By Dan Kidder
About 4 years ago, I decided to make the jump into reloading ammo. Up until then, I always believed that people who loaded their own ammo were on par with wizards, using archaic spells to turn lead into gold.
Being a complete ammo loading novice, I dove in feet first and got set up with a Hornady Lock-N-Load Classic loading kit. It came with everything I needed to get started, including a powder measure, digital scale, loading blocks, and everything except the shell plate and dies for my specific caliber, powder, brass, primers, and bullets. It did include 100 bullets, sort of, and we will get into that in a minute.
I have been using this system regularly, loading about 400-500 rounds per week, in a variety of about two dozen different calibers.
It takes a long time and several steps to turn a piece of brass into a loaded round. First, you need to clean the used brass, which I accomplish with a Hornady Sonic Case Cleaner. Then you dry it and tumble it. Then you deprime and resize, using a single die. Then you prime the brass, which I had been doing using a hand priming tool, but recently upgraded to an automatic priming feed tube on the press. Then you insert the expander die into your press and flare the case. Then you insert the feeding die, load the powder, and seat and crimp the bullet.
I had the process down pretty smoothly and it still was taking me about 2 hours to completely load 100 rounds of ammo. That isn’t too shabby, until you head to the range and blow through all of that ammo in a matter of 20-30 minutes.
It was good, but I wanted faster.
I love the Lock-N-Load system, because I can swap out my dies, and leave them set without unscrewing them and resetting every time I swap them out. I lock them into the Lock-N-Load bushing and just twist them out of the press, and they retain their depth. So if I swap from loading 9MM to .40 SW, I don’t have to remeasure and adjust the depth the next time I go back to the same load of 9MM. This saves hours of time.
For every set of dies I purchase, I also get a set of die bushings for that die set. They live there and it is well worth the inexpensive investment. The dies come in a hard plastic box that also has room for extras. It allows you to also store a powder metering insert for that specific load; another worthwhile investment.
Being invested in the Lock-N-Load system, it was a natural decision to upgrade to a Lock-N-Load progressive press when it was time to go faster. Hornady makes a basic progressive press that lets you do up to five steps all at once, without resetting anything. That was still not fast enough for me. I went with the full Monty; the Lock-N-Load Ammo Plant (AP). This setup includes a bullet feeder and a shell feeder, so essentially, all you have to do is load the cases, primers, bullets, and powder into their respective dispensers and pull on the handle. Each pull of the handle, unlike a Vegas slot machine, pays out in the form of a finished cartridge. Keep pulling the lever, and refilling the hoppers, and pretty soon, you have a lot of ammo, very quickly.
In order to properly review this press, I wanted to get it set up without any help from the folks at Hornady, just like a regular Joe would, just by reading the instructions. It takes a few hours to assemble and dial in the press, so it helped that the instruction manual that comes in the box is very thorough, with excellent illustrations. Even though the manual is easy to follow, there are a few aspects that were unclear, but I spent some extra time getting everything adjusted. Still, there was frustration. At my wit’s end, I finally called Marty Holding with Hornady with a laundry list of minor issues that were driving me crazy. He then asked the dreaded question, “did you watch the DVD that was in the box?” When I replied that I hadn’t, even though he had too much class to say it, the tone of his voice was clearly yelling “you idiot.” So he walked me through a few of the issues, such as properly setting up the case feeder, adjusting the timing, and properly assembling the feed tube of the primer feeder to work out the bugs. I also sat and watched the DVD, which answered several issues for me. So my advice, open the box, take out the DVD, stop what you are doing, and watch it. Don’t mess with anything else in the box until you have watched it. Take notes while watching it and keep it in your DVD player so you can go refer to it again while you are assembling the loader.
