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How Much Does Wind Reading Ability Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees. This series of posts is taking a data-driven approach by using Applied Ballistic’s Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) analysis tool to gain insight into how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets.

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

The last few posts have looked at what impact different aspects of shooting, like group size, SD, cartridge choice, increased muzzle velocity, and accurate ranging, have on the probability of getting a hit at long-range. In this post, we’ll analyze one last element:

How Much Does Wind Reading Ability Matter?

In the real world, the only way to know exactly what the wind is doing … is when it isn’t blowing. It seems like those days are few and far between. Knowing what the wind is doing is an essential part of getting rounds on target at long-range. Bryan Litz explains, “The amount of wind uncertainty will depend on the shooter’s ability to read or measure the wind, as well as the difficulty of the wind condition.” If you are on a flat range instrumented with wind flags and firing in one direction, that can be considered pretty easy conditions. If you’re shooting across a canyon with strong, shifting winds from different directions … that’s a difficult situation. Bryan provides a helpful guide to wind reading ability:

Bryan-Litz-Wind-Calling-Classification

Bryan didn’t just come up with that off the cuff. And understand he is saying they’d have the ability to call the wind within those thresholds 95% of the time. Based on a normal distribution, they’d call the wind within ½ of those values 68% of the time. So for these simulations, the “Average” shooter would be able to call easy conditions within +/- 2 mph 95% of the time, and within +/- 1 mph 68% of the time.

So let’s look at what happens to our probability of hitting our long-range targets, from the worst case in that matrix to elite wind reading ability.

Getting On Target At 1000 Yards

Wow!!! That is some improvement … we went from less than 50% chance of hitting the target all the way up to 100%!

“It’s very clear that reducing wind uncertainty plays a primary role in succesful long-range shooting, possibly more than anything else. Unlike range, muzzle velocity, and atmospherics, which can be measured and accounted for in a deterministic way, wind is very different. Wind is air in motion, and air is a highly dynamic fluid. The wind is not the same in speed and direction inch-to-inch as the bullet flies 100’s of yards downrange. The bullet’s point of impact on the target is the cumulative effect of the entire wind field along its trajectory. As such, wind can be considered the biggest non-deterministic variable in long range shooting.” – Bryan Litz

Here is a look at the shot simulation for a few of those scenarios on a 10” target at 700 yards:

Impact of Improved Wind Call at 700 Yards

You can see our huge horizontal spread on the first target, with over half of our shots landing to the left or right of the target because of wind calls that were slightly off from what was actually going on at the moment. Then, by improving from +/- 5 mph to +/- 3 mph, we improved our odds 24%! But, you can see we are still missing because of horizontal dispersion. Finally, on the far right … we have elite wind calling ability. Keep in mind we still aren’t nailing the wind perfectly, but we are calling it within 1 mph 95% of the time … and that results in a 99.7% hit probability in this scenario.

We can now clearly see what Bryan Litz was talking about when he said “There are few things that will improve hit percentage more than reducing wind uncertainty.”

One point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot slightly … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Tips For Improving Wind Calling Ability

While some long range games are on square ranges surrounded with wind flags, the tactical crowd and hunters don’t typically have that luxury. Successful long-range shooters develop specialized skills to read a wide range of natural wind indicators like trees, vegetation, and mirage to judge the wind speed and direction.

So the obvious question is this: How do I get better at wind calling the wind? Unfortunately, there isn’t a list of steps or formula to follow. I’ve told people that one of the things that I love about long-range shooting is the elegant blend of both science and art. This is the art portion. Careful calculations and obsessive attention to detail can take you a long way in this sport, but they can’t help you here.

One time I was out throwing clay pigeons with a friend. He pulled out a new pistol grip home defense shotgun, and he talked me into trying to hit a clay with it. I shot it from the hip and vaporized a clay on the first try … and the second. He tried to get me to explain how I did it, but I honestly can’t. It was all feel and mostly subconscious. I always had shotguns growing up, and at this point, I’ve shot a lot of shells. Wind reading ability seems similar. You get a sense of it over time, but it takes a lot of ammo. There don’t seem to be any shortcuts.

Here are Bryan’s tips for improving your wind calling ability: “Given the vastness and in-exact nature of wind reading, it shouldn’t be surprising that truly the best way to learn the skill is experience, and especially experience with a more skilled wind reader who can communicate their skills and knowledge to their students.”

Kestrel Applied Ballistics Wind MeterA wind meter can help hone your ability to call the wind, but it isn’t like a ballistic calculator that spits out the answer. It simply provides the instantaneous wind at your position. That is just one portion of the long journey the bullet will make to meet the target. It’s up to the shooter to make a judgment call on what the net effect of the full wind field will be.

I’ve heard people say you get good at positional shooting in your living room. You don’t have to be firing live rounds at the range to practice improvised shooting positions. If you practice them dry-firing at home, they will become natural, and you can repeat those on-demand. I’d suggest a similar approach with wind meters. I’ve carried mine around with me in my truck. As I go about my day, I occasionally guess what the wind speed based on what I feel and indicators I see … and then check how I did with the wind meter. I’m still not great … but it seems to help.

I’m also putting up a couple wind flags at my range. I realize some people probably tuned out just then. Stay with me! I’m primarily a hunter and a practical/tactical shooter. I realize I won’t have wind flags in those situations. My idea is to put wind flags on the range for training, to help me relate the known wind speed with natural indicators. I want to get better at recognizing what different wind speeds look like on different vegetation and in the mirage. I shoot in a canyon, where many different winds are present. Instrumenting the range would help me better understand how the different winds play into the full wind field for different scenarios. At least that is my theory!

I ordered a couple flags last week that looked interesting, and I just got them in. They’re actually made for some kind of sport women play that I believe they call golf … so they might be a little too delicate to last very long at the range! It might be a waste of money, but I feel like this WEZ analysis has shown that wind is the biggest area for improvement for 99% of the shooters out there, me included. I’m committed to improving my wind calling ability.

