May 16, 2019
You don’t have to look very far in advertising material to find claims of match-grade performance. The term “match” is being used so often that many wonder if it means anything anymore.
The impetus for match loads arose from the early days of the National Matches, which were started in 1903 by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Army. They were instituted to improve military marksmanship and national defense preparedness. The first National Matches were held at Sea Girt, New Jersey, in September 1903. The matches were attended by teams from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as state militias and National Guard organizations. Pistol competition events were added to the National Matches in 1904. Then, in 1907, the National Matches were moved to Camp Perry, Ohio, where they continue to be shot during July through August.
At that time, the M1903 Springfield was new and was replacing Krag-Jørgensen rifles. The ’03 earned a reputation for high levels of accuracy over its many years of service and subsequent use by civilians. The cartridge used in that rifle was first the .30-’03 Government featuring the same 220-grain round nose (RN) projectile as its predecessor, the .30-40 Krag. However, the .30-’03 produced 300 feet-per-second (fps) higher velocity. It’s easy to picture the frustration of trying to shoot a slow, 220-grain bullet with a mediocre ballistic coefficient (BC) in the tricky winds at Camp Perry. The ’03 was the last gasp of the old-school thinking behind its slow and heavy round-nose bullet.
The legendary .30-’06 Springfield cartridge was introduced in 1906 and replaced the .30-’03. It featured a 150-grain spitzer flat-base projectile fired at 2,700 fps. The .30-’06 provided a flatter trajectory and made hitting a target easier at longer ranges. The M1903 Springfield’s chambering was then changed to .30-’06 and most .30-’03-chambered rifles were changed to .30-’06. With good ammunition, it is not hard to get an M1903 Springfield to shoot 1 minute of angle (MOA), which is 1.047 inches (commonly rounded down to 1 inch) at 100 yards.
Was the ammo of the period up to the potential of that rifle? The answer is no. I have never had the opportunity to shoot early 1900s offerings, but I’ve shot a considerable amount of World War II- and Korean War-vintage ammo. I have fired this ammo in both high-quality rifles and through a heavy-barrel machine rested to test accuracy.
Typical accuracy of .30-’06 military arsenal World War II-period loads generally shoot in the 2- to 3-MOA range. There were certainly some lots of ammo that shot better than this, but 2 to 3 MOA is typical accuracy. At 600 yards, this ammunition would have printed groups between 15 and 18 inches. Scores were not that impressive by today’s expectations. The lack of accuracy in military ball created the demand for better-performing ammunition used in competition.
First On The Scene
The first match ammunition for competition use in the modern era was produced by Frankfort Arsenal (FA) in 1908. It used the M1906 150-grain, full-metal-jacket (FMJ), flat-base spitzer bullet that was used in the .30-’06 ball cartridge. This bullet would be the standard through 1919. During this period the best shooting lots of production ammo were set aside for use as match ammunition. No efforts were made to produce special projectiles or ammunition. In 1919, the FA No. 26 primer was used with the FA 70 priming compound. This corrosive primer would be the standard for many decades.
In 1920, the match projectile was changed to a 170-grain flat-base projectile in an attempt to reduce copper fouling. The jacket of this projectile was a tin plated cupro-nickel (steel). Issues with this jacket type resulted in a number of high-pressure and uniformity problems.
In 1922, a 170-grain 6-degree boattail (BT) projectile with a gilding metal jacket was used. Gilding metal is a copper alloy of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. To this day, gilding metal is the jacket material of choice. In 1924, the projectile was changed to a 9-degree BT and the propellant was changed from Hercules HiVel to IMR propellant. That year also marked the first year the abbreviation “NM” for National Match appeared on the headstamp.
In 1925, the M1 173-grain 9-degree BT projectile was adopted and proved to be more accurate than the M1906. It eventually became the M118 projectile that was used until the adoption of the 168-grain Sierra MatchKing in the 7.62 NATO cartridge in 1980.
The 1930 FA lot of NM ammunition was used to test a new noncorrosive primer. It is curious to note that this new primer was a Berdan primer. The noncorrosive primer compound proved to have significant performance problems with elevated temperatures. It was withdrawn from service and quickly replaced with a lot of the old FA No. 26 primer. The problems with the chemistry and performance of this primer were directly responsible for the U.S. military not adopting a noncorrosive primer until the mid-1950s.
The 1925 ammunition was similar to the .30-’06 match ammunition until production stopped in favor of the new 7.62 NATO (i.e., .308 Winchester) cartridge. No National Match ammunition was produced between 1941 and 1957 because of the demands of World War II and the Korean War. The first lot of 7.62 NATO match ammunition was produced in 1964 as the XM118 with the 1925-design M1 projectile.
