Precision from a Progressive Reloader

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.

Press setup

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.

006

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).

007

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.

 

009

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):

Method 1:

  1. Place fired brass in cleaner and run for a few hours.
  2. Remove brass from cleaner and anneal.
  3. Apply lanolin lube to annealed brass
  4. 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)
  5. Place sized brass in cleaner to remove lube.
  6. Trim brass. Clean flash holes and primer pockets with compressed air.
  7. 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.
Toothbrush

A vibratory toothbrush helps settle compressed loads. Don’t put it back in your mouth!

Method 2:

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).
012

First tighten down the shell plate.

 

013

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.

Conclusion

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!

005

Once you get hooked, your collection of pre-configured toolheads will grow. We’re just getting started!

Latest Comments
  1. Jim Klink

    Hey add… I’m thinking again, I know how dangerous it is! I’ve been using whidden floating die heads, but I’m thinking about trying a whidden CNC die head and using a ring under to die… Good idea bad idea or just trying to fix a problem that is not there?
    Jim
    ps/ what is happening with the ai,at in 2 60?

    • 65guys

      Hi Jim,

      If you already have the floating tool head from Whidden I’d stick with that. It’s essentially a duplicate of David Tubb’s setup I saw a number of years ago. Adding an o-ring to the standard Dillon tool head or the Whidden floating tool head is an attempt to approximate what the floating tool head does.

      Thanks for reading and watching Jim!

      Ed and Steve

  2. Mark Nicholls

    Hi, Excellent set up. I now have a Dillon on the bench producing good ammo in 6.5 x 47, 308 and 223. SD has improved slightly on the 6.5 and 223, 308 is about the same. Accuracy, well it shoots better than I! Keep up the good work enjoying the journey.

    KR
    Mark
    UK shooter

    • 65guys

      Hi Mark,

      Terrific to get some empirical data from other shooters. When you say that SD improved, can you share some details?

      Thanks,

      Ed and Steve

      • Mark Nicholls

        Hi,
        Apologies I missed your response.
        Since that load. I noticed that while SD had improved (from mid to high teens to 9/12 was the best, not bad) at longer distance accuracy on average was about the same as before. So checked concentricity, well it was the much the same(?) as before. So I’ve loaded some test loads with virgin brass, I’ll test and then reload and see what I have then with concentricity, SD & ES. I’ll let you have a copy of the results. I’m thinking the pre used brass about 2 reloads using the single stage method of one die may have been the problem. I don’t have a annealer at the moment which would help with this I’m thinking.
        It will be the next purchase though.

        Keep up the good work enjoying the journey.

        Kind Regards

        Mark

        Mark Nicholls
        UK Shooter

  3. Ed Paradise

    Have you measured the effects, in terms of sd and ed, of incorporating neck turning into your process?

  4. Pat Miles

    Good info gents.
    I hope I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes but the link below has a couple of great ideas on using the Dillon 550 also. Worth a look.

    Best,
    Pat

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/mmk8tv8yrk7vii7/12.23.15-Dillon-Prometheus-Article.pdf?dl=0

    • 65guys

      Hi Pat,

      That is solid gold. Thanks for sharing with our audience! I recall David Tubb mentioning some modifications that he made but I didn’t have the details. This is so good, I’m going to include the link the in article itself.

      Regards,

      Ed and Steve

  5. Pat Mileshosky

    Ed & Steve,
    Years ago I read about David Tubb loading long range precision rifle rounds on a 550. Like you, I could find no info on what if any mods he performed on his Dillon which is why I wanted to put the info that all three of you gents had come up with. We all benefit from it.
    Best,
    Pat

  6. Pat Miles

    Clamping a 550/650 Toolhead very inexpensivly!

    Those of you that might be wanting to mod a Dillon 550 or 650 for precision reloading might have read that clamping the toolhead is necessary along with a floating die set up.
    After a bit of brainstorming about clamping the toolhead in the frame I came up with a very inexpensive solution that does not require any modification of the frame.
    I tapped the toolhead holes with an 8-32 tap and installed 8-32x.250″ dog head setscrews in my Whidden toolhead. Now it’s a case of sliding the toolhead in the frame and snugging down the setscrews with a 5/64″ hex head wrench through the top holes in the frame. Doing so pushes the toolhead up in the frame slot and locks it in place using the bottom frame holes.
    EASY PEASY!
    The 8-32 tap requires a #29 drill (.1360″). The factory Dillon toolhead alignment holes are .1260″ and will need to be drilled out with the #29 drill. The Whidden toolhead alignment holes are .140″ and can be tapped as is. Take the time to start the tap straight and use cutting oil.
    The 8-32x.250″ setscrews should cost around 30 cents each at the hardware store so each toolhead will set you back less than $1.00.

  7. Ben White

    Hi Guys, I’m new to Precision Rifle Reloading and trying to get an understanding of the sizing dies. My specific question is which Redding Die(“…Redding bushing sizing die”) would I use for 6.5 creedmore. Part Number and name would be helpful. Thanks again

  8. Ben White

    Hi. I purchased the Sinclair Mandrel die. Can you assist me with information on how to properly set the die up on the 550. Your help is greatly appreciated

    Regards

  9. Benjamin Rahoy

    Hi Steve and Ed,

    I enjoy your videos and I’m looking forward to your Shot Show series for this year. I’m laying the foundation for transitioning from my single stage press to a Dillon 550. Ed, since you have a 550, I’m curious what sort of concentricity values you are able to obtain using free floating Redding dies in your standard 550 toolhead? Doing some interweb searches yields a huge list of people going back and forth on the single vs progressive argument.

    Thank you,

    Benjamin

  10. CS

    In your picture showing use of the Sinclair Mandrel, have you removed the expander ball from the sizing die?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *