Reloading Science: Do You Really Need To Sort Your Brass?

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Will this be the least accurate batch of reloaded .223 Remington ammo ever? Let's find out.

Will this be the least accurate batch of reloaded .223 Remington ammo ever? Let’s find out.

My editors keep telling that articles have to have a point. Apparently I don’t listen too well as this article doesn’t have one. Well, if it does, I don’t yet know what it is, so we’ll all find out together by the end.

The other day, I was at my desk clawing my way out of endless distractions from my writing. Between fits of topic inspiration, I was sorting obscene amounts of .223 Remington and 5.56mm brass by head stamp. When I say obscene, I’m talking multiple five-gallon buckets. I wasn’t sorting everything, I was just throwing Lake City brass into one bucket and all other types into another. My logic was simple. I knew I had a ton of Lake City in my stash from a couple years of range pickups, so I figured it made sense to have a supply of “same head stamp” brass available when I wanted to make accurate and consistent loads. From my experience, the Lake City stuff is good, meaning pretty consistent and strong. I planned on using the mixed head stamp brass to load practice and plinking ammo.

So if you have buckets of range brass, is it worth the trouble to sort each and every one by brand?

So if you have buckets of range brass, is it worth the trouble to sort each and every one by brand?

As I tossed my 40 millionth case into one of the buckets, I started to wonder if this was sorting thing was really worth it. When fired from an AR-15, which isn’t the most accurate rifle anyway, at least compared to bolt gun standards, would it really matter? Was I completely wasting my time? I decided to find out.

Just to be clear, I know that using identical cartridge cases is a big deal for bench rest shooters and anyone else concerned with improving groups by tenths or even hundredths of inches. You’ll get no argument from me that meticulous sorting by size, weight, concentricity and global community membership is essential for maximum obtainable accuracy. My informal experiment simply intended to figure out whether brass sorting was worth the trouble for training, plinking, hunting and other less accuracy-critical uses. Before anyone gets all worked up about the hunting use for less accurate ammo, I’m just saying that it doesn’t really matter if this stuff shoots groups that are a half-inch larger. In most scenarios, it just doesn’t really matter if a given ammo groups into one or two inches at 100 yards – that’s good enough to hit the important parts.

Mixed... and sorted. Was it worth it?

Mixed… and sorted. Was it worth it?

My plan was to load two batches of ammo with one batch made from new vintage, once-fired Lake City brass. The other batch would use identical primers, powder, and bullets and random brands of once-fired .223 Remington brass. And when I say random, I picked it up from my range without regard to what type it was. Of course, I inspected everything to make sure all the brass involved was in good shape and safe to reload.

I deliberately made "regular" ammo using Ramshot TAC powder, CCI 400 primers and 55-grain full metal jacket bullets.

I deliberately made “regular” ammo using Ramshot TAC powder, CCI 400 primers and 55-grain full metal jacket bullets.

While I didn’t use premium components, I did pay careful attention to my process for both batches. I tumbled all of it, trimmed every case to spec, and ran them all through a Dillon primer pocket swaging tool. I used CCI 400 Small Rifle Primers for everything and weighed each individual charge using an RCBS Chargemaster powder dispenser and scale. If you’re curious, I used a charge of 24.7 grains of Ramshot TAC powder, which is kind of in the middle of Ramshot’s published load data for .223 Remington with a 55-grain full metal jacket projectile. For bullets, I stuck with the Average Joe plan and used bulk blemished bullets from Midway USA. To be clear, these bullets are fine from a consistency standpoint. I weighed and measured random ones and they checked out. They were just sold at a discount for cosmetic reasons.

To reduce process variables, I weighed each and every powder charge with this RCBS Chargemaster scale and powder dispenser.

To reduce process variables, I weighed each and every powder charge with this RCBS Chargemaster scale and powder dispenser.

After packing up the two fraternal twin batches, I set off for the range along with an FN-15 DMR Designated Marksman Rifle. This 18-inch barrel gun has proven itself accurate in various testing, so I decided to use it for this little experiment. To get a great sight picture at 100 yards, I mounted a Hawke Optics Tactical IR 10x fixed-power scope. It’s a monster that can double as an impact weapon in a pinch and I’ve always gotten good results from it. As I fired everything from the same rifle, I made sure to alternate groups so both loads would be fired through the rifle in the same “all heated up” condition. Five shots with Lake City brass reloads followed by five shots of mixed brass reloads. Repeat until finished.

So what happened?

