How to Find an Accurate Load
By Chuck Hawks
I don't necessarily know the best way to find a good factory load for a new (to me) hunting rifle, but I do have a system that seems to work, and doesn't waste too much money or ammunition. Please understand that all rifles differ, and the brand and load preferred by one rifle would probably not be the brand and load preferred by the next. My experience has been that Federal, Remington, and Winchester ammunition are all fine products of essentially equal quality. The hypothetical examples used below are just that, hypothetical examples. I don't even own a .30-06 rifle and I have never compared the loads used as examples below in any .30-06 rifle. The point to this little story is the method, not the results and group sizes, which are fictional.
First, I decide what bullet weight I'd like to use. I have found that the traditional (for example 55 grain in .223 Rem., 90 grain in 6mm Rem., 130 grain in .270 Win. or 150 grain in any of the 7mm Mags.) or medium weight bullet for the caliber often delivers the best accuracy. Perhaps more important in bullet weight selection for a hunting rifle is the class of game one intends to hunt. In .308 Win. or .30-06, for instance, I prefer a 150 grain bullet for CXP2 class game, 165 grain bullet for mixed bag hunts, and a 180 grain bullet for CXP3 class game.
For a .30-06 and general purpose hunting I might choose the 165 grain bullet. So I buy a box of standard factory ammunition in that bullet weight. The sporting goods department of the discount department store near where I live stocks more Remington ammo than anything else, so I'd get a box of Remington Express Pointed Soft Point Core-Lokt loads with 165 grain bullets and use them to zero my rifle at the 100 yard range. That is my first trip to the range with my new (to me) rifle. In my experience, other brands will probably shoot their 165 grain bullets to different places on the target, but at least they will probably be on the paper, which is all that I need at this point. After I get home I make sure that I remember to clean my rifle thoroughly.
Before my next trip to the range I buy three different brands of ammo with 165 grain bullets. I buy whatever brands are most available in my area. A-Square, Black Hills, Federal, Hornady, Norma, PMC, Remington, Speer, and Winchester are all widely distributed in various parts of the U.S. In my local area, where Federal, Remington and Winchester are the most common brands, I might get another box of Remington Express Core-Lokt, one of Federal Classic Hi-Shock, and one of Winchester Super-X Power Point ammo. I like to start with standard price ammunition as I can shoot more of it, and I believe it to be generally superior to premium ammo for deer and other medium size big game animals.
On my second trip to the range with my new rifle I put up 3 targets at 100 yards and carefully shoot 3-shot groups for record, calling every shot and ignoring called flyers. I let the barrel cool down completely after each shot. I shoot one 3-shot group with the Core-Lokt load, another with the Hi-Shock, and another with the Power Point bullets, each on its own target. I label the targets so that later I know the load with which each target was shot.
Then I put up 3 fresh targets and shoot another round of 3-shot groups with the Remington, Federal, and Winchester loads, being just as careful as I was with the first set of groups. This is followed by a third set of targets, so that I can repeat the procedure a third time. If at any point I feel my concentration start to slip or the repeated recoil starts to get to me, I stop shooting for the day. By the time I finish I have fired at least 27 shots and probably more (having to re-shoot called flyers), which is about enough for one day. Most important, I now have 9 targets representing three 3-shot groups with each of the loads I am testing.
I take all of the targets home and carefully measure each group, center to center of the bullets farthest apart. I record all groups in a ledger and average the results for each load (add the center to center size of all three groups, divide by three). I now have an idea which load shot best in my rifle. If, say, the Power Point bullet averaged 1.5 inches, and the Core-Lokt bullet averaged 1.7 inches, and the Hi-Shok bullet averaged 3 inches, I eliminate the latter from further testing.
The next time I go to the store I will purchase a box of ammunition using another bullet. For example, since the Winchester Power Point factory load did well in my initial round of testing, I might try a box of Winchester Super-X cartridges loaded with 165 grain Silvertip bullets.
On my next trip to the range I will shoot more three shot groups, this time with the Power Point, Core-Lokt, and Silvertip loads. As I continue to shoot groups my data base increases and the results will become increasingly clear. Soon I am able to make an educated choice, selecting the load I prefer for my standard load.
Once in a while it turns out that a particular rifle does not seem to like any load in the bullet weight I originally selected for testing. In those cases I try other bullet weights. In the case of a .30-06 I might buy a box of 150 grain factory loads and a box of 180 grain factory loads, testing them to see if the rifle prefers one of those bullet weights. Usually it will, and my problem is solved. Then I test three brands of ammo in the new bullet weight. Fortunately, that doesn't happen very often.
After I finally pick one load on which to standardize, I carefully sight-in the rifle with that load to take advantage of its maximum point blank range. In the case of a .30-06 using a 165 grain factory load I would want the point of impact to be about 2.7 inches directly over the point of aim at 100 yards. (See the "Rifle Trajectory Table" for more on this subject.) Later I may test a premium load of the same brand and bullet weight, just in case I want or need to use it someday. But I do all of my practicing and deer hunting with my standard load.
When selecting a handload, I do basically the same thing, first focusing on finding a bullet the rifle likes (I use a standard charge of a widely recommended powder for bullet testing). In my experience it is usually the bullet that has the biggest impact on accuracy. After selecting a bullet I may try a couple of other powders to see what difference they make. Once I have a likely bullet and powder combination, I can fine tune the load as necessary.
This system of load selection works for me. It takes more time than money, and gets me to the range a few times with my new rifle, which is good. By the time I have found the load my rifle prefers I have become reasonably familiar with it, I have a pretty good idea of what it can (and cannot) do, and I know what I can do with it. That is a good feeling to have when hunting season rolls around.
Copyright 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.