A Brief Laundry List of Stuff You Need
- A manual with data – Handloading manuals are not like manuals that come with, for example, computers. Instead, handloading manuals really do have good instructions. Often they have whole chapters devoted to tools and how to set them up, cartridge components and their differences, and every step to handloading. The data sections of manuals contain the recipes you’ll follow to handload safely. Usually the data tells you everything–what brand case, what brand and size primer, what brand and type of bullet, how much of the right powder to use, and how long to make the finished cartridge. All you have to do is follow the recipe and put the parts together.
- A secondary data source – In 30 years of handloading I think I’ve seen only one typo in printed data published by a manufacturer. Errors are more common in magazines and online, but a secondary data source isn’t necessarily so much for double-checking as it is for knowing more about the data range for a combination of components. They can’t put every powder in the book, and you may have a powder you bought for another caliber that could be used for the one you want to load next, but for which there is no data in the manual.I often find that given the same combination of components, the loads in one manual are different from the loads in another manual. Data varies because even “identical” components vary and it’s all but impossible for different ballistic labs to all use the exact same lot of every component when developing data. For example, one lot of a bullet you want to use may be slightly harder than the next, so the ballistic results may differ. In all instances, I err on the side of caution and between my primary and secondary data sources consider the more conservative maximum load as my maximum. The Hodgdon website has a data generator for all of the Hodgdon, IMR and Winchester powders.
- Shellholders/shellplates – Shellholders and shellplates are the parts that hold the cartridge cases in the press. If your press has a single station ram, as on a single-stage press, then you need a shellholder that holds one case. On a progressive, you need a shellplate that holds a case at each station. Both holders and plates come sized for different case rims, and since many cartridges share the same rim dimensions, a single holder or plate works for many calibers. For example, a holder or plate made for the .30-’06 also works for the .308 Win., and any other case made off of those such as the .25-’06 or 7mm-08. It also works for the .45 ACP, a host of Mauser cartridges, and more.
- Dies – Dies are generally sold as a “set” for a given caliber, and the number of dies in a set depends on the cartridge. Bottleneck rifle cases are reloaded with as few as two dies—one that resizes the case and one that seats the bullet. Die sets for straight-walled cases typically consist of a sizing die, neck-expanding die, bullet-seating die, and sometimes a crimping die. There are other specialty dies including ones that lubricate, universally deprime, or are used for trimming, but if you’re a beginning handloader stick with a basic 2- 3- or 4-die set, and follow the set up instructions that come with the dies.All of the manufacturers mentioned previously use a standardized thread design, so dies are interchangeable between different makes of presses (except for some old Dillons). We will get to some specialty types of dies from Redding, Lyman, Hornady and RCBS as we go down the road with this series, but to start all you need is the basic caliber specific set. and FYI the Lee sets also come with the shellholder. All die sets for a given caliber will have generally the same function in the dies, except Lee that works an optional powder station into their expander dies.These are the basic function of the dies:Sizing dies return fired cases to near-factory dimensions. When you fire a cartridge, the brass case expands to seal the chamber. There is some spring-back once the pressure inside the chamber drops, but the case never goes back to the original dimensions. The expanded case might not fit the chamber of a different gun, might not feed reliably in any gun, and probably won’t grip a new bullet tightly in the neck, so you have to resize it. There are advanced sizing options such as neck sizing, but for now, follow the directions that come with your die to set it up to full-length resize. Full-length sizing returns the entire case to near-factory dimensions. If you load straight-walled cases, such as 9mm, it’s worth the extra few bucks to get carbide or nitride dies. Those dies are inherently “slick” inside so you won’t have to lubricate your cases when you size them (more on that later).Sizing dies usually also have a decapping pin that pushes out the spent primer and, depending on the cartridge you’re loading, the decapping pin may incorporate an expander ball that changes the dimension of the case neck from the inside so it properly grips a new bullet.Neck-expanding dies are used on straight-walled cases to open the case mouth slightly to help it receive the new bullet without crumpling the case when you seat the bullet. You want to set these dies so that they bell the mouth just enough to easily start a bullet. If you bell the mouth too much, you might have trouble getting the case to go into the bullet-seating die, and you’ll unnecessarily work the case mouth. Brass work-hardens, meaning the more you bend it the more brittle it becomes. If you over-work the case mouth, the case can split. I’ve even seen over-worked