Saturday, March 31, 2012

New gear review: Lee Ergo-Prime

As part of an upcoming series of articles on reloading, Carteach dialed up Lee Precision on the confusatron and ordered up a bunch of gear that any new hand loader might set themselves up with. Plunking down my hard earned Plasti-cash, a great big pile-o-goodies was purchased.

Lee Precision has been in the business of supplying gear to hand loaders for a long... long... LONG... time. My own adventures in reloading began at the tender age of 13 with a Lee Loader, a big mallet, and a part of the barn my Dad didn't mind me blowing up. That Lee Loader was the only way a poor kid could shoot a lot. Dad would supply lots of .22 for rodent control, but anything else was on my dime.

To this day, the Carteach reloading bench (Okay... it's more like a shop) still has it's fair share of Lee reloading gear in use. It's not just for beginners. There may be better quality hand loading tools in some cases, but there probably isn't a better value out there. Once the tool can do the job, everything else is just shine and convenience.

It's with that in mind that I unboxed a new Lee Ergo-prime this morning. It's the latest and greatest hand priming tool offered by Lee, and may take the place of my venerable Lee Auto prime. Shown here side by side, whats not plain is just how many shell cases have been primed on my beloved Auto-Prime. Conservatively.... tens of thousands of cases have found their way onto this gadget. At a guess, perhaps three thousand a year for the last twenty years or so. Everything that didn't get primed on the Progressive, was done by hand on the old Lee unit.

Now, Lee has updated and upgraded their old standby. They still offer the Auto Prime, and it's as popular as ever. Still, there was room for improvement in both safety and ease of use. Lee made those changes and called it 'The Ergo-Prime'.

The older Auto Prime was not supposed to be used with all makes of primer, most notably leaving Federal's offering by the wayside. Supposedly there was a danger in using the Federal primers on the Auto Prime. In addition, there are specific limits to the number of other brand primers which should loaded into the Auto Prime, according to Lee.

The new Ergo-Prime has none of those limitations. Through an interesting design, the actual priming operation is done on a different 'plane' than the primer tray. With each hand motion, a primer is seated into the case while another is 'elevated' to the primer ram feed for the next case. This can make for an occasional miss, with a second (no pressure) squeeze being needed to feed the next primer (This may smooth out with use).

The Auto Prime had another limitation.... it's ergonomics. The primer is seated with thumb pressure on that unit, and after a few hundred primers even Superman's thumbs would get tired. The Ergo-Prime uses the entire hand in a natural squeezing motion to seat the primer, a powerful and easy operation.

In use, primers are laid into the feed tray right from the primer box. If needed, the primer tray is a 'flip-tray', and shaking the primers gently will turn them over into the proper orientation. I'll say, in all honestly, that Lee's take on a flip-tray here is not nearly as smooth and easy to use as RCBS's. It works, just not as fast, nor without a small amount of fiddly poking at recalcitrant primers. There is a learning curve, as a slower smoother motion in working the flip-tray makes it work better.

Seating primers with the Ergo-Prime is... nice. There is a very high amount of 'feel' to the operation, letting the user judge both seating pressure and depth easily. This takes a slight bit of getting used to, as the design presents quite a lot of leverage and power to the user. As I was priming Lake City military brass today, there were a few 'crimp' issues to overcome. Most of the brass had the military crimp swaged out, but not always to perfection. Some cases took extra effort to seat primers into. In a few cases, the $#@!&%$ crimp must have been missed, as the primer seating operation literally shaved away the crimp, damaging the primer at the same time. Out of the 450 once fired Lake City military cases primed in the course of roughly 45 minutes, 10 were lost to tight pocket/crimping issues. In Carteach's experience, this is not bad at all.

Does the tool work? Yes, without a doubt. Is it worth the asking price? Once again, yes, even when taking into account that a set of special shell holders must also be purchased. Will it replace the Fat Man's beloved Auto Prime? That remains to be seen. Let me load ten or twenty thousand rounds with it first, and we shall see.


Old NFO said...

Interesting upgrade there Carteach!

Kevin said...

It DOES use the same shell holders as the original AutoPrime, yes? I'm looking at possibly upgrading from my AutoPrime as well.

. said...


Yes it does. My 20 year old Auto Prime shell holders fit perfectly.

An update to the article: This morning I used the tool to prime 30-06 cases, and the large primer tray flipped primers perfectly fine. As for feel and power, it worked as well as the small primer setup, or better.

Hartley said...

I started with an Auto-Prime, and stuff like 9mm and 38 Spl worked fine - but after a bout of "high primer" problems with 45 ACP, I've gone to the press for priming - my arthritic thumbs just can't keep enough force going on the Auto-Prime to be reliable. I also couldn't get enough force to be useful with large rifle (in some cases). I did buy the Lee primer feeder system, which works well on both my Breech Lock and Turret presses.

lee n. field said...

I just picked one up, because I had 1K of Federal primers on hand to work through.

Lee is not showing the original Auto Prime as a current product. The Auto Prime XR was not getting good reviews on Midway, compared to the original, so I went with the Ergo Prime. One of them, and a set of shell holders, came in about the price of RCBS' basic hand priming unit.

