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A Matter of Opinion

By Matthew Cameron

Many years ago I attempted to obtain the answer to a very technical question. I directed my enquiry to several elder statesmen whose opinions I respected, however the two initial answers were directly opposed to one another.

 

The third gentleman had an answer that was neatly in between the first two, but he validated his reply with the statement, “...and these are my reasons why”. He offered opinion backed by practical experience.

 

Much of what is written about firearms and ammunition is in the main just opinion, it may or may not have any validity and usually it is not qualified. This is a potentially dangerous situation particularly for someone new to reloading ammunition.

 

“The problem the newcomer faces is what is opinion and what is fact when opinion is not backed up by hard evidence?”

 

It is often difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. We need to know what is fact and what is not to avoid potentially dangerous situations and these facts need to be those established by experimentation, or at least reliable data from a source such as a reloading manual.

 

Good components are the basis of good ammunition.

 

As an example, one opinion expressed on the internet suggested that the only way to validate a particular load for accuracy was to fire one hundred shots. Nothing further was added to the statement. There are so many flaws in this that it is hard to know where to start.

 

Over what period of time should the 100 shots be fired, at what pace, would barrel cooling be allowed, how often would the barrel be cleaned and with what fluids? A simple opinion, unsubstantiated, can raise many more questions!

 

CONSIDER THE CARTRIDGE CASE

In my opinion cases should be kept clean. This includes cleaning the combustion residue from around the necks by hand keeping the primer pockets clean and using an ultrasonic cleaner to ensure there is no build up of combustion residue inside the case.

 

Clean necks prevent wear on the rifle’s chamber and also the inside of your decapping and sizing dies. It is also my opinion that clean primer pockets will ensure the best of ignition every time the trigger is pulled. Logic says that cleanliness is desirable although I have not been able to accumulate any factual data to “prove” my opinions.

 

Common bathroom cleaner removes combustion residue from the case necks.

 

Since I started reloading I have learned that there are several methods of cleaning dirty case necks, tumbling is one, cleaning them with steel wool is another. My personal requirements are effective cleaning with no harm to the brass. The continuous use of steel wool removes some brass, so as a technique it’s effective but not sustainable in the long term.

 

In similar fashion, many, including some benchrest shooters, do not worry about cleaning primer pockets; they claim it is a waste of time. Personally I have never detected any combustion residue buildup inside fired cases.

 

I continue to clean case necks with bathroom cleaner and to keep primer pockets clean and at the correct depth - my primer pocket uniformer achieves this. In addition I run my cases through an ultrasonic cleaner after each firing. I have no evidence that this regime prevents die and chamber wear but I can’t see that keeping things clean is a negative. I am happy about the process even if it is labour intensive.

 

Matthew is convinced that clean brass protects dies and rifle chambers from wear.

 

The problem the newcomer faces is what is opinion and what is fact when opinion is not backed up by hard evidence? Case length is a typical example. Nearly all reloading manuals specify case length, it is a figure that should not be exceeded - no ifs, no buts, this length is a clear linear measurement.

 

This works fine with factory rifles, however the waters get a bit muddied when we start dealing with wildcat cartridges and custom chambers, although it is normal for gunsmiths who build custom rifles to nominate maximum case lengths.

 

“Another fact is that if you persist in loading to maximum figures cases will quickly exhibit signs of wear - the first sign being primer pockets expanding beyond their useful life.”

 

While case length and neck specs can vary with individual gunsmiths there are traps for the unwary and you have to be sure of these critical dimensions before pulling the trigger. It’s one reason, if you deal with wildcat cartridges, for having a good micrometer plus the ability to read it accurately.

  

There are also many opinions re the annealing of cartridges. I haven’t kept good enough records to quote figures, but I’m sure that the number of cases I’ve discarded has dropped significantly since I started annealing their necks. In the normal course of events cases are discarded for one of two reasons. The first is primer pocket growth and the more likely, split necks - this applies to all calibres.

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The opinion gets a bit questionable when you ask how many times you should anneal a case. Some benchrest shooters anneal after every firing and claim that the results are on the target. I would suggest for the average varmint shooter and hunter this may be extreme.

 

Further, while it is well known that neck tension is a very important accuracy factor, perhaps if we anneal after every third or so firing we would achieve our aim of extending case life and retaining the original accuracy. Another fact is that if you persist in loading to maximum figures cases will quickly exhibit signs of wear - the first sign being primer pockets expanding beyond their useful life.

  

While opinion about annealing is one issue, the reality is somewhat different. Imagine the logistics of keeping track of about six or seven calibres more or less in constant use, bearing in mind that perhaps only a dozen or so cases out of a batch of say fifty are used at any one time, usually for testing a new powder or projectile.

 

Cases should always be kept trimmed to maximum specified length. Form and trim dies are a convenient way to achieve this.

 

Should the new loads produce acceptable accuracy and velocity you will still need to shoot more proof loads to ensure that the original groups and velocities were not mere chance.

 

Keeping track of that small number of cases, to be annealed on every third or so firing, quickly becomes a logistical nightmare - there would be small bags of cases all over the place! My decision is to anneal each case every time it passes over the reloading bench.

  

Of course there are other procedures too I carry out at the same time, cleaning, measuring case length etc. It’s a logical process for returning brass to its best possible state.