There are a lot of progressive presses on the market, but there are several reasons to choose this one. First, the instructions for assembly are amazingly detailed. Second, and this is a huge one for me because I have used it so often, is Hornady’s no questions asked lifetime warranty on all of their parts. Until you clamp down really hard on a Berdan primed case that accidentally got mixed into your brass and shear off a decapping pin and shatter a resizing cone, you won’t appreciate how a simple phone call can get you back in business again very quickly. Third, the face of the progressive press has a 30 degree offset, which makes it easier to get into the tight confines of the working area of the press to make adjustments, swap dies, perform inspections, and just generally work in. I have big mitts, and being able to get into the working area with five dies loaded, is a real blessing. And finally, since I was already well invested in the Lock-N-Load system, it made sense to stay with that system for the same reasons, when I upgraded from a single stage to a progressive. I don’t have to remeasure and readjust my dies when swapping them out from one caliber to another or from my single stage to the AP. This alone saves hours of time in setting up the press. The AP has a hefty 2-inch diameter steel ram, exposed grease fittings, and utilizes a case retaining spring that makes it very easy to remove a case from the shell plate at any stage to check and adjust and then quickly put it back in place.
The AP comes complete with a bullet feeder that orients your bullets, then drops them directly into a tube that goes to a bullet feeding die on the press. It also comes with a case feeder that aligns your cases primer-side down then drops them on to an armature that feeds them directly into the shell plate, ready to be rotated through the various stages. The case feeder only requires you to purchase the correct size feeder plate for your load; small pistol, large pistol, small rifle, large rifle. These retail for around $40 each.
Setting up each die station takes a little bit of effort at first, because each stage acts like it does on a single stage press, just moving the case progressively through each step. One pull of the handle simultaneously decaps and sizes one case while priming another, and dumping powder and flaring yet another, while seating a bullet in another, and crimping the bullet in the last, while inserting a new case to start the process over. Each pull drops in a new case, and drops out a new cartridge while advancing the other cases to the next stage in the process. But because it is a Lock-N-Load, after that initial setup, if you don’t alter the configuration of those dies, you never have to go through this setup again. To change between pistol calibers, all you need to do is swap out shell plates, dies, and powder measure (or readjust the powder measure) and you are ready to roll. To swap between pistol and rifle reloading, you need to swap out the primer feeder, case feeder plate, and the dies. Change over and change back are as easy as they can get.
To make my reloading even faster and safer, I added in a Hornady Lock-N-Load Deluxe Control Panel. This counts how many rounds I have completed, warns if the primer feeder slide fails to move forward, monitors powder and primer supply levels, and warns if a load is under or over charged. If a bad load is detected, it will stop the press so I can’t seat a bullet until the mischarged case is removed. It even has a flexible LED light that I can use to better illuminate my work area inside the press. The addition of the Control Panel and sensors makes it even faster to load with safety.
The built-in powder measure drops a specific load of powder in each case, and I randomly tested the powder it was dropping and was getting +/- a tenth of a grain, which is as accurate as you will get without trickling powder.
Because I like to have specific loading recipes for the bullets I use, I make sure to get an updated loading manual from every bullet manufacturer I use. The free online information provided by powder manufacturers is okay for certain applications, but it always seems to be missing data for specific bullets I like to use. For this reason, the 9th Edition of the Hornady Reloading Handbook was a must-have item. My eighth edition was okay, but for each edition, Hornady retests every load in the book, and adjusts them with the most recent data.
While the Lock-N-Load AP press will accept any dies with a standard 7/8-14 thread, using the Lock-N-Load bushing, I choose to only use Hornady Custom Grade Dies. In the straight wall resizing dies, Hornady adds an insert coated in titanium-nitride. This coating protects the surface of your cases, requires no lube, and extends the life of the case. They also use an elliptical expander, which is gentler on your cases as it resizes the neck, extending the life of your brass and letting you size up without cracking the neck. Their bullet seating die features a patented sliding sleeve that insures a perfect bullet seat each time, and also crimps the case in a single step. This alignment sleeve provides perfect concentricity and that equates to better accuracy. And did I mention the warranty?
And to really sweeten the pot, Hornady is running their Get Loaded promotion for the fifth straight year. Pretty much, you can get up to $35 worth of free bullets for buying a $35 set of dies. With the purchase of a press, you get 500 free bullets worth up to $177, depending upon which bullets you choose. In this day and age where you can’t find reloading components, free bullets is a dream come true.
If you have been thinking about speeding up your reloading, check out the Hornady Lock-N-Load AP and move from reloading into the realm of full-scale production. Now I am getting about 200 rounds in a few minutes as opposed to a few hours. Now if we could just find a few pounds of Tightgroup.