Wind Speed Golf Flags

Another tip veteran shooter Jim See suggested was to shoot in some F-class matches. I know, I probably just lost more readers … stay with me! Jim is a world-class tactical shooter, finishing in the top 20 in each of the last 3 years in the Precision Rifle Series, which only a very small number of elite shooters can claim that. But Jim comes from an F-class background. He said the immediate feedback you get shooting F-class can really help you understand what the wind is doing. For those who may not know, in many F-class competitions you might be shooting at 600 or 1000 yards, and often there are target pits where people will pull down the targets and mark where your bullet impacted between each shot. So you know exactly where you each shot hits on those distant targets, and can learn what corrections you need to make.

Target Pits at 1000 Yard Range

Virtually any time you spend getting better at calling the wind is well spent. Here is one last word of wisdom on the topic from Bryan Litz: “Learning to accurately assess wind speed and direction can improve hit percentage dramatically. Therefore training and practice is perhaps the most worthwhile investment in hit percentage for windy environments.”

Any tips for how to get better at shooting in the wind? Have you taken any good training courses? Any helpful tips you could share with the rest of us? Please add a comment below!

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 
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Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Data, Handloading, Long-Range Shooting

 

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How Much Does Accurate Ranging Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees. This series of posts is taking a data-driven approach by using Applied Ballistic’s Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) analysis tool to gain insight into how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets.

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

Previous posts looked at what impact we could expect from tightening our groupslowering our muzzle velocity SDpicking the ideal cartridge, or increasing muzzle velocity. In this post we’ll look at another element that plays into our ability to get rounds on target:

How Much Does Accurate Ranging Matter?

A few readers have asked me to include a post on how much accurate ranging affects long-range hit probability. As Bryan Litz explains, “Accurately determining the range to a target is fundamentally important for successful long-range shooting. Due to the bullet’s arcing trajectory, if the range is not known accurately, the shooter will over or under-shoot the intended point of impact. … Laser rangefinders are the most accurate (practical) way of measuring a range, typically capable of +/-1 yard. But there are problems with laser rangefinders related to beam divergence and target reflectivity.” I wrote a post that summarizes how rangefinders work and highlights some of the issues Bryan is referring to. This illustration from Vectronix is a great visualization with many of those factors:

Vectronix - Factors Affecting Measurement Range

Bryan goes on to explain, “Sometimes the intended target isn’t reflective enough to register in its environment, so the shooter ends up ranging something that’s more reflective in the target’s surroundings. Sometimes it could be a rock 5 yards in front of the target, or sometimes it could be a tree line 100 yards behind the target. Most tools and methods available for ranging targets become less accurate as the range increases. This is unfortunate since the most distant shots are the ones for which you need the most accurate range information.”

Some rangefinders are capable of that +/- 1 yard accuracy, and others don’t even claim that high of accuracy. I did an exhaustive test on the actual ranging capabilities of 8 popular rangefinders in the field. Not all rangefinders are created equal! You can check out the ranging performance results from that test at Field Test Ranging Performance Results.

Now, let’s dive into the WEZ analysis on ranging uncertainty. Here are the results:

How Much Does Good Target Range Matter

Note: The chart axis increases by +/- 1 yard up to 5 yards, then it transitions to +/- 2.5 yards. I wanted to show the effects of fine tuning the range, as well as grossly over/under estimating.

Hit percentage drops off quick! On that 10” target at 700 yards, if you’re off by just 10 yards your odds of hitting the target drop by almost 10%. If you’re off by 20 yards, you’ve got a 50/50 shot of hitting it.

These are the shot simulations for a few of those scenarios, to give you a better understanding of what’s happening.

Effect of Range Estimation on Long-Range Hits

“Training to improve the accuracy of one’s ranging abilities can result in direct and dramatic improvements in hit percentage,” Bryan explains in his book. You can say that again! If you accidentally ranged a tree 10 yards in front of the target, or the berm 20 yards behind it … that significantly changes your odds of the bullet finding its intended target.

You can see in the shot simulations, we start to miss because of vertical dispersion. That is how poor ranging plays into your misses. If you’re missing because of vertical dispersion, it’s likely due to ammo velocity variance or a bad range (as long as you know your dope is correct, and you didn’t pull the shot). Wind already gives us a lot of horizontal dispersion, so when you add vertical dispersion to that … the picture gets ugly quickly.

One point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot slightly … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Uncertainty from Milling Targets for Range Estimation

After seeing those results, and realizing how important an accurate range was … I started wondering how much error was involved when milling targets for range estimation. For those that are newer, milling a target means that you use a reticle like a ruler to measure the target, then you do a calculation to estimate the range to the target based on that (more on mildot range estimation). Here is an example of what that looks like through a scope. Some advanced reticles have finer subtensions, but the smallest on this reticle is 0.2 mils.

IPSC Target Through 25x Scope at 1000 Yards

The primary potential for error seems to come from how precisely you’re able to measure the target size in mils through the scope. I wasn’t sure how good guys could get at that, but Marine Scout Sniper John McQuay of 8541 Tactical explains: “To be accurate you need to train your eye to measure to the nearest tenth or a mil or 0.1 mil. Most experienced snipers can measure down to five hundredths of a mil or 0.05. All it takes is practice.” Bryan Litz tells us in his Accuracy & Precision book “The [Horus] TreMor 2 reticle is capable of MILing targets with 0.02 MIL resolution, which enables far more accurate range determination and directly improves hit percentage.” That goes to show how much a specialized reticle can help when measuring targets.

So, we know with practice, a shooter can mil a target within 0.05 mils. We’ll work within that. We’ll start with +/- 0.005 mils of error, which is 10 times better than our scout sniper tells us is realistic. Our 10” target at 700 yards would actually measure very close to 0.395 mils, so +/- 0.005 mils of error might mean we mistake that for 0.39 mils or 0.40 mils through our reticle. That’s a minuscule error, and more than plausible.

