Reloading - die selection
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- Last updated: 31/10/2019
There are a number of die brands and types to choose from and, while they generally all do the same job, there are a number of differences between them that you need to consider when making a purchase.
The most popular way of purchasing reloading dies is to buy a set, for each calibre, and the different manufacturers produce two, three or four-die sets. Due to the precise nature of reloading all of the makers produce dies to tight tolerances and quality is therefore good from all of the leading brands. In addition to the die sets you can also buy single dies designed to carry out one particular part of the reloading process more precisely, or differently, to improve your reloading and make better ammunition. Some of the alternatives are considered here.
While most die sets accomplish both the removal of the spent primer and resizing the case with one die, there are advantages to using a dedicated universal decapping die. Generally fired cases are dirty and if dirty cases are put through a resizing/ decapping die then that dirt will be transferred to the inside of your die where is can build up and cause issues with the performance of the die. This can be particularly bad when you are using cases which have to be lubricated before sizing, because the lube and dirt combine into a real mess inside the resizing die. If grit gets inside the resizing die it can scratch the surfaces of the cases. The universal decapping die does not size the cases and so there is no contact between the internal surfaces of the die and the sides of the cases. Once the cases are decapped they can be dropped straight into a case cleaner and once cleaned they can be resized much more easily and cleanly.
When ammunition is fired the case will expand to the exact dimensions of the chamber of the gun, before shrinking back towards the unfired size slightly but retaining some impression of the chamber. This means that the cases will now fit that particular gun better than cases fired in a different one. It is therefore a great advantage to keep those cases for use in just that one gun and retain as much of that fire-forming as possible. If you full-length resize those cases you will return them to the ‘standard’ dimensions and they will fit any gun of that calibre. If you just resize the neck of the case, keeping the main body at the dimensions resulting from the ammunition being fired, there are distinct advantages.
Firstly, and as previously state the rounds will fit back into the gun they have already been used in. Secondly, the brass is stressed each time it is fired and each time it is resized. By removing the stress caused by full-length resizing your cases they will last much longer and you will get a lot more reloads out of them. If you use your ammunition in more than one gun then full length resizing is the way to go, if you use it in just one gun then a neck-sizing die is well worth investing in.
There are loads of powder measuring devices available, including digital scales and equipment that measure powder by volume. Some of these items can discharge powder straight into the case or alternatively you can tip it into the case through a funnel. With cases that require expanding, before a bullet can be seated, powder charging is one stage that can be easily combined with another without any detrimental effect on your reloads. Many of the powder measures that measure charges by volume can be attached to an expander die on the reloading press. Screwed into the top of the expander die, these powder measures are actuated by the case entering the die and tip the charge directly into the case. This keeps the charging operation on the press and helps avoid powder spillages.
These are another two parts of the reloading process that some dies combine into one operation, pushing the bullet into the case and squeezing the case mouth around it. This is of course quicker, and occupies just one stage on the reloading press, but it does have a downside. While the bullet is still travelling into the case the die starts to squeeze the neck onto it, causing increased friction and possible damage to the bullet. When seating lead bullets, with a tight crimp, you can sometimes see a very slight bulge around the bullet where lead has been pushed forward as the case is travelling forward and crimped.
The answer is to seat the bullet and then carry out the crimping operation separately. Dies that seat and crimp at the same time can be set up so that they do not apply any crimp by simply backing them out sufficiently so that the crimp ring of the die does not touch the case rim. Crimp can then be applied by a separate die and these can be purchased to apply either roll or taper crimp to suit your particular reloads.
One of the most ‘fiddly’ parts of the reloading process can be having a tray of cases with the bullet perched on the case mouth and moving each one to the press for seating. Bullets often fall off as you move them, or they get misaligned at the seating die. The answer is to use a bullet seating die with a ‘window’ in the side where the bullet is inserted. With a charged case on the press you simply drop a bullet into the opening in the die and it is held in perfect alignment as the case enters from below and it is seated. This makes the reloading far less fiddly, optimising bullet alignment as it is seated, and significantly speeds up the reloading process.
This type of seating die is well worth investing in too.
Having tried and tested many of the alternatives available the author uses a few different dies set ups depending on the calibre being reloaded.
For 45-70 Government calibre, which is only reloaded 20 or 30 rounds at a time, a Lee four-hole classic cast press is used. Cases are deprimed using a Lee universal decapping die on a single stage press and then cleaned and lubricated.
Next, on the press, cases are resized and primed and the case mouth is expanded. Powder charge is weighed out on an electronic scale and then added to the case through a funnel in the top of the expander die. Bullets are seated with one die and crimped in place with a separate crimp die. This set up allows tight control over each stage, including accurately weighing each powder charge, but is slow.
For .308 Winchester the set up is a three-hole turret press carrying a Lee necksizing die, a Ponsness Warren bullet seating die with a large side window for introducing the bullet, and a factory crimp die. Depriming and cleaning are carried out separately and, once primed, the case is taken off the press and the powder charge is added using a Lee Perfect powder Measure to drop the powder straight into the case mouth. Powder charges can be checked on the electronic scale regularly. This process is also relatively slow, but it does give good control over each part of the process and gives great consistency in the reloads produced.
For .38/.357 calibre, which is used in far larger quantities than the other calibres, everything is done on the fantastic Lee Auto breech Lock Pro. Resizing and depriming is done with the one die (cases are cleaned in a case tumbler before reloading), priming is also on the press and powder is added while the case mouth is being expanded using a Lee Pro Auto Disk. Bullets are seated and then crimped with separate dies and the completed rounds drop into a convenient bin. This is a much quicker process, which is a necessity when you are loading a calibre that you shoot a lot, but keeping the bullet seating and crimping stages separate ensures that the bullets are not damaged and the ammunition produced is good quality.
Die selection is important, and it does depend on the type of reloading you intend to do. Balancing speed against accuracy, deciding how many stages you want to have in your reloading process and working within your budget are all important considerations. A die set is a good place to start and you can then add more stages and dies as you get a feel for reloading. Experimenting is an important part of reloading and is what makes it so interesting.
LEE Precision reloading equipment and Henry Krank & Co. Ltd. henrykrank.com.
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