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Here are the dies I won, which in early 2004 had a retail value of $26.88. They were brand-new in shrink-wrap and came with instructions. In the photo, in the foreground is the sizing/decapping die, and in the background, the seating/crimping die:
Used dies can be found at any gun show for much less, and they last for generations. (My Wells .30-06 dies may have been made before I was born.) But this isn't enough to start reloading. You need a press to put the dies in. Here's my single-stage press, which I use for reloading rifle cartridges, and which can also be used for handgun cartridges. It's an old RCBS JR2 and was given to me by my friend Cruffler, who said he paid $15 for it. A similar press can be found at most gun shows for well under $50 (sometimes closer to $20), while a brand-new press of this type retails for $70 or more (the spent-primer bin was found in a gun store's clearance pile for, like, a buck):
But that's still not enough equipment. You also need a shellholder for each cartridge or family of cartridges. Shellholders have long since been (mostly) standardized and are (mostly) interchangeable between different brands of presses, though each brand has a different numbering system - here is a cross-reference chart for industry-standard shellholders. Lee brand dies usually come with the shellholder, but most other brands sell them separately. Here's one of the most useful shellholders, which handles the entire .30-06 family (.308, .270, .243, etc., etc.), most of the Mauser rifle cartridges, and the immortal .45ACP pistol cartridge:
Now you have enough stuff to process the spent cases at least. So you have some dies, and a press, and some empty brass. Now what? First, you have to set up the die in the press. New dies also must usually be cleaned and their protective shipping goop removed inside and out; it's also a good idea to clean used dies (and to inspect them thoroughly before purchase).
When reassembling the die after cleaning, you'll want the decapping pin, which punches out the spent primer, to stick out as far as possible, without letting the neck expander protrude from the die body, so the expander ball won't hit the inside of the case when the press is at full stroke. Then, for most metallic cases, the usual method is to adjust the sizing die and it's locking ring in the press until the base of the die just kisses the top of the shellholder when the ram is at it's highest point:
(It is of course important that you're using the correct dies for the spent cases you have:)
I always use full-length sizing dies. Some people will use neck-sizing dies, which require less effort and may not require lubricant, but that's more precise and fussy than I feel I need in my reloading - furthermore, my 7.62x54R loads are for my own carbine and my sister's M91/30 rifle, while neck sizing is intended only for cases that will be reused in the same firearm, meaning the same chamber, they came out of. One point I learned recently in favor of neck sizing is that it minimizes the amount of trimming that must be done, as it minimizes the elongation of the case, reducing the possibility of case-head separation (see below). Generally, any cartridge to be used in an autoloader must be full-length sized. In some instances a special small-base sizing die must be used to ensure proper feeding in an autoloader; I've had no trouble with my Garand, with rounds sized with the old Wells full-length dies I found at a show for $10.
Different brands of dies have different features. I've tried RCBS, Lee, Hornady, and old discontinued Wells dies, and each has pros and cons. The Hornady New Dimension dies have a bullet-centering guide to help seat bullets, and wrench flats to help installation and removal from the press. Lee dies are more easily installed & removed by hand, using a different kind of locking ring, and the neck expander has a very long taper that doesn't always require inside-neck lubrication. RCBS dies are probably the least advanced, using old traditional construction, but they're everywhere and can be ordered in many obsolete calibers, like the Japanese service cartridges. Further, some dies are easier to adjust than others, requiring everything from simple finger pressure to three hands, two pairs of pliers, and a wrench. I don't endorse any particular brand of die, they all work.
There are several case-sizing lubricants on the market; most of them are expensive. I use, on Cruffler's suggestion, some oil treatment goop that can be found in some dollar stores. I put the goop on an old sock, and on a cotton swab. The inside of the case mouth must also be lubed so it doesn't bind on the neck-expander. And yes, the case must be lubed or it will stick in the die, requiring extra tools, a great deal of effort, and/or sending the die back to the maker, to remove. After lubing the inside of the mouth, I smear the case in the gooped sock:
Then I place the case in the shellholder (which snaps right into the ram on standard presses), and ram it into the sizing die. (Keep fingers clear, duh.) More lube, less force required; too much lube and the lube itself will dent the case inside the die. Trial and error. I've never yet used too much lube but I often don't use enough.
