Friday, November 8, 2013

Reloading basics: Gear

As part of the series on basic handloading, some thoughts on the gear involved.....

· Hand presses

Hand presses are designed to be handheld rather than bench or table mounted. These presses are small, light, portable, and are often a new handloaders first foray into the practice. In previous generations, the Lyman 310 would have been quickly recognized by most shooters, as many a young and less-than-wealthy shooter kept the family pot filled by reloading their brass with the pocket sized tool. It’s such an effective device that Lyman still makes it to this day, and it has a small but loyal following. In more modern terms, the LEE hand press fills the niche quite nicely. While it can surely do all the operations necessary for hand loading, albeit slowly, it also serves as a darn handy press for taking to the range, or perhaps decapping a thousand cases while relaxing in front of the television. Many a reloader has one or two of the LEE hand presses as auxiliary units, and they see plenty of use.

· Single stage bench mounted presses.

Of Single stage presses, there are an untold number of examples made. Pretty much every reloading tool company that ever existed made at least one model, and often several, and most are still usable no matter the age. If given even moderately good care, a solidly built single stage press can last several lifetimes in use. Most handloaders have such a beast, and many have several mounted to the bench. Available new for a reasonable price, and bought used for excellent prices; there’s no reason not to have at least one. Precisions shooters rely on the strength and accuracy of the single stage press to build the finest ammunition in the world.

Among single stage offerings, one can find ‘open’ frame and ‘O’ frame presses. The open frame is typically a ‘C’ shape, with full access to the ram and shell holder. Some handloaders believe the ‘C’ frame press is not as strong as an ‘O’ frame press, which has two parts of the press casting connecting the base and top, rather than one. ‘O’ frame presses can be had in quite massive sizes, and are the press of choice for loading large magnum rifle cartridges, and the monster which is the .50 caliber Browning.

· Turret presses.

Turret presses have a single ram and a rotating ‘turret’ where the dies are mounted. Varying from as low as three die positions to as many as seven on some older models, the Turret press bridges the gap between single stage simplicity and strength, and progressive press complexity and speed. Several companies manufacture turret presses today, chief among them LEE and Lyman. Both have good points, and older models of each can be had used for very reasonable prices.

Some handloaders regard turret presses as somewhat less precise compared to a single stage, thinking the ability of the turret to rotate also allows some movement of the die during pressing. LEE deals with this by having several risers from the bench base to turret mount, and a die plate that is entirely contained for its whole circumference. When the shell is pressed into a die, the die plate seats solidly. Lyman adds a very sturdy support leg on the press opposite the ram, acting to steady the turret under pressure. In some cases, a vintage turret press was simply built to such massive specifications that shear weight made it stable enough.

While many reloaders do all their work on nothing but a single turret press, some keep a turret model as a secondary press with each position occupied by a selection of collet crimp dies and universal decapping dies.

· Progressive presses

A progressive press typically has one ram on which is mounted a ‘shell plate’, a number of shell holders brought together in a round machined plate. The ram presses this shell plate upwards into a bank of reloading dies, each station performing a step in the reloading process. When the handle is raised back to rest, the shell plate will typically rotate to the next station automatically. Each cycle of the handle will usually find a case sized and decapped, a case charged, a case mouth belled, a bullet seated, and a case crimped. Priming is often done on the return stroke of the handle. Barring auto-feeders, the reloader will be sliding in one empty case and one new bullet with each stroke, and getting back a loaded round with each full press cycle.

Setting up a progressive press can be tricky, and each design has its own quirks. The cheapest, made by LEE, is where many a handloader begins their ‘progressive’ career. Getting the LEE press to run smoothly can be a challenge, but it’s quite capable of turning out decent ammunition at a higher rate than a single stage press.

The unabashed king of the progressive field is the Dillon line of presses. They’ve been around a while and built a large following by creating excellent equipment that works well, and then backing it up with industry leading customer service. A Dillon ‘Square Deal’ progressive press can easily crank out 400 rounds an hour once it’s set up and the reloader has a minimum of experience with it. Such presses are the standard for competition pistol shooters whose ammunition requirements can be daunting.

