Handloading Rifle Ammunition

Handloading For Long Range Rifles; Brass Preparation Overview

The purpose of this article is to provide the new handloader, or the handloader new to long range shooting, some insight as to what helps produce consistent ammunition, beginning with our cartridge cases. The process will be outlined is such a way to provide a new handloader with a convenient checklist format.

In order to produce handloaded or reloaded ammunition, we must first prepare the empty cartridge case to some degree to receive the new components. While this can be done quite expediently in many situations, we will need to take some extra care with our cases when looking for accuracy.

To provide a basis of comparison, other less demanding brass preparation standards will also be discussed. We should recognize that there is a varying level of accuracy and function requirements that can range anywhere from “blasting ammo”, on par with military surplus, to "benchrest quality" ammunition.

I would suggest that, for our purposes here, we can divide these various accuracy levels and function requirements into four categories:

Here, we will begin our discussion with the requirements for producing competitive “benchrest grade” ammunition, then omit unnecessary steps in crafting our ammunition as we move to less demanding applications.

One tool I consider necessary is a universal decapping die, where the cases may be decapped without the necessity of lubrication or risk of contaminating a precision “working” die.

One thing I would note is that while I will suggest inspections at certain junctures, it is strongly recommended that we stay alert throughout the entire process. This will help not only provide our best possible results, but also help weed out defective brass before we waste any further effort processing it.

It is ESPECIALLY important to look for the tell-tale bright ring that warns of impending case head separations prior to tumbling, which will polish away this warning sign. If we are careful in setting our full length die to procide a correct fit to our rifle(s), our working of the brass will be minimal, but remind yourself that every time trimming is needed, that extra brass came from "somewhere".


Brass Preparation For Benchrest

Centerfire benchrest work comes in several versions that encompass the full range of conditions from 100 yard short range guns, to 600 and 1,000 yard rifles, with light and heavy guns in each category. The one thing they have in common is that without painstaking attention to detail every step of the way, there is no way to be competitive. Rifles are maxed out, with every possible step take to provide precision, so ammunition must also be as carefully crafted as we can muster. Long range benchrest is particularly demanding, and just a few feet per second deviation can cause enough vertical dispersion at longer ranges to take you completely out of the top ten, and maybe the top twenty too. The current world record groups in all categories are incredibly small, so small that one often wonders if they could ever be duplicated, much less bettered. Other dedicated match guns, such as those used for F-Class, may also share these extremely tight tolerances.

Because our accuracy standards will be so stringent, it is imperative that we remove any possible variations at every opportunity, and we must begin by being very selective about our cartridge cases.

We will be culling mercilessly and every time we see or feel something that sets apart a given case from its theoretically “identical” brethren, it comes out of the batch. Because we will quite likely be culling a relatively large number of “odd” cases, whatever our desired number of working cases, we must add 20% or more to allow for their removal.

We must start with brass that is all of one production lot. This is usually accomplished by buying new brass in bulk from a reputable source. Buying higher quality brass for benchrest competition is necessary, mainly due to the fact that we cannot fix excessive variation in case wall thickness, a common problem with lower quality brass. Most serious competitors will be using RWS, Lapua or Norma brass, which are known for their better consistency.

There are a series of steps we will take as we process and inspect brass in preparation to load our first “serious” ammo and first, we must visually inspect our cases. New brass should be inspected for production-related defects, such as rim thickness variations, neck wall thickness variations and off-center flash holes. Culls here will be set aside, but do not dispose of any yet, since they can be used for setup purposes later. Just take care to not mix them back into our main group of cases.

Truing Primer Pockets

Next, we use a specialized primer pocket tool with a carbide cutter to clean and true the primer pockets. The tool will cut the bottom of the primer pocket to be both square and of uniform depth. Having uniform primer pockets helps ensure our ignition will be a result of a uniform blow from the firing pin, and that all legs of the primer anvil have equally solid footing. While this truing process is a one-time step, I continue to use the cutter as a very efficient cleaning device between firings that will ensure the primer pockets remain uniform and perfectly clean. I use a K&M tool, but there are several manufacturers who make suitable tools. Note that many very good competitors avoid using the carbide cutter, either at all or routinely as a cleaner. They are concerned that the cutter can prematurely loosen pockets, and this is a very valid concern. Use care to align the cutter in the primer pocket to reduce this tendency to enlarge the primer pockets, or use a standard scraper for subsequent cleanings.

Case Heads

At one time, it was considered desirable to "turn" (face off) the case heads on a lathe to square the bases. This practice has fallen out of favor, both due to the lack of solid proof that it is worth the effort, and that the first firing will re-square the case head to the bolt face anyway. For this reason, we will not concern ourselves with this process.

