October 18, 2019
When introduced, the .224 Valkyrie sent a tsunami of interest washing through shooters. AR-15 enthusiasts saw it as a way to extend their long-range capabilities while long-range precision shooters recognized it as a way to achieve maximum range with minimum recoil.
Considering the eyebrow-raising advertised factory ballistic figures, who can blame them? Not only does the .224 Valkyrie fit comfortably in a sleek, standard-size AR-15, it was alleged to push super-aerodynamic, 90-grain Sierra MatchKing projectiles so effectively that they would remain supersonic all the way to 1,300 yards (in standardized, sea-level atmospheric conditions), making the .224 Valkyrie a legitimate three-quarter-mile cartridge from a 24-inch barrel.
You have to admit, the cartridge has some real strengths. It offers certain advantages unparalleled by any other AR-15 compatible round. However, the .224 Valkyrie is also possessed with some demons, and these demons do apply to handloading, so let’s take a look.
Myth Busting the .224 Valkyrie
Being a ballistic geek, I entered the Valkyrie’s data into a ballistic calculator (jbmballistics.com) to study its downrange numbers. I simply selected the 90-grain MatchKing from the calculator’s library, which automatically plugs in Sierra’s variable, velocity-based ballistic coefficient (BC numbers). Any way I crunched the data, at factory advertised velocities in standard, sea-level atmospherics, the projectile went transonic at approximately 1,200 yards. That’s still a durned long ways for an AR-15 cartridge, but it’s not 1,300.
Then a light flashed in the dim recesses of my mind. Suspiciously, I manually overrode the Sierra-provided variable BC numbers, plugging in only the highest, max-velocity BC (G1 BC: .563) listed for the 90-grain projectile’s muzzle velocity. For those wondering, as a projectile slows down, its BC degrades. Unlike many bullet companies, Sierra tests, calculates and provides real-world BC numbers in a series of steps as velocity decreases.
The change is infinitesimal but in this case it was enough. With the simple max BC plugged in and maintained (which of course doesn’t happen in real life), the bullet does stay supersonic to 1,300 yards. Don’t you love marketing? It’s a great example of optimism.
Although real-world performance is likely a tad shy of advertised performance, that really doesn’t bother me. However, the .224 Valkyrie has one other apparent flaw that didn’t emerge immediately. It’s a bit more concerning and is quickly disenchanting shooters that are battling the issue.
In short, the .224 Valkyrie tends to provide poor accuracy with the bullet that all the hype is built around — the 90-grain Sierra MatchKing (SMK). The same projectile made legendary with victories on Camp Perry’s 1,000-yard range during the National Matches. So, what is going on here?
As noted by Sierra, the 90-grain SMK is designed to stabilize in rifling twist rates of 1 turn in 6½ inches or faster. Spin it slower, and it gyroscopes on the thin edge of wobbly, like a top that didn’t get quite enough speed. However, Federal’s designers submitted the .224 Valkyrie to SAAMI — the governing body that approves and publishes standardized cartridge specs — with a twist rate of 1 turn in 7 inches.
The 1:7-inch twist is a more versatile rate and enables the Valkyrie to shoot medium-light bullets well. And in many conditions — particularly at higher altitudes where the air is thin — a 1:7 twist does stabilize the 90-grain SMK adequately. However, Federal’s gamble came back with mixed results. Many shooters are unable to obtain better than 1½- to 3-MOA groups with the 90-grain SMK, rendering the long-range performer impotent.
It was a necessary gamble, because the ultra-fast 1:6½ twist is very hard on lighter-weight, thin-jacketed bullets, often applying so much torque that the jackets are compromised and come apart mid-flight. Accuracy is erratic, too. To achieve a modicum of versatility, the rifling twist could not be 1:6½ or faster — it had to be 1:7 or slower.
There is a silver lining, however. With medium-weight varmint bullets up through the semi-heavy, long-range bullets such as Barnes’ 85-grain Match Burner (BC .410), Hornady’s 88-grain ELD-Match (BC .545) or Nosler’s 85-grain RDF (BC .498), the Valkyrie performs beautifully. While Federal isn’t loading those, you can.
