For almost a half-century I fervently believed that I could load a better cartridge than I could buy. For some of that time it was probably true, but today I’m not so sure. Factory ammo has gotten awfully good! Today, in good rifles with loads that they like, it isn’t unusual to see Minute of Angle groups with factory ammo—and in recent years I’ve seen a surprising number of groups that push the half-inch and, occasionally, the quarter-inch mark. But innovations in factory ammo aren’t just about accuracy (which means, generally, consistency and good components). Let’s look at some interesting new options.
Stabilized Ammo From Australia
Slight velocity variances (and resultant changes in energies and trajectory curves) probably mean less than we think to game animals, and almost nothing in terms of bullet strike at moderate shooting distances on large animals. As distance increases or targets get smaller, of course, everything starts to matter! It’s no secret that velocity usually varies according to temperature. You can guesstimate the change at perhaps one-half to one MOA per 20 degrees, with the bullet strike going down when it’s colder (less velocity) and up when it’s higher (more velocity).
Okay, but how to you figure that? Let’s say you zeroed your rifle in the Upper Midwest on a balmy February day, 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Then you went on safari in Central Africa, where daytime temps ranged from 80 to the low 100s. That’s a difference of 60 to 80 degrees. With the rule of thumb applied, your bullets should strike 1.5 to 4 MOA higher in Africa. That’s only 1.5 to 4 inches at 100 yards…but at 300 yards that’s 4.5 to 12 inches! That is an extreme case, but radical temperature swings aren’t uncommon in many parts of the world. In Central California, where I spend much of my time, a 50-degree difference between dawn and noon isn’t unusual. Likewise winter in southern Africa, where you must layer against early morning frost and strip down to enjoy 85-degree sunshine by late morning.
Propellants and cartridges differ in the exact shift as temperature changes, so it’s pretty hard to figure. The good news is the difference probably isn’t enough to cause a miss on a large animal at normal range. The bad news is it can easily cause a miss on a small animal, whether a prairie dog or a steenbok, and at genuine long range can surely cause a miss on anything. Better news is “stabilized” ammo from Australia. The line is called “Australian Outback,” manufactured by ADI Munitions Ltd. Pty, trading as Australian Munitions and manufactured in Australia’s southernmost state of Victoria.
Australian Outback ammo uses propellants that are extremely stable across a broad temperature spectrum, translating to minimal velocity changes and minimal point of impact changes from below freezing to burning hot. Yeah, I know, this sounds pretty weird and, once you understand the “rules,” it goes against everything we think we know. So I didn’t take their word for it. I put some ammo in the freezer, both Australian Outback and some “standard” loads for comparison, left it there overnight, and kept it on ice until actually shooting. Rather than just using ambient temperature for heat I wanted to replicate one of the big “no-nos”: Putting ammo on the dashboard in full sunlight. I didn’t specifically have a way to measure the heat, but using a hair dryer we heated some cartridges until they were almost too hot to touch.
I’m pretty sure we created a temperature difference of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit between our frozen and heated cartridges. The Oehler chronograph then told the tale: “Standard” loads varied from about 40 to over 100 fps from cold to hot. The Australian Outback ammo in .308 Winchester varied by just 5 feet per second. The cold loads (168-grain Sierra Match King, 20-inch barrel) averaged 2694 feet per second. The hot loads averaged 2699, and “room temperature loads” were right in the middle at 2697 fps.
This is impressive, and so was the accuracy. So far the Australian Outback ammo is available only in .308 Winchester, .223 Remington, and .300 Blackout. In .308 a new 150-grain Swift Scirocco II load has recently been added to 165-grain Sierra GameKing and the 168-grain MatchKing. Offerings in .223 are 69-grain Sierra MatchKing and 55-grain Sierra BlitzKing. I’ve tried both the .223 and .308 loads in several different rifles. Accuracy has been consistently excellent, so in my view this is really good stuff. Undoubtedly additional cartridges and loads will be added, and the ammunition is currently available in the U.S. as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Reduced Recoil Ammo
Recoil is an unavoidable function of Newton’s Law, which states that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Whether we like to admit it or not, recoil isn’t the pleasant part of shooting. We can mitigate it with muzzle brakes, recoil pads, mercury recoil reducers, stock design, and plain old gun weight, but the rules really don’t change. For example, a 150-grain bullet at 2700 feet per second produces pretty much the same amount of recoil as any other 150-grain bullet at 2700 feet per second; it doesn’t matter much whether it’s a 7mm, .270, or .30-caliber bullet. Okay, that’s not exactly true, because weight of powder charge figures in along with bullet weight, but the differences are slight.