Mixed Brass Results

Doing a quick scan of the 50 round batch, I counted about a dozen different headstamps including brass like Winchester, Federal, Remington-Peters, Prvi Partizan, GECO, DAO, PMC, and even Poongsan Metal Manufacturing Company (Korea). Heck, there were even a couple of older vintage Lake City cases in there because, why not? I don’t think I could have ended up with a more random assortment of range pickups had I hand picked them.

Anyway, I fired five different 5-shot groups and measured each, center to center.

Group 1: 1.29”
Group 2: 1.80”
Group 3: 1.29”
Group 4: .89”
Group 5: 1.21”

Average 5-shot group size: 1.296 inches

Lake City Brass Results

Remember, everything else in this batch was identical, except I painstakingly sorted spent cartridge cases to pick new vintage Lake City once-fired cartridge cases only. Again, I fired five different 5-shot groups and measured the diameter, center to center.

Group 1: 2.34”
Group 2: 1.81”
Group 3: 2.13”
Group 4: 1.34”
Group 5: 2.15”

Average 5-shot group size: 1.954 inches

For accuracy testing, I used this FN-15 Designated Marksman (DMR) rifle with a Hawke Optics 10x fixed scope.

For accuracy testing, I used this FN-15 Designated Marksman (DMR) rifle with a Hawke Optics 10x fixed scope.

Learnings

I have no earthly idea why the mixed brass reloads grouped better than the Lake City brass reloads. I doubt that the mixed ones are, in fact, more accurate. I’m guessing that due to the small sample size, there just wasn’t enough data to show minute differences. The takeaway seems to be that choice of brass doesn’t matter a whole lot in this specific usage case.

Clearly five 5-shot groups of each type isn’t enough to make a life-changing statistical conclusion. Like I said, I was curious, and I figured if there were a huge impact associated with using mixed brass, I would see some difference in the group sizes.

I used “regular” 55-grain full metal jacket bullets on purpose, as my experiment was to find out whether I should go to all the trouble to sort brass for “normal” uses like plinking, training, and competition. Based on this quick and dirty test, yours truly isn’t going to be sorting brass anymore for my everyday reloads!

While I was surprised that the mixed brass grouped better, I was not really surprised that the two loads performed similarly. Consider that the AR-15 is a semi-automatic system and not designed for ridiculous accuracy as you might find in a bolt-action bench rest rifle. The platform probably isn’t “precise enough” to show a difference in performance from relatively small variances in cartridge cases. Heck, the outside dimensions are identical, especially since all the cases were resized. The only possible differences were brass thickness and, therefore, internal volume and maybe a difference in neck tension related to the specific brass used to manufacture each brand.

Just to be clear, I deliberately used a mid-range load recipe and not a maximum pressure load. I did this because brass is different. Some brass is thicker so internal volume can vary a little. I wasn’t keen on pushing the limits of pressure AND introducing cartridges with slightly different internal capacities. I would recommend that if you decide to pursue a “what the heck” mixed brass approach that you stay below maximum published loads as well.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that if I were to take this to the next level and use all premium components except the brass, I might start to see some difference in group sizes. For example, I would probably use IMR 8208 XBR powder paired with Sierra 77-grain Tipped MatchKing bullets and bench rest primers. That might be interesting, especially with more rounds fired of each type. If you’re interested in such a study, say so in the comments and maybe I can convince the Editorships in charge here to let me go play in the reloading cave again. Because science.

{ 31 comments… add one }
  • Denny April 10, 2017, 8:40 pm

    Like every handloader, I go through all the steps…sizing, trimming, inspecting, weighing, etc., etc. I weigh every load, never using a “hurry up and get it done” device of any kind. I have posted this in several places before, so if you have read it before or you just are not interested, move along. I hunt all large animals with a 300 Win mag, which in my humble opinion is the best all-around caliber, with all well earned respect for the cartridge of the 20th century, the iconic 30-06. My rifle is a Remington Sendero. unaltered in any way. I went to the range one day and took, in addition to a couple of meticulously loaded boxes of ammo, a box of left over experiments. No two rounds were the same…the only thing that was consistent throughout was the bullet, the Nosler 150 grain Ballistic Tip. I was shooting at 200 yards, and whenever I shoot past 100 yards, I back up my target with a 4’x4′ sheet of plywood in case I get a flyer and with just a target, I will know where the bullet went. Bear in mind, now, I was shooting essentially garbage. I fired two foulng shots, then got serious. I am an average, at best, shot, but I had the rifle in a lead sled, which I highly recommend. I fired one shot, which hit pretty much where I aimed it. I fired a second sot, and there was no second hole. With a 4’x4′ back-up to my target, I was a bit mystified. I fired a third shot, and again, no new holes. I walked down and looked at the target. I had to examine the single hole very closely to see that all three shots had gone cleanly through the same hole. Other shooters agreed. Bets began that I (the gun) could not do it again. They were right. The third shot missed the hole by. 07″. So how important is all the stuff we go through to get the perfect finished target? You decide.

  • Kent April 3, 2017, 11:17 am

    As a longtime group shooter and AR-15 addict, I can point to three major things to invalidate this experiment. However, I commend the author for adhering to all the right steps in the reloading process.

    First: Using 55 grain FMJ bullets. The best of them are still inherently inaccurate, the same goes for any open-based bullet. The manufacturing process is prioritized for quantity and economy, not accuracy. Since consistent accuracy with these kind of bullets is priumarily left up to chance, it makes comparisons meaningless. That’s why these bullets are dirt cheap when compared to custom accuracy bullets which cost up to 8-10 times as much.

    Second: Using an AR-15 with a 10 power scope. A MilSpec M4 has a Military Standard of a 5-inch group with iron sights at 100 yards (using FMJ bullets, BTW). That’s a pure combat standard, but it also says the gun design is not inherently accurate. Plus, an AR is designed for offhand shooting, so it is awkward to shoot off a bench. Sure, there are accurate AR-15’s out there, but they are special because they require a lot of work to become accurate. Of course, you can always get lucky and get a tack driver off the shelf, or win the lottery. AR’s are not made for benchREST shooting, again, it’s made for combat, which it is really good at, too. Also, a 10x scope is OK for target shooting. If you want to compare groups, the serious group shooters are using 45x scopes shooting off sandbag rests with wind flags down range. To drive this point home, a 0.001″ deviation in aim at the bench will have roughly a 1.0″ effect on a target 100 yards away. That’s why it takes a sub-0.3″ aggregate for 5 relays just to be competitive in 100 yard bench rest match, using “match” bullets in a bolt gun costing as much as a good used car, or more.

    Third: Using a mid-range load of TAC with a 55 grain FMJ bullet. I’ve found TAC is closer to a medium burning rate for the 223/5.56. This means you really need to load enough of it to get it “cooking” (my term) efficiently, and it really starts to shine with 70+ grain or heavier bullets. I know, I gave up on TAC early when it would not shoot my 50-60 grain bullets, and I probably couldn’t have gotten enough powder in the case to make it “cook” properly, anyway. FYI, TAC is the powder Black Hills loads in it their (MK262) 5.56 77 grain OTM bullet (SMK) ammo, @ $1.00 a pop, the most accurate .224 round BH offers, and military snipers use almost exclucively. I rest my case.

    To conclude, if you want to make a valid comparison of brass cases you have to eliminate, as much as possible, the bullet, firearm, and loading variables as best you can. Use a bolt action rifle of known accuracy rested on bags, a scope powerful enough to minimize aiming errors, and choose an efficient loading. Even if you use a bag-rested bolt gun, the results will be transferable to a gas gun, but it doesn’t end there. Some guns will shoot anything you feed them (NEVER! sell one of these if you ever find one), but most guns have their favorite loads, rejecting all others, either factory loads, which can vary from lot-to-lot, or hand loads, which can vary from component’s lot-to-lot. Most of the time, if you want consistent accuracy it behooves you to keep your reload brass segregated.

  • Andrew N. December 27, 2016, 6:18 pm

    This is the second time I have seen this kind of test, with basically the same results. The first article was in either Guns Magazine or Shooting Times magazine, I can’t remember which. (and I’m not going searching) Same premise, expanded somewhat. He tried all different variations subjecting “The Gospel” of reloading to testing. It turned out about the same, with the “less work” version doing better than following “The Gospel”. It’s got me thinking about some of my OCD reloading rituals…

  • Gary Martin December 26, 2016, 11:43 pm

    You didn’t mention much about the primer swagging. That’s the only reason I sort my 223/556 cases is because the web thickness can very and you have to adjust your swagger rod accordingly. Maybe you had to do that and just didn’t mention it.

  • Andy December 24, 2016, 11:29 pm

    Thanks for the article – I am pretty new to reloading and pick up whatever range brass I can get for .223 & 5.56. I’m not picky at all, but shoot at a range where most are either military or LEO so most of the brass I find is 5.56 military and thus requires swaging before priming. It’s nasty, it’s sandy, and it’s free.
    However, I don’t trim my cases before use because like you, i’m not super concerned about it out of my AR15. I can get inside a dime at 100yrds and inside a softball at 300yrds. At the 435yrd bench things get dicey….and this is where this kind of thing would come in to play, trimming brass, brushing necks, sorting brass, weighing out the bullets, and hand throwing each charge as you’ve done. For me, out of an AR15 it’s not really worth that much time for me. I intend to get a bolt .223/5.56 or .308 at some point and I expect I’ll spend more time crafting match ammo, but for now – it’s mixed brass and am letting the RCBS powder measure dump the powder in within a 10th of a grain.
    I appreciate the article and would also be interested in seeing a larger sampling size as your time permits.
    Thanks very much!

  • Leon December 9, 2016, 9:49 pm

    If the Lake City had grouped better would your conclusion have been definitive with that sample size?

  • Bill November 23, 2016, 9:57 am

    Please do write the follow up article, but make it 50 or 100 rounds of each and add Lapua brass as a third variable.

  • John Clark November 22, 2016, 4:07 pm

    Hello TOM, Thanks for a Nice, Interesting and Informative article.

  • Thomas Bryan October 24, 2016, 9:46 am

    I found your article interesting but again I expected the lake city to group better. One explanation on why it did not group better is the weight of each case. If you had grouped each case to +/- point 5 grains of weight, you would have had different results. When I reload 223 for accuracy, I weight each case with primer installed and then group them into a small tolerance of weight. Out of 50 lake city cases you may get 25 which will group together. Different date stamps are different in weight when trimmed to 1.750 inch. They this and chrono results and you will see +/- 5 fps and less than 1/2″ groups with almost any AR.

  • Jim B June 21, 2016, 7:22 pm

    Your test results may have been skewed by randomly picking a powder charge that, when combined with the internal volume of your Lake City brass, produced a muzzle velocity that was out of tune with your barrel harmonics. In other words, you could have inadvertently picked a charge weight that was terrible for the Lake City brass, but wasn’t as bad for some or all of the mixed brass.

  • Dennis Coley April 9, 2016, 5:41 pm

    I have often wondered about this during my sorting of 223 range brass. I must say very interesting article, with a point!

  • Thomas March 19, 2016, 8:21 pm

    Looking over your test and results I have a possible suggestion for a retest. In my experience reloading for my AR-15 the Lake City brass tends to weigh less and have a greater case volume than just about any other brass on the market. This is going to change the pressure curve slightly. Might I suggesting retesting the Lake City brass using the same primer and bullet, but adding two tenths more powder? If my theory holds water the groups will tighten to that of the mixed brass loads. Then again, the bullet you’re using may not be consistent enough to display any such results. Only testing will tell and that means another trip to the range…..darn the luck! LOL!

  • Hilltop February 7, 2016, 11:28 am

    The only possible revelation is that Lake City brass is the worst brass in the world for accuracy. I doubt it. But, thats the only other possible take away here.

  • DanGoodShot January 25, 2016, 4:31 pm

    Definitely do some more testing! The more YOU do, the less I have too.(I don’t have someone else to pay gor it! lol) Pluse it gives me a benchmark to compare to when I do do some testing. That is always a helpful thing to have. Great article, and yes, it had a point to it.

  • Mark Toigo January 1, 2016, 3:57 pm

    I am a 45 year reloader. I do exactly what you did every time I want to try out a new powder.. the “WHAT IF’S” bug the heck out of me so I just have to know. When CFE223 came out I went to the bench and did that .. only I separated my LC Brass out of the range refuge pile only. My other batch of brass was FC 223. I used the Varmageddon 62 gr hollow point from Nosler as my test projectile and 25.0 grains of the CFE. I dare say my results were divinely surprising. without going into the whole spread (of LC 5.56) my 5 groups of 5 each at 50 yds. The entire group average (and YES I hand weighed EVERY load) 1.015. I had two groups under .9. I have since forgotten to load any other ammo. The s223 was consistently at .95″ or LESS). I love the powder and bullet combo. At 100 yds I got 1.15″ on a sled. This from a DPMS Sportical. Go figure!

  • Al November 21, 2015, 1:02 am

    Would just like to add one caveat: If you carry a gun and ever use reloaded ammunition in a defensive shooting, that is going to be the ammunition the prosecutor will use to attack you for concocting an evil projectile to maximize injury and death: That is how the prosecutor will frame it (and YOU): Use the reloads for practice, but only use factory ammo for carry in your EDC: Custom reloads in your gun will hang you in the courtroom!

    • Mulligan January 14, 2016, 10:29 am

      Seriously? Has this ever actually happened, or is this just a paranoid delusion?

    • Eddy March 23, 2016, 4:47 am

      Any defense attorney worth a salt would say deadly force is deadly force, the law makes no allowances for how deadly.

