As factory ammunition prices continue to soar, driven by the ever-higher cost of commodity metals, reloading becomes all but mandatory for high-volume shooters. And our interpretation of what constitutes high volume goes lower and lower.
When I was a struggling bullseye shooter in the 1960s, fresh out of the Air Force, I discovered that nobody was going to provide free ammo anymore. I somehow met my needs with an old Lyman True-Line Jr. turret press that I picked up used. Just when I was getting to the point where I was going to have to shoot less, one of the older members of my gun club put his Star Loader, lubricator sizer, Hensley & Gibbs molds, Lyman lead furnace and some accessories up for sale. The Star was a bullseye shooter’s dream and would churn out hundreds of rounds an hour. It was also a Cadillac of presses and cost more than $200 in 1960s’ dollars.
Everything I needed to both load and make bullets for .38 Special and .45 ACP was there. It took awhile, but the debt got paid and that Star loader provided the ammo I needed to train and compete for 20 years or so.
The Star is long gone. Today I rely on the ubiquitous Dillon RL-550, an RCBS Pro 2000 and a Redding Turret press to handle my ammo needs. I’m particularly fond of the Dillon. I’ve replaced quite a bit of reloading equipment over the years as better options have become available, but my original 550–which I have had for what must be close to 30 years–is still going strong and churning out good ammo.
The bottom line with any progressive loader is that you get a finished round of ammo with every stroke of the handle. Of course that means a number of things are happening simultaneously, and of these, priming and powder dispensing are potential trouble spots. Most priming systems used on progressive tools these days are well-refined and trouble-free, but there are still a couple of things that can go wrong.
The first to consider is simply breaking the decapping pin in the sizing die. I’ve been rocking along and suddenly found that I could not seat the new primer. This is one of those big red flags; you have to stop and not try to force things. Inspection revealed that a crimped-in GI primer had not been kicked out and the remains of the decapping pin were in the case.
This can be more than just an aggravation. Someone who tries to pound in that new primer anyhow may be greeted by a loud noise or even a bunch of them. A little secret here: Listen for the sound of the expelled primer landing in the catcher.
I’ve also had a time or two when for unknown reasons the decapping rod simply backed out a little and didn’t kick out the dead primer. When you add an automatic case feeder into the equation, as I recently did to my RL-550, if you get going too fast there is a chance that the case will end up on top of–instead of in–the shell holder and will tip over.
If that happens, the decapping pin is not meant to go through solid brass, and it will bend or break. The prudent reloader keeps an inventory of spare decapping pins and becomes adept at straightening bent decapping rods.
But the most common gripe about progressive loaders deals with powder charges: either none or too many. The act of rotating the shell plate after each stroke is called “indexing” and can either be manual or automatic. Manual indexing tools such as the RL-550B or the RCBS Pro 2000 require the operator to turn the shell plate, whereas auto-indexing tools such as the defunct RCBS Piggyback or Dillon’s XL 650 or Super 1050 do it by some form of cam action.
The obvious issue with manual indexing is that the loader forgets to turn the shell plate and dispenses a double charge or rotates it too far and ends up with a dud. With manual indexing, if you catch the problem you can back up and correct it, but with auto index you usually cannot and must cycle all the way around.
The good news here is that almost all tools now have some means of “knowing” whether or not a case is present, and they disable the powder measure if one isn’t there. The most common method–which originated with Lee–is to simply have the case itself activate the powder measure.
I listen for the sound of the primer, feel the primer seat, watch the powder measure move and look at the finished round as it falls into the bin. But the monotony of repetitive motion can lull you into a mindless rhythm, and if something goes wrong you can load a lot of bad ammo. For this reason I try to load for no more than an hour and then go do something else for a while.
One of the real beauties of most smaller-scale progressive loaders is that they are easily changed from one caliber to another. While many of us start out loading just one cartridge, as the hobby grows–and it will–it is usually easy to add another.
Until somewhat recently, progressive loaders were often said to be suitable only for handgun ammo, but that is no longer true. Many high volume rifle shooters now use them as well. Most modern presses have interchangeable toolheads, and with other dies on a spare head it only takes minutes to change calibers.
The type of loading you do is also a factor. I do two very different types of loading. Most important is the loading I do for work, where I test different charges or powders or some other variation of component.
