I've written a few articles so far, covering topics from basic reloading to lead casting, Home-made Bullet lubrication, Gear needed to reload, as well as how to make cheap, but usable ballistic gelatin. My “Basics of Reloading” article was a general survey of many possible steps a person might take when starting to reload. I tried to touch a bit on everything, but not delving too deep into any one part, just an overview if you will. Recently I was asked to provide a step by step walk thru, specific steps for specific metallic cartridges, not just general information, but rather an explanation of what steps I specifically go thru when reloading. If you have been following my other articles, then you may have already read about the Basics of Reloading. In that article, I covered lots of different gear and methods, some of which I use, some of which I don’t use very much, or at all. Here, I’m going to walk thru a specific example of a couple of metallic cartridges I load for. Keep in mind that this should be viewed as 1 possible path to a destination, not the ONLY path. For the destination of reloading, there are MANY paths.
Here we go... In the Beginning…:
Bang, Bang... I’ve just been hunting or to the range and have fired some metallic cartridges. Before leaving I collected my spent brass. This is called ‘policing your brass’. I do this for multiple reasons.
1. Reusing my brass cuts down on one of the two most expensive components of reloading (the projectile is the other expensive component cost, usually).
2. I’m not leaving a mess for someone else to clean up.
3. To go along with 1 & 2, when I pick up my brass, I get a chance to look it over.
If it is damaged, I can immediately add it to my scrap brass bag I carry to the range AND, I’m not leaving already reloaded brass laying around that some other reloader MIGHT mistake as once fired brass, when it may have been old, many times used brass that needs to be retired. While I’m picking up my spent brass, I might also find other discarded brass. Obvious scrap goes in my brass scrap bag, stuff I know I made, goes into another bag, and finally stuff that looks like it MIGHT be reloadable goes in a third bad to be looked over more later. Keep in mind that if you are on a public or private range that there may be rules concerning picking up brass, and that if you are picking up another shooters brass, that you should ask them first. They may be wanting to keep it for themselves, either to recycle, or because they reload.
I clean brass a couple different ways. Usually, All the brass I shot will just be dumped straight into my vibratory tumbler. As I dump the cartridges in, I am visually scanning looking for defects that stand out. Split mouths, obvious fissures, etc. Any ‘range pickup’ brass I grabbed will go into an ultrasonic cleaner. I do this because some range brass may have been laying there a while and picked up more than normal amounts of sand. A trip thru a heated ultrasonic bath and a couple agitations of the basket help dislodge excess sand so that it doesn’t contaminate any other following steps. Typically, after drying my wet cleaned brass I’ll give another quick inspection. If the brass is still dirty, it will go into a vibratory tumbler that is filled with cheap white rice and a used dryer sheet. White rice is extremely cheap. It’s also a good enough cleaner to knock off the loose sand. At the end of the tumble, I’ll sift the brass out and DUMP the white rice to get the sand out of my tumbler. Then I’ll wipe out the tumbler bowl. At this point, the brass can be inspected further. I look again for damage to the case, creased dents, mouth splits, corrosion that has reduced case integrity, damaged rims, blown out the primer, and lastly, I look for berdan primers. Anything that fails hit’s the brass scrap pile I occasionally find a steel case that snuck in looking like a tarnished piece of brass. I have a separate scrap box for steel cases. Once I see the cases are good enough, I then tumble them in my usual tumbler media which is a mix of corn cob, and wheat litter (small animal litter), plus a little non-ammonia car polish and a dryer sheet. For heavily tarnished brass, I’ll toss in some nut hull. More of a matte finish but cleans better, vs. the high polish, but low-cut corn cob. Any brass that was new to me always gets extra inspection time. I will look for signs that it has been thru the reloading process before.
I try not to mix range pickup with my known brass since I segregate batches of brass. This helps me keep track of a number of times fired, etc. Thus, yes, it takes multiple operations of the tumbler to clean up a range trip scavenged brass. I do tumble dissimilar cases together. For instance, If I fired a batch of 30-06 and a batch of 38-spl, I’ll clean those together. I can then sort them back into their batch bags and renumber the bags for use count. When I process brass for use, I stick them in Ziploc bags and write on the bags with a marker. Occasionally I will have some cardboard boxes with the foam or plastic cartridge dividers, and if so, I will use those and write case info on one flap, leaving the other flap for charge info. Here is a cost saving tip for reloading. Dumpster Dive! When you are at a range, look in the trash receptacle that is nearest the firing line. Many times, the bulk of the people shooting do not reload and will discard their cartridge boxes into the trash. Those factory boxes usually have dividers or trays to separate the brass. Free reloading supplies is always a good thing.
