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.


  1. Looks like a fun day at the range regardless of the results. I look forward to reading more of your load development results. BTW, what do you think of the Lee reloading rig? I've been thinking about one for myself.

  2. Range time is always good. I only got in a few hours this time around, as I had other obligations to tend to earlier in the day. It was fun learning how to use the lead sled, and I'm quite happy with it now that I've got it figured out.

    I like the Lee setup myself. Then again, I've never used any other press, so maybe I'd like an RCBS or whatever it is the kids these days are using better. It's a single stage setup, certainly not made for cranking out large batches in a short period of time. That's fine with me, as I'm still relatively new to reloading and I enjoy the process.

    I will have to say that I like Lee's fundamental approach to engineering. Rather than fancy gadgets and doo-dads, they seem to opt for the simpler and less complicated route when approaching an engineering problem. Their solutions are often quite elegant in their simplicity. Less is sometimes better, in my opinion.

    I'm pretty happy with my current setup, though I will probably go for a digital scale and hand trickler in the near future. The balance scale is great for load workups, as it allows you to be very precise, but batches of established loads go considerably slower than I'd like. Ideally, I'd like one of those fancy programmable trickler/scale combos for consistent loads without having to weigh/adjust each throw, but I'm not willing to put down the hundreds of dollars to buy one just yet.

    Eventually, I'll probably get a turret or progressive press to crank out rounds once I'm more established in my loads, but the single stage will always have a place for workups and small batches of rifle loads.