Ask Foghorn: Is Shooting Cheap Ammo Holding you Back?

Kurt asks:

If anyone shoots, odds are pretty good they’ve shot crap ammo. It’s an economical decision and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d rather shoot crap ammo than not shoot at all. What has me curious is the ammo at the other end of the scale. What if I’m really a great shot but it’s been my ammo that has been holding me back. I doubt it’s just that but what is the difference between adequate ammo and the super quality stuff? And what about other calibers, I shoot 9mm and it’s mostly the cheaper stuff with an occasionally a magazine of Hornady Critical Defense. Do competitive shooters only shoot hand loads exclusively?

Well, I actually did some less than scientific testing on just that yesterday at the range. And depending on what you’re doing the answer will be different. Let me explain . . .

For a while now, I’ve been doing some scientific testing on ammunition consistency. And while I’ve been lazy (and trying to fix my chrono) I fully intend to keep up the tests. But one thing I learned is that there absolutely is a difference between Hornaday and Wolf. But that difference only really shows up and matters in certain circumstances.

Take for example this recent target, shot with my standard 3-gun rifle at 50 yards. The rifle is probably due for a barrel change about now, but it still gets the job done.

This is what my rifle does with the usual ammo I use for competitions and general plinking — Federal XM193. XM193BK to be exact, since I’m a cheap bastard. It’s a little light (well, short actually) for my 1:7 twist rifle, but it gets the job done. Each of those targets is just about 1.5 inches, and for most competitions and most distances that’s good enough.

This is what Wolf ammo does at the same distance. Not quite as accurate, obviously. And as you move back, the pattern will spread out even further. Want to hit a target twice as far away? Then that pattern will also be twice as big. The size of the group varies directly with the distance to the target. So one inch at 100 yards is 2 inches at 200, 3 inches at 300, and 10 inches at 1,000.

Those were both 55 grain rounds, which aren’t ideal for my barrel twist. And there was a definite and visible difference between the two. Now, to show you what good ammo does (and to regain some of my cred as a good shot) here’s the same distance with Hornaday 75gr Steel Match ammo.

Notice how the rounds make a pretty little one-inch hole? That’s 10 rounds passing through roughly the same spot.

So what’s my point? The point is that the quality of your ammo absolutely matters, but it only really matters at distance. And even then, it only really matters when you’re tying to get that perfect shot.

If you’re just fooling around on the range and only need the gun to go bang and show you approximately where you’re hitting, cheap Wolf ammo is just fine. Even for close range targets in competition, its still good enough. The basic mechanics of shooting will count far more than firing good ammo. In other words, quit bitching and train more.

But when you start pushing the distance out a ways, good ammunition starts to mean the difference between a hit and a miss. And not only good ammo, but the right ammo for your gun. So if you need to do some precision shooting, it might be time to reach for that stash of Hornaday.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

40 Responses to Ask Foghorn: Is Shooting Cheap Ammo Holding you Back?

  1. avatarjwm says:

    If you handload and tailor a specific load for a specific gun you can get better results. I’ve done it in the old days. But for casual shooting at moderate ranges it’s a lot of work for not much gain. And these days I rarely shoot past 100 yards. Craptastic surplus loads do just fine at that range.

  2. avatarJoshinGA says:

    I hit a propane tank at 75 yards, standing unsupported on my fifth shot at that distance today with $10 for a box of 50 9mm. I dont think price matters all too much for any handgun ammo.

    I could see ammo making a difference at extreme ranges out of a rifle. Dont the military sniper units have an armory that handloads all of their ammo for their precision rifles? I think thats about the only way you could really make a difference.

    Lets be honest: the tool is more often than not more accurate than the shooter.

    • avatarAccur81 says:

      It’s pretty much Lake City / Federal / ATK.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      It does if you’re a bullseye or bowling pin handgun shooter.

      • avatarJoshinGA says:

        I somehow missed the very last part of the reader question about competition. In that case I agree, you would want any advantage you could get.

        Is shooting “good” ammo going to suddenly make you a better shooter (as the readers question appears to imply to my eyes at least)? I wouldnt think so.

        • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          I differ on this.

          I’ve trained a lot of kids to shoot .22′s. Some of them are doing everything right – they have a good NPA, they have the cycle down correctly, they’ve got a good trigger/sight control…. and still, their results suck.

          Then I bring out the box of CCI Green Tag and oh, the expressions of happy-happy-joy-joy on their faces when they see that they really ARE doing everything right!

