We talk to multi-discipline professional precision rifle shooter, Bryan Zolnikov about his rifle, reloading equipment and load development methods. At true precision rifleman. Be sure to checkout Bryan’s awesome Youtube channel on the link at the end of this interview, he shares valuable information for benchrest and other precision rifle shooter, great for both new and experienced shooters and reloaders.
We Talk with Bryan
What shooting disciplines do you practice or compete in?
Short and Long Range benchrest, F Class, and tactical style (e.g., Precision Rifle Series and National Rifle League).
How did you get started in reloading your own ammunition?
When I was a teenager my father reloaded so I learned the basics from him and started reloading with his equipment. Later in life when I started shooting more and entering competitions, I started reloading independent of my father.
What is your main goal with reloading?
Produce high quality consistent ammunition that demonstrates great performance.
What sequence do you follow when reloading virgin brass?
The sequence and procedures vary depending on my purpose. If I am shooting short-range benchrest for example, I will do every step that I believe is important for brass preparation. In that example, this is the sequence:
- Inspect the brass for obvious major flaws. I keep the cases with major flaws to use as a “sacrificial case” for annealing, setting up neck turning equipment, etc. I will never use a majorly flawed case in a benchrest match. If there is a minor flaw that can easily be corrected, I will usually use the case in a match after I corrected the flaw (e.g., a ding on the neck that can be straightened out with a mandrel).
- Check the headspace on the virgin brass in relation to my chamber. While I am doing this, I will measure the headspace of about 5-10 random pieces and write down the average of those measurements. I keep track of how much the brass stretches as I fireform. Also, measure the bullet-lands touch point and write down that measurement.
- Weight sort. Usually sort into batches of 20-25 for 5-shot matches and 30-40 for 10-shot matches.
- Uniform the primer pockets.
- Debur the flash hole.
- Turn the necks if I have to. Nowadays I prefer not to have to turn necks so I am careful about the type of reamer used to chamber the barrel and neck thickness of the brass I intend to use so that I do not have to turn necks. However, there are some reamer and brass combinations that are extremely effective so I am willing to turn necks if that is required (e.g., Robinette reamer with Lapua BR brass requires the necks to be turned).
- Neck size.
- If I do turn the necks, I dry tumble the cases afterwards in order to clean them up.
- Prime the cases. While I am priming, I check one of every 10 primed cases for primer depth (tolerance is .003 – .005 depth). If there is anything outside this tolerance, I inspect all of the cases and, in cases where the depth is outside of the tolerance, I eject the primer and reseat a new primer. If the tolerance is outside of the acceptable window again, I will not use that case and keep it for some other purpose such as those indicated in step 1 above.
- Moly coat the interior of the case neck prior to seating the bullet.
- Fireform. Typically, when fireforming, I will jam the bullet about ten thousandths of an inch.
For other purposes, I will omit certain steps.
What sequence do you follow when reloading fired brass?
Much like my previous answer, the procedure will vary depending on my purpose but in a short range benchrest match, I would conduct a full procedure that includes:
- Inspect at least a couple piece of brass for pressure signs and the pattern of carbon around the outside of the neck.
- Clean the carbon off the outside of the neck with steel wool. Wipe off the steel wool residue from the case.
- Anneal with the Annealing Made Perfect (AMP) machine.
- Lube the brass (I use a lanolin-based lube from Hi Line Precision).
- Full-length size the brass.
- Check the headspace on at least the first few cases. Adjust the sizing die if necessary.
- Wipe the brass clean.
- Clean the primer pocket.
- Scrub the internal part of the neck with a nylon brush.
- Charge the case.
- Seat the bullet.
Do you anneal your brass and why?
Yes because annealing make resizing more consistent. If the match affords the time to anneal, I will anneal after each firing. If there is no time to anneal, I will take care to check headspace after each resizing of the case after each firing. What I find is that when I anneal after each firing, I do not have to adjust my sizing die throughout the match; when I do not anneal, I usually will have to adjust my sizing die from 2-4thousandths of an inch throughout the course of a 2-day match. This happens because the brass becomes so work hardened that I have to adjust the die downward in order to get the 1.5-2 thousandths of an inch headspace that I am looking for.
What caliber do you shoot with and why?
Depends on the purpose. For short range benchrest (100 and 200 yards), I will shoot the 6PPC. For benchrest score matches at 300 yards, I will use the 30BR. For 600 yard matches, I will usually use the 6BRA or 6 Dasher but might use the 284 Win or .308 Win (using Berger 200 Hybrid Target bullets). For tactical style matches, I will use either the 6 Dasher (usually for local club matches that are limited to 600 yards) or 6 or 6.5 Creedmoor (usually for national matches where we shoot a lot of targets within 400-800 yards and there is likely going to be a stage or two where the targets are out to 1200 yards). The reason for using these chamberings for their respective purposes is because they have a demonstrated pedigree of high effectiveness for their respective style of matches. This is not to say that I would not shoot anything different because I do appreciate innovation and trying new things. I recently shot a 6GT and think it would be a great cartridge for tactical style matches and perhaps even long-range benchrest and F class.
What does your reloading equipment consist of?
Too much to list! For short range benchrest, I use:
- Bullet Central Micron Precision sizing and seating dies. I also have a custom cut Newlon resizing die for a particular chamber. I put a PMA Micro Die Adjuster on the sizing dies so that I can make quick and precise adjustments.