but loaded cases split while in storage.As its name implies, the bullet-seating die seats the bullet. Inside the die is a stem that you thread in or out to adjust how deeply a bullet seats. Bullet seating depth is something you can experiment with as an advanced handloader, but for now, seat bullets so that the finished cartridge is the overall length specified in the loading data you’re using, or so the case mouth is just below the top of the bullet’s crimping groove or cannelure if it has one. Don’t go deeper as that can cause increased chamber pressure and depending on the cartridge, could increase pressure to dangerous levels. By seating to just below the top of the crimping groove, the crimp rolls neatly into the groove.Many seating dies are also adjustable to put a little roll crimp on the case mouth. The instructions that come with your die will say whether or not it has that feature and how to adjust it. Light-recoiling cartridges fired in bolt-action rifles generally don’t need much, if any, crimp because there’s nothing to push the bullet deeper into the case, and recoil isn’t heavy enough to pull bullets out or smash them against the inside of the magazine. Cartridges destined for tubular magazines need crimps so the magazine spring doesn’t push the bullets deeper into the cases. Revolver loads need crimps so the bullets don’t telescope out of their cases under recoil. Auto pistol cartridges should be crimped, preferably with a taper crimp. By design, many auto pistol cartridges are supposed to headspace via the case mouth against the front of the chamber and a taper crimp makes that more positive. As a practical matter, though, these auto pistol cartridges are more likely headspacing on the rim against the extractor so the crimp wouldn’t matter. Regardless, for whatever reason I’ve found that taper crimped cases cycle more reliably through semi-autos than rolled crimped. Don’t ask me why.
- Case neck brush – I overlooked this tool for many years, and then I got a decapping pin with expander ball stuck in a .30-’06 case. A case neck brush loosens any burnt on carbon from inside the case neck, and if you put a little case lube on the brush, it makes it easier for the expander ball to pass through the neck of the case. It’s amazing how big a difference this little step makes on the effort it takes to operate your press. You can buy a special brush to use inside of case necks, but I use a nylon bore brush of the same caliber as the case.
- Case lubricant – Unless you’re using a carbide or nitride die for straight-walled cases, you need to lubricate cases for the sizing operation. If you don’t, you put added wear and tear on your die and press, and you will get a case stuck in the die. Then, when you put a little extra muscle behind the press handle to try and get the stuck case out, you’ll tear the rim off of the case and then it will be really stuck in the die.For basic handloading, all of the case lubes on the market will work equally well differing mainly in how they’re applied. The most common applicator is a case lube pad. You basically wet the pad with lubricant, and roll your cases across the pad just before sizing. A drawback to using a pad is that it’s easy to get too much lube on a case and when you run it into the sizing die, the lube hydraulically presses a dent into the case. Pads are also messy; your hands get covered in lube and the pad gets dirty from carbon and tumbling media. Some handloaders dispense with the pad and simply use their bare hand to apply the case lube. That’s fine if you’re batch processing on a single-stage press, but things get messy if you’re using a turret or progressive press and need to turn the turret head or add powder manually to the case. More recently spray lubes have come on the market and, pardon the pun, they’re pretty slick. I think the best way to apply spray is to stand your cases in a loading block and spray at a downward angle from two corners of the block. All of the cases get a light coating, and you’ll also get a little lube into the case necks for your expander ball. If you go the spray route, just be sure to use spray lube specifically for handloading and not something like WD-40. Sprays for handloading evaporate away and leave nothing behind that can contaminate the powder.
- Primer tray – Yes, it’s a tray to hold the primers—but it’s actually a functional tool. Primer trays have ridges on the inside of one side. You dump your primers onto the ridges, shake the tray gently, and the primers all jump over anvil side up. Depending on how your priming tool is loaded, you’ll either need all of your primers anvil side up, or cup side up. If you need them cup side up, simply put the lid on the primer tray and flip it over.
- Powder scale – When you look at your handloading data, it will indicate how many grains (not grams) of powder to use. Weighing a powder charge on a scale is the only way to insure you’re putting the right amount of powder in a case. We used to have to use balance beam scales and they worked, but it was and sometimes frustrating process. These days we have electronic and for the most part they work well. Electronic scales are like anything else electronic—sometimes they have a mind of their own—and there are reports of static electricity causing reading errors. Most scales come with reference weights, or you can simply take a bullet, weigh it, record the weight, and keep THAT bullet as a reference. It won’t be as accurate as true reference weights, but will keep you from weighing out grossly off charges.
