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RIFLE ACCURACY WITH DIFFERENT LOADS  By Craig Boddington 

 

Today’s factory rifles are, on average, more accurate than I thought possible when I started shooting. American hunters and rifle shooters have long been obsessed with raw accuracy, probably more today than ever before because of the growing fascination with long-range shooting. How much accuracy is really needed depends entirely on what you intend to do. Bench-rest and thousand-yard competitors need all they can get, and so do varmint hunters. Most big-game hunters probably have more accuracy than is truly necessary—but it’s a wonderful confidence builder to know that your rifle is capable of producing teeny, tiny groups! 

257 Roberts group: There’s no telling exactly what load a given rifle will shoot best…and it may not be the load you prefer to use. So far, Boddington’s Dakota .257 Roberts produces its best groups with Remington 100-grain round-nose Core-Lokt, not the most ideal hunting load for a flat-shooting cartridge. This rifle needs handloading and will get it!
257 Roberts group: There’s no telling exactly what load a given rifle will shoot best…and it may not be the load you prefer to use. So far, Boddington’s Dakota .257 Roberts produces its best groups with Remington 100-grain round-nose Core-Lokt, not the most ideal hunting load for a flat-shooting cartridge. This rifle needs handloading and will get it!

That’s a valid reason to demand extreme accuracy—and it’s amazing how many of today’s basic, inexpensive factory rifles deliver. I think this is because, with modern manufacturing, factory tolerances are tighter than ever, with more consistent barrels. When I was a kid, we figured a factory bolt-action that produced 1.5-inch 100-yard groups was pretty darned good. Rifles shooting one inch and better were cause for bragging. Today it’s amazing how many factory bolt guns retailing for less than $500 will consistently produce one-inch 100-yard groups. 

 

Let me be clear: A “one-inch, 100-yard group” is neither a goal nor a standard. If you’re a deer hunter, that’s probably more than you need. If you’re a prairie dog shooter, not good enough! However, with hunting rifles, we’re pretty proud of one-inch 100-yard groups. Not so long ago, to ensure such groups and hopefully cut them in half, I figured the most likely path was to start with a good action and add a $500 match-grade barrel from a known maker. Today many sub-$500 factory rifles will do that right out of the box. However, not all will shoot that well! 

Barrel blanks: Barrel blanks, ready to be turned and chambered. Barrels are more consistent than ever, but no two are exactly alike, with microscopic differences. Boddington believes this is why no two seemingly identical barrels shoot differently with various loads.
Barrel blanks: Barrel blanks, ready to be turned and chambered. Barrels are more consistent than ever, but no two are exactly alike, with microscopic differences. Boddington believes this is why no two seemingly identical barrels shoot differently with various loads.

Factory rifles are a lot like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You don’t know what you’re going to get! So, you open the box of chocolates, grab some ammo, and head for the range. Maybe you get lucky…and maybe you don’t. There’s no way to know until you get to the range and shoot some groups. 

 

Modern factory rifles are so consistent that chances are good you will get groups you can live with if you must. Shooters being demanding, and having read too much about modern accuracy, chances are equally good that you’d like a little bit better! 

Bench: When testing loads, it’s critical to remove the human error. Make sure the rest and the bench are dead steady. Wait for a calm day and take your time.
Bench: When testing loads, it’s critical to remove the human error. Make sure the rest and the bench are dead steady. Wait for a calm day and take your time.

When I was a kid, the standard answer to improve accuracy was to start hacking on the bedding. This can be an answer but bedding is about keeping barrel vibration consistent from shot to shot. Most factory rifles today have free-floated barrels, which is really absence of bedding; the barrel vibrates as it will. 

 

Today’s accuracy is aided by the best and most consistent factory ammunition ever manufactured, and with the greatest variety. However, since 1873 any self-contained center-fire metallic cartridge is based on four components: Case, primer, propellant, and bullet. Any factory cartridge is just one assembly of these four components. A hand-loader can vary these components infinitely: Different brands of cases, which vary slightly in internal dimensions and weight; different primers; any of several dozen propellants and charge weights; and bullets of different brands, styles, shapes, and weights. Hand-loaders can go even farther, varying bullet seating depth, and checking cases and bullets for consistency.

