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>> Handloading On A Shoestring :: By J. Marshall Stanton on 2004-06-30
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Today a myriad of advanced handloading equipment is available in unprecedented profusion of variety and specialization. Confusion awaits the newcomer to the otherwise simple pursuit of reloading spent cartridge cases. Advanced design presses exist in abundance from all manufacturers, and to examine a comprehensive die-list from any major manufacturer is dizzying to the inexperienced handloader.

Aside from a multitude of seemingly comparable products from which to choose, is the intimidating, if not seemingly insurmountable financial outlay before the prospective handloading newcomer. Reading current monthly firearms and handloading journals serves only to compound the confusion, as the writers penning articles promote only the latest and greatest of gear from the most prestigious manufacturers. As a consequence, the simplicity of handloading becomes lost amid a sea of bigger and more complex equipment costing more with each model change.

Unfortunately, this focus on bigger, better and more advanced equipment dissuades many newcomers to handloading, simply from financial constraints alone. The average prospective handloading neophyte centers his focus upon either cost savings in loaded ammo by rolling his own, or loading specialty rounds that are not commercially available over the counter. In either case, a casual interest in the pursuit of home-grown loads wanes in the face of exorbitant startup expenses of perceived necessities just to begin handloading.

The purpose of this article is two-fold. First to dispel the myth that handloading requires hundreds of dollars worth of equipment and vast expanses of bench-tops and storage space. Secondly, to demonstrate that even given the barest minimum investment, outstanding quality in handloaded ammunition is attainable with the simplest of tools.

While there are many other paths for the beginning handloader to begin the journey in this quest for quality excellence and economy in handloading, few will question the validity or wisdom in choosing the Classic Lee Loader kit as a centerpiece for beginning this journey. These tools have been in continuous production for more than thirty years, in a profusion of caliber choices during that period of time. It has always provided a practical, affordable, compact set of tools capable of turning fired brass into first class loaded ammunition when administered with judicious care and attention to detail.

The classic Lee Loader comes complete for one caliber, neatly contained in a compartmentalized plastic box with all the necessary tools (not including a non-marring hammer), comprehensive instructions and a concise, caliber specific table of loading data. While a casual first glance at these kits may not be impressive, the 1,000 yard world championship record group fired from a rifle, held for many years, was shot using ammunition loaded on one of these compact loading kits!

Moving on down the list of tools and equipment necessary for handloading, the list is pretty short in terms of immediate pure necessities, and as such preserves a fragile budget nicely. I’ll present both the list of equipment used in the preparation of this article, and a bare-bones pure necessity list in the chart below. Too, the actual purchase price of the equipment used in writing this article is listed in the chart, and the itemized tools were purchased over-the-counter in Spokane, Washington on 25 June 2004. Included for reference for both availability and price are three online suppliers and the prices posted on their websites dated 27 June 2004. Those blank places in the chart indicate that the listed item was not available from the supplier listed in the column. There are vast differences in pricing on most handloading equipment, so it does pay to shop around.

Equipment Used In Article (Prices as of June 2004)

Item Description Retail Spokane, WA Graf & Sons Lock Stock & Barrel
Classic Lee Loader 12.99 15.99 14.95 14.50
Lee Chamfer Tool 1.99 2.69 2.88 2.35
Lee Case Trimmer & Lock Stud 2.99 4.39 3.49 3.75
Lee Case Length Gauge & Shell Holder 2.99 4.39 3.49 3.75
Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner 1.29 1.89 1.89 1.50
Lee Improved Powder Measure Kit 5.99 7.59 6.15  
Modern Reloading 2nd Edition 14.99 13.99 27.50 11.75
Hornady One-Shot Case Lube 4.49 6.99   6.25
MTM Case Guard P50 Ammo Box .89 1.49   1.11
Total Cost 48.61 59.41    

Bare-Bones Basics

Classic Lee Loader 12.99 15.99 14.95 14.50
Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner 1.29 1.89 1.89 1.50
Lee Improved Powder Measure Kit 5.99 7.59 6.15  
Total Cost 20.27 25.47 22.99  

Getting the financial aspect of this article aired-out early will dissipate uneasiness over the anticipated bottom line which always seems to loom at the end of every handloading article dealing with various aspects of reloading equipment. As evidenced from the chart above, obtaining everything used in preparation of this presentation costs less than $60 US. Too, if the budget is really strained, getting started may be done for about the cost of fifty factory loaded revolver cartridges!

