Expanding and Refining a Reloading Setup
By Gary Zinn
This is an addendum to the article Building a Reloading Setup: The Essentials. In that article, I discussed just what the title indicates, which left hanging some points about adding to or upgrading some of the resources and tools included in the basic reloading setup. This article addresses the most important of those points.
Reloading manuals library and on-line resources
Get some reloading guides, manuals and get acquainted with reliable on-line information sources. This should be a high priority for anyone wanting to expand their knowledge and learn new techniques.
By a "reloading guide," I mean a book that explains the hows and whys of different aspects of reloading, but does not include extensive tables of load recipes. There are many of these guides available; here are two that I feel are especially useful.
The Handbook of Reloading Basics (F+W Media, 2014) is an up to date treatment of all aspects of metallic cartridge and shotshell reloading. Roughly half of the book is devoted to each of these two distinct reloading disciplines. The term "basics" in the title is apt, because the various chapters cover essential information about specific key topics, without getting into deep or nonessential detail. In scope, the metallic cartridge loading chapters of this book cover much the same topics as are found in the most current Hornady and Lyman reloading manuals that I recommended in the "Essentials" article. However, the way these topics are treated in this book complements and reinforces the information in those manuals, rather than just repeating it.
The ABCs of Reloading, 9th Edition (F+W Media, 2010) treats all of the essential topics related to reloading in more depth and detail. It is a more advanced read than The Handbook of Reloading Basics and the how-to sections of major reloading manuals. This book also has chapters on black powder and its substitutes, on casting, sizing and lubricating lead bullets, and on a handful of other special topics. This is a book to buy and study as one gains experience and wants to refine skills and fully understand why certain things should or should not be done in the process of reloading.
These and other reloading guides are available through the Gun Digest Store. Most of this literature is available in both print and e-book versions.
Besides the Hornady and Lyman loading manuals I recommended in "Building a Reloading Setup: The Essentials," there are other very useful manuals from major reloading equipment and component manufacturers including Barnes, Lee, Nosler, Sierra, Speer, Swift, A-Frame, Hodgdon and Woodleigh. Each of them brings something a little different or unique to the table. At least buy the manual for every brand of bullet you use.
In addition, the major powder manufacturers all put out print or online versions (or both) of comprehensive load recipes using their powders. I like the online versions of these for two reasons. First, on some of these sites you can specify the exact cartridge and bullet weight you want a recipe for, so you do not have to scroll through a long table of data to find what you want. Also, when a new powder comes to market, the website of whoever makes or markets it is the first place that you can find reliable recipes. I consult the Alliant and Hodgdon reloading data sites the most, because I use a lot of their powders. The Hodgdon site is a huge resource, because Hodgdon, IMR and Winchester brand powders are all marketed by Hodgdon.
I have one heartfelt caution about online load data. Be very skeptical of load recipes posted on shooting blogs and forums. I consider these to be unreliable sources of load data and I will not use them. I explain this more fully in Why I Do Not Publish my Pet Load Recipes.
Now that I have made some suggestions for enhancing your library and filling up your browser bookmarks list, I will turn to some equipment expansions and refinements that you may want to consider after gaining some experience. There are only a few items, I promise. These are based on my own experience and are listed in the order I did or would add them.
Electronic powder scale
Once I began loading several recipes and cartridges, I became frustrated with the slowness of my beam balance powder scale. I bought an entry level electronic scale for about $50 and thought I had it made. However, after some time the scale began misbehaving; it would wander off calibration after several weighings, so I would have to interrupt my powder charging routine to recalibrate it . This got tiresome and I came to distrust the scale. I replaced it with a RCBS model that has proven dependable. It cost about $80. RCBS has since upgraded this scale and it now sells for about $120.
I went shopping for a currently marketed scale that would closely duplicate the features and price of my RCBS. The best bet I found is the Frankford Arsenal Platinum Series scale at $82. Although it is a new product without a documented track record, I think it is the best buy in an electronic scale for under $100. Frankford Arsenal is a MidwayUSA house brand, which is good if one buys one of these scales and it does not perform. I say this because my experience is that MidwayUSA is very good about standing behind their products.
I still have my original Lee beam scale, as a backup. Any electronic device can malfunction and will usually do so at an inconvenient time.
(Note: We strongly recommend buying a combination electronic powder scale and powder measure. Two good examples we have reviewed are made by RCBS and Lyman. See the reviews on the Reloading Information page. -Editor)
Lyman universal carbide case trimmer
Once I got into volume reloading, I encountered the need to trim large numbers of cases. Doing this with my entry level Lee trimmer was inefficient, so I bought a Lyman case trimmer. I like this one because it has a universal chuck for holding the cases, a complete set of pilots that cover all calibers between .22 and .45, and is precisely adjustable.
The manual (hand cranked) model is totally sufficient for my needs. The model with the carbide cutting head is $104 and the identical tool with steel cutter sells for about $20 less. I recommend the carbide cutter version; it cuts quicker and the cutter head will last much longer.
At the time I bought my Lyman trimmer it was a best buy for the features it had. Currently, Hornady and RCBS offer very similar products at comparable prices.
O-frame single stage press
My first loading press was an entry-level O-frame model made by Lee. It served me well for a time, but then it broke. The problem was that the operating handle was made of cast aluminum, and the linkages between the frame and handle were loosely attached. This allowed the handle to twist slightly when the press was used and eventually the aluminum handle cracked. Not cool. Incidentally, Lee discontinued that model at about the time of my misadventure.
