.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:

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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.

 

 

 

A “pressing” need

I don’t quite remember which year I started reloading, somewhere between 2006-2008 probably. I bought a kit from someone at my club in Glasgow, it was made by Lee, and it was a great way to start what has become a big part of my shooting life. 

Since then I have replaced nearly every part of the original kit, including the powder thrower (I now have one by RCBS), and the balance scale (Redding). And each of these purchases has inspired the same internal conversation: 

Me: I think I need a new *reloading gadget*!

Also me: why? You have one and it’s not broken.

Me: yeah, but it’s kind of frustrating to use, and I think this other *reloading gadget* will work better.

Also me: I think it’s a waste of money.

Me: possibly, but I’m a grown ass adult and I can waste money on my hobbies if I want to.

Also me: fine, but what about your pension…

Me: …sod off.

These conversations are useful for restraining my wilder impulses, and that’s no bad thing, but it also makes me slow to upgrade when I actually need to, as I recently became aware.

I have discovered an issue with my press (at least I believe the problem lies there), which is the one part of my kit I never got round to replacing. It is a Lee challenger press (I think), which is an ‘O’ frame single stage press, but compared to many of that type it is pretty diminutive. And while it has worked very well for me up till now, an issue has started to crop up.

The issue actually first appeared (or I first noticed it) when I was resizing a bunch of .223 rem brass. I had installed the die as the instructions suggest-screw it down till it touches the shell holder, then a quarter turn more-but after I had been working for a while I noticed a gap between the die and the shell holder when the ram was at the top, mid resize. When I tried raising the ram without a case the gap vanished and everything appeared as it was when I started. I checked the die, and it had not loosened. In this instance I resolved the issue by screwing the die down a bit further, but despite the simple fix the issue concerned me.

The problem returned the other day when I was resizing some .30-06 brass into .35 Whelen. I had noticed some protruding primers on some of the first .35 Whelen loads I fired, and after confirming that the rifle’s chamber did not have excessive headspace, determined that the case shoulder was getting pushed too far back by the die. In order to correct this I tried using a feeler gauge to position the die with a specific gap to the shell holder, intending to resize a case, test it in the rifle, and adjust the die again until I was pushing the shoulder back just enough to chamber. This would also leave me with a known gap I could accurately reproduce in future.

Unfortunately, when I raised the ram with a case installed, the gap miraculously expanded…and I was frustrated. After adjusting the die down, and down, and down again-testing the cases in the rifle each time until they fit the chamber just right-there was almost no measurable gap at all, and my hopes of a reproducible set up had faded to almost nothing.

My theory is that something in the press is flexing, or compressing (or something), but only when under the pressure of resizing.

This does not make me happy.

There are enough variables in the process of reloading as it is, I don’t need an extra mystery variable showing up at random, especially one that can’t be accurately measured or predicted.

For a good while now I have been receiving catalogues in the mail that include reloading equipment. Among the goodies on offer are reloading presses, but since I knew I didn’t need anything more than a single stage press, and also since I assumed that one “O” frame press is as good as another, the debate with “also me” always went in favour of my pension. Now that I have decided that my assumption was wrong, the final debate ended very differently.

Which brings us to this:

This is an RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme, which I picked up at cabelas last night. I had originally intended to get it on Sunday, but I was so convinced by my own logic (okay, just excited) that I decided not to wait.

It is in an entirely different class to the Lee it is replacing, it is beefier, smoother, and there is less play in the parts. As well as resolving the afore mentioned issue, I am hoping this will help me achieve a touch more consistency in my reloads.

Having decided to get a new press, I had briefly looked into the possibilities of turret presses, and progressives, but none of them really suit what I’m doing. 

I have been casting curious glances at the Rock Chucker for a while, but since until now I didn’t need a new press, I avoided thinking about it too seriously. However, as soon as I decided to bite the bullet and get a new press, the “Chucker” quickly leaped to the top of my list. 

Various things contributed to my decision: it was already discounted, RCBS are running a rebate scheme that I hope will give me at least $20 back, and for a bonus Cabelas (whose price was the same as on Amazon, impressive!) were offering $25 off my first purchase if I opened an account, so I did (I didn’t know that till I got there, which is why it was a bonus). With all the discounts applied I think the press will have cost me under $100, which makes my elaborate justification even less worthy of close scrutiny.

