Okay, we've got our shiny new (or ratty old used) loading press and we're ready to load some ammo. There are differences in the steps depending on whether we're loading bottlenecked rifle ammunition or straight walled handgun cases, we'll hit those differences later. Right now, it's time to inspect our cases. The inspection process is basically the same for new cases and fired cases, with the addition of a couple of things to look for in fired cases.
The first thing to look for is cracks and deep corrosion. Sit down under a good light and look over every case. If the cases are grubby dirty and have powder fouling all over, wipe them with a cloth with a little Hoppes Number Nine. Avid reloaders have case tumblers to clean and shine them up, others will use the Iosso case cleaning system, a chemical process. Look through the Midway Link on the sidebar for case cleaning options for later. We aren't there yet, let's not spend that money until a little later. We can load perfectly functional ammo with nothing more than wiping the cases down. You may get the idea to REALLY shine them up and use brass polish, instead. Don't. NEVER USE A POLISH OR SOLVENT CONTAINING AMMONIA ON CARTRIDGE CASES!!! Ammonia dissolves copper, a main ingredient in the brass case. Just clean the top layer of crud off, it's all you need. There are a couple different polishes made especially for those wanting shiny cartridges, don't bother. If you decide that you just love to make your own ammo, great. When you buy your tumbler down the line a little, your cases will be shining like a new dime. We're trying to get into this without breaking the bank, right?(Note: cases used with black powder require a different sort of cleaning, if you know enough to be loading black, you don't need this beginner's course.)
After inspecting for cracks look at the head of the case, the part where the primer goes. If it's a fired case, look to see if there is a smoky ring around the primer, if so, discard the case. It's been fired too many times and the primer pocket has stretched out to where it isn't sealing the pressure anymore, or has been fired with a load way too hot. Either way, don't just toss it in the trash, smush it with a hammer or vise grips first. Bad cases have an almost supernatural way of getting into the loading block. Smoosh it down, you don't want to give it a chance to rise from the dead. A wooden stake through it's brass heart is probably overdoing it, though.
Now in fired cases we want to check for what we call incipient head separation. This requires a very high tech piece of equipment...Straighten out a paper clip and sharpen one end with a file or even a handy piece of sidewalk. Now take the pointed end and bend it to an "L" shape, small enough to fit into the neck of the case. Stick it in, all the way down to the solid head and then drag it out. If the case is fixin' to separate, you'll feel the point catch in the internal crack. It is especially important in range pickup or other cases you've come by used. In ammunition fired in my own rifles I do a sample, one out of every ten or so. Look at the flash hole, make sure that it's not off center or, in range pickup, especially, those two little flash holes from Berdan priming. Either will break the decapping pin in your die.
Now is a good time to mention that it's a real good idea to keep each batch of brass together. Load the whole batch, whether that batch is twenty or a hundred. My system is simple as befits my mind. My cartridge boxes contain fifty rounds each. I keep each box together and that box is a single batch. They stay as a batch from the time I buy the brass new, until I throw the whole batch away when it's worn out.
Now it's time to size the brass cases. New or used, the cases first have to be sized. In handgun brass, use a carbide sizing die so you can avoid having to lube the brass, in bottlenecked cartridges we have to lube. Get some caselube, I use Imperial Sizing Wax, but RCBS, Lee and Hornaday, there are all kinds that work. Put a small amount of lube on the fingers of your left hand (if you're right-handed) and wipe it on the body of the case, avoiding the shoulder. Use a very little, a thin coat does it. Too much lube and you get unsightly dents in the case. Miss lubing and the case will stick in the die and that is a Major Pain, requiring spending more money. A thin, even coat is what we want While you're doing this, put a little lube on the casemouth too, just push the mouth onto the ball of your lubed finger or thumb. This will lube the expander ball of the die.
Now, you've adjusted the dies according to the directions, so slip the case into the shellholder and crank the handle of the press. Up and down. Pay attention to how much effort is needed. A case that is harder to size than the others just like it means that something is amiss, probably not enough lube but possible it's been stretched out from an overpressure load. Get a feel for how much pressure it takes to pop the used primer out, too. An unusually easy one can mean trouble. This is why I don't like range pickup brass, different brands of cases, fired in different guns means that the information I get from 'the feel' of the press handle is useless. Once we've sized our cases, wipe the lube off with a clean cloth. Lee and RCBS lubes are water soluble, use a damp cloth. Imperial Wax, a little lighter fluid on the cloth works just fine. (Don't use your wife's best dish towels)
Other than lubing, the pistol cases in the carbide die work exactly the same.