The magic in a good progressive press is the ability to reload a large amount of ammunition in a short amount of time. The downside is perhaps some loss in precision, and all the headaches a complicated machine can bring with it. Running a progressive press requires steady concentration on more than a few details. The operator needs to watch the process like a hawk, keeping track of each critical stage of every press cycle.

· Choosing a press

Given a huge field of choices, how does one choose the right press for their needs? Well…. It’s really not that difficult, especially considering most reloaders will end up with multiple presses anyway.

Begin by being clear what type of reloading is going to be done. Let the needs define the answer. A rifleman who plans on handloading a few hundred rounds a year does not need a progressive press to do that job. In fact, he may not even need a bench mounted press, instead making do with nothing but a handheld. On the other hand, a competition rifle shooter may require several hundred rounds a month, and thousands in a year. For that shooter a good quality progressive press may be a worthwhile investment. The same logic holds true for a pistol shooter who can easily expend several hundred rounds in a single practice session. The progressive makes sense there.

One thing a progressive does not do well is turn out a few dozen rounds during load development and experimentation. The setup time on a complicated press can be daunting, and performing it just to crank out five rounds of test load can be problematic. Here is where a single stage press shines, being simpler and easier to set up.

Single stage presses also lead the pack when it comes to shear precision handloading, as we’ll cover later in its own chapter. When each granule of powder is carefully dribbled, and each bullet is seated with perfection, the single stage press is the only real choice.

So to for new handloaders is the single stage press an important tool. It forces a person to slow down and think through the process, giving time for learning to happen. Working the reload one step at a time drills home the details and quirks that must be understood in building safe ammunition. For a newbie, there is nothing quite as effective a tool as the single stage press.

The only real choice to make is that first unit; because the reality is most handloaders will end up owning several presses if they shoot a lot. One or more single stages will typically find their way to every handloaders bench, performing all the operations necessary for a wide range of calibers. If the shooter is engaged enough to burn through thousands of rounds instead of hundreds, a progressive press will usually find a home on the bench as well.

In any case, the best course for a handloader just beginning this journey is a good quality single stage press, mounted to a sturdy bench or table. It’s a solid anchor to a lifetime of reloading, and will always be useful.

· Dies

With a cartridge case mounted in the shell holder, the press handle is pulled, forcing the shell casing up into a die screwed into the top of the press. It’s that die which determines exactly what the handloader is doing to the cartridge case. Be it sizing, seating a bullet, or crimping a case mouth, the die is where the magic happens.

Different cartridges, and different reloading tasks, require different die sets. Typically, an entire set of dies is required for each caliber a person reloads, with a few exceptions. In some cases, a few cartridge cases are so close in dimension that one die set will do several. .38 special and .357 magnum would be a classic example of this.

Pistol die sets typically come with three dies, and in some cases four. Each set must have a sizing/decapping die, a case mouth belling die which spreads the case mouth slightly to make bullet starting possible, and a bullet seating/roll crimp die. Some die sets (Typically the deluxe LEE offering) also come with a taper crimp die and even the shell holder.

The difference between the roll crimp of a seating die and the taper crimp offered by a separate die is simple. The roll crimp literally ‘rolls’ the edge of the case into a crimp groove in the bullet, holding the bullet firmly in place. The taper crimp die installs a gradual tapered squeeze to the case, clamping the bullet in without actually rolling the case mouth into a bullet groove. Roll crimps serve well in revolvers, and autoloaders usually showed a marked preference for taper crimping.

Rifle die sets usually contain two units, a sizing/decapping die and a bullet seating die. Typically, rifle cartridge case mouths do not need to be belled unless using lead bullets, since the jacketed bullet normally used will slide into the straight case neck without damage, unlike a lead bullet.