So all in all I think my conscience is clear, my pension is fine, and my reloading bench looks the business. 

Now if I can just find the time to use it…

.35 Whelen project

Last time I reported on this subject I was waiting for after hunting season to find a bargain rifle that could supply the action for my build. I went to some pawn shops, and did a bunch of looking online, and I was about to settle for a rifle for sale through the Gander Mountain website, when I decided at the last minute to stop into the actual store and see what they actually had on the shelf. And to my surprise there was a Stevens 200 in .30-06 on the shelf for $250, a good bit cheaper than the one online, so I bought it.

The stock was a cheap plastic one that I couldn’t have used if I wanted to because the barrel channel was too small, but I didn’t want to because it was cheap and nasty. When I first saw the rifle I thought it had touches of rust all over it, but when I came back after the now standard wait for the background check to clear, I found out it was just red fuzz stuck to oily spots. It must have lived in a red fuzz lined case in a previous life. When I took it apart at home and gave it a wipe down, it turned out to be in much better condition than I expected.

The next step was to switch out the barrel. The barrel on a Savage 110/Stevens 200 (same gun different name) is attached with a lock nut that allows for simple changes. My new barrel came with a set of headspace gauges and a wrench to deal with the lock nut. The old barrel was a bit tricky to remove, but after a few false starts and rethinks it eventually came off. Here is a picture I took just after the barrel came off.

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You can see the lock nut still on the barrel, and the action on the stool. The new barrel went on easily after that and it only took a few attempts to get the headspace spot on.

When I installed a sight base I discovered that the recoil lug, which sits between the action and the lock nut, was slightly high and so prevented the sight base from fitting properly. So I trimmed the base down and chamfered the edge and it fit.

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I stuck it to the action with red Loctite so it will never move again.

I decided to go for a synthetic stock and was about to drop some dough on one made by Hogue, until I did a quick search on Amazon and found a slightly used one for half the price. The colour wasn’t exactly my first choice, but the price was right, so I won’t complain. It came with nice fat recoil pad that will come in useful. Here is a photo of the project so far.

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The stock is covered in a rubber material which makes it nice and grippy.

George also gave me a supply of really old .30-06 brass that I had to anneal before I could expand the necks to .35. I built a special tool out of an old electric screwdriver that turns the brass in the flame of my burner to get an even heat.

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I annealed 100 cases and expanded the necks, then loaded up some ammo. I made one with a 170gr .357 pistol bullet and a small charge of fast burning powder for plinking. It’s a really fun load with almost no recoil.

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I also made a load with 200gr Hornady round nose and a proper charge of a slower burning powder.

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Then I mounted a scope and took it out to shoot.

The recoil isn’t as bad as I thought it might be, but it looks like it will need some work to find a good load. It grouped about four inches at 100 yards the first time I shot it, and when I shot it at 300 yards on the electronic targets it was only just keeping them on the paper. But the charge was just a starting load, and the round nose bullets are pretty poor ballistically, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The rifle is really fun to shoot and with the synthetic stock it’s pretty light too. I think it will make an excellent hunting rifle and I’m looking forward to getting the loads figured out so I can take it hunting in November.

Here is a video of my first shot with the rifle. I was shooting the reduced load so that’s why there’s very little recoil. I was slightly nervous because I’ve never built a rifle myself before, but it all went well as you can see.

One thing that turned up after shooting the rifle is that the fired cases have slightly protruding primers. After I double checked that the headspace was still good and asked around, it was determined that the resizing die might be pushing the case shoulder back too much. I will adjust the position of the die next time I use it to see if I can resolve the issue.

Hi-power update

I have been participating in a “winter league” since the end of last year, but despite the name it is not a competition. I have attended most of the dates and I feel like I am making steady progress. Because of the typical Minnesota temperatures at this time of year we shoot at electronic targets from the heated 300m shooting house.

I have mostly been practicing 3 position (it’s not called that, but I forget its actual name), which involves shooting offhand (standing slow fire), sitting (crossed legs, rapid fire), and prone (both rapid and slow fire).

The standing is pretty new to me, but I think I am getting the hang of it slowly. This last weekend more of my shots were inside the 8 ring than outside, and only one missed the scoring area entirely. I even hit the 10 ring a couple of times.