Okay, now that we've sized the case, we're ready for the next step, checking the case length. Each time the cartridge is fired, it stretches out some, then the die smooshes it back down to the original size. That brass that's smooshed has to go somewhere so the case lengthens a little, . When the case gets too long the neck is jammed into the chamber throat and it is unable to expand to properly release the bullet. This can cause even normally mild loads to give disastrous pressures. To avoid this we keep our cases trimmed and check the length. We usually use a dial caliper to measure case length. A good stainless steel dial caliper costs anywhere from twenty dollars on up. If money is tight you can delay buying one by buying a Lee case trimmer. This is a two piece affair. You buy the cutter and lock stud, for $4.39 and the (cartridge specific) case length gauge and shellholder for $3.59. You'll also need a chamfering tool, the cheap Lee works and it is only $2.69 in my Midway catalog Lee case trimmer can work by hand but it's much easier to chuck the thing in your electric drill. Way faster, too.
The way it works is that you take the unprimed case, put it in the shellholder and lock it down. The Case length gauge is screwed into the cutter, you stick the case length gauge into the mouth of the case, turn on the drill, or laboriously turn by hand, developing callouses on top of blisters, until the case length gauge hits bottom. It can't cut too much, assuming that you have the right length gauge in.
I have, and use, a much more expensive lathe-type case trimmer, it also reams and turns casenecks when I want to do that. I confess, though, that in the cartridges I shoot a whole bunch of rounds, I have a couple of the Lee complete sets of trimmers and lock studs. They're so fast when chucked in my electric drill that when I buy a batch of 500 .223 cases to last through varmint season I can start with them all trimmed to the same length much quicker than on the rig I paid over a C-note for with all the attachments I have. So, you'll eventually want a dial caliper and, probably a lathe trimmer but that cheap Lee will not only allow you to delay spending that money but even after you have, it'll still be handy to have.
After trimming, you'll need to chamfer the cases and deburr the outside. There are lots of tools for this, the Lee works and it's cheap.
Note. Case length is especially important in handgun cases and others that require the bullet be crimped. There is a minimum and maximum case length for each cartridge. This does not mean that we're cool with a batch of cases with lengths varying anywhere in that range. The case length affects the crimp and the crimp effects how efficiently the powder burns. In my beloved .357 magnum, for instance, the maximum case length is 1.290 inch. The trim-to length is 1.280 inch. Ten one-thousandths is a lot and makes a BIG DIFFERENCE in the strength of the crimp. The exact length within that range of ten thou isn't very important, what IS important is uniformity.
What I do is trim each new batch to length when I buy it (after sizing), I keep each batch together. After shooting, cleaning and resizing, I check a sample of the cases. As long as the sample isn't close to the max length, I just look at how close my sample is each to each other. As long as they don't vary by more than a couple-three thou, they're fine. They seldom do vary unless I'm shooting loads that are right at the red line.
Assuming you stay away from the red line you should be fine without a caliper, just use the trimmer every third time you load the cases.
Okay, we're almost done. All that is left to do is clean the primer pocket. I use the same little screwdrivers that came in the set I bought to keep the screws in my eyeglasses tight. (Nobody can truthfully say that *I* have a screw loose.) When we fire a cartridge some black crap gets left in the primer pocket, this is carbon. It's quite hard and will interfere with the proper seating of the primer. I just scrape it out with that little screwdriver. There are lots of tools made for cleaning primer pockets, I've used just about all of them one time or another. None works better than an itty-bitty screwdriver.
One last thing. Military ammunition used a crimp to keep the primer from backing out in full auto. Lots of us get once-fired military brass, either from dealers or pals in the service. Military brass that is crimped includes .308, .223. some old .30-06 and 9mm and .45ACP. If you end up with a batch of this good, strong brass, great. You'll need to get rid of the crimp, though. That Lee chamfering tool will do it. Just a couple-three turns. Do it by trial and error. Take about two turns, try to seat a primer, if it's still difficult, cut a little more. You want to kind of sneak up on it, cutting only just enough. Cut too much and case life suffers.
Next week...Priming. That will be shorter, praise the Lord.