January 04, 2011
By Layne Simpson
Layne's been handloading for a long time, and here's his top-10 list of innovations that help make reloading more fun and efficient.
By Layne Simpson
We handloaders are a spoiled lot. Think of something we need in order to transform fired cases into loaded rounds, and you can bet it is available. And with the exception of the adjustable powder measure that was introduced by Lyman during the 19th century, just about everything we use to reload ammunition today was introduced during the past 100 years. Quite a few of the items have been with us for less than a half-century, and some are only a few years old.
With this in mind, let's take a look at what I think are 10 of the greatest ideas in reloading.
1. Powder Measure
A measure capable of being adjusted to throw various charge weights of powder has been around for a very long time, with the Lyman Ideal being one of the earliest models to become popular among handloaders. Lyman introduced the Ideal No. 1 during the late 1800s, and the friendly little machine eventually evolved into the present Model 55. Regardless of whether the Ideal measure sitting on your loading bench was made in 1908 or 2008, it will have the familiar swinging knocker hanging from its body.
Another early measure that enjoyed great success was the Belding & Mull Visible. Incredibly accurate even by today's standards, it was once quite popular among benchrest shooters, most of whom have now switched to custom-built measures available from Sinclair International.
Top of the line in accuracy among mass-produced models are the Uniflow from RCBS and the Match-Grade 3BR from Redding. And the ultimate in powder-dispenser systems do a great job of combining a programmable, electrically powered dispenser with an electronic scale. The PACT Digital Powder Dispenser, the RCBS PowderMaster, and the Lyman 1200DPS3 Powder System come to mind. Warning: Don't try one until you are ready to buy one; it can be terribly habit-forming.
2. Powder Scale
According to my research, the powder measure came along before the powder scale, and in the old days, handloaders who did not own a measure used tiny scoops, or charge cups as they were also called, to dole out powder charges.
Digital Powder Scale
Belding & Mull sold various sizes, as did Lyman. I believe the Pacific Gun Sight Company of San Francisco was first to offer a scale designed specifically for use by those who reloaded rifle and handgun cartridges. The first one came with a set of weights that weighed 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 20, and 40 grains. The operator hung whatever combination was needed on the balance beam in order to get as close as possible to the desired powder charge.
An improved model with sliding weights that remained on the beam was later introduced, but it was extremely slow to use due to the fact that it took the beam practically forever to settle down. And when it finally did stop moving, the slightest breeze or a heavy breath would start it bobbing again. The later oil-dampened balance beam was faster, and the magnetically dampened beam, which is still popular today, was faster still.
A marvelous invention called the digital powder scale came next, and the handloader was able to weigh powder, bullets, cartridges, and everything else faster than he had ever dreamed possible. They are available from a number of sources, including RCBS, Lyman, Lee, Hornady, and PACT.
3. Powder Dribbler
I have no idea what company was the first to come up with the powder dribbler--or powder trickler, as it is also called--but it was something that really needed to happen.
Back when I first started reloading, I used a teaspoon for topping off a powder charge in the pan of my scale, and quite often just as I was almost there, too many granules would tumble from the spoon and cause me to have to dig them out of the pan. I next used a small homemade scoop made by soldering a wire handle onto the side of a .380 Auto cartridge case.
Neither method worked anywhere near as well as the Herter's powder dribbler that I eventually bought. Twisting its knob caused powder to trickle from its rotating tube, one granule at a time. It was a wonderful idea, and just about every manufacturer of reloading equipment now offers one. By the way, the electronic powder dispensers mentioned earlier work the same way.
4. Rotary Case Trimmer
The first rotary case trimmer probably did more damage to the operator's fingers than to a cartridge case, but it eventually evolved into the miniature lathe now built by various companies. Two basic styles are available.
Rotary Case Trimmer
The Wilson requires the use of a precision-reamed cartridge holder that holds a case in position as its neck is trimmed by a rotating cutter; really serious benchrest competitors prefer it. More common are those offered by Lyman, RCBS, Redding, Hornady, and others, and they utilize a collet or shellholder at the rear and a snug-fitting pilot up front to hold a case in position for trimming. All work equally well.
The hand-powered trimmer is an important invention, and many who reload can live happily ever after with nothing else, but those who are faced with trimming large quantities of cases will agree with me when I say the electrically powered trimmer is one of the all-time great ideas in handloading. In addition to being fast, it is also kinder to the arm, hand, and fingers than a muscle-powered trimmer. Classic examples are the Lyman Power Trimmer and the RCBS Trim Pro.
5. Electric Case-Prep Center
If there is anything I dislike as much as removing lube from handgun cartridge cases, it is cleaning primer pockets and removing propellant residue from inside case necks. Everything else in handloading is fun, but
those chores are nothing but pains in the posterior.
