July 14th, 2017

Cartridge Headspace — Understanding the Basics

Brownells Headspace Gauge cutaway chamber drawing SAAMI ANSI

Do you know what the inside of a rifle chamber (and throat zone) really looks like? Do you understand the concept of headspace and why it’s important? If not, you should read the Brownells GunTech article Gauging Success – Minimum Headspace and Maximum COL. This article explains the basics of headspace and shows how to measure headspace (and length to lands) in your barrels with precision. The article also explains how to adjust your full-length sizing dies to “bump the shoulder” as needed.

Why is headspace important? The article explains: “Controlling headspace and setting proper C.O.L. also represent improved safety and reduced cost of handloading. Excessive headspace can cause case head separation and gases in excess of 60,000 PSI escaping from a rifle’s chamber. Too little headspace can result in a chamber forced bullet crimp and a bullet that becomes an obstruction more than a properly secured projectile. Excessive C.O.L. can result in a rifling-bound bullet, a condition that could result in spikes of excessive pressure.” [Editor’s NOTE: It is common for competitive benchrest shooters to seat bullets into the rifling. This can be done safely if you reduce your loads accordingly. With some bullets we often see best accuracy .010″ (or more) into the lands. However, this can generate more pressure than the same bullet seated .010″ away from initial lands contact. As with all reloading, start low and work up gradually.]

Brownells Headspace Gauge cutaway chamber drawing SAAMI ANSI

How is headspace specified? Most cartridges used within the United States are defined within ANSI/SAAMI Z299.3-4. Brownells explains: “In the case of the .243 Winchester, as an example, there are pressure specifications, cartridge drawings and, as pictured above, chamber drawings. Armed with a chamber drawing, each manufacturer producing a firearm for the .243 Winchester knows the proper standard dimension to cut chambers and set headspace. Notice there are two headspace reference dimensions for the chamber. The upper is a place in the chamber where the shoulder is .400″ in diameter; the “datum” or “basic” line. The lower is the 1.630″~1.640″ minimum – maximum dimension from the breech face (bolt face) to that point in the chamber that measures .400″.”

The actual headspace of any firearm is the distance from the breech face to the point in the chamber that is intended to prevent forward motion of a cartridge.

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