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This article is for informational purposes only. Suthenboy is not a credentialed expert. Do not attempt any of these activities without first consulting an expert or a manual published by accredited experts or manufacturers.
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In a standard die set the first die is the sizing die. When firing a brass case expands and seals off the gun’s chamber like a gasket. It bounces back after the pressure drops but not all the way back to original size so the first thing to be done is to size it back to specifications. With a straight wall case carbide die this is fairly simple. Screw the die into the press until it touches the shell holder with the press in the up position then back it off about half of a turn. Make sure the pin of the center punch extends past the opening of the die but the stem of the punch does not. Place the case in the shell holder and pull the press handle a full stroke. If you meet solid resistance before the stroke is complete stop and back the die off a little bit. The die will size the case to specs and the center punch in the die will decap (remove the spent primer) the case. Run all of your cases through the die.
With shouldered cases you must first lightly lubricate them. I use a lubed Q-tip to swab the inside of the case neck. I put a drop or so in the palm of my hand then line 6 to 8 cases in the palm of one hand. I put my hands together and rub them back and forth in a hand-warming style motion until the lube is evenly distributed on all of the cases. This method goes pretty fast. Make sure the lube is light or the excess lube will create a ripple like surface on the brass, ruining it. A trace amount is all that is needed.
Some rifle die sets will have two sizing dies, one for sizing the neck and the other for sizing the body, making sizing a two-step process. I prefer the one step dies but I am not a benchrest shooter.
After sizing the cases must be cleaned. As I mentioned the brass case expands during firing and becomes a brass gasket to seal off the chamber. To do this it must expand and grip the walls of the chamber. If there is lube on the case you would have the same effect as if you oiled your brakes. The bolt of the gun cannot hold the pressure. It is not designed to. It is the brass case gripping the walls of the chamber that holds the pressure. If the brass ruptures or cannot grip you may find tens of thousands of pounds of pressure escaping in your direction. This can ruin your day. Clean your cases well.
Various formulations (lead styphnate, antimony sulfide, barium nitrate plus secret ingredients depending on the manufacturer) are used for priming material but the first thing to know about all of them is that they are extremely sensitive to decomposition. The primary explosive in primers must be sensitive enough to ignite upon being struck by the gun’s firing pin. This means these formulations are much less stable than the secondary incindiary material – the gunpowder. You should never touch primers with your fingers. Even trace amounts of oils, water or salt from your fingers can cause the priming material to become inert. Touch a primer and you end up with a dud round or worse, delayed ignition. I keep tweezers on hand at all times to manipulate loose primers. Also, that instability means you should never subject primers to shock or heat. If you have one go off you will be surprised how much bang one of those tiny caps have.
*Priming material is a very powerful explosive. Historically primers were assembled in small, one person sheds surrounded by sandbags. Only women were hired to do this tedious job because women can sit comfortably and focus for long periods of time much easier than narrow hipped men can. Thankfully today they are manufactured in unmanned facilities by remote control.
Make certain that you have the proper primer for your load. Small differences in primer operation make big differences in how the gunpowder burns. Never use magnum primers for standard loads. There are:
Small pistol magnum
Large pistol magnum
Small rifle magnum
Large rifle magnum
Various specialized formulations such as military primers
Again, always make sure your primer matches the load you are making.
Priming tools, either hand squeezed or lever operated, use a small plunger to press the primer into the case’s primer pocket. In both cases very little practice is needed to get the feel of properly seating a primer. I used to sit in front of the television with 500 or 1000 batches of brass and do the operation almost entirely by feel while watching TV. Make sure the mouth of the case is facing away from you, other people, pets and especially from your store of other primers or gunpowder. Press the primer in and then after each one run your finger over the primer to make sure it is properly seated. It should feel just slightly below the base of the case. If it is not in far enough it will cause revolver’s cylinders to jam as the primer will rub against the frame and in rare cases could be set off in semi-autos by being struck by the slide upon feeding. You don’t want to have one go off before it is fully chambered. Make sure they are fully seated.
Another safety tip: If you try to fire a round and you only get a click DO NOT IMMEDIATELY OPEN THE GUN AND REMOVE THE DUD ROUND. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and wait for half a minute or so. It is possible to have a hang fire, that is delayed ignition. Don’t be this guy:
Trimming and Flaring
Cases can stretch with repeated use but with pistol cases I have never found them to stretch excessively. They work harden before that happens. With longer rifle cases the stretching can be greater and affect accuracy. Use your micrometer to check for stretching and either discard or trim cases back to specifications. I have never felt a great need to do this except for some rifle cases. Case trimmers are relatively cheap and easy to use but you can get by without one.