        • avatarJoshinGA says:

          Agree to disagree I suppose. I plink far more than I target shoot on paper. Accuracy to me is relative to can I hit that soda can from back here.

          I subscribe to the “minute of bad guy” school of thought as well. If I can hit a man sized target center mass repeatedly, Im cool with that. In a self defense scenario, Im not going to say afterwards, “Dang, my group was about 2 inches larger than what it should have been”.

  3. avatarSanchanim says:

    Nice note to remember.
    I thin given the economy unless you are a pro shooter training with cheaper is fine. Most of what you get bulk is 55 grain although I think you can get heavier.
    In Nick’s case 55 in a 1 in 7 is light so it is spinning really hard. That said cheap ammo in a heavier grain might also help.
    I guess the idea is play around and figure out what works best for you. Understand your tools and what make them perform better. :-)

    • avatarAccur81 says:

      Agreed. The 1 in 7 tends to really “like” the 62 – 77 grain loads. My 1 in 9 is great for 50-69 grains. Not sure how well it would do with my 77 grain Silver State Armory ammo.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      You’re right – by the time you get to 55gr in a 1:7 tube, you’re over-spinning the projectile.

      1-in-8 is the best twist for those who want to spin 50 to 77 grain pills in an AR. The 1-in-7 tube is required for only those people who want to launch 80 grain pills, which you’ll usually be single-loading anyway.

  4. avatarTommy Knocker says:

    “but it only really matters at distance”

    Like Einstein said, “it’s all relative”…anyone that has shot smallbore competitive on A36 targets knows that 50ft is a LOOOOONG way downrange. That is why anyone worth their salt will be shooting Eley red (Tenex) at $20.00 a box.

  5. avatarCinSC says:

    “The basic mechanics of shooting will count far more than firing good ammo.”

    You could argue that cheap ammo is BETTER for your shooting, since you’re able buy more, shoot more and so become more proficient with the cheap stuff.

  6. avatarRalph says:

    Craptastic ammo (which I love) performs predictably enough at short distances. High-class ammo performs predictably at the checkout counter.

    While I use expensive ammo for SD, I practice with the cheapest Russian stuff I can get so I can afford to use expensive ammo for SD.

  7. avatarGreg Camp says:

    My chronograph results show a lot of variation even in somewhat spendy ammunition. For my level–maintaining skill, having fun, being prepared to defend myself and someday to hunt–good enough is good enough.

  8. avatarSoutherner says:

    Low price point ammo is higher tolerance ammo. This is true of Rifle, Handgun and Shotshell ammunition. This includes powder, bullet, shot, slug and case consistency/quality. In turn, this planned tolerance stack-up contributes to degraded accuracy, uneven patterns, reliabilty issues and substandard terminal performance.

  9. avatarCaptTurbo says:

    Talk about cheap, I shoot almost every day and usually it’s with spring-air .177 just to keep in shape with my marksmanship. I shoot lots of rounds for peanuts.

  10. avatarBlake says:

    I shoot inexpensive ammo in my 1911. Since I don’t expect to engage anyone at more than 30′ with a pistol, my only criteria is that it is reliable.

    My long guns, though, definitely have ammunition preferences and I tend to feed the long guns what they like.

  11. avatarMilsurp Collector says:

    I run into a unique problem that because of stupid people doing stupid things with stupidly hot loads in pre 1898 Mausers, 8mm is a commercially watered down load to around .30-30 performance. That’s an absolute buzzkill for my K98s. I can’t really afford to go out and buy a couple hundred rounds of top notch S&B stuff that’s loaded to military specs. I’ll leave the MOA groups to my scoped .22, If i just feel like taking the war horses out for a spin, cheap surplus ammo is what I love and I’ll do my best to hit the bull’s eye with it. After all, shooting is the only sport in which you have fun when you fail.

  12. avatarJoe Grine says:

    Hey Nick: Your groups above seem to say a lot more about the relationship between bullet weight and barrel twist rate than they do about anything else. Granted, I’m firmly in the “friends don’t let friends shoot Wolf” camp, but your groups don’t seem to highlight much, if any, disparity between Wolf 55 grain and the cheap Federal ammo.

  13. avatarOHgunner says:

    Once I started rolling my own ammo, I really noticed the difference between WWB and custom ammo. Even my 15 yard groups shrank by half.

