RELOADERS CORNER: Seating Depth Issues

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Don’t take anything for granted! Safety and suitability are both at risk if you don’t take time to analyze and act on this important topic. READ MORE

land illustration

Glen Zediker

As said often, it’s sometimes recent experience that leads to my Reloaders Corner topics. Whether it’s a question I’ve been asked, usually, or, in this case, a malfunction I’ve had, those things are fresh in my mind. I hope to believe, and have to believe, that any such topics aren’t only a question for them, or for me.

That brings us to bullet seating depths, which really means overall cartridge length, using some particular bullet.

Usually, when we’re loading for a rifle with a box magazine, either bolt-action or semi-auto, the cartridge overall length — that’s measured from the base of the case to the tip of the bullet — defines and determines the maximum length. Usually.

What ultimately determines the cartridge overall length maximum, though, is really the first point of contact that the bullet makes (will make) with the rifling or lands ahead of the chamber throat. That space, and therefore overall round length, has a whopping lot to do with the chamber reamer specs, and also the reamer operator’s judgment in some cases, but we need to know.

It also can have a whopping lot to do with the bullet! And that’s what the most of this next is all about.

So here’s the lesson to learn, and, for me, to relearn: Do not assume that if the round fits into the magazine it will be fine. I will, at the least, freely admit to my mistakes because, one, I dang sho should know better, and, two, if I know better and still don’t do better confession is my punishment. Well, not really, but it’s always a wake-up call.

Different bullets have different profiles, different ogive architectures. The ogive is the “curve” beyond the last point up the bullet that’s caliber diameter (meaning full diameter) ending at the bullet tip. My slang but descriptive term for this is “nosecone.” Tracing up this curve, some point will be equal to land diameter. So where this point is on the seated bullet and where this point is ahead of it in the chamber matters a lot.

Unless it’s done as a deliberate tactic, there needs to be some space, some distance between the land diameter point on the bullet nosecone and the lands. The amount of that distance is referred to as “jump,” because that’s descriptive. It’s the gap the bullet has to cross through to engage into the rifling. Usually the closer the better, and that “tactic” used often by precision shooters (mostly long-range and Benchrest competitors) is to purposely seat the bullet so it’s touching the lands. That’s done in the belief that if there’s no jump, then there’s no ill effects from jump. It’s very often right, and I’ve proven that to myself many a time. It’s not always right, but then if it was this all would be too easy.

The reason there needs to be some space is because when a bullet goes from just off to just on the lands, pressure jumps. It’s a “spike,” not a surge, but it’s enough to put a load that’s nearing the edge over the edge. In something like a .223 Rem. it’s about a half-grain-worth of propellant.

hornady 52
Here’s one I messed up with. The ogive or nosecone profile on this bullet is much “higher” than normal for a match bullet of this weight and it encountered the lands at a much shorter overall length than any others I had used. I learned the hard way, even though I already knew better.

So. Here’s the lesson I learned again, but this one wasn’t my fault! Honest! Several years ago, however, here’s one that was my fault: new (to me) match bullet, a short 52-gr. I wanted to try for reduced-course NRA High Power Rifle events. Rifle had a Wylde .223 Rem. chamber. A Wylde has a throat length between a 5.56 NATO and a SAAMI-spec. .223 Rem. That means the throat is fairly much more generous than commercial .223 Rem. specs. The maximum cartridge overall length in an AR15 box magazine is 2.260 inches, and I go 2.255 for a margin. I checked some industry manual data for this bullet and did notice that the overall cartridge length listed in the data spec table was a good deal shorter than that. I quickly did some “math” but without numbers (so it wasn’t really math) and decided that since I had a longer chamber I’d ignore that and just seat the bullets to 2.255. Blew primers right and left.

Back home and gage in hand and, dang, they weren’t kidding! I was about 0.020 into the lands at that cartridge length. That’s a honking lot. That’s also ultimately dangerous because of the free-floating firing pin tapping off the primer when a round is loaded into an AR15. A bullet that’s getting jammed into the lands is greatly more resistant to chambering freely and fully.

I humbly learned my lesson.

Get a gage and use it! The best out there is the Hornady LNL Overall Length gage. This tool lets you very easily find the overall round length that touches the lands with your bullet in your barrel. Very valuable, that.

lnl oal gages
A Hornady LNL OAL Gage will show right quick like and in a hurry with the seating depth that touches the lands is with your bullet in your gun. Valuable!

Use it in conjunction with its companion “bullet length comparator” insert for the very best precision. That tool measures a bullet at a point on its ogive that (usually) corresponds closely with land diameter. It won’t be perfectly the same, but it doesn’t have to be. What matters is that it gives a more accurate figure. Avoiding the bullet tip in a measurement eliminates that (guaranteed, by the way) inconsistency in accurate measurement because of bullet tip variations.

LNL comparator
A “comparator,” like this one from Hornady’s LNL line, is a much more accurate way to measure seating depth because the bullet tip doesn’t get involved. I like the curved one: easier and more accurate by my experience.

Now. To the recent experience: It was with a .300 Blackout (AAC) subsonic. I did not have the means to gauge this using my tools (then, but I do now). However, that wouldn’t have mattered in this case, and why is next.

