Monday, April 30, 2007

Getting into reloading on the cheap

I've been writing a lot lately about reloading, and the economics thereof; but I've been focused on the higher end. High volume, high speed, and quite frankly high cost.

But what if you're not sure you really want to get into it? What if you don't have the budget, or the time, to do much reloading; but you still want to get into it? What if you're just trying to make as much ammo as you can, as cheaply as possible?

What do you need?

Well (excluding components and a workspace) at the most basic level you need:

1. A press
2. A set of dies
3. Some way of measuring powder
4. Some way of dispensing powder
5. Some way of seating primers
6. Some basic case preparation tools (let's assume pistol only for this one)
7. Some basic tools for measuring the length of your cases and loaded cartridges
8. Something to hold the cases while you go through the processes of loading.
9. A way of pulling bullets out of cases (trust me, you need this)
10. A loading book or two (the internet is not a valid substitute here)

You don't NEED a dedicated workspace, or even a work bench. You can very easily bolt your press and powder measure onto a board, and then when you want to load, take a couple of c-clamps or quick clamps and secure the board to the edge of a sturdy table.

Or, if you want to get fancy, to a black and decker workmate, or any other folding workbench contraption. Those are great if you happen to want to do some reloading in the field, like when you are doing load development and want to vary charges and seating depths as you test for example.

... but, unsurprisingly, I digress...

I've said before, you can do all of this for as little as $200, and get into decent equipment that will last you a good while for under $400.

Well, let's go through that then:

Thankfully, for the reloader on a REALLY tight budget, theres only one manufacturer you need to remember, and that's Lee.

Lee make good quality products, for great prices; and they have excellent warranty and customer service. Their products are for the most part no frills and basic, they may not do everything you might want to do; but that also means you aren't paying for more than you need.
Lee (and most other manufacturers in fact) offers a very basic reloading kit that includes a single stage single station press, and most of the basic tools needed for loading; called the anniversary kit. You just need to add a few extras and you're good to go.

Let's price things out as we go (I’m going to use Midway USA prices here for reference. You can sometimes get better prices from Cheaper Than Dirt, Natchez, or Midsouth):

1. Lee anniversary reloading kit: $69


* Lee challenger press
* Lee perfect powder measure
* Lee safety scale
* Lee auto prime
* Lee shellholders (for auto prime)
* basic case prep tools
* Lee powder funnel

to that you need to add:

2. Lee classic 3 die set: $21 including shellholder
3. Case gage for one caliber: $5
4. OAL gage for one caliber: $5
5. Bullet puller: $12
6. loading tray: $4
7. Lyman reloading manual: $17

That totals out to $133. Just to indicate the value included in the Lee kit; the retail price of the ACCESSORIES (not including the press) included in the kit totals up to over $70, and the press is $40 by itself; but the kit sells for $69, and thats after a $50 discount from MSRP.

One thing though; I think you need to make a couple of substitutions to have a really functional setup. You CAN get by with just a case length gage and OAL gage; and they are useful tools to have around no matter what; but they are very limiting if they are your only tool for measuring the length of cases and cartridges. Realistically, you need a set of calipers; and not a plastic cheapie or a low end digital (notoriously inaccurate). Get yourself a low end stainless model from a reputable manufacturer. Lyman makes one that sells for $28 (in fact, its the one I use).

Okay, so that's $18 more, for a total of $151.

Really, that's honestly all it takes to get started. If you're loading very low volumes of just one caliber, that's a great deal.


For not very much more, you can upgrade to a setup that will make you much happier, and use a turret press.

If you haven't read the other articles on reloading, the difference between a single stage press and a turret press, is that with a single stage you have one tool station (a place where you insert dies) that is fixed in the press. With a turret press, you get as few as 3, or as many as 7 stations; so you can install all the dies of a die set (handgun die sets usually have three dies, but may have 4 or even 5 if you include a separate powder die and crimp die) at once.

The biggest difference is in workflow, and the speed thereof. With a turret press, you can very easily switch from operation to operation just by turning the turret (or the shellplate if it uses a fixed head). You can leave your dies set up and adjusted and not worry about switching them out between operations.

Also, if a press has a quick change turret or toolhead, you can buy spare toolheads (or spare turrets) and have multiple calibers set up in them; so you don't have to worry about changing adjustments when you change between calibers.

