Thursday, July 21, 2005

The First Step In Handloading

We've gone over all the components of the cartridge, now it's time to think about assembling them into functional ammunition. The very first step is not to run out and spend a buttload of money buying equipment and components, though. Step one is to think about the following questions...

Am I able to follow simple directions without getting big ideas on "improving" them before I even know what I'm doing? It's my belief that anyone who can follow a simple recipe out of a cookbook and make a decent meal from it can handload safe and functional ammunition,

Is my lifestyle such that it is safe for me to have powder, primers and suchlike around? Will my kids, or stoned roommate stay out of my stuff? If not, is there a way to keep them out of it?

If the answer to both these questions is "yes" then every other difficulty can be solved, beginning with: Do I have space to work? Space for storage?

The next question is: What am I trying to accomplish with my handloads? Here I should explode the myth that handloading saves money. No one in history has ever saved a nickel handloading, we just shoot a lot more for the same money. At least it's the same money until we get one of the many derangements possible and find ourselves spending the house payment on that latest wonder bullet or shiny new toy.

We need to decide what we're trying to accomplish with our handloading before we buy the first piece of equipment. The best loading press, for making large quantities of inexpensive ammunition is not the best press for the guy, or gal, who wants to make ammunition for the top level of many of the various competitions.

What level of equipment can I afford? Do I know someone who can help me buy used and not get burned? If I do, will they help me get started? It's easier to learn anything if we have a mentor, a hands-on mentor makes it easiest of all but that mentor can also be in print or even on-line.

I'm going to work off a few assumptions in this series, they are as follows...

Golden Assumption: You aren't a chuckleheaded moron. All chuckleheaded morons should leave this site and not come back.

Assumption #1: Your goal in handloading is to get a sufficient quantity of affordable ammo that you can really shoot enough to really get good.

Assumption #2: You have a limited budget.

Assumption #3: You don't have a large workshop to devote solely to handloading.

Assumption #4: you'll be loading primarily handgun ammunition.

With those assumptions in mind, let's walk through our house or apartment. It's probably not a good idea for the homeless to try to set up their own little ammo factory. What we are looking for is space to set up a sturdy desk, table or bench. There should be room for a bookshelf or cabinet nearby for storage of components and equipment. This area doesn't have to be huge although as we go along we'll gather more and more stuff. What is imperative is that it be a low-traffic area. We can't leave our stuff where just anyone can mess with it, nor is it a good idea to try to load ammunition where there are a lot of distractions.

It is best if our bench, table or desk is used for nothing but loading, this is not always possible. If it isn't possible it's not an insurmountable problem, it's just a minor pain in the kazoo. We have to set our gear up and take it down every session.

In my opinion it is a mistake to permanently mount one's press to the bench. It's fine to do so if we have the luxury of a spacious bench and room that is used for nothing but reloading. I don't have that luxury of space, I may want to use my 'bench' an old schoolteacher's desk, for my turret press one day, my big, and expensive, Forster Bonanza Co-ax press the next, take everything off and clean guns, or set up my casting furnace and cast a thousand or so bullets.

Instead of mounting my gear directly to the bench, it's all mounted on pieces of plank ends scrounged from construction sites. Just go by a building site with a sixpack of cold cokes on a hot day and ask nicely if they've got some two by ten or twelve plank ends and you'll get more than you'll ever need. Each of my presses is mounted to the plank end and then C-clamped on the bench as needed.

Our very first purchase should NOT be a loading press or bench or anything of the sort. It should be a GOOD loading manual, preferably more than one. We should also take advantage of the library and even the 'net. Look on my sidebar, click Midway and go to the section on books and manuals. The Speer Manual is good, so are the Hornaday and Sierra Manuals. Anyone interested in handloading needs to have at least one of these, all three is better. Sit down and read the "how to" sections. Let the information settle in and then re-read them. Another good one is Dick Lee's Modern Reloading.

