How to Select Your Next rifle.
So you are getting into the Precision Rifle game or you are wanting to purchase your next Precision Rifle. Congratulations! New equipment and new cartridges is always an exciting time in the process. There are so many options for rifles, ammunition, optics, and accessories. Wading through all of the opinions on the market.
Be realistic with your budget and planning for your build. Make sure to count the cost of evering thing you will need to get your rifle up and running. Don’t forget things like a scope mount rail, muzzle brake, scope, scope rings, bipod, bipod mount, or custom chassis. The sentiment of “you get what you pay for” is often true when considering precision rifle equipment. When the price of an item is double the cost of a more “budget” option, there is probably a reason! Often quality pieces of equipment cost more money because of higher quality materials and design that requires more labor/specialized equipment that costs more to manufacturer!
If you can, spend more to get higher quality parts. Quality optics will pay dividends while shooting because of the optical clarity, turret tracking, good reticle design, and general reliability. As a shooter progresses, budget gear can cause a skill plateau because the shooter’s capability has surpassed the equipment’s capacity. Buying quality equipment that is far superior to the shooters capability will reduce costs over the long term and will cause less frustration.
Factory vs Custom Build
Precision Rifles builds come in many different variants, to include full factory built, full custom, or drop in barreled action. Each has pros and cons when deciding which rifle to select. A factory rifle will have specific cartridge offerings that are popular on the market, which means there are factory ammunition offerings. Drop in barreled actions have the same advantages as the factory rifle but a custom chassis/stock can be selected and when it’s time for a new barrel, a custom action/barrel combo can be installed. A large massive benefit of doing a drop-in Action or a factor rifle is product availability. A custom action can take 3-12 months depending on the rifle builder. A factory rifle is ready to go as long as they are in stock at a dealer.
A full custom rifle allows the user to select every single aspect of the rifle. Custom actions offer many advantages because they are not mass produced so they have tighter tolerances and higher quality manufacturing. Custom barrels can be customized for cartridges that are only available through hand reloading. The chamber can be customized to the needs of the shooter and designed to shoot specific brass/bullet combinations.
A custom build, done with high quality parts, will outperform a factory rifle, but will cost 2-4 times the cost. With a custom shooting system, it should outperform the shooter’s ability and will allow the shooter to know it is a lack of skill rather than a lack of equipment. This peace of mind costs more money. Current factory options or a more budget build are still quite capable of getting the job done, but will have limitations.
If you are new to the game, don’t try to learn too many aspects of the process at once. Look at what factory ammunition is available and which cartridges have a long tradition of being high performers. Boutique cartridges are great but they don't have a wide assortment of factory ammunition available. The newest cartridge looks great, but lacks a track record of reliability.
The four main bullet calibers are .308 cal, 6.5mm (.264 cal), 6mm (.243 cal) and .224 cal. As a general rule, heavier bullets cause more recoil and light bullets don’t carry their velocity/energy over long distances. 6.5mm and 6mm seem to be a sweet spot for competition, while .308 and .224 are used for training. The heavier recoiling rifle will teach better recoil management and the .224 calibers are typically less expensive to shoot. Proven cartridges like 6.5mm Creedmoor and 6mm Creedmoor have both a quality source of factory ammo and a long tradition of ballistic performance.
Bullet selection has a huge impact on down range ballistics. Each caliber has many different bullet weights to select. A lighter bullet will travel faster, but will often lose energy at distance and has a lower Ballistic Coefficient (BC). A heavier bullet will travel slower but will carry more energy and has a higher BC. The BC of a bullet how efficiently a bullet pushes through the air and how much drag it creates.
Reloading custom cartridges may be an option in the future once a commitment to the sport is established and getting every bit of performance from the firearm is desired. The process of creating a custom load is a process that requires two honed skills; shooting and reloading.