The little plastic tower in the tray cover, that the next primer in line is raised up in, looks fragile. I note the the instruction sheet shows the tray cover without this.

. said...


I looked closely at that little plastic tower while I was priming 450 5.56mm cases. Yup, sure looks fragile.... but then again, it's part of what is in the shrapnel field should a primer blow. It's only purpose it is to guide the follow-on primer into place, so how tough need it be?

That said... sure, I will probably break it. Given an opportunity, I could break a steel bowling ball. Hopefully that will be many thousands of rounds in the future, and Lee will probably just replace it for nothing.

JG727 said...

I accidentally commented on an old post, so I'll re-comment here.

This is a little strange, but can I ask where you're located? Specifically the gun club you're a member of.
I'm a gunsmithing student at a community college and would like to become more involved in the shooting-sport community, particularly target shooting, and hopefully rifle. And I have a few fine mil-surp rifles on hand.
Unfortunately my adopted area is rather lean on shooting activities that aren't directly related to hunting.
Thanks for your time

. said...

JG, take a look here:

Sigivald said...

I've only ever done priming on my press.

So, I guess my question is, why the hand unit at all, especially since you say you have a progressive press already?

(By which I mean, I'm sure there's some effective advantage or other - what is it?

I've never run into a significant problem priming on the press, so I don't know what the issue the hand primer solves is...)

. said...


When I load pistol ammunition on a progressive, I use it's automatic primer function to install primers. Almost all my other loading is done with hand priming.

I occasionally use one of my presses, but in every case it's slower and more cumbersome than the hand prime, as evidenced by the 450 5.56mm cases I just did in less than an hour. Yesterday I ran a test batch off .223 ammo using RP cases, and primed on the press just to play with the tooling. It took 10 minutes to do 20 cases, mostly due to my big fat fingers fumbling tiny little primers.

Using the hand priming tool (Or my progressive press) I never actually touch a primer.

Besides, with the hand prime tool I can do it in front of the TV if I wish (G).

lee n. field said...

"So, I guess my question is, why the hand unit at all, especially since you say you have a progressive press already?"

In my case, I have 1K of Federal primers, which the press manufacturer (Lee) specifically warns against using in the primer feed of my press.

Hartley said...

Art, I have a Lee turret press and also the "breech-lock" single-stage. I got the Lee "Safety Prime" attachment (fits both of 'em) and it makes priming on the press REALLY EASY - and you don't have to handle primers at all (other than the last 3 small or 2 large primers, that just won't feed automatically).
I also prime with it on the turret press as part of loading pistol ammo (do it all in one cycle), and it works fine, tho there is some interference between the Safety Prime and the Auto-disk power feed.

Anonymous said...

I too used and recommended the original AutoPrime for many years (20++ with same one!). Tried the new XR and it's a POS. One of the problems with it is reliably feeding the primers into the final station without tipping them and subsequently seating the primer cocked, usually jamming and tying up the device. The tray cover design is poor as well, easily broken. It too hinders smooth feeding of primers onto the initial primer feed pin. Since the ErgoPrime looks like it uses the same trays, etc. as the new one, just a new "handle", I'm wondering if it will have the same problems. Hate to spend more on another "improvement" if it isn't any better that the original. Wish Lee would just go back to it.

RegT said...

I got what might be a mistaken impression from your review. When you said it requires special shell holders, you didn't clarify that by saying whether or not the ones from your old Auto-Prime would work.

Looking at the Lee web site, I'm pretty certain they are the same. So, if you have theLee hand-prime shell holders for priming the calibers you already load, you should be good to go with the Ergo Prime.

Carteach said...

That would be correct RegT. The older shell holders work just fine.

I use the heavier newer style primer to do large primers, and my old Lee hand primer to do small primers. Each is better suited that way, and I never take them apart except to lube the cams.

RegT said...

That sounds good. I've got several of the old Auto-Primes when I feel the need to hand-prime instead priming on my old Dillon 550B - most recently with my 45-110 cases for my Shiloh Sharps. The Ergo Prime sounds like a great addition for doing those and my 45-70 cases.

You've got a lot of good articles here. Thanks for all the work that went into these postings - even if "work" is a bit of a stretch for all the fun involved.

Anonymous said...

I have bought Lee products for nearly 40 years.
I have always used Lee priming tools during this time.
I have read and followed the instructions over and over, and this primer tool will not load 3 primers in a row without jamming up.
Bring back the old tool that works.
This priming tool is worthless.

Anonymous said...

I have found for some reason the tower point lifts and spills primers everywhere as the cover is not fixed in this position damn nuisance hope it has a fix?

Anonymous said...

Like others here, I have also experienced nothing but problems with the Ergo-Prime, specifically the poorly designed primer tray and cover. Difficult to prime (both hands needed) and the tray cover "tab" won't stay in the corresponding slot, leading to tilted or upside-down primers, which requires me to remove and replace the tray cover every 5-10 cases.

I noticed that Lee's website now shows an upgraded primer tray of a different design, so presumably they have had plenty of complaints.

I've used Lee products for 40 years now, but this one is a piece of crap!