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THE ECONOMICAL 20 PRACTICAL

Bio pic72By The Varmint Terminator (Will Scherer)

As I was reading two or three articles on the internet a few months ago, the idea of turning standard .223 brass into a 20 caliber round sounded interesting.  To begin with I’m a 22 caliber man from the word go.  I couldn’t see any good reason to use anything else.  As a young fellow in Indiana I shot more varmints (groundhogs) and food (squirrels and rabbits) with a .22 Long Rifle (J.C. Higgins) than I care to count.  Yes, I did say “food squirrels and rabbits”; my grandsons have a hard time believing that.  It was just my Mom and I, meat was hard to come by and we were dirt poor.  A .22 rifle was a must have.

A couple ladies had an apple orchard with a blackbird problem.  The blackbirds would peck a hole in the apples and move on to another, making them unsalable.  The ladies would give me a box of .22 shorts to shoot the birds and my pay was a box of .22 long rifle hollow points. They cost 37 cents.   I would have to pick up pop bottles along the highway for a whole day to get enough to buy a box.  Some days I would shoot two boxes of .22 shorts and get two boxes of .22 long rifle hollow points. I was in hog heaven.  I had groundhog and food ammo for a week or two.

Back to the present and the Economical 20 Practical.  A couple friends of mine have .204 Ruger rifles and I was impressed watching them shoot on a windy day.  They shot well in the wind using the Hornady 32 gr VMax bullets and were very destructive.

 

Cartridges from left to right: .223 Rem, 20 Practical, .204 Ruger

Cartridges from left to right: .223 Rem, 20 Practical, .204 Ruger

About the same time components started drying up and became hard to find.  The priced on .204 brass, new and used, increased greatly.   Now prices have stabilized and availability has gone up some.  New brass is around $.56 each (if you can find it) but used cases are is still nonexistent.  One friend told me, “Will, you have to come to the dark side and shoot 17 and 20 cal”.

After reading more articles on the 20 Practical, I decided to give it a try.  You can use cheap and available .223 brass.   Run a case into a Redding S-bushing full-length sizing die using a couple different bushing and you have a 20 practical.  It isn’t quite that easy, but almost.  20 Practical brass to me is a lot easier to make from .223 Rem than is the 20 Tactical.  The 20 Tactical has a longer neck and most of the time a 30 degree shoulder.  Here some confusion comes in.  I did see a few 20 Tactical rifles made with a 23 degree shoulder like the .223 Rem, but with the longer neck.  To make that longer neck a costly die set and a step or two more is needed to form the brass and move the shoulder back.  These steps are critical in keeping the headspace correct and getting the shoulder fire-formed correctly.  Thus the name Practical: it’s more practical to only have to size the neck down.  I do know some will say “OH! It’s very easy to form 20 Tactical cases”  To each his own.

To start my quest for a 20 Practical, I needed an action.  To start from scratch was no good.  Actions are around $350 to $400.  A stock runs $200 to many hundreds and barrels are into the many hundreds.  Before long, I was looking at $1,200 to $2,000.  I still would have to pay a gunsmith to put it together.

The next thing I tried was buying a used rifle with a shot-out barrel or maybe a caliber I could chamber to the 20 Practical.  I went through three different rifles, nothing was a good way to go.  I would have to buy a floor plate, new barrels, and new stock and still have a lot money in it.  So I sold all three of them.  Now what?

I’ve had several people ask me over the years “What is the best time to buy a varmint rifle?”  “When it comes to you”, is my answer.  But really, the best time is during deer and elk season.  Some guys trade-in their varmint rifle for a big magnum to get that deer or elk of their dreams.  And yes, in the spring they trade that big kicking magnum for a nice easy-shooting varmint rifle to shoot a few prairie dogs during the spring and summer.