While the bare-bones list will allow loading fired brass, and produce good loaded ammo, the expanded list offers more loading options and a margin of safety and convenience as well.

The workhorse of this array of tools is the classic Lee Loader, complete for a specific caliber.

In addition to the Lee Loader Kit, are a few more small accessory items, while optional, they can and do make the difference between a simple reload, and a crafted handload. In addition, should a person decide to move beyond the Lee Loader with a full-sized press and conventional dies, these accessories still fill a both useful and necessary niche. These items include a primer-pocket cleaning tool, case trimmer lock-stud and cutter, and case trimmer shell-holder and case-length gauge. A closer look at these accessory items as we come to their application in the handloading process will be presented.

Beginning the reloading process, the first step, after assembling your tools at a suitable workplace, and procuring a solid base for your loading tools is to decap the fired brass. This is accomplished by simply placing the fired brass case into the decapping die, shown below, and using the punch with the small diameter needle-like end, inserting this end into the brass case, through the flash-hole and then rapping lightly with a non-marring hammer on the decapping rod, thus popping the spent primer out of the case. By necessity, the primer must be removed from underneath the decapping base to allow a space for the primer from the next fired case when it too is decapped.

Note the surface used for all steps using the Lee Loader is nothing more than a piece of scrap 2”x 6” lumber placed on the table top. It serves the purpose well, and is both portable, and disposable, as over time the surface becomes quite pock-marked with use of the Lee Loader performing various steps necessary in the reloading process.

Once the fired brass cases are decapped, it becomes necessary to clean them prior to resizing. Cleaning the cases prevents surface grime, powder residue and other abrasive agents from scratching the interior surface of the reloading die. While this seems a trivial step, the purpose is not necessarily to enhance cosmetic appearances of the brass, but to protect the machined surfaces of the resizing die chamber. Simply use some #000 steel wool as shown in the photo below. It only takes a few seconds with a twisting motion to clean the brass of outer grime and residue.

Cleaning the now-empty primer pockets is best done at this stage of the operation as well. This is where one of those “optional accessory items” listed in the chart of tools and expenses really pays off! Cleaning carbon residue from the primer pockets insures uniform primer seating depth, and also mandates a visual inspection of the pocket and at a glance note the flash-hole is clear of any obstructions. Note the difference between the untouched and cleaned primer pockets below.

With both the exterior of the brass and the primer pockets clean, lubing the exterior surfaces of the case is necessary to prevent sticking in the resizing die. While there are a number of excellent products for this purpose, and any of them will suffice nicely, I choose to use Hornady One-Shot spray case lubricant for the purposes of this article. Many other options are available commercially, such as Imperial Sizing Die Wax, RCBS Case Lube, Lee Case Lube as well as home-brewed alternatives varying from dissolved Ivory Soap in water, to glycerin-based mixtures to plain-old kitchen paraffin applied to the brass to prevent sticking cases in the sizing die. Admittedly One-Shot is a somewhat more expensive case lubricant when compared with many of the other options. I simply like the performance, lack of mess and convenience of the Hornady spray product. Whatever option for the task used, at this point the cases must be lubricated prior to sizing.

Once the lube is applied to the deprimed and cleaned cases, they may be resized. The case is inserted into the die, as seen in the photograph below. Note the orientation of the sizing die when the brass is inserted for resizing.

Using a non-marring hammer, drive the case fully into the sizing die, so that the rim of the case is flush with the bottom of the sizing die. Some cartridges/calibers require much more force than others to accomplish this task.