Ok... My brass has all been cleaned and is now ready for close inspection and sorting if needed. By close inspection, I mean handling each case for a few seconds and doing a final look at it before tossing it in an appropriate bag or box for further, future processing. This gives me the chance to really look over any new to me range brass so that I can evaluate its life expectancy. Pistol brass is easier than a rifle. For rifle, I usually want to peer inside and look for separation marks near the case head. Looking at the heat stamp crispness can also help you determine age. Brass with well-worn head stamps has been fired more, etc. Nickel cases which are worn to mostly brass is older, etc.
The first real process I do on my brass is de-priming, and I’ll do it in one of 2 ways. If it is range pickup, and or odd calibers I’m not currently going to reload for, I’ll just run it thru a universal de primer and bag it for later use. By this, I mean that I have a lee universal de primer die setup on one of my presses on the bench. I have that press dedicated to just doing that operation. The Uni de primer is nothing more than a die body that is opened up past 50 cal, and has a de-prime stem that has no sizer ball, so that you can de-prime from 17 to 50 caliber brass that is less than about 3” long or so. Literally just running the case into the die to let the stem and pin punch the primer. That lee die has a collet held stem. By doing this, I am protected in case I accidentally missed a piece of berdan brass. The stem will simply slip in the collet and I’ll have to reset it after tossing the berdan. The step will simply slip in the collet and I’ll have to reset it after tossing the berdan brass into the scrap box. If it is brass that I am immediately going to reload, I will instead go ahead and setup one of my 2 main presses with the appropriate die sets. For example, If I am doing rifle cartridges, I usually use my RCBS Rock Chucker. It is a sturdy press made for long cartridges and has good compound leverage that may be needed for large cases and hard resizes. Before setting up my reloading press, I will put my brass into a loading block, and spritz it carefully with some case resizing lubricant and then let it set to flash the solvent off while I set up my press. Next, I’ll find the appropriate shell holder and install it into the ram. Next, I’ll install the de-prime and resize die to the press. You then raise the ram all the way up and screw the die in till it touches. I then lower the ram and usually give the die a hair bit more turn to ensure I can get good cam over on the ram lever. At this point, if you hadn’t already, you would install a die lock ring and secure it to the die, so that next time you just had to screw the die in till snug, then dummy check it. At this point, you can feed brass into the press ram and process each piece with a pull of the ram you de-prime and resize. My processed brass goes into a bin for the next step. More on that later. The foregoing example was for bottleneck rifle and a single stage press. I’ll give another example of straight wall pistol on a turret press. I like my Lee turret reloading press for pistol, since there are more operations to perform. On bottleneck rifle, you can have as little as 2 dies, one for de-prime and resize, one for bullet seating and crimping. On straight wall pistol, you usually need 3 (or more) stages. Deprime and resize, mouth bell, and then seat and crimp. (seating and crimping can be done in one or two steps, and can, depending on the die set, be done using one or two dies, as you could have a dedicated crimp die, or just readjust your seat/crimp die between stages and run one stage as seat, and one stage as crimp.
With the turret press I have, I can load up to 4 dies into the tool head, then just rotate the tool head around to perform different operations. First will be de-prime and resize. Procedure to setup will be the same as with the single stage press. Some die sets use a carbide or titanium nitride sizer ring and do not require case lubrication. I do generally, however, apply a very light spritz of case lube to my pistol cases. They resize just a hair easier... not much, but the cost and time, to me is negligible if it returns any gain on the case and die life. I don’t reload for sale or profit, I reload for fun, so 30 seconds and 2 cents worth lubricant don’t bother me any.
Now that our bottleneck rifle or straight wall pistol brass has been processed thru the deprime and resize die, the pistol cases are pretty much ready to be primed. As a rule of thumb, most straight wall pistol brass does not grow when being resized, and thus does not need to be trimmed. I will usually grab a few pieces out of the batch and throw a caliper on them and measure them or check them with a case gauge. I have rarely if ever found that I needed to trim a batch of straight wall pistol. The bottle neck cases on the other hand, usually do grow, and thus must be trimmed. Rather than check each piece, I just consult my brass trim to chart, and then adjust my rcbs trim pro, a motorized lathe style trimmer. I will put a test piece in and adjust a little at a time till it is perfect. At that point, I just run each piece thru. Not all grow the same amount but all will get trimmed to the same length to ensure proper crimp. Once trimmed, I will then run each piece of brass on my Lyman case prep station to do an inside and outside diameter mouth chamfer, and a primer cleaning. I rarely clean pistol primer pockets. If any of the brass was military spec and had crimped or staked primers, at this time it would be run thru the crimp reamer, primer pocket truer, flash hole cleaner, and primer pocket cleaner heads on my Lyman case prep station. Crimped primers only have to be reamed one time. We are now ready to prime the cases. I use a hand primer that holds about 150 primers in a tray. Add the appropriate shell holder to the rcbs hand primer, then just feed it cases and squeeze. Doesn’t take long at all to prime up a whole block of pistol cases.
