Reloading Basics: Part 2
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- Last updated: 22/05/2018
Once you start reloading there are a few simple checks that it is worth doing after each use, before reloading again. I regularly check samples from batches of cases in the case length trimmer. If the samples do show signs of being longer than they should be, then I will trim the whole batch. The benefits of this operation are that uniform length cases will all grip the seated bullet in the same way, ensuring the same pressure characteristics on firing. Also, the metal at the case mouth, which has become much thinner as a result of the stretching, is where 90% of case cracking starts. By removing this thinner section of the metal, the likelihood of cracking is reduced, so extending the life of the case.
While doing the length check, it is an opportunity to spot cracked or split cases. If there are several cases showing obvious splits, it is worth checking the whole batch. The cases in the batch are all the same age and if some are cracking it is likely that the rest won’t be far behind. Once more than 10% of a batch has split, I tend to retire the rest rather than wait for them to give up the ghost.
As a general rule, it is best to keep to one brand of cases for a particular calibre. Otherwise you are going to have to ensure that the different makes of cases do not become mixed up. The reason for not mixing brands is simple, each manufacturer’s cases will vary in terms of dimensions, material and thickness. All of these will affect the performance of your reloads differently. Taking thickness of the case walls as an example; the thicker the material is in the walls of the case, the less space there will be inside the case to accommodate the powder and the rapidly expanding gases generated on firing. This will affect the amount of pressure generated inside the case, which in turn will affect the accuracy and point of impact of the ammunition.
Cases tend to be either brass or a nickel-coated base metal. My .357 long barrelled revolver prefers brass cases and functions flawlessly with them. Nickel coated cases are difficult to extract and after a couple of uses the nickel coating tends to start to peel off. Although I can’t prove it, I believe the issue is related to the size of the chambers on the revolver. The brass case is able to expand to the size of the chamber on firing and spring back sufficiently to ensure easy extraction. The nickel coated cases also expand on firing but do not spring back down sufficiently in size and are therefore harder to extract. The expansion beyond their ‘elastic limit’ may also explain why the nickel coating cracks and falls off. I have checked the chamber sizes on the gun as accurately as I can, and they do not appear particularly oversized, but the manufacturing tolerances on the gun and the cases do seem incompatible. It is therefore worth trying different makes of cases to see if your gun has a favourite.
The most common handgun calibres used in both lever guns and long barrelled revolvers are the .357 and the .44. Both share the ability to accommodate two calibres of ammunition, the .357 will fire both .38 special and .357 magnum ammunition and the .44 magnum will fire .44 special and .44 magnum. In both calibres, the difference between the special and magnum loading is the case length. The magnum, being longer, holds more powder and therefore has the ability to produce higher velocity and power.
All the shooters that I know that use these calibres opt for the magnum cases, even for relatively light target loads, and with good reasons. Firstly. If you stick with the magnum cases, you won’t risk accidentally trying to load a magnum charge of powder into a special case. If this were to happen and the larger magnum charge of powder was forced into the smaller case, the resultant pressure would be likely to cause damage to the gun and potentially injure the shooter. Secondly, the magnum case will accommodate the full range of loads, from light ‘special’ loads, up to the full magnum loads, with very little need for adjustment. The lightest load I shoot with the .357 long barrelled revolver is a 148-grain wadcutter bullet over 3.0-grains of Bullseye powder. According to the published loading data, the .38 Special powder charge for this bullet is 2.8 grains but this load in the .357 case proved inaccurate. Increasing the charge to 3.0-grains gives much better accuracy. As with any experimentation with loads, be careful and watch for potential problems.
If you use both magnum and special ammunition in the same gun, you may experience issues with loading and extraction of the magnum cases at some point. This is because when rounds are fired a ‘soot ring’ will form in the chamber at the front edge of the case. As soon as the bullet leaves the case mouth, the burning gases come into contact with the sides of the chamber at this point and deposit a solid residue. With continued firing, that residue builds up, forming a ring. With the .38 special, this ring will not be as far up the chamber as it would be with the .357 case. After firing several rounds, the ring will be noticeable if you look inside the chamber. If you then try to push the longer .357 magnum round into the chamber, you will feel the case catch on the soot ring and in extreme cases you will find it difficult to fully chamber the round.
The easiest way of removing this ring is: take an empty magnum case and put it through the case mouth expanding part of the reloading cycle (normally occurs at the same time as the powder charge is added so be sure there is no powder in the hopper). You are only looking to expand the case mouth very slightly. Try the case in the chamber, do not use too much force, you are aiming to use the expanded case as a scraper to dislodge the soot ring. It is better to increase the case expansion gradually, by very small increments, until you feel the soot ring being scraped off, (in the days of pistol shooting when I shot many rounds every week, the soot ring would sometimes fall out of the chambers in small curved pieces). Once the bulk of the ring is out, then a clean with your usual solvent will finish the job.
By selecting quality cases, and carrying out regular checks and cleaning, your cases can give you years of service and many reloads. The most important thing is to know when it’s time to let them go, before they fail completely on firing and cause jams or damage. Of all the reloading components, they generate the largest possible saving, so are well worth taking care of.
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