Reloading: The Endless Chase For Velocity

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The author’s Heym Express by Martini in .404 Jeffery gives excellent accuracy with handloaded ammunition.
The author’s Heym Express by Martini in .404 Jeffery gives excellent accuracy with handloaded ammunition.

Chasing velocity while maintaining accuracy is a maddening quest, one that requires the willingness to experiment and be flexible with expectations.

What You Need To Consider When Pursuing High Handload Velocities:

  • Even if top velocity isn't your No. 1 goal, a good chronograph is important to develop a full understanding of your handloads.
  • Be willing to experiment with your primer, bullet and powder choice to find the proper velocity formula.
  • Understand that not every rifle is configured for top-end velocity and you might not beat advertised factory velocities wit your particular make/model.
  • Aim for a sweet spot between accuracy and velocity.

Velocity, like all the parameters of reloading ammunition, can be a maddening thing. Those who don’t reload won’t understand the utter frustration of following the reloading manual’s “recipe” to the letter, heading to the range and seeing more-than-acceptable accuracy on the target … only to be confronted with those disappointing numbers on the chronograph.

Then, there are those who chase maximum velocity as if it were a lusty cheerleader on prom night. I’ve seen folks who will happily accept a screaming-hot load that prints 2 MOA, simply delighted with the velocity figures. Me? I tend to prefer an acceptable velocity, with the emphasis on accuracy—although I’m willing to compromise.

Allow me to be completely honest here: I am a hunter first and foremost and a target shooter second. Here, in New York, we don’t have a whole lot of places with the capability of 1,000-yard-or-longer shots. Consequently, much of my shooting/testing as a writer is done inside of 300 yards, simply because I’m confined by vegetation, terrain and property size.

Finding a Balance

When I get the chance to stretch things out, I do truly enjoy it. Target shooting is fun, and a rifle/scope/cartridge setup for that purpose is certainly intriguing.

But, as a hunter, I keep my shots at unwounded animals inside of 400 yards. This is a self-imposed limit, because I know myself, and I’ve spent enough time shooting in various hunting conditions to know my own limitations. My trajectory is barely affected by a 50- to 75-fps velocity drop within 400 yards, so I’m not crushed when I see a lower number on the chronograph.

My handloads usually end up a balance of sensible velocity and shootability. Or, perhaps I should say I’m more concerned with the ability to put my bullet where it needs to be than with squeezing out the last bit of velocity or trying in vain to match the velocities the test data produced with a 30-inch barrel in my 24-inch sporter.


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Sometimes, I can match the advertised factory velocities; other times, I beat the factory figures. But more often than not—probably due to the fact that we are all using canister-grade powders—my stuff ends up moving a bit below the published velocities … and that’s okay with me.

The .308 Winchester

The first cartridge I seriously reloaded for was the .308 Winchester. Traditionally, it’s a forgiving cartridge, capable of fine accuracy. To this day, I feel a reloader should start with a cartridge such as this, because it can bolster confidence and “set the hook” for a lifetime of reloading.

This was not exactly the case with my own .308 Winchester, because my Ruger 77 MKII proved to be a finicky rifle. I went a bit crazy trying to find a 165-grain load with the Sierra GameKing hollowpoint that would group inside 1½ MOA but finally found it right on the edge of pressure signs.

While plenty accurate, this factory 7mm load just didn’t give the velocities the cartridge was capable of producing.
While plenty accurate, this factory 7mm load just didn’t give the velocities the cartridge was capable of producing.

Pushing that bullet to slightly more than 2,700 fps, it’s not quite as fast as the Hornady Superformance and similar enhanced loads, but it is just on the cusp of difficult extraction and flattened primers in my rifle. The stout load of IMR4064 gives ¾-inch groups at 100 yards, and that load has accounted for quite a bit of New York venison. I would have been just fine if the velocity had been 2,600 fps or even a little slower. But, alas, the hotter load gave the accuracy.

The 7mm Remington Magnum

Loading for a 7mm Remington Magnum and using 175-grain Nosler Partition bullets, I developed a load that gave excellent accuracy: five shots in just over ½ MOA. Imagine the disappointment when the chronograph showed that these bullets were moving at a bit more than 2,500 fps. In spite of the excellent accuracy, that seriously low velocity (factory loads for this cartridge/bullet weight combo usually run about 2,850 fps) would have an adverse effect on both trajectory and striking energy, so my IMR4350 load had to be abandoned.

Happily, I was able to reproduce the accuracy using Reloder 23, with very consistent muzzle velocities averaging 2,815 fps. The load showed no high-pressure signs; and, because Reloder 23 is insensitive to temperature changes, it will work well in the heat of Africa or on the tundra in pursuit of caribou.

The .404 Jeffery

The .404 Jeffery—one of my favorite big-bore cartridges—was traditionally loaded with a 400-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,150 fps. Modern loads bring that muzzle velocity up to 2,350 fps, bringing the .404 Jeffery into the same class as the .416 Rigby and Remington factory loads.

When I started load development for my Heym Express, I first evaluated how the rifle liked factory loads. I found the accuracy with most 400-grain loads was acceptable, but I wanted to use the 400-grain Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized solids, so I’d need to handload them.

I looked through the reloading manuals and found a bunch of differing data. With 400-grain bullets, both monometal and lead core, and Alliant’s Reloder 15 powder, some books listed 74.0 grains as the maximum load, while others listed as much as 83.0 grains as maximum, yielding more than 2,400 fps.

I worked up, in 1-grain increments, from 72.0 grains to 80.0, which is where the Heym gave me the MOA accuracy I was after. The Oehler 35P showed a muzzle velocity of 2,280 fps, coinciding perfectly with the test data in the Woodleigh reloading manual, and that velocity worked out just fine for me: It was easy on the shoulder and quite effective on the business end. Did I hit the 5,000 ft-lbs of energy benchmark? No (but please don’t tell the elephant or buffalo about that).

The .470 NE Double Rifle

In my .470 NE double rifle—which was regulated by the Heym factory with Hornady factory ammunition at 2,150 fps—I needed to match a particular velocity in order to duplicate the accuracy. Trying different factory loads showed me just how velocity variations affected the accuracy of a double rifle.

For example, Federal’s factory load, with the 500-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, proved to be very consistent in my rifle but was running at an average velocity of 2,251 fps and impacting about 3 inches high and nearly that much to the left. I could have adjusted the sights, but I opted to handload for the big gun. I did match the regulation velocity with a load of 88.0 grains of Reloder 15 and a Kynoch foam wad. That formula works with several different projectiles and has taken numerous Cape buffalo.

Find a Good Chronometer

A good chronograph is a necessity for the serious handloader, whether it’s for a handgun load, hunting guns or target rifles. I like the Oehler 35P chronograph, although there are other models that give reliable performance (for instance, many guys sing the praises of the LabRadar system, using Doppler radar). For the long-range shooter, knowing the muzzle velocity is as important as knowing the BC of your bullet; and even with those two pieces of information, corrections will need to be made to the projected trajectory.

Accuracy/Velocity Compromise

What’s the remedy for a rifle or handgun that gives its most accurate performance at a lower velocity? My only suggestion is to try until you find something you can live with. Just as some barrels give lower velocities with factory ammo, it can, and does, happen with handloaded ammo as well.

The accuracy of the 6.5-284 Norma is more than desirable, yet the velocities are about 200 fps lower than what is attainable.
The accuracy of the 6.5-284 Norma is more than desirable, yet the velocities are about 200 fps lower than what is attainable.

I have a 6.5-284 Norma in a Savage Custom Shop Model 116 that’s absolutely lights-out accurate. However, that occurs at velocities more often associated with the 6.5 Creedmoor. I have several hunting loads that still print under 1 MOA, but I have yet to find the load as accurate as the slow one at proper 6.5-284 velocities.

Nevertheless, I’m not giving up either; I know that accuracy/velocity combination is out there somewhere.

It’s certainly disappointing to buy a .300 Winchester Magnum and see .30-’06 Springfield velocities—just as it can be frustrating to try to push a .308 Winchester to magnum velocities. Try different primers to see the effect on velocity and accuracy; switch the brand/type of bullet; and/or change up the powder choice.

Be a bit flexible in your expectations, realize that not every rifle will deliver the perfect blend of velocity and accuracy, but be diligent in your development. I’ll wager you’ll end up happy with your chosen rig.

The article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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1 COMMENT

  1. I think new powders will likely be the best answer to SAFER higher velocities. Propellant manufacturers have to also meet the demand for temperature stable powders as well. A tall order to fulfill both of these requirements.

    Bullet makers have already given us much more aerodynamic and better weight balanced bullets to take advantage of new powders.
    New cases that can take higher pressures, like SIG’s hybrid steel/brass 6.8 case are also coming along. SO perhaps we can raise pressures a bit as cases are the weakest link in the pressure arena.

    But it’s not just the civilian market that wants all this. The militaries around the world also want “something for nothing” in these terms. The “nothing” being no overly high pressures, no fouling and no temperature sensitivity. That’s a lot of “nothing”.
    Eric B.

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