    • AW November 20, 2016, 2:56 pm

      I hear that a lot. It\’s right up there with \”don\’t use hollow points because a prosecutor will say you were out to kill someone.\” it\’s all BS unless you can bring up a single case where it was even used at trial, much less a conviction or added offense. There\’s \”Assault\”, \”Aggravated Assault\” and now \”Extra Aggravated Assault with Handloaded Ammunition.\” Here\’s my defense: I hand-loaded for accuracy because I was more concerned about protecting innocent third-parties than the average person who buys off the shelf factory loads.

  • BigR November 16, 2015, 8:46 pm

    Tom,
    Please go to the next level, I definitely would be interested!!! I was really surprised with the results in this article. I’m a late newcomer to hand loading, and I would like to learn a lot more. I enjoyed this article very much.
    BigR

  • Eric November 14, 2015, 7:18 am

    Great article. There are a number of “Gospel” rules in reloading that I wonder about. Everything is driven for ultimate accuracy, but sometimes I wonder if some really have a scientifically significant impact. Most of these rules are just passed along as gospel and you wonder if anyone has actually EVER tested them.
    I would love to see a bigger test of mixed cases.

  • Thomas Johnson November 13, 2015, 11:59 pm

    Nice article very interesting and informative. Thanks for share.

  • DRAINO November 13, 2015, 12:35 pm

    Sorry, I just can’t live like that….or load like that…lol. Maybe its my OCD, but when I reload, I have a system including sorting and case preparation….I savor every bullet I send down range. I keep binders of targets I have shot for each caliber/rifle and the important info for each one. I’m just not one to go out and shoot a bunch of ammo to poke holes in paper without there being a good reason….and testing accuracy is a good reason. But you can’t test for true accuracy without consistency(ie…a process) But that’s just me…to each, their paycheck.

    • BigR November 16, 2015, 9:19 pm

      You sound like somebody that is very particular about hand loading, and that’s a good thing. It’s the enjoyment of starting at the beginning and making that near perfect group in the end! I’ve got a good friend that is an excellent rifleman and he has a Ruger Mod. 77 with a McMillan stock in .280 cal. He was using a Barnes 120 gr. triple shot bullet and pushing it with 59 grs. of Reloader 19, CCI rifle primers, and nickel Winchester cases. About three years ago, he shot a three shot group at 100 yds. that measured 3/8 inches. It actually looked like one hole! He still has the target in his safe. Needless to say, he won’t sell me that rifle! I wouldn’t be able to best him anyway if I did own it. But, at least I was there to see it!

    • AW November 20, 2016, 3:01 pm

      I reload for two reasons: Accuracy and volume. I think his method is great for volume shooters. Guys mag-dumping ARs or even M16s probably don\’t care about .25MOA groups. When I pistol shoot, I\’m more interested in loading 1000 rounds quickly so I can get to the range. But if I\’m out with the bolt guns, I\’m also sorting and weighing brass, trickling powder, and measuring every COAL. You could even sort your match grade bullets, mic and turn the necks, and deburr your flash holes. it\’s all about what you\’re trying to achieve.

  • stephen November 13, 2015, 11:40 am

    I performed a similar test but I focused on velocity rather than accuracy. I started with my rifle’s favorite accuracy load of Lake City brass, Hornady 55gr, CCI 400, & W748 powder. I trickle loaded a sample of 10 shells from each head stamp using the same loading components, same trim length, bullet depth, factory crimp setting, etc trying to reduce as many variable as I could. Each group fell within +/-100 fps of the test load. I have done the same test in 9mm with the same result.

    I don’t find enough variance to be concerned over it when shooting under 50 yards. I have been shooting with mixed brass in 9mm and 223 for over a year at the range and at local shooting competitions. I haven’t encountered any feeding or cycling issues either.

  • Jeff O November 13, 2015, 9:19 am

    Could fatigue be an issue? Next time, try alternating the shot groups, 5 from mixed, 5 from Lake city, etc. That should eliminate you as a variable.
    Since I don’t shoot benchrest, I’ve never sorted my brass. I just check it for safety, trim it and load it. The elk, deer, etc can’t tell whether you used premium brass, something from the range or something from a pawn shop. All I need is minute-of-deer accuracy out to my own effective, ethical range.
    Thanks for the interesting article! I look forward to hearing how the next round comes out.

  • Justin November 12, 2015, 2:11 pm

    Very interesting article. Would love to see more like it.

  • kevin November 11, 2015, 9:51 pm

    So,

    How many times do you reload your brass?

    How many times were those mixed brass cases fired???

    Do you own a broken case extractor?

    (there are specific reasons to sort brass and most of them have nothing to do with accuracy.)

  • Ditto November 10, 2015, 8:32 pm

    I don’t know why, but I found this to be a very interesting article.

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