Tighten it up! Want smaller groups? Be prepared to spend some bench time finding the optimum load for your particular rifle.
Realistically, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. No matter what you try, not every rifle barrel is capable of one-inch groups--and only a few will cut that in half Of course, there are also bad barrels, but before you cut your losses and either rebarrel your rifle or make it someone else's problem, it's wise to be exhaustive in your search for the best load for that rifle.
It isn't always the load. Sometimes it's bedding, often a poorly cut crown and sometimes a bad scope. But if everything mechanical seems OK, then it's best to try a lot of loads before you throw in the towel. This is especially true if there are indications of potential, some groups that are fairly round, but just not tight. This was where I was with a new Ruger No. One in 7x57.
Now, I love the rifle, but the two-piece stock and fore-end attachment sometimes make for finicky accuracy, particularly in the light-barreled configuration. Heck, I love the cartridge, too, but I've seen relatively few 7x57s that were real tackdrivers and fewer still that were really accurate with factory loads. To be honest, this is, in large part, due to the fact that the 7x57 is an old cartridge that isn't especially popular. So the selection of factory loads is limited, with little development of new loads.
Of course, if you want a rifle to shoot really well with factory ammo, stick with a popular cartridge for which there are lots of loads, such as .243, .270 Winchester, .308, .30-06, 7mm Remington Magnum or .300 Winchester Magnum. Then, over time, try everything you can get your hands on.
But with the 7x57 No. One, I was already well past that point. I'd tried most of the factory loads, and I'd tried some of my old handload recipes. Some were pretty bad. A couple, including Hornady's Su-performance with the 139-grain GMX (a new load for the 7x57), I could almost live with. Mind you, with limitless combinations a good handloader would never give up. But I'm not a good handloader anymore; the time just isn't there. So I figured I'd done what I could do and that the rifle was destined to spend its life as a safe queen.
At the Harrisburg Sports Show this year I was talking to my buddy Dave Dunn, also a 7x57 fan and owner of the Trop Gun Shop in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. His shop offers custom-loaded ammo, but that wouldn't do me any good because I had no idea what this rifle liked (if anything).
But Trop also offers "sample boxes": Pick four different bullets out of a wide array, and they'll sell you a box of 20 rounds loaded with four groups of those five bullets. Take notes and see what works. I figured I had nothing to lose, so why not?
I jumped in deep and tried 12 different loads with six different bullets, all 140 grains: Barnes TTSX, Berger VLD, Nosier Ballistic Tip, Hornady InterLock (139 grains), Nosier AccuBond and Sierra GameKing. If nothing worked, that was the end.
Later I talked to Bob Evans, who does Trop's custom ammo, and asked him how he decided on which powders to try. He told me some of it was experience with different cartridges, but he checked the loading manuals for recommended propellants and also used the Quickload program, which suggests ideal propellants. He uses Federal Match primers, and he messes with the case mouth, primer pocket and flash hole, trying to gain the best advantage.
However, this is a finicky rifle. Even with all that effort, some of Bob's loads spread into shotgun patterns, making a mess of the targets. A couple showed radical vertical stringing, but some weren't bad, certainly as good as anything I'd tried. Now, this was about shooting groups, so I didn't care where the groups landed. I did cool the barrel carefully between groups, and I cleaned it every 15 shots.
I did not use a chronograph because I didn't care, but in theory the velocities were relatively consistent and sort of medium-fast for a 7x57 in a strong, modern action. The differences between the loads were the bullets and the propellants. So this is interesting: Points of impact shifted all over the place--high, low, left, right, wow! Part of that was the finicky barrel that must have weird vibrations, but it was an object lesson that you can't count on different loads from different makers staying in the same ballpark, even if the bullet weights are the same.
I took careful notes, marking a couple of loads as awful and a couple more with a smiley face. And then came the last load, the five bullets painstakingly marked "12" with a Sharpie.
Of course it had to be the last load--four shots touching, a fifth a half-inch out (which could have been me) for a nice cluster about three quarters by three quarters of an inch. There was accuracy there all the time, I just hadn't yet found it. More than a little embarrassed, I called Evans and asked him what powder he had used for that load. That made me feel a little bit better; it was Ramshot Hunter, a powder I'd never used. Prices obviously vary by bullet and cartridge, but sample boxes with four different bullets run somewhere in the $55 to $60 range. They're on the Trop Gun Shop website under "custom ammunition" (www.tropgun.com).
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* Back in the 1940s. Elmer defined the optimum elk rifle as being not less than 33 caliber, firing a 250-grain bullet at around 2,700 fps. As it turned out, that's a pretty good working description of the .338 Winchester Magnum, which was introduced in 1958.
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You never know when you or a buddy may need to do a little field gunsmithing and of course nobody has the right screwdriver, Allen wrench or Torx key. For a year now I've been carrying Real Avid's clever little Gun Tool in my guncase and even in my daypack, and I've needed it more than once. Multitools are hardly new, but this one is just for us gunnies. It contains fold-out Allen and Torx keys for almost all scope rings and a universal choke tube wrench, plus a storage bay for Phillips and flat screwdriver blades. Real Avid is a relatively new company specializing in innovative products for hunters and shooters, and they've hit a home run with this one. Check out www.realavid.com.