Error Free Reloading

By Gary Zinn

Part I - Be Systematic

First, you should know why I wrote this. When I started reloading ammunition, I made some silly goofs. Thankfully these were just frustrating, not potentially dangerous, but they motivated me to devise a step-by-step reloading guide which, followed faithfully, should help make any reloading session trouble free. Perhaps my experiences and the system I have devised will be helpful to other reloaders.

When I began reloading, I did not rush in haphazardly. I had been thinking of reloading ammo for my .308 Winchester deer rifle for some time. I bought a general book on reloading and read it more than once. I also began paying closer attention to articles on reloading in shooting and hunting magazines. Then, I got an itch to own a utility rifle and so I bought a Marlin Model 1894 carbine in .357 Magnum caliber. Shooting this little rifle was all the fun I thought it would be. Now I had two rifles in reloadable calibers, so I decided it was time to get on with it.

I bought three of the major reloading manuals and a reloading video. After digesting these, I settled on how I wanted to approach reloading and the tools I would need. Then I began perusing reloading supply catalogs and prowling local gun shops. I bought a basic set of equipment and components. Now I was ready to reload my first batch of ammo, right? Oops!

With my tools and components in hand, I was eager to get started. (I gotta do something!) I dug out the stock of cases I had saved from .308 factory ammo I had fired and inspected and sorted them. I deprimed the cases with a punch, hand polished them with steel wool, brushed out the inside case mouths with a .30 caliber bronze brush, dressed the mouths and cleaned the primer pockets. Okay so far?

The first goof: The loading press I ordered had just arrived and I had not yet mounted it on my workbench. However, I was anxious to play at my new hobby, so I got out my new hand priming tool, read the instructions, grabbed a handful of cases, a box of primers and primed my first twenty cases. Just as I was seating the last primer I realized these cases were not resized. Oops!

There was nothing for it but to go to the range, feed each case into my rifle, fire off the primers and start over, doing things in proper order this time. This experience had me thinking that I needed to devise a system that would keep me from making another goof, but it was just a thought.

Flash forward: I mounted my press firmly on my workbench, built a shoulder-level shelf above it for my powder measure and scale and successfully reloaded some .308 ammo. Then I wanted to load some 38 Special cartridges for my camp rifle. I prepped the cases, arranged my components, filled my powder measure and adjusted it to throw the proper charge weight. I grabbed a case, put it under the powder measure mouth and worked the lever. When I dropped the lever, the charge of powder poured through the empty primer pocket and onto the shelf. Oops!

I stopped right there. I did not do any more reloading until I had carefully thought everything through and devised the following reloading sequence checklist. The checklist has served me well. I have not made a single careless reloading mistake since I started using it.

Case Lot # _____

# Cases _____

Reloading Sequence Checklist:

    1. Inspect cases

    2. Deprime

    3. Clean cases

    4. Resize _____

    5. Inspect (gauge) Case length _____

    [5a. Trim if necessary]

    6. Clean primer pockets; dress case mouths

    [7. Flare case mouths (pistol cases)]

    8. Prime _____

    9. Load: Powder _____, Bullet _____, OAL _____

    10. Inspect (gauge)

Case Lot # _____

# Loaded Rounds _____

First, note steps 1, 5, and 10. I learned from the books I studied and have confirmed by my own experience that the key to building safe and functional reloads is inspection, inspection and more inspection.

Step 1 is simply an overall inspection of each fired case. Look for any signs of damage to the case rim, head, body, or neck, which may have come from excessive chamber pressure, general wear and tear, or vagrant mechanical damage. For instance, when doing this first inspection of a batch of cases I had loaded and fired in an incremental powder charge work up, I found a case with a slightly crushed upper body and shoulder. I discarded it, of course, but I wondered how this happened. Later I remembered that when picking up the cases in question after I had fired them, I had stepped on something. I believe I stepped on that case.

Any reloading book worth owning will have a chapter devoted to a detailed discussion of case inspection, emphasizing case conditions that are potentially dangerous. Study this material thoroughly before you begin.

