reloading for beginners
What you’re about to read is the result of a lot of reading, learning, and comparison shopping. The final product was the formation of an opinion as to the best choice of a first reloading press for me. I expect that if you go through the process carefully, you’ll find the best press that meets your needs, but I don’t necessarily expect you to arrive at the same conclusion that I did. I’m not trying to persuade you to agree with choice that I made. There are a lot of good presses made by lot of good brands. Each of them has the potential to be the absolute best option for someone. I present this article to you because there are a lot of people in the same place I find myself in — relatively new shooters with no previous reloading experience who have come to the conclusion that reloading is a valuable skill for a prepper to have. Making the right choice about where to jump into the reloading craft is an important decision.
Last summer, after waiting two months to get an order of 9mm and .380 from my local ammo fabricator, I decided that it would be in my best interest to learn how to reload. I just couldn’t face another year of ammo shortages and escalating prices. Sandy and I didn’t shoot nearly as much last year as we did in 2012. Money was tight for us and ammo was hard to find. Shooters who weren’t sitting on a big stockpile of ammo curtailed their practice sessions because they didn’t know when they’d be able to restock their supply — and at what price. Sandy and I have set a goal of shooting more in 2014. Having the ability to make our own ammo goes a long way toward ensuring that we’ll be able to keep that resolution.
Sandy’s only stipulation was to make sure there was no exclusion in our homeowner’s insurance policy that would cause a claim to be denied because we make ammo in our home. I called them and was told that reloading for my own personal use would have no impact on my insurance coverage or rates so long as I limited my supply of gunpowder to less than 20 pounds. You should check with your insurance company to see if the same holds true for you.
Single-Stage Presses — The “Training Wheels” of Reloading
OK then, what kind of press should I buy? Conventional wisdom says that you learn the craft of reloading on a single-stage press — a press where you batch process one cartridge at a time, performing one reloading function at a time — in order to thoroughly learn all of the stages of the reloading process at a safe and manageable pace. Making ammo is inherently dangerous, but it is completely safe if you approach it with sanity and wisdom. The object for newbie reloaders is not to make ammo as fast as possible, but to learn how to not maim or kill yourself as a result of your ammo-making.
There are a lot of great single-stage presses on the market and they can be the most economical presses you can buy, so there is a lot of appeal to go with a single-stage. And the noble single-stage press is the way to go for the highest precision in reloading. Many competitive shooters and hunters hand craft each round on a single-stage for the ultimate in control and quality. Some of these presses include the RCBS Rock Chucker, the Forster Co-Ax, the Redding Big Boss, and the Hornady Lock-N-Load Classic. Great, great presses. I’d like one of each. And if you’re on a really tight budget, Lee make the Lee Reloader for less than 30 bucks. Obviously not in the same league as the others, but it’s enough to get you started.
But the downside of any single-stage rig is production speed. Eventually I would learn the process well enough that production speed would become an issue, especially when it comes to reloading for handguns. It takes multiple pulls of the reloading press lever to complete one round of ammunition on a single-stage press. Production speed isn’t an issue for those who reload for hunting rifles because they don’t shoot as many rounds in a year as I blow through in an hour of shooting handguns. Single-stage is the best way to go for high-precision hunting rifle ammo, but the online reloading forums are full of guys who say that if they had to load all their handgun ammo on a single-stage they’d rather give up reloading and just buy factory ammo. Those guys say that a progressive press is the way to go for handgunners.
Progressive Presses — The Speed Demons of the Reloading World
Once you’ve completed the first cycle, a progressive press completes a round of ammo with every pull of the lever. Instead of working on just one cartridge at a time and doing just one step of the reloading process at a time, a progressive press does it all at once. All of the dies are mounted in a circle with a cartridge in place under each die. Every pull of the handle engages each cartridge with the die it’s positioned under and then advances all the cartridges to the next die position. After a cartridge has made it through the entire circuit, a completed round pops out and a new empty case takes its place.
Once you get the hang of it, you can crank out 400 or more rounds of ammo per hour with a progressive press. Equip one with an automatic case feeder and bullet feeder and you’ll easily be able to do 600 or more rounds per hour. As you can well imagine, progressive presses, especially those that are tricked out with all the bells and whistles, are considerably more expensive than a simple single-stage press, but time is money, too. What is it worth to me to be able to make 600 rounds in an hour on a progressive press versus maybe 30 rounds on a single-stage press? Based on that, I started my search with a long, hard look at the progressives.