Clean on range: Boddington prefers to clean on the range. Everyone has their own protocol, but frequent cleaning is essential when breaking in a new barrel.
Clean on range: Boddington prefers to clean on the range. Everyone has their own protocol, but frequent cleaning is essential when breaking in a new barrel.

Unless you seek bench-rest accuracy, it usually isn’t necessary to go quite this far. However, some rifles are forgiving and accepting. Others are finicky, and most will deliver somewhat better accuracy with certain loads. Shooters of factory ammo are at a disadvantage because ammo is expensive, and if a given load shootbadly, you’re stuck with a partial box (like my garage is full of). However, whether you hand-load or shoot factory ammo, the best way to discover the accuracy your rifle is capable of is to vary the loads—as much as possible. 

When shooting groups, pay attention to technique, especially trigger press. The idea is to remove as much human element as possible. If conditions are poor—too hot, cold, or windy—or if you’re jumpy or tired, you’re just wasting expensive ammo.
When shooting groups, pay attention to technique, especially trigger press. The idea is to remove as much human element as possible. If conditions are poor—too hot, cold, or windy—or if you’re jumpy or tired, you’re just wasting expensive ammo.

With popular cartridges, such as .223 Remington, .270 Win, 7mm Rem Mag, .308 Win, .30-06, and .300 Win Mag, factory load options number into the hundreds. It would cost a fortune to try them all! However, over time, you can try different brands loaded with different weights and styles of bullets. I use all of the cartridges just mentioned, but I have a penchant for older, less popular cartridges, such as .257 Roberts, .264 Winchester Magnum, and .300 H&H. There are few factory options and, lacking popularity, there has been little load development. To optimize accuracy, you just about have to hand-load for “unpopular cartridges” …or accept the accuracy you get from the small selection of factory loads! 

Crown recut: This inexpensive Remington .30-06 turned out to have a lop-sided crown, right group. We re-cut the crown at the range, a simple process (if you have the tools). Using the same factory ammo, it turned into a real tack-driver, center group.
Crown recut: This inexpensive Remington .30-06 turned out to have a lop-sided crown, right group. We re-cut the crown at the range, a simple process (if you have the tools). Using the same factory ammo, it turned into a real tack-driver, center group.

It’s a trial-and-error business: There is no predicting exactly what load a given rifle might prefer. Note, too, that the “most accurate” loads may not be the loads you would prefer to use! The 7mms and .30-calibers are available in a wide range of bullet weights. In my experience, few rifles in either bore diameter shoot equally well with both lighter and heavier bullets, such as 140 and 175-grain 7mm bullets; and 150 and 200-grain .30-caliber bullets. With a new rifle, I tend to start with medium-weight bullets, such as 165-grain .30-calibers and 150-grain 7mm. If accuracy isn’t acceptable, I’ll try both lighter and heavier bullets and see what happens. 

 

Bullet brand, style, and construction can make a huge difference. Some barrels shoot “copper” bullets (Barnes X, GMX, etc.) very well, but others show a marked preference for lead-core bullets. And some are just the reverse. 

Crown: The crown is the last thing that the bullet touches as it exits and it must be concentric. Crowns are easily chipped (often by muzzle-down carry in a vehicle) and may be poorly cut. Trouble-shooting accuracy is ongoing, but the crown is a frequent culprit.
Crown: The crown is the last thing that the bullet touches as it exits and it must be concentric. Crowns are easily chipped (often by muzzle-down carry in a vehicle) and may be poorly cut. Trouble-shooting accuracy is ongoing, but the crown is a frequent culprit.

When testing ammo for accuracy it’s important to eliminate as much human error as possible. Choose a calm day, make sure your bench and rest are dead steady, use visible targets with good aiming points, and concentrate on sight alignment and trigger press. You are hoping for nice, round groups. Vertical stringing is often barrel heat, which, with slender barrels, can show up in very few shots. Take your time and let the barrel cool completely between groups. 

 

Stringing, especially horizontal, can also indicate a bedding problem, but a poorly cut or chipped crown is often the culprit. The crown is the last thing that touches the bullet as it leaves the muzzle and it must be near-perfect. Re-cutting a crown is a simple gunsmithing procedure, and kits are available to do it yourself. 