Then on the other end of our spectrum, we look at what would happen to your range estimation if you had a measurement error of +/- 0.025 mils, which is closer to the 0.05 mils of precision our scout sniper tells us the most experienced snipers are able to do. That means a target might actually 0.375, but we mistook it for either 0.35 or 0.40 through our scope. That is a completely plausible margin of error, even for experienced shooters.

To help what kind of margin of error we’re talking about, look at the photo below. How many mils tall would you say the IPSC silhouette target is?

How Tall Is This Target - Milling Target Test

What did you get? 0.8 mils? Maybe you said a little more than that … 8.1 mils, or even 8.5 mils. The distance to the target is known to be exactly 1,000 yards (measured with a $24,000 Vectronix Vector 23 Rangefinder), and it is a standard IPSC target with a height of 29.5 inches. So we can calculate the exact size to be 0.819 mils. How’d you do?

Let’s assume we’re experienced enough and have good enough scope clarity and sharp eyes that we wouldn’t call that example 9 mils. But would it be too far-fetched to think we could mistake it for 0.81 or 0.825 mils … or maybe even just 0.80 or 0.85 mils? 0.80 or 0.85 mils represent the worst case scenarios we’ll be analyzing, roughly +/- 0.025 from 0.819 mils. The best case scenario of +/- 0.005 mils would mean we guessed around 0.815 to 0.825 … which would be amazing. Remember that is 10x better than our marine scout sniper thought was plausible by the most experienced snipers.

Keep in mind that on that example I tried to help by zooming into the photo, boosting the contrast, sharpening the image in Photoshop, and even gave the reticle a slight glow around the edges to make it easier to measure. Of course, you probably don’t have those luxuries in the field.

So let’s look at what kind of impact being off a tiny amount when we are milling a target can impact our range estimation. This is based on our target at 1000 yards, but the amount of error at 700 yards is virtually identical.

How Milling Error Affects Ranging

You can see on the chart, in the best case scenario our range would be off by +/- 9 yards. That would result in around a 7-10% decrease in hit percentage in our 700 and 1000 yard examples. An error of just 0.01 mil results in 18 yards of ranging error, which would drop that hit percentage by 20-25%. Then in the middle of our range, +/- 0.015 mils of error would result in our range being off by 27 yards. So by the middle the chart, we’ve already fallen below a 50% probability of hitting both the 10” circle at 700 yards and the 20” circle at 1000 yards. If you keep going up to top of the chart with an error of +/- 45 yards, our hit percentage has dropped close to 25%.

This aligns with a similar analysis from Bryan’s book. Litz said “Consider a novice shooter with a basic MIL dot reticle, and little practice or experience. Given these tools and skills, a shooter may be able to estimate range to within +/- 50 yards at 1000 yards.” Of course, the impact of this on hit percentage is strongly correlated on the target distance. Bryan tells us “The farther the targets are away, typically the less resolution they can be ranged with.”

My takeaway from this … if you’re looking for first round hits, a laser rangefinder seems to be a pretty handy tool! The ability to estimate range using a mildot reticle can be a great back-up plan, because electronics can and do fail … but after seeing how much an accurate range plays into hit percentage on long-range targets, a laser rangefinder will always be my Plan A. And this reminds me to train on ranging, and not just shooting. And, I shouldn’t rush the ranging process, but instead should get a steady rest and possibly try to hit the target a couple times to double-check the range. In hunting or competitions with unknown distance targets, it’s for me to get in a hurry and not take the care I should in ranging the target. I’ve learned to not rush my shot, but rushing my range acquisition could have as much of impact on whether the bullet finds its target. Now that’s new insight!

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 

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How Much Does Muzzle Velocity Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees. This series of posts is taking a data-driven approach by using Applied Ballistic’s Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) analysis tool to gain insight into how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets.

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

Previous posts looked at what impact we could expect from tightening our groupslowering our muzzle velocity SD, or picking the ideal cartridge. In this post we’ll look at another element that we handloaders tend to fixate on:

How Much Does Muzzle Velocity Matter?

I have a friend named Bob, who’s a velocity addict. He is always running the latest hot-rod cartridge. To prove my point, his most recent rifle builds were a 300 Norma Magnum (launches a 230gr bullet up to 3000 fps) and a 6.5x280AI wildcat (launches a 140gr bullet at 3260 fps). I mean it wasn’t good enough to neck the 280 down to a 6.5 … he also Ackley Improved the case to get that last bit of velocity. It’s a wildcat of a wildcat! Do you have that friend? Are you that friend?! If we’re 100% honest, there is a little velocity fiend in each of us … me included.

Now it’s one thing to pick a hot-rod cartridge, but most of us who handload are tempted to push our cartridges to the limit … and a few may even go a little beyond recommended max loads (which I don’t condone). Whatever cartridge we’re using, we’re tempted to squeeze out just a few more feet per second to really get the most out of it.

Another way guys come at this is by running 26” or 28” barrels or even longer. Our example cartridge for most of these posts has been the popular 6.5 Creemdoor, and Berger Bullets Reloading manual says for that cartridge “Muzzle velocity will increase (or decrease) by approximately 25 fps per inch from a standard 24” barrel.” QuickLoad confirmed those estimates. So a lot of guys run those longer barrels, but a few shooter go with shorter 22” barrels … even though they know they are giving up some muzzle velocity to get there.

So what’s the benefit of pushing handloads to pick up those last few feet per second of muzzle velocity? Or, what are you giving up if you want to go with a shorter barrel?

I ran several simulations all with the same inputs for ballistics and uncertainties, but simply changing the muzzle velocities. This is all based on Applied Ballistics ballistics engine, so it should be very, very accurate. The muzzle velocities represent the low end of where I’ve seen 6.5 Creedmoor rifles with short 22” barrels firing the Hornady Factory 140gr A-Max Match Ammo through the upper end of what I’ve heard rumors of guys getting with the cartridge. I am NOT saying that you can or should try to run the 6.5 Creedmoor at the muzzle velocities displayed, but I’m simply trying to illustrate what the real benefit would be if you were to chase muzzle velocity to that point.