In the fall gun shops and big box stores don’t order in varmint rifles.  Sometimes there are a few left over but often there are some fine used varmint rifles to be had.  Mine came to me that way.  One of the guys behind the counter at a big box store was my saving grace.  I asked about varmint rifles and there weren’t many choices.  Then my friendly counter man said, “Wait a minute I want to show you something.”  Out came a Remington SPS Varmint, 26” barrel, Ruger .204, Single stage X-Mark trigger, barely used Varmint rifle.  Praise the Lord.  It hit me like a brick in the face; all I have to do is chamber it to the 20 Practical and I’m DONE.  And the price, $440 with an 8 X 32 x 44 BSA scope in Remington rings and mounts, was right.

Finished .20 Practical Remington 700 with an Osprey MDG 6-24X50 IR optic.

Finished .20 Practical Remington 700 with an Osprey MDG 6-24X50 IR optic.

Why chamber a rifle from a perfectly good caliber to another?  Because I can!  But the biggest reason is Rem .223 brass is very easy to find in bulk, and is cheap.  I fire between 10,000 and 15,000 rounds a year.  I need bulk ammo and cheap.  New .204 brass is expensive and still hard to get at a good bulk price.  Using .223 brass I can nearly match the ballistics of the .204 (some say it gives better ballistics) while using less powder.  A little less yes but I shoot a lot of rounds per year, and it mounts up.

A couple of the articles I read on the 20 Practical gave all the details to get started producing brass from .223 Rem.  I ordered a reamer from Dave Kiff at Pacific Tool & Gauge with the same .233″ neck they talked about in their articles.  I also ordered the GO-NO go gage for my gunsmith to use while chambering.  It’s a standard .233 Rem GO-NO go gage, if your gunsmith has one, you don’t need one.

I decided to go the inexpensive way and chose the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO cartridge, the standard .223 Remington the military uses.   In my opinion the military brass is the best brass going.  It all has to meet mil-specs, be very exact, and strong enough to withstand the rigors of automatic fire.  Yes, the case doesn’t hold as much powder, is thicker, and has a nasty crimped in primer.   These can be all overcome.  Load less powder, know that it has thicker walls, and remove the crimp.

I started off not really looking for brass, but it came to me.  At a gun show in early February of 2010, a fellow walked up to my table and ask “Want to buy some .223 brass?”  “Probably, how much do you have and what do you want for it”, was my answer.  He said “Over 800 and I’ll take $30 for all of it”.  That is less than 4 cents each.  I weighted the bag and there was indeed over 800 in the bag, a quick inspection showed crimped military primer, and all had an annealing mark on their necks.  Plus, plus, once fired, and annealed for strength and ease of neck sizing (tougher and less brittle).

Now I have my brass, time to start the loading process.  I first size and decapped the brass in my Redding S bushing .233 Rem size die using the .245 bushing.  Remember, insert the bushing with the number down.  When a .223 Rem or military round is fired in most chambers the result is a .250 to .253 neck.  Taking the neck down in steps will save on the brass.  When a standard resizing die is used the neck is sized to .242 to .244 to be able to accept a .224 dia. bullet and taking in the thickness of the brass.

I always use a case gage when sizing all my brass to make sure I don’t push the shoulder back too far.  Without the case gage you wouldn’t know this.  Follow the instruction that comes with the case gage.  When you think you have it, tighten down the die lock ring, tighten down the die to the press and size another case and check it.  If the shoulder isn’t set back enough, the round will not fit the chamber.  Set back to much and the round will go in, but too far.  It may not fire because the firing pin will push the round forward to engage the shoulders to the chamber and not hit the primer hard enough to ignite it.  If you try to re-fire the round, some good and some bad could come of it.  The round is more forward now and the firing pin probably will ignite the primer and fire the round.  When the primer ignites, it will back out of the case, slam against the bolt face, and flatten out.  The back of the case is trying to move back and the front of the case is trying to stretch forward.  And stretch they do, leaving a ring around your case or worse a separated case.  When I was a platoon Sergeant in the Army, everyone had a separated case remover in their pocket or on their person somewhere, their life depended on it.  After all the excitement is over and you look at what happened your first words are, “Damn that was a hot load”   No, not a hot load, poor loading procedures.  Buy and learn to use a case gage, they save a lot of wear and tear on your heart.  Most of the time you don’t use them often, but they’re the only thing that works correctly for the job at hand which is guaranteeing proper case fit to the chamber.

Next step was to tumble the brass.  Once I got all the lube off, I can handle them to uniform the flash hole.

If you’re like me I have only one flash hole deburring tool and it’s a 22 cal.   If you take the neck down to 20 cal you’ll not be able to get the burr out of the flash hole that most military cases have.  Some say “accuracy is improved if removed”.  I do think a couple of manufactures now have the 20 cal flash hole deburring tool, all the better.

After that I swage the primer pocket; if needed to get out the military crimp. I set a RCBS Primer Pocket Swager up on my old stand-by a RCBS JR single stage press; I’ve had longer than I care to remember.  Using the swager is the fastest and best way to get out the military crimp, but not the only way.  Using a deburring tool and a lot of elbow grease can, but it doesn’t always get it out completely. The Hornady case prep center can get the crimp out better; but I still use the swager and touch up with the prep center.  When you try to seat a primer it might catch on the rough edge and smash the primer.  Now you’ll have to stop and get the smashed primer out or throw the case in a box until you have several that need their primers punched out; thus  wasting a primer and time.  What ever method you use to get the primer out, be careful, you might set it off.  ALWAYS wear safety glasses when reloading; I have set off primers while punching them out.

Now I replaced the Rem .223 decapping assembly with a Ruger .204 decapping assembly, without a decapping pin, that I ordered from Midway USA.  I changed to a .233 bushing, number down, and sized the brass.  Check your sizing using the case gage again so as not to set the shoulder back to much.  After sizing with the .233 bushing the 20 cal bullet would still slide in and out of the case mouth. The last operation is to size them again using a .228 bushing.  All that’s needed is to change the bushing; your sizer die should already be locked in place.  Once the last .228 bushing is used you may see a donut shape where the neck meets the shoulder, depending on the softness of your brass.  This is good; it will seal the cartridge to the chamber with a slight tight closing of the bolt.

This bushing was just a guess on my part.   It turned out to be a good one.  I miked some commercial (Win and R-P) .204 32 gr Hornady VMax loaded rounds and they ran from .227 down to .223.  This means I would have to use two different bushings, a .225 and a .221 to get a good fit for the bullet.  I’ll probably not use commercial brass at all; I would have to buy two more bushings.  Sizing with the .228 bushing wouldn’t let the bullet slide in the case mouth because of the thickness of the military brass.  All of the rounds should have the same consistency and neck tension.   Once the case is fire formed, just use the .228 for your daily full length sizing.   Down the road I think I’ll get a .226 bushing, just in case I might need a snugger fit.  (Note: Later in the process of working up some loads I did go to a .226 bushing)  This was using my rifle.  According to the reamer and how your gunsmith uses it, your rifle may be different.  That will take some experimentation on your part.

Into the tumbler again to get the lube off and now I’m ready to check the length of the finished cases.  They were all too long, military cases are long to facilitate putting a hard crimp into the cannelure of the bullet to keep it in place during high rate automatic fire.

I full length size and trim to the suggested trim-to-length all of my brass.  Using my 20 Practical I’ll stick to the 1.750 lengths of the parent .223 Rem case.  All of my ammo fits in everybody’s rifle of the same caliber, because I do this.  When you neck size only you run the risk of getting a case stuck in the chamber on a hot day or with a hot gun.  Yes, you might get better accuracy.  But one ten thousand of an inch doesn’t really make that much difference on a prairie dog town.  Minute-of-Prairie Dog is good enough.  There are just way too many other variables to worry about such as wind, heat, mirage, bugs, snakes to only name a few.