Here again, rifle cartridge dies may offer a roll crimp, or a separate die may be used to impart a collet ‘Factory Crimp’ or even a taper crimp.

Apart from die sets dedicated to each individual cartridge being reloaded, there are separate dies available to do any number of functions. A more advanced handloader will typically have a universal decapping die, to punch out expended primers before polishing cases. There might also be a number of specialized crimp dies on the bench, one for each caliber being loaded. Those who favor lead bullets will often have an ‘M’ die on hand, used to bell case mouths across most any caliber. Precision rifle shooters may have micrometer based bullet seating dies, which offer serious precision in bullet placement in the case. They may also have ‘neck sizing’ dies in a specific caliber, when the only sizing desired is of the case neck itself, leaving the rest of the case untouched.

At the very least, a reloader will need one full die set for each caliber being serviced. More details on choosing and adjusting dies will come in later chapters of this book.

· Scales

In reloading, weight is critical. The weight of the powder charge in particular, can mean everything. Smokeless powder is measured by weight, not volume in most cases. Sometimes a graduated scoop is used, but that is a simplistic approach and one wouldn’t dare to that with maximum loads that explore the envelopes edge.

A good reloading scale is accurate to within less than .1 grains, and there are over 430 grains to an ounce. That .1 grain is important, as the difference between an acceptable maximum load and an overcharge might only be a few tenths of a grain. In precision shooting, it’s very common indeed for the last few granules of powder to be slowly dribbled onto the scale, until every load is an exact match.

Reloading scales come in two basic type, the ancient ‘beam’ scale, and the newer electronic scale.

The beam scale has been with us for several thousand years… mostly because it’s simple technology that works every time. Modern beam powder scales use magnetic damping, and micrometer style weight adjustments, but the principal would be easily understood by Galileo. Quality differences abound, with ultra-cheap beam scales using plastic parts and sheet metal weights. Higher quality beam scales are usually precision devices, and are certainly not inexpensive. A good scale can easily cost well over $100.

Modern electronic scales are a whole new breed, but have the same spread in quality and price. Ranging from small flat pocket sized units up to large bench mounted monsters which dispense and weigh powder by computer; a handloader has a very wide choice.

No matter what type of scale a reloader chooses, the basics still apply. For a scale to be of any use in reloading, where a mistake in weight can be a serious issue, it must be accurate and have repeatability. After that, it’s a matter of convenience and price.

To be used for handloading, the scale must be accurate to within less than .1 grains and it must be so every time it’s used. It must also repeat the same measurement under the same circumstances, every single time. This means that placing a 100 grain check weight on the scale should have it displaying 100 grains, exactly, every time. A scale that can’t do this, no matter how expensive or cheap, is not safe to use in reloading.

A simple way to check almost any scale is to take a bullet of known weight and make repeated measurements. A good scale will show the same weight every single time. If there are variations in the reading, avoid the instrument.

Beam scales, if well-built and given moderate care, will typically pass this test for a lifetime. Electronic scales, on the other hand, often do not. In buying a good scale, as in most tools, quality does not come cheap. A used beam scale may be a far better deal than a new, but cheap, electronic scale.

When using a scale of any type, care must be given to the circumstances of its use. When weighing in such minute amounts, even a gentle breeze can throw off the measurement. Having a fan blowing across the reloading bench is all that’s needed to invalidate the scale. The bench surface must also be clean, flat, and stable in order to zero the scale, and once the scale is zeroed, it can’t be moved without repeating the zero process.

Money can be saved in most areas of the reloading process, and inventive handloaders have been doing so for generations. That said, the quality of the scale used is not the place to skimp. A good scale is not only critical to building precise and safe ammunition; it’s also a lifetime investment.

· The powder measure

Strictly speaking, a reloader does not need a powder measure. Powder charges can be measured individually, or even scooped the old fashioned way. That said, if a handloader wants to make ammunition in any quantity at all, a powder measure is required.

