We talk to the 2021 NRA Mid-Range F-Class Championships F-TR division champion, Drew Rutherford about his in-depth load development, precise brass preparation and reloading methods. Only starting shooting much later in life, Drew has quickly advanced to achieve what few in the industry have, even those shooting since early childhood.
We Talk with Drew
What shooting disciplines do you practice or compete in?
My primary focus is F-Class Target Rifle (FTR), although I dabble in F-Open. I have done some Benchrest, Palma (sling), Air Rifle, Air Pistol, XTC and Steel shooting just to try it out and have enjoyed nearly all of these, but with the time demands of my FTR schedule, it is challenging to branch out too much.
How did you get started in reloading your own ammunition?
I came to shooting (of any kind) pretty late in life (at 43 years old), and as soon as I realized that consistent accuracy really depended upon reloading, I started learning how to do it. I did not have the luxury of a mentor in this area, so I read A LOT about how to do it safely. So within a few months of my very first trigger pull, I was learning how to reload.
What is your main goal with reloading?
Accuracy, pure and simple. I wish it was to save money, but that does not happen. You just shoot more.
What sequence do you follow when reloading virgin brass?
I use exclusively Lapua brass for all of my calibers for competition. I also neck turn all of my competition brass. This year I have been experimenting with mandrels in lieu of neck turning but have not found a reliable process that gives me the same (or better) accuracy on target as neck turning. So here is my process:
- Open new box of Lapua brass and smile
- Using a Q-tip I apply Imperial sizing wax to the inside neck of the brass
- Using a K&M, caliber-specific expanding iron matched to their turning pilot, I expand the neck
- I turn the brass (typically 60-75% clean-up) to give AT LEAST 0.0015” clearance on each side of loaded round to chamber
- I use a Q-tip to remove the excess lubricant from the inside of the neck
- I anneal the brass
- Using my finger, I lightly lube the outside of the neck with imperial sizing wax and lightly spray Hornady One Shot on outside of case body
- Using a Redding Type S bushing die, I size the case. For more than 6 years I have been running very high neck tension with great success. I test this in each new barrel but have found this process to be great at bringing down ES/SD and tightening groups. In my most accurate 308 barrel, I use a 0.331 bushing (about 0.330 sized) for a 0.337 loaded round, as one example. This is quite a bit against common wisdom, but I have thoroughly tested this in each barrel to my satisfaction. 0.003-0.004 “neck tension” is more common for me, however. In particular, getting the 223Rem/90vld combo to have the smallest groups, heavy neck tension has been critical to my success with this particular combo.
- After sizing, I use a clean rag to remove the excess lubricant from case. I do this to remove bulk lube rather that to meticulously dry the case. Just a quick wipe. I do this so that dirt, etc. is not as likely to deposit on the case and effect chambering during a match more so than concern that the lube will impact accuracy.
- I prime with RCBS hand primer
- Charge with powder (hard to beat the V3 autotrickler)
- Seat with Redding micrometer dies. If it will be weeks+ before firing, I will load long and seat to length using a Wilson seating die and 21st Century (non-gauged) arbor press the day before firing them.
What sequence do you follow when reloading fired brass?
I find it important to accuracy to do everything possible to preserve the deposited carbon inside the neck to act as a “natural” lubricant for the bullet. One can introduce a substitute like wax, moly, graphite, etc., but I’ve had the most success keeping the carbon minimally disturbed except for running the stiff-bristled neck brush in-and-out one time.
So, similar to above, except I first wipe the outside neck with a rag whetted with Ballistol to get the bulk soot off the neck, I spray a batch of 25 cases in Tupperware with OneShot and resize, attempting to not get it into the case/neck.
While I have had very good success with Redding Type S dies through the years, when Bullet Central released their new Micron die last year, I pick up their very first one and have been impressed with the repeatable concentricity produced by this die.
If my die doesn’t have the deprimer pin in it, I use the Harvey Hand deprimer to deprime. I very lightly chamfer neck with the RCBS tool, run a RCBS neck brush (very stiff bristles) in and out of neck one time and wipe lube off case with clean rag.
Prime, powder and seat bullet, as above. If I anneal this cycle, after the Ballistol, I wipe outside of neck/shoulder with paper towel saturated with isopropyl alcohol (and deprime with Harvey deprimer) before annealing.
Then back to OneShot, FL size with a bushing die, light chamfer, brush and wipe case with rag. I still use the neck brush after annealing, as it seems to knock down whatever causes the freshly annealed neck to be “grabby” towards the bullet after the annealing process.
