Custom assembling ammunition from component parts and bulk supplies
(aka reloading) is a good and useful skill for any shooter to have.
To do it you need, of course, gunpowder and primers, bullets and
cartridge cases. The cartridge case (a.k.a. "brass", as all
reloadable cases are made of brass) is reusable. Everything else is
consumable. Gunpowder is the propellant. The primer ignites the
propellant. The bullet is payload. The case holds it all together.
You also need some specialized hardware to put it together -- a set of
dies and the right shellholder for each different caliber, and a press
that aligns everything correctly. You need a tool to measure gun
powder -- a scale at least, and possibly a powder measure. You need
tools to measure length to an accuracy of a thousandth of an inch.
You need information -- a manual like the Lyman or Hornady manual, or
one of their competitors'.
You also need room and a stable bench to mount the press on.
All this can represent a non-trivial front end investment. You can
easily spend a couple hundred dollars getting yourself set up with
decent quality single stage press and associated equipment. In this article I review a low cost alternative.
Lee Precision (http://www.leeprecision.com) manufactures a unique
reloading kit called the Lee Loader. For under $20, you get the
hardware needed to reload one cartridge in a kit the size of a mass
They are made for a short list of common domestic hunting and foreign
military surplus rifle cartridges, and some of the more common handgun
cartridges. Newer cartridges like .40 S&W (and newly popular
cartridges like 9mm Makarov) are conspicuously absent. There's nothing
The Lee Loader comes in a red plastic box, 1" x 4" x 6", and weighs
about a pound and a half. The kit consists of a decapping rod, a
decapping chamber, a priming rod, a "body" die with adjustable stop
and lock nut, a priming chamber/bullet seater, a single plastic
measuring scoop for powder, instructions and load chart. Most of
these parts have multiple functions.
The handgun kit is slightly different. The body die is a single unit.
The bullet seater on the priming chamber is threaded with an
adjustable lock ring. There is a case flaring tool that the rifle kit
does not have.
For this review I tested a handgun (.357 Magnum) and a rifle (.223
Remington) Lee Loader.
Using the Lee Loader
Lee has a manual (PDF) for the rifle cartridge Lee Loader on their web page. You should download this and read through it first.
- Assuming you're starting with fired brass, you must first remove
expended primers from the cartridge case. Put the base of the
cartridge in the decapping chamber. Run the decapping rod down
through the cartridge, line it up with the flash hole, and hammer
the primer out by tapping on the decapping rod with a plastic
Comments: dead easy, both kits. The decapping rod was sometimes
tricky to get lined up properly over the primer in the rifle kit.
The documentation warns against trying to deprime Berden primed
ammo, and tells you how to tell the difference. Look down the
empty case. If you see one hole, dead center, you're OK. If you
see anything else don't try to deprime or reload it. Most Berden
primed ammo you will encounter in the U.S. will be CCI Blazer
(aluminum cases clearly marked "NR" (non-reloadable)), foreign
military surplus, and stuff like cheap Russian steel cased "Wolf"
Don't try to remove primers that haven't been fired.
- Resize the cartridge case. Hammer the cartridge into the body die until the cartridge base is flush with the body die.
Comments: Bottle necked cases like the .223 are neck sized (only
the neck area is resized, from case mouth to shoulder). Straight
sided cases like .38 Special and .357 Magnum are full length
resized. This is easy enough with the rifle die that I could do it
holding the body die in my off hand. Resizing straight walled .38
or .357 cases was quite a bit more difficult, and required a sturdy
surface to brace the body die against as I hammered the case into
it. Lee's web site has a footnote noting that .44, .45 and .30
Carbine cases are especially hard to resize.
The directions advise lubricating larger cases. Lubricant should
be cleaned from the cartridge case before it is primed, but there
is no good point in the process when this can be done.
Use a hammer with a plastic or hard rubber head. A metal one will
work, but will mar the base of the brass case. Keep that hammer
close by -- you'll be needing it.
- Prime the cartridge case. Place the appropriate primer (more on
this in a moment) in the circular depression in the priming
chamber. Center the case (still in the body die) over it. Run the
priming rod down the middle of the body die. Hammer the case out
of the die, and the primer into the primer pocket.
Comments: While loading 80 cartridge cases, I had two primers go
off during this step (both on the same case). It wasn't dangerous,
but it was quite loud. I did the rest of my work with the Lee
Loader wearing hearing protection.
Primers come in a few standard sizes. The 47th edition Lyman
Reloading Manual that I normally rely on calls for small rifle
magnum primers for .223 Remington. Lee says to use small rifle
primers. I will go with Lyman in this case.
Primers should be seated to a few thousands of an inch below flush
with the cartridge base. You'll be able, just barely, to feel it.
- Handgun only, flare the case mouth. Remove the case from the body die. Put the cartridge base down in the decapping chamber, place
the flaring tool in the case mouth and rap it with a plastic
hammer. Put the body die back over the flared case.
Comment: Easy. Don't over do it -- a light rap is all you need.
The instructions for the rifle kit say that cases should be
chamfered, either with a pocket knife or a chamfering tool. If
shooting cast lead bullets, they recommend an additional flaring
- Measure out a single scoop of powder with the included powder
scoop. Pour it directly down the funnel shaped mouth at the top of
the body die.
Comment: Measuring powder is the most problematic step, in my opinion, in using the Lee Loader.
The Lee Loader comes with a single plastic powder scoop. This is
the same scoop as Lee packages in a graduated set of 15 as the Lee
Powder Measure kit. Included with the Powder Measure kit (but not
with the Lee Loader) is a chart showing powder weights for each
scoop for 95 different powders.
