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Reloading Metallic Handgun Cartridges (on a Progressive Press)


First, go back and read the section on rifle cartridges to get the basics. This page is built on the presumption that you already know how to reload stuff on a single-stage press and are familiar with terminology and techniques.

If you already know how to load rifle cartridges on a single-stage press, you can load handgun cartridges almost exactly the same way with nothing more than another die set and shellholder. Straight-wall handgun cases usually don't need to be trimmed, but the mouths must usually be expanded to accept the new bullet, and a crimp of some kind - depending on the type of cartridge and weapon - must usually be applied.

Most of the operations for reloading handgun rounds are the same as for rifles, except usually simpler, especially with non-bottleneck cases; therefore this page will be shorter and less detailed than the rifle page. If you're reloading a bottlenecked handgun cartridge, like .357 SIG or 7.62x25 Soviet, you'll almost certainly have to lube the cases and treat them like rifle cases, at least for the brass-reprocessing steps. But, most handgun rounds use a straight-walled case, and these can be resized without lubrication, by using a carbide sizing die:

The super-hard and -smooth tungsten/carbide insert needs no lubrication to squish the brass case back down to an appropriate size & shape. Handgun reloading can be done on the same single-stage press you use for rifle rounds, with little extra tooling beyond the necessary die set. Handgun cases rarely need to be trimmed; this saves a great deal of time and effort. Carbide dies are not available for bottlenecked cartridges, though I believe Dillon offers some (very expensive...) rifle dies with carbide expander balls, so you don't have to lube the inside of the case mouth.

But, suppose you're in your club's monthly steel-plate handgun match - just the qualifying runs may take 50 rounds or more, depending on how long the course is or how good a shot you aren't. You'll be firing dozens of rounds at a time through your rifles; you'll fire hundreds at a time through your handguns. With bulk packs on the market, I don't bother to reload 9x19mm for my P35, though I have done so and have all the tooling necessary. My .357 Magnum revolver was stolen but I keep my sisters supplied for their revolvers with a steel-plate load that I've developed. Instead of the tedious single-stage press, I use a Lee Pro 1000 progressive reloader that was very generously donated by a reader of my journal. This press retails new for about $160 (the absolute least expensive of its kind, like many Lee products, yet still good enough for satisfactory results), and mine arrived with a boxful of additional tooling which has proved useful. Once you have the basics down, having reloaded ammunition on your single-stage press, you should be able to step up to the speed and complexity of a progressive.

As the donor suggested, I don't use mine in the way it was designed; this costs me some time over how the press was intended to be used, but gives me more control and better quality. First, having previously set up the dies and shellholder as described in the rifle section and according to the press instructions (included in the donation, and downloadable free from the maker), I dump the spent cases into the case feeder and run them through:

With most handgun calibers, you want the case mouth to be belled out a little to ease seating of the new bullet. This generally isn't necessary with rifle cartridges, at least modern highpower stuff with jacketed bullets. So in the picture above (for straight-wall cases), the case is first passed through the sizing die, which also punches out the spent primer; then the shell carrier rotates to the next station, which carries the expander die, to bell the mouth. The third station is empty. (Those curious as to how it's supposed to be used can download the instructions for this press from Lee.) With each stroke of the lever, a sized, deprimed, expanded case comes out of the press. Thus I quickly process my brass and prepare it to be tumbled clean, just like rifle brass. (The Lee Auto-Disk powder measure, described below, is designed to use a Lee Powder-Through-Expander die, charging the case with powder at the same time the mouth is belled.)

After tumbling, you must again inspect each flash hole to make sure it is clear of tumbling media. Then new primers can be installed exactly as with rifle cases. Now your handgun brass is fully processed and ready to load. Again, keep your powder secure in it's intended container until needed, get all your stuff together first so you're not leaving things half-done and sitting exposed.

Now, I change the setup of the press, replacing dies in the turret or simply changing turrets; in this instance, for .357 Magnum rounds, I place the seating/crimping die in the last station, then arrange the RCBS powder measure on the stand I built (see details in this journal entry) over the second station:

At this point I put the fully-processed, live-primed brass back into the case-feeder again. Now, for each cartridge, I'm working two levers; the press lever to index the cartridge, and seat & crimp the bullet; and the powder measure lever to charge the case with powder. This press came with a Lee Auto-Disk powder measure and I got it working as intended, linked to the press so powder would be dispensed automatically, but I wasn't pleased with the Lee measure's accuracy and built the stand for the RCBS measure. So it's a little more tedious than the designers intended, it works for me. Finished cartridges tumble out of the press each time the press lever is returned, you just have to FOCUS and don't get distracted while keeping track of two levers, the case feeder, the level of powder in the measure, and the position of each case at each stage.

