Sunday, July 29, 2012

A History of the M1911 Pistol

The M1911 pistol is a legendary design that is still going strong well into the 21st century. We will study some of its history in this post.

Click on images to enlarge.

First, we go all the way back to 1884, when Hiram Maxim, an American inventor, was living in England. A couple of years before, he recalled that as a child, he had once tried to fire a rifle and was knocked over by the recoil. This gave him the idea that perhaps he could harness some of the recoil force to automatically extract the old cartridge and chamber a new one. He started work in 1882 and by October 1884, he had a prototype that he could demonstrate publicly.

While Hiram Maxim formed a company to manufacture machine guns, the principle he had demonstrated could also be used by pistols. By 1896, several companies began to manufacture pistols using the same concept of using recoil to automatically load subsequent cartridges.

Fast forward a few years and over in Asia, the Philippines-American war had broken out in 1899 and by 1904, Moro tribesmen in the southern Philippines had started a rebellion. US soldiers, who were then using the issued M1892 revolver, found to their horror, that the .38 Long Colt cartridge that it used was insufficient to stop charging Moro tribesmen, who were reportedly high and filled with religious fervor. Some servicemen found that the older M1873 revolver model, which used a bigger .45 Colt cartridge was much more effective at stopping the tribesmen. Word got back to higher ups and the Chief of Ordinance, General William Crozier, authorized some tests to determine a new sidearm for the US army.

Colonel (later General) John T. Thompson (of Thompson submachine gun fame) declared that among his requirements for the new firearm was that it should fire at least .45 caliber ammunition and should be capable of semi-automatic operation. In 1906, firearms from six different companies were submitted for trial and four were eliminated early on, leaving only designs manufactured by Savage and Colt for final trials. The Colt design was designed by the legendary firearms designer, John Browning. During the final tests conducted in 1910, the Colt design passed through the tests with reportedly no malfunctions, whereas the Savage design had 37 failures. Therefore, the Colt design was officially accepted in March 1911 and designated as the M1911 pistol.

While the military liked the Colt design, they suggested a number of improvements to it. Among them was the addition of the grip safety and the manual safety. After World War I, a number of minor changes were authorized and these were incorporated into the M1911A1 design in 1924. Among these changes were shorter trigger, wider front sight, longer grip safety spur, shorter hammer spur etc. These changes are relatively minor and people who are not very familiar with the design cannot really tell the differences.

Since then, the design has been manufactured by many other companies around the world, with a variety of different materials. Examples of manufacturers include Smith & Wesson, Taurus, Norinco, Wilson Arms, Les Baer etc. They can vary in prices from about $300 to over $5000 for custom made models.

The demand of this classic design is still going strong -- in July 2012, the US Marine Corps announced that they were looking to purchase 12,000 M1911 pistols for use by various personnel.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Clay Pigeons

With the London Olympics just around the corner, one of the events held there is the Olympic Trap Shooting competition. In this competition, shooters armed with shotguns attempt to shoot at clay plates that are thrown in the air. These plates are called "clay pigeons" or "birds", the machine that throws them is called a "trap", a hit is referred to as a "kill", a miss as a "bird away". So what are the origins of such terms.

A clay pigeon target made by Remington Inc. Note the name "Blue Rock".
Click on image to enlarge. Image released to public domain by user Jeff Weiss at Wikipedia.

To understand some of these terms, we must go back to the end of the 1700s, when shooting sports were popular among the rich people of England. At that time, the targets were often live pigeons and the first record of such events dates to the 1750s when flintlock firearms were still popular. By the 1830s, it was a well known sport and several shooting clubs were operational around London. Firearm manufacturers even began to manufacture specialized firearms called "pigeon guns" for this purpose and these were often double-barreled percussion shotguns.

One of the oldest shooting clubs from that period was called The Old Hats public house on Uxbridge road at Ealing, near London. The name "Old Hats" derived from the way that the pigeons were held before releasing: small holes were dug into the ground and the birds were put into these holes and old hats were put on these holes to keep the birds in the dark and prevent them from escaping. A system of ropes and pulleys were used to pull the hats away and release the birds when required. The "Red House" in Battersea was another famed London club known for wager shooting. By 1856, the hats were replaced by box traps which had sliding doors operated by ropes. This is why the sport is now called "trap shooting" and not "hat shooting". The Hornsey Wood House club was the first one to start using traps (incidentally, the Hornsey Wood House club was formed in 1810 and was the first dedicated pigeon shooting club).

Now we can go into the origin of some of the terms that are still with us. In the old shooting clubs, when the shooter was ready and wanted a bird to be released, he would yell "pull" to tell the assistant to pull the rope and release the trap door. Modern shooters still yell "pull" when they're prepared to shoot a target for this reason. As you've probably guessed, this is why the target is still called a "bird", a hit is a "kill" and a miss is a "bird away".

If you look at the picture of the clay target above, note that it is named as "Blue Rock". There is a history behind that name as well. The favorite type of bird used in England for pigeon shooting was the Blue Rock pigeon.

The Blue Rock Pigeon. Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, which is now in the public domain.