 

Perhaps the most frequently expressed opinions involve powder loads for any particular cartridge. The proviso is that any combination depends a great deal on the rifle it is to be fired in. One opinion I read of related to several .22-250 rifles.

 

The author stated that all his personal rifles produced groups at or under one inch with X grains of XYZ powder. I looked the load up in several reputable manuals. It was below maximum in all and seemed a reasonable proposition. Consequently I load developed up to the specified grains using my single shot .22-250 Remington.

 

The author is of the opinion that straight line seating dies (left) produce more accurate ammunition than conventional seating dies like the example at right.

 

The rifle simply did not like the powder at all, although perhaps it may have shot differently with another projectile. In fact my load would not print below 1.5 inches at any stage, whereas my normal load consistently printed below an inch.

 

When it comes to powder there is plenty of opinion that a certain class or group is more suitable for particular calibres and associated projectile weights. It is a fact that in some rifles some loads seem to go together like bacon and eggs, but there are no guarantees.

 

Take the .270 Winchester, nearly always associated with 130 grain projectiles. My initial loads with my .270 used IMR 4831 and Winchester 760 powder. Both grouped consistently with the best loads at an average of 1.3 inches, sufficiently accurate for hunting deer. The next powders I tried were IMR 4064 and AR 2208 - accuracy was an average of an inch or so and velocities very close to the book figures.

 

Last of the group was AR 2209. It filled the case better and its accuracy was consistently in the inch range for three shots, velocity just a few fps more than the rest of the bunch. I’m still using this load thirty years later. Conventional opinion is that if one chooses a heavier projectile the next slowest powder should be used for the best velocity and hopefully, accuracy.

 

Reality may be different and you might find that the slower powder may not provide either. Sometimes you may do better with the next fastest powder; once again there are no guarantees.

 

CLEANING THE BORE

Of all of the opinions associated with firearms nothing is more contentious than bore cleaning. Everyone has a favourite method! 

 

The problem is compounded by the number of cleaning fluids on the market. A chemically clean, pristine bore becomes contaminated immediately the first projectile proceeds down the barrel. Left behind on the surface of the metal are remnants of the projectile with a layer of combustion residue on top.

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The next projectile forces some of the combustion residue into the copper on the bore surface and deposits more combustion residue, and so it builds. Depending on a variety of factors, eventually all the accumulations in the bore start to affect accuracy.

 

There are some facts that may slow this process down a little. It is considered that stainless barrels foul less than “conventional” steels, of whatever type. Regardless, eventually you’ll need to clean the bore of residue, but how far do you go? Is it necessary to have the barrel totally chemically clean?

 

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to cleaning fluids but opinion is still divided on whether bronze brushes are a good idea or not.

 

Somewhere between a dirty bore and chemically clean one is a situation that most firearm owners are comfortable with. There are newer cleaners on the market that claim to eliminate all bore residue with one application, you leave it in the barrel overnight or for a specific length of time and patch it clean, magic, all gone!

 

They may well do so but I have yet to use them. The other contentious issue is whether one should use a bronze brush or not. Opinion is divided. Each side swears on the proverbial stack of bibles that they are correct.

 

The first two patches I put through a dirty bore are dripping with Brake Clean, a fluid from the automotive trade. It’s just what it says, designed to clean the accumulated crud around brakes on motor vehicles. It evaporates and leaves no residue.

  

To me it’s the ideal fluid for removing loose particles in a bore. One gentleman wrote back and said I was mistaken; Brake Clean would never attack carbon. He was of course right but he missed the magic word, “loose”. I suggest that you should do some research and develop your own cleaning regime; it may differ between stainless and conventional barrels.

 

Primer pockets cleaned with the uniformer.

 

The other issue is the hard plated carbon that exists in the bore just forward of the case mouth, a product of great heat and pressure. The only way I know to get rid of this is with bore paste, which is slightly abrasive. This is not just my opinion - Lilja, the barrel maker, suggests a good scrubbing after approx. 500 rounds down the barrel.

 

The other fact is that if it’s left to accumulate eventually the carbon will form a hard ring. Perhaps some types of cleaning fluids will remove this but they do not appear in my cleaning kit!

 

Even if you get the bore chemically clean, or very close to it, there is in my opinion a requirement to foul the bore slightly before firing at a target. This was evident during my foray into benchrest shooting. Almost invariably the first two shots down the bore after cleaning were off the point of aim. Thereafter I always fired a couple of sighting shots before beginning my five target shots.

 

“The deer hunter may only fire one shot on a trip and that first shot often needs to be right on the point of aim...”

 

Some say that benchrest shooting requirements bear little resemblance to those of varmint or deer hunting. I disagree, all my rifles get one or sometimes two fouling shots to “settle them down” after cleaning. The deer hunter may only fire one shot on a trip and that first shot often needs to be right on the point of aim, whereas a varmint hunter sitting over a rabbit infested hillside might fire 50 shots or more in an afternoon.

 

The other factor is the type of barrel steel; some steels foul quicker than others, thus you may require a different cleaning regime.

 

The great opinion debates continue around campfires throughout the world. The topics are endless and the verdicts often inconclusive but you nearly always learn something. Opinions are part of life, but with firearms, for safety reasons, it’s best to back up opinions with cold hard facts.

 

Matthew

 

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