I’ve surveyed the top 100 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) for the past 4 years, and published what gear they’re running in my annual “What The Pros Use” series of posts. This year, I also asked a few questions about their ammo loading practices and how much they practice.
When handloading there are a thousand operations and details you can spend time trying to perfect. It’s easy to get caught up trying to do them all, or spending a ton of time focusing intently on a couple of aspects and completely miss other important steps. But I was interested to learn which steps these experts perform when they’re loading their own match ammo. What a sample size for a study like this … 100 of the best shooters in the country! I’m not sure anything like this has ever been published, so I hope you find it as helpful as I have.
How Many Top Shooters Handload?
Let’s start by looking at how many of these top shooters handload, compared to those that use factory match ammo or outsource their handloading to a custom loading service. The different colors on the chart indicate where the shooters finished. A black bar represents shooters who finished in the top 10, the dark blue is shooters who finished 11-20, and so on. Darker colors represent shooters that finished closer to the top, where lighter colors are farther from the top … but all of them finished in the top 100, so they’re all outstanding shooters.
Around 90% of these guys handload their own ammo. At this level, super-consistent ammo is a must. One PRS match had an 800 yard cold-bore shot on a 0.25 MOA target! While that’s an extreme example, you can’t afford to have variance in your ammo if you need a first round hit on that target. Handloading is clearly the most trusted and proven route to get that level of performance.
But, there was one shooter in the top 10 who said they run factory match ammo, so it’s not an absurd option. Manufacturing tolerances and processes have improved significantly in the past several years, to the point where it takes a detailed and determined handloader to surpass what factories are turning out. Of those guys that weren’t handloading, here are the companies they trusted to provide them with match ammo:
Factory Match Ammo:
- Nexus Ammunition (#6 shooter who shot a 6.5×47 Lapua)
- Hornady (#51, #69, #96 who shot a 6.5 Creedmoor)
Custom Loading Service:
- Copper Creek Cartridge Co. (#40 shooter who shot a 6mm Creedmoor)
- McCourt Munitions (#94 shooter who shot a 6.5 Creedmoor)
Reloading Tips from the Pros
Okay, now to the meat of what 90% of the guys were doing … handloading. I asked the handloaders a few questions, which centered on brass prep, bullet prep and sorting, and how they weigh their powder charges.
What steps do the handloaders perform during brass prep?
Precision Shooting Magazine published a Reloading Guide with a ton of great information. In the section on case preparation, Fred Sinclair says “This is where most of your time will be spent at the reloading bench, but the effort is generally well worth it.” Many veteran shooters believe quality brass is the foundation of great ammo.
Sinclair explains “The first step in case preparation is to obtain quality cases.” Sinclair says the goal of brass prep is for “our cases to be nearly identical prior to firing a shot.” So the more consistent brass you can start off with the better. That’s why so many of these top shooters run expensive brands of brass known for tight tolerances, like Lapua, Norma, and Nosler.
Brass prep is the most time-consuming part of reloading, and it’s often difficult to know if it’s worth spending the time on various operations. There are a few essential operations like sizing and trimming cases to length that are required for ammo to be functional. But there are a ton of additional steps you have the option to perform, and I wanted to know what steps these guys thought were worth doing when they were loading their own match ammo. And here are the results based on all the top 100 shooters that handload their own ammo:
Annealing Brass Cases
Surprised to see annealing so high up on the list? Almost 2 in 3 shooters said they anneal their cases. So why do they anneal? “When done right, annealing extends brass life and makes neck tension more consistent, something very important for accuracy. There is plenty of evidence that annealing works. Just look at your new Lapua brass – those rainbow colors on the necks are artifacts of annealing. And we know annealing can make your brass shoot better and last longer. Score Shooter of the Year Joe Entrekin has 40+ reloads on his regularly-annealed brass. The smallest 1000-yard 5-shot group ever shot in IBS competition was done with brass annealed after every firing,” explains a great annealing article on 6mmbr.com.
The Giraud Cartridge Case Annealer is a very popular machine for annealing your cases in an automated way. It starts at $470. Another option is using Copper Creek Ammo’s annealing service, where you send them your brass and they’ll anneal it for $25 per 100 pieces of brass. They offer a 3 day turnaround, so this is a great way to outsource annealing if you don’t want to make the initial investment in the tools to do it yourself.
Another popular step in brass prep was turning necks, with over half of the top shooters saying they turned the necks on their brass. In the Precision Shooting Reloading Guide, Fred Sinclair explains “Neck turning is simply a method of removing metal from the outside wall of a cylinder, which in this case is the outside surface of the case neck. It is basically a lathe operation which we can perform using a variety of tools available to the handloader. … Now the top 3 reasons for neck turning do not include making the case necks shiny and pretty. Turning case necks is definitely a requirement for tight neck chambers. Cases are also neck turned to create uniform expansion. Lastly, in cases formed from a parent cartridge there is sometimes a need to remove excess wall thickness.”
