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The Care and Feeding of Old Soldiers

By Grandpa Mac

A few years back I was sitting in the shed with a rebarrelled Martini Enfield on the bench and a Parker Hale 5C target sight in my hand. I was trying to find a way of mounting the sight. It didn't look easy.

 

The Hastings, Napier and Taihape Deerstalkers branches had recently added an iron sight section to the inter-branch Tararua Shoot and I was keen to have a go. Eventually the penny dropped. Why not just find a Number 4 Lee Enfield that fitted the sight?

 

THE RIFLES

A quick trip to Chateau Jeremy (known as “Rivers to Ranges” here in Hastings) produced a choice of two Number 4 rifles and the better one followed me home. The rifle is a cut-down Lee Enfield Number 4 Mk 1 made in England 1942 but it didn't look like it had ever visited a battlefield.

 

The five-groove barrel was dark but cleaned up well with repeated cleaning between shooting.A few test rounds showed the rifle was capable of decent accuracy with the original sights so the 5C was mounted.

 

A couple of years later I was given a second .303, also a 1942 No 4 Mark 1 but made in Canada. The barrel had been a neglected and although it shot well it was a mission to clean. Eventually sanity prevailed and I replaced it with an almost new two-groove barrel that had been gathering dust in the cupboard. This second rifle now has a 2.5x Lyman scope.

 

THE .303 CARTRIDGE

The .303 cartridge was developed around 1888 for Britain’s first bolt action military rifle. Initially loaded with black powder and later cordite it remained the standard military cartridge for Commonwealth countries for the next 70 years.

 

The .303 calibre is actually 7.7mm and was developed by a Major Rubin of the Swiss military in the 1880s. Most military cartridges prior to WW2 had their roots in Europe, and 30 calibre rifles (7.62mm) did not exist at the time.

 

Cartridges and projectiles from left to right: Front row. 1 & 2 - older style Hornady 174 grain round- nose projectiles, 3 & 4 - current style Hornady 174 grain round nose-projectiles, 5 & 6 - 150 grain Norma projectiles. Second row: 1 to 3 - old 215 grain loads, 4 to 7 - Mk 7 loads, one hollow-pointed, 8 to 10 - hand loads. 

 

LOADING THE .303 WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK

Lee Enfields were designed as battle rifles. Speed of fire, ease of loading and reliability on the battlefield were particularly important but reloadability of cases was not considered at all. Chambers are roomy and sometimes out of round.

 

If cases are full length sized with the die screwed hard down on the shell holder they often crack about 10mm up from the base on the second or third firing. Cracked case necks are also common. Cases are the most expensive component in a loaded round so getting decent case life is the key for economical handloads.

 

My approach was to use a combination of low pressure loads and either neck or minimal resizing with periodic neck annealing to keep the cases happy.

 

“Two powders suitable for light loads, AR2206H and Trail Boss, are readily available in NZ.  Both are made in Australia by ADI and marketed in the USA by Hodgdon.”

 

LOW PRESSURE LOADS

Low pressure and cast lead loads used to be loaded with small charges of pistol or shotgun powder. These generally needed a filler to make up the space inside the case and give good ignition which meant a double charge of powder was possible, never a good thing.

 

Two powders suitable for light loads, AR2206H and Trail Boss, are readily available in NZ. Both are made in Australia by ADI and marketed in the USA by Hodgdon.

 

AR2206H (aka H4895): Loads for AR2206H and/or H4895 can be reduced to 60% of the listed maximum. IMR4895 has been used over the years for reduced loads but after testing, Hodgdon (which now owns IMR) only recommends AR2206H. AR2206H does burn a bit dirty at the lighter end but still gives decent accuracy. The lightest loads may also deliver large velocity swings which shows up as vertical stringing on the target. I usually increase the loads until this improves.

 

Trail Boss: Trail Boss was developed for Cowboy Action Shooting by ADI to reduce the possibility of double charging with the light loads. It is also useful for low pressure loads in more powerful rifle cartridges. The max load is what will fit in the case under the bullet without ANY compression.

 

The start load is 70% of the max load. All loads in the range produce low pressures. I have not used Trail Boss yet but my son tells me that it burns cleaner than AR2206H in his cast lead loads.

