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- Last updated: 22/06/2022
There are so many different types of reloading dies on the market these days, it makes the mind boggle, but it’s important to know the basics before you purchase what might be an expensive mistake. There are several types made for bench-mounted reloading presses or hand dies and both equally have a valid place on your bench. Here is a guide to getting started and then from there we can look at subtle changes to what you own and modifying die sets. Also, adding or subtracting components, to make a better die that crafts ammunition specific to your rifle’s chamber. You have two choices really, the standard 7/8 x 14 TPI (threads per inch) that are used in a press or hand dies that require an Arbor press for the job. I use both types and each is capable of producing superb cartridges with extreme accuracy.
By far the most common types are those that screw into the top of the press. RCBS, Hornady, Redding, Lyman, Forster and Lee are the most common manufacturers offering the usual configurations: full length sizing, neck and seater. Made of either hardened steel or stainless, with a threaded section at the base, a lock ring and de-capping probe/pin with calibre- specific expander ball attached. This one removes the spent primer and resizes the fired case, either full length, or just at the neck. Next the seater, which has a stem (calibre-specific) that allows a precise bullet placement into the case mouth and can be exchanged for different profiled or ogive-specific bullets for greater accuracy.
Full length are usually for resizing a case after shooting to its original dimensions, as it allows smooth functioning in any rifle. However, certain points to remember are that bottlenecked types need lubrication to size, too little and it gets stuck, but too much and you get hydraulic pressure dents in the brass. Also, check that the sizer button is well lubed. This is the part of the de-capping stem that resizes the neck as the case comes out. Dry lube works well otherwise when you add powder it gets stuck on the lube that’s still in the case neck. You can also upgrade these dies with carbide expander balls for smoother operation or calibre/custom ball.
Another tip is to set the full length die with an O-ring between the locking ring and the press body. This allows it to centre for more uniform case sizing. Or opt for the more expensive Competition-type that allow complete case support whilst it’s entering. Neck dies have separate bushes to adjust tension in this area only, without touching the case body. Some bullet seater types have micrometre adjustments for precise positioning and visual repeatability with a clear reference point.
For most custom projects I would certainly go for a neck bushing die set. This is because after having a custom barrel fitted and possibly one with a tight necked chamber for calibre, they only size that portion of the case. The remainder is fire formed to fit the chamber and only a reduction in neck dimensions is needed to restore it to normal and grip the bullet. You can therefore match the bush to the exact size you require. Most standard dies enlarge the case too much with the expander ball and so some form of adjustment is beneficial.
These are really the domain of serious shooters who like to have a hands-on feel to their cartridge prep and often reload whilst out in the field. These, when used with an Arbor press, allow far greater degree flexibility of the whole process. I use them frequently, because I set up a loading table next to me whilst out long range varminting or testing new wildcats. Here, I load small quantities to ascertain accuracy or velocity, which negates the problem of loading in bulk and finding it’s wrong for the job.
What I like is the feel of an Arbor press, as they offer a tactile feel to the whole process of reloading and if a case feels sticky or has a loose primer pocket or tight bullet seating, you get direct feedback. In use, the fired case is popped into the neck die onto the de-prime probe and then seated on a compatible base. It is then placed under the press plunger, which seats the case flush with the die wall.
This operation has resized the neck dimensions only, so the die is removed, reversed in the base to reveal the de-priming probe now stuck out of the top, another press stroke ejects the spent primer. No messy lube and in use fast and more importantly accurate re-sizing.
I have a Sinclair arbour press and use Wilson and Neil Jones hand dies that offer supreme quality and close tolerance to produce as accurate reloads as possible. For all of the wildcats, I use blank dies, usually Wilson, which are reamed out with the chamber reamer and then a replacement bush section is machined for altering neck dimensions.
The seater die has a calibre-specific seater stem added. The addition of a micrometre head adds precise seating depths that are repeatable. You can also only partially resize the neck as this leaves the bottom portion un-sized. Therefore, the sized portion grips the bullet with the correct tension and the rear allows the case to centre in the chamber, achieving better bore concentricity. Equally, they do not shift the shoulder position on the case, so if after extended use a case starts to feel sticky on extraction then you will have to full length re-size it.
Neck tension is important, not only for correct bullet grip, so it does not slip in the case, but also in giving some degree of initial shot start pressure for consistent ignition. Ordinarily, you would have 0.002” of tension exerted i.e., a .243 calibre with tight 0.263” neck chamber. This means 0.020” touching the chamber’s sides so neck turn to 0.261” on a loaded case for 0.001” of side clearance. So, therefore, when necking down a fired case you need a 0.259” neck bush to give a 0.002” tension for your 0.261” loaded round. As these dies only really have a single de-priming probe as a moving part they are very accurate.
However, sometimes I like to increase this to 0.003/0,004” if the rifle is to be rough handled on a trip aboard and to ensure the integrity of the cartridge. Also, with sub-sonics I have found, especially with .308 Win and the larger .338 BR, increased neck tension is beneficial. It allows the small charge of powder often with a magnum primer to properly ignite, irrespective of how it lays in the case.
Sooner or later, the issue of doughnuts rears its ugly head and is the dread of any project, especially when dealing with any form of custom case manipulating such as with wildcats. This occurs where the shoulder joins the neck section of a case and at this junction there is more metal on the inside than the outside. Therefore, at the base of the neck on the inside, there is a doughnut of extra brass. This can cause problems, as when a bullet is seated it will cause a high spot on the outside, which will affect accuracy and may cause pressure issues. External neck turning outside actually makes it worse as it thins the outside diameter more, so it is best to use an inside neck reamer tool to cut the doughnut out. Some cases are worse than others but for a little effort, the returns are worth it.
We all have our own ways of reloading and some dies and procedures will benefit different loads or rifle action types. Start with a simple press starter kit and see how the ammo you make works. Then progress on with more specialised dies, powder measures and custom reloading kit.
Norman Clark gunsmiths reloading supplies www.normanclarkgunsmith.com
hannams lee www.hannamsreloading.com
Henry Krank Lee www.henrykrank.com
Edgar Brothers Hornady www.edgarbrothers.com
GMK Ltd RCBS www.gmk.co.uk
Brownells Reloading supplies www.brownells.co.uk