The powder measure is a gadget with a moving thingie underneath some form of hopper. The idea is each throw of the measure’s handle will deposit an exact amount of powder in a case. This allows the handloader to charge fifty cases in the time it would take to dribble out and measure even a couple charges by hand.

Typically bench mounted, and worth every bit of real estate it takes up, powder measures are made by almost every reloading supplier on the market. Most common is a rotary drum measure, with an adjustable chamber in the drum which fills with (hopefully) the same amount of powder each time. LEE chose to build one of their inexpensive plastic measure with a ‘disc’ system, using a selection of round discs with precise holes in them as the powder measures chamber.

Powder measures have been around as long as reloading has existed, with the earliest model made of brass to eliminated sparks when working with black powder.

No matter the design, powder measures are judged by three things; Accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. Beyond that, ease of use has some bearing, but nothing matters as much as accuracy. The tools ability to throw the same charge each time is critical, both to the precision of the ammunition and its safety.

The only proper way to judge a powder measure is in actual use. Mounted to the bench, filled with the powder of choice, and weighing charge after charge throw by the measure. A good measure will toss off 100% of its powder charges within less than .1 grains of each other.

Some measures work better with one type of powder than another. Ball powders are traditionally the easiest to measure accurately, since the grains are small, round, and pack consistently. Flakes powders are next in ease of measure, and extruded grains run a solid last. Long grain extruded powders like IMR 4831 can be especially difficult for the measure to deal with. It’s these differences that require the handloader test the measure every time it’s set up, and again multiple times through a reloading run. Safety demands this.

Powder measures, at least ones of decent quality, will throw reasonably accurate charges and are acceptable for bulk reloading of standard rounds. That means cranking out 1000 rounds of .45acp using a powder measure is fine, as long as the powder charge is not beyond the normal safety envelope and well within typical charge levels. If the load books shows a charge range of Winchester 231 in .45acp as 5.5 to 6.0 grains, and the powder measure is set to throw 5.7 grain charges, then a lapse in accuracy of .1 grains will not be critical, if it’s even noticeable to the shooter.

Precision rifle shooters will often set their measure to throw a charge a few tenths of a grain short, intentionally, and then add the last few granules of powder very carefully, using a ‘powder dribbler’, while the charge is on the scale. This can assure each powder charge is as exact a match as humanly possible. In long range or precision shooting, even a couple little granules of powder can make a difference.

No matter the design of the powder measure (Excepting the electronic auto-measure units), there are some rules to using the measure correctly.

· Keep the powder hopper reasonably full, to promote the measures ability to fill its charge chamber consistently (I like to refill mine when it’s reached the halfway point).

· The handloader must take care not to jar the bench or measure, and to swing the lever with consistent force that’s not excessive. Anything that vibrates the measure will cause the powder to pack tighter into the charge chamber, changing the resulting charge weight.

· Adjustable charge bars and chambers should be checked on a regular basis, as they can work loose with use, changing the thrown weight of the charge.

Regarding the second point, old time reloaders often had ‘Knockers’ mounted to their powder measures, and Lyman still builds one (The #55) to this day with a knocker. The point of this feature is a consistent tap, or ‘knock’ to the measure between each throw of the handle will cause the powder to settle into the charge chamber, making for a more accurate powder charge.

· Case preparation

Prepping a case for reloading can be a quick process; and doesn’t have to be complicated. The occasional cleaning and possibly a trim now and then, and little more are necessary.

Yet, the gap between ‘necessary’ and ‘desired’ case prep can be huge, and it’s filling with myriad clouds of interesting tools. To name a few of the more common actions taken by handloaders in their quest for perfection:

  • · Case cleaning
  • · Case trimming
  • · Case mouth chamfering
  • · Primer pocket cleaning
  • · Primer pocket truing
  • · Flash hole deburring
  • · Case neck turning
  • · Inside neck polishing

Of all these, only the first three are absolutely necessary at some point during the cases lifespan. The rest are not required, but most reloaders will venture off into Case-Prep-Land anyway.