- Adjustable powder measure or scoops, and a funnel– A powder measure “scoops” a consistent volume of powder from a powder reservoir and dumps it in your case. Some come with inserts for different size case mouths and some require you to use a plastic funnel. Lee sells scoops for powder and many of their die sets come with a scoop that is designed for that cartridge and a given type of powder. Other than the Lee system (their progressive press has a similar volumetric system), you will use your scale to figure out where to set your powder measure so that it drops the correct charge. Precision handloading will benefit from something called a powder trickler, to get it right to the perfect tenth of a gram, but for most bulk reloading tasks a regular adjustable powder measure and electronic scale are all you need. Make sure to tighten up the lock collars on the measure so it stays adjusted for your charge, and every 5th or so charge you should throw one into the scale pan to check, just to make sure. You can never be too careful with making sure your charge is correct. And watch the volume of powder in the measure. It can go dry or close to dry and give you empty cases or part full cases, and these “poof” rounds can be as dangerous or more dangerous than overcharges.These days there are automatic powder drops from Hornady and others that measure the charge and weigh it as the same time. They are of course more expensive, but they work great and make your bench look really professional as well.
- Loading blocks Loading blocks are simply trays with either square or circular recesses in which you stand up cartridge cases while you’re working on them. You can get by with one block, but I think you’re better off having two—especially if you’re batch processing. By using two, you can have one on each side of the tool you’re using and as you process your batch, you move the cases from one block to the other. It’s a particularly effective method to avoiding double-charging a case. If you are using a Lee turret press or any progressive press you don’t need these, but most beginner kits will come with them.
- Caliper – There are lots of important measurements in handloading and you will need a caliper that measures to 0.001-inch. Maybe it’s my positively electric personality, but electronic tools frequently frap out on me, so I go with a dial caliper over an electronic one. I have a friend who swears by his electronic caliper, so who knows. Measurements you’ll need to take include the overall length of the finished cartridge, which is listed in your loading data. You’ll also want to keep track of the length of your cartridge cases so you know when and how much to trim them.
- Case trimmer – This only applies to bottleneck rifle cases, and bottleneck pistol cases like the .357 Sig and 44-40. Shooting and then re-sizing cartridge cases causes the brass to “flow,” and they get longer. Case length needs to be kept in check, because eventually they don’t fit into your chamber anymore. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute publishes specifications on cartridge case and gun chamber dimensions with tolerances that ensure cartridges and guns from different manufacturers are safe and compatible. Your handloading manual will have case length information in the data section that includes the maximum case length and the trim-to length. You may or may not have to trim each time you reload a case–it all depends on how much your case stretches during firing and sizing—but you do have to trim when cases reach the maximum length or if you’re using a load that calls for a crimp.As an aside, if you’re loading a cartridge that needs a crimp, then cases with slightly different lengths results in cartridges with more or less crimp, depending on the length of the case. That may cost you in accuracy, but I’d be more concerned about inconsistent crimps simply failing and causing a bullet to be pushed down into the case (which can increase pressure to dangerous levels), or cause bullets to telescope out (which can cause a revolver cylinder to lock up). Another important consideration about case length is that if the case is too long, when you chamber the cartridge the mouth of the case may enter the throat of the chamber. When that happens, the case mouth can’t expand properly to release the bullet and you’ll get high pressure.There are several types of trimmers on the market. The simplest is the hand crank kind that will be in most beginner case prep kits. It has a clamp to hold the fired case and a set of collets to guide a rotating cutter that trims the end. There are electric versions of the same thing basically, and now there are even trimmer dies that file the top of the case when you raise it up into the die station.Regardless of which type of trimmer you use, five trims is about the limit you should consider before you throw the case away. By the fifth trimming, the case has likely stretched so much near the head that its integrity is questionable and you could start having cartridge case failures when you shoot. Regardless of the number of trimmings, if you notice a visible “ring” at the case head, smash the case and throw it away. That’s a sign of incipient separation. It indicates that your cases are already stretched too thin. The reason for smashing the necks is so that later on if you’re feeling really cheap, you won’t be able to use those cases again.