Impact of Higher Muzzle Velocity on Hit Percentage

Notice the returns in this case appear mostly linear, although there are slightly decreasing returns with each step up in velocity. On average, you are increasing your hit percentage by 0.75% with each 25 fps increase in muzzle velocity. It’s not even a whole percentage point! Come on, that is so low it even surprised me.

As Bryan Litz reminds us in his book Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting: “Of course these results are specific to this bullet and cartridge, but are representative for this common class of weapon. The results of this average muzzle velocity analysis are clear. It is possible to increase hit percentage a noticeable amount by increasing barrel length and MV, but only if great increases are made.

Honestly, if you’re having to push the max load of a cartridge to reach some target muzzle velocity … you’ve picked the wrong cartridge. As the last post clearly showed, there absolutely is a measurable benefit to picking a cartridge that is capable of higher much higher muzzle velocities. We live with an unprecedented abundance of cartridge choices. There are so many cartridges out there, that it is easy to find one to launch the exact bullet you want at the exact muzzle velocity you’re wanting … without pushing the limits of safe pressures. The 0.75% benefit of trying to eek out that last 25 fps out of a cartridge that isn’t intended to go that fast is just not worth the cost that could come with that. Start by picking the right cartridge that will give you the velocities you’re looking for below the max load, and then tune your load within that safe range of pressures.

One last point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot slightly … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 

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How Much Does Cartridge Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees. This series of posts is taking a data-driven approach by using Applied Ballistic’s Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) analysis tool to gain insight into how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets.

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

Previous posts looked at what impact we could expect from tightening our groups, and what we could expect from lowering our muzzle velocity SD. In this post we’ll look at another element that we handloaders tend to fixate on:

How Much Does Cartridge Matter?

Honestly, I’d be embarrassed if you knew how much time I’ve spent agonizing over cartridge selection. We love to get the absolutely highest performing bullet in the ideal case, even if that means we might have to fire-form brass and handload it ourselves. So I wanted to see how much of a difference that has on hit percentage at long-range. This is highly dependent on the loads you’re comparing, but we’ll compare a couple of the most popular rounds: the 6.5 Creedmoor and the 6mm Creedmoor. I’m also going to throw in the 308 with 175gr SMK bullets. The 308 isn’t as popular as it once was in long-range shooting, and a lot of new shooters might not understand why. This should help illustrate a big part of that. And I’m going to throw in one of the newest cartridges, a hot-rod 6.5mm cartridge known as the 26 Nosler.

Note that the external ballistics for the 6.5 Creedmoor are very similar to the 260 Rem and 6.5×47 Lapua, so you can replace 6.5 Creedmoor with one of those names if you would like. Likewise, the 6mm Creedmoor provides external ballistics very similar to the 6XC, 6×47 Lapua, and 243 Win … so you can easily replace 6mm Creedmoor with one of those cartridge names as well.

6.5 Creedmoor

  • Bullet: Berger 140gr Hybrid with a Litz G7 BC of 0.320 (one of the best 6.5mm bullets available)
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2850 fps (the upper end of what top PRS shooters using the 6.5mm Creedmoor reported, although many don’t run it this hot)

6mm Creedmoor

  • Bullet: Berger 105gr Hybrid with a Litz G7 BC 0.278 (outstanding bullet, very high BC relative to its weight … read more on why everyone uses this bullet)
  • Muzzle Velocity: 3100 fps (the upper end of what top PRS shooters using the 6mm Creedmoor reported, although many don’t run it this hot)

308 Win

  • Bullet: Sierra 175gr SMK with a Litz G7 BC 0.243 (a popular bullet choice when stretching the 308 into this 700-1000 yard range)
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2600 fps (advertised muzzle velocity for the popular Federal Premium ammo with this bullet)

26 Nosler

  • Bullet: Berger 140gr Hybrid with a Litz G7 BC of 0.320 (one of the best 6.5mm bullets available)
  • Muzzle Velocity: 3300 fps (Nosler’s reloading data for this cartridge indicates this cartridge has the potential to run this fast … that’s 15% faster than a hot 6.5 Creedmoor load running that same bullet)

For all the loads, we’ll assume we were able to achieve an great muzzle velocity standard deviation of 10 fps (see the previous post for more info on what that means). We’ll also run all of the simulations at a 0.25 MOA extreme spread, and good wind-calling ability, which means we’re able to call the wind speed within 1.25 mph 68% of the time, and within 2.5 mph 95% of the time.

Here is how it shakes out:

308 vs 6.5 Creedmoor vs 6mm Creedmoor vs 26 Nosler

The first thing that pops out is the huge difference between the 308 and the other cartridges. While this isn’t a surprise to veteran shooters, it may be to some of the new guys. This is one of the big reasons there aren’t a lot of shooters running a 308 at a competitive level. The only real exception is those classes of competition that explicitly require shooters to use a 308 cartridge.

But, then we have more of a head-to-head comparison of the 6.5mm Creedmoor cartridge with the best bullet available and the 6mm Creedmoor with the best bullet available. You can see there is just a 1% difference between the 6.5 Creedmoor and 6mm Creedmoor at these ranges. That means if you fired 100 rounds, you might hit one more time with one cartridge … they’re the same for all practical purposes. Both are an massive improvement over the 308 (with significantly less recoil as well), and represent best-of-class ballistics for medium size long-range cartridges. The difference is the 6mm Creedmoor gives you those ballistics for much less recoil, but at the cost of slightly less barrel life.

And finally, the hot-rod 26 Nosler launching a 140gr bullet like a laser beam at 3,300 fps!!! To get that requires almost 90 grains of powder. While the accurate barrel life of that cartridge may be less than 1,000 rounds … it represents best of class ballistics. I ran a few other cartridges, and found a 7mm magnum (like the 7mm Rem Mag or 7mm WSM) launching a 168gr bullet at 3,000 fps produced almost identical results when you used the new Nosler Accubond Long-Range 168gr bullet with a G7 BC of .353 (G1 = .652). If that advertised BC is correct, that’s even higher than Berger’s 180gr Hybrid … but in a 168gr bullet. The 7mm Magnum option may provide slightly more barrel life, but not a lot more. Those are just smoking ballistics, and the cost to get there is less barrel life and more recoil. Even a 338 Lapua doesn’t produce a better hit percentage at those distances.