In December 2006 I finally tried Hornady One-Shot spray case lube and I am an instant convert. It's expensive but holy smoke it works. Use as directed: stand cases in a loading block, mouths up, and hose 'em, at an angle so the lube also enters the case mouths. And that's it. On the common MTM plastic loading block, I use the back side, intended for .45ACP cases, for my rifle cases, to get maximum exposure to the spray. Shoulda had this stuff long ago.
Note the second photo above - there's a little space between the bottom of the die and the top of the shellholder. An advanced reloader might want this there, to size a case specifically for a particular chamber, possibly with excessive headspace. A beginner, or one who is loading rounds for more than one individual firearm, or loading for an autoloading design like the Garand, should eliminate it. If you set up the die so it kisses the shellholder when the ram is fully extended, without a case in the shellholder, you'll probably see this gap with a case, due to small variances and elasticity in the ram-handle-frame linkage, which only show up under the mechanical pressure of sizing an actual case. For my purposes, I have since adjusted my sizing dies down to eliminate this gap. This may decrease my case life, as they'll be sized to a greater extent each time, but for my purposes I'll live with that.
Thus you build up your arm muscles:
After sizing each case I drop it directly into my case tumbler. This is a Frankord Arsenal model, their smallest, which retails for about $45 new and can hold at least a hundred highpower rifle cases (i.e.. .30-06, 7.92x57mm, 7.62x54R), or several hundred handgun cases (.357 Magnum, .45ACP, 9x19mm, etc). Presently it's filled with Lyman crushed corncob tumbling media. Reportedly some (much-cheaper) brands of cat litter will also serve. These tumblers are in some cases little different from rock tumblers, and if you have an old agate-polisher gathering dust in the attic, it might serve:
When I have a useful amount of brass in the tumbler, I run it. I have my tumbler plugged into an appliance timer, set to switch on for three hours while I'm away at work; I come back to the apartment to nice shiny brass. But how do you get the brass out of the tumbling media? You could, and I used to, fish for each case, groping around in the stuff, but that gets boring quick. I ordered a Frankford Arsenal media separator, which fits a standard five-gallon bucket. Set the separator in the bucket, remove the tumbler bowl and dump the whole thing into the separator. Shake it some and most of the media drops down into the bucket:
You'll still have media inside each case of course, but it's a simple matter to pour it out. Now, a very important point: you must inspect the flash hole of each case to be sure it is clear! Additionally, for rifle cases, I also brush out the primer pocket with an RCBS tool (handgun reloading (on a separate page) is usually so high-volume - hundreds of rounds at a time - that this last step is more effort than it's worth, but the RCBS tool does come with both Large and Small primer pocket brushes, which screw into the handle).
While you're doing this, also inspect each case for damage, especially cracks, splits, holes, etc:
Now the brass has been sized, tumbled clean, and the flash holes cleared. At this point I usually trim all my rifle brass, whether it really needs it or not. But whether or not it needs trimming, you should check the length of your brass at this point:
Under the pressure of firing, the brass cartridge case will stretch and flow and elongate. Eventually it will become too long to safely chamber in the weapon. The load manuals will show the proper dimensions for each case, including the maximum allowable case length and the recommended trim-to length. I'm now in the habit of setting my case trimmer for the particular cartridge I'm reloading and running all my reprocessed rifle brass through it, on principle (handgun brass generally doesn't need to be trimmed). My trimmer is an old Forster, found at a show for $25, with two collets (for gripping the case head) and four pilots (for centering the case mouth over the trimmer blades). A set of calipers (mine are digital, received as a Christmas gift - they can be had many places for as low as $20 - older-fashioned dial calipers are more expensive, but not battery-dependent) is another necessary tool. The Mauser case above does not need trimming - but it hasn't been resized yet, and the resizing process may also change the length.
Another way to trim brass is with a trim die installed in the press - excess brass sticks out the top of the die and you file it off. I think a trimmer like this Forster is a much better solution, and one trimmer handles many different cartridges.
