Loading The .204 Ruger
Towsley, Bryce M
The holy grail of varmint cartridge velocity has always been an honest 4000 f.p.s. muzzle velocity, and very few cartridges have achieved that in their initial factory loadings. The .220 Swift was the first, in 1935, and remains the best known in the category. The .17 Remington followed some years later in 1971, but has enjoyed only moderate popularity at best. There are a few other varmint cartridges that have achieved that magic bullet speed by using bullets that are ultra-light for caliber. For example, the .243 Winchester with a 56-gr. bullet. But, 4000 f.p.s. is still a relatively elusive and exclusive club. This is particularly true if you complicate the matter by looking at all the performance factors. If you also consider barrel life, ballistic performance and accuracy, any honest 4000 f.p.s. varmint cartridge that’s not “high maintenance” is a rare creature.
Hornady and Ruger first collaborated on the .480 Ruger handgun cartridge a few years ago with good success. The partnership worked, so they decided to try again with what they think may be that magic 4000+ f.p.s. cartridge-the .204 Ruger. The .204 Ruger is based on the parent .222 Remington Magnum case. The .222 Rem. Mag. was introduced by Remington in 1958, but has been effectively obsolete for several years. Remington no longer makes ammo, and brass has been difficult to find.
The .222 Rem. Mag. cartridge has about 20 percent greater case capacity than the .222 Rem. and about 5 percent more capacity than the .223 Rem. The .222 Rem. Mag. case is 0.09” longer than the .223 Rem. and offers the greatest capacity potential of any current cartridge with the 0.376” case head diameter. Recognizing that potential, Hornady modified the .222 Rem. Mag. into a more “modern” cartridge design by creating the .204 Ruger. It moved the shoulder forward and changed the shoulder angle to a sharper 30 degrees. It also expanded the case body for minimum body taper. This was all designed to maximize powder capacity. It then necked down the case to accept 20-cal. bullets with a case neck of 0.20” or exactly one bullet diameter, as is the current case design dogma. The end result is a case with a water capacity of 32 grs., compared to 28.12 grs. for the .223 Rem.
The .20-cal. bullet is said to provide the best balance of ballistic performance and velocity potential. Within a given ballistic coefficient, it will provide the best velocity from this size cartridge case. The result is the optimum external ballistic performance possible within the parameters of the case size. In theory at least, that translates into the best velocity and flatest trajectory achievable in this cartridge case.
The .204 Ruger also has a Maximum Average Pressure rating of 57,500 p.s.i.The result of this slightly lower pressure rating and the consequently lower volume of powder used are said to enhance barrel life. Hornady officials say they think barrel life will be on par with the .223 Rem. and far better than any other 4000-f.p.s. rifle cartridge.
Hornady of course has dies for the .204 Ruger, as well as bullets and brass. Berger also offers bullets, as do some custom makers. Bullet weights range from 32 grs. to 50 grs. The high velocity is achieved by the lighter 32-gr. bullets. In my opinion the 40-gr. bullet might provide the best balance of performance and velocity, particularly for shooting predators. George Weber of Hodgdon’s ballistic lab says that the 50-gr. bullets are a bit long and intrude into the powder space. he also points out that the 1:12” twist rate may not stabilize them well, although that is untested theory at this point.
The cartridge was developed by Hornady’s Dave Ernary and he says that they use a special propellant made by Primex specifically for factory-loading .204 Ruger cartridges. Emary says that no currently offered canister powder is capable of achieving the same velocity as they are getting from factory loads. The best, he says, will fall about 100 f.p.s. short of factory load velocity and most of the current loading data supports that statement.
Emary says that Hornady’s testing has shown H-4895 and Winchester 748 to be two of the best options currently on the market. Hornady also has data for N140, IMR-4064, RL-15, Varget, and N540 powders. The Hornady data is for the 32-gr. and 40-gr. Hornady bullets. The highest velocity for the 32-gr. bullet was 4200 f .p.s. and was achieved with 29.2 grs. of N140 powder.The best velocity for the 40-gr. Hornady bullet was 3850 f.p.s. That load used 28.3 grs. ofWinchester 748 powder.
Weber says Hodgdon has found that BL-C (2) worked very well with the .204 Ruger.”BL-C(2) is happy when it finds a home and it lets you know if it’s not happy,” Weber said. “It works well here.”
Hodgdon also has data for Varget, H335, H4895, Benchmark and H332. Hodgdon recently acquired the IMR powder company and it has data for the .204 Ruger using IMR-4895, IMR-4198, IMR-4064 andIMR-3031. Hodgdon tested both of the Hornady bullets, as well as 35-gr. and 50-gr. Berger bullets.
The best velocity for the 32-gr. Hornady was 4081 f.p.s. with 30.7 grs. of BL-C(2) powder. The fastest 35-gr. Berger load was 3937 f.p.s., again with 30.7 grs. of BL-C(S) powder. The 40-gr. Hornady was fastest at 3774 f.p.s. with 30.0 grs. of BL-C(2) powder. (Do I detect a trend here? BL-C (2) is emerging as the Hodgdon powder for this cartridge.) Actually, the best velocity with the 50-gr. Berger bullet was not with BL-C (2) powder. That title goes to 25.7 grs. of H4895 with a muzzle velocity of 3352. However, 27.0 grs. of BL-C(2) was just behind it with a muzzle velocity of 3334 f.p.s.
Weber noted that the cartridge seems to be primer-sensitive and that the Federal 205M provided the most consistent performance. Some other primers created wide standard deviations and extreme velocity spreads. The Hornady data used Remington 1 ½ primers.
The small .20-cal. necks will not work with most standard powder funnels and will require a smaller funnel designed for 17-cal. cartridges. Obviously, you will also need a .20-cal. pilot for case trimming.
The .204 Ruger doesn’t really bring a new performance level to the table, but it does deliver it in a different package. It’s a mild, pleasant to shoot cartridge that will probably provide unprecedented barrel life for a 4000 f.p.s. cartridge. Those qualities are important to a varmint shooter, but only the future will tell if it will enjoy long-term popularity.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Aug 2004
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