The seduction of lightning fast production rates was too much to resist. Despite the chorus of old-timers who were saying to start with a single-stage and work up from there, I decided to start my shopping with the progressive presses. Here are the contenders:
- Dillon — If you’re in the market for a progressive press and you don’t give serious consideration to a Dillon, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. I consider them to be the gold standard of reloading machinery. If there is a cult among people who reload, it’s made up of owners of Dillon presses. Dillon has a rabidly loyal clientele, some of whom tend to regard any other brand of equipment as not worthy of consideration. Dillon earned their reputation by consistently manufacturing top-notch machinery, backed by the best “no B.S.” warranty in the industry.You can’t buy a Dillon just anywhere. They control their marketing channels pretty tightly. If I were buying a new Dillon, I’d get mine from the website of top competitive shooter Brian Enos. His site is packed with solid info on the products and he has some kit bundles that are carefully thought out.Having said all of that, and believing in my heart the Dillon Precision sets the industry standard for reloading presses, I didn’t buy a Dillon for my first press. I looked longingly at their whole product line, drooling over their sturdiness and reliability. But the workhorse of their line, the RL 550B, doesn’t auto-index (automatically advance the cartridges being worked on from one die station to the next). For a progress press to not perform this automation function seemed to be contrary to the whole purpose of a progressive press. The next step up (the XL 650) and the one after that (the Super 1050) both auto-index, but they were just too far out of my beginner’s price range.
- But still wanting a Dillon, I dialed my sights down to their Square Deal B. This is a press that is just for reloading straight-walled handgun ammunition. Since that’s what I shoot, it looked like a real contender. But one of the significant disadvantages of it was that it doesn’t do rifle cartridges at all — just straight-walled handgun ammo. While I only shoot handguns now, I wanted to leave open the possibility of reloading for rifles in the future. Another big strike against the Square Deal B is that it is the only press that uses proprietary dies. The dies for this press aren’t interchangeable with any other press, nor can you use standard dies, even those made by Dillon, with this press. I didn’t like that. Time to broaden my search to other options.
- Hornady —Hornady is best known for their great bullets, but they also make a lot of high-quality reloading tools and equipment. Their progressive press is called the Lock-N-Load AP, and it’s a real honey. One reviewer who did an excellent comparison of progressives from Dillon, Hornady, and Lee (click here for How I Spent My Winter and Then Some). You really should read it and see how your values line up with his, but I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that he ultimately chose the Hornady LNL. And I almost did, too. All impressions I have of it is that it is a technically more advanced press than the rock-solid Dillon, and that it has some reliability issues that come with that distinction. Sandy actually encouraged me to buy one of these while we were at our favorite outdoor specialty store, but I wasn’t far enough along in my comparison shopping process to feel confident with this decision. When I did spring for my first press, I didn’t buy this one, but there very well may be a Hornady LNL in my future. They have tons of appeal.
- Lee — Let me say one good thing about Lee’s two progressive presses: they’re inexpensive. The Lee Pro 1000 can be found for under $200, and the Lee Precision Load Master goes for close to $250. But my experience was that on the forums I was seeing far more complaints and problems with them than anything else. Lots of folks, even those who loved other Lee products, had some less-than-splendid remarks about the Lee progressives. They have some very loyal fans, but the negatives seemed to far out-weigh the positives for these machines. A fool doesn’t learn from his mistakes. A smart man does learn from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others and doesn’t make them himself. I want to be a wise man. I didn’t give the Lee progressives any serious consideration.
- RCBS — This was the last of the major contenders I looked at. Best known for their outstanding single-stage presses, RCBS also make a progressive called the Pro 2000. I didn’t do nearly as much research on this one as I did with any of the others because the price stopped me in my tracks. With a list price of $777 for the auto-indexing version of this press ($694 for the manually indexed model), I was in the deep end of the pool. I have no doubt that RCBS makes a fine progressive. It may even be superior. But it was too far out of my price range to give it any consideration for a first-time purchase. Maybe some day.
All of this research in progressive presses left me with no clear winner between Dillon and Hornady, but one thing it did succeed in doing is convince me that I really wasn’t ready to plunge into a progressive as my first press. Others have done it with good results, but one thing that I kept reading in the forums were comments by actual owners and users that progressive presses require a fair amount of mechanical aptitude to set up, to operate, and to maintain. As Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry was prone to say, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” This is one of mine. I don’t tinker with machinery. Not with good results, at least. I barely know which end of a hammer you’re supposed to hold on to. The preponderance of comments about the need for mechanical aptitude caused me to abandon my quest for a progressive press. For now.
Turret Presses — The Middle Ground
If a single-stage press was too slow and a progressive press was either too expensive or beyond my ability to troubleshoot and maintain, was reloading out of the question for me? Thankfully, no. There is an intermediate class of presses that address some of the limitations of a single-stage without introducing the complexity and expense of a progressive. I’m talking about turret presses.