An interesting target from the most accurate Ruger No. One Boddington has owned, in .300 H&H. Center group, vertical stringing with hand-loaded 200-grain Sierra GameKing. Top left, horizontal stringing with Hornady 180-grain factory. Top right, a perfect group with handloaded 150-grain Sierra GameKing. All three are very acceptable for hunting accuracy, but you never know what might work just a bit better!
An interesting target from the most accurate Ruger No. One Boddington has owned, in .300 H&H. Center group, vertical stringing with handloaded 200-grain Sierra GameKing. Top left, horizontal stringing with Hornady 180-grain factory. Top right, a perfect group with hand-loaded 150-grain Sierra GameKing. All three are very acceptable for hunting accuracy, but you never know what might work just a bit better!

Barrel fouling can also be a problem. New barrels often have interior tool marks and collect fouling quickly. It’s unwise to pass judgment on a new barrel until it’s “broken in,” which means internally smoothed by 50 or so shots. Every experienced shooter has a different protocol for breaking in a barrel. Some clean after every shot for 10 rounds or more! With a new barrelI clean after five shots for 20 rounds. Afterward, I clean every 15 to 20 shots. Some barrels shoot their best when very clean, others shoot best when slightly fouled, and a few barrels that shoot their best groups when filthyVary your cleaning routine and your barrel will tell you!  

A spectacular half-inch five-shot group, this one from Donna Boddington’s Blaser .270 with 130-grain Hornady American Whitetail. Modern rifles and today’s factory loads are amazing but, no matter what you do, relatively few rifles will produce groups this tight.
A spectacular half-inch five-shot group, this one from Donna Boddington’s Blaser .270 with 130-grain Hornady American Whitetail. Modern rifles and today’s factory loads are amazing but, no matter what you do, relatively few rifles will produce groups this tight.

Suspect everything, but experiment with a variety of loads before you start hacking away! Realistically, absent a mechanical issue (bedding, crown, heavy fouling or pitting), most gains from load experimentation will be incremental and rarely exponential. In other words, a rifle that initially produces 1.5-inch groups is unlikely to become a half-inch tackdriver. But, with loads the rifle likes, you might cajole it into producing the one-inch groups you want to see. 

A gorgeous desert mule, taken with the most finicky rifle Boddington ever owned, a Remington .280 Mountain Rifle. It grouped poorly with all factory loads then available, but shot extremely well with very “standard-recipe” hand-loads.
A gorgeous desert mule, taken with the most finicky rifle Boddington ever owned, a Remington .280 Mountain Rifle. It grouped poorly with all factory loads then available, but shot extremely well with very “standard-recipe” hand-loads.

However, you won’t know until you keep trying. A few barrels are finicky, and come to life when you discover the right load, we all have stories! When that model was relatively new, I had a Remington Mountain Rifle in .280 Remington, typically an accurate cartridge, but never available in a wide selection of loads. Editor and friend Scott Rupp once commented to me that “Remington rifles tend to shoot well with Remington ammo.” This is often true…but not this one! Regardless of brand, this rifle fired shotgun patterns, rarely under three inches. I tried hand-loads, and a standard recipe with IMR 4831 and 150-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip instantly brought it down to sub-MOA groups, problem solved! 

All center-fire metallic cartridges consist of case, primer, propellant, and bullet. A hand-loader can vary all four components almost infinitely, while a factory load is just one combination.
All center-fire metallic cartridges consist of case, primer, propellant, and bullet. A hand-loader can vary all four components almost infinitely, while a factory load is just one combination.

Another colleague had a .30-06 that wouldn’t shoot. He tried everything, awful groups. Frustrated and desperate, he happened to have an old box of Winchester 220-grain round-nose. Amazingly, this slow, near-obsolete load shot extremely well in that rifle. So, you never know, but you also have to be realistic. Even today, not all barrels are going to provide extreme accuracy…no matter what you try. As they say, “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” Any rifle barrel is only capable of a certain degree of accuracy, and even today bad barrels exist. Experimenting with different loads should, over time, reveal the accuracy your rifle is capable of. Whether or not the groups are what you want is one thing; whether or not you can live with them is another. Match-grade barrels are expensive, but good replacement barrels are not! 

