We really enjoy our time at the reloading bench, but have more fun at the firing line. As part of our journey we have explored various methods to speed up the reloading process without sacrificing quality.
In much of life, faster and better tend to be contradictory pursuits but as we’ve discovered that doesn’t always have to be in the case (e.g., Henry Ford and the assembly line). By using a progressive reloading press, we have significantly sped up our production of match grade ammunition while maintaining the same level of quality that we achieved with a single stage press.
In no way are we claiming to have made a revolutionary discovery. David Tubb was reloading his match ammunition on a progressive more than a decade ago and if you search around you’ll find some videos. He did make some modifications which initially deterred us from using a progressive press because we thought those modifications were mandatory in order to create match grade ammunition. But as we discovered, match grade ammunition can be produced using off the shelf products with some minor enhancements.
Before we moved to a progressive press, we were able to speed up our reloading process significantly by moving to lanolin lube. If you have not seen our video on the topic, we highly recommend it. We also sped things up by optimizing our case cleaning routine. If you choose to anneal, you should seriously consider purchasing an annealing machine. A Giraud trimmer also speeds things up as it trims and chamfers at the same time. Finally, we dispense powder using RCBS Chargemaster scales.
For each rifle cartridge we have two stock Dillon toolheads. There are some higher end toolheads available from Whidden for those who want the very best. They have also reproduced the floating toolhead that David Tubb used. When viewing these photos, keep in mind that the cartridges progress through the press in a clockwise fashion.
The first toolhead contains the de-capping (some say de-priming) die and the sizing die. We choose to de-cap as a separate step as de-capping with a bushing die affects concentricity based on our tests. Off center flash holes and debris in the flash hole can tweak the decapping stem which can affect the alignment of the bushing (at least that’s our theory as to why concentricity degrades when decapping with a sizing die). The great thing about a progressive is you can separate certain operations without increasing the amount of time it takes to reload (not so with a single stage). As of the writing of this article, we are experimenting with the use of a mandrel (some call them expander dies) in place of the expander ball. If you choose to use a mandrel, place it in the tool head right after the sizing die.
First toolhead: Clockwise from top right: Lee de-capping die, Redding bushing sizing die, Sinclair mandrel. The case is first inserted in the top right station and moves around in a clockwise manner so it gets de-capped, sized and expanded. The empty position at the top left has no impact on the operation of the press. The use of the de-capping die is optional as the sizing die can accomplish the task when properly configured.
The second toolhead contains the powder funnel and the seating die (configuration 1). The powder funnel allows the use of an external scale to measure powder charges, something you’ll want to do if using an extruded powder. If you are using a ball powder or fine extruded powder, which meters much better than larger grain extruded powders, you can install the Dillon powder measure on the tool head in which case you can reload rifle ammo almost as fast as pistol ammo (configuration 2).
Second toolhead – Configuration 1: (R) Dillon AT 500 owder die with caliber specific insert, (L) Forster seating die. Given the clockwise movement of the press, the case is first charged with powder that is dispensed from the scale and poured through the funnel. The bullet is then seated.
Second toolhead – Configuration 2: (R) Powder measure, (L) Forster seating die. The automated powder dispenser works best with ball powder or fine extruded powder such as XBR 8208.
When using the stock toolheads, we insert o-rings under the sizing and seating die lock rings. This allows the dies to float and improves concentricity. The same effect can be achieved without o-rings by using the Whidden floating toolhead.
While we use the Dillon 550 as an example, you can adapt this approach to other progressive loaders. If your progressive press doesn’t have removable tool heads, you would simply insert the dies depending on the operation you are performing (sizing vs seating).
People often ask us which progressive loader they should buy. Ed has a Dillon 550 and has been very happy with it and Steve has a Hornady Lock N Load and has been very happy as well. There are other presses on the market and we would encourage our viewers to read reviews and talk to fellow shooters before making a purchase.
Order of operations
When reloading a cartridge that requires case lubrication, we choose the following method (method 1):
- Place fired brass in cleaner and run for a few hours.
- Remove brass from cleaner and anneal.