Full Length Sizing

Initial full length sizing is necessary to facilitate uniform results with many of the following steps. New brass often contains small dents and flattened areas around the case mouths, and since we will be making some cuts, it all needs to be ironed out as well. Once we have completed much of this case prep, we will not need to full length size again until cases become tight in the gun or accuracy levels fall off.

We will lubricate our new cases in preparation for sizing. There are many commercial case lubes available and choices vary among experienced competitors. Die wax is quite effective and often used, but no matter what the choice, the main idea is to provide effective lubrication. It is desirable to lightly lubricate each case consistently to produce uniform results from the sizing die. While we are applying lubricant, it is also necessary to lightly lubricate the case neck interior, to reduce deformation from dragging a dry expander ball back through the freshly sized neck portion of the case. Inconsistent lubrication here will produce inconsistently deformed case necks, and it is entirely possible to pull the improperly lubed case neck quite out of alignment with the rest of the cartridge case.

The full length sizing die must be set to correctly resize the case to the individual rifle. If we follow the die manufacturer’s die setup instructions, our cases will be sized to the small side of SAAMI specifications. This is fine in situation where we do not expect a lot of re-use of the brass and/or it will be used in more than one firearm, but it is not conducive to best accuracy in a precision rifle nor will it provide optimum brass life. We will need a better way to fit this specialized case to the gun it will be used in.

To set up our die adjustment, grab one of your culled cases if you found any, use a spare piece of brass from another batch, or simply use one of the good ones if nothing else is available. We will want to expand the neck diameter of this piece of "setup brass" enough that it will not enter the chamber, then adjust our sizing die down a little at a time until the neck is reduced enough to just allow it to chamber without resistance. I prefer to go about two steps up in caliber, in order that we have a pronounced secondary shoulder to work with. For example, 6mm/.243 cases can be expanded with a .264 expander ball.

As we adjust the die down into the press, we will see the case neck step down to form the secondary shoulder. Our rough adjustment should take us to a point at which the secondary shoulder is about .020” to .030” above the original neck/shoulder junction. We will then continue to advance the die downward about 1/4 turn at a time, trying for rifle fit as we go. Clean the case between sizing and the rifle chamber, to avoid introducing case lube into the rifle. When we find the point at which the rifle will close on the case with very little “feel”, we will be at zero headspace in that particular rifle. Lock the die in that position and test fit a few more sized cases to ensure that they close with no more than a slight feel. We want a close fit, but they’re no good if they will not chamber at all. This setting allows us to shoot and resize the case without unduly moving the shoulder and causing case stretch, and keeps the case closely fitted to the chamber. Note that this adjustment is quite individual in nature, and cases sized this way may not enter another rifle of the same caliber.

Now, we can full length size and clean the entire lot.

Because we had lubed the inside of the case neck, we must be very careful to remove any lubricant that might either entrap cleaning media or contaminate the powder. If media is entrapped by residual lube and sticks inside the case, it will change the volume, which will ruin accuracy and possibly cause pressure excursions. Powder contaminated with lubricant does not burn well and the resulting variation in exactly how much burns properly will ruin accuracy. All lubricant must be removed from the case exterior to avoid contamination of the rifle and inducing excessive case head thrust as the slippery case is fired.

I use a small cup of brake cleaner to dip and slosh the case necks into on their way back to the tumbler for cleaning. This seems to thin the liquid lubes enough to prevent media entrapment and facilitate thorough cleaning. After tumbling, the flash holes must be cleared of any media. Rub the cases thoroughly to remove any abrasive dust left over from tumbling by toweling them off in an old towel or T-shirt.

Trimming to Uniform Length

We are now ready to trim to length. There are various approaches to find the right length, and we will either trim all cases to match the shortest case, or trim to be .010” shorter than our actual chamber length, or trim to the published “trim to” specification. In any event, all cases must be lightly touched by the trimmer cutter and be perfectly uniform in length.

It may not be necessary to remove a huge amount of brass, and if we have a means of measuring our chamber length, we will do so to establish the “maximum” length for that chamber. One method of measuring the chamber length involves shortening the neck of a test case and using specially made plugs. We would then subtract .010” from this measured maximum to establish our “trim to” length for that chamber. Record this length for future trimmings.

Using a dial/digital caliper as a gauge, bring the jaws down to the “trim to” length and check your first case. If the case will not slide between the caliper jaws, good, keep checking. If the case does pass between the caliper jaws, or one of your successive cases does, this will be our new “trim to” length for this batch of brass for this loading, and we must reset our caliper to this shorter case length.