When I get ready to trim my brass I use a several methods.  The old Lyman trimmer and deburring tool is labor intensive, but works.  When I just have a few cases I use this method.  Another is a multi-tool called the Tri-Cut that does the inside, outside, and trims to length all in one pass using a hand crank trimmer or an electric one.  I use this method when I have a couple hundred cases to do.  It’s reasonably fast and you can easily do a couple hundred in an hour or so.  But when I have LOTS (over three hundred) of cases, then I use the Hornady case prep center.  When using standard cases you can prep 400 to 500 cases an hour, inside, outside, and trim to length all on one machine.  When starting with military cases, getting the extra length trimmed off, you can only get about 200 to 250 cases done per hour.

In the spring when the prairie dog pups are out I go on shoots nearly every week, for about a month or so.  Fired cases build up fast; I end up burning the midnight oil to get my cases prepped and ready to load.  Prepping brass in large quaintly makes loading a lot easier.  It’s almost like starting with new brass.  Using my Dillon 550B I can set down for an hour or two and knock out a couple three hundred rounds.  At the end of July or the middle of August I have lots of prepped brass in their boxes ready to load.

Next thing I do when prepping cases is clean the primer pocket; so the primer gets a good solid seat.  Several methods work here also.  A small screwdriver can be used to scratch out the primer residue.  It is very labor intensive, but works.  Any manufactured primer pocket hand tool works, but they are hard on the hands.  When using the Hornady case prep center everything is right in front of you.

The propellants I chose for this project are:

Accurate A 2015                22.8 – 24.8 gr.

Accurate A 2230             23.3 – 24.5 gr.

Ramshot TAC                    24.3 – 26.3 gr.

All the propellants I’m using on this project are fine grained propellants that I’ve used in the past and know they flow well though my Dillon 550B powder measure.  While reading articles on the 20 Practical; most said they started with 20 Tactical loads. I’ll do the same.  The first propellant I chose to load is Ramshot TAC.  Using 25.3 grs I’ll check that I necked the brass correctly and fire formed.  When I say “necking the brass correctly”, what I mean, is the round going into the chamber with a little pressure on the bolt handle to get a tight fit to fire form.   In other calibers that I’ve had to fire form I found accuracy is pretty good.  I load a middle load, shoot a prairie dog and I have my formed brass.  On some trips I’ve use 80% rounds that I’m fire forming.  I do all of my beginning loads using brass I’m fire forming, this way I can get some fired brass and get an idea where the speed is going over my chronograph.  I don’t load hot.  My target speed is going to be close to 3,800 fps, maybe less.  That is fast enough and will save on my barrel throat and heating somewhat.  I just want a 20 caliber, not a 4400 fps gargantuan that burns the jacket off of the bullet as it goes down range.  Some .220 Swifts do that don’t ya know, burn a lot of powder too.  Not what I’m looking for.

As I started the loading process I quickly found I needed a .226 bushing for my Redding S die.  The .228 finial bushing wouldn’t size one group of military cases tight enough on the neck tension.  Another problem I came across is that the Pacific reamer cuts a tight chamber.  The military cases shot in an automatic weapon expanded the web more than the standard Redding S die Full Length re-sized it to.  Even though the case fit correctly in the Wilson Case Gage it wouldn’t fit like I wanted in the rifle chamber.  It was too snug.

I put in an order for the .226 bushing and a Redding small base .223 Rem Full-Length die.  From now on I will use the small base die to do the initial sizing of the .223 Rem brass.  You only need to do this once to get the web to specs.  But for now the rounds I have loaded to test will be fine, just a little snug in the chamber.

When loading I get the OAL (Over all length) using a digital caliper.  But to get the seating depth, I seat to the BTO (Base to Ogive of the bullet) using another digital caliper with a Stoney Point Comparator (Now a Hornady brand) attached to it.  The Comparator gives you a quicker and more accurate measurement of the bullet’s bearing surface.  Sometime hollow point and soft point bullet tips get damaged and make for bad measurements, but not the ogive.

The same Comparator using a case specific insert can be used to find a datum point on a fired case shoulder to allow you to set your sizing die one to two thousands less than the chambers shoulder (also known as “bump sizing”, for a perfect fit.