Electric Case-Prep Center
This is why I'd give up my favorite coon dog before I'd allow my RCBS Case Prep Center to depart my loading bench. You just plug the unit into a 120 Volt electrical outlet, flip the switch, and watch the heads of five different stations spin around. Two stations are used to chamfer and deburr the mouth of a freshly trimmed case, while brushes in a couple of the other stations whisk away fouling from inside primer pockets and case necks. Another station can be used for deburring or uniforming the flash holes of cases, or it can be set up to remove the primer crimp from military surplus cases.
As Winston Churchill might say if he were still with us, never has such a small machine done so many great things for those of us who reload.
6. Universal Powder Funnel
The very first powder funnels were designed to fit inside the mouth of a case rather than outside, and they were available in most calibers from .22 to .30. Then came a powder measure with interchangeable spouts of various calibers.
It finally dawned on some bright soul to make the spout bigger and bevel its interior to fit tightly on the outside of the mouths of cartridge cases in calibers up to .45. The hole through which the powder flowed was made small enough to work with .22-caliber cartridges. And so was created the universal powder funnel.
Those made today look the same as those made back then simply because the original idea is too good to improve. Except now, you need three: one for .17 and .20 calibers, one for .50 caliber, and one for everything else.
7. Handheld, Reservoir-Fed Priming Tool
Confederate soldiers said the Henry lever-action rifle could be loaded on Sunday and shot all week. The same could be said of the Lee Auto Prime tool, except its reservoir holds primers rather than .44 rimfire cartridges.
Handheld Priming Tool
In addition to being fast, the Lee Auto Prime allows primers to be seated by feel, something benchrest shooters consider to be important. The Auto Prime tool is quite popular among handloaders, so much so that it now has competition from similar units available from Hornady and RCBS. I'd really hate to have to do without one of these wonderful little gizmos.
8. Tungsten Carbide Resizing Die
The very first cartridge I loaded in quantity was the .44 Remington Magnum. I had a Smith & Wesson Model 29 and a Lyman mold for the No. 429421 bullet, and my purpose in life was to see how quickly I could shoot up several hundred pounds of lead I happened to have on hand.
Carbide Resizing Die
My reloading press was a Herter's Model 3, and Pacific was the manufacturer of my reloading dies. I enjoyed most of the handloading process, but I absolutely hated the chore of removing lube from cases after their trip through the resizing die. In those days, we didn't have an easy-to-remove lube like Imperial Sizing Die Wax, so we had to make do with sticky, gooey stuff that was a miserable chore to remove.
Then came resizing dies with carbide inserts that were so hard, so smooth, and so slick that lubricant was no longer needed for resizing a straight-wall case. The carbide sizing die may not be the absolute best idea in handloading, but it most definitely ranks among the top two or three on my list.
9. Progressive Reloader
We Americans like to make things happen faster today than they happened yesterday, so the development of machines capable of turning out loaded ammunition at a higher rate than the handtools used by buffalo hunters came naturally.
Progressive Reloading Press
The bench-mounted, single-stage press came first; it was called that because it was capable of handling only one operation at a time, and dies had to be changed for each operation. The multi-station press came next, and while it held enough dies to perform all reloading operations, only one station could be operated at a time, so its ammunition output was not a lot greater than that of the single-stage machine. Finally came machines that produced a loaded round of ammunition with each cycle of the operating handle.
The heart of the progressive reloader is a rotating shellholder that advances a cartridge case through each stage of the operation; an empty case goes in one side, and a loaded round pops out the other. Back when I was seriously into USPSA action pistol competition, I fired upwards of 50,000 rounds of practice ammo during one 12-month period, and I could not have done it without my progressive reloader.
Later, when I started shooting the clay target games, I added progressive shotshell loaders made by RCBS, Ponsness-Warren, and MEC to my loading bench. They are also available from Hornady and Lee.
Anyone who needs to load lots of ammo in a very short time will find a progressive machine to be one of the best ideas in reloading.
10. Affordable Chronograph
My first chronograph was an Oehler Model 11, which succeeded the earlier Model 10. You shot through screens made of aluminum foil, and if you were shooting a .22-caliber rifle and you carefully placed your shots at different points on the near screen, you would only have to replace them every three or four rounds.
After firing a shot, you twisted a knob around various numbered positions, and each time the dial read "YES," you recorded that number. Next, you thumbed through a conversion chart until you found the combination of numbers the machine had produced, and adjacent to them was the velocity.
In those days, I was the only member of my gun club to have a chronograph, and everyone was not only envious, they were absolutely amazed at my ability to measure the speed of a bullet. In addition to being a great little chronograph, the Model 11 was affordable at a time when few of us had any money, but it had one big shortcoming--it was slower than a crippled snail.
Years later, when I became the proud owner of an Oehler Model 33 and its wonderful skyscreens, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Then came other companies, such as PACT and Chrony, and eventually just about every handloader owned his own personal piece of battery-powered heaven.
Well, there you have them, the 10 great ideas in handloading. There are others--the electric lead-melting pot and the combination sizer/lubricator for cast bullets are just a couple that come to mind--that didn't make the list, but someday I might cover them too. In the meantime, if some of the items I have discussed are not already on your loading bench, it is time you took a serious look at them.