Bear in mind that the procedure will be different for different brands of progressive presses, and depending on what other equipment you have. In any case, if you know how to load rifle ammunition on a single-stage press, you can load handgun ammunition on the same press with nothing more than another set of dies and a shellholder.

Most progressive presses are designed to be used with a powder measure that is attached to the press in such a way that it is activated as the press is operated; some even have bullet-feed attachments so all you have to do is fill the correct bins and work the lever, and it spits out finished rounds. The Pro 1000 will do this, with the Lee Auto-Disk measure it came with and a bullet-feeder (sold separately & requiring updated dies).

In this instance, I raise & lower the Pro 1000's ram until an empty case is in the second station, under the powder measure I've arranged there. At this point I raise the ram; the measure's output spout is set so it kisses the case mouth, to prevent powder leakage. Leaving the ram raised, I cycle the powder measure's lever (having previously set and checked the measure for the desired weight of the powder being used) to dispense the powder charge into the case. Then, I lower the Pro 1000's ram, which turns the shellholder, rotating the charged case under the seating die and another empty case under the powder measure. (If you work the lever too fast, and depending on how much powder your load uses, centrifugal force from the shell carrier spinning around may toss powder out of the case, which at best will affect your accuracy; bear this in mind while working the lever.)

I have since acquired a different version of the Lee Auto-Disk, the older spring-loaded model, and that works very well, greatly increasing the volume of rounds I can make in a given time. Once everything is set up and adjusted, and the powder charge for that day has been verified by weight for consistency, with the Auto-Disk I can probably load 500 rounds an hour:

Instructions for the Auto-Disk can be downloaded free from Lee.

As soon as the ram comes down and rotates the shellholder with a charged case, I place a bullet over that case, not least to help prevent powder spills and/or contamination. The expanded case mouth allows you to leave the bullet sitting there without falling out, unlike most rifle loads in my experience:

Again, you have to adjust your seating die for the correct depth, and to apply a crimp where needed - generally speaking, revolver cartridges must be crimped, as recoil will turn the cylinder into a multi-chamber bullet-puller like you saw on the first page; and autoloader cartridges should have no more than a taper crimp, as they headspace on the case mouth and a roll crimp may interfere with that.

You have to develop a rythym, a rock-solid process that you do not deviate from, in order to make safe, accurate ammunition on a progressive press. One moment of inattention can get you a round with no powder, or a double charge of powder, or a few other undesireable conditions, any of which can be disastrous in their own ways.

But that's mostly it! Once you get everything set up and get your rythym figured out, you can pump out cartridges as long as the consumables hold out. Again, when you're done, secure your powder in the original (and correct!) container so it doesn't become mixed, spilled, or contaminated with humidity, and always label your loads:

I know what you're thinking: Can a progressive press be used to load rifle cartridges? The answer is Yes, depending on the cartridge and how far you're willing to adjust the press and dies. Using Hornady One Shot spray case lube (as directed!) makes it practical, as the lube dries in a few minutes and allows cases to be fed through the feeder without making a greasy mess. Not all rifle cartridges will fit in all progressive presses; for example, .30-06 is too tall to be processed in the Lee Pro 1000, but .223 works fine. I haven't made any live .223 rounds yet, but I've been processing the brass I've collected at my range, using only the sizing die and the case feeder, tumbling the cases after. With the Auto-Disk installed in the rifle charging die (sold separately) and a seating die in the next station, it should be very simple to mass-produce some rifle cartridges; according to the Lee catalog, shellholders for the the Pro 1000 can be had for .223 Remington (5.56x45mm), .30 Carbine, 7.62x39mm, and related cartridges. The #2 shellplate for .45ACP will in theory work with the .30-06/.308 family, but case length may prevent the press from cycling. Other brands of progressive presses may have more clearance and may be used to process longer rifle rounds. The Pro 1000 can in my experience be configured to progressively size and deprime .308 Winchester (or 7.62x51mm) (make sure you use enough case lube, and bolt the press firmly to a sturdy table!), and depending on your seating die you can seat with it too, but it is not tall enough to allow crimping with either the seating die (which must be adjusted up for clearance, as the seating punch must be adjusted down to reach) or the Lee crimp die, and the Auto-Disk powder measure doesn't have the capacity for full-power loads. However, the powder measure stand described above solves that problem, at the cost of another lever to manipulate. (Crimping can be done separately after. Every reloader should have at least one single-stage press anyway.) Note also that if the .308 Winchester cartridge fits your progressive press, so also will the popular .243, .22-250, and the 7mm-08, .358 Winchester, and others in that family. I've also discovered that the #11 shellplate for the Lee Pro 1000, meant for .44 Magnum and .45 Colt, will also handle .30-30 Winchester, and as .30-30 and .308 are essentially the same length, the casefeeder can also be adjusted for progressive feeding. Using Hornady One Shot case lube greatly speeds up sizing rifle (or bottlenecked handgun) cases under these conditions.

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