- Apply lanolin lube to annealed brass
- De-cap and size lubricated brass on progressive (de-capping can occur with a separate die as shown above or by installing the de-capping pin on the sizing die)
- Place sized brass in cleaner to remove lube.
- Trim brass. Clean flash holes and primer pockets with compressed air.
- Prime, charge with powder and seat bullet with progressive. We use a vibratory toothbrush to settle powder with compressed loads. This is where the real time savings occurs as multiple operations are taking place with each pull of the handle.
A vibratory toothbrush helps settle compressed loads. Don’t put it back in your mouth!
Another method is to perform all of the operations without an intermediate cleaning step to remove the lubricant. Instead, the lubricant is removed at the end by wiping (hugely time consuming) or by tumbling. This would work assuming your brass does not need trimming as this operation should be done after sizing. You could get the Dillon case trimmer, but it is only available for more popular cartridges. However, trim dies can be obtained here. This approach would also require putting all of the dies on one tool head. Such an arrangement may be restrictive depending on the make of press. In the case of the Dillon 550, the automated powder measure has to be placed on the second station which would eliminate the possibility of using a dedicated decapping die or mandrel.
For match ammunition we would recommend the first method. For higher volume practice ammo (such as .223) the second method may work for you. However, we have heard from folks who shy away from the second method since lubrication left inside the case neck (which can’t be cleaned off as the bullet is already seated) can negatively affect accuracy. This is an interesting observation and we plan to do some experimentation ourselves.
Configuration and quality assurance steps
Dies are configured in the same manner as a single stage press. You will obtain critical measurements (shoulder setback, seating depth) in the same manner as you would a single stage press. Inspect the first few cartridges coming out of the press and verify measurements periodically – no different than a single stage press. Once properly configured, a quality progressive press will hold tolerances just as well as a single stage press.
If you look closely at the photos, you will notice that the powder scales are on a separate table. Besides being easier to reach while seated in front of the press, this was done to isolate them from vibrations when the press is used.
There are certain configuration steps unique to a progressive press. While each press is unique, there are some generalities to observe:
- There is a linkage to the powder measure that needs to be adjusted
- The priming system needs to be configured for large or small primers
- The shell plate needs to be adjusted. In the case of the Dillon, 1/8 turn of the retaining bolt does the trick (see two photos below). You don’t want the plate so tight that it binds or so loose that it wobbles during the priming operation. Ed obsessed over this for a while as there is no explicit guidance in the Dillon manual (OCD at work).
First tighten down the shell plate.
Loosen by 1/8 turn.
While we could employ dual Chargemasters to dispense powder, we discovered that it doesn’t save that much time when using a progressive. After you pour the powder in the funnel, you will take some time to settle the powder and measure the cartridge that was just loaded. By the time you’re done with settling and measuring, the Chargemaster has dispensed another charge. If you are not settling powder or measuring each round, you can speed things up with dual Chargemasters.
Upon reading the Dillon manual, they recommend greasing versus oiling the linkages. A grease gun adapter is available so you can insert grease through the small holes. Newer presses from Dillon have “zerk” fittings which are easier to use. The ram can be lubricated with a light oil such as sewing machine oil.
We will continue to optimize our setup. Right now we’re using a bushing sizing die but would like to see if a honed full length sizing die will improve concentricity. We’re also curious to see if the use of a mandrel versus an expander ball will prove beneficial. Of course these are all incremental improvements and we’ll visit them when we have time (and spare funds). For now, we’re producing ammunition that shoots better than we do.
We’re frequently asked if we could own one press what would it be. Before we started playing around with the Dillon, we would have recommend one of the high quality single stage (Forster/Redding) or turret (Redding) presses. Now that we’ve seen how the moderately priced Dillon 550B can load everything from match rifle ammo to pistol ammo we have changed our mind – we would recommend a quality progressive press as the way to go. Of course this is a journey and we might change our mind, but that’s where we are now.
Update 5/9/2016: One of our audience members Pat Miles turned us onto an excellent article by Scott Harris to improve the Dillon 550. Thanks Pat and Scott!
Once you get hooked, your collection of pre-configured toolheads will grow. We’re just getting started!