Have a question for Josh? Email it to [email protected].
Well, boys and girls, today we have a question from frequent TTAG poster and reader EpsteinDIDNOTKillHimself regarding reloading cartridges. Our friend asks:
“The question I would like to ask: A K&M Arbor Press with the force pack, dial indicator and using L.E. Wilson dies better than other bench mounted presses and associated dies (e.g. Hornady, Lyman, Lee etc.)? Assuming all things equal, match brass, trimmed to length, necks turned, primer pockets trued and using match/micrometer dies.”
I’ve been reloading since I was 14 years old. I’ve probably loaded close to half a million rounds in just shy of two decades and I’ve tried or at least had some experience with most reloading setups available as the years passed. I’ve probably fired about 1.5 million rounds in my lifetime if we count rimfire in there (but some people don’t for some reason).
I may surprise some of you when I say that I’ve loaded about 99% of my ammo on a cheap Lee single stage press, in fact it was my very first press, a gift I got my freshman year in high school. To date I have had not a single press-related ammo-making error.
I still seat all my primers by hand and do my case polishing in an old vibrating tumbler. My methods are slow and tedious, but I have never made a handload that wasn’t accurate or consistent. I also use the old plastic Lee powder measure for some added shock value.
Yet, for all the hype around super precision loading dies and such, I find that ammo is something perplexing to many people out there, and it’s not the 95% scenario that worries people, but that last 5% that separates the casual loader from the ‘precision’ loader.
I’ll cover lots of ground here, so try to keep up, as it will get dicey in a couple places and it may be counter to what you know and understand about reloading practices and methods.
The first thing I want to address so I don’t get accused of a run-on article is the reader question. Our buddy Epstein here is essentially asking if what amounts to the best, arguably most expensive loading dies and setup is able to deliver ammo that is, for all intent and purposes, superior to the product of lesser components.
The basic answer is yes, in theory the arbor press is able to do that…with all things being equal. However, its superiority is relative to the individual doing the reloading.
Why might that be? For starters I think it comes down to what you’re trying to achieve. The 95% of reloaders out there are usually doing it to save money or for a fun hobby. I fall into that camp for some ammo, such as handgun stuff where I really only shoot to about 50 yards, max.
For rifle, I make bulk ammo, but I feel incentivized to make it accurate, so I at least try to check on powder charge and velocity before I crank out 1,000 rounds. I usually load my ammo to SAAMI spec as I typically have more than one of each caliber, and I don’t want to freeze the bolt up or cause a jam with same-caliber ammo that has been neck-sized for just one rifle.
For the novices out there, neck-sizing makes the ammo suitable for just one bolt action rifle (this won’t work in an AR) and shaves time and steps compared to a full-length resizing. It can make the cartridges a bit more accurate as the body of the case will be formed to the chamber of the individual rifle.
You can get away with two to three firings on a neck-size only case, and after that it will get too tight and you’ll need to full-length size it back to factory spec.
As far as accuracy per brand goes on presses and dies, I regularly shoot past 1,000 yards with high end rifles and scopes. I can’t say that I’m better than a guy loading his ammo with an arbor press, but I know that I am able to make ammo on my old Lee that shoots 1/2 MOA at 1,000 yards consistently. Wind and external factors are always present and, of course, my groups aren’t always that tight horizontally, but I never get worse than a 5” vertical spread at 1,000 with most my guns.
I’m also using mixed brass. I know some guys are cringing out there, but again, this is a 95% vs 5% situation. I’ve not measured significant enough velocity fluctuations in my ammo to need to switch to one brand.
I average my ammo across guns, and I have loads that do 3/4 MOA across the board for five 6.5 CM rifles. But of those five, two may shoot it to 1/4 MOA. I just don’t see the need to separate out cases when I’m not getting a velocity disparity any greater than 1% across guns and all averaged rounds fired.
In most of my rifles, the variance with mixed brass is only 25 fps, which is perfectly allowable for what I’m trying to achieve and it’s well within the allowable factory specs. Using like brass, I can run that number down to just 5 fps in many cases, but it’s just not really that noticeable on the target.
For powder I use a Lee plastic powder measure set just low. I have a very nice scale that makes up for my powder measure and I trickle in the last half grain on precision ammo. I will say, there isn’t much of a difference if I just throw it in the cases from the measure so long as the measure it set and not moved.
In a straight-up test I did a year or so ago, I loaded some 6.5 as accurately as I could, taking every possible step imaginable including weighing and sorting the brass and bullets. I also loaded mixed case with thrown powder and tested them. The result: I did’t detect all that much of a difference at 1,000 yards, despite the theory being that the ‘perfect’ ammo should have been more accurate. Hits were hits, and ever since then I have been happier cutting corners where I know I can cut them.
For the armchair experts out there, I know this may be frustrating that I’m offering this type of advice. I’m not a benchrest shooter and I don’t shoot with rifles that are designed for stationary gentleman’s matches. I’m looking for practical, repeatable accuracy and I’m loading ammo usually in batches of 1,000 to 2,000 rounds.
Batch accuracy is what I’m after here, not twenty rounds loaded at the range that day as the benchrest guys do it. Moreover, I think that type of tedium is just unnecessary for field shooting, where a 1 MOA rifle is really all you need. I don’t know many guys who can hold 1 MOA in field conditions anyway.
Chasing accuracy is a noble goal, but you also have to take into account the types of rifles that you’re using. I wouldn’t waste time with special gear and an arbor press with an AR. The AR just isn’t consistent enough to take advantage of what that press offers.
Now, my own 6.5’s are very accurate custom rifles capable of one-hole accuracy at 100 meters, and can repeatably print groups in the 2.5-5” range at 1,000 meters. My guns are mechanically accurate enough to take advantage of the equipment Epstein asked about, but I don’t bother with it because my ammo is consistent enough as-is to get my rifles within 95% of the guy investing more time and effort.
If I want to fight for that last 5%, I just pick the rifle in my safe that shoots that given handload lot better and now I’m picking off head plates at 1,000 all day. That may not be you, but it works for me and that is, at the end of the day, what the goal of reloading is: to make ammo that works for you.
So, to close this, Epstein is generally correct that the arbor press and high end dies will yield better results in theory. The real-world answer is that not everyone will be able to take advantage of that kind of precision and will simply become bogged down in unnecessary minutia.
If your goal is ringing steel at 500 meters, you don’t need as much accuracy as you think; really just a consistent powder charge and bullet seating depth. If you want to print 1” groups at that distance, well, you’re embarking on a long and arduous road littered with rabbit trails such as, “Do I need to back all these out .001 or should I adjust the neck tension? Oh, man, what about the primer seating depth…I wonder if my powder is right for the atmosphere today….”
Reloading can be fun, but I’ve wasted thousands of bullets worrying about things that today I can’t be bothered to care about. Just have fun and keep your powder dry.
Have a question for Josh? Email it to [email protected].