I double checked the listed weights for each scoop using the
powders that I have on hand. Lee's listed weights for powder
measured out with the scoop tend to be higher by .1 grain or so
than what I actually measure. (Gunpowder and bullets are measured
in grains. One grain is 1/7000th of a pound.)
In addition Lee Loader's powder charges in their load chart tend to
be low -- sometimes at or below what the Lyman manual lists as
starting charge for a given bullet and powder. (Starting charge is
generally considered to be maximum charge minus 10%.) This should
not be a problem with a revolver, or a bolt action, lever action or
single shot rifle. With an autoloading firearm light loads can
cause cycling problems.
When it's appropriate, the scoop works. The .7cc scoop included
with the .357 kit measures 6.6 grains of Bullseye, a midrange .357
load (per Lyman) for 125gr JHP bullets. The next size down in the
Powder Measure kit, the .5cc scoop, measures out 4.6 grains of
Bullseye, which is high for a standard .38 Special but within .38
Special +P range (ie. safe in a .357 Magnum revolver and in a .38
Special revolver certified for +P) for loading 125gr JHP.
If you want to customize you'll need to measure a lighter load into
a powder scale, and add powder using a powder trickler to bring the
charge up to a preset weight. Doing it like this doubles (by
experimentation) the amount of time it takes to load an individual
- Seat the bullet. Take a bullet, and drop it base down, through the top of the body die into the case mouth. Seat the bullet to the
proper depth with the bullet seater.
Comments: With the flared handgun case it's much easier to seat
bullets than with the rifle case (even when chamfered). With the
.357 kit I can do it with hand pressure on the bullet seater alone.
With the rifle kit it's best just to tap the top of the bullet
seater into place.
Bullet seating depth is adjusted either with the threaded stop
collar (rifle kit) or threaded bullet seater (handgun kit). If the
bullet has a crimping cannulure, adjust the depth so that the case
mouth reaches that. The included documentation gives maximum
overall length for each cartridge.
There's some small Darwination potential with this step and the
next. For this step and the crimping step, per the documentation,
"To avoid contact with the primer and possible explosion, case must
be free from die and resting in the decapping chamber." Do it.
- Crimp the case, if appropriate. There is a crimping ring just
below the top of the body die. Pull the body die off the loaded
cartridge, turn the body die end for end, and feed the cartridge in
the top end. With the decapping chamber still in place over the
cartridge base, rap lightly to crimp the case.
Comments: Go easy. A light rap is all you need.
The same handling cautions as in step 6 apply.
You're done. Repeat as desired.
I shot 40 rounds of .38 Special and .357 Magnum loaded with the Lee
Loader (using the loads mentioned above) through my trusty old Taurus
Model 66. All rounds fired went bang, nothing went KA-BOOM. There
were no surprises.
I fired ~40 rounds of .223 in a Ruger Mini-14. I had problems with
some of the cartridges not seating properly, and the rifle not going
into battery because of it. The rifle brass, being neck sized not
full length sized, fits exactly the chamber of whatever rifle it was
last fired in. These were military surplus .223, known not to have
been fired in the Ruger.
I had no such problems with commercial Remington Brass (known to have
been first fired from this rifle). One round did not go off, even
though it got a good primer strike.
For comparison, I also loaded up 20 rounds, full length sized
Remington brass, with a conventional press and dies. I had no
problems at all with that batch.
Where can you get one?
If you can't find the one you want from a local retailer, Lee Loader
kits can be bought from Midway or directly from Lee. Caveat emptor: Both of these vendors have quite high shipping and handling fees for small orders.
Lee Loaders are also readily available on Ebay. Unlike guns themselves, Ebay seems to have no problem at all with auctioning reloading equipment and supplies. The usual cautions about buying from Ebay sellers apply. I bought my .357 Lee Loader kit from an Ebay seller. It came promptly, in good condition, and was complete except for the all-important load chart, which I had to get elsewhere.
Powder will cost on the order of $18 per pound, enough for more than a
thousand handgun rounds. A thousand primers will cost about the same.
Bullets are the most expensive consumable item. For this test I
bought 100 .38 cal 125gr JHP bullets from a local dealer for $8, and
100 Speer 50gr .224 caliber bullets off the shelf at Gander Mountain
for $11. It pays to shop around for bullets. I've seen .38 cast lead
bullets advertised as low as $3.62 per hundred, and 55 grain .22 FMJ
bullets as low as $4.77 per hundred..
Here are some extra tools you should consider getting, beyond the kit
itself. Some are mentioned in Lee Loader documentation, some are not.
- Reloading documentation, to double check load data. Lyman manual
(~$20), or someone else's. Powder manufacturers load data (free,
and available online). Without load data, you're limited to
exactly the powders and bullets that Lee lists on it's load chart.
- A powder scale, to verify or customize powder charge ($20 (for
the cheapest Lee scale) and up). If you get a scale, seriously
consider getting a check weight set for your peace of mind
- Powder trickler, used with the scale to precisely measure a
customized charge (~$10).
- Calipers, to measure and adjust overall length, and to check
case length ($25, up). A Lyman E-Zee Case Length gauge (~$15) is
a good tool for quickly checking case length.
- A case chamfering tool ($10).
There are quirks, but the Lee Loader works, within its
limitations. The Lee Loader would work best for someone with modest
reloading needs and extreme space constaints. If your needs are
modest and you can live with the loads specified, fine.
If you want to or need to use bullets or powder not on Lee's chart the
process slows down considerably. You'll need more equipment, and
probably ought to think about getting standard dies and one of the
reloading press kits put out by all the major makers of reloading
Copyright © Anno Domini 2003, by "Lee N. Field"
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