 

LOAD SELECTION

We used 174 grain round-nose Hornady projectiles that we had in stock. The load envelope was 60% to 80% of max.

 

.303 British Reduced loads    
Projectile Powder Charge Velocity Notes
174gr AR2209 40gn 1,930 fps Initial load. Early manufacture projectiles. Chronographed. Fired in iron sight rifle.
174gr RN AR2206H 26gn   60% of max
174gr RN late mnfr. AR2206H 32gn 2,060 fps Test load. Soft Recoil. Chrono 2,060 fps with recent manufacture projectiles. Accurate. Fired in scoped rifle. Standard load for now.
174gr RN early mnfr. AR2206H 32gn 1,920 fps As above but with early manufacture projectiles. Accurate. Fired in scoped rifle.
174gr RN AR2206H 34gn 2,262 fps Hodgdon .303 start load. 81% of max. 38,800 CUP. Hodgdon velocity.
174gr RN Trail Boss 10gn About 1,100 fps Start load. Hodgdon data for .308 Win.
174gr RN Trail Boss 14gn About 1,400 fps Max load. Hodgdon data for .308 Win.
150gr Norma AR2206H 34gn 2,050 fps Chronographed. Accurate. Fired in scoped rifle.
180gr RN AR2208 36.0gn About 2,240 fps 1 grain below Hodgdon start load for P14. Used in a friend’s rifle. Not chronographed.


 

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CASE PREP

Most low recoil loads can be assembled in neck sized cases. A dedicated neck sizing die is not needed. .303 cases can be neck sized in 308W full length or neck sizing dies with the right expander button, or in a Lee Loader die. I had all three. My batch of cases for the iron sighted .303 are all CAC and once or more fired.

 

All were checked for cracks and incipient head separation and tried in the rifle's chamber. Those that chambered easily were neck sized and the remainder carefully full length sized to just chamber.

 

“Recently ten 1942 DI (Canadian) military cases were given to me which I have added to the Norma. It tickles my fancy to use 1942 vintage cases in a 1942 rifle made in the same country.”

 

Initially I used the neck sizer die but found that the Lee Loader .303 die sized the necks down less and did not need to be expanded so I have switched to that. All were trimmed to 56.2mm and the mouths chamfered inside and out. 

 

Neck sizing with loads that develop less than about 38,000 CUP pressure pretty much eliminates head separations and the need for full length sizing.For the scoped rifle Norma cases have been used (to make it simpler to distinguish the ammo for the two rifles).

 

Recently ten 1942 DI (Canadian) military cases were given to me which I have added to the Norma. It tickles my fancy to use 1942 vintage cases in a 1942 rifle made in the same country. Preparation has been as above.

 

INITIAL LOADS

For the iron sighted .303 we settled on a load of 40 grains of AR2209 and 174 grain RN projectiles that had previously proved accurate. This produced about 1930fps. Primers had backed out of the fired cases a little showing that pressure was low enough to prevent case stretching.

 

This is an older batch of AR2209 that is somewhat slower than current production. The load is also below Hodgdon’s start load, so I take care not to double load. For the scoped .303 a load of 32 grains of AR2206H and late manufacture 174 grain RN projectiles was selected.

 

This produced consistent velocities of around 2,060fps and decent accuracy. This load and the above are now the standard loads for each of the rifles. Adequate rounds for immediate use have been loaded leaving plenty of cases for further experimentation.

  

NECK SIZING

Neck sizing with the Lee Loader is just about foolproof. I decap the cases with the Lee tool, clean the primer pocket, remove any carbon from the neck and shoulder with steel wool or a Scotchbrite pad and give the case a buff up with an old Chux cloth.

 

With the outside of the case necks lubricated they are placed base down on a wooden block and the Lee die driven down the case with a light hammer. Use a wooden block on top of the die if you do not have a soft face hammer.

 

Left to right: Old Ideal vice-type full length resizing die, .303 Lee Loader Kit, Lyman die set and CH .308 neck sizer.

 

The Lee instructions show this the other way up, but I prefer my version. Using a .308W full length sizing die or neck die requires the die to be adjusted so that only 70 to 80% of the neck is sized.

