Bob writes:

As a new(ish) shooter I have a question. Why would you practice with different ammunition at the range than you would use in a match? Doesn’t the different ammunition affect your accuracy and point of aim?

Well Bob, the answer is a little complicated, but basically boils down to cost. Step right in AH SAY step right in son, let me ‘splain this to ya . . .

The only real difference between “match grade” ammunition and “value pack” ammunition is consistency, and consistent ammunition closes what’s referred to as the “cone of uncertainty.”

No matter how well you load your ammunition there will always be some slight variation in muzzle velocity, and that variation is not only due to the powder charge. The temperature of the powder, the fouling in the barrel, and even the size of the bore (which expands VERY slightly when heated) dictate how fast the bullet leaves the gun.

That slight variation in velocity (and fouling) means that the bullet might go in a slightly different direction than the last one through no fault of your own or your ammunition.

To illustrate this point, imagine firing 50 rounds at a target 25 yards away. Both you and I know you’re never going to get all 50 rounds to go through the same hole, and so your imaginary target has a “pattern” of impacts roughly in the shape of a circle.

If you were to shine four lasers from the end of your barrel and through the furthest apart holes in your target (up and down, left and right) you would see an ever-expanding cone formed by these lasers.

That’s the “cone of uncertainty” for your firearm and your ammunition; every round you fire will fly within that cone until it strikes a target. That cone exists even with bench rest shooting (where the firearm is in a vice and doesn’t move) because the variation is not solely a factor of your own personal accuracy, but also that of the firearm.

Ever wonder why there are guys at the range who let their barrel cool between each shot and meticulously clean it round after round? They’re trying to eliminate those factors (heat and fouling) and shrink their cone of uncertainty.

Match grade ammunition is designed to eliminate as many factors as possible and shrink that cone of uncertainty, which is why we here at TTAG test for muzzle velocity consistency as the benchmark for how good ammunition is.

If you take a look at the latest consistency testing results you can see that the best ammunition so far is only about half as inconsistent as the worst ammunition (PLEASE ignore my handloads).

Wile the difference in consistency isn’t that great, the difference in price is gigantic. Wilson Combat 77gr .223 Rem costs about $1.50/round, but Wolf ammunition can be found for $0.25/round. That means you get to fire six rounds of Wolf for every round of Wilson Combat.

The idea behind using the cheaper ammunition: the shooter gets more practice with the rifle. Dry firing can only get you so far; in order to master the firearm you need to feel the recoil and condition yourself to follow through every single shot. For the shooter on a budget, that means sacrificing a little accuracy on the practice range in exchange for putting more holes in paper.

So long as you understand that your “cone of uncertainty” is slightly larger with the cheap stuff, there’s no problem. What should be a 1″ hole at 100 yards is now a 1.5″ or 2″ hole, but what matters is where the center of that pattern is located. As long as you’ve placed your rounds in and around your point of aim, it’s ammo well spent.

However, if by “different ammunition” you meant “different weight of bullet and vastly different velocity” then there might be an issue. You should always try to practice with ammunition loaded to about the same velocity and with the same weight of bullet because otherwise the trajectory will be skewed, but if you use 77gr and practice with 40gr it’s still not the end of the world.

Every round downrange is one more repetition with the weapon and one more chance to practice trigger control and follow through, and as long as you get a good group SOMEWHERE on the target you’re doing just fine. Just keep in mind that cone of uncertainty and the difference in trajectories.

So, in answer to your question, “it’s cheaper and it doesn’t have any ill effects.” Practice is practice, and more is always better.

Hornaday has recently introduced a line of ammunition they call their “Steel Match” ammo, which has all the consistency of their normal ammo combined with the cost savings of steel cased ammo and costs only slightly more than Wolf. I haven’t tested it out yet but it seems like the perfect practice ammunition, cheap AND consistent.

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email guntruth@me.com.

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23 Responses to Ask Foghorn: Why use cheap ammo to practice?