According to W.W. Greener's book The Gun and its Development, the preferred variety was the Lincolnshire Blue Rock, which came from the Lincolnshire district of England. These birds were raised by farmers in Lincolnshire in cotes close to the coast, which made for a particularly hardy bird which was small in body size, but quick in flight and tough. Other Blue Rock pigeons were bred in Oxfordshire and Yorkshire, but were deemed inferior to Lincolnshire birds. Many birds were also imported from Antwerp, but they were not as game as the English birds, per the author. The second best preferred bird was the English Skimmer, which along with the Antwerp birds, were used in the second-rate shooting clubs.

The sport of trap shooting spread from England to Europe and America and became so popular that it became hard to obtain live birds. Therefore, enthusiasts started to make artificial traps to cover the shortage. The first artificial targets were glass balls and these were used from around 1865 to 1880 or so. Glass ball shooting originated in England and rapidly spread to the US. The platter shaped clay pigeons were first made around 1880 by Mr. George Ligowsky in Cleveland and began to replace glass balls almost immediately. These clay traps also gradually began to replace live traps as well and by the 1900 Olympic games held in Paris, trap shooting was an official Olympic sport. Incidentally, the 1900 Olympics had two additional shooting event as well, one using live pigeons as targets and another one that involved shooting running game. It was the only Olympics to have these two events. By 1921, it became illegal to use live targets in England and the clay traps were then used in all shooting contests since. A popular hand trap throwing device was invented in 1927 by Emile Laporte of France, which also gave a huge boost to the sport. This was a spring loaded device that gave a spinning trajectory to the clay pigeon and made the target stable in flight for at least the first 50 meters or so. Trap shooting is still a part of the Olympic games.

Interestingly enough, between 1900 and 1992, the Olympic sport of trap-shooting was one of the few sporting events where men and women competed against each other in the same event. It was the 1996 Olympic games that made separate events for men and women.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Unusual Firearms: Russian Space Pistol

We have discussed many mainstream firearms over the months on this blog, but we haven't looked at too many unusual ones yet. We will start with the amazing Russian Space pistol, the TP-82!

Click on images to enlarge

This three barreled weapon was in service with the Russians since 1986 to 2006 and has been carried by their cosmonauts on several space missions. The two top barrels are side-by-side smoothbore barrels that can fire shotgun shells and signalling flares. The bottom barrel is rifled and fires more conventional 5.45x39 mm. ammunition (the same as that used by the AK-74 assault rifle)

So why carry a firearm into space? Are they expecting an invasion of little green men from Mars? Well,  the real reason is to protect their cosmonauts from earth-based predators. Here's why the need for a firearm came about.

In the 1960s when the US and the Soviets were both trying to win the space race, both countries were launching spacecraft that returned the astronauts to earth via parachutes. In America's case, the landings were often over water (specifically, oceans) and the US Navy had the job of recovering the astronauts after splashdown. In the Soviet case, they had vast underpopulated areas and would try to land their capsules in their own territory. However, they often had issues where the space capsules would land well away from the intended landing zone.

In 1965, on the Voshkod 2 mission, Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk into space. This feat made major headlines worldwide. What is not nearly well-known is the number of glitches that happened in this mission: Leonov's space suit inflated too much during his spacewalk, he had to bleed some air to get back in the hatch, got stuck, overheated and nearly died out there. On the way back to re-entry on earth, the automatic landing system malfunctioned and Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, had to take over with manual controls, which meant that they could not return to their seats immediately and disrupted the center of gravity of their capsule. All this meant that they landed over 350 km. (about 220 miles) away from their intended landing zone, in the middle of the Ural mountains. There were not too many people there, but plenty of wolves and bears! While the Soviets had a rough idea where they had landed, they could not dispatch helicopters immediately to their rescue. The two cosmonauts allegedly had to stay inside the capsule for several hours, while a hungry pack of wolves was prowling outside, trying to get into the capsule.

The solution to this issue was fairly simple. The next Soviet space mission added to the survival kit, a firearm that was known for its reliability and simplicity: the AKM assault rifle (this is per a former Soviet defector named Vladimir Rezun (who writes under the pen-name "Victor Suvorov") in one of his books.) and all Soviet space missions since 1965 have always carried some sort of firearm into space.

AKM and AK-74 rifles were reportedly carried along during Soviet space missions in the 60s and 70s, all the way to the mid 80s. The TP-82 was developed in 1982 and came into service around 1986. It combines the capabilities of a shotgun (to hunt birds and small animals), a flare pistol (to signal rescuers where they are) and a rifle (to shoot bigger predators and larger game) in one firearm. It has three barrels, two side-by-side smoothbore barrels and a rifled barrel underneath. The two smoothbore barrels can fire 12.5x70 mm. shells (approx 40. gauge) and the rifled barrel can fire a 5.45x39 mm. AK-74 round. The rifle barrel has been tested and found effective to kill elk, deer, wild boar, ibex, antelope and other large animals weighing upto 200 kg. (440 lbs.) for distances up to 200 meters and the shotgun barrel has been used effectively against rabbits, foxes, partridges, ducks, geese, pheasants etc. The stock is detachable and contains a machete inside it, to cut wood and build shelters. The stock can also double as a small spade or shovel to dig holes in the ground. The entire firearm with the stock weighs about 2.4 kg. (5.3 lbs.) and without the stock, it weighs 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs.). The three types of ammunition for this weapon come on a belt that is attached to the gun.

