Reloading Basics: It makes a difference
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- Last updated: 08/11/2023
This month, Mark Underwood takes a more detailed look at seating primers using hand-held tools
Although priming on the press is much faster than priming by hand, and far more convenient, there are advantages to taking your time, disrupting the reloading process, and seating your primers using a hand tool. Most reloaders will tell you that seating primers by hand is a time-consuming and arduous task, but many will also acknowledge that it really does help produce more reliable and consistent ammunition.
When it comes to priming cases, most reloading presses will have some form of adapter or add-on accessory to seat primers. It is not a primary function of the reloading press, like resizing the case or seating a bullet with a die, it is an afterthought developed to improve the speed at which ammunition can be produced.
Presses are generally operated with a long lever, and a mechanical linkage, through which you apply enough pressure to move and operate up to five stages at once. This same mechanism has also got to be used to seat the very small and pressure-sensitive primer. If you do prime on the press, you can, to some degree, develop a sense for the amount of pressure required to seat them, but applying that pressure consistently is difficult to master. You also find on automated presses that you do not actually see the primer being seated, which can mean you miss the odd chewed-up or missed primer.
If you load 100 rounds in a progressive press, and place them nose down in an ammunition box, a close examination will most probably show primers that are seated inconsistently.
The alternative to priming on the press is to use a hand priming device. Many reloading gear manufacturers make hand-priming tools, so it is easy to obtain one with the right fit and feel. The big advantage of this sort of tool is that there is far less leverage and far more sensitivity. Yes, this is going to slow down the reloading process, but speed is not really the priority when it comes to producing the best quality ammunition you can.
All hand-priming tools operate on the same principle, with primers held in a tray and fed into the seating ‘assembly’ one at a time. The process is very simple. First, you assemble the tool with either a large or small primer adapter assembly and then choose a shell holder appropriate for the calibre you are seating. Unfortunately, the shell holders are invariably sold separately and are not the same as the ones that work on a reloading press. Primers are tipped into the tray and shaken to turn them all the correct way up, and it is then attached to the priming tool. You are then ready to start priming. Each time you squeeze the lever, a primer is raised up and pushed into the case held in the shell holder.
You can feel the primer touch the edge of the primer pocket, slide inside it, and then come to a stop as it hits the bottom of the pocket. The amount of ‘feel’ and sensitivity is remarkable, and you can very quickly develop a feel for how much pressure to apply and when to stop applying it. You can also get a feel for how different brands of primers seat, with harder or very slightly larger primers putting up more resistance than softer or smaller ones (variations in size are very small and primers of the correct size are still in tolerance). You can also get a feel for how tight the primer pockets are, with some brands being tighter than others, and older cases having primer pockets that are starting to get ‘loose’ after several uses.
The feet of the anvil inside the primer need to engage with the bottom of the primer pocket, to ‘arm’ the primer, and a hand priming tool enables you to hone your seating skills to ensure just the right amount of pressure is applied. It is still possible to apply too much pressure, and squash the primer, but to do this you need to use sufficient effort to know it is wrong.
As mentioned, you do need a shell holder for each calibre that you reload for, so if you shoot several calibres, this can get expensive. Some shell holders can be used for several very similar calibres, but chances are you will need a shell holder for each one you reload.
The most obvious downside of hand-priming is the fact that it disrupts your reloading sequence because the cases need to be cleaned, de-primed/resized, and primed away from the press. If you use a turret or progressive press, this is more of an issue, and you need to set it up so that only the post-priming stages are carried out on the press (add powder charge, seat bullet, crimp etc.). Alternatively, you can de-prime your cases without resizing, clean them, prime them, and then resize them on the press using a sizing die with the de-priming rod removed.
If you use a gun with a highly tuned action and very light strike, primers can be a bit reluctant to ignite. This is when going to extra lengths and using a hand-priming tool to produce your competition ammunition comes into its own.
Hand priming is unarguably slower than priming on the press, between the resizing/de-priming stage and the powder charging stage, but yes, it is worth the extra time and effort. If you are making up experimental ammunition and want to remove as many variables as possible, then hand-priming is the way to go, giving the seating of each primer your undivided attention. If you use a lot of ammunition, and the amount of time you have to reload is limited, then on-press priming will produce satisfactory ammunition. However, if you do try hand-priming, you will probably be surprised by the difference it makes.