    • The question was what it looked like in reference to 25 yards? I’m assuming a rifle was being used here?
      I shoot shotguns for birds (quail and dove) and a rifle for larger game and some varmints. Everything reloaded.
      My handgun is in my opinion limited to 21 feet. Generally the distance barrier that one has to look for if being threatened by someone. Granted if someone is shooting at you from across the street it would not hurt to return fire say 25 yards away but the risk of a stray round vs finding a quick place to take cover before returning fire is much smarter unless you have been hit then you need to empty your gun at/in him/her because if you go down, they are coming over and putting one in your head anyway.
      All that being said a person proficient in a handgun can have very cheap reloads made for him from lots of guys/gals that reload. Just keep your brass.
      My 38 special revolver for practice gets 80 gr with 3 grams of powder.
      shoots straight at 21 feet, all in the center 3 inch diameter.
      I save my brass and have them reloaded by a local guy/hobbiest, I provide the primers, bullet and powder.
      He charges me $10 to reload 3 boxes and I supply the beer.
      If you are still thinking about the 25 yards with a rifle you can also drop down in powder and bullet weight and get good results.
      Shooting more often makes you a better shot.
      Shooting more expensive ammo does not.

  1. Thanks Nick. I hadn’t considered using the same weight and speed in cheaper ammo.
    I use Remington .40 180 gr Golden Sabre nickel plated brass JHP at 1,015fps. So, you are saying I could use (for example) Tula’s 180 TMJ at 990fps, at about half the price for practice, with only an inch or so additional spread on my target?
    That has a lot to recommend it. I could then up my carry load to the Speer Gold Dot

    • Depending on the difference in consistency, the spread may not even vary that much. As long as you understand that the cone of uncertainty may be larger and take that into consideration when reviewing your targets all should be well.

  2. Second to last time I went to the range I used Pelliot (spelling) ammo. This stuff was cheap, real cheap. It comes with aluminum casings or some such and made a nasty mess of my gun. After 100 rounds I actually had to go wash the powder off of my hands and face (it was visibly dirty). This was 9 mm ammo and the gout of flame at the end of barrel was crazy. I would have to squint because the muzzle flash was so enormous. I couldn’t hit the paper (not the little circle taped to the paper, the whole paper) this stuff was so crazy. My friend even asked me if I was doing something different and needed some pointers. I laughed and said it was the ammunition and he just nodded.

    So, last time we went I wanted to save some money AND my gun AND my clothes so I went to Wal-Mart. I bought Federal 9 mm ammo and some buckshot for the shotgun. Two days later I hit the range and I was back on the bull and my gun was actually cleaner for having fired these rounds. My buddy had brought his shotgun as well but was tired of using my shells and wanted to try some 12- shot buck. So he pops back into the store and buys some shells. He loaded the shells, fired and barely clipped the side of the paper at about 20 feet out. I lost it as my loads in the same distance were shredding the paper off the holder.

    He had bought the same cheap brand I had bought last time in 9 mm and we could have swore when he fired it was musket ball. The flame, kick and stink was like nothing else I could compare it to. He was using a Mossberg 500 pump and came away with a massive red welt on his shoulder. I shot some out of my Mossberg 930 SPX semi and the kick was insane. I have shot magnums and slugs out of this thing but the kick was nothing compared to these dirty little 12-shot bucks. For us, we learned that cheap stuff is okay but only if it isn’t bad, bad cheap stuff. Incidentally the cheap stuff we had bought was only $2 cheaper then the usual loads from Wally.

  3. i shoot federal lightning 22lr ammo all the time, love the stuff. Remington yellow jacket not so much, it leaves the weird grit all over the internals of my 22/45

  4. Leghorn says: “Both you and I know you’re never going to get all 50 rounds to go through the same hole,”

    I beg to differ. It isn’t even a ragged hole.

    I use a protractor with a razor edge to cut out the 10″ hole, then every shot goes through it… at 15 yards…

  5. Excellent article.

    I must however question one statement “Practice is practice, and more is always better.”

    There are some who feel that the practice must be of good quality in order to get better.
    After thinking about some public range shooters I have observed *, I have come to believe that the practice must be good in order to be of benefit.

    Best wishes
    NukemJim

    *Most recent case was a shooter holding his cell phone in his left hand above his head, in order to make a video of himself shooting with his left hand while holding the grip parallel to the floor. And no, he did not have the Birdman HoMeBoY sights on it. NJ

    • “*Most recent case was a shooter holding his cell phone in his left hand above his head, in order to make a video of himself shooting with his left hand while holding the grip parallel to the floor. And no, he did not have the Birdman HoMeBoY sights on it. NJ”

      At my range this ass would be punted out the door and told to go f*7k himself if he had issue. That’s crazy, Dude.

