Story and photographs by Bob Shell
In this segment on loading your own ammunition, we will focus on cartridge cases since this is what holds the other three main components (powder, primer
All cases should be visually inspected and that includes new ones. I have bought a lot of cases from various brands and there are occasionally defective ones. While not common, they do exist and should be discarded. When in doubt, throw it out.
New cases can be out of round and/or oversized. Part of that comes from shipping when they are banged around. After sizing, I take an RCBS very low drag (VLD) tool and ream the inside of the casing’s necks. This helps seat the bullet and keeps it from catching on the sides of the case. This is especially important with some flat-base slugs. I feel that this also adds accuracy and consistency. Sometimes, I’ll even create a cannelure, which is a groove that I crimp a little to aid in feeding the bullet. All revolver ammo should be crimped, especially with the heavier loads. Failure to follow this rule will usually result in the bullet coming out and tying up the cylinder.
Fired cases should be inspected prior to any other procedure. This is really important if you pick up range brass. There may be a reason someone discarded their brass rather than take it home.
Before inspecting, you should clean your cases. There are several ways to do this. I use a Dillon case cleaner with crushed walnut hulls and some cleaning liquid. A couple of hours in there and they come out looking great not to mention defects are easier to spot.
You may encounter cases with Berdan primers, and we will talk about this in a minute, or some that were shot with a load that was too hot. This will produce swelling and should be discarded. If you see a shiny ring about a quarter of an inch above the rim, that may indicate excess headspace in the gun that fired it.
One of the most common problems is a split neck. Cases that are heated and cooled over and over cause them to be brittle and the only way to combat that is to anneal them. This means softening the case by heating it. This isn’t practical with common cases, unless you have more time than I do. The Berdan primer is generally used in foreign military, as well as some commercial ammo. It can be reloaded, but you also need special tools, and as a rule it’s more trouble than it’s worth. In a later installment I will go into more detail on this. The standard American primer is the Boxer, which has a flash hole in the center of the case and is much easier to work with.
When a round is fired the case expands, so when you are reloading, the cases have to be resized. All die sets, which we talked about in Part I of this series, have what is known as a sizing die and which accomplishes this task. If you buy new brass, it normally doesn’t need to be fully resized, though the neck may need to be squared.
After you size the case, you will need to check for proper case length. Cases stretch during firing and sizing, so you should lubricate the inside of the neck, especially with bottleneck cases. If the case is too long, it might be hard to chamber or even cause a dangerous buildup of pressure in some instances. It could also have an affect on accuracy. If you are just doing some informal shooting, mixing brands of cases won’t cause any harm. Some people may disagree with that, but mixed cases work well, as long as they are in good condition. For more serious purposes, such as a big-game hunt, I will segregate the cases by brand and the times that they were fired. The other stuff is used for sighting-in or practice. I’ll run all of my hunting ammo through the chamber and magazine because it’s easier to fix the problem at the shop than in the field. Serious target shooters sort their brass out by lot number, weight, size of the flash hole and other factors that might effect accuracy. They measure groups in the thousandths of an inch, so they have to be more particular than the rest of us.
After you have checked out everything, then you are ready to prime. The primer should have some feel going in, and if it’s too loose, you might want to discard the case. Loose primer pockets are generally a result of hot loads, which will stretch them beyond usefulness. Sometimes soft brass will also cause this problem. The primer should be seated about .002 inch below the head and be flush with the case or you will have another set of problems. If the primer is too tight, you either have a dirty primer pocket or perhaps a military crimp around the primer pocket. Either problem will have to be resolved prior to seating it. There are plenty of tools out there to resolve these problems, but I ream out military-primer pockets as opposed to swaging (a process of bending or shaping cold metal), as this works better for me. If a pocket is dirty you’ll need to clean first. While this may seem like a small detail, improperly seated primers can ruin good ammo.
After priming, it is time to seat your bullets. There should be some resistance when seating so the bullet stays in the case. A bullet that is too loose will either come out or cause an inconsistent ignition. This problem can be caused by a bullet that is too small, a case neck that is too thin or an oversized expander plug. If the bullet is excessively tight, it may not seat at all and will cause other problems. In a later installment in this series we will get into expanding and various types of crimping.
Like everything else in life, you get what you give. If you follow these suggestions, it will go a long way toward helping you produce quality ammo. The thing is paying attention to small details. ASJ