- Deburring tool – Freshly trimmed cases have very square, sharp mouths with little “burrs” of metal inside and out. If left like that, they can shave the sides of bullets as you seat them, and I’ve even had the little burrs stab into my hands. You remove those burrs with a deburring tool, which is a little suppository-looking thing with cutters on both ends. One end is pointed so the cutters go into the mouth of the case and on the other end the cutters are like little “fingers” that take care of the outside of the mouth. When you use a deburrer, you use it just enough to smooth things out; you don’t want to thin the mouth down to a knife-edge. Usually you can use a deburring tool immediately after trimming without even removing the case from the trimmer. Most beginner kits will have a hand deburring tool, and Hornady and others make electric ones. Hornady now even makes a complete case prep station we will be reviewing here soon that trims deburs and polishes for you. It is a great time to be a handloader.
- Bullet Puller – This is a surprisingly indispensable tool sometimes. There are always going to be times when you are reloading where you wake up and realize you were on autopilot, daydreaming. If when that happens, you find that your powder measure went dry, you have to go back through your loaded rounds and pull the bullets to figure out if they have powder in them. Busting a round in your firearm that has no powder and only a primer and bullet will usually lodge the bullet in the barrel. If you subsequently fire another round without clearing the jammed bullet, the top of the gun could get blown off, harming you and/or bystanders in the process, and at the very least you have bulged and weakened your firearm, turning it into a doorstop. Don’t be squeamish about pulling bullets if you are not 100% sure that you dumped powder. Hornady makes a “Powder Cop” die for their progressive press, and Dillon even has an alarm system, but if you aren’t using one of these and you are using a proegressive press, assume you will eventually need a bullet puller. Many beginner kits come with them now.
- Vibratory or Ultrasonic Cleaner – Dull and stained brass is perfectly safe to reload, but after a couple firings you will notice that it has collected a considerable amount of burnt powder deposits on the inside. Most people invest in some kind of case cleaning system when they reload regularly. There are two types, vibratory and ultrasonic. A vibratory tumbler has a big bin on the top of it that you fill with some sort of media, usually made from either ground corncobs or walnuts. You can leave hundreds of rounds of pistol brass in the tumbler overnight and in the morning it will be bright and shiny, outside, and even mostly inside. If you de-prime before you tumble, even the primer pocket will lose some of its carbon deposits.An ultrasonic tumbler works with water and some kind of solution that you add to the water, a subtle acid usually. They are quicker, in the several minutes range quick, but they leave you with wet brass that needs to dry. It is thought that if you de-prime before you use an ultrasonic tumbler, it will remove more carbon from the primer pocket than a vibratory will, but we are still in the middle of in-house testing on that, so stay tuned. Ultimately the choice is up to you. Millions of handloaders have used vibratory tumblers for decades, but the rage is all about ultrasonic these days. Nike vs. Reebok.
- Priming tool – Clearly, since you’re removing the spent primers with the sizing die, you have to replace them with new primers, but I’m calling a dedicated priming tool optional. Progressive presses prime as an operation and most single-stage and turret presses these days have priming capabilities and with practice you’ll develop the “feel” for seating a primer perfectly. On some press-mounted priming systems you’ll have to manually place each primer on the primer ram, but many presses also have a tube or tray feeder so you never have to handle a primer. I’ve read that oil from your fingers can contaminate primers, but I think that’s stretching things a bit. The one thing I will note about using your press to seat primers is realize you have a lot of leverage and it’s easy to overdo it when seating a primer. There’s a little anvil inside of each primer and the gun’s firing pin smashes the priming pellet between that anvil and the primer cup to get it to go off.If you look at a new primer, you’ll see that the legs of the anvil sit just above the edge of the primer cup. A properly seated primer will be just deep enough to push the legs of the anvil down even with the inside edge of the primer cup. Seat a primer too deeply, and you risk over sensitizing the pellet, possibly cracking the pellet, which can cause misfires, or setting the primer off in your press, which is always a lively occurrence. If you don’t seat the primer deep enough, the strike of the firing pin can actually seat the primer instead of set it off and you’ll get a misfire. Never seat primers high; if you do, you risk at worst a slam-fire as you’re chambering the round before the bolt is locked.The advantage of a dedicated priming tool is that you can de-prime your cases sitting around watching Idol on Wednesday night (Lee makes a hand press and Lyman makes a universal de-capping die), then clean your cases with no primers so the pockets get clean overnight, then use the priming tool for Idol on Thursday night. By the weekend you’ll be ready to reload (which you can ‘t do watching TV) and you have removed the trickiest part of smooth progressive reloading, which is always re-priming the cases. You simply remove the de-priming pin from your sizing die and you are good to go.