If we do not know our chamber length, we would begin to gauge our cases with our calipers set to the published “trim to” length and follow the same procedure.

As we go through our batch of cases, we are looking for the shortest case to use as a beginning length. The exception to this would be if only a few cases are substantially shorter than the majority, and so we should be on the lookout to make sure we don’t find one case excessively short and end up cutting all of our cases shorter than they need to be. If only a few cases do come up short, cull them and use the shortest of the remaining group to set as a reference. Save any culls for future setup work.

Our priorities in trimming are safety and uniformity. The exact length overall case length we trim to is not as important as ensuring the cases are short enough to avoid causing pressure excursions. Uniformity is critical since our neck turning tool will index off the case mouth. The neck lengths must all be the same or we’ll create donuts or cut into the shoulder.

Once we find our shortest cases, we will adjust our case trimmer to barely cut the shortest cases enough to square them up. This dimension should be relatively close to the published “trim to” length found in reloading manuals. Once we verify that we are cutting to a reasonable length, trim the entire batch.

To speed things along and reduce finger fatigue, I use a Lee shellholder and drill motor attachment for the next few operations, which all take place either through or on the case mouth.

Hold the case either by hand or secure it in the Lee shellholder, and use a standard deburring tool to remove any burrs left from trimming, and lightly chamfer the inside and outside of the case mouth. Do not sharpen the case mouth, simply remove burrs left by the trimmer and provide a light chamfer.

Next, while we're still handling the same case, use a flash hole tool to deburr the interior of the flash hole and ream the hole to uniform diameter. This helps provide uniform ignition by allowing the primer to ignite the charge with the same magnitude of energy.

Internal "VLD" Chamfer

Now, use the “VLD style” chamfer tool to lightly chamfer the inside of the case mouth. The standard burring tool provides an approximately 45o angle, and this VLD tool reduces this angle to ease bullet entry into the case mouth. By easing this entry, we reduce the possibility of damaging the bullet heel during seating and reduce the pressure on the ogive required to start the bullet. By performing all the possible steps while we are holding a specific cartridge case, we are minimizing our handling and setup time. Repeat this process on all of the cases.

Neck Turning

We have now progressed our brass far enough to neck turn.

Neck turning will be necessary in benchrest rifles to allow safe clearances in the “tight neck” chamber, and would be our next step in the preparation process. The neck is smaller than SAAMI standard and made tight to reduce clearances and allow case neck turning. Both of these concepts are intended to allow us to more perfectly center the bullet in the throat.

Turning the case neck gives us opportunity to both closely “fit” our cases to our chamber neck, as well as eliminate variations in case neck thicknesses. Both aspects of case neck thickness variation are controlled, the neck wall thickness of the individual case, and any case-to-case variations. This provides us with consistent seating pressure and thus uniform bullet release.

The chamber neck of a benchrest gun will be stamped on the barrel by the rifle builder. Some chamber necks are extremely tight, while others are only tight enough to allow neck turning the full circumference of the case neck.

We will need some working clearance between the chamber neck and case neck, to allow room for clean bullet release and a little fouling. Between .001” and .0015” is customary, but some competitors will reduce the clearances to almost nothing. We would subtract this desired clearance dimension from our chamber neck dimension to establish our loaded case neck diameter. Subtracting our loaded neck diameter from our bullet diameter will provide our combined neck wall thickness, which we split in half to see how thick our case neck will be. We will set our neck turning tool to produce neck walls of this thickness.

Neck turning tools require the case neck to be expanded slightly, by use of a specifically sized mandrel made to match the pilot on the neck turning tool. The inside of the case necks on once-fired brass should be brushed out with a bore brush to remove fouling. All cases to be turned, new or previously fired, must be lightly lubed (a very small amount of sizing wax is preferred for this step), and passed over the appropriate mandrel so it will correctly fit the turning tool’s pilot.

Following the tool maker’s instructions, set your neck turning tool to produce the correct neck wall thickness, and turn the necks on your entire batch of brass. If we are neck turning to match a very tight neck and removing a lot of brass, it is advisable to make several light passes, rather than cutting the entire amount in one pass. To incrementally turn the necks, set the neck turning tool to cut a few thousandths off and turn all case necks to this intermediate thickness. Make a second pass to finished thickness if it is only a few thousandths more. Otherwise take a third pass to clean them up to final thickness. By doing it this way, we allow heat to dissipate between passes and do not put a lot of pressure on the turning tool cutter.

Use care in turning, to avoid heat buildup which will cause variations in pilot fit and therefore variations in neck wall thickness, which will affect neck tension and thus bullet release. Also use care to cut slowly and smoothly to avoid leaving striations which render a misleading measurement and will “iron out” later, leaving you with a thinner neck wall than desired.

