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RELOADERS CORNER: Cartridge Case Headspace

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Knowing, and controlling, this dimension is a crucially important step in the case sizing operation, especially for semi-autos. Here’s what it is and why it matters. Read all about it!

Glen Zediker

Last time, and to start the new year off, I hit a few highlights on the first of what I think are some of the most important things to understand in reloading for bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. A majority of those differences is in what’s allowable and possible in cartridge case sizing.

The reason I’m running these articles is to clearly define the differences in, essentially, what you can get away with (and can’t get away without) depending on the action type. Don’t confuse some of the tactics, tools, and techniques used for bolt-actions and (mis)apply them to semis. That can range from frustrating (function issues) to disastrous (blowed-up guns). I hope that these focused articles will clarify the basics before moving on to the finer points respecting each.

case headspace illustration
Here’s headspace: it’s a height based on a diameter. A .223 Rem. uses a 0.330-inch-diameter datum; the height to the diameter on the case shoulder that equals 0.330 inches is the headspace dimension, measured from the case base (this is measured from the bolt face to determine headspace in a rifle chamber). There are only 5 datums that apply to all standard bottleneck cartridges; the correct number for your cartridge will be referenced in the cartridge specifications. (Belted magnums and rimmed cartridges are different stories, for a different story.)

Following on that, here’s one: cartridge case headspace. A rifle chamber has a headspace; a cartridge case has a headspace. The second cannot exceed the first. Here’s how it goes:

The area in point is the case shoulder, the area between the bottom of the case neck cylinder and the case body. There are two dimensions associated with case headspace: the diameter of the “datum” line, and the height (measured from the case base) to that line. So, headspace is determined by the location of the datum line. There are only 5 datum diameters in use over the range of bottleneck rifle cartridges. Datum diameter will be indicated in the cartridge description in any good loading manual. (Belted magnums, which headspace off the belt, are the exception, and different stories, and so are rimmed cases.)

Chamber headspace is determined by the chamber reamer and also the one operating the reamer. There are SAAMI standards for all standard cartridges (which are coincidentally those having SAAMI specs). Ammo manufacturers set their cartridge case dimensions to work within those same specs, and almost always with (literally) some room for variations. That means that, usually (and, again, I’m talking about factory-chambered rifles) the cartridge case headspace will be a little shorter than the rifle chamber will accommodate.

When a round fires, as is by now well-known, the case expands in all directions under pressure, swelling and conforming to the chamber, then retracts immediately afterward when pressure dissipates. Since brass has a plastic property, dimensions are not going to return to exactly what they were prior to firing, and that’s what all the sizing tools and operations seek to rectify. So, among other changes, the case shoulder will have “blown forward,” after having snugged up into that area of the rifle chamber. That will have moved the datum line upward. As hit upon last article, semi-automatics are notorious for exhibiting a little more than they “should have” in expanding, and that’s because there’s a little (to a lot) of pressure latent in the case when the bolt starts to unlock and move rearward. This can effectively create additional space for case expansion within the chamber. The case shoulder measurement after firing in a semi-auto might actually exceed that of the actual chamber headspace, or, at the least, be a little taller than it would have been in a bolt-gun having the exact same chamber dimensions. The hotter the load, the more gas system pressure, the more this might show.

case headspace tools
Get a few de-primed once-fired cases and a gage and get to work. Here’s a Forster Datum Dial gage. Works well and works for all standard-architecture bottleneck cartridges, as does the Hornady LNL. Each or either gives a “real” headspace number (although it’s not perfectly congruent, without mathematical manipulation, to the figure from a headspace gage used for chambering; that doesn’t matter though: as long as the gage is zeroed it shows the difference, and that’s what matters). By the way, the old standard “drop-in” style case gages might keep ammo safe, but won’t provide this sort of detail in information. The numbers we need to get from our gage are these: new, unfired case shoulder height (where we started); fired, unslzed case shoulder height (where we went to); sized case shoulder height (where we need to get back to).