The rifle that you select to purchase or build is all up to your circumstances and your shooting needs. If you are set on getting into competition and you have the budget, a full custom will serve you well, but if you want to compete a budget friendly rig will get you going. Learning what works by going to competition and seeing what other competitors are using can save lots of time and money. So either go be a Range Safety Officer at a match, or grab your current rifle and go shoot.
What is load development?
Every rifle/barrel is just a bit different, even if produced by the same gunsmith/manufacturer with the same tools. The variables can range of the surface finish of the bore to the microscopic grain of the steel used. Since each rifle/barrel is different, each cartridge should be tailored to the barrel and the needs of the shooter. The key to not burn out a barrel trying to find the perfect load is to use quality components and an efficient load development technique.
What is accuracy?
Every shooting discipline has different definitions of accuracy. Some are looking for 1 hole groups while others lean towards “minute of Man”. The accuracy goal for most practical-style competition shooters is less than 1 M.O.A. (Minute of Angle, roughly 1” @ 100 yards). Due to the speed of shooting, target size, high round count, and the varying weather conditions, shooters are looking to develop a Change Resistant Load. This means your ammunition isn't as dependent on changing heat conditions (weather & chamber temperatures).
Why 10 Shot Ladder Load Development?
Although there are many different techniques to design and test cartridges, the 10 Shot Ladder Load Development was developed to quickly find accuracy nodes through velocity testing. 10 cartridges are loaded to 10 different powder weights and shot over a chronograph to find each velocity. These weights will typically result in a line graph that has velocity plateaus where the velocity changes little from one charge weight to the next. This is referred to as a velocity node and basic idea is “Consistent Velocity = Accuracy”.
Why is velocity so important?
With a consistent velocity, the bullet will leave the barrel and gravity will pull down on the bullet the same amount of time. If the bullet is faster, gravity will have less time to act on the bullet, resulting in a higher impact. If the bullet is slower, gravity will have more time to act on the bullet, resulting in a lower impact.
Where should testing begin?
Begin researching the standards for the cartridge being loaded. Ammunition specifications can be found through SAAMI if they are a standardized cartridge. Determine the Overall length of the cartridge and select a bullet, powder, brass, and primer combination to test. Not all components are created equal; powders burn at different rates, primers have differing amounts of priming compound/cup hardness, bullets have different shapes/weights, and brass has different case capacities and other qualities. Find as many resources about bullets and powders from the manufactures to select the correct components for your application. Check manufacturers websites and reloading manuals to find a starting charge weight and be careful! These are small explosives placed into confined spaces, everything is inherently dangerous. DO NOT start testing based on online forums, videos, and blogs. Start slow and seek more help if you do not understand the complexities of reloading.
What to do after 10 Shot testing?
After testing your 10 cartridges over a chronograph, making sure there are no pressure signs after each round, place these velocities into a graph to see your velocity nodes. Once you have found a node that is in the velocity range you are seeking, you have several options. You can load up 5-10 rounds at a chosen charge weight. Typically, a charge weight in the second half of the node will produce a lower Extreme Spread. Then test those charges, shooting groups to verify the load is accurate as you need.
If you would like to further fine-tune the load, begin testing different Overall Cartridge Lengths. A larger sample size, 5-10 cartridges, will increase your statistical confidence that the cartridge is performing satisfactorily. Start by figuring out your distance to the lands of your rifle bore. An Over All Length Gauge will help to quickly find this length or a more manual method outlined in the Nosler Article below. Next, measure your magazine constraints. There is no use testing cartridges longer than your magazine. Make sure you have plenty of room so the tips of the bullets do not come in contact with the magazine, reducing its reliability. If the overall length of the cartridge touching the lands is less than magazine length, select 5 different seating depths. A quick test is to seat bullets at O.A.L+0.01”, O.A.L-0.02”, O.A.L-0.05”, O.A.L-0.08”, and O.A.L-0.11”.
What is the history of 10 Shot?
Scott Satterlee and the 6.5 guys outline the method to the 10 Shot Ladder Load Development with a blog post and an accompanying video. If you want to dive further into the development of this technique be sure to check both out.