Like a single-stage press, a turret press only works with one cartridge at a time, but like a progressive, all the dies you need for the complete reloading process are installed and ready for use. You don’t need to swap out dies to go from one reloading step to the next. They’re already there, mounted on a turret that can be rotated to place each die over the cartridge that you’re working on in turn. This means that you don’t have to batch-process your cartridges like you do with a single-stage. You can do all the steps to go from an empty case to a completed round of ammunition before you need to swap in a new case.
Production speed can be a lot higher with a turret press than with a single-stage, but you can choose to operate a turret press in single-stage mode if you want to. (For that matter, you can operate a progressive like a single-stage, which might be a good idea in some situations, but still doesn’t overcome my personal reservations against going directly to a progressive.)
So the search was on for the best turret press for my needs. There are a number to choose from with offerings from Lyman, Redding, RCBS, Lee, and others.
I went shopping at my favorite outfitting shop and the reloading specialist gave me a strong sales pitch for the Lyman T-Mag 2 press kit. You can buy a number of single-stage or turret presses in kit form, with many of the the basic tools that you’ll need for reloading bundled together. The downside of buying these kits is that the tools they include are the cheapest and most basic versions available. Most reloaders will want to upgrade to better stuff almost immediately. My salesman said that if I was looking to buy a turret in a reloading kit, he’d recommend either the RCBS Deluxe reloading kit because he felt the kit contained some good tools — things that you wouldn’t have to go out and replace with the tools you really wanted anytime soon — or the Lyman Deluxe Expert kit, because it had a good case trimming tool. I ultimately decided against going with a kit and assembled my own selection of individual tools instead.
When I was considering a progressive press, I read a lot of negative about Lee’s progressives. This led to an unfavorable opinion of the company in general, but as I did more research on turret presses, the name that kept popping up was the Lee Classic Turret. Lee makes a couple of different turret presses, so don’t get confused by their names. The lesser of the two is called the Lee Deluxe turret press. There’s really nothing “deluxe” about it. The better of the two is the Lee Classic turret press. The word “classic” might lead you to believe that it is an older design, but it’s actually a newer and improved version of the Deluxe turret.
Among the many reviews that I read on the Lee Classic Turret was a great series of articles on the website RealGuns.com. Highly recommended reading. The author pointed out that the turrets on most turret presses are mounted with a single bolt in the center of the turret. The dies are arranged on the outside edge of the turret and the ram on the press engages the dies on this outer ring. That design essentially makes most turrets a “C” press, which is a weaker and less accurate configuration. By comparison, the Lee Classic Turret is supported by three rods in a triangular pattern on the outside edge of the turret, and the dies are mounted much closer to the center of the turret. This design allows for a more compact machine, and it also focuses the force of the reloader’s ram closer to the center of the turret.
Besides being impressed with the smart design of the turret on the Lee Classic, it also is the only turret press that auto-indexes, which is to say that as you pull the handle, the machine automatically rotates the turret to align the next die over your cartridge. This feature is common on progressive presses, but Lee makes the only turret presses that auto-index. The auto-indexing capability can propel your production rate to 200 rounds per hour or more. That’s not too shabby for a humble turret press.
You will be hard pressed to find a bad review of the Lee Classic Turret Press from someone who has actually used one. Sure, the web is full of Lee bashers who have a bad impression of their progressive presses or reloading snobs who view their budget prices as being indicative of inferior products, but Lee Precision is a company that has dedicated itself to giving you the best bang for the buck. So while you’ll see a lot of people who talk trash about Lee, you will also be amazed at the number of glowing reviews of the Lee Classic Turret. These reviews widely recommend it as the best press for a beginner to start with.
The Bottom Line
I’m glad that I kept an open mind and didn’t let negative reviews of one segment of a company’s product line sour me on the whole store. I chose the Lee Classic Turret for my first reloading press and I’m confident that I made the best choice for my budget and skill level. Your mileage may vary, but if you’ve decided that now is the time for you to get into reloading, I’d recommend you take a long, hard look at the Lee Classic Turret.
As I indicated in my last blog, I’ve decided to join the ranks of the reloaders and start making my own ammo. Since I’m starting from scratch, that means shopping for the equipment that I’ll need to get started. I’ve done a lot of research to learn which of the many options will work best for a beginner like me.
