Avid reloaders can easily forget that many manufacturers are producing high-quality match ammo at good prices these days. Not everyone is interested in reloading, and frankly, it is a labor of love for most of us.
When you count up all the time and money one spends reloading, it’s enough to make you wonder if it’s really worth it. If you have ever attended an NRA long-range rifle match at 600 to 1,000 yards or a benchrest rifle competition, you will see that almost 100 percent of the top competitors are using hand-loaded ammo.
But is it necessary for the average shooter? That is the question we will answer as we take a deep dive into reloaded ammunition versus a cross section of factory offerings to see if there is a real difference in accuracy.
The equipment list that it takes to produce true highprecision rounds starts with basic items such as a reloading press, digital scale and dies (bushings), along with casecleaning and case-preparation devices. In addition to those more basic items, a high-precision reloader must also add case annealing, a case trimmer and a concentricity gauge, as well as a neck-turning tool.
However, it doesn’t stop there—one also needs to determine the optimum overall length of their chamber. In addition, most of us measure a wide range of case and bullet dimensions, all of which require several specialized micrometers and calipers. Once measured, the cases and bullets are sorted by weight, neck tension, internal capacity, etc.
This list of equipment, alone, can easily cost thousands of dollars; and it’s all done to improve the accuracy over off-the-shelf ammo.
THE TESTING PROTOCOL
There are many ways to test the accuracy of a rifle, such as three-shot groups, five-shot groups or even larger groups, and all these methods will yield a different answer. So, when measuring the performance of your ammunition or rifle, be realistic and use equipment that is capable of supporting the rifle in a way that is accurate, stable and repeatable.
For this test, I used a coaxial front rest and a rear sandbag to ensure I was getting the most-stable platform possible.
It’s not practical to expect a factory lightweight rifle to hold a tight group for 10 or 20 rounds, due to heat buildup. Therefore, I decided to use five-shot groups and a distance of 100 yards. Of course, this rifle is capable of shooting distances in excess of 1,000 yards, but repeatability at these ranges is at the mercy of wind and other environmental factors. So, I did all the group testing at 100 yards—but I also shot the rifle at 500 yards to confirm the data.
Because my goal is to compare factory ammunition to handloads, I performed basic reloading of the fired brass. Initially, I started with both Lapua, which uses a small primer, and Hornady brass, which uses a large primer pocket. On the first firing of the brass, I omitted this data from my calculations and treated the first shot on the new brass as fire-forming. Then, I used the excellent Redding bushing reloading dies to bump the shoulder .002 inch from their initial fired length. I then used the subsequent firings as data suitable for inclusion in the test. This ensured the brass was formed as closely as possible to the chamber in this barrel.
I intended to feed ammo from a magazine. As a result, I was limited to a maximum overall length of 2.8 inches, so I didn’t seat the bullets close to, or into, the lands—as would be done on a target rifle that does not use a magazine.
One of the great things about reloading for the 6.5 Creedmoor is the wide range of available components. Bullets range from 85 grains up to the 147-grain Hornady ELDM that I tested. However, the real sweet spot is from 120 to 147 grains—that is, if your rifle has the correct twist rate to stabilize these longer bullets.
I used the following bullets as I attempted to answer my reloading-versus-factory ammo quandary: Lapua Scenar, 123 grains; Hornady ELDM, 130 grains; Berger VLD, 130 grains; Lapua Scenar-L, 136 grains; Berger Hybrid, 140 grains; Hornady ELDM, 140 grains; and the Hornady ELDM, 147 grains.
For brass, I rounded up the two most popular brands on the market—Hornady and Lapua. Hornady uses a standard large rifle primer, while Lapua opts for the small primer used in most benchrest rifle calibers. When using a case that houses a large rifle primer, there is a little more ignition than with a small rifle primer. Therefore, many NRA long-range and PRS (Precision Rifle Series) competitors use small-rifle magnum primers when using Lapua brass. Personally, I also use the CCI 450 small-rifle magnum primer in my long-range competition gun, so that is what I used on all the Lapua brass. Then, I used the always-excellent Federal GM210M Gold Medal primer in the Hornady brass.
Finally, for powder, I picked several of the most popular powders available, including Hodgdon H4350 and Varget, Aliant Reloder 16 and Reloder 15, and VihtaVuori N550 and N540. Varget is a little fast-burning for the heavier bullets, but if you stick with it on 130 grains and lighter, you will be fine. Of course, there are other powders and other bullets available, but when you factor in the various charge weights to test, my choices had to be limited to keep the number of rounds fired to a manageable level. Other great choices I did not test are IMR 4350, Reloder 17, IMR 4451 and Hodgdon Hybrid 100V.
Of course, ammo cannot be tested without a rifle, so I opted to use the new Savage Model 10 BA Stealth chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. The Savage BA Stealth has a factory-blueprinted action and a chassis that is machined from a single piece of aluminum, which makes for a lightweight and stable platform to support the action.
One thing I really like about this rifle is that it comes from the factory with a 24-inch (1:8-inch twist) fluted barrel that is already threaded for a suppressor. If you are shooting a 6.5 cartridge and plan on doing any long-range work, the 1:8inch twist is ideal, because it stabilizes the longer bullets that have the higher ballistic coefficients needed to go 1,000 yards and beyond. There is plenty to like with this Savage platform, including the AR-15 buttstock and pistol grip that allow you to change them out if you prefer a different style.
As on all Savage rifles, this one uses the floating bolt head. The floating bolt helps the bolt face align with the bore and keeps the cartridge square to the centerline of the barrel. Another plus is that this model Savage uses the adjustable Accutrigger that allows you to tailor the trigger break to your liking.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
After weeks of loading and testing various hand-loaded ammo, plus all the factory ammo, my best handloads were able to outperform the factory ammo … but not by much. In the data (see the sidebars below and on page 71), I am only reporting the results for the “best” loads I tested, so many of the home-brewed versions were not as good as the factory ammo. Also, you will notice that some of the load data sacrifices velocity for accuracy compared to the name brand ammo.
The decision to load your own depends on many factors, and only you can determine which is best for you. If you enjoy reloading and experimentation, you can usually improve the accuracy or velocity (sometimes both) over factory ammo. But, as my data shows, there are many manufacturers making excellent ammunition suitable for most any application.
HORNADY MANUFACTURING: Hornady.com
BERGER BULLETS: BergerBullets.com
DOUBLETAP AMMUNITION: DoubleTapAmmo.net
SAVAGE ARMS: SavageArms.com
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2018 print issue of Gun World magazine.