As you can see, I trim a lot. Now, note the pointy thing at the bottom of the first trimmer photo above. That's a deburring/chamfering tool, which I got used for about five bucks. After trimming, there will be some flash, some thin brass on either side of the case mouth wall. This must be removed. Removing this from the inside gives the added advantage of beveling the case mouth to make it easier to seat the new bullet:
Now, there are easier ways to do this. Power can be applied. Power trimmers and case-prep stations can be had, but they're expensive; a really affordable option is again from Lee. They sell cartridge-specific case-length gauge pins and proprietary shellholders, and a separate cutting head which works with that family of products. The cutter and shellholder-holder is about $15; the gauge and shellholder are another $6 or so for each cartridge. The cutter is also available with a large wooden ball to grasp by hand, and the base, onto which the shellholder is threaded to grip the cartridge, comes in a couple different versions, for hand use or to be chucked into a power drill. (Cordless drill/drivers can be had under $20 now - you probably already have one anyway.) The big box of tooling I received with the donated Pro 1000 progressive press included everything necessary for power-trimming .223 Remington cases, and here's how it works. You can also do this by hand, but that gets quite tedious:
First, the case length gauge is threaded into the cutter, until the gauge's square base bottoms against the cutter blades.
The threads are tight in my experience, which is good, because once adjusted for the exact length you want, the gauge will stay put in the cutter. I had to grip the gauge with pliers to turn it in the cutter. The idea is that the pin goes through the flash hole and bottoms against the flat face of the piece you thread the shellholder onto. When you start, the pin will not come out all the way; turn the cutter while pressing, and it will stop cutting when the pin reaches that flat face. No fine adjustments needed; the gauge is just the right length.
Now, the gauge comes with the appropriate shellholder, which threads onto the gripper base. One version has a knurled end so you can turn the case against the cutter by hand, but the one donated to me was, fortunately, the 1/4" hex type, which will fit common multi-bit (including magnetic of course) tools, and which will easily chuck into a drill:
Once that's set up, insert the gauge down inside the case, making sure that the pin goes through the flash hole to bottom against the shellholder base. Then apply power:
While the case is still in the holder, you can also spin it against the chamfer/deburr tool, but at this point it's really easy to remove more material than you intend, so be careful! Find some oddball cases, non-matching headstamps or the like, to experiment on first, before applying any of this to cases you really want.
Once you get a feel for this, your trimming time will be greatly reduced. Lee also offers a newer three-jaw universal shellholder, with a different base, which centers the case far more reliabily (and faster) than the type shown here, though the length gauges and cutter heads remain the same:
To use the three-jaw, simply insert the base of the case, turn the collar to engage the jaws, then keep turning, screwing the chuck down on its base, until the flat face is pressing the case's rim or extractor groove against the jaws. Then spin & trim.
Now I have created a case-prep station, using two chamfer/deburr tools and the Lee cutter. You can put this in a bench vise, or C-clamp it to a table, or just hold it in your hand:
Worth a thousand words. Scrap wood and a $2.49 hot-glue gun from the craft store. Not the prettiest tool ever created but it works. Load one case in the chuck, guide it down over the length gauge. Spin - trimmed. Move; spin - deburred. Move; spin - chamfered. Done, and you're raking in the surplus Therbligs. Furthermore I have recorded this video of the new prep station in use. Be careful to not use too much pressure on the chamfer and deburr tools; with power applied it's very easy to remove too much material.
Further inspection of each case should be done at this point. Now the brass is fully processed. I like to get all my brass at least this far as soon as possible, so if I need to whip up some rounds in a hurry, there's that much less work to do. The next step is to install a new primer, and here's where you start spending money again; primers are typically a couple bucks per 100, and when I can afford it I buy bricks of 1,000. Depending on what kind of press you've acquired and what condition it's in, it may come with a primer arm. You can use this arm to install primers one at a time:
RCBS presses can mount a tube to dispense primers into this priming arm, speeding up the process some. My press came with the mounting block for the tubes, but not the tubes themselves; later I acquired one. The tubes are made for either Large or Small primers, and either fits the same block, though you have to change to the appropriate primer punch on the press' priming arm.