.308 OR .30-06? By Craig Boddington

The .308 is based on a .30-06 case shortened from 63mm (2.494 inches) to 51mm (2.015 inches). It was introduced in 1952, the year of my birth so, like me, is no spring chicken. We must never forget that the .30-06 is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military power. The .30-06 and its 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle defined what we think of as “standard” action length. In part this was its undoing; its later Garand rifle was long and heavy; we wanted a shorter and more efficient self-loading action. 

88 308 blacktail: An excellent blacktail from northern California, taken with a Winchester M88 in .308. The 88 is one of several lever-actions chambered to the .308. Able to fit into short actions, the .308 offers a much larger choice of both rifles and actions than the .30-06.
An excellent blacktail from northern California, taken with a Winchester M88 in .308. The 88 is one of several lever-actions chambered to the .308. Able to fit into short actions, the .308 offers a much larger choice of both rifles and actions than the .30-06.

Well into the Fifties the .30-06 was not only America’s service cartridge, but also our most popular sporting round. Unabashedly, I am a .30-06 guy. As such, I have huge experience with the .30-06…and not nearly as much with the .308. In performance on game, the .308 and .30-06 are similar. Always it depends on who is doing the loading but, with greater case capacity, with bullets up to 180 grains the .30-06 averages about 150 fps faster than the .308.

Superformance 06-1: Hornady’s first Superformance load was a165-grain .30-06, producing over 3000 fps. This was obviously a “fast barrel,” with velocity a bit higher than rated. No .308 load can approach this velocity, solidly into .300 magnum territory.
Superformance 06-1: Hornady’s first Superformance load was a165-grain .30-06, producing over 3000 fps. This was obviously a “fast barrel,” with velocity a bit higher than rated. No .308 load can approach this velocity, solidly into .300 magnum territory.

Game animals are unlikely to discern the difference; there’s really nothing you can (or should) do with a .30-06 that you can’t (or shouldn’t) do with a .308. The gap widens with heavier bullets. These days few of us actually use heavier bullets, but with 200-grain bullets the .30-06 is about 200 fps fast, and with 220-grain slugs the .30-06 is nearly 300 fps faster than the .308. 

Co elk .30-06: Of several, this is the first elk I took with a .30-06, a Remington M700 using 180-grain Nosler Partitions. Both the .308 and .30-06 are superb elk rifles…at moderate ranges.
Of several, this is the first elk I took with a .30-06, a Remington M700 using 180-grain Nosler Partitions. Both the .308 and .30-06 are superb elk rifles…at moderate ranges.

So, the .30-06 is a bit more powerful and shoots flatter than the .308, and does better with extra-heavy bullets. Personally, I like the .30-06 better, but I begrudgingly admit the .308 offers significant advantages the shorter case is more efficient. Efficiency is conducive to accuracy, so, on average, a .308 is likely to be more accurate than a similar .30-06.

IMG_4100: Among our Kansas hunters and friends Bobby Dierks had the longest and perhaps toughest shot, a good buck headed over a ridge at something over 300 yards. Dierks used a .30-06, flat-shooting enough and plenty powerful.
IMG_4100: Among our Kansas hunters and friends Bobby Dierks had the longest and perhaps toughest shot, a good buck headed over a ridge at something over 300 yards. Dierks used a .30-06, flat-shooting enough and plenty powerful.

That said, in my experience quality of barrel and ammo are more important to accuracy than case design. I’ve never had a problem with .30-06 accuracy, certainly not for hunting…but it depends on what you want to do. The .308 has been used for bench-rest competition; the .30-06 rarely. Also, because it’s slightly less powerful, the .308 kicks less than the .30-06. 

308 Dad M70: My Dad, Bud Boddington, took most of his game with this Winchester M70 .308. Dating to the 1950s, it has been shot little since Dad passed 20 years ago—but it still groups extremely well…like most .308s.
My Dad, Bud Boddington, took most of his game with this Winchester M70 .308. Dating to the 1950s, it has been shot little since Dad passed 20 years ago—but it still groups extremely well…like most .308s.