A Never Ending Quest
There are two types of single-stage presses, “C” (left) and “O” (right). The “C” has more space to work in while the “O” is much stronger. Both of these are Lee presses, and the Lee philosophy is that most steel reloading presses are made for several times the load you rely on them for. Their presses are made of lighter and less expensive materials, and most people have no problems with them at all.
This is a Lyman T-Mag turret press. Redding and RCBS also make turret models, which still require a separate pull for every stage of the reloading process. For rifle cases that have to be trimmed, progressive presses aren’t practical and there is little disadvantage to a turret press, but if you are going to re-load a lot of straight wall handgun brass, you should go progressive if you are not going to start with a single stage. The Hornady Lock & Load single stage has little disadvantage to turret presses because the dies can be twisted in and out and left adjusted correctly.
Progressive presses are the most expensive, complicated, and tedious type of press to get up and running, but once you do, you can turn out hundreds of finished cartridges per hour. This is a Dillon 650, probably the most advanced presses on the market, and most of its bells and whistles are attached to the tune of hundreds of extra dollars over the base price of the press kit.
A shellplate is different from a shellholder. A shellplate holds many cases at once so several different die stations can be used at the same time. A shell holder holds only one case.
Your primary source for handloading information should be one of the thorough manuals from a major handloading component or equipment manufacturer. Also get secondary data sources so you have more data choices, and can confirm the range of data for given components.
Handloading manuals will show you everything you need to know about case length, case type, primer size, and usually have historical or performance information on the cartridges listed.
Data is clearly spelled out in manuals. It shows you what kind of powder to use with which bullets, how much powder, and how long the finished cartridge should be (Cartridge Overall Length, or COL).
Dies are generally sold in “sets” with all of the dies necessary to handload a given cartridge. How many dies in a set depends on the cartridge. This is a two die rifle set from Hornady and it has the shell holder there in the case with the dies.
Sizing dies also incorporate a decapping pin the punches out the spent primer. Depending on the cartridge, the decapping pin may also have an expander ball to size the inside of the neck. If you remove your primers in advance and use a priming tool before reloading, this pin can usually be unscrewed.
You’ll need a neck brush to clean and lube inside case necks. For a neck brush, you can simply use bore brushes. The author finds that the nylon ones are cheap, effective, and last almost forever.
If using a spray lube, spray the cases from an overhead angle to get a little lube inside the necks. Use only spray lube specifically made for case sizing. This is Hornady One Shot which works fabulously.
Loading blocks hold the cartridge cases while you work on them. Having two blocks facilitates batch processing when using a single-stage press.
Whether you choose a balance beam-type or an electronic scale, it’s a good idea to have a reference weight to check the accuracy of the scale periodically. Most of the electronic scales made for reloading have at least one test weight. Most beginner kits, except notably the Hornady, come with a balance beam.
This is the scale that comes with the Hornady Lock and Load kit. The Hornady single stage also has a unique die swapping lock feature. It is probably the best of the kits.
Volumetric powder measures produce ammunition that is every bit as accurate as loads with carefully weighed out powder charges, and are a heck of a lot faster. This is also the Hornady one. It comes with a plate to mount to your bench and it also screws into a die station.
If you don’t load many cartridges, you can easily manage your case trimming needs using a simple trimmer tool with case length gauge. There are also lathe-like trimmers that are electric powered, and now there are even trim dies that have a grinder built right into the die.
After trimming, you have to chamfer and deburr the mouth of the case. Don’t sharpen the mouth to a knife-edge; just “kiss” it with the tool enough to take off the burrs.
Cases that have been loaded too many times, or that have been fired in guns with excessive headspace can experience incipient head separation indicated by a bright ring around the head of the case (left). Get rid of those cases or you may experience head separation (right) while shooting, which can be very dangerous.
A caliper is a must-have so you can load cartridges to the specified overall length and so you can keep track of case length.
Die sets for straight-wall cases include a die with a neck expander. Expand the necks just enough to let the bullet ease into the mouth. At left is a case that is sized, at center is a case that is sized and properly expanded at the mouth, at right the case is expanded too much at the mouth and will have problems later on.
If you work case mouths too much, the brass will get brittle and can split (arrow). Splits may not happen when you seat the bullet; they may happen later while the loaded ammunition is in storage. You can prevent this by annealing cases, which we’ll get to hopefully.
A primer tray is more than just a tray; it’s a functional tool that turns primers all over to the same side.
Anvils on new primers stick up just a little higher than the primer cup. Properly seating primers will push the legs of the anvil level with the inside lip of the primer cup.