One last point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot slightly … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 

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How Much Does SD Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees.

There are so many variables that it’s easy to get lost, and most of us end up doing our best to spread our finite energy and resources in every direction. Is there a data-driven approach to help guide us toward the most important factors to increased hits at long-range?

I’m glad you asked! Bryan Litz created the WEZ (Weapon Employment Zone) analysis tool to gain some insight into this dilemma. So I dropped $200 for the Applied Ballistics Analytics Software Package, which allows you to run your own WEZ analysis. This gives you the ability to systematically study how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets. Here is his summary of this software package:

“The Applied Ballistics Analytics software tool is a full-featured ballistics solver that includes the capability to compute expected probability of hit using the same Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) method described in Bryan Litz’s book Accuracy and Precision for Long Range Shooting. This tool allows a shooter to see how his rifle can be expected to perform under a wide range of conditions, and how errors contribute in causing a bullet to miss its target.

The WEZ tool appears to be doing what’s called a Monte Carlo simulation, which is a good way to model scenarios that have a certain level of uncertainty in the inputs. Monte Carlo simulations essentially play out hundreds or thousands of possible outcomes based on your inputs. The variables in each scenario are randomly populated within the ranges you set and according to a probability distribution. For example, if you gave some input that said your rifle was capable of holding a 0.5 MOA extreme spread, then it might play out one scenario where it drilled the exact point of aim, another where it hit 0.2 MOA high, another where it hit 0.25 MOA low, another that hit 0.12 MOA to the right, etc. Those shots would all still be within a 0.5 MOA group. It does that same thing for each of the variables in every scenario (muzzle velocity, wind call, range estimation, etc.), then it plays out each scenario, and plots where the shot would land. After it’s ran 1,000 different scenarios, it looks at the results of all of those and calculates your probability of hitting the target based on the variables you entered. Here is a screenshot of this part of the program, and I highlighted some of the key variables you can tweak.

Applied Ballistics WEZ Analysis Screenshot

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

The last post looked at what kind of impact group size had at long-range. In this post we’ll look at another element that we handloaders tend to fixate on:

How much does SD matter?

One aspect many of us handloaders chase after is really consistent muzzle velocities. That’s because if the muzzle velocity varies much, the faster shots will hit high and the slower shots will hit low. We often use standard deviation (SD) to describe how consistent our muzzle velocities are. I’ll try to not nerd out on you guys, but let me explain SD the quickest way I can. Standard deviation quantifies the variation in a set of data. Many shooters measure this by firing 10 shots over a chronograph, and then calculate the SD of that string of shots. A standard deviation closer to 0 indicates the muzzle velocities tend to be very close to the average, meaning they’re very consistent. A higher standard deviation indicates that the muzzle velocities are spread out over a wider range, meaning you can expect more shot-to-shot variation.

Okay, hang with me! Here is how SD applies to the real-world: You can see the common bell-curve below, which is known as a normal distribution. If you fire enough rounds, there is a very good chance your muzzle velocities will eventually form a normal distribution just like this. Since we know that’s what the distribution will eventually look like, we can use our 10 shot sample to estimate what the distribution would actually be if we fired 1,000 rounds. This is an approximation, but it’s a useful one. Each band in the diagram has a width of 1 standard deviation.

Muzzle Velocity Standard Deviation SD

If you had a standard deviation of 10 fps for your muzzle velocity, that means 68% of your bullets would exit the muzzle within 10 fps of the average velocity. That is + or – 10 fps, so if your average muzzle velocity was 3,000 fps, then you could expect 68% of your shots to be between 2990 and 3010 fps. Note that the extreme spread of those muzzle velocities would be 20 fps, not 10 fps … because it is always + or – the SD number. We also know 95% of your shots will be within 2 SD’s of your average. So 2 × 10 fps = 20 fps, and again it is + or – that amount. So with an SD of 10 fps and an average of 3,000 fps, you could expect 95% of your shots to have a muzzle velocity between 2980 and 3020 fps. That means you’d have an extreme spread of 40 fps for 95% of your shots. Remember, 5% of your shots would still fall outside of that range, meaning they’d be below 2980 fps or above 3020 fps.

Now you should have the basics of how standard deviation defines variation of your muzzle velocities with a single number. Let’s turn to Bryan Litz to tell us what we should expect in terms of SD for muzzle velocity:

“Regarding available ammunition types, a Standard Deviation (SD) of 20 fps is considered relatively poor consistency, and is generally representative of mass produced factory ammo. 15 fps is considered better than average for factory produced ammunition, but still substandard for those who handload their own ammunition. 10 fps or less SD is typically the goal of most handloaders, and very few commercially available ammo suppliers are capable of producing ammo with SD’s under 10 fps.”

It’s relatively easy for a reloader to produce ammo with an SD of 15 fps, but you have to be meticulous and use good equipment if you want to wrestle that down into single digits. I have a friend who has handloaded ammo for his 6.5×47 Lapua and 338 Lapua with an SD of 3 fps across 10 shot strings! I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes, and he’s done on multiple occasions. 3 fps is the lowest SD I’ve ever heard of, but it takes exponentially more effort to creep down into those lower numbers.

Now that we have context for what you can expect, or what is typically the goal … let’s look at what impact shrinking our SD has on the probability of getting hits at long range.