  14. avatarMark N. says:

    Sometimes it’s the gun. My 9mm XD will shoot anything, but my .45 Kimber won’t shoot aluminum cases consistently at all. Its preference is brass. My Mosquito happily digests mini mags but will not function with anything not as hot (and anything hotter is a waste). My savage .22 is most accurate with jacketed rounds–accuracy with soft lead bullets is horrendous.

  15. avatarSanchanim says:

    You can practice with cheap stuff, copper then role you own with higher quality primers and bullets. Just sayin…

  16. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Golly, I’ve been saying the same thing when I see reviews with Tula or Wolf ammo now for some time.

    Accuracy comes down to two things:

    1. Mechanical accuracy of the weapon. Does the weapon point at the same place after every shot. Part of this is the shooter’s responsibility, and part of it is the weapon’s issue.

    2. Low standard deviation in the velocity, weight and spin of the projectiles as they leave the barrel. Here is where cheap ammo comes in. Cheap ammo is cheap because they don’t care about low SD’s. They don’t care about annular consistency on their bullets. They don’t weigh their powder charges down to the gnat’s posterior. They use cheap primers.

  17. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    To Kurt’s question: “Do competitive shooters only shoot hand loads exclusively?”

    It depends upon the sport.

    In benchrest, 3-position, F-class, some service rifle long distance matches and other rifle sports where accuracy and group size matter a lot, yes, most all the ammo will be hand-loaded. The benchrest boys & girls will load their ammo to fit the conditions right there on the range. In between shooting, you’ll see benchresters loading ammo on small presses. Granted, they don’t shoot hundreds of rounds in a day – but then, none of the accuracy sports do.

    There are some “match” loadings (eg, Federal “Gold Medal” ammo, Lake City Match, Black Hills ammo) in some of the cartridges more often used (5.56, .308, .300 WM, .338 Lapua) by militaries, but when you get into the non-military cartridges used in the benchrest and open long-distance matches, it’s all handloads. Black Hills has some

    In pistol sports, there are accuracy matches and again, in these pursuits, the best quality ammo makes a difference. They’re not quite as finicky as the rifle shooters, but it isn’t ammo from Russia.

    In the .22 accuracy world, there’s dozens of different loadings for match ammo, but many of them go back to Ely primers. In the world of .22 accuracy, there are no handloads, and yes, match ammo makes a big difference over the cheapo ammo, and getting a match ammo that really agrees with your gun makes another big improvement.

    Cheap ammo is will never deliver even a fraction of what modern rifles are capable of in accuracy. If you’re serious about your shooting accuracy, you have to get away from cheap ammo. Period. You might not have to hand-load if you have enough money to buy good ammo, but if you want to seriously improve your accuracy, you must get away from cheap ammo. If you can’t afford good ammo, then save your cheap, nasty brass and start learning to hand-load.

    When you hand-load, you get to select all the components. Components that will make the biggest difference will be your bullets and your primers, followed by your powder and your brass. As long as you’re not running really hot loads and you anneal your brass every so often, you can get a lot of loadings out of good quality brass in a bolt or other non-semi-auto gun. In a semi-auto rifle, you might get only three to five reloadings of the brass.

    BTW, you don’t need to invest a huge bucket of bucks to handload. In many straight-walled pistol calibers, you could probably start with something like a used Lyman 310 tool or a Lee Hand Press. For situations where you really want to full-length resize, heavy crimp or other reasons, folks should look at something like a RCBS Partner press kit. I know a guy who won a lot of matches with a Garand and he’d reload his ammo back then with a Lyman 310 while watching TV. Didn’t have a scale for the powder, either. He just stuck to one powder, one measuring cup, one bullet (168gr Sierra Match King) and ran it.

    • avatarmatt says:

      Didn’t have a scale for the powder, either

      That sounds incredibly dangerous.

      • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        It isn’t. You have a little measuring spoon for ONE type of powder, in his case it was IMR4895.

        As long as you stick to that ONE type of powder, you end up throwing very standard charges. You scoop up a measure of powder, you carefully draw a knife across the top of the scoop to get a full, but level, measure, and you toss it into the case.

        Believe it or not, measuring powder by weight can be dangerous too. If you think that new powder and powder that has been sitting on the shelf are the same weight after 10 years… you’re mistaken. Smokeless powder loses weight as it out-gasses over the years, so you could be putting in a greater volume than expected when you’re using old powder.

  18. avatarChris Dumm says:

    When I’m shooting at short to medium ranges or just slinging lead for fun, I shoot the cheapest crap I can find. If it jams, I get extra ‘malfunction drill’ practice and if it functions perfectly I’m all the happier.