· Case cleaning

There’s good reason to clean fired cases both before and during reloading; More so than just the beautiful gleam of polished brass. Reloading dies are precision tools, and forcing dirty brass into the dies is little short of a crime. Yes, it will probably work… but why damage the die and shorten its lifespan?

Speaking of rifle brass, shell casings are often lubed prior to sizing, and this lube needs to be removed before using the ammunition. As cleaning loaded ammunition is laborious when done by hand, and possibly dangerous when done with a tumbler, the best time to clean the lube off is after sizing and case prep, but before the load process.

With pistol brass, seldom lubed, a good cleaning before the cases hit the sizing die will lengthen the life of the tooling, and give us ammunition which looks and functions better.

Cleaning cases can be as simple as dumping it in a bucket, covering it with hot soapy water, and swishing it around a while to break up and dirt clinging to the brass. Dumped out and left to air dry very well, the cases are technically clean enough to reload.

While this low cost method has been used by handloaders for generations, there is as always a more ‘high tech’ way of cleaning brass. In fact, there are dozens. Let’s talk about a few of the most common methods.

‘Tumbling’ brass involved placing it in a rotating drum assembly with a polishing media. An electric motor slowly turns the drum, allowing the brass and media to continually cascade inside, slowly (and noisily) polishing the dirt away.

A ‘Vibratory’ polisher does much the same, although the electric motor jiggles the bowl (rather than a sealed drum) very fast, bouncing the casings and media together. Again, it’s a noisy process, but somewhat quicker than rotary tumbling.

In both cases the media (Stuff the cases get polished by) can be either dry or wet. Dry is typically preferred, as it’s far easier to rescue the cleaned brass from the mass of polishing media. Wet media can offer a truly brilliant shine, and short polishing times, but now the media itself has to be washed from the brass. This makes for a somewhat more complicated process.

Wet media is often comprised of tiny stainless steel rods in a hot soapy water solution. Some handloaders are using their own chemical mixtures for processing brass, involving everything from ‘Lemi-shine’ to baking soda and dish soap.

Dry media generally boils down to either crushed corn cob or crushed walnut hulls. Both can be used plain, but do work better when given help from a brass polishing rouge. This can be a store bought compound sold by Lyman , or any of a dozen other suppliers. Reloaders have also had good results using a tiny splash of Rain Dance car wax in their media, or a few spritzes of Ballistol solvent (running the polisher with the lid off). In all cases, go lightly with the rouge and chemicals. It’s truly a case of ‘A Dab’ll Do Ya!’

· Case Trimming

As mentioned before, brass cases tend to stretch, or ‘grow’ upon firing. The higher the pressure on firing, the more pronounced the phenomena. Many factors affect the amount of stretching, but all cases will do it eventually.

Straight wall cartridges with low pressure loads (Think .45acp and .38 special) tend to be among the least aggressive in their growth. With such cases it’s possible to go the life of the brass case without ever having to trim its length. They’ll often be culled for splits or cracks before stretch becomes an issue.

Bottle neck rifle cartridges, on the other hand, and especially those in the modern high pressure realm, can stretch so much they require trimming with every reloading, or every other.

When it comes to trimming cases, reloaders are an inventive breed. There are quite a number of ways to get the job done, and almost every company in the business makes a tool to do the job.

Perhaps the simplest way one will see is a widget called a ‘Trim Die’. This resembles a reloading die, but the chamber of the die is no longer than the optimum length of the case in that caliber. Running the case into the die on the press, any excessive length of the casing sticks out the top of the die, which has been heat treated to almost glass like hardness. A few swipes with a fine file, and the brass case is trimmed to optimum length.

While this seems a simple and cheap process (and it is), it has a downside. The handloader is stuck with whatever length the maker decided to make the die, and a separate trim die is also required for every single caliber the handloader deals with.