Effect of Muzzle Velocity SD on Hit Probability

Lowering your SD has a slightly bigger improvement on the further target, but we can still see the point of diminishing returns as the lines start to level off. In these scenarios, there is a big 5% difference from 20 fps to 15 fps, but only 2.9% improvement from 15 fps to 10 fps, and then just a 1% improvement in hit percentage going from an SD of 10 fps to 3 fps! This is primarily because, once again, most misses at long range are caused by wind and not vertical dispersion. Bryan Litz says “If you’re missing the target for reasons unrelated to vertical dispersion, then reducing vertical dispersion won’t improve hit percentage very much.” Well, it makes a lot sense when you say it that way! You can see what I’m referring to in the shot simulations below. We’re shrinking the vertical spread, but most of our misses are because of the horizontal spread … so we’re simply not addressing the primary cause of the misses.

How much does muzzle velocity standard deviation sd matter

One last point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 
17 Comments

Posted by on April 18, 2015 in 6.5 Creedmoor, Data, Handloading, Long-Range Shooting

 

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How Much Does Group Size Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. We think everything is important! After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see them with the naked eye. While you can get away with a lot of minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees.

So if we have a limited amount of time and money, where would we get the biggest return on investment? In other words, there are lots of things I could focus on (more precise rifle, better scope, more consistent handloads, more practice, etc.), but where should I spend my time and money to get the biggest improvement in the probability of getting a hit at long range? How do I recognize when I’ve hit that point of diminishing returns? Tough questions.

There are so many variables that it’s easy to get lost, and most of us end up doing our best to spread our finite energy and resources in every direction. Is there a data-driven approach to help guide us toward the most important factors to increased hits at long-range?

I’m glad you asked! Bryan Litz created the WEZ (Weapon Employment Zone) analysis tool to gain some insight into this dilemma. So I dropped $200 for the Applied Ballistics Analytics Software Package, which allows you to run your own WEZ analysis. This gives you the ability to systematically study how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets. Here is his summary of this software package:

“The Applied Ballistics Analytics software tool is a full-featured ballistics solver that includes the capability to compute expected probability of hit using the same Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) method described in Bryan Litz’s book Accuracy and Precision for Long Range Shooting. This tool allows a shooter to see how his rifle can be expected to perform under a wide range of conditions, and how errors contribute in causing a bullet to miss its target.

The WEZ tool appears to be doing what’s called a Monte Carlo simulation, which is a good way to model scenarios that have a certain level of uncertainty in the inputs. Monte Carlo simulations essentially play out hundreds or thousands of possible outcomes based on your inputs. The variables in each scenario are randomly populated within the ranges you set and according to a probability distribution. For example, if you indicated your rifle was capable of holding a 0.5 MOA extreme spread, then it might play out one scenario where it drilled the exact point of aim, another where it hit 0.2 MOA high, another where it hit 0.25 MOA low, another that hit 0.12 MOA to the right, etc. Those shots would all still be within a 0.5 MOA group. It does that same thing for each of the variables in every scenario (muzzle velocity, wind call, range estimation, etc.), then it plays out each scenario, and plots where that shot would land. After it’s ran 1,000 different scenarios, it looks at the results of all of those and calculates your probability of hitting the target based on the variables and uncertainties you defined. Here is a screenshot of this part of the program, and I highlighted some of the key variables you can tweak.

Applied Ballistics WEZ Analysis Screenshot

I’d already read Bryan’s book on this topic, but in his examples he really only used 308 Win and 300 Win Mag ballistics. I wanted to run similar analysis on some of the more popular precision rifle cartridges. After playing around with the WEZ tool a lot, I can say it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

Over the next couple posts, we’ll dive into a few specific pieces to the puzzle that we as handloaders tend to fixate on. We’ll start with a big one:

How much does group size matter?

Virtually every rifle shooter loves to print a tiny group on a target. There aren’t many things more satisfying than sending multiple shots into one ragged hole. But, is there a point of diminishing returns in terms of how tiny groups relate to your probability of hitting targets at long-range?

The chart below shows how your odds of hitting a target increase as you shrink the size of your group. All the other variables are fixed, and only the extreme spread of the rifle/ammo combination is changing. I’ve graphed two different scenarios, a 10” circle target at 700 yards, and a 20” circle target at 1,000 yards.

Effect of Tighter Groups on Hit Probability

Essentially, what the chart is saying is if you were firing at a 10” circle at 700 yards with a rifle capable of 1 MOA, you’d have an 69.7% chance of hitting the target. But if your rifle capable of 0.5 MOA, that would jump to a 78.3% chance of hitting that same target. So by tightening our groups to 0.5 MOA, we’ve increased our chances of hitting the target by almost 8.6%. If we continue to refine that load, and can get to 0.3 MOA then that boosts our chances to 79.9%. So there is only a 1.6% gain there, and if you’re able to go from a 0.3 MOA group all the way down to a tiny 0.1 MOA group, your odds only increase by 0.8%. Here is a look at what the shot simulations looks like for those scenarios:

How Much Does Rifle Group Size Matter

Did it surprise anyone to see that there was only a 2.4% increase in hit percentage from a 0.5 MOA group to a 0.1 MOA group? What about just a 0.8% increase from a 0.3 MOA group to a 0.1 MOA group? I’ll be honest, it surprised me.

The blue line on the chart above represents the 20” circle at 1,000 yards, and you can see the effect of tighter groups on hit probability is far more minor for it. The reason is at longer ranges most misses are due to wind, not vertical dispersion. Litz reminds us “Wind is usually the greatest uncertainty in long range shooting, and the cause of most misses. Improving ballistic performance can increase hit percentage at long range, but even high performance rounds are highly susceptible to wind uncertainty.” These simulations were ran with the ability to call the wind within +/- 2.5 mph, which is what Bryan Litz says is what a good shooter is able to do in scenarios he framed as medium difficulty. He says a novice shooter is typically closer to +/- 4mph, an average shooter is usually +/- 3mph, and elite shooter is +/- 2mph. These simluations were programed so that the shooter would be able to call the wind within 2.5 mph 95% of the time, and most of the time (68%) they’d be able to call within 1.25 mph.