Interestingly, the 88-grain Hornady bullet was designed specifically to fill the void left by the lack of 90-grain SMK performance in 1:7-twist rifling. It does stabilize and offers outstanding aerodynamics very nearly on par with the 90-grain SMK (BC .545 versus .563). And yes, Hornady is offering factory ammo loaded with it.
Powerhouse .224 Valkyrie Features
The cartridge case is arguably the best .224-caliber, AR-compatible design ever engineered. Most critically, case length (base to mouth) is short enough to allow loading super-sleek, high-BC bullets with long, fine-entry ogives. As a result, the .224 Valkyrie feeds comfortably from AR magazines with long-range bullets that must be single-fed into .223/5.56 AR-15 rifles.
Additionally, case capacity is greater than that of the .223/5.56, about 5 percent as I measure it (29.9 grains versus 31.5 grains of water filled to the case mouth). Plus, the gunpowder sits in a shorter, fatter column, enabling — in theory — a slightly more consistent burn. This minimizes extreme spread and standard deviation, benefitting long-range accuracy.
Because it uses the 6.8 SPC as its parent case, the .224 Valkyrie fits and functions in any quality AR-15 magazine designed for the 6.8 SPC and/or 22 Nosler. And it runs comfortably through a standard AR-15 action.
Coupled with its outstanding ballistics, this last characteristic is a big deal. Impact energy and wind-bucking ability aside, the .224 Valkyrie provides ballistics that nip at the heels of the uber-popular 6.5 Creedmoor — but it doesn’t require stepping up to an AR-10 (assuming you are a precision-semiauto kind of guy).
Handloads Match The Hype
Given that the .224 Valkyrie is a very polite cartridge to reload, judicious handloading can just about create what factory loads are alleged to perform. Here is what I’ve found works with best in my reloads.
I absolutely love Sierra bullets, but in this case don’t bother with the 90-grain MatchKing. If you’re a Sierra disciple, opt for the 80-grain MatchKing (BC .461), which stabilizes comfortably in the .224 Valkyrie’s 1:7 twist.
Barnes’ 85-grain MatchBurner, Hornady’s 88-grain ELD Match and Nosler’s 85-grain RDF are also outstanding choices for achieving best-possible, long-range performance with the .224 Valkyrie.
For all-around work inside 600 yards on everything from predators to steel targets, I actually prefer a slightly lighter bullet, that’s pushed faster. Hornady’s 75-grain ELD Match (BC .467) and Sierra’s 77-grain tipped MatchKing (BC .420) are excellent, and both make outstanding crossover long-range varmint and predator bullets.
If predators are your primary focus, I really like Nosler’s 50-grain Ballistic Tip. A healthy dose of Hodgdon’s CFE-223 powder drives it out the 20-inch J.P. Enterprises barrel of my custom 2A Armament AR-15 at a fraction more than 3,400 feet per second (fps), and it’s actually the single most accurate handload I’ve tried. Another surprisingly good predator and varmint load — particularly for fur collectors that need to minimize pelt damage and for hunters in lead-restricted zones — pushes Nosler’s 35-grain Lead Free BT at about 3,800 fps and groups beautifully.
As you may have remarked, these are all premium projectiles. Sure, you can buy cheap, bulk 55-grain FMJ bullets and load them for your .224 Valkyrie, but if you want a plinking AR-15, you’re far better off with a .223/5.56. The Valkyrie is designed for cutting-edge precision and ballistic performance, and personally I see no use in crippling it with cheap bullets.
As you can see on the included handload chart, CFE-223 is a favorite of mine. It typically provides top-shelf velocities and excellent accuracy across a vast span of bullet weights. Plus, it meters beautifully through volumetric, mechanical powder measures. If I had to choose just one propellant for the .224 Valkyrie, it would be CFE-223.
Other personal favorites are TAC and Reloder 17. While I haven’t tried them, Hodgdon’s manual lists H414, BL-C(2) and H4895 as providing excellent velocities with bullets in the heavier ranges, and Varget and IMR 8208 XBR for lighter projectiles.
If loading for a bolt action, simply clean cases, confirm overall length is within spec, and proceed to resize and load. For a semiauto .224 Valkyrie, however, several extra steps are called for.
