column By: Dave Scovill | April, 21
Not too long ago, I received a letter from a reader who grew up in the high desert near Fields in southeast Oregon, where I spent a good portion of my youth hiking, shooting and hunting. If you look for Fields on a map or Google Earth, it is in the center of nothing save for hundreds of square miles of sagebrush and fault block mountain ranges.
He got quite a kick out of the column about my pre-college days of handloading and the rolled up jacket that was used as a rest on the hood of a truck for testing accuracy.
Our version of accuracy was plain, old field grade that was determined with a couple of shots at a black smear with charcoal from a campfire on a piece of cardboard hung on a juniper stump. Looking back, our somewhat primitive sighting methods didn’t appear to keep us from bagging our fair share of rabbits, badgers, coyotes and foxes year-round and deer in the fall.
Our man in Fields related similar experiences of the post-World War II generation, as did a reader in Alaska, retired after 42 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, who recognized a number of locations and experiences that we had in common during our younger years in Oregon, including college and our overall working experience, mostly in the logging industry and/or U.S. government surveying and timber management jobs. At any rate, it is refreshing to hear from senior citizens who came up on what the millennial generation might consider the rough side, 10-hour days of sweat, calluses and a sore back.
We remember when things changed after the unions took over in Oregon, and I worked 40 hours a week on the night shift for Rosboro Lumber and part-time on weekends for Bliss Automotive Service to earn enough to pay for college and take full-time hours in school to keep away from the draft until graduation. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy for one-and-a-half years, some of that in the reserves, followed by the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps grunt training, before being commissioned an ensign at $292 a month, $42.00 more than I earned at the age of 13 on the French Creek Ranch.
Today we have advanced way beyond my rather sheltered youth where basic handloading practices were sufficient, to demands for “match-prepped” components: brass, primers and bullets that gobble up editorial space and handloaders’ budgets. If folks want the finest accuracy from Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) spec rifles that roll off the assembly line at 1,000 or more at a time and are no more capable of match-grade accuracy than my circa 1927 Winchester Model 94 .30 WCF carbine, they MUST use match-prepped components. Then they tell us accuracy is necessary for clean kills, as if it was an original thought.
Roughly 30 years ago, I got sidetracked with accuracy using readily available component bullets and called Walt Berger, a guru in the bullet-making business who, along with his wife Eunice, had a reputation for being competitive in the Bench Rest business, making match-grade bullets and shooting them. In those days, most hunting bullets were flatbase, largely owing the fact that boat-tail bullets were known to be a bit finicky in terms of efforts to make them perfect, and thusly, to shoot small groups. Boat-tails also had a reputation, earned or not, for shedding their cores.
At the time, the average sporting rifle might shoot 1.5- to 2-inch, three- or five-shot groups at 100 long steps when fired off a rolled up jacket on the hood of a truck with just about any bullet you might care to stuff in it, which is more than adequate for hunting any big game in the Lower 48 and Alaska or Africa. I also remember a time when just keeping two or three offhand shots on a pie plate at 70 or 80 yards with open sights was considered sufficient for hunting deer and elk in the close confines of old growth timber. In all the years I hunted the back country and high lonesome in Oregon, I’ve yet to see a benchrest in the bushes. Maybe that’s the next industry move – ultralight benchrests, aka shooting sticks with a seat, in the wilderness.
At any rate, unlike a lot of folks working for industry manufacturers today, who restrict communications with customers or industry people to emails of 15 words or less, Walt spent the better part of an hour on the phone reviewing the many facets of bullet making. Not just bullets, of course, but match-grade bullets, where the subject of boat-tails only came up as a nonissue, i.e., they don’t win Bench Rest matches and, as far as anyone knew at the time, never have.
Armed with Walt’s generous gift of time, I went back to the loading bench with renewed vigor, knowing that without some measure of magic, component bullets would never win a benchrest match, so why not experiment a bit with those flatbase bullets available for hunting and see what happens.
The logic at the time was that longer, heavier bullets generally produced best accuracy for three reasons: (1) generous bearing surface with (2) a flatbase that is perfectly square with the shank and (3) uniform jacket thickness. It is important the bullet leaves the muzzle straightly, so the slight fins left by the rifling engraving control the escaping gases at the muzzle uniformly. If one of those fins breaks or is not a perfect match with the others, the bullet exits with a slight yaw.
I had recovered hundreds of cast bullets over the years with relatively hard cast (brittle) alloys, and the fins on the heel of the bullet sometimes broke off. When alloys were more ductile, fins rarely broke off and produced best accuracy, with 10 cast bullets in the sub-0.4-inch class from a Thompson/Center 7-30 Waters Super 14, no less. Either way, I observed firsthand the effect fins had on accuracy that Walt was talking about. The trick, back then, was to shoot bullets into some sort of impact medium that didn’t destroy them and examine the base of the bullet with 10x magnification.
Twenty-four-inch thick stacks of soaking wet newsprint stuffed in cardboard boxes were sufficient to catch bullets at various ranges with slightly reduced loads fired from a variety of cartridges. Things went well in terms of retrieving bullets until one shot with a 410-grain cast bullet fired from a .404 Jeffery blew the box apart.
As the result of that conversation with Walt Berger, I size all cast bullets, rifle or handgun, nose first into the die, the same way they go down the barrel. That required a flat-faced base punch to ensure the base was perfectly flat and the slight fin on the heel of the bullet was square with the shank. Our late handloading editor, John Zemanek, who competed worldwide in handgun competitions, did essentially the same thing with a swaging die after lubrication.
Getting back to longer, heavier jacketed bullets that were believed to be more accurate in sporting rifles of the day, I tried in vain to make them shoot better than .75 inch at 100 yards from my Ruger M77 7x57mm Mauser fitted with a Weaver 6x duplex scope. One reader took the time to write a note: “No wonder; you’re shooting a Ruger,” typical of snide remarks on the internet from bloggers on a planet far, far away or maybe in a badger hole somewhere.
In a fit of insanity, no doubt, I found Hornady 120-grain hollowpoints and Speer 130-grain Hot-Core flatbase 7mm bullets on the back shelves in the local sporting goods store. By then I had been so indoctrinated regarding lousy accuracy potential of lightweight, short bullets, I almost fell into the trap that writers of the day had laid for the unwashed, but bought a box of each in anticipation of using them on coyotes.
Both bullets were seated slightly less than one caliber deep in the neck of Federal 7mm Mauser cases over 50 and 52 grains of W-760, aka H-414. Velocities hovered around 3,000 to 3,100 fps from the 22-inch Ruger barrel. The 130-grain Speer averaged five shots in 0.3-plus inch in spite of the long .475-inch leade in the Ruger chamber that left the bore diameter on the bullet ogive about 0.4 inch off the rifling. The 120-grain Hornady bullet cut a rough one-hole, four-shot group with one out at 3,120 fps.
Assuming bullets were seated straightly, averaging around .002 inch or less runout, I wrote in my notes, circa 1980: “So much for long bullets seated to within some nano-inch of the lands.”
One or two bullets seated well short of the lands doesn’t prove a lot, but it leaves an obvious question: If benchrest participants never shoot boat-tails, would it be reasonable to expect flatbase bullets to shoot with acceptable accuracy in High Power rifles at longer ranges, say 200, 400 and 600 yards, in spite of a minimal loss in ballistic coefficient when compared to their boat-tail counterparts? So, I placed a call to a former U.S. Navy SEAL and High Power shooter, who shot competitively with flatbase bullets some 20 years ago, but he admitted the current crop of writers and High Power enthusiasts might consider it heresy to attempt it now.
Another problem with the swoon over tipped boat-tails lately is that they force folks to seat the bullet deeper than a non-tipped flatbase design of the same weight. As such, the new ultra-modern tipped boat-tail reduces powder capacity compared to a flatbase counterpart. The irony is that any given flatbase bullet has a fair chance at improved accuracy potential over boat-tails out to 200 yards or a bit more, which certainly covers field requirements for most hunting applications but are rarely listed in manuals today.
Part of the problem, of course, is the short bolt actions that limit overall loaded length to 2.8 inches or so, thus forcing longer bullets to be deep seated, and nowadays it appears there is absolutely zero motivation for any outfit to make a flatbase match bullet that is heavy enough to ensure sufficient sectional density and acceptable ballistic coefficient. Moreover, it appears there is a very thin line between target and hunting bullets in the minds of most folks, and a lot of them don’t respect the difference, e.g., no one does independent penetration tests, with the exception of a few manufacturers, to determine bullet integrity after impact.
Twenty to 30 years ago, such tests in wet phone books (Finn Aagaard) and/or sawdust with cow bones in the mix (Bob Hagel) appeared annually or at least semiannually in Rifle. Which is not to leave out Gary Sciuchetti’s Handloader No. 193 (June-July 1998) landmark tests with .30-caliber bullets.
More recently, Mark DeYoung, president of ATK, who was on the inaugural 2007 hunt with the Barnes TTSX in Utah with Lee Hoots and myself, among several others, found the slightly deeper, sub-bore-diameter grooves on the new Federal Terminal Ascent bullets in Rifle No. 310 (May-June 2020) that mimic the grooves I drew up while on a houseboat on Lake Powell for Randy Brooks (former president of Barnes) in the summer of 2000 for what became the TSX (see Rifle No. 234, November-December 2007) actually serve a purpose. Not that nearly every outfit in the bullet-making business hasn’t adopted grooved bullet shanks, but Mark DeYoung noticed the difference. That feature was also adopted for the Federal Trophy Bonded earlier. See the photo in Rifle No. 310, page 34; rifling doesn’t engrave the bottom of the groove. Also see fins on the heel, e.g., Walt Berger comments.
Either way, a flatbase 150- to 160-grain 6.5mm bullet would likely shoot well enough to be a first-class, big-game hunting bullet, as it proved to be in the past. Then too, I can hear the internet grumbling: “It’s too long and would hinder powder capacity in a short action.” The brain trust also used the same logic to discredit the Barnes X-Bullet and later the TSX.
There is at least one solution that is provided by the 6.5x55 Swedish chamber in a mid-length action that allows an overall loaded length of over 3 inches. The same applies to the 7x57 Mauser as opposed to the 7mm-08.