As listed above, there are several ways to reduce or mitigate the recoil of a rifle, but if you want to reduce the recoil of a cartridge the options are limited: You can reduce bullet weight, you can reduce velocity, or you can reduce both. Several of our major manufacturers now have lines of “reduced recoil” rifle ammunition, but it’s important to understand that there is no magic involved; this can only be done by reducing downrange performance.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Provided you keep your range reasonable, most of our popular centerfire cartridges are more powerful than needed for our deer-pronghorn-sheep class of game. Remington’s reduced recoil brand is “Managed Recoil.” Federal started with “Low Recoil,” but now has “Fusion Lite” with their excellent Fusion bullet. And new from Hornady is the Custom Lite line. Remington’s Managed Recoil is the most extensive, offered in nine popular cartridges from .260 Remington to .300 Remington Ultra Mag. Hornady has eight Custom Lite loads, starting with .243 Winchester and running up to .300 Winchester Magnum. Federal’s Fusion Lite is currently offered only in .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester, and .30-06.
Interestingly, all three companies suggest as much as 50 percent recoil reduction and all three suggest a 200-yard limit for deer-sized game…but they don’t go about the recoil reduction in the same way. Federal is consistent; their Fusion Lite loads essentially reduce velocity, but not bullet weight. Their .270 Fusion Lite uses a 145-grain bullet at 2200 fps, both the .308 and .30-06 loads use a 170-grain bullet at 2000 fps. Note that these are non-standard bullet weights for these cartridges, so you can assume correctly that these bullets have been designed to open properly at the reduced velocity.
Remington’s Managed Recoil and Hornady’s Custom Lite are not altogether consistent within their respective product lines in exactly how they achieve their recoil reduction. In both lines some loads use lighter-than-standard bullets, others use standard bullet weights at reduced velocities, and a few use both lighter bullets and reduced velocities.
Remington’s Managed Recoil line is offered in .260 Remington, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-30 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, and .300 Remington Ultra Mag. The .270 Winchester load uses a light-for-caliber 115-grain bullet at 2710 feet per second, a good example of a load that uses both a light bullet and lower velocity to reduce recoil. Their .30-30, .308, and .30-06 loads use light 125-grain bullets at only slightly reduced velocities, while the .300 Winchester Magnum and .300 RUM loads use a very standard 150-grain bullet at reduced velocity. The .260, 7mm-08, and 7mm Remington Magnum loads all use 140-grain bullets, pretty standard for these cartridges, but clearly at reduced velocity. The bullets are all catalogued as Core-Lokt Pointed Soft Point, but in several cases the bullets have been re-engineered (undoubtedly with thinner jackets) to ensure reliable expansion at the lower velocities.
Hornady’s new Custom Lite line includes .243 Winchester, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-30, .308 Winchester, .30-06, and .300 Winchester Magnum, featuring SST or InterLock bullets. Again, the ways in which the recoil reduction is achieved is not exactly the same. The .243 Custom Lite load uses an 87-grain SST bullet at 2800 fps, while the .270 load uses a 120-grain SST at 2675 fps. The 7mm-08 load uses a 120-grain bullet, while the .308 and .30-06 loads use 125-grain bullets, all “lighter than standard” at reduced velocities. The .30-30 load, on the other hand, uses a standard-weight 150-grain round nose with velocity reduced to 2100 fps. The two magnum loads also use standard bullet weights—139 grains in the 7mm Remington Magnum and 150 grains in the .300 Winchester Magnum, achieving recoil reduction through reduced velocity.
While I certainly haven’t shot them all, the loads I have used (from all three companies) have been extremely consistent in velocity and are very accurate. We could work the complicated formula to derive foot-pounds of recoil energy, but felt recoil is more subjective, depending on gun weight, stock fit and recoil velocity. I can say that, with the several loads I’ve tried, reduction in both recoil and muzzle blast are dramatic. In some loads (and some rifles) there is little appreciable difference in 100-yard point of impact, but I don’t recommend switching back and forth between these loads and full-power loads without doing some range work.
So, what are these loads good for? Well, the bottom line is that recoil isn’t fun, and it’s a whole lot less fun for all beginning shooters, especially youngsters and women of smaller stature. For many of us, a good, solid 200 yards of effective range is all we need, and that’s a sensible limit for most new hunters. These reduced recoil loads completely fill the bill: Adequate performance both on the range and in the field, without objectionable recoil.
Any Way You Want It
With our recent chronic ammo shortages I think more people are handloading than was the case just a few years ago, but it’s a common lament among all of our bulletmakers that handloading isn’t as popular as it was when I was coming up. There are reasons for that. The tools are more expensive, so it takes a lot more shooting to amortize the equipment. And, as I said, I’m no longer convinced I can load a better cartridge than I can buy. Today’s factory ammo is awesome! The choices, both in cartridges and bullets, are also greatly expanded. Today, if factory ammo isn’t available then you must be shooting something pretty exotic, esoteric or obsolete!
Even then there are options. Small boutique or “custom” ammo companies are hardly new. Founded by Larry Barnett clear back in 1984, Superior Ammunition has long been a leader in this field. Almost regardless of the cartridge or bullet combo you want, custom firms like Superior can supply it.
However, one benefit from recent ammo shortages is that there are more options than ever before. Black Hills Ammunition, founded in 1981, has grown into a giant supplier of ammo for both civilian and government use. They don’t specialize in exotic cartridges, but since they are not bullet manufacturers they offer a wide range of bullet options in many popular cartridges. Obviously you’ll only find Hornady bullets loaded in Hornady ammo, but in recent years their ammunition offerings have increased exponentially, including numerous new cartridge developments and reintroductions of old favorites, especially in their Dangerous Game line. In the ammunition world, Norma has one of the world’s most extensive lines, and Norma-USA now has a greatly increased presence in the U.S., with their excellent ammo now more available than ever before.
Actually, there are more “small” ammo companies springing up than anyone can keep track of, but the options are incredibly interesting. Nosler, primarily a bullet manufacturer for so many years, continues to expand its lines of loaded ammo—and it’s really good stuff. They were the first to offer factory .280 Ackley Improved, and if you’re a die-hard .264 Winchester Magnum fan like me, Nosler Custom is alone in offering a wonderful selection of loads. Founded in Cedar City, Utah in 2002, Double Tap offers an extensive line in both popular and not-so-popular cartridges with a wide range of bullet options. Need some 8mm Remington Magnum or .358 Norma ammo? Double Tap loads them!
And in spite of all these options (and many more) there’s still room in an ammo-hungry market. New suppliers are springing up all the time…and sometimes there are load problems and combinations that the bigger boys just can’t address. For instance, you have a “problem rifle” that seems to be really finicky…or you have a fairly unpopular cartridge that you want (or need) a specific bullet for. There are quite a few sources, but some of my “go to” guys for such situations have been, for many years, Superior; and, more recently, Trop Gun Shop in Pennsylvania and Phil Massaro of Massaro Ballistics Laboratory in upstate New York.
With true custom suppliers you can specify the cartridge and the bullet, and they’ll do their best to come through. Or, with a problem rifle that seems really finicky, they can load up some samples in five-round increments, varying both bullets and loads. In extreme cases you can actually send them the rifle! Sometimes it takes a bit of research, and these days you’d better plan ahead—but there is virtually no ammunition problem that can’t be solved by somebody, and you really can have your ammo pretty much any way you want it.– Craig Boddington