Believe me, a turret press cuts your loading time down significantly.

Now, keeping to our limited budget, Lee also offers several turret presses, and press kits. The Lee 4 hole turret press sells for just $64; or as a kit for $103. The Lee Classic 4 hole turret press; which is one of the strongest turret presses made; sells for just $83. Even better, if you load multiple calibers, the spare turret heads for either are just $10.

Now, you could get the 4 hole turret press kit for $102; but it comes with less stuff than is included with the Anniversary kit; and honestly I don't like the auto-disk powder measure they include. I think their "perfect" powder measure is better and more useful. Disk or bar measures are notoriously inaccurate (though consistent from charge to charge), and you have to change disks out to change the charge weight. The "perfect measure" is a screw type measure, which generally work better for everything but really large extruded powders (which do well in disk or bar types) and flake powders, which don't meter well in any measure.

One option would be to buy the Anniversary kit, AND the Turret press. That's not as screwy as it sounds, because the kit includes almost all the accessories you need (as we talked about above), for a price below what you can buy them for... and you'd have another press thrown in to the bargain (a $40 value). That would total out to $196, or $214 with the calipers (which you really should get).

That said, you may not want another press (though a second single stage press is a surprisingly useful thing to complement a turret press if you have room. I personally have two turret presses in fact). You may not have the room, or feel like spending the cash.

Going with the Turret Press Kit, your costs would look something like this

1. Lee turret press kit: $102

* Lee 4 hole turret press
* Lee auto disk measure
* Lee safety scale
* basic case prep tools

to that you need to add:

2. Lee classic 3 die set: $21 including shellholder
3. Lyman calipers: $28
4. Bullet puller: $12
5. Lee powder funnel: $3
6. loading tray: $4
7. Lyman reloading manual: $17

For a total of $187 (vs $214 for the anniversary kit, the turret press, and the other accessories). You'll not one thing however; this setup doesn't include the Lee Auto Prime. The press itself has a priming tool; but I personally prefer (and recommend to others) to hand prime using a priming tool. The Lee auto prime is $10, plus the cost of shellholders ($3 for a single holder, or $12 for a set of 11 - yeah, the better deal is obvious) for an extra $13 or $22 dollars, brining the grand total up to $200, or $209 dollars.

$209 vs $214... for all the same accessories, and you get an extra press and a better powder measure? See, I told you buying the anniversary kit just for the accessories wasn't crazy.

Now, if you don't buy any kit at all, and just assemble the component your self, it looks like this:

1. Lee 4 hole turret press: $64 (or $19 more for the stronger 4 hole classic)
2. Lee 3 die set: $21 including shellholder
3. Lee safety scale: $19 ($30 more gets you into a pretty decent scale)
4. Lee perfect powder measure: $19
5. Lee auto prime: $10 plus shellholder $3 (I’d spend the $12 for the 11 holder set)
6. Lyman stainless dial caliper: $28
7. Frankford bullet puller: $12 (it’s exactly the same as the more expensive Hornady)
8. lee powder funnel: $3
9. Hornady 50rd universal loading tray: $4 (the same as MTM, but cheaper)

That's $192 (or $183 with just one shellholder); saving you $22 over buying the anniversary kit and the turret press together; but the items above don't include the $15 worth of case prep tools (that you don't need for pistols, only for rifles). In fact, if you buy the stronger classic turret press (either are good, but the classic is a bit better), it's only a $3 difference, but you still don't get those $15 worth of case prep bits.

Again I say, think about buying the Anniversary kit just for the accessories. It's like getting a free single stage press.

Taken independent of the press or any kit, the price for all the other bits and bobs needed to reload comes out to $118, presuming sticking with the basic Lee setup (0r $133 with the case prep bits, which you don't need for pistol but do for rifle).

Now, let's talk about why you might not want to buy any of the kits at all: upgrading the components.

The kits are certainly a great value, but they do skimp on the components a bit; most notably the powder measure, and the scale.

That isn't to say that the "perfect powder measure" and "safety scale" don't do the job, they work fine (in fact I have two Lee safety scales on my bench); but they aren't all that great. Both are slower to work with and less precise than an upgraded piece may be.

Taking these one at a time, let's start with the safety scale.

