Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Equipment: Preparation Tools

In our last post, we looked at several measuring tools used for reloading ammunition, such as powder measures, powder scales, powder tricklers, calipers, dial gauges, micrometers etc. In this post, we will look at equipment that is used to prepare cartridges for reloading.

The first piece of equipment we will look at is a case trimmer. This device is mainly used for bottleneck cartridge cases, as straight cartridge cases don't need trimming as much.

A case trimmer made by Hornady. Click on image to enlarge.

The idea behind a case trimmer is this: when cartridge cases are fired and then resized in a sizing die prior to reloading, the brass stretches out and the case becomes longer in length and thinner width along the walls. This is more commonly an issue with bottleneck cartridges than straight cartridges. A case that is stretched too long will not fit into a firearm properly. Hence it may be necessary to trim the case back to proper length every now and then. It is not necessary to trim a case before each reloading operation, only when it exceeds the maximum length tolerance of the firearm.

A case trimmer is a tool that allows the user to trim the case to a given length. The length to trim to is adjustable and it comes with pilot attachments to handle cases of different calibers. Models like this can cost approximately $50 - $90 or so, with the cheaper models being hand cranked and the more expensive models being electrically powered. Top end models even have grinder attachments that file the top of the case.

However, cases cannot be trimmed for ever. Remember that two paragraphs above, we stated that the cases tend to get longer in length and thinner in wall width. The last part is important. Eventually, the case walls get thin enough that the strength of the cartridge case becomes questionable and has to be discarded. This typically happens after the case has been trimmed about 5 or 6 times.

If the user owns a case trimmer (particularly a low-end model), they will almost certainly need the next tool: a deburring tool.

Deburring Tool. Click on image to enlarge

When a cartridge case is trimmed, the cutter will leave sharp edges on the end of the case, with little "burrs" of metal pointing inside or out. These sharp edges need to be smoothed out, otherwise they may shave the side of the bullet when it is being seated on top of the case. The above deburring tool is made by Lyman Inc. and is typical of the type that is commonly used. It consists of a cylindrical object with cutters on both ends. One end is used to smooth out the outside edge of the case and the other end is used to smooth out the inside edge of the case. The low-end models, such as the one above, cost about $15 - $20 and are hand tools, more advanced electrically powered models come built in with high-end case trimmers.

When cartridge cases are resized, they generally need to be lubricated because the force involved in pushing it into the sizing die can make the cartridge case get stuck to the die. This is particularly necessary for dies made of tool steel (tungsten carbide dies are naturally slippery and don't need lubricant). This brings up the next item in our reloading arsenal: case lubricants (a.k.a case lube).

Different case lubricating kits

A basic case lube kit (such as the first picture above) consists of a bottle of liquid lubricant and a pad. The user pours some lubricant on the pad and then rolls each case on the pad before putting it into the sizing die.  The entire kit (lubricant bottle and pad) costs about $15 - $20 or so and extra bottles of lubricant are about $7 - $8 each. The problem with these kits is that it tends to get a bit messy and the user's hands get covered in lubricant.

The second type of lubricant is becoming much more common these days. It consists of a spray can with lubricant in it. The user stands several cartridge cases on a loading block and then sprays them at a downward angle from the corners of the loading block. All the cases then get a light coating of lubricant. If this process is used, it is necessary to use a can of lubricant specially designed for reloading, not just any old spray can of general purpose lubricant, such as WD-40, because general purpose lubricants may contaminate the powder being loaded into the cartridge. The can of spray typically costs around $8 - $12 or so.

A third kind of lubricant that is commonly used is a wax, usually called a die wax or a sizing wax. This is generally applied to the cases by using bare hands to rub it on. These are also very cheap at about $6 - $10 for a can.

The user must be careful not to apply too much lube to the cases, otherwise the lube could press a dent into the case body when pushed into the sizing die.

Of course, during the process of loading cartridges, it is convenient to have something to hold the cartridges in place while the user is reloading them. We just mentioned such a device in the above paragraph: a loading block. This is an entirely optional tool, but is very useful to have.

This consists of a plastic tray with holes in it. Cartridges can be placed vertically in these holes. Users can get by with one, but it is better to have two of these, one to hold the cartridges before they are processed by a tool and one on the other side, to put the cartridges in, after each one is processed by the tool. Most of them are fairly cheap, between $5 - $10 or so and can hold between 25 and 50 cartridges.

