By Russell Thornberry
Hunters never have had more ammunition choices than they do today. That’s the good news. The downside is that only through the process of elimination will you find the best load among the various options.
The vast majority of Americans who hunt deer (or other big game) shoot factory ammo in their rifles. A small fraternity of hunters handload cartridges for superior accuracy, but with the quality of today’s factory ammo, most hunters should be able to attain acceptable accuracy from their rifles without handloading.
First, let’s define “acceptable accuracy.” Most rifle manufacturers claim that a 2-inch group at 100 yards is acceptable from a production rifle. But if my hunting gun shoots no better than that, I’ll get rid of it and start over. The key is in determining the rifle’s true capability. Most hunters fall short in this area.
For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that we’ve just bought a brand-new .30-06. We trick it out with the scope of our choice, buy a box of factory cartridges and head out to the shooting range to sight it in. How do we decide which ammo to use in the first place? Do we buy loads with 150-, 165- or 200-grain bullets?
Common sense tells us to pick the bullet weight and design that suits our intended hunting situation. Let’s assume that we really want to shoot a 150-grain bullet for the sake of maximum velocity over the first 250 yards of bullet flight. Now it’s time to decide which brand of ammunition to buy. The fact is that until you shoot any particular brand of factory ammo with a specific bullet weight and design in your rifle, you will have no idea whether or not it will be the most accurate load in that gun. Every rifle digests a specific brand of ammo with a particular bullet weight and design better than all the others. Your job is to find which brand and bullet your rifle wants to shoot.
If you buy a box of 150-grain ammo and it doesn’t perform to your satisfaction, it doesn’t mean your rifle won’t shoot 150-grain bullets well. It just means that that particular load is not best for your gun. Try other brands and pay attention to the subtle differences between brands and even variances within the same brand. For instance, if you bought a box of 150-grain Remington ammo and it didn’t perform to your expectations, pay attention to the bullet design. What was it, Swift Scirocco Bonded, AccuTip Boat Tail, Core-Lokt Pointed Soft Point, Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded or Bronze Point bullets? They’re all made by Remington and offered in 150-grain choices, but they are quite likely to perform differently in any given rifle.
It’s likely that your hunting gun will shoot one weight, brand and style of ammo better than the rest. When you find the right load, stock up, because powder consistency can vary from one lot to the next.
Your rifle may shoot boattail bullets more accurately than flat-based bullets. If that’s the case, try several boxes of boattail loads in your chosen bullet weight to see which one performs best. Just because one brand of ammo was your last rifle’s favorite, don’t expect it to be universally true. You might find that your rifle simply doesn’t shoot any 150-grain factory ammo well enough to suit you. Try 165- or 180-grain bullets instead.
The good news is that hunters have never had more different ammunition choices than they do today. In 150-grain .30-06 loads, there are probably two dozen factory cartridges from among the various manufacturers. Odds are good that somewhere in the lineup, there’s a factory cartridge that will perform well with your rifle.
Now let’s assume that you’ve found the brand, bullet weight and bullet design that your rifle shoots to your satisfaction. Is it reasonable to expect that other boxes of that same brand with the same bullet will shoot the same from year to year? Not necessarily. Different lots can vary slightly in powder consistency, which means that ammo of one lot number might not shoot exactly like cartridges from another lot. “Isn’t this splitting hairs?” you might ask. Yes it is, but splitting hairs is what accuracy is all about. My advice is to buy several boxes of your proven factory ammo with the same lot number on the box to ensure ultimate consistency.
You might be one of the lucky ones who takes a new rifle to the range with a random box of factory ammo and shoots three shots into an inch right off the bat, but that doesn’t happen often. Hunters should also be aware that some rifles are simply incapable of shooting a tight five-shot group with any ammo. Some rifles are capable of good three-shot groups, and others are capable of tight two-shot groups before bullets start to stray. This is usually determined by the weight of the barrel. The lighter the barrel, the faster it heats up.
I have a favorite .280 Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle with a pretty skinny snout. If I clean the barrel and shoot a fouling shot before I put it on the bench, it will put the first two bullets into the same hole at 100 yards. If I continue to shoot the gun without allowing its barrel to cool, the shots begin to spread out. Knowing that, I only shoot two-shot groups with the rifle on the bench. I’ve yet to need a second shot in hunting conditions. Conversely, with my Remington Sendero Rifle chambered in .300 Win Mag, which has a substantially heavier barrel than my Mountain Rifle, I can plunk five shots into 3/4-inch groups all day long. Each rifle has its own unique capabilities. It’s important to understand them so you don’t expect the impossible.
There are myriad reasons why uneducated shooters miss out on their rifle’s fullest accuracy potential - poor shooting techniques and benchrest equipment, not properly cleaning and breaking in the bore, improper scope installation, etc. - and each of them warrant careful examination and education. If your idea of “shooting in” your rifle is to fire a few shots while resting the gun on a rolled-up hunting jacket on the hood of your pickup truck, you will never know the gun’s true capability. But assuming that all things are properly considered, the probability is high that the perfect factory ammo exists for your desired degree of accuracy. You just have to find it.
Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine