You scrimped and saved for this hunt. You packed your lunch every day and worked overtime. You flew in yesterday and got into camp late last night. After a couple hours of sleep and a swig of coffee, you've hiked through
the darkness to this spot where the elk are expected to feed. It's time to load your rifle, and panic sets in because your ammo is back at camp. The guide digs through his pack and finds a couple of cartridges with the right headstamp. Should you use them or head back for your own, losing a half-day of hunting in the process?
As a guy who obsesses over 0.001 inch of neck tension and 0.10 grain of powder, I cannot fathom being on the horns of this dilemma. On the other hand, I've encountered plenty of hunters who think their zero is good, so long as the brand or bullet weight is the same.
We decided to do some practical testing to determine what the real world effect would be of using a load that your rifle is not zeroed for.
When you test as many rifles as I do, you end up with lots and lots of half-empty boxes of ammunition lying around — especially in common calibers like .308 Winchester. I'm not going to throw away perfectly good ammo, but there's not enough left to serve any practical purpose. This was an opportunity to put some of those orphaned cartridges to good use.
Our test was simple: Take an accurate rifle, zeroed with a common hunting load at 100 yards, and fire as many loads through it as we could find to see how much the points of impact varied.
My most reliably accurate .308 is a bone-stock Remington 700 VLS with a 26-inch Sendero contour barrel. This gun shoots tiny groups with minimal drama. Everything was set up on a rock-solid shooting bench with a proper rest, allowing for as few variables as possible.
With the Leupold 4-12X set on max power, the zero was confirmed at 100 yards using Federal Premium's 150-grain Nosler Partition load. Every effort was made to ensure that the light winds were consistent from shot to shot, and barrel heat was monitored to prevent heat-induced flyers.
Twelve different factory loads were tested ranging in bullet weight from DoubleTap's 125-grain Ballistic Tip to Federal Premium's 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip. Bullet styles included traditional softpoints, match boattail hollowpoints, monolithic copper bullets, and various controlled-expansion designs.
In addition to the factory loads, I handloaded eight different bullets using powder charges that approximated factory ammunition. My handloads varied from the 130-grain Barnes TSX to the 200-grain Nosler Partition and included, among others, Berger's 155-grain VLD Match and North Fork's 180-grain softpoint.
When the shooting was over, the vast majority of the loads shot into a group you could cover with your fist. The entire group measured just under 6.25 inches center to center and was mainly distributed horizontally. If you throw out the three most widely distributed shots, the group shrinks to 4.5 inches.
Let's take a look at those outliers. The shot that dropped farthest below the rifle's zero was my 200-grain handload. Nosler doesn't even list a load for the 200-grain Partition in its manual because the bullet crowds so much of the powder capacity — so it's pretty unlikely that you're going to run into one of these in the field.
The one load that landed far outside the group horizontally was DoubleTap's 155-grain Match load, which landed 2.5 inches left of center and four inches left of the main cluster. Mike McNett at DoubleTap loads his stuff pretty hot, so I'm not shocked that the load from his DT Tactical line was outside the mean.
All of the factory-loaded Federal ammunition landed inside a four-inch group, and the bulk of it was within a three-inch cluster — impressive considering that I've seen plenty of rifles that won't hold a three-inch group with the same load.
Keep in mind that this test involved only one rifle — and an accurate one at that. A gun with a lighter barrel — among a multitude of other factors — could create much different results. That said, in this rifle, with factory-loaded hunting ammunition with traditional weight bullets, I would feel comfortable taking a broadside shot on deer-sized game at 100 yards.
It would pain me to do it, but a four- to six-inch group is probably better than many of our iron-sight, .30-30 wielding predecessors were capable of and they got the job done. (Yes, I know that your grandfather shot half-inch groups with his.) If I found myself in such a situation, I would want to put my stalking skills to work and get as close as humanly possible before taking the shot.
Speaking of getting closer, let's head down to the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, where you're following up a wounded Cape buffalo in the thick stuff. Buffalo are famous for soaking up lots of lead, and you not only emptied your rifle into this bull, but also fired all of the spare cartridges you brought along.
Your PH happens to be toting the same caliber, and he hands you a trio of tarnished, mismatched rounds for you to finish the job. You've got a wounded bull on your hands with no time to rezero in the fading afternoon. What to do?
We duplicated the .308 test but with a scoped Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H, and we did our shooting at 25 yards. I'm a little short on factory .375 loads, with only a supply of Barnes VOR-TX Safari ammo on hand, but handloads expanded our options a bit. The rifle was zeroed at 25 yards using Barnes's 300-grain TSX factory load, and we also had a supply of VOR-TX 300-grain roundnose solids to work with. We loaded 300-grain Barnes flatnose solids and Swift 300-grain A-Frames to factory velocities and added 235- and 250-grain softpoints to mix it up.
You see some crazy things in Africa, so I loaded up a 255-grain cast bullet over a charge of IMR 4198 to push the envelope. My only regret is that we didn't have any 350-grain Woodleigh bullets on hand as they are becoming increasingly popular for dangerous-game hunting.
The .375 H&H has a reputation for putting most bullets in the same place, and that rang true in our test. Even though the largest variation in impact was between the two factory loads, the spread was only 2.5 inches. I wouldn't hesitate to put a finisher into a buffalo with borrowed ammo using this rifle so long as the range was close, as it would most likely be.
So what about the .22 LR? Your child has run out of cartridges while squirrel hunting and you offer a handful out of your coat pocket. Are you setting him or her up for failure?
Our rimfire test was also performed at 25 yards, this time with a little Marlin bolt gun and a Leupold Rimfire 2-7X. Writers are not immune to the rimfire ammo shortage, so I scrounged up what I could find.
I ended up with nine different .22 loads, including a box of Remington Subsonic. All nine loads shot into a group that measured exactly an inch, which was pretty impressive — clearly, this rifle wasn't affected by bullet style or velocity.
I don't recommend choosing ammo carelessly or ignoring your rifle's zero — quite the contrary. That said, sometimes things happen and you have to make due in a pinch. Next time you head to the range, try this with your rifle and see how it does. It's better to find out now rather than on the trip of a lifetime.