I note that the really-cheap Lee single-stage press has no provision for priming cases on the press (unless you get the Lee Auto-Prime II, which mounts to the press like a die) - but I saw such a Lee press at my club's annual swap meet marked $10, and it sold for $8. I only use the press for priming for 7.62x54R and 7.62x39mm, because I don't have shellholders for those cartridges for the Lee Auto-Prime handheld tool I use for everything else:
A handheld tool, like this inexpensive Lee, makes priming your cases much faster and easier. The Lee tool shown here, however, requires proprietary shellholders, sold separately. RCBS makes a comparable handheld tool, which is more expensive - but also more solidly built, and which uses the same standard shellholders you use in a single-stage press. This is also yet another chance to inspect cases for wear, damage, or deterioration.
When installing new primers, be sure to use the right size ram for the primer. There are two standard sizes of primers, Large and Small; these are further divided into Rifle and Pistol primers, which are again divided into Standard or Magnum, and different brands, and some brands offer special high-end benchrest or military-style primers for specific applications. The loading manuals will often recommended particular primers. Check each primer as it is seated to be sure it's all the way in, or even a few thousandths below flush - this prevents slam-fires in autoloading firearms and helps insure easy chambering.
Sometimes you'll be using military-surplus brass, and in this the primer pocket is often crimped. The crimp must usually be removed before you can seat a new primer. Some military brass, especially foreign, uses a "three-stab" crimp; this is easy to scrape out with just the chamfer end of the chamfer/deburr tool. But, most American military brass uses a ring crimp:
Sometimes the chamfer tool can remove it but often the primer pocket must be swaged. There are a few products to do this. My choice is the RCBS primer pocket swaging combo, which you use in your single-stage press like a die, for about $30. It comes with everything needed to open up both Large (i.e. 7.62x51mm, .30-06) and Small (i.e. 5.56x45mm) primer pockets for reloading:
You only have to do this once per military case of course, then you can reprime henceforth like it was civilian brass - but sometimes you get a really good deal on military brass, and it's nice to have the tool already. A tutorial video on primer pocket swaging is now available on my YouTube channel.
One other note on military brass: it's often thicker, and therefore has a smaller internal volume, than civilian brass. Some of the load manuals mention this and recommend reducing powder charges to keep the pressure down. If you're making near- or maximum loads, this matters. (I usually make lower-power loads, so I don't beat myself up unnecessarily with recoil, or put unneccesary strain on the weapon or the brass.)
All of the above - even priming - can be done a handful at a time over days or even months without ill effects, but from this point on you want to get all your stuff together and make big, consistent batches - at least fifty rounds in a session, and don't dawdle about it: powder is sensitive to temperature, humidity, and who knows what else, so the shorter time it's exposed and the more rounds are made under the same conditions, the better accuracy you'll experience.
Now your brass is ready to load, and you need to buy another tool: a scale. Here's mine, pointed out to me at a show by Cruffler for $15. The exact same model retails for over $50 new.
There are lots of powders to choose from, and each has different properties. Using a rifle powder in a handgun cartridge might cause stuck bullets; using a handgun powder in a rifle cartridge will probably cause severe injury. Read those load manuals! Pick a load that gives the kind of performance you want and buy your components to match that load.
Keep your powder secure, that is, in its original container. Don't open the jug until you need it; don't leave powder sitting out exposed as it may absorb humidity and become contaminated. Don't smoke when handling powder, duh. Read the warnings in the manuals and on the containers. Avoid static electricity buildup. Keep your hands and your tools clean & dry. Focus! Only have one jug of powder out at a time. Most important, get all your stuff together and ready before starting a batch.
You don't need a powder measure but you want one. I have a couple of these RCBS Uniflow measures; the one in this picture was found in a clearance bin for $10, a little rusty and missing the reservoir lid. $60-something new. The threads at the base will fit standard presses, just like a die; for a buck or three at a show you can get one of the flat bar things this one's threaded into, for something to easily clamp to a table.
