With numerous precision shooting titles under his name, including the 2021 Andrus Memorial Trophy NRA Match in August, Charles Rowe is no stranger to precision and rifle shooting. We were lucky to be able to speak to Charles recently about his shooting, reloading and load development methods, beliefs and thoughts.
We Talk with Charles
What shooting disciplines do you practice or compete in?
While I have dabbled with guns and shooting for almost my entire life, I only became a competitive shooter about less than ten years ago, starting out shooting Highpower (Across the Course) with the Service Rifle. After a couple years I legged out and earned my Distinguished Rifleman badge, and quickly transitioned into Mid-Range and Long Range prone (sling) shooting. While I sometimes shoot an Any rifle, I mostly focus on Palma shooting (a 308 or 223 with iron sights), and am both a shooter and coach for the US National Rifle Team. A few years ago, I was selected as an F-class coach for the US Rifle Team – F-T/R, and so lately have been working on developing shooting skills in that discipline as well.
How did you get started in reloading your own ammunition?
I actually started reloading when I was about 12 or 13 years old. While I was highly interested in guns (handguns at that time), I was not raised in ‘gun family’. No one owned or shot any guns at all. I convinced my dad to get me a .22 revolver for Christmas, which started everything, and then acquired a .357 revolver with grass cutting money the following summer. Since I had to feed it (with .38’s mostly), and had no money to speak of, reloading was the only option. My highly sophisticated setup at the time consisted of a Lee Loader, a block of wood, and a hammer! While I don’t recall the exact process, I do recall it being very crude and involved lots of loud pounding! I believe I have progressed a bit from those humble beginnings…
What is your main goal with reloading?
In the years prior to competitive shooting, it was all about saving money, especially with high volume handgun shooting. Once I got into service rifle, even though accuracy demands there aren’t terribly high, I realized I was both loading for better precision and to obtain combinations of loads that weren’t readily available (like 600 yard “long line” ammo for the 5.56mm using 80 grain bullets – not a typical, off the shelf round you find in a sporting goods store). Now of course, with Long Range and especially FTR, it is all about precision and the ability to tailor the load to the gun for the intended purpose.
What sequence do you follow when reloading virgin brass?
As will become pretty apparent through the rest of this interview, I am much more of a ‘minimalist’ when it comes to reloading. You recently interviewed one of my teammates, Drew Rutherford, and he and I probably have the two most diametrically diverse approaches to reloading that you could find. I always go for the least possible work in my processes, not because I think I am lazy or anything, but usually because the results are good enough for my intended purposes (and ‘good enough’ varies quite a bit depending on the type of rifle and discipline you are shooting – good enough for Service Rifle most assuredly is not good enough for something like Benchrest let’s say) or because I have not been able to demonstrate that ‘doing more’ has any tangible benefit on the results on the target.
Many people I believe add various steps and processes to their reloading routine because it makes them feel better, as if I do more, then the results will be ‘better’. And that is perfectly okay given the mental aspects represent a tremendous portion of success in these sports, especially when competing at the highest levels. So if you believe it makes it better, then maybe it does, so do it. But if you don’t have those voices that talk in your head, then cut to the chase and only do what you can determine actually matters to the actual outcome.
I think many also succumb to peer pressure, meaning if you’re not doing something that a bunch of other people you talk to are doing, then you must be doing something ‘wrong’. Whereas I believe the results a person gets (or doesn’t get) should dictate the proper answer, and whatever works for each individual should be the motivating factor, not going along with popular opinion at the time.
So that’s a very long intro to my answer about how do I treat virgin brass – and that is not much differently than fired brass. I shoot Lapua brass almost exclusively, and find that there is very little that needs to be done to it prior to use. At most, I will put a very slight bevel on the inside of the case mouth to remove any sharp edges so the first bullet seating goes smoothly, but otherwise, prime and load.
It will also become apparent that I do vary my process based on the specific caliber and application of that caliber, and this is one of those variables: when loading 223, but only for Palma or FTR, I will weight sort the brass into 1 grain lots. I do think that with such a small case size, which is being pushed to its limits at 1000 yards, with very heavy for caliber bullets, there is a discernable impact of case capacity that can be seen on the target at 1000 yards (but only 1000 yards – I don’t see much, if any, differences at 600, 800 or 900 yards – it’s only right when the bullet is starting to run out of gas at 1000 that it tends to make a difference).