There are many tools available for turning necks, with the K&M Neck Turner and the Sinclair Neck Turning Kits being a couple good options. If you’re considering neck turning, I’d personally recommend getting a power adapter that allows you to turn the case using a drill instead of by hand. I believe I’m able to achieve more consistent necks using a cordless drill than by hand, and it saves time. But, others prefer handheld tools, so it’s just something to consider.
Other Brass Prep Operations
None of the other optional steps in brass prep were performed by the majority of the top shooters. 36% of the shooters said they clean the primer pockets on fired cases, and 20% said they uniform their primer pockets. Vibratory cleaners often won’t remove all the residue from the primer pocket, so that bit of grime can be something that drives OCD guys crazy. The Precision Shooting Reloading Guide explains “Variations in the depth and configuration of the primer pocket can and will alter the effect of the primer pin strike. If the firing pin strike is varied from shot to shot due to the depth the primer is seated, then it in turn will vary the primer ignition. This can vary the powder ignition thus resulting in different pressures and velocities. These erratic conditions can create shot dispersions which usually result in a vertical display on your target.”
Remember, these guys are engaging long-range targets in field conditions. This is very different from benchrest, F-class, high power, etc. The primary goal of these shooters is first round hits on steel targets, which typically range from 300 to 1200 yards. They are not shooting tiny groups on a square range with wind flags, but are in the field and may have to shoot from prone or other improvised shooting positions. The stages can sometimes be very “creative,” and the targets are typically 1-2 MOA from 300 to 1200 yards … so they must be precise, and usually only get one shot per target. Obviously there aren’t a lot of these shooters that believe primer pocket cleanliness or uniformity have a measurable impact on their ability to hit the target, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important in other disciplines. It simply means most of the top shooters in the PRS don’t think those steps are necessary for the type of shooting they’re doing.
Finally, just 12% of the shooters said they weight-sort their brass. You may be surprised to see that number so low, but understand most of these guys are intentional about starting off with good quality brass from the same lot. When you do that, it can dramatically decrease the need to weight-sort brass.
Interestingly enough, there were only 3 shooters in the top 100 that said they did all 5 of the optional brass prep operations (annealing, neck turning, clean primer pockets, uniform primer pockets, and weight-sort).
What steps do these handloaders perform for bullet prep?
Next we’ll look at what these top shooters do regarding bullet prep and/or sorting.
One of the things that may not jump off that chart is that the overwhelming majority of these guys don’t do any type of bullet prep or sorting. They just grab bullets out of the box and load them. Context is important here. 79% of these guys are using Berger Bullets, which represent best-of-class, match-grade target bullets. Berger bullets are already extremely consistent, which is why most shooters don’t spend time trying to improve on what Berger provides out of the box.
Pointing & Trimming Bullet Meplats
You can see that the most popular step of bullet prep was pointing bullets, which 19% of the handloaders in the top 100 did for their ammo. One interesting point is that there were 7 shooters in the top 20 that said they pointed their bullets. That means 35% of the top 20 shooters pointed bullets, and only 14% of those who finished 21-100 pointed their bullets. That doesn’t mean pointing bullets caused those guys to land in the top 20, but it could simply be that the shooters in that top-tier are looking for any edge they can get and a significant number of them believe pointing bullets might provide an advantage.
“Pointing bullets” means they’re using a bullet pointing die to partially close the tip of a hollow-point bullet. Whidden Gunworks makes dies that are very popular for “pointing up” bullet tips. “The Whidden Bullet Pointing Die System is a tool designed to profile the tips of jacketed bullets to reduce aerodynamic drag, and enhance ballistic consistency among a set of bullets. Done right, the pointing process can increase the Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of bullets and thereby lessen the effects of crosswinds, reduce flight time, and maintain supersonic flight longer. Pointing is also done to decrease the variance in drag from one bullet to another, thereby reducing the expected vertical and horizontal dispersion among a group of bullets fired together,” explains 6mmBR.com.
Only 7% said they trim the meplats of their bullets, and that only included 2 shooters in the top 50. The meplat is simply the open tip on the nose of the bullet. “Trimming the meplats of a batch of bullets will, normally, make their BCs more consistent. That’s a good thing. However, meplat trimming shortens the bullet tip, increasing the actual meplat diameter. That, in turn, reduces BC by a few percentage points. So trimming meplats has both positive and negative effects. You do get less variance in BC, but you make your bullets less slippery (reduce BC) in the process,” according to 6mmBR.com. That is why it is common for people who trim meplats, to also point their bullets. By pointing their bullets they’re able to recover the reduction in BC from trimming.
Bryan Litz says “The benefit you are likely to see depends on how bad the bullets were to begin with, and how well you can shoot with your equipment and shooting style (prone, F-class, bench, etc.). As a general rule, you can say that if you’re already shooting very small groups, and you’re looking for that last bit of improvement, it may be worth the time to trim (uniform) your meplats.” When asked if you should trim and/or point the meplats, Bryan said “it depends on the nature of the meplats out of the box. If you have a box/lot of bullets with very small and consistent meplats, you’re unlikely to gain any noticeable advantage by trimming or pointing. However if your bullets have large but consistent meplats, then just pointing them will yield the best results. Finally, if our lot of bullets have meplats that are large and inconsistent, then it may be worth it to trim and point the bullets. The general approach should be to allow yourself the flexibility to decide on trimming/pointing based on the characteristics of your particular batch of bullets. As with many things, applying a blind do or don’t policy is probably not best when considering meplat treatments.”