The TP-82 remained in service until 2006 or early 2007, when the ammunition that was made for it degraded and became unusable. Since then, the Russian missions have reportedly carried a semi-automatic pistol (reportedly, a Makarov PM) for self-defense.

Reloading Ammunition: Procedures

In the last few posts in the series, we've talked about all the equipment needed for reloading. Now we will discuss how the process of reloading works. At this stage, it might be a good idea to state a few points:

  1. While reloading ammunition is legal in the United States and Canada and some other countries, it is also illegal in some countries around the world. In some countries (e.g. Germany), people need to take a course and pass a state exam before they're allowed to reload legally. In other countries, reloading is completely banned. If you are from one of these countries, you should probably stop reading now.
  2. Many firearms manufacturers will refuse to honor warranty if non-standard loads are used.
  3. Some lawyers recommend against using reloaded ammunition for home defensive use. This depends on jurisdiction though, so it is best to check if it is an issue in your area or not.
  4. Don't always believe everything you read on the Internet (including this blog). If you want to get into reloading, it is best to consult an experienced person on the subject face-to-face.
With that said, let's look into all the equipment used for reloading. If you'd been reading the previous few blog posts carefully, you should have no trouble identifying the equipment in the movie below, and the purposes for which they are used:

The above post shows some of the basic equipment that a reloader needs, along with an explanation of what each tool does. The movie basically goes over what we covered in the last few blog posts.

The next video also goes over equipment (although much more quickly) and shows the process of reloading:

This gives a fairly good idea of the reloading process with a single stage press.

In the next video, we see another person reloading using a more advanced press and tools.

Happy viewing!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Equipment: Reloading Kits

In the last few posts in this series, we looked at various individual tools and materials needed to reload cartridges. For many of these tools and materials, we looked at the prices at which they could be purchased. However, it must be noted that if a beginner were to start reloading and purchase these items individually, they would cost a considerable sum of money. Not to worry though: many manufacturers also sell reloading kits, which contain the basic tools that a beginner would need to do some reloading.  Buying one of these is a lot cheaper than purchasing the individual parts.

At  the low-end, we have hand-reloading kits for specific pistol and rifle calibers:

A basic 9 mm. reloading kit from Lee Precision Inc.

This is a cheap loading kit designed for reloading 9 mm. Luger ammunition only, that sells for about $38.00. Note that it doesn't come with any reloading press, the powder measure is a simple scoop and it comes with a couple of tools that look like long screwdrivers to perform decapping and capping operations. A couple of dies are included to size the case and load the bullet. The user is expected to purchase a rubber mallet to use with this kit, as there is no press. There is also an included instruction manual that gives step-by-step instructions on how to use this kit, along with information about powder types and loads that should be used with it. Lee Precision claims that a user can load about 50 cartridges an hour with this kit, which is probably a little on the high side.

Lee sells a number of these kits at the same price (about $38.00), each one designed for a specific pistol or rifle cartridge caliber, e.g. 9 mm. Luger, .44 magnum, .357 magnum, .45 ACP, 30/30 Winchester, 303 British etc. In many of these kits, Lee Precision does state that some considerable force will need to be applied for reloading larger cartridges, which means that these kits are not easy for everyone to use. Still, these are the cheapest type of reloading kit available.

The next step up is a reloading kit that can be used to reload various types of ammunition. Such a kit comes with a single-stage press:

Lee Precision Breech Lock Challenge Kit. Click on image to enlarge.

This kit comes with a single-stage "O" press, an automatic powder measure, a set of powder scales, a powder funnel, a hand operated spring-loaded priming tool, a set of shell holders that will fit 115 popular cartridge types, case cutter and deburring tool (case-length gauges for specific calibers can be ordered with this kit for an additional $6 per gauge). Included also are a case lubrication kit and a couple of primer pocket cleaning tools.

If the above parts are purchased separately, they would cost around $215 in total. However, buying this kit costs only $172. Of course, the user will also need to purchase sets of dies corresponding to the cartridge calibers that they need to reload, which cost an additional $40 per set. Additional tools would include calipers, some cleaning brushes, a reloading data book etc.

A single stage reloading kit from RCBS

The above image is another single-stage loading kit from RCBS Inc. This one also has a single stage "O" Press, a set of powder scales, a powder funnel, case lubrication kit, a loading block, primer tray, case cleaning brushes, deburring tool and a reloading manual written by Speer (for non-American readers, Speer is a well-known ammunition manufacturing company in America). A kit like this costs about $180. As with the above Lee kit, this one also needs the user to purchase sets of dies corresponding to the cartridge calibers that need to be reloaded, which cost about $40 per set. In addition, the user will also need to purchase some shell holders corresponding to the cartridge calibers being reloaded, calipers etc.

Single stage kits like these allow the user to reload about 250 rounds per hour.

Next up, we have turret press kits, such as the one below:

This value turret press kit costs about $115 and just requires 4 pulls of the lever to complete a cartridge. It comes with a turret press, auto powder measure, scale, case cutting tools, primer pocket cleaner and deburring tool. All that is needed is a set of dies for that caliber and optionally, calipers and loading blocks. This particular kit is only suitable for handgun cartridges though.