I think that in the reloading process in general, when deciding what “needs” to be done vs not done, that the only way to truly answer the questions is to do controlled testing. And lots of folks will ‘test’ by shooting single groups and comparing them to one another. I’ve always subscribed to the ‘cone of dispersion’ theory, where your rifle shoots groups into a certain sized ‘cone’ on average, but it generally takes more than 3 or 5 shots to see what the true size of that cone is. So statistically speaking, you can shoot two 5-shot groups, with the same shooter precision, with the same exact loads, and get very different answers, because neither is accurately representing the true, actual, AVERAGE accuracy of the rifle/load/shooter combination.
So if I get a result when testing that is astonishingly good, the first thing I’ll do is shoot another one exactly the same right away and compare. If ‘on average’ that combo shows the best results, then great, but I believe you get erroneous conclusions by shooting single 3 or 5 shot groups and drawing conclusions solely from those results.
What sequence do you follow when reloading fired brass?
It’s an extremely basic process. All fired brass gets first run through full length bushing resizing dies (Redding or Whidden). For all calibers except 308, I use the die to size the neck and set neck tension. For 308, after sizing down in the die, I lube the inside of the necks and run them through an expander mandrel. [I use the mandrel for 308 because at some point in the past, for some reason I can’t recall right now, I couldn’t get consistent neck tension with whatever die I was using at the time, after trying lots of things, so eventually just bought a set of mandrels of various sizes and started using them – all my neck tension issues went away, and I’ve used them on 308 ever since. Never had similar issues on any other caliber.]
And speaking of neck tension, unlike Drew, I tend to use light to very light neck tension, and in my experience the lighter the neck tension on the 223, the more consistently they shoot (Drew uses extremely high neck tension on 223 and says that’s his formula for success with that caliber). I only note that, not to say he’s wrong or I’m right, but rather to point out that two people who are both fairly proficient at shooting the same round at the same distances in the same sport report exactly opposite approaches – yet both work very well. Which goes to prove there is no single “right answer”, and unfortunately, everything depends. There are so many variables at play in a rifle and load ‘system’ that it can be impossible to identify where the causal relationships are. So just go with what works.
And I don’t waste any time or brain power trying to figure things out. If light tension works for me, and heavy works for him, I really don’t care why at the end of the day – I just know I’m going to use my light tension and be successful, and that’s all that matters. I think a lot of us overthink and over-analyze things, when the only thing that really matters are the holes in the paper and the score on the board. Theory can be fun, but it can also lead us down rabbit holes that we should stay out of. For sizing, I just use spray lube (Hornady One Shot), and once sized, toss them into a tumbler with corncob media. [Which is one of those things that I probably would say is unnecessary – all that is needed is to wipe the neck with Ballistol or something and you’re good to prime and go, but I like shiny brass, so I tumble them. But at the end of the day, it provides no tangible benefit that I can tell, and lots of folks don’t bother these days. So another example of ‘just do what you want and that feels right’.)
Do you anneal your brass and why?
I do anneal, sometimes, and not on any fixed schedule. So while I do think neck tension is one of the more important things when going for consistency in reloading, I also don’t think annealing after every firing is needed to achieve that consistency. I actually think annealing can create other issues that have to be compensated for in other ways (for instance, after annealing, no matter when it’s done in the sizing/cleaning cycle), the natural lubrication in the neck is gone after annealing, and you get a very different neck to bullet fit & feel on that first seating/firing afterwards, and I think it has a small adverse affect. I’ve not really been able to find a way to recreate exactly the natural carbon lube effect, so therefore don’t shoot important matches with freshly annealed brass.
I know others have different experiences and opinions on this, but I hold off as long as I can in between annealings, and use the ‘seating feel’ of the bullet in the neck to start to tell me when it’s time to run them through the annealer. I would say I never anneal any sooner than 5 times, and sometimes much longer, and with some brass lots, I never end up having to anneal. I guess my approach is that I anneal as little as I can get away with to maintain consistent neck tension.
What caliber do you shoot with and why?
I am of ‘the simpler, the better’ school of thought. And my choice of calibers reflect that. Of course, for some of the disciplines I listed above, the caliber choice is spelled out for you, but I gravitated towards those disciplines in the first place because of the calibers involved. Namely, Palma and FTR both require either 308 or 223, so if you’re going to shoot sling and F-class, that is the natural choice for me. [If I shot mostly Any rifle sling and F-Open, then it would be a totally different answer, and would likely be a .284 Win because it is perfectly suited to both disciplines as well.]. For my limited Any rifle shooting, it’s a 6.5×47 Lapua. I believe there is tremendous benefit to reducing the menu size and focusing on as few calibers as possible. While it’s fun to have every wiz-bang new cartridge, a lack of focus tends to make you a jack of all trades and master of none. I know several World Champions that own rifles in a single caliber, and have fired nothing else in their lives, and don’t intend to. The simpler, the better, and the easier to master.