The next step does two functions. First a new primer is seated into the clean primer pocket, and concurrently the case is partially extracted from the resizing die. Before conducting this phase of the operation, it is necessary to consult the reloading data to be used, to determine the correct primer for the selected load. Don’t be mislead, all primers are NOT the same. Many loads are very primer specific. Be sure, and not sorry.

Center a new primer, anvil-up in the priming base (the base with the bullet seating stem coming off the side and a spring loaded base in the center). Then, center the resizing die (containing the resized brass case) over the primer on the priming base. Then, using the long, blunt ended punch, drive the brass out of the sizing die chamber and onto the primer under it. After just a few rounds a “feel” for this process is attained, and the procedure goes quickly and smoothly once a routine is established.

Once the case is successfully primed, remove the sizing die from the priming base, and the case will protrude somewhat out of the die as seen below.

Center the sizing die over the decapping base, and using the blunt-end punch and a sharp rap from a non-marring hammer, eject the now resized and primed brass case from the sizing die body.

Leaving the brass case in the decapping body, use the expanding/flaring plug to expand and slightly flare the case mouth to accept a bullet. Actually very little force is necessary for this step, and light taps of the hammer are all that is needed. Excessive force here will only ruin cases by collapsing them. Don’t overdo a good thing!

Depending upon the cartridge, the number times the brass has been loaded, and the pressure intensity of those loads, the case may, and will stretch in length. This can cause a hazardous condition, and requires trimming brass to a uniform length both for uniformity of the loads, and safety as well. For this purpose the Lee Case Trimmer is included in the list of desirable equipment in the chart at the beginning of this article. The Lee tool greatly simplifies the process, and insures that each and every case is trimmed to a specific uniform length without necessitating the procurement of a costly dial caliper to measure brass. Usually brass only needs trimming every third to fifth reloading, depending upon the cartridge and pressures it generates. Due to the design nature of the Lee Case Trimmer, it must be used before the case is primed. When using the Lee Loader kit, it might be necessary to size the brass, and totally eject it from the sizing die, trim the brass and chamfer it, then prime the brass case in a separate operation, using only the priming base for this purpose.

The Lee Case Trimmer is a four-part tool which gives great flexibility by enabling the user to change caliber/cartridge application with only about a four-dollar investment.

Once the case trimmer is assembled, case trimming is simplicity defined!

Should trimming of cases be necessitated, chamfering the case mouth is also necessary. This step removes any burrs remaining after the case trimmer peels away excessive case-neck length. Too, it puts a slight inside bevel on the brass to facilitate bullet seating.

The tool.

The process.

Now, all our cases are cleaned, resized, trimmed, deburred, primed, expanded and flared, ready for the main event: loading with powder and projectile!

Included with every Lee Loader is a chart of caliber/cartridge specific loading data. This data correlates with the included volumetric powder measure included with the kit, and various combinations of bullets and powder, utilizing that volumetric measure for safe and effective powder charges when combined with the listed bullets.

The simple addition of at least one and preferably two handloading manuals gives a checks-and-balances aspect to your load selection. Too, more loading data is presented which, when combined with the Improved Lee Powder Measure Kit, will open greater variety of loading options to the handloader. Included with the Powder Measure Kit is a powder charge-weight slide-rule, that calibrates a given desired charge weight of selected powder into a volumetric value measured in cubic centimeters. The plastic measures in the Powder Measure Kit are also calibrated in cubic centimeters and thus selecting a desired powder charge is quite simple, match the volume of the measure to the necessary volume of powder to attain the target charge weight.

The Modern Reloading Second Edition manual by Richard Lee found listed in the chart at the beginning of this article, has a vast array of loading data, directly from the powder manufacturers, and organized by Lee into a format that centers around the use of the Lee Improved Powder Measure kit, and has most of the data listed not only in grains of powder by weight, but in volumetric measure in cubic centimeters to directly correlate with the values printed on their powder measures. By using this data, it is a simple matter for the budget-minded handloader to maximize the potential variety afforded by this effective system. Too this manual gives some excellent loading advice, instruction and cautionary information applicable to the novice and experienced handloader alike. It is a well worth-while addition to the basic repertoire of handloading resources, especially to the user of the Lee Loader.