Because the bolt of an AR-15 unlocks and begins to cam the case rearward out of the chamber while the bullet is still in the bore and the chamber still pressurized, cases get stretched. In essence, the extractor heaves back on the case rim whilst the case walls are still firmly gripping the chamber walls.
As a result, cases must be aggressively resized to ensure they’ll chamber properly, and they must be trimmed to appropriate length — yes, every durned time they’re fired. Trimming prevents the case mouth from growing too long and jamming against the step in the front of the chamber. Believe me, you don’t want your bolt slamming home on a too-long case and camming halfway into battery before sticking fast. I’ve seen shooters pounding on their charging handles in an attempt to eject stuck reloads. Not something you want to experience.
After trimming to length, chamfer and deburr case mouths. This is particularly critical to achieving clean, concentric bullet seating.
Alternately, you can purchase 50-count bags of new, unprimed cases from Federal. Yes, this adds expense, but it greatly reduces your case-prep time.
Prime with small rifle caps of your choice. I use both Federal 205 Gold Medal and CCI BR-4 primers with great results. Because the CCIs tend to have a slightly harder primer cup, I lean toward them for use in semiautos.
After prepping cases, priming and charging with powder, seat your bullets. I never bother to crimp, but if your chosen projectile has a crimping groove, you can. If you do, be sure your case mouths are squarely trimmed to identical length, otherwise crimps will vary in how securely they grip the bullet and can affect accuracy.
For bolt-action rifles, you can opt to seat bullets out to “kiss” the rifling leade, which helps center up the cartridge in the chamber and gives the projectile a perfectly straight start into the bore. It can also benefit consistency by lowering velocity variations.
When loading for an AR-15, however, you’ve got to seat projectiles to fit inside AR magazines. Maximum overall length is 2.260 inches. With bullets in the heavy range, you’ll find that you’ll often load to max length. Shorter projectiles, however, must be seated considerably shorter simply to get the base of the bullet far enough into the case mouth to grip it properly and concentrically.
As an aside, this is one potential down side to the .224 Valkyrie: Light bullets have to jump a considerable distance before engaging the rifling. In practical use, however, I’ve seen no discernable degradation in accuracy.
Factory-advertised numbers, both in ammunition and handloading data, are generated using 24-inch test barrels. As with all cartridges, velocity and performance is reduced when using shorter barrels. On the flip side, Precision Rifle Series (PRS) shooters using 28-inch barrels in match guns will experience upgraded performance.
Conventional wisdom suggests that in shorter barrels, about 25 fps is lost per inch. I think that’s about right with the .224 Valkyrie. Medium-long, 20-inch AR barrels such as my J.P. Enterprises tube drop roughly 100 fps; short 16-inchers lose up to 200 fps.
If you really want to shoot your .224 Valkyrie out to 1,200 yards, opt for a long barrel. You’ll need to milk every bit of potential performance from your handloads. If, however, ringing steel at 600 or 800 yards makes you happy as a rodeo clown, an 18- or 20-inch tube works great.
Dropping down to a 16-incher begins to enter cartridge-crippling territory. Plus, it exacerbates action-cycling issues by requiring a gas system that is almost too short for the .224 Valkyrie’s pressure curve. It’s worth noting, however, that screwing a suppressor onto a 16-inch barrel can help minimize those potential pressure-curve issues.
Shooting at higher-than usual altitudes also increases the .224 Valkyrie’s capability. As air density becomes thinner, max supersonic range extends. Obviously this isn’t usually a manipulatable option like barrel length is, but if you live high, even a shorter-barreled rifle has a lot of reach.
All things considered, the single best way to maximize your .224 Valkyrie’s performance is to handload for it. That way, you can opt for long-range projectiles that stabilize perfectly and provide long-distance-appropriate accuracy in your rifle. This, combined with the extremely good BCs of the bullet options discussed earlier, will help you reach way, way out there and realize the full potential of the cartridge.
.224 Valkyrie Cartridge Specs
- Parent Cartridge: 6.8 SPC
- Water Capacity: 31.2 grains filled to case mouth
- Overall Case Length: 1.600 in.
- Trim-To Case Length: 1.580 in.
- Cartridge Overall Length: 2.260 in.
- Primer: Small Rifle
- Pressure Limit: 55,000 PSI
- Rifling Twist Rate: 1:7
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