 

The easiest way to do this is to colour the neck of a case with felt marker, put the case in the shell holder and run the ram up to the top of its stroke. The case should be poking out the top of the press.

 

Remove the decapping and expander stem from the sizing die and screw the die down into the press until you feel it touch the top of the case. Lower the ram and screw the die a few turns further into the press, size the case, and inspect.

 

You will easily see how much of the neck is sized as the felt marker will be rubbed off. Keep screwing the die in a little at a time and inspecting until 70 to 80% of the neck has been sized.

 

Screw the lock ring on the die down to the press top and lock it in place. If the die touches the shoulder the case will be bulged, and full length sizing will be needed. 

 

NECK ANNEALING

Cracked necks can result in a considerable loss of brass especially if you are using scrounged stuff like me. I started using the candle method to anneal case necks a while back and have had good results. The process is quite simple. Hold the neck of the case in the flame of a candle with your fingers about halfway up the case.

 

Rotate the case back and forth to keep the heat even. I put a felt marker mark on the case neck to help check this. When the case gets almost too hot to hold wipe it with a damp Chux cloth.

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This cools the case and cleans off the soot. John Barsness, the US gun writer, learnt this from Fred Barker, one of his benchrest friends and wrote it up in Rifle or Hand Loader Mag a while back.

 

A tip here - I keep the damp Chux in an enamel plate on my lap, saves excitement if I fumble a hot case. I anneal after three firings.

 

PUTTING THE BITS TOGETHER

Weighing powder, charging cases and seating projectiles is standard fare for most handloaders and need no explanation. Most .303 barrels have rather long throats and seating depth is largely determined by magazine length.

 

With 174 grain Hornady round-nose projectiles seated to an overall length of 75mm the iron sight rifle has 8.5mm of jump to the rifling and the scoped rifle 2.6mm. Both shoot well. Currently I prime with a Lee tool, measure powder on either beam or electronic scales, and seat projectiles in the press with a standard .303 seater die. I am entertaining measuring powder in a Lee scoop and seating projectiles in a Lee Loader. You can do it how you like.

 

NOTES ON .303 BARRELS

In the early smokeless days the Brits found that their Metford rifling only lasted about 600 rounds or so with the hot and erosive Cordite they were using. The solution was the robust Enfield 5 groove rifling. Grooves were deep and the lands and grooves were equal width.

 

The nominal bore diameter was .303” and groove diameter .314” to .315” with projectiles about .311” (early projectiles measured about .309”). This kept initial pressure down and allowed the projectile to fill the grooves. The projectile is supported by the tops of the lands.

 

“In the early smokeless days the Brits found that their Metford rifling only lasted about 600 rounds or so with the hot and erosive Cordite they were using. The solution was the robust Enfield 5 groove rifling.”

 

In the US with their .30-06 the grooves on their 4 groove barrels were wide, about three times the width of the lands. Here the projectile is supported by the grooves. Bore was .300” and grooves about .3085” average.

 

Both worked well. Unfortunately, the reason for the deeper grooves is not understood in the US where the idea that the projectile must closely match the groove diameter is well entrenched. My reason for this note is to encourage you not to get too excited about large groove diameter.

 

Poor accuracy in .303 rifles is often due to the poor condition of the muzzle, either a damaged crown, worn rifling or both. Check this first. 

 

Some kit for the retro .303 hunter.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

My two old soldiers are going to be shot. More experiments are also on the programme. Cast lead projectiles will be tried in the scoped rifle and plated .309” projectiles in the iron sight rifle to see if a cheap practice load can be developed.

 

Perhaps some of the Hornady FMJ spitzer boat-tails in the iron sight rifle and .308 projectiles in both. Why, you ask? Because I can of course!

 

This article is intended to provide info on avoiding some of the pitfalls in loading for .303 rifles but it's not a “how to” guide. How you go about loading is up to you. It is your journey so do not rush it and enjoy it on the way.

 

HUNTING

Are these light loads any good for hunting? Absolutely yes. Remember that Karamojo Bell shot most of his early elephants with 215 grain full patch projectiles at about 2,000 feet per second in a .303.

 

Why should deer be a problem at moderate ranges with a 174 grain round nose?

 

Grandpa Mac

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