All these cartridges have several things in common: there is massive amounts of load data and historical info out there on what works and there are tried and true success formulas, which saves a ton of time, experimentation and components to get a rifle to shoot right. All are not “fussy” calibers, meaning there are wider ranges and nodes, and usually multiple nodes, so you find success much faster. And lastly, all have exceptional barrel life. I have no interest in finding the best barrel of all time only to know it will be shot out and worthless to me in 1000 rounds or so. Depending on your purpose and desired level of accuracy, 3,500 rounds is easily obtained with all of these calibers and the 308 can go 1000 rounds more than that at times. So a ‘good barrel’ with a ‘good load’ lasts a whole lot longer, and more time can be spent shooting and not testing. And it’s cheaper of course to not replace barrels all the time.
I will also add I really enjoy the challenge that the 223 brings with it. It is very rewarding to be shooting a so-called ‘substandard’ cartridge against the big brother 308 and come away with the win, whether in Palma or FTR. What is given up in ballistics is offset by ease of shooting, essentially no recoil, cheaper components, and the ability to carry twice the ammo in the same space/weight. And it’s just fun. [For perspective and example, at this year’s Nationals at Camp Atterbury (2021), I won the Andrus Trophy in a double shoot-off using the 223 against all other 308’s, the first time that a 223 has ever won that National Title. I’m a firm believer that it’s the Indian, not the arrow, in most cases.]
What does your reloading equipment consist of?
Up until late this year, I was stubbornly stuck on using equipment that I knew was not ‘the best’, but got the job done for me. My powder dispensing and measuring were done on an RCBS Chargemaster, and while I know many have had lots of issues, my scale never drifted and it threw fairly accurately (as accurately as the built in scale could measure, or to the 0.1 grain). It did take software tweeks and a McDonald’s straw to get it to its best, but ultimately, I was convinced by Kimberly that we needed to step up the game a bit, especially now that I was shooting FTR.
So Adam McDonald was kind enough to send us a brand new AutoTrickler v4 to beta test a few months ago, and we’ve never looked back. It is a superb setup, extremely accurate and very, very fast. I don’t know how to quantify the increase in level of precision, but it is significant. That being said, and despite how much I love the unit, I really do not think it is “necessary” to shoot very high scores and at a very high level. All of our National Championship wins and National Records (Kim has 16 I think, and counting) were achieved using the Chargemaster. So results are there, and it’s clearly good enough, but there is no doubt the v4 is better. What does that get you on paper? Still not sure, but I like it.
When we switched to the v4, we also switched seating methods. Previously, everything was seated with Redding Micrometer seating dies, and like the Chargemaster, did just great. But because of the change in process flow with the v4, we went to an arbor press method (using a K&M arbor press with Wilson dies). Again, this is theoretically a ‘better’ seating method to control concentricity and runout, as well as provide more feel and precision, but we never had issues with the more standard system before. But like the v4, do think it’s “better” with the arbor press, but without any measurable results (at least to date).
My press is a simple, old, small RCBS (a Reloader Special) that I’ve had for probably 30+ years. But it does the job and just keeps on ticking.
So nothing fancy and a very basic process (some would say too basic), but we’ve never once felt reloading deficiencies or shortcomings ever negatively affected our scores.
What load development method do you use to find a new load?
This is where I will part ways with most of the crowd. I don’t really do much “load development” at all (with the exception of for FTR rifles). As I noted in the caliber section of the interview, using calibers like the 223, 6.5×47 and 308 take a lot of the load development process away. My approach is to always use the same reamer for each caliber. My gunsmith, Greg Walley (formerly of Kelbly’s), is so precise that each barrel he chambers generally is within 0.001” (or often less) of the others, so I can easily and confidently transfer data from the old barrel to the new. And in most cases, since barrel maker (Bartlein) is the same, the action is the same, the barrel profile and length are the same, Greg has chambered it the same, and all the components are the same, what worked in the old barrel is going to work just fine (within the guidelines of acceptable accuracy levels that we’ll talk about in a minute). It is rare (very rare) for those three calibers, in a sling rifle, for my “standard load” to not be transferable and totally capable of winning a match.