In addition to the Modern Reloading Second Edition by Richard Lee, probably one of the next-best investments to the basic list of equipment is a copy of the Lyman 48th Edition Reloading Manual. The Lyman manual covers virtually all new cartridges while containing a wealth of articles addressing many facets of handloading from the most basic of operations, to fine tuning hunting handloads. The informative articles alone are worth the price of the manual..

Note that the selected load here utilizes a 255 grain lead bullet in the .45 Colt cartridge, and a charge of 6.7 grains of Winchester 231 Powder which should generate close to 835 feet per second out of a revolver. This load specifies a 0.5cc volume powder measure, note the corresponding markings on the measure, and the listing in the loading manual for this load. They match. This load selected from Modern Reloading Second Edition.

Here is the complete Improved Lee Powder Measure Kit. Note the various cc values listed with each measure. This simple kit expands the horizons of the basic Lee Loader in allowing a virtually unlimited selection of powders and bullet weight combinations for any given cartridge.

With the cases carefully prepared, bullet and powder selections determined, and careful double checking of powder charge weight and corresponding powder measure verified, everything is ready for the actual loading process.

Be sure to only have one powder measure out on the reloading bench at a time, and only one type of powder as well. Following this practice will safeguard against a possible mistake in powder charge weights due to a mix-up in powder measures, or a switch in powder types. Either of these errors can, and will mean the difference between a well balanced load that performs to expectations, and a disaster. Be safe, keep only one of each on the bench at any given time.

In the above photo take note of the open can of powder and measure. This is an empty pineapple can, but a tuna can or any other similarly shaped can will suffice for the purposes intended. Be careful of what container is selected, as some plastics generate considerable static electricity, and may possibly cause combustion of the powder contained therein from the static electricity! Play it safe and use a metal container.

Ideally the container used will hold no more than about a quarter-pound of powder at a time, as this amount is very manageable, and should it become somehow contaminated or spilled, it won’t ruin a loading session by spoiling or wasting an entire inventory of powder at once. Too, NEVER SMOKE WHEN HANDLOADING! Take smoke-breaks out of the loading room. This is especially true when dipping powder from an open container.

This brings the discussion to powder dispensing technique. Yes, as mentioned above, dipping is the correct term. The powder measure, or dipper, is pushed straight down into the powder, base first, until gunpowder flows over the edges or rim of the dipper and fills the cavity with powder. Then, once the measure is full it is lifted straight out of the powder container, and leveled off with the edge of a business card with a smooth, fluid sweeping motion. Even veteran handloaders might be surprised at the consistency of dipped powder charges. Using a repeatable consistent technique results in startlingly uniform charges of powder when using nothing more than volumetric powder measures. However, this uniformity is entirely dependent upon proper technique. NEVER, NEVER USE A POWDER DIPPER AS A SCOOP! Scooping these dippers through the powder causes wide variances in powder charge weights.

This article focuses on economical handloading beginnings. For this reason alone the equipment list is as brief as possible, and still provides necessities for loading accurate, safe and reliable ammunition. However, while calibrated powder dippers provide an excellent means of dispensing powder, there is really no substitute for a good quality reloading scale. Besides a second reloading manual, as mentioned earlier, a powder scale should be the next piece of equipment procured in the handloading arsenal of tools. Beyond weighing powder charges a scale serves other useful purposes, such as weighing bullets, cases, determining case capacity in grains of water, and even check weighing loaded rounds of ammo and comparing weights if it is suspected that a case might not have received a charge of powder, or perhaps a double charge. A simple means of accurate weight measurement is an essential part of the handloader’s tool collection.

In loading the prepared brass, the case must be placed upright in the decapping base, and the resizing die sitting on top of the base, the brass case resting inside the die. Then, carefully pour the properly leveled powder charge into the top of the loading die as shown in the photo below.

