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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
February - March 2004
Volume 39, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 227
On the cover...
The Remington Model 700 Classic .300 Savage features a Weaver 4x scope in Leupold rings and bases. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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One infrequently practiced art of handloading involves finding a load that shoots to the same place as another, or shoots to the sights on the rifle. This may seem senseless to most modern handloaders, who generally turn the knobs on their 4-16x scopes until the bullets land where the reticle points. The modern technique is, of course, easier – but easier isn’t The Rifle Loony Way.

True members of the order prefer to make work for themselves, the essence of any really satisfying hobby. Making work helps avoid mundane tasks, such as deciding on new wallpaper for the guest room. (My own take here: If anybody wants to be my guest, they’ll put up with the fold-out bed in my office and walls so covered with bookcases, sticky notes and dusty mammal skulls that nobody can see the wallpaper – if such exists.)

One holy grail of hard-way handloading is the reduced load. Col. Townsend Whelen was the reduced load’s original guru. Whelen liked to work up cast-bullet loads for his big game rifles, so he could snipe little critters for the campfire while wandering the wilderness after moose. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. Whelen screwed up his first chance at a grizzly, because he’d loaded his .30 WCF with the wimpy loads that morning. He sent three toward the bear, wondering why it didn’t react, only afterward realizing his error. (He never made the same mistake again.)

Whelen’s writings often mention such loads – and how he readjusted his sights to use them. Whelen grew accustomed to such adjustments as a military target shooter, so when hunting preferred sights or scopes that were easily adjustable. Most modern shooters aren’t so hot at changing sight settings in the field, even some who practice the art. A friend went to South Africa last year with a guy who liked to twist the dials on his scope. After shooting a gemsbok at something over 300 yards, this fellow tried to reset his scope and failed utterly. They had to sight-in the rifle all over again. For most of us, it’s far easier to leave the sights where they are.

I’ve had my own adventures with Whelen-type “grouse loads.” There are problems, especially with any modern rifle that leaves much jacket fouling in the barrel. Lead-alloy bullets don’t enjoy being fired over gilding metal, often reducing accuracy to the point of no-point. Townsend Whelen may have encountered the same problem. He started using lead-alloy loads in smokeless rounds such as the .30 WCF and .30-40 Krag. After fouling problems with early cupro-nickel jackets were solved, apparently cast bullets shot okay. But in those days neither cartridge exceeded 2,000 fps at the muzzle. When Whelen started using the .30-06 – which tended to foul barrels more because of its higher velocity – he switched to the 150-grain, full-jacket military bullet for his reduced load.

Bullets cast of super-hard alloys can sometimes withstand jacket fouling but tend to leave a film of lubricant in the barrel. This may cause the next jacketed bullet to wander. I once worked up a load with a Linotype gas-check bullet in a 7x57mm Mauser that shot an inch below the crosshairs at 25 yards, a fine grouse load. Unfortunately, the next shot with a 150-grain Nosler Partition would land 6 to 8 inches high at 100 yards. This cleared the lube, and subsequent Partitions went back to striking 2 inches high, but the point of reduced loads is to save big game rounds for serious stuff. Otherwise, why bother?

Here some explanation may be in order. In the Wild West, where I live and Townsend Whelen often hunted, it’s generally legal to shoot “mountain grouse” (ruffed, blue and spruce) with a handgun or rifle. Snobby eastern hunters might consider this as low as fooling around with White House interns, but ethics evidently vary considerably from place to place, whether the Oval Office or Montana Rockies.

Some big game hunters carry a .22 handgun for grouse – including, on occasion, me. But a .22 handgun weighs more than a few reduced loads, and any cargo reduction is desirable when hiking steep mountains. Other hunters shoot the heads off grouse with their big game rifle. This isn’t a big trick at 25 yards or less, nor-mal grouse-sluicing distance. Just aim for the base of the neck and squeeze carefully. These boys (again, sometimes, me) don’t mind trading a Nosler Partition for a blue grouse, but others do.

Reduced loads can work on bigger game than grouse (though, as we’ve seen, not grizzly bears). In several states wild turkeys can be hunted with rifles during autumn, seasons often running concurrently with deer. Deer loads will take turkeys – I’ve proved it myself more than once – but the slightest shot misplacement often blows away lots of turkey. And some hunters prefer to load down really big cartridges for hunting deer.