The greater advantage to the .308 is its suitability to shorter actions…and various action types. My dad did virtually all his hunting with a Model 70 Featherweight in .308, a shorter and lighter bolt-action than was possible with a .30-06. The .308 has been chambered to several lever-actions, including the Savage 99, Winchester 88, and Browning’s short-action BLR. In lever-actions, only the long-action BLR and the 1895 Winchester have been chambered to .30-06. Semiauto .30-06 sporters aren’t as scarce: Remington’s Woodsmaster series; Browning’s BAR; H&K M940; and Sauer 303. Self-loaders in .308 are common, including Browning, Remington, and of course, the M14/M1A series and the full gamut of AR10-based rifles. 

Although first introduced by Winchester as a commercial cartridge, the .308/7.62x51 NATO was designed primarily for self-loading actions. This semiautomatic AR10 was built by Doug Turnbull.
Although first introduced by Winchester as a commercial cartridge, the .308/7.62×51 NATO was designed primarily for self-loading actions. This semiautomatic AR10 was built by Doug Turnbull.

Today not as many shooters handload as we did while back. To handloaders this doesn’t matter, but for shooters of factory ammo there’s a huge advantage to choosing popular cartridges because, in both variety and availability, there’s lots of ammo. Everybody loads both .308 and .30-06, with hundreds of factory loads to choose from, featuring just about any bullet. Popular cartridges also benefit first from emerging technology. Hornady’s Superformance line uses blended propellants that increase velocity without increasing pressure. When Superformance was introduced in 2009 the first load was a 165-grain .30-06. In the test rifle we used, this load clocked over 3000 fps, which is creeping into .300 magnum territory. 

DSC_0292: Left, .308 Winchester; right, .30-06. The .308 (7.62x51 NATO) was introduced in 1952 by shortening the .30-06 case. The result is a slightly less powerful cartridge that fits in short actions, is more efficient, and tends to be extremely accurate
Left, .308 Winchester; right, .30-06. The .308 (7.62×51 NATO) was introduced in 1952 by shortening the .30-06 case. The result is a slightly less powerful cartridge that fits in short actions, is more efficient, and tends to be extremely accurate

It is unlikely that a .308 load with a 165-grain bullet can ever be that fast. However, today the .308 is more popular than the .30-06, profiting equally from ongoing load development. Because the .308 case is more efficient and propellants continue to advance, the velocity gap between the .308 and .30-06 is narrower than it used to be. For example, that same Superformance .30-06 load with 165-grain SST is currently rated at 2960 fps in a 24-inch barrel. The .308 Superformance load with the same bullet and barrel length is rated at 2840 fps. That is a very fast .308 load, just 120 fps difference from the .30-06 load with the same bullet. 

 Semiautomatic .308s are more common than .30-06 self-loaders. Browning’s BLR in both short and long-action is chambered to both. This big aoudad was taken with a left-hand short-action BLR in .308.
Semiautomatic .308s are more common than .30-06 self-loaders. Browning’s BLR in both short and long-action is chambered to both. This big aoudad was taken with a left-hand short-action BLR in .308.

There is a difference: The faster .30-06 will deliver more energy and shoot a bit flatter. No matter what loads are used, the .308 is not quite a .30-06. However, one thing the growing long-range crowd is teaching us: Trajectory, meaning bullet drop at a certain distance, is just a number. Know the number, know the range, know your equipment, and the solution is just a matter of dialing the range or holding the correct stadia line. 

Because of required action length, semiautomatic sporters in .30-06 are fairly uncommon. One of them is the Sauer 303, used to take this big Texas boar at last light.
Because of required action length, semiautomatic sporters in .30-06 are fairly uncommon. One of them is the Sauer 303, used to take this big Texas boar at last light.

I have more confidence in the .30-06 because I’ve used it much more, and I like its higher velocity and increased energy. Fans of the .308 probably like its legendary accuracy, its ability to be housed in shorter actions, and its lighter recoil. All arguments are valid, and we’re really splitting hairs. Although decisively effective, both cartridges are needlessly powerful for deer. Despite what I just said about trajectory, neither shoot as flat as I like for mountain hunting or serious long-range pursuits. However, the two are close enough in power to be redundantly effective on game larger than deer: Elk, moose, black bear, larger African plains game. 