And since I have a small stable of known cartridges, I hardly ever need a “new load”. I use the same bullets for each caliber (generally just shoot one per caliber – Sierra 155 SMK for 308 sling, Lapua 139 Scenar for 6.5, Berger 185 Jugg for 308 FTR, and Berger 90 VLD for 223), I eliminate almost all the experimental aspect of load development. And I use the same powder for everything I shoot as well – my only powder is Vihtavuori N140. Everything is a totally known quantity to me. Very rarely am I surprised as these calibers and bullets and loads are nearly plug-and-play. It makes life so easy, and I can spend time shooting and not testing.
This theory somewhat applies to FTR when shooting the Berger 185 Juggernauts, because they are so easy to tune and just about everything shoots fairly well, but definitely does not apply as you move up to the 200 Hybrid and especially the 200.20x. These bullets require quite a bit of testing and tuning, and quite frankly, I am not a good enough FTR shooter to be able to do that properly at this point in my F-class journey, so I leave them alone and shoot 185’s. (Drew’s interview would be the one to read to take a deep dive into the art of F-class reloading.)
Do you do load development before, during or after barrel break in?
A barrel changes during break in as it smooths out and laps in, so you’re not going to get a stable velocity until at least 150 rounds, or maybe 200 or so. So you can always tell if a barrel is going to shoot, from the first 5 shots lots of times, but you really can’t confirm things and nail down loads and seating depths until you’ve got those baseline rounds through it. You can pretty much tell when a new barrel is broken in because the speeds settle down and get consistent (they generally start slow and gain speed as they break in).
At what MOA or Grouping size do you stop load development?
The answer to this question depends on the application. I think it’s all relative to and dependent upon what the needs and expectations are. For example, if testing for Service Rifle loads, I take into account the size of the target (2 MOA 10-ring), the max range (being limited to only 600 yards), and the sighting and rifle system itself (4x scope and gas operated), to lower my standards to fit what I’m working with. So if I could keep a 10 shot test string loosely in the X ring, with maybe a few close leakers, at 600 yards, I know that’s the best I can shoot that gun and it’s good enough. So 1-1.25 MOA.
Moving to say a Palma rifle with iron sights, I know that at 600 yards there is no reason a good Palma rig shouldn’t be sub-X ring, so I want to ensure that it can group tightly within the X. Like above, I don’t necessary “measure” the groups per se, but I just know what I can shoot and hold, and know the accuracy potential of the type of rifle, and compare that to what I’m seeing develop on the target. If shots are on call, tightly grouped and in the X ring, it’s good enough for me, and I know if I don’t win, it’s not the load, it’s the shooter. So this would be something like a 0.75 MOA goal, but not strictly measured as such. (And by the way, I feel strongly that you have to load test the rifle in the same way you’re going to compete with it – so don’t test a prone sling rifle off a benchrest from a seated position – the results won’t necessarily transfer.)
When it comes to FTR, I think most of the above approach goes out the window. The target size is only 25% the area of the sling target, so what was an X above is now hopefully a line 10 at best, or maybe even a 9, and that won’t cut it. So the accuracy expectations of the load here are much higher, and much more precision is needed if you expect to be competitive. For FTR, I do measure group vertical, and would probably say nothing above 0.5 MOA would be acceptable, with a goal of half that (if the shooter is good enough to shoot it).
So it’s all relative to what you’re trying to accomplish, as a Benchrest shooter reading the above would consider it laughable, since it takes 0.1 MOA (or better) to win at that game. But I see no benefit (and lots of downside) for working so hard and so long on our rifles and loads to get to extreme levels of accuracy, when they rarely if ever provide a meaningful increase in score. All that time and effort used for load development can and should be used for developing positions, shooting techniques, and studying the wind. TONS more points get lost every match by poor wind reading than by poor load development. Focus on what gets you the best benefit and return on investment. Good enough is good enough in most cases.
What components does your rifle and optics that you currently use, consist of?
For my Palma and sling rifles, my go-to setups are Kelbly Panda BigBore actions with Bartlein barrels and usually a Geiselle Super 700 two-stage trigger, with a Riles 22mm front sight and Warner rear sight. I am also a huge fan of Jim Borden and his actions, so have a couple prone guns with his BRMXD actions and Diamond triggers. Most of our prone stocks are patterned after Masterclass or Warner stocks.
I am also a fan of Gary Eliseo’s tubegun chassis, as that is what I started out on and did very well with. I use Borden TG actions in those.