Luckily, jacketed bullets work fine for reduced loads. A good example is the 75-grain flatnose that Speer makes for the .25-20 Winchester. Loaded slower, this creates a decent small game load in smaller .25-bore big game cartridges. During two recent autumns, I carried an Ultra Light Arms Model 20 .257 Roberts Ackley Improved for most of my deer and antelope hunting, loading the 115-grain Nosler Partition to over 3,100 fps. This was a deadly big game load, but Montana also has a fall turkey season, so I looked up the Speer bullet in its manual.

Speer didn’t include data for the .257 Ackley but did for the “+P” .257 Roberts. A great powder for reduced loads is either variety of 4895; if you fill most cases at least half-full, ignition and accuracy are normally pretty good. I wanted around 2,000 fps at the muzzle, but Speer’s lowest velocity load, using IMR-4895, showed 2,772 fps with 37 grains of powder.

With single-based powders you can generally count on a straight arithmetical relationship between powder charge and velocity: reduce a load 25 percent, and muzzle velocity will drop about 25 percent. I divided 2,000 by 2,772, then multiplied the result times 37, which indicated 27 grains ought to be about right. (The .257 Ackley’s case capacity isn’t much different than the standard .257’s, so I didn’t worry about that.)

At the range, three shots grouped into 1.25 inches at 2,079 fps. Best of all, with the 115-grain deer load sighted 2.5 inches high, the 75s landed right at the crosshairs at 100 yards. Bingo! In mid-November the new load took a Merriam’s hen at about 125 yards.

However, this is the only simple example of working up a reduced load I can supply. Normally more shooting is involved. The Speer manual lists many reduced loads, and if Speer doesn’t list the cartridge or bullet desired, the Lyman cast-bullet manual can provide a starting point.

If no data is available, I generally begin with IMR-4895 or H-4895. After acquiring my first .338 Winchester Magnum in the mid-1980s, I decided a semireduced load might be nice for deer hunting, something flat-shooting enough for the whitetail does a rancher friend wanted taken off his alfalfa fields. Shots might run up to 250 yards. I’d had good luck with Speer’s Hot-Cor bullets as long as muzzle velocity wasn’t pushed past 2,800 fps, and a box of 200-grain spitzers sat on the shelf.

The Speer manual, however, didn’t list either of the 4895s with the 200-grain bullet, and the listed reduced load used SR-4759 for under 1,900 fps, obviously not the answer. At first I tried 68 grains of IMR-4350, the lightest load listed for the 200-grain bullet in the Speer manual. Accuracy was very good, a little over an inch at 100 yards, but point of impact was 4 inches lower than my elk load, featuring the 250-grain Nosler Partition at about 2,650 fps.

In those days fewer powders were available – and even fewer on my shelf. The next choice had to be H-4895, so after consulting other manuals I started with 55 grains. This shot okay too, but a little high and right of the 250-grain load. I tried 60 grains and hit paydirt. Velocity and point of impact were almost exactly the same as the 250-grain load, and the load proved deadly. The 200-grain Speer Hot-Cor is somewhat tender when pushed to around 3,000 fps, but toned down it behaved perfectly. Usually it dropped deer within a step or two. If not, it punched inch-size exit holes, leaving a nice blood trail.

Even the 4895s have their limits. Reduce the load too much and you’ll encounter hangfires, sometimes even with listed loads. Once I tried to work up a .308 Winchester load in the .300 H&H with Speer’s lowest listed IMR-4895 load and the 150-grain bullet. The 53-grain charge filled the case over half-full, but some didn’t go bang immediately.

The .375 H&H proved more tractable. My feature in the last Handloader contained an example of developing a varmint/deer load for the big case. This load required experimentation with two different bullets and several powder charges of IMR-4227 and IMR-4895. The first range session was limited to a single charge of each powder with the 200-grain Sierra and 220-grain Hornady flatnoses. Normally with four variations, one will come close. Then you vary that load’s powder charge, hoping for the right combination for your sights.

That’s what happened. The 200-grain Sierra grouped okay but didn’t print anywhere near a peep sight adjusted for 300-grain loads. The 220-grain Hornady flatnose came much closer, especially with IMR-4227. Eventually I settled on 35 grains, which at 1,900 fps shot to basically the same place as the 300-grain bullets at 2,600 fps. This load has slain quite a few prairie dogs, the load’s primary purpose, but would obviously work on turkey or deer at “woods” ranges.

Then there’s one of the more satisfying handloading chores: developing a load to shoot to fixed sights. I’ve done this several times over the past few years. First came a CZ 550 Magnum in .416 Rigby, purchased slightly used from a friend. He included a partial box of Federal ammunition loaded with Woodleigh 400-grain softpoints, and I begged one box each of 400-grain Bear Claw softpoints and Sledgehammer solids from my friends at Federal. All shot right to the fixed blade of the express sight at 100 yards, and a few shots at 200 with the first folding leaf would have killed any .416-size game animal neatly.

Federal’s ammunition is good stuff, but it runs around $125 a box, the price tag stuck to the box of Woodleighs. Plus, I’m a professional handloading writer, so simply had to roll my own. This began with a set of Redding dies, which seemed astonishingly large. These did their standard fine job, using Norma brass (not inexpensive itself, but cheaper than shooting up Federal factories) and various Barnes, Hornady and Nosler bullets.

When matching fixed sights, the standard procedure is to approximate the bullet weight the sights were “regulated” for, then try different powders. In this case finding the bullet weight was easy: Since 1911 .416 Rigbys have been regulated for 400- to 410-grain bullets at around 2,370 fps. I looked up data in various loading manuals, and all advised large amounts of slow-burning powders. This made sense, as the water capacity of the Norma brass was 111 grains with a 400-grain Hornady seated.

So I tried charges that would approximate original factory veloc­ities, closely matched by the Federal factories. First up were Alliant Reloder 22, Hodgdon H-4831sc and IMR-7828, using the cheapest bullet on hand, the Hornady softpoint. All grouped okay but landed several inches high, even though muzzle velocities ran within 50 fps of the 2,370-fps goal. On the next trip to the range, I tried slight variations on the charges with no better luck.

By then I was growing somewhat weary of bench-testing .416 Rigby loads and thought about “adjusting” the fixed sights. But, dagnabit, the Federals worked just fine! So I rummaged around in the powder cooler and came up with Ramshot Magnum, very similar in burning rate to IMR-7828. Ramshot’s ballistics lab hasn’t quite gotten to the .416 Rigby yet, so I dumped in 100 grains and went to the range.

Bingo! This was the magic combo, shooting about 2 inches high with any of the 400-grain bullets on hand with a muzzle velocity of about 2,330 fps. Why did this powder do the job? I have no idea, but that’s part of the fun (or what passes for fun when shooting a .416 off the bench). Best of all, Ramshot’s powders are relatively temperature insensitive. In subsequent tests the point of impact didn’t change at any ambient temperature from 50 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit – and didn’t when the load polished off a Cape buffalo a month or so later.

Next up was a side-by-side in 9.3x74R. I’ve always wanted to own at least one double but really had no desire for a classic African caliber, mostly because of the price. This one is an 8-pound rifle in used but cared-for shape, made in Germany in the 1930s. It has all sorts of Teutonic bells and whistles, including a pop-up tang peep and single-set triggers, and came at about one-fifth the price of a basic “elephant” double in the same condition.

The proof marks on the underside of the barrels indicate this rifle was regulated with 18-gram bullets, which converts to 278 grains. I called a few friends experienced with the 9.3x74R, and the powder consensus was the Universal Solution otherwise known as Alliant Reloder 15. In recent years RL-15 has become the powder for making old cordite-regulated British rifles shoot where they look, and recent lots are also quite temperature-stable, thanks to military requirements. This helps a lot when loading for doubles. With “normal” powders, a drop or rise in temperature can de-reregulate the darn things.

I tried RL-15 with 270-grain Speers and 286-grain Nosler Partitions, shooting at 60 yards. They teased me by sometimes dancing cheek to cheek – then the next day suddenly separating like jitter-buggers. Then I got desperate and tried some 232-grain Norma Oryxes and 250-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips, which did no better – but no worse. This went on for three range sessions before I put the double aside, other projects being more pressing.


Then, during a chance conversation with my friend Stuart Carty of Boise, Idaho, another powder appeared. Stu and a couple of his friends are the proud owners of 9.3x74R double rifles made by master gunsmith George Hoenig. These operate on a slide-apart action, rather than the standard hinged action, but are still doubles (and very fine ones, costing over 10 times what I paid for mine). Stu and friends had marvelous luck getting their Hoenigs to shoot with 286-grain Partitions and H-4350, one of Hodgdon Extreme powders, the charge usually around 66 grains.