I take a couple fired cases; de-priming the case so as not to have the primer effect the measurement, make the measurement from base to the middle of the shoulder.  Then size the case until I have a measurement one to two thousands less than the chambers shoulder.  In some cases, as with wildcat cartridges, a case gage doesn’t exist and this is the only way it can be done; except for trial and error by placing the case in the rifle until the bolt closes, but that can take some time.

TEST LOADS

A 2015 – All using the 32 gr Hornady Vmax, OAL = 2.240, BTO = 1.878

Click here for test loads: Accurate 2015 Test loads, 20 Practical

A 2230 – All using the 32 gr Hornady Vmax, OAL = 2.240, BTO = 1.878

Click here for test loads: A 2230 test loads for 20 Practical

Ramshot TAC – All using the 32 gr Hornady Vmax, OAL = 2.240, BTO = 1.878

Click here for test loads: Ramshot TAC Test Loads for 20 Practical

I did have another problem, the leade wasn’t long enough to seat the bullet out to an OAL of 2.240.  The bullet contacted the lands at around 2.210; I was jamming the bullets into the rifling.  I had guessed at the OAL because I didn’t have anything to go on.  Not good.  With the next test loads I used formed brass at an OAL of 2.200 with a BTO of 1.830 and mark them as “Using fire-formed brass”.

I chose to only test the above loads; I left out a couple powders I might try later, but not now.  It’s still winter and all of the above loads will change when the weather warms up.  Some maybe to the point they may be too hot, that’s a problem for later.

For now I’ll use the 25.3 grains of Ramshot TAC to fire form the other 750 pieces of brass I have.  At around 3,800 fps it will do just fine on winter and early spring prairie dogs.  As I finish fire-forming my brass I’ll use one of each of the three powders as my shooting loads.  I may tweak the loads up or down to stay around the 3,800 fps range; they don’t need to be any hotter.  I didn’t load a lot of  A 2230 in my initial testing; in my rifle I just didn’t get the speed I was hoping for using the charges I started with.  Later on I’ll play with the charges to see if I get better results.

During the test firing I didn’t clean my rifle, nor did I let the barrel cool down.  The first firing I shot 70 rounds; the second 75 rounds, much like I would shoot on a prairie dog town.  I even moved my shooting bag and stand around to simulate field conditions.   I want to know what a load will do in the field, not under ideal conditions and using a rest.  You don’t need to shoot one-hole groups, it would be nice, but you will score more hits with a rifle that gives you consistent half inch to three quarter inch groups all the time.

I did take my rifle back to my gunsmith to have him extend the leade so I could use a longer OAL of around 2.250.

I also decided on three different “pet loads” after getting a sufficient amount of fire formed brass.

#1.   Using Hornady’s 32 gr VMax, 25.8 TAC, OAL of 2.250 gave me 3,750 fps

#2.   Using Sierra 32 gr BLTZ, 26 TAC, OAL of 2.245 gave me 3,725 fps

#3.   Using Hornady’s 40 gr VMax, 22.3 A 2015, OAL of 2.260 gave me 3,350 fps

These loads work in my rifle, they may not in yours. Work up to them.

It took me a long time to consider building a 20 Cal rifle, I was stuck in a rut on the 22 caliber, but I like this ECONOMICAL 20 PRACTICAL rifle.  It’s pleasant to shoot, doesn’t kick a lot, and it’s speedy.  I’m sure it will be one of my most used rifles.

Bio pic72Meet Will Scherer:  I’m a varmint shooter in the West shooting 4,000 – 6,000 varmints a year.  I’m retired military with 8 years Air Force, 12 years Army, and 11 years Federal Service.  For 12 years of my military career I was a Master Instructor and Supervisor of the Electronics Principles course at Lowry AFB in Denver.  My last 9 years with the military I was a civilian GS-11 course writer.   Charged with putting together all the books, materials, and equipment our students needed to complete 43 weeks of electronics training; preparing them for their military career.