Do you anneal your brass and why?
Up until last year, I annealed every firing. This season, I am trying to see how many firings it takes before observing a loss in accuracy. I do not have any set with more than 5 firings on them since annealed, and, so far, no loss in accuracy. I did run a test, and the second firing after annealing was more accurate than just annealed. I believe this has to do with minimally disrupting the natural lubricant of burnt powder residue in the neck (see above).
What caliber do you shoot with and why?
Primarily I shoot 308Win and 223Rem as these are the restrictions for FTR. In FOpen, I have used 284, 6.5-284, 6BRX, 6.5x47L, 6.5WSSMAi, 22BRX, and 6.5 Creedmoor.
What does your reloading equipment consist of? (give details of brand and model)
RCBS Rockchucker, Redding Type S FL sizing dies and micrometer seating dies. I have a new 308 Micron sizing die (Redding TiN bushing) from Bullet Central that has proven to be amazingly good. Primal Rights Competition seater is new this season and I have thoroughly enjoyed using it, especially on virgin Lapua 308 Palma brass which has a very tight primer pocket. Bench-source annealer, Giraud trimmer (used on brass after 2nd firing and when needed thereafter), Hoover Bullet pointing dies, K&M neck trimming system, and V3 Autotrickler.
What load development method do you use to find a new load?
Before I load a single round, I do a lot of reading and research. It’s pretty rare for us to go into load development totally blind, and we should have a decent idea of where we might end up in velocity for a particular bullet/caliber accuracy node. There are a lot of good reloaders out there who generously share their information. I see no need to reinvent the wheel, although testing for oneself is a high priority for me. Ask around and keep an open mind, but test for yourself to confirm. If nothing else, I’ve found that many projectiles have predictable and known accuracy nodes at certain velocity no matter the caliber. So going in, I have a pretty good idea of where I will end up. This is certainly true when I am loading a caliber/round combination that I have a lot of experience with (say 185JUGG in 308Win or 90vld in 223Rem). Knowing this, with a brand new barrel, I load up 8-10 rounds well below where I think I will end up (1.5-2 gr low) for my “break-in regimen” (see below) and 8-10 rounds starting 2 gr low in 0.4-0.5 gr steps (2 each charge) and 0.020” off the lands. With a Magnetospeed attached, I’ll shoot the first 10 while cleaning and crudely zeroing scope. The next set (varying powder charges), I shoot low charge up to high charge (1 shot each charge) and then high charge to low charge. I might shoot into the dirt or off the bench, but I want to get a good sense of what charge gives what velocity. I pay particular notice to which powder charge(s) that give very similar velocities for the 2 shots. In many cases the first time I do this powder test, my heaviest charge might still be 1 gr below where I believe I will end up, but I want to be safe and also see if there is some “magic” at a low node.
Once I have a good starting point, I refine the powder charge in 0.2-0.3 gr increments across the powder charge(s) I identified in the initial crude test. I load 4-5 of each charge and shoot low-high and back down high to low repeating this low-high-high-low pattern. For example, in the above picture, I would have loaded 42.3, 42.5, 42.7, 42.9 and 43.1 gr. This time I shoot with a LabRadar and for groupings with each powder charge getting its own single markered “dot” for an aim point and all of the dots are in a level horizontal line. I look for good groupings, with neighboring groups at nearly the same elevation and with good ES/SD. My next step is to do a seating depth test using the powder charge I have identified as the most promising. While tight groups are great at this stage, I weigh tight ES/SD of higher importance.
Even if the projectile is not a VLD profile, I often still do the VLD test suggested by Berger for my beginning crude seating depth test. I rarely shoot jammed (the only exception is the 90vld/223R), so I load 4-5 rounds each at 0.005” off, 0.010”, 0.020” off and 0.040” off at the predetermined “best” powder charge. I’ve found that this test is not super critical to be dead-on with the powder charge and will yield the same result as long as you are in the ballpark. One of these seating depths is very often better than the others and I will then fine tune the seating depth using 0.002-0.003” intervals around the best group for seating depth. If the initial test is inconclusive, I will do it again. This is where the LabRadar shines vs. the Magnetospeed. You really shouldn’t shoot for groups with the Magnetospeed attached as it acts as a tuner.
With the best combo identified, I test primers. Yes, the primer that I used in the testing up to this point should emerge as the best, since I tuned the load with it, so be sure to start your testing with a primer you have a lot of and good experience with, but sometimes you get surprised here. Yes, primers matter. Some people weigh primers, but I do not.