Turret Press reloading kits by Lee Precision and RCBS. Click on images to enlarge

The next two images are turret press reloading kits geared towards reloading both pistol and rifle ammunition. These kits are in the $300 - $400 range and contain all the common tools needed for reloading. The manuals that are supplied with these kits contain instructions to load a very wide variety of cartridges. The user only needs to additionally purchase die sets and shell holders for the cartridge calibers to be reloaded + calipers if needed.

These kits are easily capable of loading about 250 cartridges an hour

Finally, we have kits that contain progressive presses.

Hornady Lock N' Load Ammo Plant reloading kit. Click on image to enlarge

A kit like this costs about $1200 - $1400 and comes with a progressive press, automatic bullet feeder, automatic case feeder, die bushings, cartridge catchers, primer pickup tubes, a monitor to ensure that it will warn when the hopper runs out of gunpowder etc.  The only things left to purchase are shell holders, dies and perhaps some additional die bushings (if the ones that are already supplied with the kit don't fit), a set of scales and calipers.

RCBS Progressive reloading kit. Click on image to enlarge

The above kit costs about $900 and comes with a progressive press, automated priming and powder dispensing systems, case trimmer and cutter, deburring tool, case lubrication kit, brushes and cleaning tools and a Speer reloading manual among others. Note that the scale is electronic and can be used to measure the powder as well as the completed cartridges. The kit also comes with a set of calipers, so the only thing that the user needs to purchase is a set of dies and shell holders.

One last thing to mention is that many of the prices mentioned in this article and the previous ones are new equipment prices, as of time of writing of the article. It is possible to buy many of these tools in used condition from gun shows, at much reduced prices. Some tools like presses or dies generally tend to last a very long time, so a used press may perform very similar to a new one, but only cost $20 - $30 whereas the same model in brand-new condition could cost $70 - $80. Similarly, dies tend to last a very long time, so used dies can be purchased for much cheaper than new ones and while the used set may have some minor scratches and blemishes, it could still perform as well as a brand-new set.

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Equipment: Measuring Tools

In our last couple of posts, we looked into some of the equipment used in reloading ammunition: presses and dies and shellholders. In this post, we will look into tools that help measuring the amount of propellants used, as well as measuring the cartridges.

Propellant composition depends on the type of ammunition being reloaded. In general, shotgun and handgun cartridges use faster burning powders, while rifle cartridges use slower burning powder. So depending on what is being loaded, appropriate powder is purchased from a supplier.

The quantity of propellant used in a cartridge is usually specified by weight in a unit called grains (1 grain is 65 mg. or 0.00014 lbs.) in the US, or grams and milligrams in metric speaking countries. Usually, the weight of the propellant is specified to a precision of 0.1 grains (or 6.5 mg.)

It must be noted that a lot of reloaders measure propellant by volume instead of weight. For this, they use a tool called a powder measure. The basic powder measure is a simple scoop of predetermined volume, such as the example shown below:

A simple powder scoop

This type of powder scoop costs only about $1 and is made of plastic. The user simply inserts it into the powder container and scoops out enough propellant to fill the bowl. This type of powder measure generally comes with the cheapest reloading kits which are only designed for one particular caliber of cartridge and a specific brand of propellant.

Using such a scoop is somewhat slow. For more faster reloading, people generally use an automatic powder measure

An automatic powder measure

This consists of a hopper that can hold a large quantity of propellant material. The two black cylindrical objects in the bottom left of the picture are metering screws. The powder measure is adjusted to dispense a consistent amount of powder each time the lever in front is turned. The amount to dispense depends on the cartridge type being reloaded. Some automatic powder measures come with different sized nozzle inserts to adjust for different cartridge case mounts.

Regardless of whether a scoop or an automatic powder measure is used to get the powder, most users load the powder into the cartridge using a plastic funnel.

A powder funnel

It is possible to overcharge a cartridge case when measuring by volume, especially with faster burning propellants which use smaller grains. This is why some people prefer to measure propellants by weight, using devices such as the ones discussed below.

A device that is often used for loading propellant is a powder scale. These can come in various models. At the bottom end, we have mechanical balance beams, such as the model shown below:

A reloading scale. Click on image to enlarge

This simply consists of a balance beam with a pan on one end and a sliding weight on the other end. The beam is graduated so that different weights can be measured by moving the sliding weight appropriately to different positions. The powder to be weighed is placed in the pan until the beam is balanced. Models like this allow the user to weigh charges up to 500 grains (32.5 gm. or 0.07 lbs.)  to a precision of about 0.1 grains (6.5 mg. or 0.000014 lbs.). These devices cost about $50 - $70 or so, but require careful measuring and take more time to weigh the powder.

More modern powder scales are now electronic in nature.

Electronic powder scales.

An electronic scale, such as the ones above, can measure loads much more quickly than a mechanical one can. They have plastic lids to eliminate the effect of air currents while measuring weights. They can range in price from $80 (for the second one) to about $325 (for the first one). The first powder scale is much more precise though and can measure weights upto 1850 grains with a precision of 0.02 grains.