The other is definitely high volume, to maintain an adequate supply of the fun-shooting ammo I consume regularly. Of those, .45 ACP, .44 Special and .45 Colt are loaded in the greatest quantity, but I also load obscure calibers like .32-20 on a progressive.
No, I don’t consume the latter by the thousands, but I set up the Pro 2000 and crank out a few hundred at a time because I can never predict when I may be struck by the urge to plink with a single-action .32-20. Preparedness is key to the good life.
Great for Experimenting
The convenience of the progressives works for me when I experiment, too. Good practice normally makes me load 10-round strings for load workups, and it is little more trouble to change powder charges every 10 rounds on the progressive than it is with a conventional powder meas
ure. The exception is if it is a load that I am unlikely to keep shooting after the research is done. Then I’ve got the single-stage right there.
If there is an “industry standard” progressive loader it has to be Dillon’s RL-550B, and setting it up for a new caliber is not very time consuming. To do so, I always begin with the correct shell plate (shell holder) installed, and add dies one at a time. I start with the sizing die and adjust it using an empty case or two.
This procedure may end up sacrificing a couple of pieces of brass, but if you don’t make a dummy or two you might start loading bad ammo right away. The best way I know to adjust a sizing die is set it close to the shell plate and make sure the dead primer is knocked out. Then try a sized case in a gauge or gun.
Since Dillon’s next station both expands the neck and charges powder, you have to have an empty case in place to make the adjustment. I keep a bullet handy to use as a gauge to avoid over-expansion. More on this later.
If you’re using Dillon’s dies, there are separate seat and crimp dies, and the best way to adjust them is to simply make a dummy cartridge.
Seating depth is easily adjusted either visually or by measurement, but crimp is usually best done by feel. When doing so, with only one case in the machine you can lower the die gradually and feel when it begins to act on the cartridge. From that point I generally use a gauge or the barrel itself to judge when the round chambers correctly and apply no more crimp than necessary.
Adjusting the powder measure can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be if you use a digital powder scale. They used to be expensive but now can be bought for about the same price as a beam balance scale.
With a digital scale you can “tare” (allow for) the weight of an empty cartridge case, throw a charge into it, and when it goes back on the scale you have an accurate reading of the charge weight. I keep a box with a batch of expanded but not deprimed cases on the bench just for that purpose.
When Dillon came out with a case feeder for the 550B, it was a match made in heaven. With it my production increased dramatically, easily reaching 500 rounds an hour.
The model numbers of Dillon’s machines are loosely correlated to production, and I almost view the faster models–the XL-650 and Super 1050–as commercial machines. For someone who consumes large quantities of a single caliber, they can’t be beat, but they’re not as versatile when it comes to changing calibers as the 550-B.
A significant factor for high-volume loaders is the treatment and storage of brass. While it is unnecessary to have used brass look like new, it is important not to carry grit into the loading tool and dies.
After trying a number of different cleaning methods, I concluded that the system that works best for me is to use two of the smaller tumblers–mine happen to be RCBS–and clean the brass as soon as possible after it is fired.
I go back and forth on which cleaning media to use and frankly can’t tell much difference between corncobs and walnut hulls.
I have mixed feelings about cleaning additives and don’t use them very often. I change media regularly and will add a spoonful or two of mineral spirits when the media is new, just to cut down on dust.
I’ve also tried spraying dirty brass with one of the ammonia-free glass cleaners before tumbling. This does seem to loosen the normal soot on the case and may speed up the process a little. When it’s clean enough I store it in three-pound coffee cans.
I keep two progressives permanently set up on the bench. I use the Dillon for .45 ACP, .44 Special and .45 Colt. The only drawback to the Dillon may be mostly laziness on my part, but changing primer sizes is a real chore.
The RCBS Pro 2000 that sits on the other side of the bench is used for most other handgun cartridges, from .32 S&W Long all the way up to .44-40. It takes no more than a minute to change from small to large primers. Cartridge production is slower than the Dillon but very serviceable.
I’m sure you’ve seen the dramatic increases in the price of ammo over that last year or so, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. All the more reason to look into reloading if you don’t already.
My final tip is to become a smart shopper. There have always been quantity discounts in loading components, and in the face of price increases in the future a few thousand bullets or an extra sleeve of primers may be a good investment.