.35 Whelen project: the conclusion.

After getting the rifle all together (which you can read about here), all that was left to do was develop a load that would work for hunting…at least that’s what I thought. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that.

It seemed like no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the groups to shrink. I found early success with velocity: using Accurate 2520 I had a Speer 180 grain flat point bullet going almost 3000fps, but the group wasn’t very impressive. Admittedly, I have high standards. Some of the 100 yard groups were edging below two inches, which for deer at under 200 yards is probably adequate. But since I come from a target shooting background where a one inch group is considered a good start, I wasn’t about to settle for adequate. Another reason I pursue small groups in a hunting rifle is that there are already enough things going on in a hunting situation to prevent a perfect shot (like awkward shooting positions, numb fingers, bad light, not to mention “buck fever”) that I’m not going to add questionable accuracy to the pile if I can possible avoid it.

I initially identified two areas that might have been affecting accuracy: rifle bedding, and barrel fouling. Although the stock looked good, the pillar bedding for the rear action screw had some odd cut-outs that left only three small stubs of metal in contact with the action, and they appeared to be getting slightly crushed when the screws were tightened down. I remedied this with my first ever attempt at action bedding. The finished job certainly wasn’t professional, but apart from one medium sized void, I think it came out quite well. The slideshow below shows some images of the process, including shots of the bedding before I tidied it up, and the rear tang area of the stock which I relieved a little bit to reduce contact with the action:

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The barrel fouling I addressed with more aggressive cleaning at shorter intervals.

The first bullets I experimented with were 200gr Hornady round nose, and Speer 180gr flat points. I soon added 225gr Sierra Game Kings to that selection which began to show more promise. The first powders I experimented with were Accurate 2520, and 2230C, but after doing some research I added IMR 4064 to that list. After doing more load tests with the 225gr Sierra Game king with IMR 4064, I was finally getting groups I could live with, but the development showed up another wrinkle. Despite starting out with 55.5 grains of powder and working up to 58 grains, the velocity only increased by about 60 fps. The best groups occurred at both ends of the development ladder, so I decided to just go with the lower charge since the extra powder didn’t appear to bring anything extra to the table. The velocity of the final load was just over 2500 fps.

Early on in the rifle build I was concerned about a potential headspace issue that revealed itself through protruding primers. After rechecking the headspace, I narrowed the problem down to the case dimensions, and determined to limit how much the case shoulders got pushed back the next time I resized. But the undersized brass also resulted in consistently flattened primers throughout the load development irrespective of powder charge, probably caused by the case stretching to fit the chamber and reseating the primer as it went. This denied me an important pressure indicator, and left me reluctant to try chasing any more velocity. So I went hunting with what I had, and never fired a shot. So it goes.

After hunting season, and after cleaning the rifle thoroughly, I took it back to the range to use up the few rounds I had left. I first fired a single shot to check the point of impact from a clean barrel, and then I fired three shots from a kneeling position, braced against a shooting bench. The results were very satisfying:


In hindsight I think the barrel fouling might have slowed down the barrel break in, and it wasn’t until I put plenty of rounds through the barrel, and thoroughly cleaned it a bunch of times as well, before everything came together to my satisfaction.

And that’s where things stand for now, but not where I intend to leave them for long. I have in my cupboard a box of Barnes 200gr TTSX, a solid copper hunting bullet that is popular with other .35 whelen shooters. And a pound of IMR 8208 XBR, which is a relatively new powder that is claimed to be very temperature stable (useful in Minnesota). These two components were used with great success in an article I read recently, so I plan to try it for myself.




Hand loading, a mishap (with no dire consequences), and finding the limits.

Since getting my new rifle I decided I had to measure my chamber so that I could accurately control the bullet jump. For slow fire with 80gr bullets I have been advised to seat the bullet 20-25 thou off the lands for best results.

I have an OAL gauge like the one in this picture:

Hornady OAL guage

This gadget works with a specially modified case that screws on the front and holds the bullet. I also own a bullet comparator which attaches to my caliper to enable me to measure a round from base to ogive instead of base to tip. Bullet tips are not consistent, but the ogive is. I decided to buy a new digital caliper that could be zeroed and give me true measurements. The comparator adds about an inch otherwise and the measurement becomes a bit abstract.