It is worth the investment to buy a universal flaring die but most die sets have a flaring function. You want to flare the case the least amount possible as it will work harden the mouth of the case and after a few uses the mouth can split upon firing.
Put a case in the shell holder and pull your press handle all the way down with no die in it. Now screw the die in and keep screwing until you feel very slight resistance. Turn the die in ¼ to ½ more turn but not so much that it starts moving the press handle. Take the case out and try to put a bullet in the mouth of the case with your fingers. If the base of the bullet clears the mouth of the case you are good. Lock the die in place with the lock ring and run all of your cases through that die. If not then screw the die in ¼ turns and put the case back in the die. Continue doing this until the base of the bullet fits into the mouth without catching on the edge of it. This allows you to seat bullets without crushing the edges of the case mouth.
Charging the cases
Obviously charging the case with gunpowder is the most critical step in the process. Great care must be taken.
I am going to hit the high points here and I will write an article later on just gunpowder. It is a subject with a lot of information and I don’t want anyone lapsing into a coma while trying to slog through it.
Gunpowder does not explode. It burns. Under confinement it burns rapidly. If you pour a little powder out on a safe surface and ignite it will make a sputtering flame for a few seconds. Under pressure or in confinement it burns much more rapidly. Ideally we want the powder to finish burning just as the bullet leaves the muzzle. We don’t want it to finish burning before the bullet leaves the muzzle because that means pressure is dropping and the bullet slowing before it leaves the gun. If it doesn’t finish burning until after the bullet leaves we end up with a lot of muzzle flash and wasted powder.
Powders come in three types: ball, tube and flake. The powder burns on the surface so by changing the surface area/volume the rate of burn can be controlled. Obviously the ball powders are the slowest burners as a sphere has the lowest surface area/volume possible. Their burning rate is adjusted by changing the sizes of the spheres. Next are the tube powders. These grains are tiny tubes and these offer the greatest variability. They have different outside diameters, inside diameters and lengths. The fastest powders, used in shotguns and pistols, are the flake powders. These are tiny little sheets that have the greatest surface area/volume.
Each of these offers different advantages. Ball powders can be measured very accurately because there is little variability in the number of balls that can fit in your measure. Tube powders measure reasonably well but as I have mentioned before the mechanics of your powder dispenser may chop some of the tubes changing the burning rate of some of the grains. This variability is small enough that the normal shooter wont notice but long range bench rest shooters generally use methods of measure that don’t damage the grains such as powder tricklers that measure powder by weight instead of volume. Flake powders are the most difficult to measure accurately but since they are used in pistol and shotgun (short range) this doesn’t present much of a problem.
If you are measuring powder with a dipper… pour about a half of a pound of powder into a glass bowl that does not have corners inside. When scooping the powder with the dipper you want to start at one side of the bowl and make a sweeping motion from one side of the bowl along the inside surface all the way to the other side keeping contact with the bowl the whole time. Try to scoop using the same motion and speed each time. Set your scale for the desired amount of powder and then measure about five consecutive scoops and see how consistent the amounts are and how close they are to your desired amount. If a scoop comes up heaping with powder put it back in the bowl. Don’t try to adjust a scoop by leveling powder off of the top or adding to it. Consistent motion equals consistent measure. If you let the amount of the powder in the bowl get too low it will start scooping differently so keep the amount of powder in the bowl consistent.
With powder dispensers put about half of a pound of powder in the hopper. Set the can of powder with the lid on it near the powder dispenser. Make sure it is the only can of powder on the table. Do not move that can until you are finished dispensing and you have poured the hopper back into the can.
I say again: SET THE CAN OF POWDER NEAR THE DISPENSER, MAKE SURE IT IS THE ONLY CAN ON THE TABLE AND DO NOT PUT THAT CAN AWAY UNTIL ALL OF THE EXTRA POWDER IS BACK IN THE CAN. This way if you take a break or leave powder in the hopper for next time you will always know exactly what powder is in the hopper. If you fail to do this never try to remember or guess which powder is in the hopper. You will have to dispose of it. I know someone who did this. He guessed it was Unique powder, it turned out to be Bullseye, a much faster powder. He blew his gun up and escaped injury by the skin of his teeth.
