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Mike Thomas

How-To: Handloading Tips for the AR-15

Some tips for reloading AR-15 cartridges
Very good accuracy was achieved in the Colt AR-15s using from left: the Sierra 65-grain GameKing softpoint and the Sierra 69-grain MatchKing hollowpoint.

Handloading for the AR-15 isn't much different than for other rifles. But given it is a semi-automatic, there are some special considerations that must be taken into account when putting together a round.

Raise your firearms IQ with Gun Digest 2018.

Though outside dimensions of 5.56×45 and .223 Remington are the same, there are some important differences for handloaders. Some current handloading manuals show different data for 5.56 and .223, usually with the heavier bullets listed in the 5.56 data. It’s best to obtain at least a couple of “paper” load manuals that contain desired data rather than using data from dubious sources.

Some 5.56 brass is considerably heavier than .223 brass and has less powder capacity. I weighed a number of 5.56 cases and .223 cases. In most instances, the weight difference was negligible.

However, I did find some 5.56 cases that were about 5 percent heavier than other brass. Erring on the side of safety, this would require a slight powder reduction if maximum or near-maximum loads are used.

Many 5.56 cases have primers crimped in place. To seat a new primer, the crimp must be removed. There are a variety of tools available with which this one-time procedure can be performed.

Before I began this project, I asked for advice from longtime Sierra Bullet employee Carroll Pilant. Carroll is an active three-gun competitor and has had much experience with AR-15s and handloading. His first statement with regards to handloading was, “Get a case gauge!”

A case gage is essential when reloading for an AR-15.
A case gauge is a necessity for anyone handloading ammunition for use in an AR-15. If sized cases and loaded ammunition won’t fit a case gauge, it may not function reliably, and brass may stick in the chamber. Different gauges are on the market; the author purchased the JP Enterprises case gauge from Brownells.

There are a number of case gauges on the market. I bought one manufactured by JP Enterprises and found out quickly the importance of such a tool.

My .223 handloads for the Ruger bolt action I’ve been shooting for 25 years wouldn’t come close to functioning reliably in a Colt AR-15. Brass should be sized to the point (usually full-length) where it will easily fit the gauge.

New brass should be no problem, but once-fired cases might be. With once-fired, I full-length size and check every case after sizing using the gauge.

It’s also imperative to check case length at this point and trim as needed. I discard any case that won’t fit the gauge after full-length sizing. Loaded rounds are also spot-checked with the gauge.

After handloading at least 1,500 rounds for my AR-15s, I’ve experienced no cartridge feeding problems and no empty cases have been stuck in chambers. Get a case gauge.

I’ll also mention some nominal points regarding components:

One hundred percent reliable functioning and accuracy are my biggest concerns with regard to my own ammunition. I have not tried any of the bulk full-metal-jacket boattail bullets, usually of 55 grains. Reports on these vary, but it’s probably best to stay with those made by the big, reputable manufacturers.

As mentioned earlier, the 53-grain Sierra MatchKing and several 55-grain varmint bullets from Hornady, Nosler and Sierra all shot with respectable accuracy in the Colt AR-15s. The same can be said for the Sierra 63-grain semi-point, 65-grain GameKing and the 69-grain MatchKing in both plain and “tipped” versions. Hornady 68-grain and 75-grain Match bullets also shot well.

I used four powders, Ramshot’s TAC, and Hodgdon’s CFE223, Benchmark and H4895. Best loads so far include the 65-grain GameKing and 24 grains of H4895 or 24 grains of TAC, and Sierra’s plain (untipped) 69-grain MatchKing with the same powder charges. These loads are near maximum in some published data and powder charges should be reduced for initial load development.

Bullets were seated to just under maximum recommended length of 2.26 inches to assure reliable functioning in magazines. Brass was Remington, and CCI400 small rifle primers were used.

Be sure you know which powders to use when reloading ammunition for an AR-15.
The author used four popular powders for assembling handloads: Hodgdon CFE223, Western Powders’ TAC, Hodgdon H4895 and Hodgdon Benchmark.

Best loads were slightly more accurate than any of the commercial match ammunition I fired, but not by much in some instances. While I was able to shoot some five-shot groups well under 1 inch at 100 yards, I could not do it every time and many groups were 1 inch or larger.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest 2018, 72nd Edition.

