The Hobby Gunsmith


A Beginners Guide to Cartridge Loading-Part II.

Last month we discussed many of the components needed to reload ammunition for shooting.  This month, we step the reader through the process of loading a bullet.

   This article is intended only to introduce the reader into the process of reloading cartridge cases.  This article should not be a substitute for proper training and proper powder loading data.  We do not recommend that anyone use this article as their only training in reloading.  Reloading requires attention to details and precise work.  Failure to exercise appropriate caution can result in injury or death.  Be sure to supplement this article with other appropriate books on reloading.  We recommend either the Lee or Lyman reloading handbooks.

   Always wear safety glasses while reloading ammunition.  Do not do anything that will allow lead on your fingers to come in contact with your mouth as lead ingestion can cause serious health problems.  Always wash your hands after handling either lead bullets or spent primers.

It all begins with a pile of empty casings left over from previous shooting.  Alternatively, empty casings can be bought new.

   We will be using photos of a variety of calibers to illustrate to the readers how the reloading process is done.  We begin the reloading process by cleaning the brass casing.  We only reload brass and nickel-plated brass cases.  We never reload any aluminum or steel cartridge cases. 

   We have found that the Lee Anniversary kit to be an excellent choice for the beginning loader.  It can be obtained along with Richard Lee’s Modern Reloading book for about eighty dollars.  We also find Lee’s factory crimp dies to be very reasonably priced and of excellent quality.

The basics of the Lee Anniversary Kit.

   It is time to use the sizing die of the reloading die set to remove the primer and reform the case back to the original factory diameter.  Our next step will be to remove the primer from the old cartridge and to visually inspect the brass case for any unsafe condition.

   Begin by removing the shell holder from the die set and insert it into the loading ram of the press.  It is slid into the side and will lock into place with a distinct click when it is installed correctly.

   Set up the press and adjust the die according to the directions that came with it.  This first die in the Lee set has a pin that pushes out the primer and a carbide ring around the mouth of the die that forms the expanded brass casing back to the correct specifications.  This die is very easy to set up and adjust by raising the ram to the top of its travel and then screwing the die down until it touches the shell holder.  With the die set to the correct height, hold the die and screw down the locking nut to prevent the die from changing position.

   Place the casing into the shell holder and lower the handle until the case is about to enter the die.  Slow down and make sure the fits into the die.  You should feel resistance as the casing is swaged back to the original size by the carbide ring.  As the press ram reaches the top of its movement, it will stop, but you may feel a little resistance as the center pin pushes the primer out of the casing and it falls out of the press.  You have just sized your first casing.

The 500 Magnum case being deprimed in the Lee press.  Note the pin extending down from the die and pointing into the case.  This is the punch that pushes the primer down and out of the case.

   Lower the casing out of the die, remove it from the shell holder, and toss the resized and unprimed casing into a container.  Repeat this process with all of the brass of the same caliber.

   The next step is to prime the casing.  Many presses come with priming attachments, but I like to use the Lee hand primer because it gives me an opportunity to prime the cases while watching television, provides an opportunity to inspect the case for damage, and allows a good feel of the primer being seated along with an inspection of the seated primer.

The Lee hand primer we used to prime our casings while relaxing and watching television.

   Set up the hand primer according to the direction that came with the unit.  Most hand primers have a large round tray that holds the primers.  The round tray has a series of concentric ribs that can be used to turn over any primers that have fallen into the tray upside down.  With the primers in the tray, gently shake the tray back and forth in a way that causes the primers to slide over the ribs.  The primers that are correctly oriented will slide over the ribs while the primers that are upside down will catch on the ribs and be turned over.   It takes a little practice to get the feel, but it can quickly orient the primers for hand priming.

   It is necessary to select the correct shell holder for the type of cartridge you are reloading.  This is done on the Lee by examining the little chart that comes with the shell holders and select the correct one for your particular case.  If the set of shell holders does not have the correct holder for your cartridge case, then you will have to purchase that separately.  These can be purchased from Midway USA for a couple of dollars. We will be using a number eleven shell holder for our .44 Magnum and .45 Colt cartridge cases.

   I like to work the primer tool in my right hand and to squeeze the lever slightly to push a primer up until I can see it is in the correct orientation on the little ram.  Take a clean casing that has no primer in the primer pocket and insert it into the shell holder.  Point the open end of the case away from you and gently squeeze the handle until you feel the primer start into the primer pocket.  Increase the amount of pressure applied to the tool until you feel the handle close and the primer move into place.  Some primers will require a lot of force to seat.  Always keep the open end of the case pointing away from you.