With all this talk about uniforming bullet tips, it’s easy to understand some of the perceived benefits of bullets with plastic tips like those in the Hornady A-MAX. Those bullets may present their own downsides, but they clearly address the issue related to uniforming meplats.
Other Bullet Prep & Sorting
Only 9% of the shooters said they weight-sort bullets, and interestingly enough … that didn’t include any of the guys in the top 20. There didn’t appear to be patterns showing that competitors did this more for one brand of bullets than another.
Finally, there were only 2% of shooters that coated their bullets. Nobody in the top 50 coats their bullets. Coating bullets is a controversial topic, and obviously most of these guys don’t believe it helps in this style of shooting. “Many shooters, particularly varminters and High Power shooters, believe that application of HBN, WS2, or Moly helps their shooting. High Power shooters are required to shoot long strings of fire with no opportunity to clean. Varminters typically fire a lot of rounds at very high velocities. If coated bullets can reduce copper and powder fouling that allows a varminter to spend more time hunting and less time cleaning. Some other shooters coat their bullets because they believe this reduces friction and heat in the barrel, which should, theoretically, extend barrel life,” explains 6mmBR.com.
What steps do these handloaders perform for weighing powder?
The precision of powder charge is another thing some OCD handloaders spend an exorbitant amount of time and money trying to perfect. Here is the exact question I asked these guys on the survey:
How detailed are you at LOADING POWDER? (Select one)
- I use a $500+ scale to weigh every powder charge (Prometheus, Sartorius, etc.)
- I weigh every powder charge on a scale (a regular, consumer-grade model that cost under $500)
- I just use a powder measure to throw charges
Here are the results:
There were slightly more of these top shooters used a high-end, $500+ scale like the Prometheus or pharmaceutical-grade scales like those from Sartorius and others. One interesting note is that the shooters who placed in the top 4 were all using one of these really high-end scales. Beyond that, the distribution seen in the graph above was virtually identical through the entire group of the top 100 PRS shooters regardless of rank.
The $500+ scales are typically capable of resolution and accuracy down to a single kernel of powder, or even better! Not one grain … one kernel. A single kernel of Hodgdon H4350 gun powder (which 73% of these guys use) weighs between 0.02 and 0.03 grains. 0.02 grains = 1.3 milligrams. So if you purchase a milligram scale, you should be able to weigh down to the nearest kernel. I’ve heard rumors of guys in other shooting disciplines slicing powder kernels to get even finer increments. I’d be shocked if any of these practical/tactical shooters are going to that extent, but there is always a handful of people that take everything to the extreme. If you’re reading this (or writing it), you’re probably that guy at times! 😉
The Prometheus is an automated dispenser and high-end scale in a single unit. If a guy is using another type of high-end scale, they will often use a consumer-grade combo dispenser/scale to throw a charge that is 0.1-0.2 grains short and then transfer that to a high-end scale with a powder trickler that can dispense one kernel at a time to fine-tune and finish the load (video of that in action).
Almost 1/2 of the handloaders said they weighed every powder charge using “a regular, consumer-grade model that cost under $500.” The most popular model is likely the RCBS ChargeMaster 1500 Powder Scale and Dispenser Combo. RCBS says the scale is accurate to +/- 0.1 grains. The average dispense time is around 30 seconds, so I’ve seen a lot of guys running two or three ChargeMasters side-by-side to speed up their loading process.
Here is a look at what a really nice setup might look like, with multiple RCBS ChargeMasters, a high-end Sartorius ENTRIS64-1S Analytical Balance, and a Dandy Powered Auto Powder Trickler:
Only 4% of the top PRS shooters said they “just use a powder measure to throw charges,” and that didn’t include any of the guys in the top 25.
I hope this gives you an idea of how these top shooters handload their ammo, and what they think is worth spending time on. These guys shoot in multiple matches each year, and might blow through 200+ rounds in a single match. And to be competitive at this level, you typically have to spend a lot of time practicing as well. I actually asked them how many rounds they thought they’d shoot out of a precision rifle in 2015 (including practice and competitions), and here is how they answered:
You can see most of the top 100 shooters in the PRS fire 4,000 to 6,000 rounds per year. Around 1/3 of those might be in competition, and the rest would be practicing at the range, honing their skills. I know a few of them have a “trainer rifle,” which is virtually identical to their match rifle (same stock, action, scope, etc.), but chambered in something like 223 Remington. They may use a setup like that to practice positional shooting using factory ammo. So while they may not handload all 4000-6000 rounds, it still adds up to a load of time spent in the shop handloading.
They have to be pragmatic in their loading, and try to optimize for speed where they’re able to without sacrificing precision. But aren’t we all always trying to strike that balance? Hopefully this gives you an idea for what some of the best shooters in the country are doing for their own match ammo. It’s certainly hard to argue with their results!