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Basic Reloading with an RCBS Single Stage Press

Many folks that get into shooting often times find themselves thinking about reloading.  While I've been shooting ever since I was in grade school....and that was 4 children and several grandchildren ago, I really got into shooting in the 70's when I was in the Navy.  A good friend of mine and I got into reloading together to help offset the cost of our new found hobby.  At that time, an enlisted man's pay had to cover a lot of expenses and "rolling our own" was the way to stretch a paycheck.  I was part timing at a gun store (while on shore duty) so the main reloading components (powder, primers and bullets) could be had at a greatly reduced price, as could reloading equipment.  That was 30+ years ago.  I still have the equipment I accumulated back then.  With the big price increase in factory loaded ammunition that has occurred in past years, I decided it was time to blow the dust off of the equipment, upgrade some of it (more on that in a write-up yet to come), and once again try to soften the hit on the paycheck.  So as is usually the case, I decided to spend some time and document some of the basics for those folks that are considering reloading or may be still on the fence. 

Note:  Reloading ammunition, just like shooting firearms, is not something to be taken lightly.  Careless or sloppy reloading practices can result in serious injury up to and including death.  I'm not trying to scare you, but just telling you about how it really is.  It's possible that you may not completely understand what I have in this write-up....or I may not totally explain a process or method which leaves you with a knowledge gap.  What ever the case, you owe it to yourself to purchase a good reloading manual and consult the documentation that comes with your reloading equipment.  I am not responsible for your actions as I've no control over what you do with the information you take away from here.   Just remember to be careful and ask someone you trust if you find yourself in a situation where you are not certain of the steps to take.  I find reloading to be a great hobby and after 30 some years of doing it, I look forward to passing it along to my grandsons.

So let's take a look at the single stage press which is what this write-up is all about.

 

This is a 30+ year old single stage press made by RCBS.  I've used it to load thousands upon thousands of handgun cartridges as well as those for various rifle calibers.  It has also been used to form brass for my 577/450 Martini Henry and even do a few boxes of .44 Auto Mag brass for a friend many years ago.  This press, an old Rock Chucker model, is an "O" type press.  This means that the die threads into the fully enclosed press body which is shaped like an "O".  It is the most heavy duty press design available and can be used for any cartridge caliber that will fit within the body opening.  It can even handle bullet swaging and brass forming if you are so inclined.  "O" type presses cost a bit more (compared to lighter weight design "C" press) but are, in my opinion, worth the extra money.  When the extra expense is amortized over the life of the press, it is insignificant.

The cam action that is designed into the linkage of the press gives you some very impressive leverage.  This is necessary for resizing or forming large caliber brass which can require quite a bit of force.  Because of this, you really do need a sturdy reloading bench.  A sheet of plywood C-clamped to a couple of saw horses does not make for a good reloading bench (sorry, but someone had to say it).  I use an old military surplus work bench that I've drug around the country since my military days.  It is perfect for the job.  It has a 1 3/4" solid core top so there is no flexing or bending as you cycle a reloading press.  The steel legs are firmly attached to the top and well braced.  You can see the press mounted to the bench in the above photo.
 

The press uses reloading dies that are inserted (screwed) into the top of the press.  A different set of dies are needed for each caliber you reload.  There are some calibers that can share a die set, such as .357 Magnum and .38 Special.  The dies shown above are a 3 die set for .45 ACP.  The die set consists of a resizing/decapping die (left), case expander die (center), and the bullet seating/crimping die (right).  If the cartridge is a bottleneck design, such as a .308 Winchester, the expander die is not used.  Most (but not all) presses are setup to take a 7/8"x14 threaded die so you don't have to use a specific brand of die with a specific press. (there are exceptions to that statement)  The dies above were made by Lyman but I use them in an RCBS press.  I also have dies from Dillon and Pacific that I use in the press. 

The die on the left (in the above photo) resizes the fired brass case to factory specifications.  At the same time, it also removes the spent primer (decaps).  Resizing dies for straight walled brass, like .45 ACP or .38 Special, can be obtained with a carbide ring at the mouth of the die.  Normal reloading procedures require you to apply a light coating of case lubricant on the brass cases prior to running them through the sizing die.  A carbide resizing die allows you to skip the lubricant step and generally makes for a less messy process.  The carbide resizing ring is much harder (and smoother) than the steel used in a regular resizing die.  A carbide resizing die costs extra (~$35 if purchased separately) but is SOOOOOOOO worth the money you spend on it.  All of my straight walled pistol die sets use a carbide resizing die.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  Buying a new set of dies with a carbide resizing die in the set saves you dollars so consider this if you are getting ready to purchase a new set of straight wall cased dies. 

The die in the middle (in the above photo) expands the mouth of the case so that it can more easily accept the bullet.  The amount expanded is actually a very small.  There is no reason to "over" expand the case mouth as it simply works the brass more and can result in a shorter case life.

The die on the right (in the above photo) is used to seat the bullet to the proper depth and apply a crimp (to help hold the bullet in place) if necessary.  Seating the bullet to the proper depth is important as one of the cartridge specs provided in good reloading manuals are for the cartridge's over all length (OAL).  If the bullet is not seated deep enough, the bullet will engage the rifling before the cartridge is properly positioned in the chamber.  If it is seated too deep, it can cause excessive pressures to be generated when firing the cartridge which could result in damage to the weapon and/or injury to you. 

 

The bullet seating plug that is inserted into the top of the die is typically available in a variety of shapes which correspond to the type of bullet being used.  They are not very expensive and I have a couple of seating plugs for each pistol die set I use.  In the above photo, the seating plug on the left is for a semi-wadcutter (SWC) bullet.  You see that it is milled to a flat shape where the bullet's nose would contact the seating plug.  The seating plug on the right is for a round nose bullet and so is milled to that shape. 
 

The resizing die has an adjustable threaded stem in it that holds the decapping pin.  It is important to properly adjust the depth of the decapping pin (by adjusting the stem position).  You want it to fully push the spent primer out of the case when the press's ram is at its full upper position.  You don't want the stem to bottom out in the case as this would either ruin the case, bend the stem, or both.  The decapping pin is replaceable and you should always have a couple of spares on hand.  Keep the decapping pin tight.  I've seen them get loose (in the holder) and then miss the primer hole.  The result is a very bent decapping pin that is then tossed in the trash.

The die's lock ring may not look like the one in the above photo.  Most die sets come with a hex nut that allows you to use a wrench to snug the die into the press (once everything is adjusted properly).  The lock ring above is adjustable and is secured to the die buy a small Allen screw that clamps the split lock ring together.  This allows you to properly set the die up, tighten the Allen screw, and then easily remove and reinstall it without using a wrench AND with a guarantee that the die depth will be perfect the next time you install it in the press.  This is another small die accessory upgrade that is worth every penny.  I believe that ring was made by RCBS but don't hold me to it.  It was bought 30 years ago and that little bit of trivia didn't have a very high priority for long term storage. 
 

Before we get started with the resizing die, we need to discuss the shell foot.  The shell foot is snaps into the top of the ram and holds the brass case in place while performing the different die operations on it.  Shown above is the shell foot for the .45 ACP brass case.  A shell foot is sometimes shared among cartridges as the head design of some cartridges are the same.  This foot will also fit a .30-06 and a .308 brass case.  The hole in the center of the shell foot allows the spent primer to be pushed through during the resizing step and also for the primer feed arm to insert a new primer into the resized case during the priming step. 
 

Here is a photo of the shell foot inserted into position atop the ram with a .45 ACP brass case in the shell holder.  The machined opening on the shell foot allows you to easily slide the brass in and out of the shell holder. 


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