The next week I went to the range with RWS brass loaded with 64 and 65 grains of H-4350 and Nosler 286s. At 60 yards, a right and left of each printed into a 4-shot group spanning 1.37 inches, and the 64-grain loads almost touched. A couple days later I returned with the 270-grain Speers and 286-grain Partitions backed by 64 grains. Eight of these – four with each bullet – went into 3.7 inches at 100 yards, the group centered about 1.5 inches above point of aim.

This may not seem like much to a modern deer-sniper with a 4-16x scope but is quite fine for an open-sighted double rifle. The load also shot to point of aim at 250 yards with the flip-up tang sight. At least I killed a few rocks at that distance. Muzzle velocity ran right around 2,400 fps, so now I had both a heavy-game load with the 286-grain Partitions and a cheaper practice and medium-game load with the 270-grain Speers. Thank you, Stuart.

Another German rifle was even more frustrating than the 9.3mm. This is a custom, prewar 98 Mauser chambered for the 6.5x54mm Mauser round. No, not the famous little Mannlicher round that did in Francis Macomber, but an obsolete Mauser offering. The slim, 6.5-pound rifle came with RCBS dies and Remington 8x57 cases re-formed by DKT, and proved very interesting.

There wasn’t much loading data available. An older edition of Cartridges of the World listed a factory load of a 119-grain bullet at 2,362 fps and 36 grains of unspecified 4895 as giving 2,500 fps. The book also included a reproduction of an old DWM catalog, listing a factory load of a 127-grain bullet at 2,710 fps.

All this seemed odd, since smaller European 6.5s normally feature at least one load for a 155- to 160-grain bullet. The deep penetration of such long bullets made the reputation of the 6.5x54 Mann­licher and 6.5x55 “Swedish,” among others. I decided to start with two bullets on my shelf, both Hornadys, the 129-grain Spire Point and 160-grain roundnose. QuickLoad indicated Reloder 15 as a logical powder.

Despite a decent bore that slug­ged about .2635 inch, neither bullet grouped consistently. Sometimes they’d cluster tightly, fairly close to the sights, then at other times scatter all over, usually higher. More investigation seemed advisable, but it took place sporadically over more than a year, between other projects.

Eventually I (duh!) measured the twist in the bore. It ran around 9.75 inches, far slower than standard 6.5mm twists of 8 to 9 inches. Next came some figuring with the Greenhill formula, indicating both Hornady bullets (almost exactly the same length) were too long to stabilize in this twist. Aha! No wonder factory loads used lighter bullets – and the 6.5x54mm Mauser died. It was apparently designed as a light rifle for smaller European game from chamois to fallow deer, not as a giant-killer like W.D.M. Bell’s 6.5 Mannlicher. The overall picture was more like a metric .250 Savage.

That was okay, but now I had to find a bullet. Speer’s Hot-Cores have a short ogive, often resulting in the shortest spitzer for a given weight. I bought a box of 120s at Capital Sports & Western, and the Greenhill formula indicated their length of 1.07 inches would stabilize in a twist of (ta dah!) one turn in 9.78 inches.

At the range things improved noticeably. Groups tightened, but all were too high and still not consistent. Back at the bench I measured the neck thickness of the re-formed brass, finding it varied considerably. The necks were turned in a Forster tool, a chore I normally avoid like lutefisk, but it seemed worthwhile here. Charges from 31 to 33 grains of RL-15 resulted in the muzzle velocities of 2,400 to 2,600 fps, supposedly in the “correct” range. All grouped much better, three-shot clusters ranging from one to 2.5 inches, but all struck at least 6 inches high.

Then I remembered my very first days with this rifle. The two-stage trigger pull had been very heavy, not exactly normal on a custom rifle, and the rear sight’s notch was too narrow to see the front bead. I’d fixed both, concluding that the little rifle hadn’t actually been shot much.

Now I realized that the sights probably hadn’t ever been properly regulated. The flat-top rear blade obviously needed to be filed down. I used the Leatherman tool on my belt, making about six even strokes. And my frustrating little German deer rifle started behaving. Lighter loads printed slightly left, but as the powder charges increased, the holes moved right, eventually to the top of the bead at 100 yards.

As noted earlier, true rifle loonies like to do things the hard way. I mean, how else can we avoid reality? Now all this little rifle requires is an American substitute for a chamois or fallow deer, say a pronghorn or whitetail. Who knows where the hard way will lead?

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