With a little experimenting and a few fails I managed to develop a technique with the gauge that gave me consistent measurements. I had read in one forum that best results could be achieved by tapping the back of the rod lightly with a piece of wood to ensure the bullet is engaged with the rifling. When I tried this my results varied more than I desired (a couple thou each way) so I settled on tapping lightly with the rod itself. This way I managed to achieve variances of less than 1 thou.

I came up with an average of 1.978 inches base to ogive using a Nosler 80gr bullet. The next step should be to subtract the required jump from this number and seat bullets to that depth, however the first time I did this I had a “brain fart” and added 20 thou instead of subtracting. I didn’t realise my mistake until I was on the way to the range. Luckily it is easier to seat bullets deeper than to pull them out and my error had no serious consequences.

In my recent efforts to load more ammunition with the 80gr bullet I have been finding it hard to get a really consistent seating depth. I have the press set up with a quality die but the bullets seating depths are varying from 1.956 – 1.961″ (my base to ogive measurement to achieve a .020″ jump is 1.958″). I don’t know if this is an error in my process, my press and die, or my calipers. I would be interested to hear any opinion on this. I have managed to reduce variation by trying to always use the same pressure and speed on the press arm, but this implies to me there is flex in the press and I didn’t think that would be likely.

A thou here or there is probably not significant in the end, but I am still curious. I know reloading can become an endless (and expensive) pursuit of consistency, the ends some shooters go to in search of accuracy blows my mind.

Reloading for 300m

I have been shooting at the Minneapolis Rifle Club for about a year, most of that being on the 300m range. I have been using my Swing rifle (.308win) with hand loaded ammunition.

The usual format of a 300m competition is 3×20 shot strings + sighters, which when you consider that my handload recipe was intended to keep a 155gr match bullet supersonic at 1000yds, means I have been getting pretty sore.

I have made adjustments to my position and swapped my handstop out for an old smallbore one that was a bit more ergonomic, but I always ended up counting down the rounds till I could put the rifle down. This does not make for accurate shooting.

To counter this I decided to try a new recipe for my 300m shoots. I based it upon the recipe I was given for my hunting ammunition by Charles Young, which he referred to as the ‘Tweed Valley Special’, and since I have achieved half minute groups with it out of my hunting rifle using soft point hunting bullets I thought it could be a good starting point. I have named the new experimental load the ‘300m Special’ for my records.

The hunting recipe requires 40gr of VV-N140 behind a 150gr Hornady interlock, which I seated to 2.80 inches OAL. I tried to seat them out to the same depth as my match ammunition (2.850 inches) but the 150gr soft point is a shorter bullet than the 155gr match and so I was uncomfortable with how little of the bearing surface of the bullet was actually inside the neck of the case.

For my experimental 300m load I simply duplicated this charge with a match bullet (Sierra Match King) seated to my usual match OAL of 2.850 inches.

The day I tried it out the temperature was close to zero Fahrenheit and there was a light snow falling.

I used a full fingered glove since although we shoot from inside a heated building my left hand is usually very close to the small window I shoot through, and my finger tips have in the past gone numb in very cold weather. I also added padding under my shooting mat as it is intended for use on grass and as such has no padding to protect my left elbow which has been getting quite sore. This all helped to improve my comfort.

When I shot the new ammunition I estimated a 5 minute elevation adjustment compared to the previous load, this proved spot on and both my initial sighters were in the 10 ring. The recoil was mild enough that I got through a full 20 shot string without serious discomfort.

The light snow made for a very useful wind indicator, and in my first two strings I recorded very satisfying scores. However in my third string I suffered as a result of the mirage caused by the warm air inside the building meeting the cold air outside, this made it very hard to get a clean sight picture. I don’t know why this only really bothered me in the third string when it must have been present all along.

Nevertheless, at the end of my detail I had the highest score of the prone shooters (there was a second detail to follow and I have yet to see the results so I cannot at this point declare victory), and I was not suffering the effects of strong recoil as I had previously.

