By Dan Kidder
For those who roll their own ammo, there are two distinct methods of reloading; precision and mass production. While everyone would love to have a mass production ammo loader in their garage, cranking out thousands of finished rounds per hour, the cost of such a machine is prohibitive. Not to mention keeping the beast fed with components.
For mass production of practice ammo for plinking, target practice, work on the fundamentals, and just general time at the range shooting pistol or modern sporting rifles where mass quantities of ammo will be expended, a progressive press is the way to go.
At Sportsman’s News, we use the Hornady Ammo Plant progressive press with the addition of a case and bullet feeding hopper. This progressive press can be finicky and set up takes a lot of adjustment and fine tuning, but once it is rolling, production is fairly consistent and you can quickly press out hundreds of rounds in a short amount of time. The velocity of rounds built in this press differs by only about 20-30 feet per second, which is usually not an issue at the ranges most people plink.
There are some things to be aware of when using a progressive loader. For me, primer tubes are the way to go, but you can easily get them tangled up and getting the primer feeding side unstuck can take some time and a litany of words you wouldn’t want to utter in the presence of your grandmother. The case feeder can get jammed up as well, and the turning and feeding case plate can come off the cam, causing cases to get underneath. This will necessitate scooping out all the brass so you can reseat the plate. The spring tube that feeds bullets from the bullet feeder to the seating die can slip out of the die, spewing bullets all over the floor. This becomes a tiresome occurrence, and I have spent many hours on my knees rounding up all of the errant projectiles. The Hornady One Shot case lube is a great product and allows you to bulk spray your cases before loading them into the hopper. Without it, expect to have many stuck cases. Their companion product, One Shot Cleaner and Dry Lube with Dyna Lube, is a great product for cleaning out excess lube from the dies, as well as general clean up and lubrication of your press. And the last issue that will give you fits, is if the timing lugs get out of proper timing. If you don’t need to mess with them, don’t touch them! If you do, it can take some time to get them back into the proper setup for smooth operation. Be patient, take your time, and double check all of your stages to make sure you haven’t missed anything along the way.
Precision reloading is a much different beast. There are far more steps to get a precision metallic cartridge that shoots groups from 1,000 yards you can cover with a dime, and neglecting any one of them can have noticeable repercussions downrange.
Without a doubt, the only way to get a precision hand load is on a single stage press. For this we have tested both the Hornady Lock-N-Load system and the venerable RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme. For ease of use and the ability to quickly change out dies without resetting their depth, the Hornady Lock-N-Load system is a winner. The locking lugs and collar let you quickly set your depth, twist and replace. Additionally, I vastly prefer the Hornady dies, especially at the crimping stage, as we had real issues getting a good crimp with the RCBS dies. More on that later. We also had issues stripping out the soft brass set screws on the locking collar on the RCBS dies. The good news is both companies have decent warranties. The RCBS warranty procedure is more cumbersome, with proof of purchase required and the need to send in the broken part for repair or replacement. Hornady is just a phone call and the part number of the broken part, and replacements are quickly in the mail to you.
For good precision cartridges, toss out the OAL measurement in your reloading manual and measure the chamber of the gun you will be firing these rounds through. To do this, a great tool is one of the OAL Gauges from Hornady. Fit with a modified shell casing with threads cut into the primer pocket, this shell and gauge will provide you with the exact OAL you need for the bullet to contact the rifling of your barrel. This exact overall length is the depth you will want to seat each and every bullet for maximum accuracy.
In order to get that proper depth consistently each and every time, it is vital to ensure that every case is exactly the same length. I measure every precision case and then trim them to the same length using a Hornady Cam-Lock Trimmer. This trimmer lets you easily and quickly swap cases with just a half turn of the cam-lock, and the length can be easily set and locked so you can run through cases pretty quickly. There are more expensive powered case trimmers, as well as drill attachments, but I find I get better control manually turning the crank. The cutter is hard and sharp, and the effort to get a good trim is minimal. This step is especially important if using previously fired brass.