Namibia kudu donna: Donna Boddington used a Ruger M77 in .30-06 with 180-grain Interlock to take this excellent Namibian kudu. We’ve used the .30-06 to take a wide assortment of non-dangerous Africa game…but at normal African shooting distances the .308 works equally well.
Namibia kudu donna: Donna Boddington used a Ruger M77 in .30-06 with 180-grain Interlock to take this excellent Namibian kudu. We’ve used the .30-06 to take a wide assortment of non-dangerous Africa game…but at normal African shooting distances the .308 works equally well.

Oddly, I’ve never hunted elk or moose with a .308, although my Dad’s .308 accounted for both species. I’ve taken several elk with the .30-06 out to about 350 yards. The .30-06 is still, always, and forever a great elk rifle…but at reasonable range, so is the .308. In Africa I’ve used the .308 a bit. Like I said, of the two cartridges, I’m mostly a .30-06 guy, so I’ve used the .30-06 a whole lot more. Both are extremely and identically effective on tough animals such as 500-pound wildebeest and 800-pound zebra, at normal African ranges. 

 An advantage to “popular” cartridges is wider choice of loads. Both the .308 and .30-06 (shown) are loaded by everyone, literally hundreds of factory loads, with every imaginable type, style, and bullet weight.
An advantage to “popular” cartridges is wider choice of loads. Both the .308 and .30-06 (shown) are loaded by everyone, literally hundreds of factory loads, with every imaginable type, style, and bullet weight.

The long-distance shooting that we bandy about as if routine is rare in Africa. Over there, one drop of blood is considered a wounded animal, counted against the license with all fees payable. African hunting teams work hard to secure close, near-certain shots; anything much over 200 yards is considered “far,” and shots beyond 300 yards are rare. At these distances, both the .308 and .30-06 are powerful and effective for almost all non-dangerous species. The 2000-pound eland is an exception…but I’ve seen eland bulls taken cleanly with both cartridges. 

My friend Ron Silverman is a staunch .308 guy. A careful and picky shooter, Ron loves accuracy and chooses the .308. It is probably needlessly powerful for deer-sized game, but it performs with decisive results. This 2019 Kansas buck was downed in its tracks with a single Berger bullet
My friend Ron Silverman is a staunch .308 guy. A careful and picky shooter, Ron loves accuracy and chooses the .308. It is probably needlessly powerful for deer-sized game, but it performs with decisive results. This 2019 Kansas buck was downed in its tracks with a single Berger bullet

The .308 and .30-06 have also been used effectively for all thick-skinned African game. The .30-06 with 220-grain solids was once considered acceptable for elephant, and expert wildlife officers often use 7.62×51 NATO rifles and ammo for elephant control. To me there are much better tools, but the power of these versatile .30-calibers should not be underestimated. When I hunted in the Philippines, we couldn’t bring in firearms, so we borrowed a vintage M14 in 7.62×51 and some military ball ammo from the local garrison. My partner and I each shot multiple water buffalo at very close range. It wasn’t something I’d like to make a habit of, but we had no problems and the “little” .308 was impressive. 

This Asian water buffalo is the largest game I’ve taken with either .30-06 or .308. Firearms can’t be brought into the Philippines, so we used an old M14 and military ball ammo borrowed from the local military. For close-range jungle shooting it worked just fine!
This Asian water buffalo is the largest game I’ve taken with either .30-06 or .308. Firearms can’t be brought into the Philippines, so we used an old M14 and military ball ammo borrowed from the local military. For close-range jungle shooting it worked just fine!

Take your pick: Both the .308 and .30-06 are useful and effective cartridges. If you place a premium on accuracy and want a bit less recoil, you’ll probably prefer the .308. The .30-06, with more velocity and energy, and better able to handle heavier bullets, is slightly more versatile. Both are excellent choices, two classic all-American .30-caliber cartridges, almost certain to remain popular and available for many years to come.