The next optional tool is a priming tool:

Users of progressive presses don't need to bother with this because most progressive presses do seat primers as part of their functionality. Many newer single stage and turret presses also come with priming capabilities these days. Of course, the user has to be careful not to apply too much pressure when seating the primer with a press, because the primer cap could explode in that situation. The one advantage of having a separate priming tool is that the user can prime cases without changing dies on the press.

The next optional tool we will look at is a bullet puller. This is generally an optional tool, but is very useful to have and many beginner kits these days come with one included.

For people who reload using progressive presses, it may be possible that the powder measure dispenser has gone empty and the user hadn't noticed this and managed to load some cartridges without putting any propellant in them (after all, it can be a monotonous process and the user may not be paying full attention). So what happens now? The user needs to go through the loaded cartridges and pull out the bullets and check if there's powder inside or not. To do this, a bullet puller comes in very handy. It consists of a hammer shaped device with a three-jaw chuck on one end. The user turns this to grip the case rim and then hits the hammer on a solid surface, as though he's using a hammer. The case stays behind held by the chuck and the powder and bullet are extracted by momentum and drop into the main chamber. Simple, easy and only costs around $15 - $20.

Of course, some modern progressive presses have some kind of alerting system if they run out of powder, therefore a bullet puller will not get used at all if the user has such a press. But for those who don't, a bullet puller is an useful tool to have.

Finally, after cartridge cases have been reloaded a few times, they tend to collect burnt powder deposits on the inside. For people who reload a lot of cases regularly, it is useful to invest in some sort of case cleaning device.

A tumbling or vibrating case cleaning kit

The first type of case cleaning kit we will look at is the tumbling cleaner kit. This consists of a large drum which can be loaded with the cases to be cleaned. The user then adds some kind of abrasive cleaning material into the drum (such as crushed walnut shells, ground corn cobs etc.). Then the user turns on the motor, which rotates the drum and tumbles its contents. After a few hours, the cases come out looking polished and ready for reloading. Entry level tumblers can cost around $60 or so and can handle up to 350 .38 special cases at a time and more expensive models like the one above cost around $220 and can easily handle about 15 lbs. of material.

A vibrating case tumbler kit

Another case cleaning kit that uses similar principles is the vibrating case tumbler kit. This has a vertical drum, unlike the horizontal drum of the tumbling cleaner kit. The user puts cartridge cases and cleaning material in the drum and turns it on. The drum vibrates and the contents inside it rub against each other and cleans the brass cases. These also go for around $60 - $70 and the example above also comes with polish, abrasive cleaning media (ground corn cobs) and a pan that allows the user to sift the cartridges out of the cleaning media.

The one issue with a tumbling or vibrating cleaner is that they take several hours to finish doing their job. For faster results, people use ultrasonic cleaner devices.

Ultrasonic cleaner

With this type of cleaner, the user loads the brass cases in, along with some mild acid solution and water. Ultrasonic waves generated by the cleaner remove the carbon deposits within several minutes. The user still needs to wait for the wet cases to dry though before proceeding to reload. Devices like this cost about $100 - $150.

Case cleaner devices are not really needed for casual reloaders, but are used much more by high volume shooters who reload regularly. For people who don't shoot that often and don't want to invest that much money, one can use a case cleaning brush, a primer pocket cleaner and a flash hole cleaner tool to clean cases, which are much cheaper and cost around $10 - $15 for all three of these tools.

Finally, the one important piece in every reloader's workbench, a data manual. These are books containing data about complete recipes to reload cartridges safely. They contain details like how much powder to use, brand of case, primer and bullet, sizes of the entire case, bullet and primer, specifics on loading procedures, any details to check on the finished cartridges etc. Some of these are published by well-known ammunition and propellant manufacturers such as Hornady, Lyman, Speer, Vihtavuori, Hodgdon, Sierra etc. and others are also published by SAAMI (The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, an association of American firearms and ammunition manufacturers, created at the behest of the US government to create standards and publish technical data) and CIP (the European equivalent of SAAMI). The low-end raw data manuals cost about $5 and only contain information about certain calibers (such as common pistol calibers, 12 gauge shotshells, certain revolver calibers etc.), while the top end books cost about $20 - $30 and contain over 1000 pages of data. Many propellant manufacturers even publish reloading data on their websites for free.

In the next post, we will look into the actual process of reloading.

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