Shooting the Snubnose Revolver

Colt and Smith & Wesson snubnose revolvers.

A retired detective reflects on what it really takes to shoot a .38 snubnose revolver.

A speedloader, shown here with a Colt Cobra, requires practice to use skillfully. It also adds bulk and may be difficult to conceal.
A speedloader, shown here with a Colt Cobra, requires practice to use skillfully. It also adds bulk and may be difficult to conceal.

Unfortunately, an inexperienced shooter often buys a snubnose as a first handgun, a decision that is usually a mistake. For several reasons these guns are best utilized by experienced handgunners. The small size, low weight and very short sight radius serve to amplify a shooter’s lack of skill. This often leads to an unfair evaluation of the snubnose as being inaccurate. A larger, heavier revolver is more forgiving in terms of an inconsistent grip, less-than-perfect trigger control, recoil and recovery from the same. Also, the greater distance between front and rear sights allows for slight errors in sighting that affect a bullet’s point of impact far less than with a 2-inch barrel.

A ruler and a postage scale indicate there is not a great deal of difference between the Colt Detective Special and the Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special. However, the fingers, hands and extended arms of many shooters indicate otherwise. Colt stocks (call them “grips” if you wish) are somewhat larger than the more compact and more easily concealed round-butted J-frame stocks. Many find the Colt’s to be more comfortable for shooting. For years, S&W marketed an optional square grip frame on the Chiefs Special for this reason. Some aftermarket stocks were made large; a Chief so equipped was easier to shoot but more difficult to conceal.

Snubnose revolvers have considerably more recoil than their larger and heavier counterparts. However, it is tolerable, particularly in the all-steel guns, and with standard pressure ammunition rather than +P cartridges. The lightweight models are, of course, less comfortable to shoot. Double-action trigger pulls are fairly heavy, but can be well managed with practice. Some shooters make the mistake of trying to fire too many rounds during one trip to the range. Any shooting after fatigue sets in is a waste of time and ammunition, and snubnose .38s provide a shooting workout; they are not plinking guns. One box of ammunition expended per session is plenty.

Regarding ammunition, the choice for use in a snubnose .38 is a bit more critical than it would be for a larger revolver. Sights are reportedly regulated for heavier bullets at standard velocity. I’ve found this to be roughly true, mostly at distances of 15 to 25 yards. Many snubnose guns shoot the popular lighter bullets (110-125 grains) low, often six to eight inches low at 15 to 25 yards. For defensive use that may be tolerably close, but ultimately that’s a decision for the shooter. At very close ranges, however, it’s of little consequence.

While their usefulness  is debatable, some  shooters prefer grip adapters  as depicted here on a Smith & Wesson Model 60. Since the installation is on the inside of the frame, added bulk is minimal.
While their usefulness is debatable, some shooters prefer grip adapters as depicted here on a Smith & Wesson Model 60. Since the installation is on the inside of the frame, added bulk is minimal.

The argument with respect to the use or non-use of +P ammunition in snubnose .38s will likely go on forever. Most self-anointed Internet “authorities” should be considered unreliable sources. The best suggestion for one advocating the use of +P in a particular revolver is to simply contact the gun manufacturer to find out if the product is rated for such ammo. Velocity suffers in short-barrel firearms and sometimes the difference between standard-pressure loads and +P is not as great as some would like to believe. Also, whether +P or not, many hollowpoint bullets cannot be depended upon to reliably expand at modest velocities.

While not often mentioned, it would be a wise move to select at least three or four commercial loadings for evaluation. Shoot at 15 and 25 yards and stick with whatever provides the best combination of accuracy, closeness of point of bullet impact vs. point of aim and acceptable recoil. A secondary consideration should be +P or standard. It’s better to hit with standard-pressure ammunition than to miss with +P.

Other important factors sometimes ignored are muzzle flash and fast recovery from recoil. Snubnose guns can produce considerable muzzle flash, which can often go unnoticed except in very low light situations. The flash, coupled with recoil can hinder recovery for subsequent shots. Some ammunition makers advertise products that produce less recoil and lower muzzle flash. These would certainly merit consideration when making selections.

As for shooting practice with a snubnose revolver, some advocate practicing at very close distances simply because, “It’s a snubnose and you can’t hit anything with one anyway.” There is little or no benefit in practicing at three, seven or 10 yards. Granted, most defensive shooting incidents occur at very close range, but shooting targets at such distances does little to improve one’s shooting skills. It does, however, serve to hide a shooter’s shortcomings. At 15 and 25 yards one’s deficiencies become blatantly evident. Learning to shoot and practicing at the longer ranges eliminates the need for practice at shorter distances, other than to check point of impact vs. point of aim.

The snubnose revolver’s small size and short sight radius do not lend themselves to target-grade accuracy, but with practice reasonable groups are attainable, and are accurate enough for the gun’s intended purpose.
The snubnose revolver’s small size and short sight radius do not lend themselves to target-grade accuracy, but with practice reasonable groups are attainable, and are accurate enough for the gun’s intended purpose.

Laser grips, night sights, fast reload devices and other gadgetry can be found useful to varying degrees, but like the snubnose .38s, such accessories are not for beginners. A wise decision would be to expend available funds on ammunition and range practice to the point that shooting basics become ingrained. If a burning desire for aftermarket gizmos goes unquenched after shooting skills are mastered, only then should optional equipment be considered. This approach works out much better than the other way around. Regardless of the ads and sales gimmicks that serve to sell merchandise, none of the products being hawked will transform an inexperienced handgunner into a proficient one.

Depending on one’s needs a holster may or may not be a necessary acquisition. However, a holster may be required for a concealed carry qualification course. A big advantage of a snubnose .38 is the fact that it can easily be carried concealed on a person without the use of a holster and instead in a coat pocket, waistband, etc. Of course, some may not “carry” a gun at all, instead preferring to have one within reach.

I was a vice detective for many years. Such an assignment was (and probably remains) 100 percent undercover work. A handgun not only had to be small, but well concealed to the point that the carrier could pass a cursory (fortunately sloppy!) pat-down search by some street hustler. Holsters are of little use for such duty. I tried an ankle holster briefly but found it worthless due to pain from prolonged wear.

Most of the time I carried a 2-inch Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special as it came from the box. A brief trial with aftermarket rubber grips may have made the gun a bit easier to qualify with, but added to overall bulk. With no regret, I replaced them with the original tiny S&W wood stocks.

What about grip adapters? While these items have enjoyed a renewed popularity in recent times, I question whether it’s from actual usefulness or simply a fad. They do add an appealing look to many revolvers and there are claims that they provide a better grip. That may be true for some shooters. My experience with grip adapters has been on J-frame S&W revolvers only and my conclusion is one of indifference. However, since they are on the inner frame area (rather than the outer), they add almost nothing to the overall bulk of a revolver.

Never did I feel undergunned or find a snubnose Chief lacking in any way. Most of the detectives I worked with were similarly armed, though a few carried Colt snubnose guns. I’m unaware of any shooting incidents involving vice detectives where bad guys got up and ran off after being struck by anemic bullets fired from short-barrel .38 Special revolvers.

Speedloading devices have been around for years. Some like them; others can’t see a need. Depending on several factors, they are often too bulky for adequate concealment. In my experience, the time and effort required for familiarization and practice with such implements is about the same as that necessary to master fast manual loading.

This is the current production Smith & Wesson Model 638 Bodyguard Airweight Stainless, rated for +P ammunition.
This is the current production Smith & Wesson Model 638 Bodyguard Airweight Stainless, rated for +P ammunition.

Glow-in-the-dark “night sights” and laser grips may have a place in the specialized niche of snubnose .38s if used by experienced handgunners. Mistakenly, like the unskilled rifleman who thinks a light trigger pull and a high magnification scope will offset his shortcomings, revolver sighting contraptions are not learning tools. It’s also important for a shooter to remember that reliance on any device requiring battery power to function can easily become a liability at the worst possible moment. Again, money for such items, especially for the beginner, is far better spent on ammunition and learning to shoot well.

While I am a snubnose .38 enthusiast and have had long experience with them, I sincerely hope that no one has been led to believe that the small-frame Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers are the best choice for any situation requiring a handgun. Far from it. These guns are specialized tools and are perfectly adequate for their designed purpose. Despite technological advances over many years, the usefulness of the small-frame snubnose .38 is no less now than it was generations ago.

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This article is excerpted from Gun Digest 2015. To get your copy click here.