    At practical pistol or carbine ranges (generally, out to 50 yards) very few of us are good enough offhand shots to ever notice the difference between steel or aluminum-cased ammo and the very best custom factory loads. My CQB rifle double taps tend to group very tightly, but they’re still nowhere near the accuracy potential of even the cheapest ammo. At close range, practice matters much more than ammo.

    But if I’m hunting, shooting at distance (past 100 yards) or preparing to defend my life and family, I’ll shoot the good stuff. Good stuff matters at long range and it really makes a difference when your target is more dangerous than a piece of steel or cardboard.

  19. avatarTom says:

    Hit the range recently with a Remington model 52 .22, Marlin 795 .22, Mossberg model 472 .30-30, and Weatherby Vanguard .30-06.

    I had standard Federals for the .30-30 and .30-06. I brought some Federal Premium with the Sierra BTSP pointy things for the .30-06. Also had a variety of .22 ammo including some fast Winchesters, standard bulk Federal, and some standard velocity CCI.

    Out of the .30-06 at 50 and 100 yards the premium stuff was quite a bit more accurate than the cheaper stuff. Wouldn’t make a difference on a game animal but it gives one a bit more confidence when you are lining up the crosshairs.

    The daughter was banging away with the Winchester .22 out of the Marlin and it was giving her a bit of trouble. Probably 1 out of 15 wouldn’t feed right or it even would fail to go bang. Switcher her to the bulk box of Federals and the problems cleared up. The bolt .22 ran everything without a hitch naturally. The rounds that wouldn’t go boom in the semi-auto would fire when hit a second time in the old Remington except for one round that I tried a half dozen times.

    Fresh target and I gave her a magazine loaded with 10 of the Federals and told her to take her time and practice all the marksmanship tips I have given her. She pulled out her best group of the day.

    Fresh target again and switched her over to the wee bit more spendy CCI. Told her again to take care. She then put the 10 CCI into an even nicer group. I asked her if she noticed anything. Even with the .22 she noticed less recoil from the slower ammo. She was pretty happy with her performance.

    To bring her down to earth I took the CCIs and the Marlin and put them into an even tinier group.

    Even when I told her to slow down she still was shooting a bit looser than I would have liked. I was trying to show her that she can shoot better than she was if she remembered the fundamentals.

    I am a big believer that tiny groups breed confidence. I also believe that plinking is fun but you should pull out the better stuff every once in a while and slow down.

    The cheaper Federals and the Federal Premium shoot to the same point of impact out of my Weatherby. I will definitely be using the Premium when I hunt. The price difference isn’t enough to warrant using cheaper ammo.

    I used to handload for the .30-30. Nosler made a 170 grain boattail solid base flat point that was very accurate out of the old Mossberg. They discontinued it and I haven’t found anything that can beat factory ammo out of her. The 15o grain Federal are the most accurate factory ammo she will shoot. For that rifle the added price of the premium versus no additional accuracy gain does preclude the use of the more expensive ammo.

  20. avatarsmwlce says:

    nothing wrong with wolf or tulammo. in any modern handgun, they perform just as they need to do. if you have a 1911, then i recommend higher quality brass, or any other higher precision weapon anyways.

    • avatarS&W M&P9 L says:

      Why is it people always say not to shoot steel through 1911s? Like it will hurt anything, it has a barrel, chamber and breechface like any other pistol. It was good enough for the GOV to issue steel-cased 45 during WW2 for 1911s and Thompsons.

  21. avatarRIGHT! says:

    I dislike the extra cleaning, but I use citrus based hot water, with a boiling water rinse.
    The water evaporates very early, the cleaning season ends early and I hit that Poogey Bait machine!

  22. I shot a carbine course and 55 gr. WOLF ammo was key-holing at 5 yards! There were perfect 5.56 holes in the cardboard. those rounds lost stability as soon as they left the rifle- would love to see some high speed film on it as it would be cool to see a round go buzzsaw.

    Federal shot fine out to 50 yards- same rifle, same everything. Had all the instructors scratching their heads

  23. avatarKR says:

    Anyone that gets serious about shooting well, whether it’s for competition or hunting or self-defense, should care about ammo quality and where their gun is zeroed, because those things matter. The commercial reloads I buy for general practice use copper-washed bullets that typically produce 6″ groups at 25 yards; the Hornady XTP and HAP bullets I shoot in major matches out of the same gun produce 1-2″ groups. In IPSC, IDPA and Steel Challenge matches we aren’t shooting bullseye. We tend to shoot when the sights are anywhere in the A zone, the plate or the 0-ring. The problems occur when the sights are not in the center, but are near the edge. When you shoot accurate ammo, those marginal shots will still hit the desired target. Shooting crap ammo usually results in C’s, “-1s” and misses on steel. You can compensate for the greater “cone of error” that goes with crap ammo by not taking those marginal shots, taking the extra time to get the sights more in the center, but that takes time, and speed matters a lot in the final score. With cheap ammo there’s a cost in points or time, pick one. Sometimes you get both. Shoot the good stuff when it matters, shoot the cheap stuff when it doesn’t.

    Some gun models, for example the M&P, are very picky about ammo. Many competition shooters have reported that group sizes with 124 and 147 gr 9mm loads are significantly better than the 115s, because of the M&P’s design. I’ve seen that result myself with standard and 5″ model M&Ps.

  24. avatarbontai Joe says:

    As mentioned above, .22LR guns can be finicky about ammo. I have a bolt action .22LR rifle that LOVES the cheap Winchester “T-22″ rounds. I have a semi-auto .22 that hates the same ammo, but LOVES the cheap Remington stuff. And I have read that this is common with .22s, that playing around with different brands of ammo can yield VERY different results in some guns, other’s no so much and there really is no way to tell ahead of time which way your gun is. As for centerfire ammo? I used to reload, still have all the equipment, but I no longer shoot bullseye competition. My defensive pistol rounds are premium factory rounds, because I demand ultra-reliability in that application. Same for my hunting rounds. If I’m just blasting ammo to check my technique, practice changing magazines, switching from strong hand to weak hand, etc, then the cheap stuff is fine. I also use the cheap stuff when shooting at distances less than 25 yards with long guns. And I ALWAYS use the cheapest shells I can find for my shotguns because I stink at trap and skeet, and expensive ammo isn’t going to improve my scores. Again defensive loads for the shotguns are premium brand because I want consistancy and ultra reliability, but not for busting clay birds.

  25. avatarMike Mongillo says:

    I have fired many different loads in all different calibers through the years, as I suspect most of you have. The point is, I am amazed at the definite difference in all the different performance results of them. What exactly makes the difference in the loads? Can it be the balance in the actual bullet head? If the lead mass is not consistent throughout the projectile, that will certainly make a difference in tracking.
    Anyone agree? And what about powder? does that matter? burn speed, smoke density, grain-type? do they matter ? Anyone know?
    How about the primer? If it’s a weak one, does the burn become weak as well ?

  26. avatarSouthern Cross says:

    Greetings from downunder. They haven’t disarmed us completely but things in NSW aren’t too good with the recent passing of an ammunition supply bill that requires licensed shooters to present not only their license, but the registration papers for the firearm in that caliber as well when buying ammunition. The dealer also notes your name, address, and license and registration numbers. You can understand that many shooters are very angry (other descriptions would probably run foul of censors) that our information is now held in an unsecured manner. And this is supposed to stop drive-by shootings done by criminals with unlicensed handguns. But, in the haste and ignorance of the bill, reloading components were completely overlooked.

    Getting back on topic, for competition shooting, I am dependent on handloads in my primary target rifle. The rifle is an ersatz creation of a No4 Lee-Enfield reworked to fire .223 Remington and is fitted with a 1-in-9″ pitch barrel and 1/2 minute target back sight. Externally the rifle is stock because of the service rifle competition.

    I use two primary handloads. A budget load costing less than 20 cents per round. The projectile is surplus SS109 62g bullets which I have batched into 1-grain lots. I use 25 grains of AR2206H powder. I use Winchester commercial cases and primers. I find the Norinco cases aren’t quite as good. This load is normally used at 100 metres. I’ve used the load at 200 and 300 metres, but I know this load isn’t up to par. I think this load is good for scores of the mid-to-high-80s at 300 metres. Occasionally I can get scores in the 90s at 300 metres but some luck is involved.

    If I want accuracy for the important matches at 200 and 300 metres, I use 69g Sierra Match Kings. The load is about 23.5 grains of Benchmark 2 powder, but this powder is expensive so I’ll start testing with 24.5 grains of AR2206H to see if I can cut costs. Currently this load costs about 50 cents per round, and the projectile is almost two-thirds of this. The case and primer are the same as before. I can count on this load to make sub-MOA groups off the rest and 300 metre scores average in the mid-90s if I do my job properly.

    So budget ammo can cost you performance. However, I would still use my budget load over any cheap factory fodder.

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