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Friday, November 11, 2016

The Minimum Equipment Needed for Handloading

Right now I’ve got lots of crap sitting around for the purpose of "rolling my own" that I've  collected over time.  But if you cut it down to the very minimum, what do you actually need?

To load a cartridge from a fired case, you have to resize the cartridge case (it expands a bit when fired), punch out the fired primer, open up the case mouth (this is for pistol rounds only), insert a new primer, drop in a powder charge, seat a bullet, crimp the case mouth.  So which tools do you actually need for this?

Basic List:
  • Loading press
  • Primer tool
  • Loading dies for the cartridge
  • Shell holder, if not included with dies
  • Powder scale
  • Load data
If you go bare minimum, you can do it with this. (It’ll be slow, but it’ll work.) You need a press to hold the dies, you need the dies to process the cartridge cases, you need a scale to measure out the powder charges, you need lubricant to resize the cases (if not using carbide dies).
A loading press can be as simple as a Lee Hand Press, This set comes with the tool to put a new primer in the cartridge case, some case lube, and a funnel for pouring powder into the primed case. I’ve got one of these, and I used it for loading both rifle and pistol cartridges before I got a bench-mount press. It works. Be it noted that full-length resizing a bunch of rifle cases can give you a serious upper-body workout.

A bench-mounted press would be something like this basic Lee press*. You can bolt or clamp it to a bench or desk, and it does make it easier to do some operations.

You have to have a way to put a new primer in the case.  That's covered in this post, and some presses come with a priming arm to do this.

Dies are essential. To pick a common caliber, this set of dies for .45 ACP has four:
  1. One die resizes the case and pushes out the fired primer,
  2. One expands the case mouth (also called ‘belling’, it opens the mouth up so a bullet can more easily be started in; essential if you use plated or cast bullets).
  3. One seats the bullet into the case.
  4. One crimps the case mouth to the bullet.
I like Lee die sets because they also come with the shell holder for the press (different one for different cartridges) and most other brands do not.

Many dies for handguns come in a set of three: the resizing/depriming die, expanding die, and a seating/crimping die. Once adjusted, the last will seat the bullet and crimp the case mouth in one operation.

Die sets for rifles often come in two: resizing/depriming die and the seating/crimp die, since most jacketed rifle bullets don’t require expanding the case mouth. If you intend to use cast or plated bullets, you will have to have a die to open up the case mouth, the same as with handgun cases; these can be bought separately if the die set you get does not have one. This Lyman or this Lee are good choices.

Load data can be found online from many companies, and you can buy load manuals from many companies. They list cartridges, the bullets you can use in them, and powder types and charges that have been tested. You must have reliable information, and pay attention to it: when you pull the trigger on a cartridge, you’re starting a burn that creates pressures that can be up into 40,000 pounds per square inch in some cartridges, and all that’s happening while you’re holding onto it. You do not want surprises.

Speaking of surprises, a powder scale is essential.  There are simple balance-beam types, and there are electronic scales. Both work. You have to have one, because you have to know the weight of the powder charge you’re putting in. In the standard load data you find in this country, powder is weighed by grains, of which there are 7000 in a pound. In some pistol powders the charge can be as little as two grains; rifle cartridges can (for big ones) go up around a hundred grains. You must to be able to measure accurate charges, so there is no way around having a scale.

 Materials Needed:
  • Primers
  • Powder
  • Bullets
  • Case lubricant (if not using carbide dies)
You can't reload without actually having things to reload.

Most handgun die sets come with a carbide sizing die: there’s a ring of carbide in the die that actually does the resizing, and it’s so hard and slick that you don’t have to lube the cartridge cases.  It makes the dies a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it.  Very few rifle dies can be had in carbide, due to the shape of the case, same for some bottleneck-shaped pistol cases; those case must be lubricated before you try to resize them.  This is not optional, try it with dry cases and they will stick in the die, and that gets complicated.  Numerous choices for case lubricant are out there; two I've used and recommend are Lee and Redding.

Non-essential but Recommended:
That non-essential loading block?  Its sole job is to hold primed cases while you put a powder charge in them.  You can buy them, or you can make your own with some suitable wood and a drill press (I’ve got a bunch of those).  With this you can measure powder charges and pour them into cases without worrying about them getting knocked over.  It also lets you hold the whole bunch in the light and look in to make sure you didn’t miss any (bad) or accidentally dump two charges in one case (very bad).  You don’t have to have one, but I recommend you do.

What about that caliper or gauge?  Well, cartridge cases stretch when fired, and it stretches more in a semi-auto firearm.  There are specifications for the minimum and maximum length of cases, and that's where either an electronic or dial caliper (yes, digital is less expensive than a dial nowadays) or case length gauge comes in.  They let you know what the exact length currently is. The gauge is handy, but a caliper will tell you the actual length, not just if it's overly long.

Trimmers come in two flavors, bench-mounted and hand-held. The Lee hand-held also need this cutter and lock-stud set which can be used on any of their gauges. Something like the Lee can be used anywhere, or you can chuck the stud into a cordless drill to power it.  The Lyman type has a universal case holder, but needs a pilot (a set comes with this one) for different cartridges.  They go by size: the '.30' pilot will work on ANY case using a .308" diameter bullet: .30 Carbine, .308, .30-06, and on and on.

With straight-wall cases such as .38 Special, .45acp, or 9mm, you may never need to trim; with rifle cartridges, especially when used in a semi-auto, sooner or later you WILL need to have some way to trim the cases.

Using It All
So, let’s say you’ve got that basic set. How does the process work? Done with that Lee hand press and .45 ACP, if you do a single cartridge beginning to end it looks like this:
  1. Put the shell holder and resize/deprime die in the press and adjust the die.
  2. Place a fired case in the holder.
  3. Push it up into the die; this resizes the case and punches out the primer.
  4. Take out the resize die, place the expanding die in, and adjust to open up the case mouth. Do so.
  5. Remove that die, place the priming tool into the press, and use that to insert a new primer into the case.
  6. Insert the seating die into the press.
  7. Use the powder scale to weigh a powder charge, and pour it into the case.
  8. Place the case into the shell holder, place the bullet in the case mouth, and work the press to seat the bullet. Use the caliper to make sure you have it seated to the correct overall length.
  9. With a three-die set you then use the seat/crimp die to crimp the case mouth to the bullet, once adjusted it will both seat the bullet and crimp in one step. With a four-die set, then you change to the crimp die, adjust it and crimp the case mouth.
Doing this for each cartridge is silly, so you do it in groups:
  • Deprime/resize a bunch of cases, then prime them all, expand them all. 
  • Then powder charges are measured and poured in cases. 
  • Place bullets in case mouth, then seat them. 
  • Then crimp if using a separate crimp die. And each die will have a lock ring; once you have it adjusted to your press and that ring in place, you won't have to adjust it again. 
  • The exception is the seating die -- if you use a different bullet in the future, it'll need adjustment for seating depth.

That’s your basic load set. Part II will cover some other tools that make this all a bit faster and easier.

There's also more information on reloading that you can read here and here.

*I use a lot of Lee equipment; their prices and quality are both good.

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