Rifle Group Size at 1000 Yards

Did you notice that? There is only a 5% difference in hit probability in a 1 MOA rifle and a 0.1 MOA rifle when you’re trying to hit a 20” circle at 1,000 yards! You can see that there aren’t many misses above or below the target. The dispersion is virtually all on the horizontal axis from wind uncertainty. So tightening groups on that size of target at 1000 yards, simply doesn’t have a significant impact. You may get more hits that were centered vertically on the target, but if you’re just looking at hit or no hit … there isn’t much of a difference in this scenario. Honestly, that surprised me, and I bet it did some of you guys too. As Litz explains in his Accuracy and Precision book:

At long range, the environmental uncertainties play a much greater role in dispersion. But at short range, the environmental uncertainties are less important and so hit percentage is more driven by raw precision capability.

This model helps illustrate the point of diminishing returns, and reminds us that when you reach a certain level of precision it takes an exorbitant amount of effort and money for relatively small improvements in performance. There are no right or wrong answers here! Of course, tighter groups are always better … but it’s up to each shooter to decide how far they’ll chase small improvements in performance. The benchrest guys take it to the extreme, but it’s up to each of us to strike the right balance for our specific circumstances. Hopefully this gives you a more objective perspective on how all that stuff contributes to the probability of getting a hit at long-range, and where the point of diminishing returns lies for one of the items we tend to fixate on the most.

One last point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.
 
52 Comments

Posted by on April 15, 2015 in 6.5 Creedmoor, Data, Handloading, Long-Range Shooting

 

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The Cost of Handloading vs. Match Ammo

I regularly get asked by friends, family, and readers for rifle and cartridge recommendations. The answer depends on many factors, but it’s happened so frequently that it caused me to create a structured process to help someone narrow it down to a few great options.

We tend to focus on the rifle first, but many under-estimate the role ammunition plays in consistent hits at long-range. So I start by picking the ammo first. Recently, I saw a video featuring Army Sniper Jim Gilliland, and he suggests the same approach.

Most precision rifle shooters handload their own ammo. Mic McPherson tells us “Contrary to common usage, the terms handloading and reloading are not interchangeable.” I couldn’t agree more. They look similar on the surface, but have very different goals:

  • Goal of Reloading: Produce functional ammunition at a low cost
  • Goal of Handloading: Produce the very best ammunition possible (better than what is otherwise available in factory-load), with each component carefully selected, examined, and refined to be of the highest quality, and then meticulously loaded for extreme consistency. The loads are often tuned for a specific rifle, incorporate a bullet better suited to an intended application (which may not even be available in factory-load), and may provide increased muzzle velocity (and therefore improved ballistics). The number one priority that overshadows all other factors is simple: precision.

Handloading used to be the only way to get the consistency required for reliable hits at long-range. However, over the past 10 years, the quality of factory ammo has increased dramatically. Today you can buy factory match-grade ammo off the shelf that is more consistent than the ammo produced by the average reloader. In fact, some factory match ammo is so good that it’s challenging for a seasoned handloader to improve on. Manufacturing tolerances are much tighter than they used to be, and improving every day. The number of rifles capable of shooting sub-MOA groups is growing at an unprecedented rate, meaning the customer base for match-grade ammo is growing too. It’s simply a different world than we used to live in … which means we have more options.

When selecting a cartridge, here’s the big question I always start with:

  1. Are you planning to buy factory match ammo or meticulously handload? Even if you plan to handload, do you want the option to buy factory match-grade ammo off the shelf? Are you prepared to put in the time and monetary investment it takes to handload precision ammo?

This is no longer an obvious choice. In this post, we’ll look at the cost of each option.

The Real Cost To Handload

Many feel like handloading is clearly cheaper, and if you solely look at the cost of components … it usually is. Most “Reloading Cost Calculators” look at it that way. But there are significant hidden costs in handloading most people ignore. I did a quick inventory of the equipment I use handloading, and that price tag is pretty big. I also timed how long it took me to do all of the different operations involved in making match-grade handloads, and multiplied that by the average hourly wage … and that cost is significant too.

Cost of Equipment & Consumables

Let’s take an honest look at equipment costs. I own over $1,500 in general reloading equipment (pictured below). That may sound high to some and low to others. To put that in perspective, I know guys whose powder scales alone cost more than that! I originally started many moons ago with a $150 RCBS Partner Press Kit, and just upgraded and added tools over the years. With this type of slow, organic growth, we may not realize how much we’ve invested. I’m not claiming all of these tools are essential, but many are. Based on the guys I know doing this, I’d expect my equipment roughly represents the average precision rifle handloader.

Reloading Equipment

Then for each cartridge, I typically have at least $350 in competition-grade dies and other cartridge or caliber specific equipment. The majority of the cost is from the sizing and seating dies, which are critical to producing consistent ammo.

Reloading Dies and Other Cartridge Specific Equipment

In addition to all that, I typically have over $100 in consumables on-hand related to handloading.

Reloading Supplies

Cost of Reloading Components

Then I calculated how much 1,000 rounds of match-grade components would cost, which came out to $840. This is based on current competitive market pricing for things like match-grade Berger bullets, Hodgdon powder, Lapua or Norma brass, and Federal match primers. These costs were based on popular mid-size 6mm and 6.5mm cartridges, like the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5×47 Lapua, and 6XC. This puts the direct material costs for 1,000 rounds of ammo at $0.84 per round. It does assume that you will reuse brass cases multiple times.

Reloading Components

Cost of Time Spent Handloading

Then I carefully totaled up the amount of time it’d take to handload 1,000 rounds of match-grade ammo. This doesn’t include the time cases spent in a tumbler or time to change out tools, but simply the time actively performing various operations in brass prep (resizing, trimming, etc.) and loading a round. I actually timed how long it took me to perform each operation. I’ve been reloading for several years, and have become efficient at these operations. While some may be faster, these estimates represent a relatively aggressive pace. The total time to perform all the brass prep and loading for 1,000 rounds was estimated to be 1,540 minutes (25.6 hours).