Now armed with a promising powder/seating depth combination, I confirm it at 300 yds. If I have two that are in contention for “the best”, I shoot them, alternating between them shot to shot, at two close aiming points on the target (2-3 inches apart). Here it is 10 shot groups, with 2 sighters max. The group needs to be 1.1-1.2” max vertical for my F-TR guns. I do another confirmation at 600 yds and this is where I engage my tuner to optimize it. By now I am approaching 100 rounds on the barrel and start thinking about using it in a local match. I very often will shoot the match using different loads (but very similar, perhaps 0.1 gr differences) to verify that I am in an ideal spot. I should stay easily within the 10 ring elevation across all of these match-testing loads, but one of them should be x-ring vertical (at 600) if I am well tuned.
After 140-160 rounds, I tweak the load to see if moving the seating depth 0.003” forward or backward, or the powder charge 0.1 gr up or down, increases accuracy at 1000yds. I have found that I need about 0.1 gr less powder charge in 1x+ fired brass. Whether this is because of the need to no longer expand the virgin brass or the barrel speeding up, I cannot say.
Now comes the bullet prep…..I am a big proponent of bullet uniforming (light tipping after trimming).
Here is that barrel I used as an example above after 250 rounds through it, shooting at 1000 yds for the second time (and great wind coaching by my teammate Tracy Hogg) during the 2019 Indiana 4-Man F-Class Team Match.
Do you do load development before, during or after barrel break in?
It is important to understand that most quality barrels take about 150 rounds to “settle in”. One can do load testing prior to this and this load will often be very close to the “final” one after the 150ish rounds. When I first started in this sport, I did the full 100+-round regiment to “break-in” a barrel. I now think that this is unnecessary. When I get a new barrel, I send one wet patch with CLR on it down the bore followed by two dry patches. This assures me that there is no stray metal shavings in the barrel, or obstructions, and provides a little initial lubrication to the barrel since it’s bare metal. My current “break-in” is to shoot one shot, use one wet CLR patch, one dry patch, shoot 1, wet patch, dry patch, shoot 2, wet patch and dry patch, shoot 1 fouler and a 3 shot group. If the 3 shots group, I work on load development. In my experience, while prepped virgin brass can be very accurate and consistent, I get my best consistency on the 3rd firing. When I do load development in a caliber that I have a lot of experience with combined with a projectile I am also familiar with in that caliber, it is not too challenging to get a very good load within a few dozen rounds. That means that I can shoot a few local matches or practice session with a very accurate load while fire-forming 200+ new brass, all-the-while getting the barrel just past the “break-in” period wherein I would start serious load development. It is not uncommon for the powder charge for 1x fired brass to be 0.1 gr less than virgin brass, in my experience.
At what MOA or Grouping size do you stop load development?
A good initial indicator for me is a nice round group with 1.1-1.2” or less vertical for 10 shots at 300yds. I’ll then test at 600yds and need to see less than 3.5 inches of vertical for 20 shots shot in match conditions or 2.5 inches or less vertical for between 7-10 shots (or in ideal conditions for 20 shots). The final test would be 5 inches vertical or less for 10 shots in ideal conditions at 1000 yds. Since I shoot FTR and off a bipod, I am usually the limiting factor along with the vertical effects from wind, so a consistent 5” or less vertical for 10+ shots at 1000 yds is a great indicator of a good load for me. About 2.5-3 inches of vertical at 1000 yds in ideal conditions for 10 shots is as good as I can do in FTR when wind, light, and aiming errors are factored in.
What components does your rifle and optics that you currently use, consist of?
I’ve had wonderful success using Gary Eliseo’s chassis system with Jim Borden’s tubegun actions. I’ve been fortunate to have found James Lederer’s barrels before he became well known and have several of his exceptionally accurate barrels in 308Win. I’ve also had extremely good luck with Bartlein (esp their 22 cal barrels for my 223), Brux, Blake and Krieger. A Team USA sponsor, Nightforce, has equipped us with their magnificent NF Competition 15-55x scope and I love it. I use NF UL scope rings for weight savings, a Bix ‘n Andy trigger, Woolum tuner, a R.A.D. system and a SEB Joypod round out my rifle set up. When I shoot my 223 (as I did for most of the 2021 Midrange F-Class Nationals, I used a factory Savage Target Action in an Eliseo stock, Phoenix bipod and Vortex Golden Eagle.