The scale retails for $19; and is the least expensive powder scale you can buy; but it does a workmanlike job for what it is. The problem is, the arm is plastic, the scale itself isn't very precise or repeatable, the adjustment mechanism is fiddly and drifts, and the scale only has a 100gr capacity so you cant use it for weighing most pistol bullets or loaded cartridges.

For $25 more, you could upgrade to the Lyman Pro 500; for $30 more you could go to the Hornady model M scale, or for $35 the Lyman pro 1000; all much better scales, and all with at least 5 times the capacity of the safety scale.

For $40 more you could go to the Lyman Model 500 or RCBS 502, better still. These are cast metal based scales, with leveling adjustments, and high precision beams with agate bearings. That means they're more accurate, and more precise (more repeatable); plus they work faster.

Finally, for $50 more you could go to the RCBS 505; which is the standard by which all other low cost balance beam scales are judged. It too has the cast metal base, adjustable leveling, metal components in all critical locations, and agate bearings. It's also a triple poise beam (there are three adjsutable weights), which gives an easier, more consistent, and more accurate reading; though honestly there isn't a huge advantage over the $10 cheaper 502.

The next step up in beam scales is into the RCBS 1010; which is pretty much the gold standard for manual balance beam scales, and sells in the $130 range.

I don't mean to knock the Lee scale; it's great for what it is. Hell, I'd guess almost every reloader starts off with one; but you wont find many serious reloaders, or competitive benchresters (the second are almost always the first) with safety scales as their primary scales (though I think just about everybody has one as a backup). The RCBS 502 and 505 though; are on a hell of a lot of serious loaders benches; and if they aren't it's probably because they've got a 1010 (or maybe a Lyman model 500 or model 1000).

The next step up is into electronic scales. Now, I HIGHLY recommend you buy an electronic scale when you can; they just make life a lot simpler; especially when weighing individual charges for rifles.

The decent electronic scales start at about $85 with the lowest end PACT model, then progress up to $100 for the low end Lyman and RCBS models. They continue up through to the $120 range for the mid grade PACT, RCBS, and Lyman models; and finish up in the $150 range for the PACT precision, Lyman 1500, or RCBS ChargeMaster scales, all of which can interface with an electronic powder measure.

So, taking that original $118 bits and bobs number (again this is independent of the press itself) and knocking it down to $99 by deleting the Lee scale; you can see that a basic scale upgrade to a Hornady M brings you to about $150, going to the Lyman 500 or RCBS 502 brings you to about $160, and going to the 505 brings you to $170 (if you wanted the 1010, that would be $230; and I think not worth it at this stage)

On the electronic side, going to the low end PACT brings you up to $185, with the low end Lyman and RCBS at $200; the midrange for all three at $220, and the high end for all three at about $250.

See, the thing is, I'm of a particular philosophy when it comes to buying durable goods (and reloading equipment certainly qualifies). I don't buy the top of the line just to have "the best", I buy for quality; and generally speaking I don't want to spend $20 now on a product and then need to spend $50 later when I have to upgrade. I'd rather just spend the $50 now; than spend $70 total to end up with one inferior product, and one superior... unless I need a spare of something anyway.

The same philosophy applies with powder measures. The lee perfect measure is fine, but it's not the best built (it's a bit plasticky). It's not terribly durable, nor is it very large, or very smooth.

There are four dominant powder measures out there for benchtop use, and those are the RCBS Uniflow, the Lyman #55, the Redding #3, and the Hornady Lock'n'load. All but the Lyman use the same metering mechanism, a drum with a piston that screws in and out to vary volume (the Lyman uses a drum with two bars that move in an out with threaded adjusters at one end of each). The Lee perfect measure uses the same system as the others actually, it just executes it in a much cheaper fashion.

I have both a Lyman #55 and a Uniflow; and I much prefer the feel of the Uniflow. It's smoother, and has a better "throw action" so to speak, as well as I think better adjustments (especially if you include the $30 micrometer drum). Either sell for about $70, or about $50 more than the lee; and can be mounted on the edge of the bench, or in a spare tools station in your press using a powder die. Bench stands that mount the measures about a foot off the benchtop are available for about $20 more each.