   Remove the primed case and inspect the primer.  It should be flat and not protruding out of the recess.  Place the newly primed case on a very flat object, such as a piece of steel or glass and see if the case wobbles on the primer.  The primer should not be squished or set off by the act of seating it.  It only takes the installation of a few primers to get the feel of it.

A properly primed case.  The primer is flush with the base of the casing.

   This is also a good time to inspect the brass case for damage.  There are two main problems that can be quickly seen.  The first is a split casing that will show itself as a hairline crack, or larger, that runs down from the open end of the case and part way down the case.  Cracks can also be found between the head base and the rest of the case.  Look for any signs of cracks and throw away any cases that are cracked.

Three examples of cracks formed in cases.  These cases were thrown away. 


    I also like to feel the base of the casing for any damage caused by the extractor or ejector that cuts into the brass rim and may prevent the reloaded cartridge from properly entering and seating itself in the chamber.  My own guns will not damage the brass cases, but sometimes I end up with brass from someone else and it can have damage.  Regardless of the source of the damage, I will often test a questionable case by seeing if it properly seats in the chamber of my rifle.  Cases with base damage caused by the extractor or being stepped on can often be fixed with a file or a bit of sandpaper.

   The next step in the process is to use the expansion die to flair the top of the casing to allow a lead bullet to be inserted into the case.  Remove the full length sizing die and install the die according to the instructions that came from the maker.  The Lee die is adjusted by raising the ram all the way to the top of its travel by lowering the lever to the bottom.  Screw the expander die into the top of the press until the die touches the top of the shell holder.  Back the die out one turn and tighten the locking nut to prevent the die from moving.

   With the expanding die backed out one turn, insert a case into the shell holder and lower the press arm to raise the ram and the casing into the expander die.  The expander only travels about a third of an inch into the casing and flairs the case to allow it to easily accept a new bullet.  You may feel a slight grinding or scraping as the expander flares the brass casing.

   Lower the case out of the die and remove it from the shell holder.  Examine the slight flair on the end and see if a new bullet will easily slip into the end of the case.  If there is difficulty getting the bullet to easily enter the case, then lower the die a quarter of a turn and try again.  When the flair is right, the bullet will easily start into the case, but will stop well before being seated in the case.  Keep checking and adjusting the flair until you can insert the bullet easily.  Avoid using too much flair on the case, because brass is hardened and made brittle by overworking it.  Flaring more than is needed will just cause the brass to crack more easily.

The slight flare on this 500 magnum case is barely visible, but it is there.  The flare allows the bullet to enter the case without deformation.

   With the casing expanded slightly to allow the bullet to enter the case, the case is ready to be loaded with powder.  There are several places to obtain loading data for specific powders, including the web sites of the powder makers and the many reloading handbooks that are on the market.  We recommend that you purchase one of these books.  I found that Modern Reloading by Richard Lee to be an excellent resource for the beginner.

   Do not deviate from published reloading data.  Reloading data charts usually provide a starting point load and a Never Exceed load.  Beginning loaders should remain within those loads and not deviate without doing a lot of research and a lot of experience. 

   Do not deviate from published reloading data.  All manufacturers of gunpowder will tell you they have extensively tested their powder and say the only safe loads are those that are published.  I have witnessed many people claiming that loading below the loads in the charts is dangerous and irresponsible.  I once worked up a good light power load and was quickly chastised for loading below the published data.  I felt bad and quit using that load, because I had been intimidated by so-called experts.  That same company later released new “Cowboy Action Loading Data” and my unsafe load was suddenly safe, because it had been published. 

   Do not deviate from published reloading data when it comes to loading near the never exceed end of the spectrum.  The high end of the spectrum creates pressures that are capable of damaging guns and those people who load at the high end of the velocity chart area very experienced and know what to look for.  They also work their loads up very slowly and are aware of pressure changes that can be generated by such things as changes in temperature.

   Don’t ignore the kind of bullet you are shooting.  Copper jacketed bullets have different load data than lead bullets, because they have more difficulty threading themselves into the rifling of the bore.  This results in higher pressures than with softer lead bullets.  Suppose we are loading some 158-grain lead bullets in .38 special casings.  We have a can of “Red Dot” powder recommended by the gun store so we examine the Lee chart that came with their die set and it tells us the starting load would be 2.8 grains and that we should never exceed 3.1 grains of powder without risking damage to the gun.