For FTR, it’s the same suppliers – Borden and Panda actions, Bartlein barrels, Bix N Andy or Jewel triggers, but with Cerus or Dima FTR stocks. I use SEB’s JoyPod, which is super light and a literally a joy to shoot with, being joystick controlled, and Dima rear bags, which are fantastic.
For glass, nothing but Nightforce, in most cases one of the Competition 15-55x models. They are totally reliable and track perfectly with great glass. Nightforce is a huge supporter of Team USA, so it’s great when your sponsor’s product also happens to the best – total win/win!
How often do you clean your rifle and barrel?
The answer here, like most, varies. I have a different cleaning cycle depending on caliber and discipline. I feel that 308 Palma guns almost never need cleaning (sometimes I go an entire season without cleaning, just because I can), or if I clean sooner, it’s always at 500 rounds or more. The 6mm’s and 6.5’s can’t go that long, so usually 200-250 rounds would be as far as I’d push those. For the 223, I used to treat it more like a Palma gun and go long stretches, but have lately found that a good cleaning after 100-150 rounds provides the best all-around performance. And with the FTR rifles, of either caliber, I usually clean right before a match weekend, foul a few shots, shoot the course of fire for the 2 or 3 days, and then clean.
What barrel cleaning equipment, products and procedure do you use?
I am not one of those people who tries to get back down to the molecular level of new steel when I clean. I use the theory that it’s going to be dirty again after the first shot, so my point in cleaning is just to prevent buildup that would erode accuracy. I use a couple homebrews that the local benchrest guys shared with me (I am fortunate enough to have a local club 10 minutes away that Nelson Berger founded, and is frequented by many Hall of Fame shooters, including Jack Neary of Lapua – if you want loading info, he’s a wealth of information). I also use, of all things, CLR to do the heavy lifting in removing fouling (the household CLR that you use to clean faucets and such).
The process is (news flash…) simple really: dip a brush in CLR, scrub a dozen or so times, patch out a few times with CLR, then do the same with the ammonia based homebrew to remove copper, repeat the brush-then-patch process with my carbon focused homebrew (which has a neutralizer for the ammonia in it), dry patch, clean the bolt and bolt face really well, clean out the lug areas, grease the back of the lugs, and done.
Every now and again I’ll borescope the barrels just to see if I’m missing anything stubborn, and if so, I will use some JB paste judiciously to scrub specifc areas of carbon or copper buildup. It doesn’t take much effort. Then I just patch the residue out. On the 223, I always inspect for carbon rings, which have a nasty habit of appearing with that caliber for some reason. If I see one starting, JB takes care of it in short order.
What do you feel is your biggest factor resulting in your consistency?
As I started out by saying in this interview, I don’t think the reloading room wins you any matches. If done poorly, of course it can definitely help you loose them, but I adhere to the philosophy that 90% of this game is the shooter and his/her ability to read the wind. Most rifles these days can easily be made to shoot well enough. But most shooters do not shoot well enough. I always want to put the time and the effort into the shooting and wind reading aspects, not the reloading aspects.
While my reloading habits are very basic (some would say primitive), I never cease working on and experimenting with everything related to the setup of the rifles and the position/technique of the shooter. Very small changes in position, sling tension, cheek pressure, shoulder pressure, head position, body angle (the list is endless) can have a profound impact on the ability to consistently put rounds into the same small group.
Almost all my “testing” is done on items related to how to “shoot” better, not how to reload better. Your rifle may be a 0.25 MOA gun, and mine a 1 MOA gun, but if we’re shooting a sling match and you can only hold 1 MOA and I can hold 0.5 MOA, a) what difference does it make that your gun is better than mine? (None), and b) I am likely to win because my gun is ‘good enough’ and I can hold inside of you (and the ability to hold is based on practice and testing of position).
And I think one thing that’s helped me is that I am never happy with my shooting. No matter how good it goes sometimes, I always know what mistakes I made, and I can come home from a match after winning and setting a national record and immediately start changing things to see if I can make it better. I see many long-term competitors shoot the same rifle the same way for years, and never change a thing, because “that’s how I shoot”. And that’s how you don’t win too. So you have to always be questioning ‘is this the best way’ or ‘is there something I can do differently to improve’, and then go out and try it (and fail a lot) until you incrementally improve upon all the other previous incremental improvements. It never stops, and it’s an endless process, but one that is rewarding and fun in the end. And that leads to being at the top of leaderboard.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Charles, and also for doing the deep-dive in your equipment and reloading methods, it is great learning from you.