To be rechambered, this case has to have its case shoulder “set back,” which means that the sizing die has to contact the shoulder area enough to budge it, bump it, down to a tolerable height. Here next is how to find out what that “tolerable” height is.

The process of adjusting a sizing die to produce correct cartridge case headspace is plenty simple and easy, and requires a specialty tool (and you knew that was coming): a gage to determine datum line height.

CHECK OUT MIDSOUTH Selections HERE

First, and important: this has to be done on the first firing of a new case, either a factory-loaded round or your own creation. For more conclusive accuracy, measure 4-6 cases, and, very important: de-prime a case before taking a read (the primer might interfere).

Measure a new case. Write that down.
Measure your fired case. Write that down.

Again, in a semi-auto the chamber might not actually be as long as the fired case reading says it is. In a bolt-gun, the post-firing case headspace dimension is going to be a closely-accurate indicator of the chamber headspace (but always subtract 0.001 inches from any reading to account for the predictable “spring back” in brass).

headspace reading
New — 1.458 inches.
headspace reading
Fired — 1.464 inches
headspace setting
Die setting — 1.460 inches.

To set the die, take the fired case reading and reduce it. How much set back? I recommend 0.003-0.004 inches for something like an AR15 or M1A. That’s playing it safe, considering, again (and again) that there may likely have been additional expansion beyond chamber dimensions. I’d like to see folks set back their bolt-guns at least 0.001, but I’m not going to argue! I don’t like running sticky bolts.

Set up case sizing die
Thread the sizing die down to touch the shellholder when the press ram is at its highest point of travel (whether it “cams” or not). Then back the die up (off) one full turn. Lightly seat the die body lock ring against the press top, and repeat the following process: lube and size the case, check the headspace; adjust the die downward, check the headspace. Rinse and repeat. For a 7/8-14 thread, which is virtually all presses, a full turn equals 0.0714 inches. That little nod of knowledge helps keep from going too far too soon, and also shows just how fine the adjustments get right at the end. When you think you got it, size a few more cases and read them. When you know you got it, lock the die ring. Note: the expander/decapping assembly was removed from this die, for one, because t doesn’t factor in establishing headspace, and because I set it all up separately on a new die. Headspace is the first thing I set.)

A little extra space ahead of the case shoulder helps ensure safe and reliable functioning in a semi-auto, and also, importantly, reduces the chance that the case might bottom out on the shoulder area in the chamber before the bolt is fully locked down. Firing residue in a semi-auto chamber is also effectively reducing chamber headspace, and that’s another reason for the little extra shoulder set-back. Keep the chamber clean!

headspace reading
Don’t just set the die bottom flush against the shellholder and commence to shucking cases! Most die makers provide that as instruction, and some say drop it down another quarter turn or so beyond that. That’s excessive. Here’s the read I got from flush die-shellholder contact on a new Forster.

Why not just set the shoulder back, for either action type, to what the factory set for the new case? Doing that really wouldn’t affect load performance, but, in my belief, deliberately creating what amounts to excessive headspace is not wise. It’s just that much more expansion, that much more “working” that the brass has to endure, that much shorter serviceable brass life. However! That’s not nearly as bad as leaving the shoulder too high! That’s dangerous.

NOTE: 
Bolt-Gun Only!
Do you have to do this with a bolt-gun? I say yes, but freely admit that, at the least, from zero to “just a tic” is safe enough. What you do need to do is know what you’re getting! For a bolt-action it is possible, and some think wise, to determine the necessary case shoulder set-back based on what is needed to close the bolt on the resized case: adjust the die down a tad at a time until the bolt closes. Depending on how stout the load is, it might be 2-4, or more, firings before the shoulder needs to be set back for a bolt-gun. But, rest assured, it eventually will. Just keep up with it. I think the bolt should close easily (and if you’re having issues with that in your handloads, there’s the first place to look for a cure). It’s really not possible to follow this plan with a semi-auto because the bolt will close with much greater force during actual firing. 

The information in this article is from Glen’s newest book, Top-Grade Ammo, available HERE at Midsouth. Also check HERE for more information about this and other publications from Zediker Publishing.