In some cases, people have combined the powder measure and the electronic scale to produce combination devices that do both, such as the one shown below:

An RCBS ChargeMaster combination scale and dispenser

In the above image, we see a combination scale and dispenser made by RCBS. The user pours a large quantity of propellant into the transparent hopper on top and then enters the weight of the powder to be dispensed out. The dispenser automatically dispenses the correct amount to a precision of 0.1 grain. A device like this costs around $250 - $350 or so.

Electronic scales can not only measure powder weights, but also the completed cartridges, to make sure that they are within a consistent range of overall weight.

Finally, there are devices called powder tricklers, such as the one shown below:

A powder trickler allows the reloader to dispense very small quantities of propellant (as in a few granules) at a time. This is often used by competition shooters and serious reloaders to produce consistent loads. People who use these devices initially load their cartridges below the desired weight and then add powder slowly using a powder trickler, until the desired weight of powder is reached. These are fairly cheap and cost between $10 and $15.

In addition to measuring the weights of the powder that is added to the cartridge cases, it is often necessary to measure the dimensions of cartridge cases. This ensures that the finished cases will work properly in the firearm and not get stuck inside. In order to check the dimensions of the ammunition, a reloader often uses a caliper or a screw gauge (also called a micrometer).

Calipers and Micrometers

A selection of calipers and micrometers are shown above. These devices allow the user to measure dimensions of cartridges down to precisions of 0.001 inches (or 0.0025 mm.) or better. Prices of these vary depending on model from $25 for cheap models to $200+ for a very high-precision model. It is important to ensure that size of the ammunition is correct, otherwise the firearm may jam up during operation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Equipment: Dies and Shell Holders

In our last post on the subject of reloading, we looked into reloading presses in some detail. The purpose of a press is to push the cartridge case against a die that will perform some sort of reloading task on the cartridge case. Which brings us to the subject of today's study: the use of dies in reloading.

A die is simply a tool used along with a press and it is designed to cut or shape material, by pushing the metal object against the die surface. Dies are used a lot in manufacturing industries to make objects of a given shape. For the purposes of reloading, dies are generally sold in sets of two or three dies, though some sets come with four dies. Each set of dies is designed for certain calibers of ammunition only.

A two piece die set for 20-28 caliber ammunition 

A three piece die set for 29-31 caliber ammunition 

A four piece die set designed to reload 44 magnum cartridges.
Click on images to enlarge.

The number of dies in a set have to do with the shapes of the cases being reloaded. In general, a two die set is used for bottlenecked cartridge cases and three die sets are used for cylindrical (straight) cartridge cases. In the case of certain high powered cartridges like 357 magnum or 44 magnum, a four die set is sometimes used. The first die is used to resize the case back to proper size and also perform a decapping operation for many cartridge cases, though for some cartridge cases, the second die performs the decapping. In a two die set, the first die also expands the bottleneck of the case. In a three die set, the second die is usually the one that expands the neck of a straight case and in some cases, the second die also does the decapping operation. The last die in the set mates the bullet with the cartridge case and may crimp the bullet to the case. In case of four die sets, the fourth die may apply a stronger crimp to the bullet.

The purpose of the various dies are as follows:

Sizing dies: When a cartridge is fired inside a firearm, the brass cartridge case expands due to pressure and seals the chamber. As the bullet leaves the firearm, the pressure inside the chamber drops and the case springs back slightly, but it never goes back to the original dimensions that it had before it was fired. Thus, the used cartridge case may not fit a firearm correctly and will not grip a bullet correctly when reloaded. Hence, the user needs to use a sizing die to restore the cartridge case back to the dimensions that it had when it was manufactured in the factory. A lot of sizing dies also have a decapping pin to push out the spent primer from the case.

Neck-expanding die: These are used on straight cases (as the sizing die does this job as well for bottleneck cases) to expand the mouth of the case slightly, to help it receive the new bullet easily, without crumpling the edges when the bullet is seated inside the cartridge.

Bullet-seating die: This die controls how far the bullet seats inside the cartridge case, so that the overall length of the cartridge is correct. Many seating dies also crimp the edge of the case mouth to hold the bullet in place.

The dies are usually made of hardened tool steel or tungsten carbide and modern ones generally use a standard thread so that they can be used with all common brands of presses. For dies that are made of tool steel, the cartridge case needs to be lubricated before the resizing operation, due to the large amount of force involved in this. Rifle cartridges need every case to be lubricated, whereas handgun cartridges which are smaller and thinner, can be resized by alternating lubricated and unlubricated cases. Tungsten carbide cases are naturally slippery and don't need lubrication.

For people who like to make their own bullets, there are also dies called swaging dies.

Bullet swaging dies. Click on images to enlarge

These are used by enthusiasts to machine very precise bullet shapes.

There are other specialty dies as well. Bump dies are designed to move the shoulder of a bottleneck case back and are useful for people who own custom designed rifles which are machined to fine tolerances. Another type of die is the hand die, which has no threads and is designed to be hand operated

New die sets generally cost between $30 - $80 or so, depending on the type of material used to manufacture the dies. Some specialized die sets cost more than this, of course. Used die sets may be found for much cheaper prices in gun shows. The lifetime of a die is actually pretty long (some can last a generation or two), so purchasing used die sets may be advantageous for people who don't have much money.

In some situations, people also use shell holders along with dies.