Step 2, deprime cases: I decided that I wished to deprime my fired cases before beginning to rework them. Accordingly, I use a universal depriming die, which does a quick job.

Step 3, clean cases: I did not reload large batches of cases at first, so I did not invest in a tumbler. Instead, I simply cleaned and polished each case with 000 steel wool and brushed out the case necks with a bore cleaning brush of the case caliber. This does not take very long with a small number of cases. Also, handling each case in this step yields an automatic visual inspection, which reinforces the initial inspection. However, I soon got into reloading larger batches of pistol ammo, which quickly justified adding a case tumbler to my reloading bench.

Step 4, resize cases: If you are familiar with the basic reloading process there is not much I need to explain here. Generally, I prefer to neck size the cases for my .308 Win. rifle, since these reloads will be used only in that rifle. Accordingly, when I bought .308 Win. dies I bought a Lee Deluxe Die Set, which included both full-length and neck sizing dies. With these I can size either way. That is why the blank is provided by this step in the checklist: I write in "N" if I neck size the cases and "F" if I full-length resize.

Step 5, inspect (gauge) cases: There are two critical sub-steps here. First, I randomly check about twenty percent of the lot of cases with a dial caliper. I measure total case length and if any of the cases are too long, this indicates a need to trim the whole lot back to a uniform, safe length (see step 5a, below). Note that a blank is provided to record case lengths.

Not every reloading book you read will mention the second gauging step I will describe here, but I have found from experience that it is quite useful. A cartridge gauge is a cylinder bored out so that a properly sized case of a particular caliber will fit inside it perfectly. By dropping each case into this cartridge gauge, you can immediately confirm that the case diameter, headspace, and total length are correct. Follow the instructions for reading the gauge and you should be able to quickly identify any case whose critical dimensions are suspect in any way. You will need a separate gauge for each caliber you load, but they only cost a few dollars each.

Step 5a, trim cases if necessary: There are several trimming tools available, so it is individual preference regarding which one to purchase. If you need to trim any cases in a lot, then trim all of them uniformly.

Step 6, clean primer pockets and dress case mouths: Any reloading book explains the logic of doing these simple operations and several brands of very similar tools are available. (I use the term "dress" to denote an operation more fully called chamfering and deburring case mouths.)

Step 7, flare case mouths (pistol cases): Straight-walled cases (almost all pistol calibers and a few rifle calibers) must be slightly flared at the mouth to accept the bullet for seating. All die sets for such calibers include a die for doing this; follow the instructions supplied with the dies.

Step 8, prime cases: A blank is provided to record the primer used in the loading. I use a hand priming tool for convenience, speed and precision in seating primers. The tool features a tray into which many primers can be dumped together and then shaken, one by one, onto the top of a thumb or finger operated priming plunger.

Step 9, load cases: Note that here I have provided blanks for writing in data on the powder used (brand, type, and charge weight), bullet (brand, type, and weight) and overall cartridge length (OAL) to which the bullet will be seated. Again, any reloading book will describe the process of powder charging and bullet seating in detail.

Step 10, inspect (gauge): Please do not stop when you've finished step 9. I believe that a final inspection of each loaded round is not to be bypassed. Take each cartridge in turn and (1) Look it over, paying particular attention to the neck area. Is the bullet seated straight? Is there any deformation of the case neck from a bullet somehow being improperly seated, or any hint of a crack in the case neck from the expansion force of seating the bullet? (2) Recheck that the primer is seated just below flush with the case head. Any cartridge which fails this check must be laid aside to be unloaded (use a bullet puller). NEVER attempt to reseat a protruding primer in a loaded round, the potential disaster that might ensue is not to be visualized.

Use your dial caliper to check a random sample of the lot of cartridges for correct overall length. This should not reveal any problems if you did the bullet seating operation properly, but seating dies can slip out of adjustment.

Remember the cartridge gauge I described in step 5? Hunt it up and drop each cartridge into it one more time. I did this as an afterthought with the first batch of once-fired .308 cases I loaded and I'm glad I did. The gauge revealed that the heads of two (in a lot of thirty) cases protruded ever so slightly above the top of the cylinder, but on one side only.

