Don’t shoot cheap bullets!

IMG_8547_1080With ammo costs soaring and availability down to nothing, many shooters look for any way they can shoot more and spend less.

One reoccurring theme I have seen is for shooters to “break in” a rifle with cheap ammo. It seems the idea is that the first shots out of a rifle are too inaccurate to use match ammo. Another often stated use for cheap ammo is to “sight in” the rifle. I don’t understand either of these methods.

Lets address the “break in” first. With a custom match barrel, the barrel has been hand lapped and had the chamber cut with care. Hopefully the smith used a sharp reamer and left a minimal burr. The first shots from this rifle should be very accurate. No “break in” is required. The rifle may “speed up” as you shoot the barrel in. It doesn’t require a break in. Shooting breaks it in. Use the “break in” period to work on breaking YOU in to the new rifle.

When looking at a new factory rifle like a Remington 700 SPS. The barrel is generally rough. No hand lapping has been done and you may have had your chamber cut with a reamer fresh back from being sharpened or one that is reaching the end of it’s life. These barrels generally do need some “break in” but it’s not the Shoot and clean routine that you heard of on the internet. When you shoot your first handful of cartridges through a factory, rack grade barrel, the bullet jacket material is being deposited in the rough areas of the barrel. This smoothes the surface out and causes less damage to subsequent bullets. Cleaning the barrel after each shot removes this fouling and requires the next bullet to lay it back down. The first few rounds also smooth the burr and reduce the amount of copper it strips off.

When you shoot low quality bullets in an attempt to “break in” your barrel you are laying down a deposit of jacket material that may be different from your match bullet. This can cause issues depending upon the chemistry of the metals. If you “break in” the barrel with low quality ammunition, you will want to strip the barrel of all fouling before firing your match ammunition through it. When you do this, you are going back to square one.

It is quite common to see Remington barrels shoot 20-30 shots before the peak accuracy of the barrel returns.

Now lets address zeroing with cheap ammo. This is really a poor practice. Depending on the rifle, two different types of match ammo may have a totally different zero. Why would you sight in with one type of ammo, then switch to another and have to sight in again. You will be better off just bore-sighting your rifle. That should put you close enough on paper to dial in a zero with just 2-3 shots.

My recommendation is to start with the bullets you intend to use. If that is hunting ammo, then so be it. If it’s match ammo, then go for it. If it’s both, and you will be swapping back and forth, then I suggest you stick with the same brand. You will have a good chance of having the same jacket material.

Stay away from steel cased ammo.

With the exception of Hornady’s steel match ammo, many of the steel case products I have seen use bi-metal jackets. These jackets can cause more wear on your bore than standard copper jackets. Use them in AK’s and AR’s (I do), but keep them out of the precision rifles.


This whole post began due to an interesting example I had at the range this morning. Earlier in the week Sarah had been shooting the Remington AAC-SD in the Cadex Chassis. She had been working on positional shooting, so 1/4 MOA capable ammo was not needed.

Some time ago I had gotten a good deal on 500 or so Widener’s Reloading bullets. They were supposed to be 168gr Match bullets and very close to the 168gr Match King. They were not. Weights were all over the place and they were not suitable for match ammo. I tossed them in the reloading cabinet after weight sorting them. With the component crunch going on, I drug them out. I loaded a batch up with Varget and let Sarah burn them up. She had a blast killing steel with them.

When we got home I wiped the rifle down, lubed it and threw it in the safe. It wasn’t close to it’s bore cleaning cycle, so no need to mess with that.

This morning I grabbed the rifle and a fresh box of 175gr Match Kings loaded over 43gr of Varget. This is a fairly accurate load. I intended to get a good zero and some chronograph numbers in hopes that I would be able to shoot this rig Sunday in the local match.

The first group was well off zero. I expected this. What I didn’t like was the group was about 3 MOA. I began to wonder if the muzzle device or scope mount had come loose. I tweaked the zero for the center of the group and sent another. This one was a little tighter. The third and fourth groups were sub-MOA and what I expected from the factory barrel. It was about this time that it dawned on me that the last thing shot through the rifle was the garbage ammo. Once the SMK’s had replaced the fouling in the barrel the rifle came back in. I am fairly certain it was not the shooter because this rifle is already set up for me and even with a gasser, I can jump on the rifle cold and perform better than 3 MOA. No changes were made to the rifle other than shooting it.

Keep that in the back of your mind the next time you consider buying some cheap ammo for your precision rifle.

If you are out of cash, any ammo is better than no ammo. However if you have a choice…eat some ramen, skip that new iPhone and buy match ammo.

5 thoughts on “Don’t shoot cheap bullets!”

  1. Excellent article sir!!! I’m new to precision rifle shooting & am in the process of building a budget precision rifle. (Remington 700 aac with vortex glass.) was thinking of breaking it in with cheap ammo!

  2. The purpose of breaking in a new barrel (fire clean, fire-clean) is to smooth the lede to prevent copper from vaporizing into the rifling. Why waste $1+ per round ammo when one is simplify conditioning a barrel. After break in a quality barrel can be cleaned with a few patches!

    1. First, for precision rifles, we don’t subscribe to the “break in” myth. Second, if you do believe you are simply fire-lapping the leade, why not get some meaningful trigger time out of those shots? Lastly if you fire cheap ammo, then scrub your bore, now you have to go back and foul it out with good ammo before you will see the peak accuracy in many rifles. Why not just start with good ammo?

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