Reloading presses come in three basic configurations — single-stage, turret, and progressive. They vary in purpose, complexity, and price. The place to begin with the purchasing decision is to evaluate your needs, budget, and skill level. There’s a press that’s right for everyone, but what’s best for me might not be best for you. Here’s the rundown on each type:
Single-stage — A single-stage press, like the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme shown here, holds only one ammo case and one die at a time. Dies do the work of removing (decapping) the old primer from the case, installing a new one, resizing and shaping the case, and seating and crimping the bullet. To make handgun ammo, most reloaders use three or four dies to complete the process. With a single-stage press, since it only uses one die at a time, you would batch process your ammo; that is, you would load the first die on each case, change dies and run each case through the press to complete the second die’s function, and so on, until you complete the final stage of crimping the bullet in your cartridge. You have to pull the handle on your press four times for every round that you manufacture.
Because they only do one function at a time to only one cartridge, single-stage presses are inherently slow, but they give you the highest degree of control over the reloading process. They have traditionally been the recommended entry point for new reloaders because a single-stage press gives a beginner the opportunity to closely observe and understand what is happening with the ammo manufacturing process every step of the way. Besides beginners, single-stage presses are also a good choice for those who mainly reload rifle ammo, especially hunters. They don’t blow through as many rounds as handgunners do, so they don’t require a high output reloading press. For them, it’s more about quality than quantity of ammo. They have the luxury of taking their time to craft a small number of highly accurate rounds. Single-stage presses are also the best option for those on a low budget, with some models starting at around $100.
Turret — The next type of press is a turret press. It also works with only one round of ammo at a time, but it can have multiple dies installed, which eliminates the need to switch and reconfigure dies after each stage of the reloading process. You can do all of the stages of reloading a cartridge without removing the cartridge until it’s finished. Place the cartridge in the press and pull the handle to perform the function of the first die. To do the next step, rotate the turret to move the second die into position, then pull the handle again. Repeat the process with all of the dies until you have a completed round of ammo. You still have to pull the handle four times for every round, but you don’t have to swap out every round of ammo multiple times, and you don’t have to install and configure each die repeatedly when you move from one stage to the next. Set it and forget it.
Some turret presses accommodate as few as three dies, while others, such as the Redding T-7 shown here, can have as many as seven installed at once. With a seven-hole turret, you can have the dies for two different calibers installed and ready to go. This can be a real time saver if you typically reload two particular calibers. Skilled turret press operators can turn out up to 200 rounds of handgun ammo per hour. And you always have the option of batch processing your ammo (doing the first step on all of your rounds, then doing the second step on each of the rounds, etc.) and running your turret like a single-stage press if you so desire.
Progressive — Progressive ammo presses are the real production machines of the reloading world. Instead of working with just one round of ammo at a time, progressive presses work with four or five cartridges simultaneously. Set a case on the shell plate in the press and pull the handle for it to work with the first die. The shell plate is then rotated for you to insert the next case onto it. If the press has the capability to automatically rotate the shell plate from one stage to the next (and most progressives do), it’s called “auto-indexing.” Pulling the handle engages the newly placed case with the first die and the first case that you placed with the second die.
As you continue to pull the handle and add cases, you soon have a cartridge in every position on the shell plate and every pull of the handle performs engages all of the cases with the dies above them, so you’re working with four of five rounds of ammo simultaneously. When a cartridge has made it through all the stages and is complete, it gets dumped out into a storage bin to make room for a new case to be inserted. After the first four or five pulls of the handle to get the shell plate fully loaded, you’re spitting out a completed round with each subsequent pull of the handle.
Completing a round of ammo with each pull of the handle makes a progressive reloading press a real speed demon. Optional attachments are available for most progressive presses that will automate the process of placing a case on the shell plate and placing a bullet on the mouth of the case just before seating it in the brass. Many reloaders say that they can turn out 500 rounds per hour with one of these tricked-out machines. That makes them ideal for high-volume handgun shooters or for anyone who has more money than time. But because they perform every stage of the reloading process to a different cartridge at the same time, they generally aren’t recommended for first-time reloading users. Obviously, a progress press is much more complex mechanically and can require some troubleshooting and tinkering to keep it running properly. If you are “mechanically challenged” a progressive might not be your best option.
So as with most things in life, there’s different strokes for different folks. You may want to jump right to a progressive, but it will cost a lot more than a single-stage or a turret, especially if you get add an automatic case feeder and bullet feeder. Changing calibers on some progressives can be expensive and complicated, too. But if you’ve got the money, need a high-volume manufacturing capacity, have a decent amount of mechanical aptitude, and are a skilled multi-tasker, why not go for it? If that doesn’t describe you, a single-stage or turret press is a better entry point.
In my next blog I’ll reveal which press I’ve decided to start with and why.