I removed these from the lot, unloaded them and fired off the primers, and then (in the interest of science) used a hacksaw to cut them in two lengthwise. I found that the webs of these two cases were thicker on one side than the other. I suspect that when they were first fired the chamber pressure twisted the case heads slightly toward the thinner side of the web. If I had not caught this, these two rounds might have, at least, given difficulty when I attempted to chamber them or in extracting them after firing.

Worse, they might have ruptured on the weak side during firing; this would not be good! I do not know how these two cases happened. I rechecked every other round in the lot very carefully and no others showed this condition. The two boxes of factory ammo from which all these cases came were stamped with the same manufacturer's lot number. I also do not know how I missed this problem when I gauged these cases in step 5. The point is that my final check caught the problem and so I was saved from the risk of an aggravation or maybe even a disaster.

There are two other items on the checklist that bear explanation. These are the lot and number-of-cases blanks at the top and bottom of the list. These blanks appear twice because (1) there is a chance that some cases may be culled during the reloading process and (2) I use personal lot numbers for my cases with added codes that contain information that changes during the loading process. Thus the complete lot number string will be different at the end of a reloading from what it was at the beginning. This is explained fully in Part II of this article.

Please understand that this checklist is not a complete or adequate reloading record. It is just what I titled it, a checklist designed to assure that the essential steps in reloading are followed in proper order and that nothing is overlooked. My approach to making complete reloading records and how these coordinate with the checklist is detailed in Part II.

Part II - Keep Records

The Reloading Sequence Checklist I described is a systematic, documented approach to undertaking the sequence of steps in reloading ammunition. I will now discuss a second form of documentation, the Reloading Session Record, which is also essential. The record shown is for an actual lot of ammunition I reloaded in 1999. Its interpretation follows.

Reloading Session Record:


    Lot 308R302 - N1

    # Cases = 37

    Fired: twice

    (F1) Full-length resized (Lee die)

    Case length = 2.009 - 2.011 (no trim needed)

    1/30/99 Loaded 36 rounds

    Primer: WLR (NAL362G)

    Powder: Win. 748 (LA1573A) 47.3 grains

    Bullet: Nosler 150 gr. Ballistic Tip (K-06-31)

    OAL: 2.780"

    Notes: 1 case culled (step 5), dented shoulder. Previously tested load; these rounds loaded for hunting. Load from Lee manual: 47.3 gr. W748 = max. load (48.5 gr.) less 2.5%

    Lot 308R302 - N1F1, 36 loaded rounds

First, the lot designation at the top of the record means this is a lot of .308 Winchester caliber (308), Remington cases (R), this is my third lot of Remington brass (3), and these cases have been fired twice (02). The N1 means that these cases have been neck sized once. Understand that this is my lot designation for this group of cases, but I also have their pedigree. They originated as two boxes of Remington factory ammo, manufacturer lot A24UC2406. This information is noted at the top of the record page on which I recorded the original establishment of this lot after firing the factory ammo.

Incidentally, the code for this lot at that point was simply 308R301, but after being reloaded (with neck sizing only) the code became 308R301 - N1. Then, when I fired these reloads, the lot immediately became 308R302 - N1, and the date at the top of the record (11/28/98) is the date when I fired the last of them. Understand?

The next line notes that there are 37 cases in the lot and verifies that they have been fired twice. Next, I recorded that I full-length resized the cases, noting the die used. The post-sized case length range is recorded, with the note that these cases do not need to be trimmed. Notice that a code (F1), which denotes full-length resizing, is entered in the left margin at this point; this will be added to the lot code at the bottom of the page.

Next is the date when I reloaded these cases (1/30/99), with specification of the primer, powder and bullet used. The bracketed codes on the primer, powder and bullet lines are the manufacturer lot numbers for these components. Finally, I noted the overall length (OAL) to which the bullets were seated.

The first sentence in the "Notes" section records that I culled one case with a dented shoulder during the post-resizing inspection. I always write down why any cases were culled. Also, whenever I cull a case, I immediately recheck all other cases in the lot I am working for the specific condition that caused me to reject that one.