An inexpensive but tedious alternative is the Lee powder measure dipper set. It comes with a bunch of dippers and a sliding chart thing to estimate how many grains of what powder each will hold:
Another good solution is the Lee Auto-Disk measure. It's meant mainly for progressive handgun loading (next page), and it only works with a Lee powder-through die, but it does work. Lee offers adapters to increase the capacity of the charge it throws, all the way up to some lesser highpower rifle loads; and a rifle charging die. Lee handgun-caliber powder-through-expander dies, which the Auto-Disk is designed for, are also sold separately so you can just add one to your existing die set for the cartridge you're loading, without having to buy an entire Lee set. The Auto-Disk, with the appropriate Lee die, can be installed in nearly any press, and with the swivel adapter can be easily removed for adjustment or swapped between such dies. Unfortunately the maximum amount of powder thrown by a single operation of the Auto-Disk, even with the double-disk kit, is less than some rifle loads you might want to make, but if you're not making maximum loads, or you're loading a smaller cartridge like .30-30, 7.62x39mm, or .223, it should work well. Pictured is the original Auto-Disk, which is activated by a case being pressed into it from below, through a Lee die designed to use it:
There is also an Auto-Disk Pro with a ball-chain linkage to attach to the press for the return stroke, instead of a spring. I have one of each and I prefer the model pictured; it's quick and easy to install, remove, adjust, and swap, and so far it's given good accuracy for handgun loads. However, the Pro model has a larger powder reservoir so you can load more rounds without stopping. Both models use the same disks, so the chart that comes with them (or can be downloaded from Lee) to determine charges works with either.
You also need bullets and again there are lots to choose from. You need the right size for your bore, the right weight for your load, and the right type for your application:
A loading block is a great help. Used ones can be found for a couple bucks at nearly any show. If you have a drill and some skill you can make one out of scrap wood. You'll also want a different size of block for different cartridges. The gray plastic one shown here is the common MTM offering, which will accept most common cartridges depending which hole you put them in, from which side, but I had to buy a specific Frankford Arsenal #8 block for the big fat rims of the 7.62x54mmR cartridge.
Okay, everything ready? You need your processed brass, where you can get at it without knocking anything over; your powder, likewise; bullets, ditto; somewhere to put the finished cartridges; and, the press already set up with the appropriate shellholder and seating die. Arrange your workspace! The photos here are carefully clipped to show you as little as possible of my own dangerously-disorganized reloading table.
For this tutorial I'll be loading a batch of 8mm Mauser, with 180gr Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets, in Federal cases with Winchester standard Large Rifle primers, and 44.8gr Winchester W748 spherical powder, a load I developed in April 2006.
I've long since used a powder measure, so that's what I'll illustrate here, but in the past I've used the Lee dippers, with some powder in a coffee mug and the bulk of the powder secure in its closed container. You don't even need the Lee dippers, you can do it with a tablespoon it you have to, but the scale is essential. You must weigh your charges and use loads published in the load books if you expect, at best, an accurate load, and at worst, your weapon to not blow up in your hands. Nor will just any scale do: you need a scale that can measure in tenths of a grain, and there are few that can except actual purpose-made powder scales.
Always zero your scale - set the balance weights to zero and adjust the zeroing screw and/or nuts until the indicator is centered at the zero point. If the scale is new to you, use something, like a bullet, for a check weight, just so you know you're getting a reasonably accurate reading. And don't be afraid to double- or triple-check the scale whenever you feel like it. Here you can see a Nosler 180gr bullet in my scale, and if you look close you can see it's, like, a tenth of a grain heavy:
After using a check weight, set the balances to zero again and make sure the scale returns to zero without adjusting the screw or nuts. Repeat as necessary until you get consistent results.
Now you're ready to start dispensing powder. Pour some into your powder measure, or into a (clean & dry!) coffee mug or bowl for your dippers. Set your scale for the desired weight, dispense powder into the scale's pan, and check the weight. Adjust your measure, or the size of your dipper, accordingly. If you're dipping charges you'll probably have to trickle each charge into the pan while the pan is on the scale, until you reach the desired weight, but if you have a good powder measure, like the RCBS, and a scale you trust, you can set the measure and just throw charges, doublechecking the weight every ten or twenty charges or so. I like to get three consecutive charges within 0.1gr of the desired weight before starting to put powder in cases.
You must re-check your powder measure's setting, by weight, each time you start a new reloading session. Day-by-day changes in temperature, relative humidity, and for all I know the phase of the moon, will change the weight of the powder being thrown; these variables also exist in the factories that make the powder, so one can of powder may not have exactly the same properties as the next can of the same powder. Bear this in mind.