 

RELOADERS CORNER: Bullet Jump, Three

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In this final installment you’ll learn how to take bullet jump completely out of the equation, but it’s not just that simple… Here’s how to get the results you’re after. Keep reading…

Glen Zediker

There’s one more concept to consider to fully finish the topic of bullet seating depth, and it’s literally on the other end of the equation from discussions on bullet jump.

Last two articles were all about a combination of the evils of jumping bullets and also some ideas on reducing the ill effects, and hopefully to the point of zero measurable group size differences. I also mentioned that there are some bullets that just don’t tolerate jumping.

JLK 105 VLD
Bullets like this tend (a true Davis-drawn VLD) not to shoot well unless they start right on or very near the lands. I sho don’t know for certain, but I really think it has at least some to do with, for want of a better way to describe it, their leverage: it’s a lot of front end ahead of the first point of land diameter. These really long bullets don’t have to tip much to shift alignment relatively more.

For many (many many) years it’s been generally held that starting a bullet touching the lands is the easy ticket to better accuracy. That’s hard to disprove. It’s a tactic very commonly used by Benchrest and Long Range Rifle competitors, and savvy long-shot hunters. Now we’re talking about zero jump. Myself and many others have referred to this bullet seating tactic as “dead-length” seating. To be clear: it’s the cartridge overall length that has the bullet nosecone actually sitting flush against the lands (touching on whichever point along the nose that coincides with land diameter). Some literally take that a step farther and increase contact force such that the bullet is sticking into the lands one or more (sometimes several more) thousandths, actually being engraved by the lands prior to launch.

There are two ways to attain or approach dead-length. One is through careful measurement using something like a Hornady LNL Overall Length Gage. That tool should be paired with a bullet-length comparator, and Hornady has one of those too, as do others.

Measure enough bullets using a bullet-length comparator and you will find length differences in a box of most any brand. A comparator, as has been shown before in my articles (because it’s a very valuable tool to increase handloading precision), provides a more accurate means to measure bullet length. It’s a simple tool: the bullet nosecone fits into the opening on the gage, stopping at a point (determined by tool dimension) along the nosecone. Not all such gages coincide with land diameters because both comparators and land diameters vary from maker to maker. They are all “close” but perfect coincidence doesn’t really matter because a comparator will allow a reading at the same point of diameter regardless. Measuring from the base of a bullet to the bullet tip is inaccurate, and not nearly “good enough” to provide a precise enough measurement to venture into lands-on seating depth experiments. The reason measuring from base to tip isn’t good enough is because, especially in hollowpoint match-style bullets, there are relatively huge variations in the consistencies of the tips. I’ve measured easy 0.020 differences in a box of 100. Can’t make bank on that.

Using the combination of the gage that shows overall cartridge length that has the bullet touching the lands and the comparator to precisely record this length, it can then be reproduced via seating die adjustment.

Hornady LNL gage setHere’s a tool set shown many times in my books and articles this pair or something similar is necessary to negotiate this step in handloading. Check it out HERE and HERE at Midsouth.

If using this method, maintain whatever usual neck sizing dimensions are for your routine loads. There’s no need or benefit from lessening the case neck “tension” (which is the amount, in thousandths of inches, of the difference between resized case neck outside diameter and the resulting diameter after a bullet is seated). If that’s, say, 0.003 then keep it at 0.003.

There’s another, maybe better, method to follow if (and only if) you have a bolt-gun that’s to be fed one round at a time. By that I mean the rounds are not feeding up from a magazine but are being manually inserted into the chamber. That method is to reduce the case neck tension or grip to a level that the bullet is free enough to move within the case neck such that it seats itself when the round is chambered and the bullet makes contact with the lands. That’s awfully light in-neck resistance. It can’t be so light that the bullet falls into the case neck, but light enough that it can be scooted more deeply with little pressure. For a number it’s 0.001, minus, and half of that is workable if the case necks have been outside turned (so they are dead consistent in wall thicknesses and therefore will reliably “take” that little tension, meaning respond consistently to the sizing operation). Need a bushing-style sizing die to get that sort of control over the neck sizing dimension.

