February 25, 2022
By Lane Pearce
After reloading for 50 years, I now hand-load for about 100 different rifle and pistol cartridges, and I’ve accumulated many sets of dies, several presses, powder measures, scales, etc. In addition to the “routine” reloading tools required, I’ve also acquired several “special” tools. Some are designed to perform only one specific operation for multiple cartridges. Others, however, perform only one operation associated with a specific round.
If you’ve followed my column for any length of time, you know I like to experiment with obsolete factory rounds and various wildcat cartridges. I loaded and fired many different rounds before appreciating the exemplary performance of earlier but no longer popular cartridges like the .250 Savage, 7mm Mauser, .257 Roberts, and the .308 Norma Magnum. Although I independently conceived a couple of wildcat cartridges, when I discussed developing them with the die manufacturers, someone else had already “been there, done that.” Like most shooters, I have my favorites, but I still look for new handloading challenges.
Two recent reloading endeavors involved the .256 Newton and the .256 Winchester Magnum, both long-obsolete factory rounds. Western Cartridge Co. last loaded .256 Newton cartridges in the late 1930s. Newton rifles ceased production nearly 20 years before that. Winchester made the last run of .256 Win. Mag. ammo/brass nearly 30 years ago. With lots of time available during the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to have custom rifles built for both rounds.
As you can imagine, there were little or no prospects to acquire factory ammo or brass for either round. The single thread of good news that guided my decision was there are plenty of parent cartridge cases available for both. The .256 Newton was first formed from military .30-06 brass, so it and its similar derivatives (.270 Winchester and .280 Remington) will work. And although the .256 Win. Mag. is simply the .357 Magnum necked down, efficient reforming requires special tools.
I acquired the last .256 Newton Redding die set in stock. The internal dimensions of a Redding seating die provides minimum clearance between the die cavity and the cartridge case. The objective is to provide precise alignment of the cartridge case mouth with the bullet as it is being inserted. However, that allows the seater die (with the bulletseating stem removed, of course) to be employed as an intermediate reforming die before final forming in the full-length sizer die.
I reformed a couple of boxes of once-fired Federal .30-06 cases and lost only a few cases with creased or dented case necks/shoulders. That occurred because
I applied too much lube or delayed cleaning excess lube from the die. However, while this effort was ongoing, I called my friend Steve Koch at RCBS to ask if they might have an old, dedicated .256 Newton trim/form die in their “retired” tools cache. Lucky for me, he sent a text a couple hours later with a photo of the .30-06/.256 Newton die box and a message that it was on the way. I’ve not lost a case since receiving it!
However, another issue manifested itself soon after I’d fired several test loads. The reformed rounds readily chambered with minimal resistance, and
I assumed I had really close headspace because the reamer my gunsmith used had been ground to match the Redding sizer die dimensions. (You know what they say about assuming!) When I checked the fired case mouth expansion by pushing a bullet into the opening, the fit was too tight. Reformed .270 Winchester brass was a little less snug; however, the case mouth lip seemed to be a bit smaller in diameter than the case neck.
I measured a few cases and concluded that although I had shortened them to 2.44 inches while reforming, I had obviously not trimmed them again after full-length sizing. The too-tight fit between the bullet and fired case also indicated I needed to turn the necks to allow adequate expansion to release the bullet when the round was fired.
Shaving off a couple thousandths of an inch of brass from the outside of a batch of case necks is an onerous, time-consuming task. Usually, only benchrest shooters do this to ensure each round they fire in competition is the best they can make. Fortunately, it’s a one-time operation, i.e., it’s rarely required to be repeated. I had an almost-new Hornady neck-turning kit on hand with the appropriate 6.5mm mandrel (because it is named for its bore diameter, the .256 Newton cartridge is actually 0.264 inch/6.5mm bullet diameter). It was raining outside, and shooting was not on the agenda, so what better way to spend the afternoon?
When I finished turning, resizing, and trimming, I had nearly 50 excellent cases available for reloading with another selection of recipes.
I turned to the .256 Win. Mag. project, and this one was much simpler. Years ago, I had procured a .256 Win. Mag. case-forming die set from RCBS. It has two form dies and a trim die.
Reforming .357 Mag. brass goes like this. First, lightly lube and run a batch through form die #1 to partially neck down each case. Next, switch to form die #2 and repeat the process. Do that a third time using the trim die before full-length sizing. Be sure to trim to uniform overall length before reloading.