LEE Precision makes an inexpensive little hand trimming setup that involves a cutter head mounted on a handle, with an interchangeable pilot shaft screwed into it. The case is held in a special shell holder with another small handle screwed on, and the casing is then hand cut with the pilot acting as a preset length gauge.

The LEE setup works, albeit slowly, and a separate pilot/shell holder must be purchased for each caliber. It’s primary benefit is being inexpensive, and entirely workable if the reloader is happy with the factory preset casing length.

Another way to trim brass, and one favored by most rifle reloaders who do any significant amount of ammunition, is the bench mounted miniature case neck lathe.

This widget, usually only about a foot long, holds the cartridge case by its base, usually using a standard shell holder. The cutter head has a pilot in its center the same diameter as the inside case neck. The trimmer is adjusted to the desired case length by the handloader, locked into position, and then trims every case to the same length thereafter.

With a full set of inexpensive pilots, the same trimmer will do just about every caliber an average handloader is likely to encounter. It’s a slow process, but relatively precise, and the universal trimmer setup is a good value even considering the higher initial expense.

If the handloader is willing to buy time in exchange for money, motorized trimmers are available that seriously cut the work load. For that matter, motorized case preparation stations are sold that can do most of the prep functions quicker and easier, although they are not cheap.

· Case mouth chamfering

Once the case is trimmed, it will have a squared off case mouth, often with a flashing from the trimming process. At best, this will make starting a bullet difficult. At worst, the sharp case mouth will shave lead or copper from the bullet, damaging it. The solution to this issue is something called ‘Case Mouth Chamfering’, and of course it involves another tool.

Available in any number of forms, the chamfering tooling involves some type of cutter head for the outside of the case mouth, and another for the inside. Typically hand held, although motorized versions are available, the handloader applies the tool lightly to just break the edge of the case mouth.

Lyman makes a perfectly serviceable case prep kit, involving a high quality metal handle that unscrews to store both chamfer cutter bits, in addition to primer pocket cleaning and reaming tool bits. The size of the tool makes for far less hand fatigue than the smaller tools offer, especially when working on large numbers of cases.

· Reloading manuals and guides

Well, you are sorta reading one, are you not? That indicates an understanding of the value involved. Handloading is a process and data intensive pastime, and the folks who spend time on this path will typically accumulate their own small library related to the topic. Reloading books can be broken down into two genres, ‘Process’ books, of which this is an example, and ‘Data’ manuals. Many companies make them, and some manage to combine the two with some success. A process book stakes the handloader through the actual steps to get the job done, hopefully in a sensible and easy to understand manner. Data books contain the load recipes to follow, listing each cartridge first by bullet type and weight, and then showing types of suitable powder and appropriate safe charge levels. Occasionally more information will be given, such as cartridge overall length, pressure levels, and velocity.

As a rule, every company that makes powder or bullets offers a load data manual specifically for their products, in either paper or internet versions; often both. Every major company building reloading gear also offers reloading manuals containing both process and load date, although specifically slanted towards their own gear of course.

The truth is, many handloaders can get by with one or two good books, comparing them to each other when building loads. Spreading the base of knowledge across multiple sources helps keep the process safe and efficient. This means looking up the same cartridge/bullet combination in several manuals before beginning, and seeing how their load data compares. They’ll almost never match entirely, offering different starting and ending loads as a rule. What the research does is gain the handloader a feel for the cartridges limitations, making it easier to begin on safe ground in building a load.

Even the most dedicated reloader does not have to buy new manuals yearly, instead having several trusted books. As new powders or bullets come on the market, those companies will typically issue specific data for the new products on their web sites.

To the new handloader, I say this: Read, study, and learn. Don’t guess, and don’t trust to luck. You are walking a road generations of reloaders have trod before you, and there is no shame in listening to their hard gained wisdom. 


K said...

Thank you. I have been mulling over getting into reloading given the current climate. This article explained a lot of the questions that I needed answering. Again, thanks for your time to share your experience.

Avid Thinker said...

Great article!