This method is often called “soft seating.” It’s, as said, very popular with competitive precision shooters. The bullet, keep in mind, isn’t just touching the lands, it’s actually engaging the lands to whichever degree or distance that resulted from overcoming the resistance from the case neck. If you feel anything more than slight resistance in chambering a round, that’s too much resistance. Chances are that any soft-seated bullet will stick in the barrel so extracting a loaded round will likely result in a big mess (elevate the barrel a little to keep the propellant from dumping into the action). Pushing the lodged bullet back out and looking at it carefully gives a good idea of how much resistance it’s overcoming. If the engraved area is much over 1/16-inch, increase the neck sizing bushing diameter to likewise loosen up the case neck. The amount of engraving has a whopping lot to do with the bullet jacket material (you’ll see more with a J4 than with a Sierra).

If you follow this method, then finish the die-seated bullets “out” 0.005-0.010 inches.

Redding sizing die bushing
It’s necessary to be able to fine-tune neck sizing dimension to experiment with soft-seating. A bushing-style sizing die is best. The bushing might also change for different brands or lots of brass if there are thicker or thinner neck walls. Clearly, outside neck turning is a step toward consistency in this sizing operation.

The reason this method can give the overall best results is because it’s accounting for teeny differences in bullet ogives and it also is adjusting itself for throat erosion. As gone on about in the last couple of articles, a barrel throat is lengthening with each round that passes through. What was touching the lands, or jumping 0.015, even one hundred rounds ago is no longer valid, and it’s totally corrupt five or six hundred rounds later. It’s no longer a precise setting, meaning a precise seating depth, and it has to be checked and reset as the barrel ages.

Again, this is not a casual experiment. The level of control and precision necessary to make it work safely and as expected is a step or three beyond what most reloaders are tooled up to deliver.

Will lands-on seating work for a semi-auto? Yes. But only with adequate bullet grip to retain the bullet firmly in the case neck, and that means the same tension that would be used with any other cartridge architecture, and that means a minimum of 0.003 inches difference between sized and seated outside case neck diameters. I do it often with my across-the-course High Power Rifle race guns. Clearly the “soft-seating” tactic is in no way wisely feasible in a semi-auto.

WARNING!
MOVING A BULLET OUT SO IT TOUCHES THE LANDS WILL (not can) INCREASE LOAD PRESSURE! Even going from 0.001 off to flush on will spike pressure. When the bullet is in full contact it’s acting like a plug. I strongly suggest backing off one full grain (1.0 grain) before firing a bullet touching the lands. Then follow my “rule”: work up 0.2-grains at a time but come off 0.5-grains at a time! If there’s ever any (any) pressure symptom noted, don’t just back of a tenth or two, that’s not enough, not considering all the other little variations and variables that combine to influence the behavior of the next several rounds you’ll fire.

THREE REASONS DEAD-LENGTH SEATING WORKS
ONE: Accounts for and overcomes any minor variations in bullet dimensions.
TWO: Minimizes bullet jacket disruption on entry.
THREE: Virtually eliminates misalignment between bullet and bore.

SIDE NOTE
If you’re one who, as many readers have suggested to me, has found that seating a bullet to touch the lands is the only way they get good groups, consider the above three reasons this seating method works and then interpret. If, and this is more common than we’d like to see, you’ve got a factory bolt-action rifle the chamber is likely to be overly generous in size or a tad amount non-concentric, or both. The case wall consistency and also sizing and seating tooling, or all three, might likewise be sub-par. In other words: lands-on seating is overcoming a few rifle issues, not, in itself, proving it’s the one-way ticket to great groups. Mostly, getting the bullet into the lands essentially straightens out alignment of the whole cartridge sitting in that (maybe) big chamber.

The information in this article is from Glen’s newest book, Top-Grade Ammo, available HERE at Midsouth. Also check HERE for more information about this and other publications from Zediker Publishing.