- Harrells Precision Combo Press because of its portability
- Bryant powder thrower or Intellidropper
- 12 inch drop tube
- PMA ball bearing priming tool
- Mitutoyo calipers
- Wilson headspace gauges
For all other applications, I use:
- Slavadori Firenze Eterna press
- Wilson or Redding resizing and seating dies
- Matchmaster powder dispenser
What load development method do you use to find a new load?
I usually use the “known load” method. I will text, e-mail, or call other competitors and ask what load they use. I try to ask people who shoot in the same region that I do so that atmospheric factors do not confound my load development. Same with reamer specifications, powder lots, etc. For example, for my home short-range benchrest range, I will ask people who shoot at that range what their typical load entails. I also check with them about their reamer specs, powder lot, etc. As for bullet seating, I will ask the bullet developer where the bullet “likes” to be seated. From there, during load development my general rule is: vertical variance is corrected by powder charge and horizontal variance is corrected by seating. I will load develop in calm conditions or with wind flags placed in the field.
I do not recommend the “known load” method unless you are very certain that the information you receive is coming from an expert shooter that you trust and you have enough experience and knowledge to assess the information you receive to be reasonable. Unfortunately, there is a lot of very bad advice out there so be very careful even considering the “known load” method.
If you are not going to utilize the “known load” method, then I recommend looking the data up from a reputable loading manual and starting the powder charge at the low range and then slowly work up. When I use the loading manual method, I will do a ladder test and see where there are a cluster of bullet holes in the same or very similar spot on the target. I will load to the middle of that powder charge window and then begin a seating test. I test 3 thousandths of an inch at a time so that I can detect a tune window. If you test 10 thousandths of an inch or more, you are likely to miss a tune window. Great barrels will shoot in the same hole from + and – 4 thousandths of an inch in seating variance. Once I find the tune window, I make sure I load in the middle of the tune window. You may need to periodically reassess the tune window as the barrel wears. A worn out/”shot out” barrel will have a very small tune window and groups will grow.
Do you do load development before, during or after barrel break in?
During. I anticipate that a barrel will “speed up”/show a 50-100 feet per second (fp/s) increase in speed after 50-100 rounds. Sometimes this does not affect groups and point of impact but if it does, then I will adjust the load as needed.
At what MOA or Grouping size do you stop load development?
Depends on my purpose. For example, if I am planning to shoot in a competitive benchrest match where a few of the shooters I am competing against hold world records and/or major trophies, I will aspire for “zeros”/0 MOA and will persist with load development as long as I can until I get in the “zeros.” If I am shooting a non-sanctioned club tactical match, then a quarter MOA will suffice. I do not want to spend too much time finding a load because I want to preserve barrel life. If I am struggling to find an appropriate load, I will text, call, and/or e-mail people who can provide expert advice.
What components does your rifle and optics that you currently use, consist of?
Short-range benchrest: McMillan and a BAT stock, BAT Nuevo drop port action and a BAT B action, Nightforce fixed 42 scope and a March 10-60 scope, and Flavio Whisper trigger. There are many superb barrel brands to choose from but I typically use Bartlein and Krieger.
Long-range bench rest and F-class: Cerus stock, Borden Rimrock BRMXD action, March 10-60 High Master scope, and Flavio trigger.
Tactical: Masterpiece Arms chassis, Defiance Machine Deviant action, Nightforce ATAC-R scope, and Timney 2-stage trigger. I interchange my components to fit my purpose and have several other components that I can utilize (for example, Wheeler LBR and McMillan XCIT stocks).
How often do you clean your rifle and barrel?
As often as it needs for optimal precision or as practical. I test each barrel and take notes about how often each barrel needs to be cleaned. I have had some barrels that show degraded precision after 30 shots but after cleaning, return to optimal precision; some barrels can shoot up to 300 shots without much degradation of precision and I can shoot them all day without cleaning.
What barrel cleaning equipment, products and procedure do you use?
I use the ThorroClean Bore Cleaning System from Bullet Central. I used ammonia-based cleaning solutions in the past but I switched to detergent-based because the detergent-based solutions are cleaner, neutral odor, and effective at cleaning the bore. I use Bore Tech copper remover but I do not regularly remove copper because some degree of copper fouling seems to assist precision.
I use PMA rod guides with a rod guide insert because they are the highest quality bore guides and they keep the cleaning rod centered to the bore. I use the PMA action cleaning tool kit to clean the action and chamber. I use Bore Tech, Dewey, and Shooter’s Choice (stainless steel) cleaning rods.
What do you feel is your biggest factor resulting in your consistency?
Being steadfast and consistent in my reloading procedures is a huge factor. I built in “quality checks” to my procedure so that I can be relatively sure that important things are consistent.
Are there any other points you may want to add?
If you have not been to a shooting match, please come out and watch a match. I have been impressed with how approachable the match competitors are at all of the matches I have been to. Many competitors can help mentor you and assist with getting you ready to shoot a match.
Thank you for this opportunity to share information and I hope it is helpful. Shoot small!
Nick, Well done with your great achievements in the Precision Rifle shooting sport in the short time since you have started, we look forward to seeing you win many more in future.