Dies and shell holders for 7.5 mm. Swiss ammunition. Click on image to enlarge
Image licensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 by user Arthurrh on wikipedia.

The shell holders are the two round discs in the above image. Shell holders are used to hold the cartridge case in place as it is being forced into and removed out of a die. Shell holders are generally sold separately from dies because many calibers of cartridges actually share the same dimensions at the base of the cartridge and the same shell holder may be used in different dies designed for different cases.

In the next post, we will look at more tools used for reloading.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Equipment: Presses

In our last post, we started studying the subject of reloading cartridges. We discussed the motivations for reloading cartridges, the types of cartridges that can be reloaded, the components of such cartridges and some typical prices of those components. We also mentioned that there are certain fixed costs that are associated with reloading cartridges, namely the cost of equipment needed to do this. We will study the equipment needed to reload cartridges in this post.

The most important equipment for anyone interesting in reloading cartridges is a press. While it is possible to reload some cartridges without a press (some really cheap reloading kits use a rubber mallet instead, but these require the user to possess a good amount of strength and a lot of patience), a press is a must for anyone interested in reloading cartridges at a reasonable speed.

Single stage reloading press. Click on image to enlarge.

These are used to push the cartridge cases into the dies and use the principle of levers to apply the force required to do this. There are different models of presses, usually categorized by the letter of the alphabet that they are shaped like: "C", "O" (like the one pictured above) and "H" press types. They can also be categorized from the simple single stage models (like the one pictured above) to more complex progressive reloading models that can load multiple cartridges simultaneously and can switch dies automatically with each pull of the lever.

A progressive loading press. Click on image to enlarge.

The most common types of press are the "O" and "C types, usually of the single stage models. When using a single stage model press, users generally reload cartridges in batches: i.e. they attach a die designed to decap a cartridge and then use the press to decap a bunch of cartridges one at a time first, then they switch dies to a type designed for loading and reload the same group of cartridges that have been decapped by the previous operation, one at a time. The "O" type is suitable for all stages of reloading cartridges as well as bullet swaging, whereas the "C" type is only suitable for all stages of reloading and cannot swage bullets.

Instead of a single stage model, the user may use a turret press model where the two or three dies needed for reloading are already mounted simultaneously on a turret and the user can switch between dies by rotating the turret. This saves the user the setup time required to take out one die and attach and re-position the next one when doing batches of cartridges. Older mechanically inclined readers may remember turret lathes, which use the same idea to load multiple tools on the lathe's tool post turret and switch between them using a lever.

Progressive presses like the one pictured above can handle several bullets at once, so the user can save more time by loading multiple bullets simultaneously. Progressive presses have multiple stations and hold a different die in each station. As the lever is pulled, a shell plate holding the different cartridge cases revolves under the various dies, so each case gets a different reloading operation performed to it in sequence. They can also have a device to automatically measure out the propellant and some even have devices to feed empty cases to the press with each pull of the lever. The user then needs to only hold the bullet on top the case and pull the lever.

A single "O" or "C" type press can be used to reload multiple calibers and shapes of ammunition, just by using the appropriate sized dies. The only exceptions are when large cartridges such as .50 BMG need to be reloaded, as these usually need specially designed presses to handle such larger cartridges and standard sized ones cannot do the job.

The "H" type is generally used for shotgun shell reloading, where each arm of the H configuration has a separate die to resize the shell, pack in the propellant, measure shot and push wads in and then crimp the shell. These are not as versatile as the "C" or "O" presses, because they can only be used to reload the one particular gauge of shotshell that they're designed for. The cost of re-configuring a "H" type press to reload a different gauge of shotshell (i.e. buying new dies, bushings, shot bar etc.) usually costs more than buying a new H type press for a different gauge, so most users simply buy a new press from the factory to reload a different shotgun caliber. Also, when using a "H" type press, users generally work on each stage of a cartridge reloading processes in sequence, instead of the batch mode operation done with "C" or "O" type presses.

As far as prices go, single stage "C", "H" and "O" type presses cost around $40 - $80 or so for the standard models and the more heavy-duty expensive models designed for large caliber cartridges cost around $150 - $200. Turret presses range in price from around $150 - $280. Progressive presses cost about $300 - $750 or so.  In many cases, a few dies are included along with the press.

In the next post, we will look at dies used for reloading.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reloading Ammunition: Basics

Many moons ago, when we first discussed centerfire cartridges, brief mention was made of the fact that these cartridges can be refilled by users after use. We will study more on that topic in this post.

Centerfire cartridges are detonated by having the striker of the firearm strike a primer cap at the base of the cartridge, which causes the shock sensitive primer to ignite, thereby igniting the propellant in the cartridge. Unlike a rimfire cartridge, where the rim gets deformed by the striker, a centerfire cartridge case generally remains intact even after shooting the cartridge. This means that it may be possible for the cartridge case to be refilled and reused after it is fired.

