Handloading .223 for the AR

By CTD Blogger published on in Ammunition

Military style rifles are not usually known for having match grade accuracy, but the AR-15 can be easily upgraded with just a few parts to be more than capable of shooting sub MOA groups out to distances exceeding 600 yards. Swap out the trigger for a Timney and replace the barrel with a heavy stainless steel varmint or match barrel and you’ll be surprised by the significant increase in accuracy. But the biggest improvement may not come from the rifle at all, but from the ammunition you use.

I got started shooting cheap military surplus 5.56mm NATO rounds in my AR, along with cheap Winchester white box and Remington .223 FMJ plinking rounds. These cartridges were usually 55 or 62 grain and had decent accuracy. I still use them for plinking and just having fun at the range. But when you want to get serious about target shooting, you need better ammo. The biggest differences between mass produced ammunition and match grade ammunition is the quality of the components and the attention to detail to ensure every round is exactly the same.

Getting Started
You can buy match grade ammunition from a number of manufacturers. Remington and Hornady both manufacture excellent match grade ammunition. Varmint ammo from Remington and Hornady is just as accurate as the match grade ammunition, but is loaded with lighter bullets weighing between 40 and 55 grains. This factory ammunition is easily capable of shooting half-MOA groups is an excellent place to start establishing a baseline for your own handloads. Shoot a variety of loads and bullet weights to find out which performs best in your rifle and start loading your own based off of this data.

Bullets
When selecting the proper bullet, keep your barrel twist in mind. We’ve written in the past on the importance of barrel twist rate with regards to bullet weight or, more accurately, bullet length. For any given caliber of ammunition, the heaver the bullet is the longer it will generally be. Longer bullets require a faster twist rate to get them spinning at a high enough speed for effective stabilization in flight. If there is a specific load you just have to run, consider rebarreling your rifle with a barrel with a more appropriate twist rate.

The first barrels produced by Colt for the AR-15 had a slow 1:14 twist rate, which was adequate for 55 grain bullets under normal circumstances. However when air density increased due to lower temperatures, the 55 grain became unstable.  This prompted the Army to switch to a faster 1:12 rate barrel, and later an even faster 1:7 rate barrel to accommodate heavier 62 grain M855 bullets. Most modern rifles have a 1:9 twist rate, which has been found to be a healthy compromise that is able to stabilize bullets weighing from 50 grains on up to some 69 grain bullets.

Varminters often use very light weight bullets such as the 45 grain Sierra Hornet. Such bullets are exceptionally accurate in order to hit small targets, lightly constructed to provide explosive expansion while minimizing ricochets, and lightweight to obtain high velocities with flat trajectories. The extremely flat shooting varmint round is perfect for taking small game at unknown distances. Competitive shooters on the other hand tend to favor longer and heavier bullets with an aerodynamic boat tail design. These long bullets have a superior ballistic coefficient which allows them to maintain a high velocity for a longer distance, thus making them less prone to wind drift at extended ranges.

One concern when loading heavier longer bullets for your AR is the overall cartridge length. Heavier bullets are longer, and there is a limit to how far back they can be seated. Standard AR-15 magazines can hold cartridges up to 2.275 inches long. If you are loading rounds with heavy 79 grain or heavier bullets, such as 90 grain Sierra MatchKings favored by long range target shooters, the overall cartridge length will likely exceed 2.275 inches, requiring you to load and fire these handloads one at a time. If you are preparing a load that is over-length, it is important to make sure that your barrel is designed to handle it. A barrel with a 1:7 twist is generally not sufficient to stabilize bullets weighing over 77 grains (however some shooters claim to be able to stabilize 90 grain bullets in a 1:7 barrel), but more importantly, in longer handloaded cartridges the bullet could be swaged up against the lands of the rifling and cause overpressure in the case. Barrels for the longest of these loads will usually be custom made with a 1:6 or 1:6.5 twist rate and have a longer leade (the unrifled portion of the bore just past the chamber) to fit the longer bullet.

Powders
Depending on the weight of the bullet you are pushing, you will need different powders. Faster burning powders are more effective for propelling relatively light weight bullets. Slower burning powders in general should be used with heavier bullets. For our purposes here, powders such as Reloader 7, Reloader 10X, Accurate 2015, IMR4198 or Hodgdon H322 are excellent choices for accurate varmint loads topped with light 40 grain to 55 grain bullets.  Reloader 15, H4895, IMR4064 or Varget are all good choices used for accurate match loads that propel heavier bullets weighing 60 grains and more.

When developing a load, always start at 90% of the manual recommended max load and work your way up, checking for signs of overpressure as you gradually increase the powder charge. If you don’t have enough powder of one type or another, get more: never mix powders! Mixing powders can result in unpredictable burn rates and could cause a case rupture or detonation.

