Reloading dies are an essential tool and come in a wide variety of makes, models, configurations and price points. These choices reflect the needs and preferences of the market but can be confusing to the casual or beginning reloader. In this article and accompanying video, we share our perspective on die selection with the precision rifle shooter in mind. We also share tips for enhancing die performance and discuss incremental improvements reloaders can make to improve the overall quality and consistency of their ammunition.
Many shooters get started in precision rifle with one of the common calibers like .308 and already own a set of dies. Most likely these are non-bushing full length sizing dies and the seating die has a basic non-micrometer seating stem. These dies are capable of producing high quality ammunition but they do present some drawbacks as the shooter advances:
- A non-bushing sizing die has to accommodate various manufacturers of brass and the associated variations in brass thickness, particularly the neck. The die has to size the neck down far beyond what might be required for a particular manufacturer and subsequently has to expand it back out to accept the bullet. This not only overworks the necks resulting in shorter brass life, but can increase run out of the sized cartridge affecting accuracy.
- A standard seating die will do a good job seating a bullet, but they can be difficult to adjust as the standard non-micrometer seating stem has no reference marks (see photo below). This can be particularly annoying if you are using different bullets for a given cartridge or have to adjust seating depth for different rifles. A competition seating die will have some type of micrometer indicator as well as an internal sleeve to enhance concentricity of the finished round.
We have a preference for the Redding Type S full length sizing dies. We recognize there are many other brands of dies on the market that do just as good of a job, but we see no reason to depart from what has worked for us in the past. As far as seating dies are concerned, we have a preference for the Forster micrometer seating dies as their settings are easier to read and they will not void your warranty if you use a compressed load.
Comparison of seating dies (L to R): RCBS, Forster and Redding
Redding Type S full length sizing dies require that you purchase the bushings separately. Forster includes three bushings with their sizing dies as an option and chances are one of them is the right size. As a general rule of thumb, you can determine the correct bushing size by measuring a loaded round and subtracting .0015 to .002″. We find .002″ neck tension to work well across a variety of cartridges. If you prefer more or less neck tension you can achieve that by purchasing the proper size bushing. Redding also recommends that you place the bushings in your die “letters down” to minimize runout. It is also important that the bushing be allowed to float freely in the die. Check out our video Resizing Die Setup. For some really nice bushings check out Custom Reloading Tools.
We have also noticed that Forster full length sizing dies do not push the shoulder back as far as other brands of dies. We’ve observed this with .223, 6.5 Lapua and .308 dies made by Forster. This is only an issue if your chamber size is at the minimum specification and you wish to maintain .0015″ – .002″ shoulder setback. We recommend this amount of shoulder setback to avoid chambering issues given the dirty environments we typically encounter at matches. However, Forster will bottom grind your dies if you cannot achieve the desired shoulder setback.
Many of the optimizations that we discuss below were taken from Glen Zediker’s book Handloading for Competition. Do yourself a favor and purchase his book. Read it from cover to cover and repeat the process a couple of times.
- Use a 7/8″ inner diameter #17 o-ring underneath the lock ring of the sizing and seating dies to add some float. Floating the die improves concentricity. This also has the benefit of making small adjustments to the sizing die easier as you don’t have to loosen the lock ring.
Adding o-rings beneath lock ring and on decapping stem
- Use a 1/2″ inner diameter #10 o-ring underneath the lock ring on the decapping stem. This prevents the lock ring from coming loose.
Placement of o-ring on decapping stem
- Decap as a separate step using something like the Lee decapping die. We’ve noticed that decapping with the sizing die can induce runout as off center flashholes can tweak the decapping stem which also retains the bushing.
- Use a mandrel to expand the necks after the sizing operation. Using a mandrel versus an expander ball results in less runout. Pushing a mandrel through the neck versus pulling an expander ball through the neck also decreases shoulder setback variation. Check out our video on the topic.
- Once you settle on a bushing size, Forster will hone out a sizing die to match the bushing size. This has the benefit of further minimizing runout. We have yet to do this ourselves, but it is on our list of future optimizations.
If you’re new to the sport and already have a full length resizing die and seating die, go with what you have. There is no need to upgrade your dies right away because you might even change your mind about the cartridge you want to shott. Once you’ve made up your mind you can consider upgrading your reloading dies.
- Use a full length bushing type sizing die. Select a bushing that will give you .002″ neck tension. Adjust the die to give you .0015″ – .002″ shoulder setback. Check out our video Resizing Die Setup.
- Choose a competition seating die that has a micrometer adjustment and an internal sliding sleeve. If you are running a compressed load, make sure you will not void your warranty.
- Use o-rings to float the die and make small adjustments easier.
- Use an o-ring on the decapping stem so it doesn’t come loose.
- As you advance, use a mandrel to expand the necks. Check out our video on the topic.
- Once you settle on a bushing size, consider getting a full length sizing die and honing it out.
Editor: Ed Mobley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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