The XM118 cartridge became the M118 in 1965 and was the 7.62 National Match cartridge until the introduction of the XM852, which used the Sierra 168-grain MatchKing in 1981. The last lot of M118 was produced in 1982. The current military match ammunition is the M118LR, which is loaded with Sierra 175-grain MatchKing projectiles.
How well did this match ammo shoot? Military ball typically shot in the 2- to 3-MOA range. While I have no performance data from the early days of FA match ammo, I did find data on the 1966 lot of 7.62 M118 National Match ammunition using the 1925-vintage .30-’06 load with 172-grain M1 projectile. This ammo was likely produced on the same or similar equipment as in 1925. The 1966 M118 lot shot near 1 MOA at 600 yards, about 6-inch groups at that distance.
It seems fair to conjecture that, by handpicking particularly good shooting ammo lots, early match ammunition would shoot significantly better than 2 to 3 MOA. Early match ammunition was likely in the 2 MOA average.
The M1 172-grain projectile first produced in 1925, and shot 1 MOA in 1966, saw improvements in performance between 1925 and 1966. In the mid-1920s, match ammo accuracy was likely in the 1½-MOA range with the new purpose-built projectiles. By 1966, “match grade” meant that the ammunition could shoot 1 MOA. Having shot a considerable amount of M852 ammunition, I can say that by 1981 “match grade” meant 1 MOA or better.
One of the primary reasons that many of our oldest bullet manufacturers started business — including Barnes, Hornady, Nosler and Speer — was to provide better performing bullets than what were available at the time. Even after World War II, scopes were not in vogue like they are today. So, there was little point in commercial ammunition that shot much better than 2 MOA because better accuracy couldn’t be achieved with iron sights.
By the 1960s, scopes were beginning to catch on and bullet companies had become quite successful at producing higher levels of accuracy.
Serious work began in the late 1970s and early ’80s by ammunition manufacturers to provide high levels of projectile performance for both hunters and competition shooters. Ammunition manufacturers began loading bullets sourced from the bullet companies. At the same time, the bullet companies began offering their own ammunition loaded with their own proprietary bullets. The race for higher and higher performance was on.
Does Today’s Match Up?
Let’s compare current bullet and ammunition performance to original match-grade ammo described above. These days, bullets advertised as “match” are manufactured with uncompromising tooling tolerances, tested at much more frequent intervals to a much higher accuracy standard than other bullets.
Today, match bullets, shot from the same type of heavy test barrels and machine rests used with match bullets and ammo decades ago, generally shoot under a half MOA. A good many of them will shoot in the neighborhood of .375 MOA. (Remember, I’m talking about the accuracy of the bullets shot through heavy, match-specification barrels in a controlled laboratory environment.)
Modern match ammo will use the best propellants regardless of cost, as well as low-concentricity cases and the best primers. It is usually loaded on the most precise machines and loaded to very low bullet-case runout.
Recently, hunters have benefited from this advancing bullet production and design technology. The Hornady Precision Hunter line loaded with ELD-X bullets and the Federal Edge TLR line of hunting ammunition give up little in accuracy performance to match ammunition. Additionally, these bullets offer terminal performance at ranges that would have been considered ridiculous just several years ago.
What about the current state of performance from factory, mass-produced rifles? There have been substantial improvements in the accuracy performance of rifles. These days, a gun that doesn’t shoot better than 1½ MOA is considered a poor shooter. Back in the day, a 1½ MOA rifle would have been one for bragging.
As an example of where we are today, consider the Ruger Precision Rifle (RPR) line. I use an RPR because I have a lot of experience with them. However, most every major gun company has a model of rifle that competes with the RPR, so please don’t think that I’m ignoring your favorite brand.
I have shot the RPR in 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Winchester. Every rifle I’ve fired shoots in the ¾-MOA range with quality ammunition. Several have shot inside of ¾ MOA.
To illustrate further, I have an eight-shot test group delivered by my RPR chambered in 6mm Creedmoor. This group measured .48 inch at 100 yards. This type of accuracy performance with an out-of-the-box factory rifle and factory ammo was unheard of back at the start of the National Matches.
There is no doubt that the phrase “match grade” has been abused in some cases. However, the general accuracy level of a good many current-production bullet, ammunition and firearms products would certainly fulfill the definition of “match” as it was originally used in the early 20th century. In many cases, performance of modern match loads exceeds the definition of the word as it was defined at the high point of match competition in the ’60s and ’70s.
Performance of bullets, ammunition and firearms has gotten so good that we don’t pay much attention to anything that doesn’t shoot 1 MOA or better. Shooters of 70 to 80 years ago wouldn’t believe us if we told them the accuracy that we can achieve with the over-the-counter match products available today.
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