Be warned, here, all of the people writing for these manuals are in cahoots with a specific company For instance, reading the Speer manual will leave the impression that only Speer bullets, CCI Primers and RCBS loading tools will suffice. Now, RCBS loading tools are mostly pretty durned good and they've a warranty second to none. Yet any one piece of their equipment may not be the best for my purposes.

There are three types of bench mounted loading presses, the single stage, having only one station for the die and shellholder. The turret press has more than one die station but only one shellholder. The progressive press has a die station and shellholder for each different step of the process, the shellholders advance the cartridge case through each die.

The beginning handloader should, in my opinion, steer clear of the progressive presses. When the equipment is doing every step of the loading process at once it adds to the complexity and chances for error. An error in handloading can result in a destroyed gun and injury, or even death, to shooter or bystanders.

I'm not real fond of loading handgun ammo on a single stage press, either. Since I usually load one box of fifty at a time and a shooting session generally involves a minimum of three hundred rounds it's a pain switching dies every few minutes. A turret press eliminates that problem. Mike Dillon hadn't made the big breakthrough in progressive reloading presses by the time I retired from formal competition. I managed to keep a job as well as fire some thousand rounds per week to stay at the top of my game with a turret press. I even managed to spend ten minutes or so a month with the family.

Depending on the depths of your pocket, there are several good turret presses to choose from. The least expensive is the Lee. With the exception of a clunky, user unfriendly priming system the Lee is a good, serviceable press, I still load handgun ammo on one. The priming system doesn't bother me, I haven't primed a case in a press for decades anyhow. We'll discus that in more detail later in this series. I especially like the Lee setup with the powder through expander die where we drop the powder charge at the same time we bell the casemouth. The Lee Auto-disc powder measure is so inexpensive that I just use one per cartridge that I load and leave each turret set up. It takes less than thirty seconds to pop a shell holder and turret into the press to switch from, say .357 Magnum to .45 Colt.

The Lyman T-Mag press is a good one, I've never owned one but I've worked a couple belonging to friends. What I don't like about the Lyman is that it's difficult to change turrets. I like having my dies set up in spare turrets so I don't have to be constantly re-adjusting them. Still, if one only loads a couple of different cartridges, it's not a big deal. The Lyman runs about sixty bucks higher than does the Lee.

Next up in price is the RCBS. It's a very good press and the warranty is quite simple, if it breaks, they fix it or replace it. It's got a removable turret and the turrets are easily exchanged. If your wallet can stand the gaff, the RCBS is a darned good choice.

The Rolls Royce of turret presses just has to be the Redding. I've loaded ammo on a pal's Redding T-7 and it was a pleasure. If my paychecks had to be delivered by forklift, I'd own one.

Go over to the sidebar, click on Midway's site and poke around the metallic loading presses. Read the customer reviews, count your dollars and decide. Bear this in mind, though. There is NO difference in the quality of ammunition we can produce on a sixty dollar Lee press and a two hundred dollar Redding. I will go so far as to say that ninety percent of beginning handgun ammo loaders would be best served by the less expensive Lee. That is because some of you will decide handloading isn't your cup pf tea. More will like it but decide they want more speed and go to a progressive press once they've had sufficient hands-on experience. The value of a press on the used market is about the same as used toilet paper. It simply makes no sense to buy the most expensive press on the market if, in six months, one will spend three hundred or more dollars buying a Dillon Progressive.

Whichever brand you decide to go with be sure and buy the die set with the carbide sizing die for straight walled handgun cases. We don't need to be spending the time lubing cases and then cleaning the lube off the loaded rounds.

Look long and hard at the "complete" kits for one cartridge. I put complete in quotes because there is no such thing as a complete kit. I am aware of no kit that comes with everything we need. Some come with almost everything. Buy the RCBS, for instance and you get everything but the loading dies ands a case trimmer. Buy the Lee, you get the dies but no powder measure or case trimmer. Sigh. We'll talk about case trimmers next week when we discuss case inspection, preparation and sizing.

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