The loading data sheet that comes with the Lee reloading dies.  This is a good source of information even if you don't have a powder manual.  The power maker's web site is also an excellent source of information and loading data.

   This raises the issue that surfaces occasionally.  Suppose have some .38 special lead bullets that weigh 102 grains and there is no listing for that bullet.  Simply select the loading data for the next heaviest bullet.  Never go the other way and use the loading data for bullet that is lighter than the one you are using.

   An examination of the loading data charts will reveal that the powder used behind a bullet is reduced as a heavier bullet is used.  For example: a 125 grain .38 lead bullet will have a starting load of 4.1 grains, which is way over the maximum load of 3.0 grains allowed with a 200 grain bullet of the same caliber.

   The reason for using a lighter load with a heavier bullet is that the heavier bullet accelerates more slowly because of its greater mass.  If a 4.1 grain load were used behind a 200 grain bullet, the pressures would rise to higher levels, which would increase the burn rate of the powder, which would raise the pressure even higher.  In this case, the pressure might be relieved as the cylinder of the gun explodes.  On the other hand, a lighter bullet can accelerate more quickly and relieve the pressure behind the bullet, which slows the burning rate and prevents the rise in pressure.  Too light a load may prevent the bullet from even leaving the barrel and result in what is often called a squib load.

   Why do these strange things happen?  It is because modern smokeless gunpowder has a progressive burn rate.  If you were to pour fifteen grains of smokeless powder on a cement floor and light it with a match, it will burn and throw a few sparks, but it will not explode when it burns in the open air.  Put the same amount of powder in a twelve-gauge shotshell, and it will blow the shot downrange at about the speed of sound.  The reason is that modern smokeless powder burns faster as the pressure rises.  The higher the pressure the faster it burns. 

   Case volume and temperature affects the powder burn rates and maximum pressures.  If we were to use a powder charge intended for a .38 special case and attempt to use the same powder charge in a .357 Magnum case, the velocity would be lower in the .357 case because of the additional unused capacity of the case.  This is one reason why we must use care in selecting a powder charge. 

   Temperature can also have an effect on the load.  I once worked up a very light load during the summer and tried to shoot those loads during the cold of winter.  Some of the bullets barely cleared the barrel on a very cold day.  I will wait and use those when the temperature rises.  What it means to the loader is that working up a very powerful maximum load during the winter and trying to use those cartridges during the heat of summer can be dangerous.  The powder company loading charts take these temperature extremes into account.  Let’s get back to measuring some powder and finishing our first bullet.  We advise sticking with starting loads or the Cowboy Action Loads until after reading and understanding more advanced concepts of loading.

   After checking the loading tables and determining how many grains of powder we will be using, it is time to use our powder scale to measure the powder and set the powder measure.  The Lee Anniversary press kit comes with a very simple powder scale and powder measure.  We must begin by setting up the powder scale.

The vernier scale on the Lee powder scale.  The white lines are barely visible in the holes, but they are there.

   Follow the directions that came with the scale.  Set the scale on a level surface, install the balance arm on the fulcrum point of the scale, and hang the little powder pan.  There is a vernier scale on the right side of the balance arm that should be set to zero.  There is a little black locking pin just to the right and below the Lee emblem that should be pulled out to allow the vernier scale to move.  Set the scale to the right and then move it to the left until the zero appears above the little arrow above the letter n in the word grains.  With the zero and the bar above the zero on the tenths scale has a white bar showing.  Push in the little locking pin to lock the vernier scale.

   Install the balance arm in the scale along with the powder pan.  Move the silver ball above the arm until it rests behind the zero and the scale is ready to be zeroed.  If the scale is balanced with the pointer pointing at the bottom of the cleanly milled area, then it is calibrated.  If not, adjust the knurled knob in the middle of the balance arm and behind the vernier scale.  Adjust the knurled knob until the scale pointer is pointing at the index mark at the bottom of the clean silver area on the left side of the scale.  The scale is now balanced and calibrated for use.

The ball in the zero position needed for zeroing the scale and for loads under ten grains.

   Since our example load will use 2.8 grains of Red Dot as our beginning load, we need to start setting up the powder measure.  I like to clamp the powder measure to the bench using the stand that comes with it.  Next we pour the powder into the hopper and take our first test drop by cycling the handle up to charge the scale and then down to drop it.  Put the powder pan under the drop point when dropping a charge. 