There are several reasons why people reload cartridges:

  1. A person may be using a firearm that uses an uncommon caliber cartridge or the firearm may be so old that the ammunition has gone out of production.
  2. A person could have purchased the firearm in one country where the ammunition for it is common, but not so easily obtained when the person moves to another country. For instance, 6.5x54 mm. Mannlicher-Schoenhauer cartridge is popular with big game hunters in Europe and Africa, but is not so easily available in the US. Conversely, the .40 caliber S&W cartridge is easily available in the US, but not so easily found in Europe. And while .45 ACP ammunition is popular on both sides of the pond, the Europeans pay more for it than we do.
  3. The price of ammunition might have increased due to external circumstances and it is no longer affordable to keep purchasing new ammunition. For instance, the price of ammunition in the US has been rising in recent years, due to various reasons such as the war on terror, election jitters, increased Chinese demand for metals like lead and copper drove up the prices etc.
  4. Cutting costs, especially in a down economy. A person may save 25% - 50% of the cost of purchasing from a factory. For rarer ammunition, the cost savings may be even higher.
  5. Some may want more accuracy or performance out of their firearm which they can't obtain with factory loaded ammunition. 
  6. There may not be any factory producing ammunition for a specific combination of bullet and cartridge, so users might have to produce their own. This is especially true for people who like to experiment with wildcat cartridges.
  7. Purely as a hobby. There are examples of rich people who could easily afford to buy new cartridges, but prefer to reload their own cartridges by hand, simply because they like it.
Image licensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 by user Arthurrh at Wikipedia
Click on image to enlarge

In the above picture, we see a disassembled rifle cartridge. From top to bottom, the various components are: the bullet, the propellant granules, a brass cartridge case and a tiny primer cap at the bottom. In our discussion about centerfire cartridges from many months ago, we noted that it was easier to reload cartridges designed for Boxer-type primer cap vs. Berdan-type primer cap. In the US, most cartridges use boxer-type primer caps, thereby making the reloading job much easier.

The most expensive part of the cartridge is the cartridge case and fortunately this may be reused many times and the cost of this is in the user's control. The second most expensive part of the cartridge is the bullet and unfortunately this cannot be reused after firing, as it generally splits into many fragments or gets deformed badly upon hitting something. Hence, bullets need to be either purchased from a manufacturer, or cast or swaged by hand by the user. If purchased from manufacturer, these cost about $50 for a bag of 500 9 mm. bullets. Other bullets may cost more or less than this, depending on bullet size, materials used, type of bullet etc. For bullets that are obsolete, people have to cast or swage their own. The third most expensive part is the propellant, which typically costs about $15 - $30 per lb (1 lb = 0.45 kg) depending on powder quality and this is also something that the user can control costs with. Also, depending on the type and size of ammunition being reloaded (shotgun shell vs. pistol cartridge vs. rifle cartridge etc.), the user may be able to reload anywhere between 175-1500 cartridges with 1 lb. of propellant, which can go a long way into controlling costs. Depending on the type of cartridges being refilled, the user may be able to refill so many cartridges that the cost of propellant per cartridge may actually be lower than the cost of the primer cap. The least expensive part of the cartridge is usually the primer cap and these are generally purchased from a manufacturer in bulk. They are not that expensive anyway -- typically, a bag of 1000 primer caps costs about $30.00 - $40.00 or so, which works out to about 3 - 4 cents per cartridge.

With that said, there are also setup costs of purchasing reloading equipment e.g. press, dies, case trimmer, weighing scale, priming tool, bullet puller, case lubricants etc. However, most of these only need to be purchased once and can be used for several years without replacement.

We will look more into the topic of reloading in the next few posts.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Bayonet

Back in the early days of firearms history, one of the major problems faced by users of such weapons was that it took a long time to load a firearm and prepare it to be ready to fire. Before cartridges were invented, users had to measure out quantities of black powder, chew on a piece of cloth till it formed a suitable wad, pour in the powder, pull out a ball of lead, wrap it in the patch of cloth and then ram it down. Then they had to prime the firing pan, make sure the match was lit and all this before they could even aim the weapon. After they discharged their weapons, they had to repeat the same procedure all over again, to fire the next shot. Early firearms didn't have that much range or accuracy either, so it was possible for an enemy to get within a 100-150 yards, wait for the shot to be fired and then charge before a person could reload.

One way to tackle this problem was to organize the troops into three groups and each group would move forward, fire and then retreat to the back of the line to reload. This meant that one group would always be prepared to fire, although it reduced the firepower to a third of the strength of the unit. It didn't work so well if there were less people in the unit and also didn't work very well for hunters, who often operated solo or in very small groups.

Another solution was to carry a second weapon to protect themselves during close range fighting. Often, this second weapon was some form of short sword or knife. In 17th century France, people started to make knives that could be attached to a musket, thereby converting the musket into a sort of spear. There is an old legend that the inhabitants of the French town of Bayonne had run out of gunpowder and bullets during one conflict, and attached their long hunting knives to their muskets, and the word "Bayonet" comes from the name of their town "Bayonne". Another possibility is that hunters from that area used to carry such devices to protect themselves, in case their shot missed the target. Whatever may be the reason, it is generally accepted that the bayonet seems to have originated in southern France around the end of the 16th or early 17th century.

A 12-18 inch (or 30-45 cm) bayonet knife at the end of a 5 foot (about 1.52 meters) long firearm makes it about the same size as a pike or a spear, but it is much heavier than a corresponding spear or pike or any other polearm type weapon. However, it was better than nothing. People could shoot their muskets and then fix their bayonets and charge at an enemy position (the classic "bayonet charge") or form defensive squares against enemy cavalry (such as that done during the Battle of Waterloo).