How often do you clean your rifle and barrel?
The 223/90vld combo needs to be cleaned every 100 rounds or in the heat (whether atmospheric or quick extended string fire, or both) you risk blowing up a bullet. Early on with my 308, I followed a similar thinking and cleaned about every 100 rounds, but I was curious as to high I could go before accuracy fell off, so I didn’t clean for 300+ rounds. Once I hit 350, still no observed degradation in accuracy, but I couldn’t gamble anymore as a big team match was upcoming, so I broke down a cleaned it. So, for my 308, I don’t clean with less than 200 rounds, but clean before hitting 300.
What barrel cleaning equipment, products and procedure do you use?
After a match and when round count is high enough, but after the barrel has cooled a bit (warm but not hot), I will spray Wipe-Out into bore and let it sit for at least a few hours if not overnight. I patch it out using two clean patches. If the barrel is room temp, I do this twice, patching out the first treatment after a few hours and letting the second treatment sit for a few hours (or overnight). I then heavily wet a patch with Carb-Out and coat the entire bore well and let sit for a few hours. If warranted, I will leave the patch situated in the throat to ensure good coverage there. Next, I run a brass brush from chamber to muzzle 1 time for each 40 rounds fired since last cleaning. I remove the brush at the muzzle before pulling the rod back out. I then patch out with 2 clean patches. I saturate a patch with Boretech Cu+2 Copper remover and liberally apply to entire bore (x2). I then wet a nylon brush with the copper remover and run through barrel until brush exits muzzle and then pull back through multiple times (6-8). I rewet brush and repeat a second time. I saturate another patch with the Cu+2 solution and push through barrel and let sit for 15-20 minutes, after which I run 2 clean patches through. I take a clean patch and pass entirely through barrel to form it, then take the patch/patch holder off of the rod at the muzzle. I place a decent dab of Montana Bore Polish on both sides of the patch in the location when the patch has flattened from contact with the rifling. I spread the paste to cover the patch in this area. I short stroke the leade/throat area and increase my stoke lengths as I travel the length of the barrel, concentrating my effort in the throat. I do this at least twice, but not more than four times. Every other time cleaning (or every third time perhaps) I substitute Iosso paste for the Bore Polish. I do not short stoke the barrel more than twice with Iosso. When the Iosso paste is employed in the throat, I also remove my bore guide, place an oversized patch on an oversized brass brush such then the tip of the brush is centered on the patch (say a .38 brush for a 308Win) and form the patch to the chamber by pushing it into the chamber such that the bristles of the brush (covered by the patch) just enter the neck area of the chamber. I remove the clean, but formed, patch and lightly put Iosso paste on the patch in the area that would correspond to the front end of the neck of the brass in the chamber. I re-insert the Iossoed patch to ideally put the paste where carbon builds up at the end of the neck. I spin the patch 20-40 times. I then repeat this neck cleaning ritual with a clean patch, a clean patch with Montana Bore Solvent and two dry patches. I then remove the Bore Polish or Iosso paste from the barrel using a clean patch (short-stroking) two times, followed by a Montana Bore Solvent (x2) and two dry patches. Every other match day or have shot a match in a notoriously dusty locale (this means you Raton and Ben Avery). I also clean the lug area with the very handy Sinclair Chamber Cleaning tool. This is also a good time to clean, spot check and lube your bolt. I have done this process across many barrels and calibers, evaluated by borescope, and this procedure cleans the barrel to bare metal. If I am not going to use the barrel for a good length of time, I will coat the interior with a quick spritz of EEzox.
What do you feel is your biggest factor resulting in your consistency?
Hard to choose only one factor but, I’d say: concentrated effort to shoot matches regularly while traveling to many different ranges to encounter new challenges, and to test changes religiously, and scientifically to my reloading process without regard to accepted practices/common wisdom/word-of-mouth all-the-while being open-minded to change.
Are there any other points you may want to add?
If It is commonly stated that it is better to get practice and experience by shooting matches, getting trigger time and learning wind before going down every rabbit hole in reloading chasing supreme accuracy. I agree with this statement, although it is much easier to get better at reading wind once you have a very accurate rifle, so I would add that once you have a rifle that is a consistent 0.5 MOA, get out and practice, practice, practice before worrying too much about that 0.25 MOA load.
Drew, thank you for this in-depth, technical and detailed look into your shooting, reloading, load development and accuracy philosophy, we enjoyed talking with you and look forward to seeing more of your shooting and achievements in future.