I looked up what the average hourly wage was in the U.S., and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that sits at $22.71 (as of May 2014). So if you apply that hourly rate, it cost me $583 in time to load 1,000 rounds of ammo.

Now some people may throw a flag on the play here. But, do you not value your time? Is 25 hours of your time worthless? What would happen if you spent those hours practicing at the range instead of tinkering with loading equipment? Would you be a better shooter?

I’m well aware of how expensive long-range rifles can become. And I understand that some shooters simply don’t have the discretionary income to be able to participate, unless they throw in some sweat equity by loading their own ammo. That’s a reasonable thing to do, and often a good decision. But, that doesn’t mean your time is free. By doing that, you’re making a conscious decision to trim some monetary costs in exchange for your time. I’m simply suggesting it is shortsighted to overlook the cost of our time when evaluating “how much money reloading saves.”

Here is a summary of the costs:

Item Cost
General Equipment $1,500
Cartridge-Specific Equipment $350
Reloading Consumables $100
Components for 1000 Rounds $840
Time To Load 1000 Rounds @ $22.71/hr $583
Total Cost To Load 1,000 Rounds From Scratch $3,373

This puts the average cost per round of our handloads at $3.37. Surprise anyone? Handloading might not save as much money as we originally thought!

Okay, Let’s Get Real (or Optimistic)

The cost above assumes you’re starting from scratch, and some of us have already made the investment in reloading equipment … so for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore general equipment costs. Let’s act like you already have great equipment, but you’re thinking about building a rifle on a new cartridge and are wondering whether you should handload or buy factory match-grade ammo. You’re also planning to really shoot it, so the economies of scale are in your favor. We’ll even assume you can keep up with your brass and get a lot of life out of it by reusing each case about 12 times. And maybe you don’t value your time that much, so we’ll change the cost of your time to be calculated at minimum wage ($7.25). Here are those revised costs spread over 3,000 rounds of ammo:

Item Cost
Cartridge-Specific Equipment $350
Reloading Consumables $180
Components for 3,000 Rounds $2,520
Time To Load 3,000 Rounds @ $7.25/hr $560
Optimistic Total Cost To Load 3,000 Rounds $3,610

Based on these revised (arguably optimistic) calculations you could handload 3,000 rounds for $3,610, which averages out to $1.20 per round.

Even if you feel like some of those figures are bloated or you have a hookup to get components at a lower cost … it likely wouldn’t affect it as much as you think. I’d challenge you to put pencil to paper and do an honest assessment. I bet you come out close to $1.20/rd. Oh, and by the way … none of these numbers include tax, shipping, or hazardous materials fees. It also assumes you’re buying Hodgdon powder at $30/pound, which is optimistic these days.

The Cost of Factory Match-Grade Ammo

Did you know you can buy factory loaded match-grade ammo for $1.20 per round … or even less?! At the time this was published, I was able to find a 20 round box of Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor 140gr A-Max Match Ammo in stock from a reputable dealer for $23.45. That’s just $1.17/rd! I was able to find a 200 round case of that same ammo in stock for $1.14/rd! You can find the same Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor match ammo loaded with the 120gr A-Max for $1.09/rd. In case you want options, Winchester also offers 6.5 Creedmoor 140gr match ammo for $1.17/rd. (Search current ammo prices on AmmoSeek.com)

I was also able to find the very popular Federal 308 Gold Medal Match 168gr MatchKing ammo in stock for $1.10/rd. HSM offers match-grade ammo for the 308 Win loaded with the 155gr A-Max bullet for $0.95/rd. But, 308 is a common cartridge, so you’ll usually find 308 ammo lower than most. Of course, you can also find 223 Rem match ammo for well under $1/rd as well.

Hornady match ammo for the 6.8mm SPC was just $0.83/rd. I also found HSM match-grade ammo for the 30-06 at $1.25/rd, or Fiocchi 30-06 match ammo for $1.30/rd. Lapua’s match grade ammo for the 6.5x55mm Swede was $1.35/rd. I even found a 20 round box of the renown and highly sought after Black Hills Gold match ammo for the 243 Win in stock for $1.42/rd, which still isn’t much off our optimistic cost to handload 3,000 rounds!

And one more thing to keep in mind … you can also sell the once-fired brass from your match ammo. At least one I mentioned used Lapua brass, so you may even be able to recoup up to 1/2 of the ammo cost by selling that once-fired brass.

The Take-Aways

You can’t find reasonable factory match ammo for every cartridge … which is exactly why you should start by selecting the ammo you’d like to use. If you’re handloading, this isn’t as critical. But many shooters build a rifle without even thinking about what ammo they’ll use, and it just isn’t a decision that is easy to undo once the rifle is in your hands.

Now we can start to understand how the 6.5 Creedmoor quickly became such a sweetheart in the precision rifle community! Not only does it provide improved ballistics over the legendary 308 Win, but you can buy good, match-grade ammo for less than what it costs to handload!

While the information presented here may be a news to some, we probably should have seen this coming. Doesn’t it make sense that at some point a machine would be more efficient at such a well-defined and repetitive process? We simply had to wait for manufacturing tolerances to catch up with us. It’s the dawn of a new age in the precision rifle world. Now we just have to worry about the machines turning on us.😉

Understand, I’m a die-hard, card-carrying, OCD handloader … but this hard to ignore. My next rifle build will likely be a 6.5 Creedmoor, just so I can exchange my handloading time for more range time. I’m starting to think of this in terms of return on investment. I have a finite amount of time to invest. Would I see more of a return (i.e. improved performance) if I spent that time in my shop attempting to achieve a marginal advantage over the factory-loaded match ammo by handloading, or would I see a larger return if I spent that same amount of time practicing at the range? At least for me, there is still a lot of room for improvement and value to be gained with more practice. At some point, it’s possible you could reach a point of diminishing returns and suddenly spending the time carefully perfecting loads would help get more rounds on target than spending another afternoon at the range … I’m just not there yet. I may not be alone on that.

 

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