was 3089.05 with a spread of only 53.33 and a SD of 20.17. I went and looked at the target, and in the mess of the ricochet, found the rest of the shots in a 1/2" grouping!

I think I may do a little tuning work with this powder and explore the top end to see what I find. This was definitely a surprise!

The Benchmark workup performed well. I did a workup from 24.0 to 25.5 grains, in increments of 0.3 grains. Data was based on the Hodgdon load, with OAL adjusted to 2.235" from the 2.220 that was listed for a soft point. It looks like the accuracy sweet spot is somewhere around 24.9 grains at an average velocity of 2982.89. Consistency here was good as well, with a spread of only 37.53 and a standard deviation of only 14.59. Grouping was around 1".

Moving on to the hunting load workups, I created workups for both powders mentioned above, as well as with Ramshot TAC, which I've heard good things about in conjunction with the Speer 70 grain Semi-Spitzer.

I started out with the IMR 3031 loads first. This workup was based on the loads from the Hodgon website, and ranged from 19.0 to 21.1 grains with OAL set to 2.150". Grouping was OK, but nothing below 1.5". The best group also had very tight velocities, with an average of 2430.11 fps, a spread of only 9.77 fps and a standard deviation of only 4.35. Looking at the data overall, the powder stayed very consistent throughout the workup. I may work on this powder a bit and see if an adjustment to OAL makes any difference in grouping. They definitely need to be stoked hotter to hit acceptable velocities for hunting - the highest velocity I got out of this workup was 2503 fps.

Next was the Hodgdon Benchmark. This workup went from 20.8 to 22.6 grains, with an OAL of 2.150". I actually got a nice 3/4" group with my starting string, but grouping seemed to progressively open up the higher the velocities got until the last group, where they tightened down a little. The high end of this workup only got up to around 2650 fps. Velocity consistency was actually very similar to the 3031, with extreme spreads generally staying around 25, more or less.

Finally, I tried out the revamped Ramshot TAC loads. While Ramshot only publishes .223 loads (which seem overstated in velocity), they have data for 5.56 NATO spec as well. I found someone who'd put this information up on their site after corresponding with Ramshot, so I gave it a try. The listed range (for 68 grains) starts at 23.5 grains up to a max load of 26.2 grains. I picked up just above where I left off, and started at 24.0 grains, with 0.3 grain increments. I'd run low on these bullets, so only had enough for 20 rounds. Since this were NATO-spec charges, I used Lake City brass instead of the the Prvi Partizan or Federal .223 brass I have been using for most of my loads. Grouping tightened up at the top end of my workup, and I got about 1" at 24.9 grains. OAL was set to 2.155" The 24.9 grain group gave good results for velocity, with an average of 2814.45 fps with a spread of 20.15 fps with a standard deviation of 9.53. Once I get some more bullets ordered, I'm going to do another workup with this powder and increment by 0.2 grains and get a little higher that I did with this set.

It looks like TAC is in good shape for becoming my hunting load powder, so I'll keep you posted here.

I also promised a re-evaluation of the S&B 5.56 ammo that I picked up at Cabela's. I had some extra time at the end of my workup tests, so I figured I'd put 10 more rounds through the rifle to see how it measured up this time around. Results were significantly better, with about 1 1/2" grouping, excluding 1 flyer.

That's all I've got for you now. I'll keep you posted on new development efforts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nikon Monarch VSD initial impressions

For Christmas, my wife got me the Nikon Monarch VSD that I'd been eying since I started the build process for the AR. Unfortunately, Nikon regards the VSD as a special order item, so the sight did not arrive until the weekend before last.

I installed and zeroed it to correlate with the c0-witnessed iron sights. I used a 1/2" Yankee Hill Machine riser, which put the dot just above the front sight. I took it to the range and was quite pleased with the results.

The sight is a relatively standard 1x red dot, with the additional feature of a variable-size dot. Sizes include 1, 4, 6, 8, and 10 MOA. There are 11 brightness settings, suitable for a range from low light to bright sunshine conditions.

A bit of commentary here about the dot sizes: I would have preferred an intermediate dot size between 1 and 4 MOA. I would have preferred dot sizes in 1, 2, 4, 8, and 10 or 1,2,4,6, and 10 MOA, as granularity in the smaller dot sizes is far more useful than with the larger sizes. While the 1MOA dot is suitable in most conditions, it gets difficult to see in very bright sunlight. The 4MOA is just a little big for precision, so a 2MOA would have probably filled the gap there.

Other than the missing 2MOA dot size, I don't have any complaints about the sight. I've put a couple hundred rounds through the gun since mounting it, and it appears to be holding zero nicely. It comes with 2 lens caps bungeed together to protect the optics when not in use. I'm going to see if I can find a set of flip-up caps that will fit it, as they seem more practical.

I'm going to try and get some shots of the reticle next time I'm at the range, so I'll see if I can get something posted soon to give you a good visual of the sight in use.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

.223 Range Tests

In previous posts, I've mentioned that I'd worked up some loads using Hodgdon Varget for the AR. From personal experience and from searching around on the internets, I've come to learn that Varget isn't really the ideal powder for this caliber. Results were OK, but both my 55 grain FMJ-BT and 70 grain Semi-Spitzer Soft Point loads have fallen short of what I'd hoped they would yield. I've read that Varget works relatively well for heavier bullets. The 70 grain loads I developed did perform better than the 55-grainers, but still not nearly as good as I wanted.

So I went and got a few powders to try out. I'd gone to the local gun shop in a rush after work to pick up some Hodgdon Benchmark and Ramshot TAC. Unfortunately, they were out of the former and didn't even carry the latter. At the suggestion of the clerk, I picked up some IMR 3031. He claimed it is good stuff for an AR, and it's "real clean". I grabbed a pound of it and made my way down to the register just before they closed the store.

Availability of load data for 3031 is a little thin, but there are loads in the IMR/Hodgdon/Winchester load data for the powder with both of my bullets, so I had a starting place. Still wanting to get the other two powders, I ran down to Cabela's and picked up a pound of the Benchmark and TAC. Benchmark seems to be made for .223 and similar rounds, and there's plentiful data out there for it. TAC is a little less common, and not all of my books have data for it. I'm primarily interested in TAC for a hunting load paired with the 70 grain Speer bullet, and I've read of others getting very good results with this pairing.

I worked up 55 grain loads for both Benchmark and 3031, and 70 grain loads for all three powders. TAC is supposed to be better for heavier bullets in .223, so I didn't bother with the 55-grainers using that powder.

So, I got everything ready to go to the range on Monday, got out there, and realized I'd left all of my workup loads at home with the exception of the TAC. Dammit.

To assist in my reload testing, I'd gotten a Caldwell Lead Sled Solo. I have also put a Nikon Monarch VSD on my rifle, of which I'll give my initial impressions in a post soon. I also used my Shooting Chrony Gamma Master to check the velocity and consistency of the loads. Once I got used to the lead sled rig, I ran through my TAC workup using 3" black bullseyes at 50y. My test workup used 5 rounds for each charge weight, and grouping was quite good. All groups were within 1.5", with some coming in well under an inch. This is using a 1x red dot, and I think these loads would have given even better grouping had I used magnified optics. I did the workup on the conservative side, and the lower end came in at 2369fps, not the ideal velocity for a hunting round. Ramshot's numbers should indicate that load at more like 2700fps out of a 24" barrel, which is a bit too much loss going out of a 16" barrel to think that barrel length is the only factor. I have a feeling they're taking the Hornady approach and over-stating their loads to keep people from loading too hot. I'm going to redo this workup, shifting to the higher end of their recommended loads to see what that produces, possibly this weekend along with the rest of the workups I forgot at home.

Since I had lots of time and no workups to test, I decided to test some of the factory loads I had on hand.

First up: UltraMax .223 62 grain FMJ. This stuff has been showing up in the gun shops at a very affordable price. It is commercially reloaded ammo using Lake City and WCC 5.56 brass. I took this stuff out to the range last trip as well, and was disappointed at the performance using iron sights and no support. I thought I'd test it out on the lead sled using the red dot to see what I could get out of it. Results were still disappointing. Pictured below is what I got on an 8" Dirty Bird target at 50y. I ran this through the chronograph as well, and quickly found that this was some seriously inconsistent stuff. Extreme Spread was nearly 300fps! At the price, this is good stuff for plinking around at steel in relatively close courses, but definitely not something you want to use if accuracy or consistency is important.

Next up, I tried my Winchester 55 grain FMJ-BT handloads using Varget (since I still have a bunch of them) to see what they gave me. Grouping was OK at around 1.75", but like I said - not good enough for what I want.

My last trip to Cabela's, I noticed they had some S&B 5.56 55 grain "M193" ammo on sale for $8.99. I picked up a few boxes to see how they'd run. While not nearly as spread out, grouping was not much better than the UltraMax mentioned above. Velocity variation and clustering was much better though, so this may have been in part my fault. Right around this time I realized my riser picatinny rail had worked itself loose (DOH! All my fault, really - my home allen bit kit apparently lacks a 7/64" size, so I'd gingerly tightened the bolts on with pliers at home), so that likely had to do something with it. I got vertical grouping of around 3", but horizontal grouping was only around 1.5". I borrowed an allen wrench from someone else and got my rail all tightened up. I'll have to give the ammo another whirl on the lead sled and see what it does.

Next came the surprise of the day, PMC Bronze. This is another 55 grain load in .223 that was on sale at Cabela's for $8.99. I grabbed a few boxes to test out, and figured I'd put them through rifle just to see how they did. Being cheap ammo to start with (it's only $9.99 when not on sale), I didn't expect spectacular results. I was quite surprised to see the target when I peered with the spotting scope. There's one flyer there, but got a 1.25" grouping otherwise. Big surprise! I may be stocking up on this stuff for my non-reload plinking ammo in the future. I'll be interested to see how well the brass works for reloading.

And finally, there's the WWB Q3131A1 mentioned in an earlier post. As expected, this ammo performed quite well. Aside from one flyer, I got sub 1" grouping with these rounds. Excellent stuff, and this affirms my earlier comments that this is one very nice commercial plinking round. The shelves were bare of the stuff (and marked as a "Best Seller!") during my trip to Cabela's, so I'm apparently not the only one that thinks highly of the stuff.

Anyhow, that's all I've got for you right now. Expect an update in the near future with my initial impressions regarding the Nikon Monarch VSD.