After some research and comparison shopping, I replaced that press with a Redding Boss model. It is rock solid and I expect it to outlast me. All of the major reloading equipment firms make solid, virtually indestructible, O-frame presses, ranging from the Lee Classic at about $110 (this is not like the Lee press that broke on me) to the Redding Boss at about $140. Any of the presses in this general price range, with cast iron or steel frames, are totally adequate for any task short of loading 50 BMG or crushing ball bearings. They can also do double duty as small boat anchors.
Why add an O-frame press to the reloading setup? I always use this press for resizing rifle cartridges, for its solidity and to avoid strain on my turret press. (I resize and reload pistol cases with the turret press and generally seat and crimp rifle bullets in it, as well.) I have not actually gotten into resizing rifle cases to a different caliber, but if I had a surplus of .308 Winchester brass that I wanted to convert to use in my .260 Remington rifle, for instance, the O-frame press would be a better tool for the job than the turret press. I believe an O-frame press is essential to a complete reloading setup, especially if one loads a lot of rifle cartridges.
A whole article could be devoted to this topic, but I am not the person to write it, because my experience is limited. I have a handful of specialty dies and the one that I use most is a RCBS X-die for .223 Remington. The X-die is for full-length resizing of rifle cases, incorporating some design magic that resizes without generating as much case neck stretch as is common with conventional rifle sizing dies. I use this die when I am loading a particular recipe that works well in all three of my .223 Remington rifles. I put the die in my O-frame press, resize a hundred cases at a time and get on with my life.
Another specialty die that bears mention is the Lyman Neck Expanding M Die. This die is favored by those who are serious about loading cast bullets in rifle cartridges. It expands the neck of a rifle cartridge in two steps, to both smoothly start and correctly align cast bullets as they are seated. Lyman makes the M die for thirty different cartridges, from .22 to .56 caliber. Many buffalo rifle shooters will not leave home without this die for their .45-70s, or similar rifles.
Redding is arguably the king of specialty dies, so their website or catalog would be the first place I would look for something like a body die, micrometer bullet seating or crimping die, etc. If I needed a special order die for forming cases for an offbeat or obsolete cartridge, I would probably start by seeing what RCBS could do for me.
This topic, like specialty dies, is very open-ended, as there is an unnumbered array of small gizmos on the market that have some reloading use. I will mention just one that I use and like. The Lyman Case Prep Multi Tool has cutter heads that chamfer and deburr case mouths, scrapers for cleaning large and small primer pockets and reamers for removing military primer crimps from both large and small primer pockets. These tool heads mount in the ends of the tubular handle for use and store inside the handle. This is a quality multi-purpose tool that is value priced at $23.
Things I Do Not recommend
Finally, I will mention two things for which I have developed an experience based skepticism. The first is a small item, but the second is a biggie.
Most reloading guides include a powder trickler in the list of must have small tools. I am not a fan. The first one I had was, unknown to me before I learned the hard way, cheap. The hollow tube through which powder is trickled fit loosely through holes in the powder hopper and it was not long before I had powder leaking out around it. In addition, the base was not adequately weighted and I knocked the darn thing over a couple of times.
I replaced that lemon with a much better designed unit, but then ran into further frustrations. One was that I never developed a consistent touch for trickling just the right amount of powder to top off a charge. I almost always overshot my target charge weight. Second, I could never find a way to position the trickler next to my scale in such a way that I could use it easily without bumping it with the powder pan or bail and spilling powder.
Maybe I am just a klutz, but that was my experience. That said, a powder trickler can be had for about $20, so maybe I am making too big a deal of my bad experience with the tool.
Eventually I made my own powder trickler. I took a .30-30 case, with spent primer intact, and glued a 1-1/4 inch fender washer onto the case head to serve as a stable base. When I am starting to charge a batch of cases, I dispense a little of the powder I am using into the cartridge and set it beside my scale. When I need to top off a powder charge on the scale, I pick up my "cartridge trickler" and gently tilt and tap it until powder trickles out. I can do this a granule or two at a time. Maybe I should market this gizmo, along with a how-to video. (A combination electronic powder scale and measure eliminates the need for a powder trickler. -Editor)
I reserve my greatest skepticism for reloading kits. In the interest of full disclosure, this attitude may be colored by the fact that I bought an entry level kit offered by Lee when I started reloading, but its two major components eventually disappointed me. I recounted in "Building a Reloading Setup: The Essentials" that the powder measure that came with that kit proved unsatisfactory when I tried to use it to throw certain types of powder and I mentioned above that the press handle broke. Those were live and learn experiences and what I learned was to look at reloading kits very closely.
I am not saying that one should never buy a reloading kit. Rather, I would advise that the major components of the kit, including the press, powder measure and scale, should be studied closely to determine if they are quality tools that meet your needs and preferences. Look at the smaller items thrown in to determine if you want or need them for the sort of reloading you plan to do. Finally, look at the kit price and determine if it yields a significant saving compared with the cost of the useful items in the package if they were bought individually. The results may surprise.
For the record, MidwayUSA currently catalogs two general purpose loading kits by Lee, one each by Hornady and Lyman and five by RCBS. (One of these is a bare bones or entry level kit, and two are loaded and priced accordingly.)
As one gains knowledge of and experience with reloading, the desire and opportunity to try new techniques and improved or specialized tools will also expand. The knowledge resources and technical tools are available, so it is only the needs, interests and ambitions of the individual that limit what one can do as a reloader.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.