The Hornady measure is supposed to be excellent, and costs $10 less than the Lyman or RCBS. The Redding is used by a LOT of competitive shooters (though I believe the uniflow is most popular), but it's $40 more expensive than the RCBS (it includes a micrometer adjuster, which is $30 extra for the RCBS).

Electric automatic units, for use with electric scales, start at about $115 for the PACT and go up to about $180 for the RCBS. They're great for precision loading; but they can't throw charges nearly as fast as manual measures (for rifle loading this isn't that big a deal, but for volume pistol loading it is).

Actually, given an electronic scale though, they can throw a weighed rifle charge a lot faster (about 10 seconds), than you can throw a charge, weigh it, and trickle it up to the precise weight manually (about 20 seconds).

If you aren't really worried about volume, there's nothing wrong with the Lee; but you're going to want a better measure eventually, and why spend $20 now, and $70 later for a total of $90; when you could just spend the $70 now?

Running those same numbers, as before for accessories independent of the press, we get this picture:

$118 minus $19 for deleting the Lee Measure is $99. Going to the Hornady is $60 for about $160. The RCBS or Lyman bring us up to $170, the Redding to $210 (I don't think it's worth the difference).

To go to the electrics by themselves, would cost $220 for the pact, or $280 for the RCBS.

Now, combining the scale upgrade with the powder measure upgrade, we run from $150, $160, and $170 for the Hornady M, RCBS 502, and RCBS 505 respectively; plus $40 over the cost of the Lee for the Hornady, and $50 for the RCBS or Lyman measures (let's ignore the redding).

So keeping it all manual, that's between $190 and $210, independent of the press. With the 4 hole turret press, thats $254 to $274, and with the classic turret it's $274 to $294.

Moving to a manual measure and an electronic scale, we get $185 for the low end PACT, $200 for the low end RCBS and Lyman, $220 for the mid range of all three, and $250 for the high end of all three; plus $40 or $50 over the Lee for Hornady, RCBS or Lyman measures.

That comes out to $225 at the low end, and $300 at the high end. With the Lee 4 hole turret press, that's $289 to $364, and with the Classic Turret it's $309 to $384

So, to upgrade your scale and measure (and you really should do them together if you can) you are looking at between $70 and $100 above the Lee for the manual scales; and between $105 and $180 above for the electronic scales.

The great thing about these upgrades though, and going against what I said earlier about not wanting to spend the money twice, is that the Lee bits are only $20 each. If you want to start cheap and then go better as your budget allows, you're only out $20 or $40 going with Lee to start. Now, if you're only going to upgrade to the $50 scale and the $60 powder measure, it really makes sense to spend the extra $70 now; but if you think you'll eventually upgrade to an electronic setup, maybe waiting isn't a bad idea.

Here's the kicker; and this is why I said you may want to upgrade your powder measure and scale at the same time, leaving everything else the same:

If you want to get an electronic scale, and a manual powder measure, that's great. In fact thats what I'm currently using, and I recommend it highly.

Honestly, for $295 with the Lee 4 hole press; that's a great loading setup. You could be happy with it for years... or forever if you only loaded pistol. It's got all the things you need, plus some extras to make your life easier; and a good press.


...and this is moving back into the higher end of things...

...for $220 to $260; you can buy an electronic powder measure and scale combo from RCBS, Lyman, or PACT (I prefer the RCBS). That's $75 to $115 more than a manual powder measure with electronic scale; and if you have the money to spend, it's a great deal.

Of course it's a big run from $40 for the low end Lee powder measure and scale, up to $260. At that point we're no longer reloading on that tight budget; I'm just illustrating where you can go with it. Also, I recommend that you have a manual powder measure anyway, for doing high volume pistol reloading; the electric measures are really for competitive shooters who weigh each charge, or rifle shooters.

For most reloaders, the $70 difference between the low end Lee scale and measure, and the Hornady LnL and Model M; the $110 difference for the Uniflow and RCBS 505; or the $115 to $135 difference for a Uniflow and a low end electronic scale; are very much worth it. The benefits to both speed and precision are really very significant, and you're saving time and mony in the long run.

I think most loaders would WANT an automatic powder dispenser system such as mentioned here (I know I do), but they are expensive; and I think most people might balk at $190 to $220 more than just the basic Lee setup. Also as I said, the manual measures deal with rapid reloading from the block better than electronics do.