Primers
When choosing a primer for your match loads, stay away from hard military style primers. Most match triggers will not generate primer strikes hard enough to reliably shoot hard primers. Instead, stick with high quality standard small rifle primers such as CCI 400 or Winchester WSR primers for most loads, and Federal Gold Medal 205M for heavier match loads using slower powders.

Brass
Brass for match grade or varmint loads should always be cleaned and polished. This not only makes it chamber better, but it removes any carbon or debris from the case resulting in better more consistent powder burn. When resizing, don’t rely on just a neck resize. For the most accurate loads your brass should be fully resized to ensure a consistent case capacity. Fully resized cases also fit the chamber better. What brand of brass you use isn’t particularly important, but some shooters prefer Winchester or .223 Remington brass due to the consistent case weight and wall thickness.

When trying to wring every bit of accuracy from a handload, the devil is in the details. Turning the neck of your brass will help to ensure that your case mouth is perfectly round and concentric with the case body, giving you a consistent crimp and seal all the way around your bullet and positioning it perfectly concentric with the bore. RCBS makes a case neck turner and .223 pilot to help you turn the perfect case neck. Necks that are out-of-round can have gas escape around the bullet prior to the bullet entering the bore and result in an uneven bullet release. A perfectly even bullet release helps to ensure that it swages onto the rifling evenly.

Handloading Procedure
One of the primary reasons for handloading is that it gives you the ability to ensure absolute consistency among all of the rounds. Handloads that are quickly and carelessly assembled may be great for plinking and making a bunch of noise, but they are useless for precision shooting. Additionally, carelessly assembling your rounds can be dangerous! Double charged or poorly measured loads can destroy your expensive rifle and kill or seriously injure you. When sitting down to reload, get rid of all possible distractions. Never watch TV or have a conversation while reloading. Dividing your attention between the task at hand and something else can result in a mistake that could prove deadly. Remember that the more attention you give to the quality and consistency of your loads, the more accurate they will be.

See our article on reloading necked rifle ammunition for more details on the reloading process.

Example Loads

Bullet Bullet Weight Powder Primer Overall Length Charge (grains) Velocity (FPS)
Hornady V-Max 35 gr Accurate 5744 CCI 400 2.13 21.1 3602
Speer SP 40 gr Reloder 7 CCI 400 2.06 20.5 3011
Speer SP 40 gr Reloder 10X CCI 400 2.06 24.5 3481
Nosler BT 40 gr Accurate 2015 CCI 400 2.260 25.4 3671
Speer SP 45 gr Reloder 7 CCI 400 2.155 20 3059
Speer SP 45 gr Reloder 10X CCI 400 2.155 24 3292
Nosler BT 50 gr Reloder 10X WSR 2.2 24.2 3389
Nosler BT 50 gr Reloder 15 WSR 2.2 28 3356
Speer HP 52 gr Reloder 7 CCI 400 2.2 20.5 2931
Speer HP 52 gr Reloder 10X CCI 400 2.2 22.5 3179
Nosler BT 55 gr Accurate 2015 CCI 400 2.230 24.0 3215
Speer SP 55 gr Reloder 10X CCI 400 2.175 23 3159
Hornady V-Max 55 gr Varget WSR 2.240 27.0 3344
Speer FMJ 62 gr Reloder 15 CCI 400 2.255 25.0 2832
Sierra HPBT 69 gr Reloder 15 Fed 205M 2.26 25.5 2956
Hornady A-Max 75 gr H4895 Fed 205M 2.273 24.5 2861
Swift Scirocco 75 gr Varget Fed 205M 2.270 23.0 2714
Sierra HPBT 77 gr Reloder 15 Fed 205M 2.26 24.1 2783
Sierra MatchKing 90 gr H4895 Fed 205M 2.550 21.7 2600
Sierra MatchKing 90 gr IMR-4064 Fed 205M 2.550 22.4 2600

All load data presented here should be used with caution. Consult a reloading manual and always begin with a reduced load to ensure that they are safe in your particular rifle before proceeding to full power loads. Cheaper Than Dirt! has no control over the quality of the components that you choose, the condition of your rifle, or the actual loadings you use, and therefore assumes no responsibility for your use of data presented here.

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (2)

  • Trigger Puller

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    I load a 55gr hornady Vmax with Varget powder, and CCI 400 primers. I get sub MOA shot groups from a 1:9 16in barrel ed AR-15 with nothing but a 2 stage trigger.

    Reply

  • Accurate .223 | Eyes Never Closed

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    [...] .223 By JP 5.56, on April 27th, 2011 The Shooters Log on CTD posts about getting the best accuracy out of your AR rifle. The handloading part is something I am still working on but my rifle itself is probably more [...]

    Reply

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