Some powders will flow through a measure better than others. For example, IMR4064 is a very popular rifle powder; I use it in 7.62x54R Mosin loads. But, it's a "stick" powder: the individual granules are shaped like little sticks, and these long sticks will often bind and shear in the RCBS powder measure. I have a Lee plastic powder measure which doesn't bind with this powder, but I'm not pleased with its accuracy. For this powder I end up weighing each charge, then pouring that charge from the scale pan into the cartridge case via the powder funnel. Also, if you're using dippers (or spoons or what-have-you) because you don't have a powder measure, the funnel instantly becomes worth the buck or two you paid for it:
With a loading block, you can throw all the charges for a batch (the common MTM block holds 50 cases), with the added advantage of seeing them all next to each other so you can see they're consistent. Once you get started on a batch, don't stop! Get the whole batch done without interruption or distraction. Plan ahead to have time and space to do this! No kids, spouse, pets, TV, radio, phone, internet, etc. Remember you're making cartridges that will generate tens of thousands of PSI right next to your face. Focus!
Don't change the setting of your powder measure or scale until the whole batch is done! What if you spill one? Then you'd have to set the whole thing up again, while all that other powder you've dispensed is sucking moisture out of the air.
Once you have all the charges for a batch thrown, you can start seating the bullets - but, you can't just put the seating die in the press and expect a perfect cartridge. Back off the seating punch a bunch, so when you first seat the bullet in the first cartridge, it's not seated far enough. Then, carefully, and by small increments, screw the seating punch further in, measuring the cartridge overall length each time, until the seating depth is where you want it. Sometimes the load manuals will recommend an overall length; other times you'll want the bullet seated deeper or shallower for a specific reason, like the confines of your weapon's action, or a super-long specialty bullet for a single-shot, or a shorter, lightweight bullet that you want seated out further to be closer to the beginning of the rifling. Also, be aware of how far down into the case the bullet will protrude - too far and you'll be compressing powder, which will raise firing pressures.
You don't always need to crimp the bullet into the cartridge. For my bolt-action rifles I usually don't; for the .30-06 I load for my M1 Garand, crimping is recommended; for revolvers, crimping is usually required. The resizing process, for most rifle cases, will leave the neck's inside diameter very slightly smaller than the bullet diameter, so the bullet will have a good friction fit. If you want or need to crimp, there are several ways to do it: Lee dies often come with a separate crimp die, and these dies are also sold separately for many cartridges. Most seating dies have a shoulder inside which will crimp the case mouth, depending on how deeply the die body is threaded into the press. If you've purchased new dies, they should come with instructions on how to use this feature; otherwise the process is described in several reloading books.
At the end of each batch, clearly mark the cartridge box with the load data, for your own use and in case someone else has to use this ammunition, so they'll know what they're touching off next to their face. Here you see an ordinary Post-It used for the bare minimum load data, the bullet weight and the powder type & weight. I already know what caliber this is, and anyone else using these cartridges can read the headstamp; I know which primer I used (WLR); I know what the overall length is (3.13") but another user can measure it. The boxes the bullets come in often have little stickers, or at least a slip of printed paper, with blanks to fill in with much more detailed data than this.
Now, with the whole batch done, you can put any leftover powder back in its original container (make sure it's the right container! If you get your powder mixed, just dump it, and you're out $20-$40), and clean up the rest of your work area, put your tools away, etc. Don't leave powder left in the measure, don't leave powder containers open one second longer than necessary.
And you're done! Now go shooting!
But wait! How does this stuff you just made really perform? The book says it goes velocity x, but how does the book know what it will do in your rifle? And, if the stuff you made won't group for nuthin', why? A chronograph can help answer some of these questions. One of the keys to accuracy is consistent velocity. I use the Chrony F1 chronograph, typically about $90; simple, relatively affordable, and effective. I discovered that the velocity figures the books give are often significantly removed from real-world figures. With a chronograph you can also evaluate the consistency of your loads; one of the most likely causes of poor accuracy is an inconsistent powder charge, which will show up through a chronograph as variations in velocity. A chronograph isn't necessary, but if you're after improved accuracy it's very useful.