The final place to look to for upgrades, is the press itself.

This time I'll make no qualifiers; I think the Lee classic turret is as strong and well made as any other press out there... but... I don't think it's as tough as some, or as well finished etc...

What I mean by saying it's as strong but not as tough, is that I think it will take a hell of a lot of force applied to it; but I don't think it will stand up to as much use and abuse over its lifetime as some other designs; because it's a bolted together press rather than a cast frame.

Also, the Lees have one major weakness; they only have 4 stations. This means you can't have two pistol calibers set up at once; and if you are using a powder die, you can only use a 3 die set instead of a 4 die set (4 die sets use a separate seating and crimping die; and you generally get better results with them).

The Lees do somewhat make up for having only 4 holes by offering very low cost quick change toolheads ($10 for lee, vs $35 for Lymans quick change turrets, and RCBS at $40), but I like the ability to use more tool stations offered by a six hole turret press like the Lyman or RCBS.

The Lees also share an advantage with RCBS in that they can be used in an auto indexed mode. This feature allows the presses to operate somewhat like a progressive press, where each pull of the handle rotates the tool head, so four pulls on a case (decap and size with priming on the up stroke , expand case mouth, dispense powder, seat and crimp) produces a loaded round.

This seems at first like a big advantage; but without automatic priming, and automatic case feeding and ejection, it doesn't really increase production speed all that much; and it reduces the durability and increases the mechanical complexity of the press.

If it's auto-indexed like a progressive, why doesn't it increase speed very much (if at all, over batch processing)? After all, progressives are three to eight times faster than loading on a turret press.

In a progressive press, because there are multiple cartridge stations as well as multiple tool stations; all four operations are performed simultaneously, and a loaded round is produced with every stroke of the handle. An auto indexed turret press only has a single cartridge station, and therefore just like a manually indexed press, still takes 4 pulls (presuming a press mounted powder measure - 3 pulls if you're charging on the bench not the press) for every round.

Honestly, the only real time savings is that you don't have to rotate the turret by hand with each pull; or if using batch processing, you don't have to put the cartridge back into the press three times (in batch processing you don't use the press ram to dispense powder, you manually charge each case with the powder measure in large batches). Personally, it's a nice to have feature for some, but I don't care for it unless it's on a progressive press with a case feeder.
As an aside: Just to make things more complicated, Lee sells a fully progressive version of their 3 hole turret press called the Pro 1000. It runs $65 stripped, and you need to buy a priming system for $13, a shell plate for $24, a case feeder tube for $10, and a tool head for $10. Or you can buy it complete, with a case feeder, powder measure, priming system, shell plate, tool head, and a single set of dies, for $132.

That's actually CHEAPER than buying the manual turret press, and the associated gear to do the same thing the progressive does (and is in fact cheaper than either Lyman or RCBSs turret press alone).

The only concern I have with it, is durability. As I said, the 4 hole design is strong, but I have concerns about its service life; and I can't really recommend it.

To muddy the waters even further however, Lee makes what is essentially a fully progressive version of their challenger press called the load master; and selling for $215 fully kitted out with powder measure, priming system, case feeder, and die set.

The load masters frame is every bit as strong and tough as a Dillon press; though the case feeder, powder measure, and priming system wont stand up to as much...

But honestly, for $215... thats half the price of a Dillon. Sure you wont get the speed, or service life, but it's $215; and the replacement parts are cheap.

I'm in the market for a Dillon, because I need that additional speed and toughness, most loaders on a budget really don't. If you need to load more than 500 rounds a month of a single caliber, then I'd really recommend going for the LoadMaster.
Anyway, let's leave aside those progressives for a minute.

It may be a combination of personal preference, convenience, and value; but I just like the Lyman T-Mag. It sells for just $140 ($60 more than the Lee classic or $80 more than the 4 hole), and I think makes an excellent upgrade. I have two of them myself, that's how much I like them.

To go to the T-mag and keep everything else the same as above would run from $260 for the full basic Lee outfit, to $330 for the upgraded manual powder measure and scale, to $390 for the Uniflow and a low end RCBS or Lyman electronic scale.

Lyman also offer the T-Mag II in kit form, for either $295 or $365 (the former for mechanical scale, the latter for electronic).