Tested a factory load. Liked it. Noticed nothing unusual. Functioned perfectly, shot well. Brought it home and filled a magazine, loaded one in the chamber, and set it aside. Folks, just so you don’t think I’m irresponsible, that gun is what I keep at the ready for home-defense. So, my son, who had gone in to unload and then dry-fire the gun, came up and said, “Dad. The bolt won’t open.” Dang. It wouldn’t. I started thinking up all reasons that might be behind that. The bolt carrier would retract a little way, which was the limit of usual “play” in the bolt travel inside it, so I didn’t think anything was broken. To remove the round I pulled off the upper, took it to the shop, and pried back the bolt carrier from the underside. A couple of careful but firm enough strokes and it opened.

The bullet had really jammed into the lands! I mean really jammed. Extracting the round and looking at it, land impressions were clear, and measuring the extracted round showed it was 0.022 longer than the new, un-chambered round. Unseating the jammed round pulled the bullet that far out from the case neck.

I manually inserted another round of the same into the chamber and gave it a nudge-in with my finger, and, sure enough, there it sat not nearly fully into the chamber. Had to tap it back out.

jammed bullet
Here’s the “stuck” round, right, talked over in the article. Land impression is pretty clear, and pretty deep. Notice also that the bullet got pulled out a might upon finally opening the action. On left is the same round out of the same box that was pushed into the chamber; land marks also, just a lot lower!

So. Since it’s a factory load, I really couldn’t have had a clue that it wasn’t compatible with my chamber throat. But now I do. And, for a clue, do that same yourself. If the round won’t drop in and out of a chamber fully and easily, that might be a problem. I still don’t know what the actual measured amount of the excessive length might have been. To find that I’d have to get a box of those bullets and gauge them using the LNL tools. I’m not going to do that. I’ve chosen another load that’s no-issues.

I say “might be” because, again these rounds functioned well, but, also, well, that can’t be good…

I suppose I will now need to start handloading for that contraption. I have also written down 100 times: “I will always check the chamber throat, even if it’s not a long-range rifle…”

Find gages at Midsouth HERE and HERE

The preceding is a specially-adapted excerpt from Glen’s book Top-Grade Ammo. Available HERE at Midsouth Shooters Supply. Visit ZedikerPublishing.com for more information on the book itself, and also free article downloads.

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8 thoughts on “RELOADERS CORNER: Seating Depth Issues”

  1. Glen’s sure right about the Hornady 52 Gr match being ogive forward. That can be very useful in reducing jump and many years ago we found this to be one of the more accurate bullets in relatively loose factory chambers. Another bullet with the same useful characteristic is the Midsouth’s varmint nightmare extreme 55 grain hollowpoint. Typically more accurate in Wylde and NATO chambers than the slicker high BC bullets, it will jam the lands in a minimum 223 chamber at magazine length. Especially in Krieger’s very short .223 Rem. chambers. A powerful tool, but like every powerful tool it can bite.

  2. Made the same mistake with an LR308 that had a short chamber. Pierced primer and frozen bolt, scared the whatever out of me. Spent a week rechecking headspace and chamber depth on everything I own. Still checking ammo. You would think that with 45+ years of doing this I might know better. I know write procedure sheets for each rifle/load with all relevant measures included. 50-60,000 psi doesn’t forgive stupid.

  3. I have used the trick of seating the bullet so it just touches the lands in my handloads for my Ruger M77 .30-’06 and it gives excellent accuracy. These loads just barely fit into the magazine, but function well. I tried the same thing with my .30-30 loads and found that there had to be quite a bit more restraint there, as the lever would not fully close if the bullet tip touched the lands. I haven’t had this problem with either of my ARs yet, as OAL length is limited by magazine dimensions. I also just bought some of the Varmint Nightmare bullets that Gary spoke of so I will be watching my OAL length on those loads very carefully. Thanks very much for this informative article and thanks to Gary for his info as well.

    Phil in TX

  4. Many years ago, I ignored the bullet profile loading a 30RemAR. Since that cartridge is kinda slow with heavier bullets, I was thinking that using one of the soft nose 30 cal bullets might ensure expansion. Even though they fit the mag, that bullet has a long bearing surface and I had them jammed into the lands. That got interesting really quick. Lesson learned!

  5. Your article primarily addressed cartridge length in rifles and concerns with proper functioning, accuracy, and over-pressure.
    Pistol bullet re-loaders are frequently concerned with seating depth because of the impact upon case volume below the bullet. Seating pistol bullets too low, especially in calibers with very small case capacities, creates the danger of significant increases in pressure.
    Bob in TX

  6. Been reloading for 3 yrs. now, I know I’m just a pup reloader. But that’s why I measure every single bullet internally and externally that I reload. Never had an issue on any of my reloads for my weapons as of yet, but again gotten used to checking every round. It’s a pain in the ass but worth it at the end. One thing I will say that I trust my reloading skills 100% vs. manufactured bullets, were I’ve had many that were not made correctly and had feeding or extracting problems. Great article and a heads up…..

  7. So…. I use the exact tool when measuring loaded rounds. I noticed you measured the bullet ogive. Why? I’ve always measured the ogive from a loaded round.

    1. I index off the ogive when setting seating depth. Just avoids the tip and is more accurate. I also use it on loaded rounds. Need to have a way to know the length that will contact the lands, and the combination of comparator along with the OAL gage is the most certain combination.

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