Sitting is in some ways more of a struggle for me. The position is basically sitting with crossed legs and elbows on the knees. In order to get the right support I have to tuck my feet right back under my thighs which puts a lot of pressure on my ankles. I then need to hunch down over the rifle in order to be able to see through the sights. I can’t wear my shooting glasses in this position as there isn’t room for them between my face and the rear sight. In that position I have to shoot ten rounds with one magazine change within the specified time limit, which I can’t remember right now but is something like 60 or 70 seconds.

I am not very flexible and find it hard to curl up into the required position. On the days where I find the position and can hold it long enough to shoot the string, I usually hit toward the center of the target, although more often than not my shots drop down to 4 o’clock. It may have something to do with the cant I sometimes get on the rifle, but I’m not really sure. This weekend I shot one string that hit at 4 o’clock. I decided to shoot a second string and my shots were mostly in the ten ring until I had a malfunction which I couldn’t clear before the time ran out. I trimmed down my rifle’s ejector spring a while ago to keep my spent brass from leaving the state, but I trimmed it too much and occasionally a case doesn’t eject all the way and masses things up. I have a replacement spring to put in, but I keep forgetting to sit down and do it.

Prone is understandably my best position, and I usually do well. This weekend I had my best scores for a while with a 98-4x in the rapid and 198-9x in the slow fire. Pictures below. I forgot to print more scorecards, so the slow fire detail is recorded on a rapid fire card.

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Prone rapid fire-January 30th 2016

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Prone slow fire-January 30th 2016

I was quite pleased with the slow fire detail as I was using a relatively new load (24.5gr AA2520 with a Nosler 80gr HPBT). I had tried it with 24.3gr of powder, but had inconsistent results so I bumped it up a touch and it looks like it worked.

My goals for the future are to improve my offhand and sitting by practicing the positions at home in order to develop my muscle memory. I also just need to shoot more. I could also use to lose a little weight (or move it elsewhere on my body), because my jacket is getting a little tight around the middle and I don’t even want to thin about replacing that. Replacing a few beers every month with G&Ts would probably make all the difference.

My latest 3D printed butt stock is working out well with just a couple of small changes that need to be made. More details of that will come in a separate post. I have also designed and made a 3D printed hand stop with the hope of replacing the one I was using, which is on loan from a friend. I used it this weekend without issue, so things are looking good on that front.

More to come…

Happy New Year

I didn’t intend to take this long to write another post, but things get in the way. Since I graduated from my Masters degree in May I have been getting used to my new employment situation. I am now working at a gallery in a temp position that doesn’t employ me all the time, and doing some freelance writing. The freelance writing is a new thing and I will admit I never expected to be in a position where I got paid for my writing, but I am and I’m enjoying it quite a lot. It is the perfect other job for my gallery work as it doesn’t conflict and it also keeps my brain turning when it might otherwise fall into disrepair.

On to the shooting:

In November I went hunting for the second time since I arrived in the USA, and prior to the season opener I managed to try out two variations of my new load (45gr AA2520 in a Lake City LR case with a Hornady 165gr BTSP @2.800 OAL). One involved the same load but in a Winchester case, and the second was with a 2.850 OAL. Neither appeared to make a significant difference so I decided to leave it as it was.

I learned a few lessons this year (always nice), but unfortunately I didn’t get a shot at a deer. There was a deer I could have taken a shot at, but elected not to. More about that later.

The weather was pretty warm, a lot warmer than last year, which was both a good and a bad thing. It was good because I wasn’t freezing sitting in the stand, but it was bad because accepted wisdom has it that deer move around more in cold weather. The hunting season being what it is though I have no flexibility to wait for colder weather, so I decided to just accept it and enjoy feeling my toes.

Jason the night before opening day.

Jason the night before opening day.

I had been hoping to make it up to the property before the season started to scout and pick a place to hunt from, but it never happened and I arrived at the cabin the night before the first day without having seen the place in daylight. That night it was just myself with Amber and Jason, and it was fun to hang out, but I think I drank too much. The next morning when I left the cabin at 6am I was feeling a little hungover, and without having seen the land it took me longer to find a spot than I wanted, and it wasn’t till after the sun came up that I was settled in and hunting. I had initially wanted to hunt from the ground and set out with that intention, but after I had found a spot and sat down and the light started to come up, I realised that my view was almost completely blocked by brush. I soon realised that I wouldn’t get a clear shot unless a deer wandered within 20 yards of me, so I reluctantly got up and made my way to an open stand.