  6. I train with Winchester “white box” 230 gr ball ammo ($.33 each) but carry Black Hills 230 gr JHP or Bill Wilson’s Carry Load ($1.35 each). Yes, the weight is different and so is the velocity but I can’t afford to spend more than a dollar per round at the range.

    I did run $500 worth of the Black Hills JHP through my gun before using this as a carry load but after the initial “break-in” with the Black Hills ammo I went back to plinking with the WWB cheap stuff.

  7. Doesn’t anyone reload anymore? If you load your own you can tailor your loads to a specific firearm (not every gun likes the same loads), you can load with components that are not available factory loaded, the consistency is in your hands instead of some factory’s machinery, and the cost is reduced by buying components in bulk. And because most people don’t reload many of my cases are free, just pick them up at the range. The only possible down side is the time required, but with a well thought out process I have loaded 100 rounds in well under an hour. And that is without a fancy turret press, just an old fashion single stage press that requires changing the dies between processes.

    • Ah, I was wondering when someone was finally going to mention reloading. If you want to practice frequently without going broke, reloading is the only answer. I actually do have a nice Dillon RL550 press and it allows me to load between 350 and 400 rounds an hour. Dillon claims you can do 500 per hour but I don’t like to rush the process. I have always loaded my practice ammo to the same power factor as my factory carry ammo thinking it was the smart thing to do but to be honest, at typical pistol distances I seriously doubt it makes any difference what you are using. If you carry 147grn rounds in your 9mm, practicing with cheap 115grn ammo will yield the same results. I carry 230grn hollow points in my .45 but I see no difference when using 185grn bullets at the range. Honestly, even practicing with a .22 will make you a much better shooter.

      • I don’t generally shoot at typical pistol distances, I shoot I.H.M.S.A. so the distances are 25, 50, 75, 100 yards, and at the occasional big bore match I shoot at 50, 100, 150, 200 yards. When dealing with these types of distances accuracy and consistency are paramount. Maybe some day I will get a fancy press, but since I spend time weighing each powder charge down to the hundredth of a grain, it probably wouldn’t make the process all that much quicker.
        “Honestly, even practicing with a .22 will make you a much better shooter.”
        Which is exactly why I have worn out several pellet guns over the years, my dad told me very early on that any shooting you can do will only make you better.

        • If you are shooting pistol competition at those distances then they way you are hand loading is the only way to go. It’s how I load my LRTR ammo. What caliber and platform are you shooting those distances with?

        • I shoot a variety of pistols, a 4 5/8″ Ruger single six in .32 H&R mag., an 8″ Dan Wesson .44 mag., a 10″ .357 mag Thompson Center Contender, a 10″ .32 H&R mag Contender, in field pistol (100 yards), and 10″, and 14″ Contender in 30/30, in the big bore (200 yards) matches, I once also tried the Dan Wesson in big bore, but with the rams (200 yard targets) weighing 58 pounds, I hit several of them dead center, and all they did was ring, on the other hand, I once bumped the trigger before I was on target with the 10″ 30/30 and even after the bullet bounced off the ground at about 125 yards it still knocked over the ram just like it does every other time. Plus I shoot in several of the .22 classes, but of course I don’t reload those. I forgot to mention all of my pistols still have the stock open sights. Man, it’s big fun everybody should see if there are matches in their area, they hold them nation wide. As with most shooting sports you meet some of the finest people.

    • I don’t have anywhere to do it. Putting a reloading bench in the garage would mean leaving the car out. No basement and no workroom.

      • Bob,
        Lee makes a hand press that can do any of the straight wall cases easily, hell I’ve even done quite a few 30/06’s with it. It doesn’t necessarily take much room to reload, when I was using the hand press I was living in a 35′ travel trailer, talk about no room, I could stand in the middle and touch both walls. The table I was working on was about 2′ x 3 1/2′, plenty of room for my scale, and to lay out my components. Plus reloading benches don’t have to be permanent, you can build something that folds, or moves out of the way. Where there is a will there is a way. The ability to tailor ammunition, and the reduction in shooting costs, pays for itself in no time.

        • It can be, I didn’t have much trouble with straight walled cases, but the .30/06’s would stick most every time, regardless of type, or amount of case lube, but it still beats paying premium prices for ammunition that was inferior to what I could load. And at the rate I was shooting I could never have afforded to buy enough factory loads.

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