The only hesitation I have is that although there were only light winds and I was consistently hitting the 10 ring, my shots were not well grouped. I am aware that although the recipe this load was derived from is very accurate, a different bullet, seating depth, and rifle means nothing is a given and the recipe might need to be tweaked for best performance. In view of this I will be returning to the range in the next couple of weeks to do some load testing under more controlled conditions, and with a borrowed chronograph to measure velocities.

I’m thankful for a 150yd zero.

Back in August I wrote about how the scope on my deer rifle was damaged in transit from the UK (see here for that story), the insurance bought me a new Redfield Revolution 3-9×40 that compared to the original weighs half as much, is much higher quality, and is lacking a lot of useless gimmicks like illuminated reticles and parallax adjustments (not that those things are useless all the time, but for the conditions in which I hunt deer they are not needed).

The deer seasons in the Midwest are usually in October/November time, and although I was keen I was unable to go. I was however invited to shoot at The Compound over Thanksgiving and I decided to use the opportunity to zero the new scope on my deer rifle.

I had already mounted the scope and bore sighted it, but I needed ammunition. I was short of time and so it was tempting to run out and buy some generic factory loads, however I have always shot my own reloads through that rifle and I was unwilling to change that. So in the week before Thanksgiving I rushed around to make it happen.

I was already in possession of powder and primers which I had ordered on the internet. I didn’t want to use my match Lapua cases for hunting in case I lost one, and target bullet heads are inappropriate for hunting, so I had ordered some cheaper Winchester cases and Hornady bullet heads on-line to be delivered to a store. Despite having ordered them more than a month previously they weren’t available for pick-up until the Monday before Thanksgiving and we were leaving Minneapolis to visit Amanda’s family on the Wednesday.

Tuesday afternoon found me driving north out of Minneapolis for the 45 minute drive to Cabela’s in Rodgers Minnesota where my stuff had been delivered. Unfortunately in my distraction I went the wrong way and 45 minutes became a hour and 15, but I made it there and got back okay. After a break for dinner I dug my reloading bench and equipment out of the pile of boxes and packages that contain many of our worldly possessions, and settled down to assemble 50 rounds before bedtime.

*The load I use for hunting is not a scorcher, but it is accurate and has accounted for every one of the seven deer I have taken since I began hunting. I use 40 grains of Vihtavouri N-140 in a full-length sized .308 Win case with a CCI benchrest primer and a 150 grain Hornady BTSP Interlock seated to 2.800 inches. I have used this load on every size of deer from full grown Fallow to the naturally diminutive Muntjac, and in every case the deer was on the ground within a short distance with no unnecessary meat damage.*

At 1.30am I had all my rounds assembled and my kit packed away.

The drive into Wisconsin was unremarkable and Thanksgiving was a relaxing break from my first semester back at school, I did a lot of napping as well as the obligatory eating and drinking.

On Friday Amanda and I drove over to The Compound where we met up with Jim Brey as well as Leslie and Ryan who were also down for the holiday. Ryan had never shot a gun before so Jim was going to give him a go as well.

We set up at my preferred zero distance of 150 yards, this allows me to aim dead on out to 200 yards and thus minimises errors caused by misjudging range. Ryan had a go first and got a credible 4 inch group with a 30-06 rifle, then it was my turn. Jim has a very nice shooting bench with a gun rest that made the whole process very simple.

The author zeroing his .308 rifle at 150 yards

The author zeroing his .308 rifle at 150 yards

My first shots were almost off the bottom of the target and about six inches right, but a few clicks got me towards the middle. I couldn’t quite see the point of impact through the scope so Jim ran me down to the target on the back of his four wheeler (quad bike for my UK readers) and I was able to get it into the middle. We had a short break for me to warm my fingers and Ryan took the opportunity to make some noise with a 9mm. When my fingers were back to operating temperature I shot a final group to see what could be done. I fired one shot into the corner of the target to warm the barrel then I fired three for the group.

The author with his zero target

The author with his zero target

I achieved a 5/8 inch group centre to centre (see pic below), which I thought wasn’t bad for 150 yards. The target was the same one we had been using all day and patching with tape, so it was a bit ratty, but I decided to keep it anyway.

three round group at 150yds

three round group at 150yds