   Since we are going to set up for 2.8 grains of powder, we need to set the scale to that amount so it will balance with a proper charge in the pan.  We set the vernier scale until the two is displayed in the window of the grains scale and the white bar is aligned above the eight on the tenths scale. 

   With the powder pan hanging on the end of the scale and stabilized, does the scale pointer point to the index point on the end of the scale?  If it is above the line, then the charge is too heavy and the powder measure metering screw needs to be turned in a little and tested again.  If the pointer is below the index mark, then the charge is too light and the powder measure metering screw must be backed out a little and tested again.

   Keep testing by trial and error until the charge thrown by the scale balances the scale.  This may sound stupid, but be sure to empty the powder measure pan back into the hopper of the powder measure so you take each test drop of powder into an empty powder pan.

Here is about 2.8-2.9 grains of Red Dot powder being weighed.  Note that the number 2 appears in the grains scale and there is a white line on the tenth's scale for 8 and 9..

   Once the powder measure is throwing the 2.8 grains required for our loading, it is time to put a single throw of powder into an empty and primed cartridge case and load a bullet into the case.  This will require that we set up the press with the bullet seating die.

   To set up the bullet seating die, we need to lower the loading handle all the way down in order to raise the ram to its top position.  We then thread the bullet seating die down until it touches the shell  holder seated on the ram.  Back the die out three turns to provide the correct spacing to prevent the die from crimping the case.  Tighten the knurled locking ring that has the O-ring for friction to prevent it from moving while using the press.

   I like to keep a proper and loaded cartridge around to use in setting the bullet seating adjustment.  If you have one, place it on the shell holder and gently raise the ram to place the bullet into the die.  Do not use any force, but let the ram stop as soon as you feel resistance.  Back out the little knurled knob to see if the ram raises when you do so, if it does move, keep backing it out until the bullet stops rising into the die.  If it does not rise, or it has stopped rising, tighten the knurled knob until you feel the adjustment touch the top of the bullet and stop.  This should set the overall length of the bullet to be the same as the one you used as a gauge.  Remove the gauge. 

   If you don’t have a correct cartridge to set the bullet seating die, then set up the die as per the directions and back out the bullet seating knob located at the top of the die.  Charge a case with powder and place it in the shell holder.  Put a bullet into the top of the case and raise it up into the die by pulling the handle down slowly.  This procedure should seat the bullet too high and make too long a cartridge.  Simply adjust the bullet seating height knob until you have the bullet seating where you want it to be.  I like to use the overall length (OAL) guide in the loading manuals and use a dial caliper to set my bullets to the correct length.  This can be found in the diagram of every loading manual I have used and this information comes with the Lee dies.

The physical dimensions that are available in loading manuals or come with the Lee die instructions.

   While learning how to load, charge a few cases and seat the bullets to the correct depth.  I like to charge and seat each cartridge.  Some loaders like to charge a group of cartridges and then seat the bullets on each one, but beginners should charge and crimp one cartridge at a time.  About every ten cartridges, I recommend dropping a charge of powder into the scale to make sure you are getting the correct powder charge from the powder measure.

   The final operation is to give the bullets a firm crimp.  I recommend the Lee Factory Crimp die set that has a separate crimping operation.  Although this adds another step, it provides a very good crimp while also resizing the outside of the case.

A well crimped .45 Colt cartridge with a soft lead bullet.  This is my common configuration for Cowboy Action Shooting.

   Install the crimping die according to the directions that came with the kit.  Place one of the recently loaded cartridge in the shell holder and raise it into the die, but do not use any force.  Back out the crimping adjustment knob on top of the die until the ram will not rise any farther.  Turn the crimping adjustment knob back in until it contacts the bullet that is in the die.  Lower the cartridge a little and turn the crimping adjustment in another quarter of a turn.  Use the lever to push the cartridge into the die and crimp it.

  Pull the cartridge back down and inspect the crimp.  Turn the adjusting knob in a little at a time until the crimp is acceptable and will hold well and help the pressure rise before releasing the bullet from the cartridge.

   At this point we have taken fired cartridge cases and reconditioned them to be used again.  We have reused the most expensive portion of the factory cartridge and it is possible to drastically reduce the cost of ammunition with a little careful shopping and scrounging.

The end result of our work.  In this case, we have .45 Colt cartridges collecting in the Lee progressive press and are now ready for a trip to the range.

   Next issue we look at production loading and introduce the use of a progressive press.