The first bayonets were of the plug type. These had a round handle that could fit into the muzzle of the firearm, plugging the end of the barrel. This was useful because the user could use it independent of the  musket as a long knife, but could also plug it into the musket and use them together as a polearm. The major disadvantage of this type was that once it was attached to a musket, the weapon could not be fired until the bayonet was removed.

A plug bayonet. Click on image to enlarge.

Plug bayonet attached to the end of a flintlock musket. Click on image to enlarge.
Note that the musket cannot be used as a firearm since the bayonet is plugging the barrel.

This disadvantage was noted by the French early on and they developed a socket bayonet that could be fitted over the muzzle of the musket, thereby allowing it to be used as a firearm as well. However, this type of bayonet was not really accepted in the late 1600s and plug bayonets were still more popular.

A socket type bayonet from the early 19th century. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.0 France License by user Rama at wikipedia.

The first time that any army used it as a weapon on British soil was at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, where William of Orange's troops faced Jacobite Royalists. Unfortunately for William's troops, they were using plug bayonets and since they could not fire once the bayonets were attached, their enemies charged after that and won the battle. This caused the defeated commander, Hugh Mackay, to develop his own form of socket bayonet that could be attached around the barrel.

Troops using socket-type bayonets. Click on image to enlarge.

Early socket type bayonets had a problem of properly attaching it to a musket, as they had a tendency to fall off the end of the barrel during the heat of battle. This problem was solved later on by making bayonets have spring loaded locking systems that attached to the front sights of the firearm, thereby locking the bayonet into place. Socket bayonets stayed popular for a very long time.

Towards the end of the 18th century and the 19th century, as rifles began to replace muskets, the socket bayonet began to be replaced by the sword bayonet. This form of bayonet is also attached under the barrel like a socket bayonet, but it has a suitable handle to be used as a separate sword, similar to a plug bayonet. These bayonets started to come into use as rifles began to replace muskets in various military units. As rifles were often shorter than muskets, they needed longer sword bayonets so that when they were attached, they would be about the same length as a musket with a socket bayonet. One of the advantages of this over socket bayonets is while socket bayonets were only sharp at the tip and converted rifles into spears which could only be used for thrusting, sword bayonets also had sharp blade edges and converted rifles into glaives, which could be used with both thrusting and slashing movements.

An Indian made Ishapore 2A1 Lee-Enfield rifle with attached P1907 sword bayonet.
Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Sword-bayonets had the advantages of both socket type and plug type bayonets with neither of the disadvantages of the two. However, during World War I, it was discovered that sword bayonets could not be used effectively inside trenches where space was limited. Hence, after World War I, the trend has been to reduce the length of the blade, so that modern bayonets are about the length of a knife instead of a short sword. The first knife bayonet was actually developed before World War I, by the Germans, who developed a 10 inch Seitengewehr bayonet in 1871 and used it till 1884, where it was followed by the Seitengeweher 1884 model which was used till 1945 in German service. Several other militaries began to use knife bayonets after World War I. The vast majority of bayonets developed after World War II are knife bayonets.

US Military Bayonets of World War II. Notice how the size decreases from short-sword length to knife length
Click on image to enlarge. Image licensed under Createive Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license by author Curiosandrelics at Wikipedia.

During the period after World War I, many nations also began to make multi-purpose bayonets, wherein the weapon could not only be used as a knife, but more like a multi-utility tool. The Germans developed knife bayonets with saw-teeth on the back spine, so that they could be used to cut meat as well as saw wood to build defenses, cut tent poles etc. Some other bayonets were developed with a sort of spade to allow digging trenches. The latest bayonets in the US military inventory, the M7 and M9 used by the US army and navy and the OKC3C used by the US marines can all be used as general purpose knives. The M9 and OKC3C also incorporate wire cutters as well.

US Marine Corps OKC3C knife bayonet. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

US Military M9 bayonet attached to M4 carbine. Click on image to enlarge.
Image licensed under Createive Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license by author Curiosandrelics at Wikipedia.

As can be seen in both the images above, both models of bayonets have saw teeth as part of one of the edges. In combination with the sheath, they can be used as wire-cutters. They can also be detached from the rifle and used as a separate knife. The OKC3C is the newer model and is heavier than the M7 or M9 and can penetrate modern body armors better than the other two.

Lest readers think that bayonet charges died in the Napoleonic era and modern bayonets are more used for utility tools these days, it might be useful to remind readers that bayonet training is still part of the curriculum of most military forces around the world. Bayonet charges have been used well into the 20th and 21st centuries as well. The last major US bayonet charge happened during the Korean war, (led by Lewis L. Millet Sr., who won a Medal of Honor for this action), but there have been cases of forces using this tactic well after that. Recent examples include the Scots Guards (British army) in Falklands against the Argentinians in 1982, various Indian units against Pakistanis in Kargil in 1999 and the Argyll and Sutherlanders (British army) against the Mahdi army in Iraq in 2004. As recently as 2010, there were incidents of Gurkhas and Scots using bayonets against the Taliban.