This includes:

* T-Mag 2 Turret press
* Universal Trimmer with Expanded Pilot Multi-pack
* Lyman 1000XP Electronic Scale (normally $100), or Pro 500 scale (normally $45)
* #55 Powder Measure
* Universal Priming Arm
* Primer Tray
* Auto Primer Feed
* Extra Decapping Pins
* 48th Edition Reloading Handbook
* Primer Catcher
* Deburring Tool
* Powder Funnel
* Case Lube Kit
* Quick Release Turret System
* 7/8” x 14 Adapter (mounts #55 powder measure in press turret)

All you need other than that is a die set and shellholder, for $22 total; and an autoprime with shelholders if you don’t want to use the presses autopriming tool for another $13 or $22; a bullet puller for $12 and a loading tray for $4; or $38-$60 over and above the kit price.

That works out to $355 or $425 total (for manual or electric scale), and you get a case trimming lathe and bits included with it. That's compared $275 or $295 for the manual scale and Lee 4 hole turret or classic turret; and $310 or $330 with the electronic scale.

For $60 or $80 more, on the manual side; or $95 to $115 more for the electronic; you get a better press, and the same or better kit to go with it. Plus you're getting a case trimming lathe and all the accessories; which is worth... you guessed, it, about $80 ($60 for the trimmer, $20 for the bits and collets).

If you are just going to reload pistol, you don't necessarily need the case trimming gear; but it's a good thing to have.

RCBS makes a great turret press that sells for $175, and a kit to go with it; but they want about $60 more for it than the Lyman kit; and the lyman kit has a case trimming lathe (a very useful thing when you load rifle). On the plus side, the RCBS kit includes the 502 scale, a much better scale than the pro 500 in the Lyman kit; and it also includes the UniFlow powder measure, a better measure than the Lyman 55.

Actually, I really wish they'd take the Rockchucker supreme kit; and substitute the turret press in for the 'chucker and call it a day. That kit includes the 505 scale, and the RCBS hand priming tool; both excellent choices.

The Bottom Line:

It takes as little as $135 (or really $160) to get in, but it's really just over $200 for a reasonable setup. Seems another $80-$150 and you've got some really great gear there; and for another $200 or so over that, and you're into the luxury zone with electronic automatic stuff.

That's $200 for a basic single stage turret and all accessories; to $300 for a very reasonable, high quality setup with upgraded scale and powder measure; all the way up to over $550 for a top quality press, and electronic powder measure and scale; with a lot of room for a variety of budgets in between.

Don't ever say I didn't give you options...

My recommendation for those on the tightest budget? Make it stretch to include the 4 hole turret press outfit as listed above(not the kit) for $192 (or even better buy the turret press AND the anniversary kit for $214).

If you can swing the money to upgrade the scale and powder measure, do the measure first at an additional $44 for the Hornady, then for $40 more, upgrade your scale to the RCBS 502.

Thats $85 more than the straight low end Lee setup; or just about $275.

If you are going to load a lot of large or magnum rifle, or you plan on doing any brass forming (modifying one brass case into another type); upgrade to the classic turret press for another $20 or $295 total; or spend the $80 over the 4 hole, and go to the Lyman for $355.

Just for comparison purposes, my own personal setup is made up from the pieces I describe above:

I've got two Lyman presses, the RCBS uniflow powder measure and the Lyman #55, and pretty much all the other Lee bits except dies (I'm using Lyman and RCBS dies). When the money allows, I'll spend the $260 on the RCBS automatic powder dispenser and scale (for now I'm using a low end electronic scale with a Lee Safety for backup).

So yay, for $350-$400 you can be just like me (or at least just like my setup anyway, without the extra turret press and powder measure); or for $550 kick my butt with your automatic electronic goodness.

Or if you are doing a lot of volume in a single caliber, you could even go to the Load-Master progressive, with accessories and an electronic scale, for under $400; and REALLY kick my ass.

Until I get my RL650 that is... bwahahahahahaha, then I shall take over the WORLD!!!

Oh, did I say that out loud? Sorry, disregard immediately.

It's 2am, I've been up since 6:30 after 4 hours of sleep, and I can barely keep my eyes open. I'm sure I've written a bunch of gibberish above, but I'm too tired to proofread it. I'll fix it in the morning when I wake up.