Once all the cases are primed, then they need to be charged. If I am just doing a handful of cases, I will hand charge them using my balance beam scale to measure each charge. I usually do this for rifle cartridges for hunting or for low volume target shooting.
If I am just making up bulk ammo, I will adjust my manual powder hopper/thrower. It is just a powder hopper that has a rotating drum with an adjustable cavity. Roll it one direction to capture a charge from the hopper into the adjusted cavity, then roll the other way to dump the charge into the case. I’ll use this for bulk plinking ammo. Stuff I use a whole lot of.
If I am making up some ammo that I want to be as precise as my hand weighed and charged ammo, but in more volume than I want to scoop and pour, I’ll setup my Lyman digital scale with automatic powder dispenser. Just dial in a charge and it will dispense to a pan, then you can charge. It’s more precise than a manual thrower but slower. I also like to turn it on and let it warm up a few hours before using, not to mention to check its calibration and zero it a few times before use. I always double check the manual or automatic dispenser with my balance beam scale, and will continue to do so every now and then as an emergency spot check.
Once all the cases are charged, it’s time to set the projectiles. You can seat and crimp in one step or two, depends on the die set, and/or how you adjust the die. For straight wall pistol, I usually seat and crimp in one step. I do this for bottle neck rifle on some cartridges as well. However, some bottle neck cartridges I have a separate collet crimp die (vs a roll crimp for instance.) The process is the same for my turret or single stage press. Install the die to the press/tool head., remove or run the seater stem all the way up. Set a projectile on a case and run it into the die, adjust the stem down to make contact, drop the ram, and keep adjusting the stem down till you have the projectile where you want it. Next, if doing seat and crimp, run the seater stem back up, and raise the ram. Screw the die in till you feel resistance. Drop the ram, screw the die in a hair more, then raise the ram. Lower the ram and observe the level of crimp. Keep doing this till you have a correct crimp. With correct crimp established, run the ram back up, and then run the seater stem down till it makes firm contact with the projectile. Set the lock rings on the seater and die. You should be set to seat and crimp now. Load a charged case to the ram, have a projectile in hand to set in the case mouth, then run the ram up to seat and crimp the cartridge, remove it, and check your adjustments. If correct, keep on going. If you are doing 2 step seat and crimp with the same die, you will simply separate the adjustment steps and do all your seating, then adjust for the crimping step. I run both in the same step unless I am intending to crimp on a separate die, like a lee factory crimp die. For those, after I have seated, I will then run them into the FCD and crimp. The FCD is actuated by running the press ram up till the shell holder contacts the base of the FCD, pushing it up into the body, thus compressing fingers to give a collet crimp at the neck. Your specific cartridge type will dictate what type of crimp to use, but in general, rimmed cartridges get roll crimps (38 spl, 357 magnums) and cartridges for semi-automatics get a taper crimp (9mm, 45 acp). Rifle cartridges will vary on the type, but many are roll crimp. Keep in mind that your projectile should be appropriate for roll crimping by having a cannelure groove for the brass case mouth to roll into. At this point, you are done!
Things that will help you to setup faster for your next reloading session, is to make up a dummy metallic cartridge. Just a sized and or trimmed piece of brass, no primer, and no powder charge. Seat and crimp it’s projectile as normal. Next time you are setting up, you can use this dummy cartridge to rapidly set up your seat and crimp die without trial and error. Just put the dummy into the shell holder in the ram, run the ram up, remove the seater stem from the die, run the die in till it makes firm contact, lock it down, then run the seater in till it makes firm contact, and lock it down. That should yield a crimp and seating depth equal to your dummy / finished ammo, or at least close enough to make the adjustments less random, and faster.
Why do I use a single stage press to reload my 30-06 brass, and a turret press to reload my 38SPL brass? Part of the answer is volume, part of the answer is the strength, and still part of the answer is size. When I reload rifle ammo, depending on cartridge, of course, many times the cases are larger, longer, just bigger. The larger the case, the more force it takes to resize. Also, the taller the case, the longer the distance your press needs to have from ram piston to die holder. Lastly, I generally make much fewer quantities of rifle brass per reloading session than I do pistol ammo. My big RCBS Rock Chucker press has space for a tall cartridge and has plenty of compound force for hard resizing. My turret press, while strong, will not accept as tall a cartridge, and due to moving tool head design, will not handle the same repetitive force that a solid large single stage O style press can handle during extended or multiple reloading sessions over its service lifetime.