The second sentence in the "Notes" section is self explanatory. Next, I note the manual I used as a guide for this load and that the powder charge is 2.5% below the maximum load specified in the manual for this caliber/powder/bullet combination. The percentage that a particular load is below maximum is, to me, a general indicator of how hot it is. I wanted crisp, but not hog-scalding, velocity for the intended purpose of these rounds (medium range deer hunting) and I build loads for consistent accuracy with a powder charge that approaches the maximum, without necessarily reaching it. A charge of 47.3 grains of W748 was the sweet spot charge in this case.

Now, we have arrived at the bottom line, which says that this ammunition is now lot 308R302 - N1F1, containing 36 rounds.

Some readers may be wondering two things: Does the reloading session record need to be so detailed, and (2) isn't your personal lot coding kind of complicated?

My answer to the first question is emphatically: Yes, you should keep a detailed record. It may be possible to include excessive or unnecessary information in a reloading record, but you will have to work at it. If in doubt about the importance of this, read up on record keeping in any of the better reloading books. The Lyman Reloading Handbook is especially instructive on this point.

Regarding the second question, let me review what my coding system tells anyone who understands the language. The code just developed, lot 308R302 - N1F1, clearly says: This ammo is .308 Win. caliber, in Remington brass, third lot, fired twice, neck sized and full-length resized once each. With the code, I can tell all of this at a glance.

By the way, there is just one more bit of information that I add to this coding, when relevant. This is case trimming (T#). If I had trimmed the lot of cases above, they would have received a T1 code and the complete lot code after reloading would have been 308R302 - N1F1T1.

There is one final item I include on the reloading session record. When I am making up a box label for a lot of reloads, I make an exact duplicate and stick it onto the record sheet. That way, if I ever need to check back from a box of reloads to its session record, there is virtually no chance that I will read the wrong record.

Using the Record and Checklist Together

Neither the reloading record nor the checklist is adequate alone, for they serve different purposes. The checklist helps you keep track of what you\'92re doing as you rework and load a lot of cases, while the record is your complete documentation of what you did.

After I had fired the ammo lot 308R301 - N1 (thereby making it 308R302 - N1), I started both the checklist and record for the new lot designation. I did this by starting a new record page, filling in the date (of firing 308R301 - N1), the new lot number, number of cases and times fired. Then, I took a checklist form and filled in the beginning lot number and number of cases. (I have the checklist form set up two to a page in my computer file and when I print them I cut the pages in two, yielding two checklists.) Finally, I taped the checklist to the back of the record page and marked the box containing the fired cases with their new lot number.

Next, as I did steps 1 through 3 of case reworking, I marked off their completion on the checklist. Coming to step 4, I had already decided that I would build hunting rounds from these cases and so would full-length resize them to assure free cycling in my rifle.

When I was ready to resize, I noted full-length resizing on the record, inserted the code "F" in the blank by step 4 on the checklist and checked off this step when it was completed. Then, I did step 5 and noted the post-sized case lengths on both the record and checklist. I also noted that I culled one case at this point and why. Then I crossed out step 5a (no trimming needed). I completed and checked off step 6 and, of course, bypassed step 7.

Now to make some decisions. From earlier load workups with different charges of W748 powder in two brands of cases (Remington and Winchester), I had determined that 47.3 grains of W748, with Nosler 150 grain ballistic tip bullets and WLR primers, gave very good accuracy in my rifle and was near enough to the maximum charge to give good down range performance.

I filled out all of the remaining entries on the record, except for the loading date and the bottom line. I also filled in the component specifications for steps 8 and 9 on the checklist. Then, as I completed steps 8 and 9, I checked them off and entered the loading date in the record. Finally, I completed step 10, inspection of the loaded rounds, and filled in the final lot code and number of rounds on both forms.

There is one more thing to do. I filled out duplicate load labels, put one on the box containing the lot of ammo and the other on the record page. The completed checklist assures me that I loaded these rounds properly and the record documents the vital parameters of the loading.

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Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or All rights reserved.