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Early morning view from the stand.

I didn’t see anything that morning, but Amber shot her first deer not long after the sun came up. It was a clean shot at a young buck from around 70 yards. That evening I went to a stand further onto the property, and right around last light I saw a deer. When I spotted it it was on the edge of a dense patch of trees about 60 yards away and walking away from me. I could have made the shot, but after a moments thought I elected not to. In the failing light and at the awkward angle the deer presented I decided the chances of a bad shot were too great. Even a well shot deer will run, and a badly shot deer will run a lot further. I didn’t want to risk wounding the deer and losing it in the woods.

I didn’t see anything the next morning, and Amber had to leave at lunch time, so on the Sunday evening it was just me and Jason. Once again I didn’t see anything, and as the light started to fail I stopped looking. I was quite tired and looking forward to getting home, and I didn’t want to delay that by chasing a deer around. I was just getting ready to pack up and leave the stand when I heard a couple of gunshots from the other end of the property, where Jason was hunting. Then I got a text “I need your help”.

Jason had taken a shot at a deer in the failing light and it had run. There was a scant blood trail which we followed for a while before it disappeared. It took a couple of hours but we eventually came across the deer by searching in the direction that it appeared to be heading based on the last blood we found. All’s well that ends well.

I hadn’t planned to hunt the second weekend as Neither Amber or Jason could make it, but at the last minute I changed my mind and decided to hunt. It was just me with Amber’s uncle Rick and his friend Larry. They were very entertaining and I had a good time. I did see a couple of deer the second weekend, although I couldn’t get a shot. I was sitting quietly in a stand when they appeared out of some trees to my left, one was a doe that I didn’t have a tag for, and I couldn’t get a good look at the second one to see if it was a buck. Then they disappeared walking away from me, and that was the last I saw.

Another beautiful day.

Another beautiful day.

 

I elected not to hunt the last weekend, and although Amber and Jason did neither of them saw anything. So that was that-but like I said at the beginning, I did learn a couple of lessons. First: I need to scout the property. I felt almost blind because I had no idea where the deer paths were. I was sitting in stands and guessing which way to face, and in the case of the deer I saw the first weekend I’m pretty sure it came from behind me. If I had had a chance to look for deer tracks ahead of time, I might have been facing the right way and seen it as it passed. The second lesson I learnt was: Sit Still. Up till now I have spent quite a lot of my time in the stand looking through my binoculars and panning back and forth, but I think I underestimated how good deer are at spotting movement. In future I will sit still and use my binoculars less. Patience is a virtue. The third lesson I took away with me was: Don’t reheat a frozen dinner in a pyrex dish on the stove top! The dish will probably explode and leave you eating food seasoned with glass. I still tasted good though.

New Powder.

Since I started loading for .223 I have been using my supply of Vihtavouri N-140 to push the bullets down the barrel. This is all well and good for the 300yd & 300m slow fire details with 80gr bullets, but when I am shooting rapid fire strings it seems unnecessary to use such an expensive powder.

Accurate 2520 8lb jug

Accurate 2520 8lb jug

I have now acquired an 8lb jug of Accurate 2520, a much more economical powder (made in the USA rather than Finland) which has turned out to have other advantages.

The most significant difference between N-140 and A2520 is its shape. N-140 is an extruded powder whereas A2520 is ball.

Ball powder

Ball powder

The down-side to this is that it burns slightly dirtier than N-140, but the up-side is it meters much more consistently. In fact it meters so consistently through my new powder measure that I have stopped weighing every charge; which speeds up the reloading process wonderfully.

Once I got my powder measure dialed in, it consistently metered within a 20th of a grain either side of my target weight. Which is close enough for rapid fire and offhand (standing), and probably slow fire prone as well.

Powder scale

Powder scale

Loads made with A2520 appear to have a similar point of impact to my previous loads made with N-140 and they cycle through my rifle without any issue. There are no signs of pressure issues so far, in fact the primer was barely flattened so I could probably bump up the charge a little if I felt like it.

Anyway, so far I’m pretty pleased with it. I will be trying it with 80gr bullets for slow fire soon, then I will be able to better see how it compares to the N-140.

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.