Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Lee Loader Kit

We have mentioned reloading ammunition in a few posts, and one of the comments we got back was about the Lee Loader series of reloading kits. I started reloading with a single stage press, and still do most of my reloading on that press, but I have been collecting Lee Loader kits for various calibers for “just in case”. I find them on tables at gun shows in some odd calibers, usually for less than they cost new, and they make good gifts for friends who shoot odd guns that are harder to find ammunition for.

What's Inside
The Lee Loader is a single-caliber kit that gives you all of the tools (except a plastic mallet or piece of hardwood) you will need to reload cartridges of that caliber. The Lee Precision company used to make these kits in 110 calibers, but have narrowed their current listings down to the 15 most common (6 pistol, 9 rifle) calibers. Being made of steel, the old kits are still out there and are still usable if you can find them. Lee Precision claims you can load up to 50 rounds in an hour with such a kit. That will take some practice -- I'd say 20 rounds per hour is more realistic for a beginner or someone unfamiliar with the kit and its operation. However, it's fast enough for someone who is reloading after hunting.

One downside to using the Lee Loader is that it does not full-length size the fired brass. This means that it doesn't squeeze the brass back down to standard factory size, so it will be “formed” to the chamber of the firearm that it came out of. The brass will be “neck sized”, meaning the part that holds the bullet will be forced back to the proper size, which is great for accuracy when used in a single firearm. Many precision shooters use specific lots of brass assigned to a specific rifle and they only neck size it when they load. Since the body of the cartridge is formed to the chamber of that rifle, it doesn't have to stretch out every time it is fired and that extends the life of the brass. Lee Precision does not recommend using the Lee Loader kits for semi-auto, pump, or lever-action rifles, which limits you to bolt-action and break-action rifles. Neck-sizing can mean using a bit more force to get the cartridge into the chamber, which you probably won't notice in a bolt-action but might cause a semi-auto to jam.

Here's one of my Lee Loader kits. This one is for the .303 British cartridge, which is what I feed my Lee-Enfield rifle. Since I only have the one rifle in this caliber and ammunition for it is not common in my area, the Lee Loader is a good choice. 

This is an old kit from the 1970s or early 80s, and came in a cardboard box with a styrofoam liner; I think I paid $10 for mine at a gun show back in the day. Newer kits come in a red plastic box with formed holders for the various parts. They are still making the kits in .303 British, and they sell on Amazon for about $30. The older kits in discontinued calibers may be worth a bit more, if you can find them on eBay or at a gun show, but they are the same quality as the new ones.

Reloading Procedure
The rifle kit is made up of six pieces and the instructions are quite well-presented. I doubt any of you would have a problem opening the box and being able to reload a box of ammunition without incident, but here is a run-down of the process.

Before First Use
Before you can start loading, you need to set the bullet-seating depth based upon the total length of a factory cartridge. If you are working to create a load specifically for accuracy in your rifle, you may want to adjust the bullet depth later.
  1. Screw the lock nut and stop collar all the way down.
  2. Place a factory cartridge on the depriming chamber.
  3. Place the die over the cartridge.
  4. Put the bullet seater into the die and adjust the stop collar up until it touches the seater, then tighten then lock collar.
Case Prep
  1. Check to make sure the case will fit into the chamber of your rifle.
  2. Clean the brass if needed -- dirt and grit will damage a reloading die.
  3. Inspect the case for cracks and splits, especially on the neck. Discard any brass that is split or cracked, as it's not safe to use any more.
  4. Check the primer holes inside the cartridge. If there is one hole in the center of the base, it is Boxer primed and is reloadable. If you see two holes it is Berdan primed and is not reloadable with this equipment. Berdan priming is common in European and Asian ammunition, whereas Boxer priming is the standard in the USA.
  5. Check your case length against a new one or with a guage to make sure it isn't too long. After being fired a few times, brass tends to “grow” and may need to be trimmed back to a the right length. If it gets too long the brass may not release the bullet when it is fired, causing excessive pressure and damage to the gun and/or you.
  6. Using a pocket knife or suitable tool, chamfer the inside of the neck slightly to ease the bullet into the brass. This only has to be done before the first loading and after trimming.
Depriming the Brass
  1. Place the cartridge in the depriming chamber (the small black cylinder). It will only fit in one way, so don't worry about getting it backwards.
  2. Place the depriming tool in the case. You can feel the tip of the tool drop into the primer hole.
  3. Using a rubber mallet, tap the depriming tool until you feel the old primer fall out.
  4. Move on to the next case. Depriming them in a batch speeds up the process.
Size the Neck of the Case
  • Place the brass neck down in the sizing die and tap it with a mallet until the head is flush with the base.
Prime the Case
  1. Place a primer, open end up, in the priming chamber. (That's the metallic cylinder with the spring-loaded face.)
  2. Place the die, with the brass still in it, over the priming chamber.
  3. Place the priming tool into the neck of the cartridge and gently tap the end a few times to seat the primer.
  4. Move the die to the depriming chamber and tap the priming tool lightly to knock it loose from the die. Leave it there while going on to the next steps.
Add Powder
Each kit comes with a red powder scoop that is sized for a small selection of common powders. Don't substitute powders without a way to measure them. Powder selection and measurement is one of the hardest and most important safety-important parts of reloading!
  1. To use the scoop, drag it through the powder and give it one and only one shake to the side to level off the powder.
  2. Pour the powder into the open end of the die.
Seat the Bullet
  1. Drop the bullet, base-down, into the die.
  2. Place the bullet-seating stem into the die.
  3. Tap the bullet seater until it touches the die.
Crimp the Bullet
If you're using a rifle with a tubular magazine and have used bullets with a crimping groove (known as a cannelure) or lead bullets, there is a way to crimp the bullets into the brass.
  1. Turn the loaded cartridge upside down and insert the bullet end into the of the die.
  2. Gently tap the base of the bullet with the plastic mallet or piece of wood until you get the amount of crimp you want.

If you're looking for a way to keep a hunting rifle supplied on a limited budget, a Lee Loader may be a route to explore. As an example:
  • My .303 British takes 38.5gr of IMR 4320 powder, something I have on the shelf since it is suitable for several rifle calibers. 
  • There are 7000 gr in a pound, so I can get about 180 rounds (9 boxes) reloaded from a single container. 
  • Powder is selling for about $25 a pound, so that's about $0.14 worth of powder for each round. 
  • Primers are going for about $4 per hundred or $0.04 per round.
  • Bullets are variable, depending on weight and design but average around $0.14 apiece. 
Add this all up ,and you can reload a fairly odd-ball caliber for $0.32 a round, or $6.40 a box. Try finding factory ammunition at that price --  or at any price, once TSHTF.

A pound of powder, a couple flats of primers, two boxes of bullets, a Lee Loader kit, a plastic mallet, and a few boxes worth of brass will fit comfortably in a small ammo can or a medium Rubbermaid box. Not a bad way to store a year or two's worth of hunting ammo!

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