After dropping the powder charge into the case, then drop the appropriate bullet base-first into the top of the loading die as well. Then, using the concave end of the bullet seater/priming base unit, seat the bullet into the prepared and powder charged case with light taps from a non-marring hammer. In adjusting the seating stem for the proper seating depth, it is important to incrementally check the seating depth of the bullet into the case.

In the photo above, the bullet is not yet seated deeply enough in the case. In the photograph below, notice how the bullet is seated so that the brass case is just even with the top of the crimp groove. This seating depth will allow a nice, firm roll crimp of the case mouth into the crimping groove.

Once the bullet is seated to the proper depth in the case, adjust the seating stem lock-ring on the seating stem, jamming it up against the priming base, until it firmly locks the seating stem depth into place. From here on out, each and every bullet will be seated to the exact same depth without having to check each and every bullet as it is seated.

With the bullet properly seated in the case, a roll-type crimp is applied using the opposite end of the resizing die. Note the orientation of the die in the photo below. A few light taps with a hammer creates a nice tight roll crimp on the cartridge mouth into the bullet crimp groove.

Removing the die from the newly loaded round of ammunition reveals a nearly perfect roll-type crimp on this round of .45 Colt ammo.

People take different approaches to handloading, and with the Lee Loader is no exception to this in regard to methodology. While the steps remain the same, some people prefer to take one fired case from the very first step all the way through the process to a finished round of loaded ammunition before starting with another piece of brass.

I prefer to prep all my brass, up until the loading-stage in batches, meaning that all the brass gets decapped, then all cases cleaned and polished, and all cases lubed. Then in the next phase, all get sized and primer pockets cleaned and primers seated. Next all receive case neck expansion and flaring. Finally I like to charge the case, seat the bullet and crimp the case all in one series of steps on each cartridge in turn. In this way chances of double-charging a case are greatly diminished, if the powder is dropped, and a bullet seated as the next step.

Finally all the cases become loaded ammo.

Just because the mechanics of reloading the brass case are done, doesn’t mean the job is finished. Just as important as any step taken thus far, is the simple expedient task of boxing and labeling your handloaded ammunition. This information should include date of loading, powder type, charge weight, bullet type, weight and configuration, primer type and case type as well as approximate velocity. This is very important for both future reference, and for identifying similar looking loads at a later date in time. Especially if it is months, or perhaps years later that a box of ammunition is discovered that was loaded and put away, positive identification of the contents is essential. Don’t ever skip this step.

Labeling loaded ammo becomes increasingly important as experimentation with various powders and bullets progresses. One of the primary advantages in handloading is the ability to assemble ammunition with specialized projectiles, loads specifically tailored to hunting, or light plinking ammunition, to small game loads all for the same firearm. Remembering those combinations may become impossible without adequate documentation.

Actually describing the reloading process takes much longer than loading the ammunition. When utilizing the Lee Loader, turning out a box of fifty handloads for your handgun or rifle takes less than an hour once a system and routine are established. Once accustomed to the tools, it doesn’t take long to crank out enough ammo for an afternoon of plinking, or a season of hunting.

After the ammo is loaded, boxed and labeled, it’s time to make sure that powder is returned to the proper canister, loose unused primers re-boxed, all tools are returned to their respective cases, properly cleaned and a light coat of rust inhibitor applied to the loading tools if prolonged storage without use is anticipated. Even all the little accessory tools fit into the Lee Loader plastic box.

With all the work done, it’s time to test the new loads. Keeping a record of loading data, along with targets fired help not only identify good loads, but also prevents repeating a load that didn’t perform on par as well. Range time tells the tale.

This target was fired with the ammunition loaded in writing this article. The load: BTB .452”-255gWFNPB/6.7grains Winchester 231/WLPP/Mixed Brass. Range was 25 yards from a sandbag rest in a Ruger Stainless 4 5/8” barreled .45 Colt revolver. Ammo loaded with a $12.99 Lee Loader Kit in .45 Colt as pictured in this article. Great ammunition need not be costly, nor necessarily come out of costly equipment.

Half the fun of shooting is handloading. After you shoot, it’s time to do it all again!

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