Once you have a good case trim, I like to spend some time on the primer pocket. Using a dressing tool, clean out the primer pocket and remove any burrs. Also, check the concentricity of the flash hole and look for any burrs and clean them up from the outside. I then shine a light inside the case and check the flash hole from the inside. You can use an RCBS flash hole deburring tool to get down to the bottom of the case quickly and easily. Having a properly prepped primer pocket and flash hole will improve the consistency of ignition of your propellant giving you consistent pressure and velocity.
The last step I do in brass prep is to chamfer the case neck. Using an RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep Center, I chamfer the inside and the outside of the mouth of the case, for more reliable feeding and seating. Be careful not to remove so much brass that you change the case length. You want just enough to taper the mouth to the ideal length.
Now that your brass is properly prepped, you can move on to choosing your components and assembling your cartridge. The selection of components is as personal as picking a spouse, and many reloaders would have an easier time swapping out a spouse than they would changing the reloading components to which they are married. My advice, try several loads of powder, bullet, primer, case combinations and find the one your gun likes best. Even the same make and model of rifle can perform drastically different with the same load.
Once you have selected your load, you are going to assemble them in your single stage press. When I get a new rifle, I experiment with a variety of loads to find the one it likes the best. This is the time consuming process of loading and trekking out to the range to verify data and DOPE. Once I have the load combo I like, that becomes the load of every round fired through that gun.
To get a consistent powder load, I really like the RCBS Charge Master 1500 Powder Measure and Scale. This little machine trickles out a precise, pre-set amount of powder into the pan and verifies it with a precision digital scale. I get insanely consistent powder dumps this way. Otherwise, get out your scale and tweezers and prepare to add single sticks or balls of powder until you get the right amount. A manual scale just won’t give you the same consistency as a digital scale for this kind of precision.
Once you have seated your primer, using a hand priming tool, dump your powder and then weigh the entire case, primer, and powder combo to make sure they are consistent. A bit of deviation is expected, as the case thickness will differ, but this will let you know if there is a major deviation.
Now it is time to set your bullet. I measure the weight and length of each bullet, and stay with high quality manufacturers like Nosler, Barnes, Speer, or Lapua, as they have better consistency in weight and length. If a bullet is out of specification, it gets tossed in my other pile for practicing fundamentals at 400 yards for Minute of Pumpkin accuracy. The bullets within specification get loaded for long range precision shooting.
To get consistent seating, I use a bullet comparator from Hornady, attached to my digital calipers. This comparator, with the proper caliber-specific insert, gives me a more consistent reading than just the flat tips of the calipers, by ensuring that I am measuring on the same place on each round for a very consistent OAL. The comparator, paired with the OAL gauge gives you amazingly reliable measurements each and every round.
I then, once again, weigh my completed rounds and anything wildly out of spec goes in the Pumpkin Pile.
I do all of this in stages, first measuring, selecting, and prepping brass; then seating primers and lubing cases, then filling and re-measuring, and finally seating my bullets. But there is an additional crucial stage that many overlook. We have had terrible luck achieving a good crimp with RCBS dies, and hit or miss luck with Hornady with bullets that don’t have an ogive. Because of this, I add a final crimping stage using a Lee Precision Crimping Die, to achieve a solid and precise crimp on each and every round. A good crimp will help prevent bullet setback on chambering as well as ensure consistent chamber pressure. Not having a good crimp is disastrous to accuracy.
For mass producing ammo, I tend be a sloppy reloader, and minor variances are not that big of a deal to me. For precision ammo, I approach it is a craftsman, taking the time to carefully craft each and every round, and disposing of anything that is wildly out of specification. It is a matter of quantity versus quality. With the right tools, and the time and effort, reloading can be a rewarding way to save money in the long run, but in the short term, it is a great way to add knowledge of how ammo and its components operate together to give you improved accuracy. That knowledge translates to better shooting on the range and more meat in the freezer. Good loading and even better shooting.
Look for detailed information on some of the products mentioned in this article, as well as some others in the Reloading Product Roundup article.