Set your scale for the desired amount. Set your dispenser over the amount you are aiming for. Dispense one charge and weight it. Adjust your dispenser down and weight again. Keep doing this until you hit the target load. Firmly set the charger adjustment with the lock ring or set screw. Now dispense about five charges and weigh each one. If it consistently hits within one to two tenths of a grain of the target load you are ready to go.
Charge each case and set them in the loading block as you go.
When you are finished all of the cases in the loading block will be standing close together and upright. As with the dipper method try to keep your hopper filled consistently. Don’t run it dry or near the end it will measure differently.
STAND UP AND LOOK DIRECTLY DOWN INTO THE MOUTHS OF ALL OF THE CASES. USE A FLASHLIGHT AND SHINE IT DOWN SO THAT YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE ALL OF THE POWDER IN THE CASES. If one of the cases didn’t charge, got double charged or has more than the slightest variation in charge it will jump right out at you. You will see it easily. Pour that charge back into the hopper and recharge it.
Now randomly choose three to five charges from one end of the loading block to the other and weigh them. Pour the weighed charges back into the hopper and recharge the cases. Check again with the flashlight.
You are now ready to start seating bullets.
*A revolver round that does not get charged is very dangerous. The power of the primer is enough to push the bullet partway down the barrel. If you are firing rapidly it is possible that you may fire another round while that bullet is lodged in the barrel. This will result in a catastrophic failure of your gun and likely serious injury or death for you. In a semi-auto of course the gun wont feed and you will know something is seriously wrong.
Use the flashlight method when charging. Make safety your religion.
While your cases are still in the loading block use your fingers to press a bullet base down firmly and as straight as you can into each case. Because the cases are flared this should be an easy and quick operation. The bullets should stick enough that they don’t wobble around and fall out when you handle the cases. Be careful not to jostle things around or powder could splash from one case to another – firm flat surface and press straight down. Any jostling or spilled powder and you must dump them all out and start the charging process over.
The seating die will both seat the bullet and crimp the case around it. Adjusting both of its functions can be a difficult puzzle so I will give you the key.
1. Put one of the cases with a bullet in the mouth into the press with no die and pull the handle all the way down.
2. On the top of the die unscrew the seating adjustment most of the way out.
3. Screw the die in the press until it goes down most of the way over the case but you still feel no resistance.
4. On the top of the die screw the seating adjustment down until you feel it contact the bullet.
5. Pull the press handle up a bit and then screw the seating adjustment down 4 or 5 turns.
6. Pull the press handle down all the way. You will feel it begin to press the bullet into the case.
7. Raise the press handle again and see how far you pressed the bullet in.
8. Repeat this process several times and use your micrometer if you need to to measure the loaded round until it is at proper seating depth. If your bullet has a cannelure or a crimp groove this is easy to do by eye. The bullet should be seated to the proper depth but you can still see the case mouth flared around the bullet.
9. Unscrew the seating adjustment most of the way out then pull the press handle all the way down.
10. Screw the die down until you feel resistance. That resistance is the crimping ring inside the die contacting the case.
11. Move the press handle up a bit and screw the die in ¼ to ½ turn and then press the case back into it. Then examine the case. Continue this until you observer a firm crimp around the bullet but not enough to crush it.
12. You are now at proper crimping depth but the seating adjustment is not contacting the bullet. Lock the die in place using it’s lock ring.
13. With the cartridge still in the die screw the seating adjustment down until you feel it contact the bullet. Make sure it is screwed down firmly and then using it’s lock ring lock it in place.
Your die is now properly adjusted and you can go to town. Run all of the cases through the die examining each as it comes out. Congratulations! you have just loaded a batch of safe, reliable ammunition at a small fraction of the cost of off of the shelf centerfire ammunition.
*Gunpowder burn rate is strongly affected by amount of confinement. If you seat the bullets too deeply it will cause the powder to burn more quickly, raising pressure. Get yourself one of these: https://www.midwayusa.com/product/685703/rcbs-powr-pull-impact-bullet-puller-kit
Occasionally while adjusting your seating die you may over-seat one and need to remove it. That little gem will take it back out for you without damaging the bullet.
*When you are loading if you become tired, stop. You must be attentive and focused throughout the process. Don’t push it. This is not an emergency and the stuff wont run away. It will be there when you are rested and ready to load again.
Next up: components
If you are still awake, jump into the comments.
Bonus: Hatcher’s Notebook is hands down the best technical book on ballistics ever written. It is in the public domain and you can download it as a free .pdf from Glibs, or acquire it in other formats here.