If we find a case neck to be excessively thin or excessively thick, cull it, the entire case wall is likely to be unusually thin or thick. Likewise cull any case that is unusually thick or thin on one side or the other, this inconsistent neck thickness will always translate to a case wall that is very thick on one side and thin on the other. This may seem ruthless, but we ARE looking to rule out ANY lack of uniformity and we DID allow 20% surplus for such culls. Cases that exhibit excessive variation in wall thickness will not produce concentric ammunition.

Final Neck Operations

Finally, we will want to use a bore brush to brush the inside of the case necks, new or once fired, to provide an evenly textured surface, remove any traces of lube, and get rid of any glaze that was induced during the neck turning operation.

I would suggest running through the cases once more with the outside deburring tool, to create a small chamfer that will ease passage of the case into the seating die and rifle chamber.

Now that all cutting operations are complete and all aspects as uniform as we can make them, we can sort our cases by weight.

Sorting By Weight

All other things being equal, a difference in weight will equate to a difference in internal volume, which will result in a varying combustion chamber size, which will result in inconsistent ballistics.

The overall weight distribution will likely be along a bell curve, and if the brass is arranged by weight, it will be easy to see where you are with it. At the very least, we will want to cull brass from the extreme ends of the distribution, and grab the middle bunch so we can work with those cases that are nearly the same average weight. At best, we would discard the extremes and then develop several lots of brass of similar weights, in which the cases are within a very narrow weight range.

Some of the best precision shooters do not bother with intense weight sorting, since a lot of the weight difference can be in the case head, but we will still want to remove the extremely light and extremely heavy cases from our select batch of brass.

Annealing

Now we will want to anneal case necks. All new cases have been annealed, but most commercial brass is polished after this process and it is not visible. Military cases are not usually polished for cosmetic appeal and the annealing discoloration is evident.

Since we have sized and expanded the brass, then expanded it again, we have likely induced a little work hardening. Further, brass exposed to temperature extremes can expand and contract just sitting in storage or in transport, and will work harden to a certain extent even without experiencing any real work. To restore the case necks to a uniformly malleable state, we should anneal at this point, before our final neck sizing.

Annealing will provide a softer case neck, and unless we do it prior to sizing, we stand to experience differing spring-back rates, and thus differing neck diameters, and thus differing neck tensions, and thus . . . well, you’re probably getting the idea. If cases are to be stored for any length of time, it is prudent to anneal and neck size them again just before use.

Annealing instructions and methods will vary slightly, but the main idea is to apply heat to the neck and upper shoulder for around 3 to 4 seconds, while keeping the case head and body cool. We must carefully avoid softening the body and head of the case and confine our annealing to the neck and upper shoulder. Once we reach the desired temperature, we quench the case in cold water. Annealed cases will be of uniform temper, and should provide dimensional uniformity after final neck sizing, thus able to exert uniform neck tension. We will want to anneal our cases after every few loadings, to ensure they do not work harden to the point of changing neck tension values.

Final Neck Sizing

Since we had expanded the necks to meet the neck turning tool’s requirements, neck diameter may now be too large to hold a bullet and may not be uniform. To finalize our prep, our annealed cases will make a final trip through the neck sizer.

For this operation, and subsequent loadings, we will want a bushing style neck die, in order to control our case neck diameter and avoid inducing excess runout. Benchrest ammo is often loaded in straight-line bushing dies on an arbor press to avoid inducing even a tiny amount of indicator runout. Our loaded case neck diameter, taken with the desired neck tension, will dictate our bushing size. Benchrest rifles often use a bushing size of .001” to .002” under the finished neck diameter and experimentation will often show a preference.

Once we have completed the neck sizing stage, we are ready to prime, charge and seat bullets.

Summary

While this entire process DOES seem like a lot to do, and it is, it also ensures that we have done everything possible to compliment our carefully crafted precision rifle with uniform brass. The philosophy is that while there are a number of variables we cannot control, those that can be controlled should be.

Many of these operations will never need to be done again (ream/burr flash holes/weight sort), some things will be done occasionally (full length size/trim/turn/anneal) others must be done each time the brass is loaded (clean primer pockets/neck size).

As we load these cases, we will want to pay close attention to the feel of bullet seating in each one, and any case that exhibits a big difference in feel should be set aside for foulers or practice, since it is almost impossible for a big variation in seating effort to yield good results on target.

It is sometimes suggested that we use cartridges culled at the seating stage for sighters, but this is bad practice. Since we rely on our sighters to judge conditions and guide our hold for the rest of our group, the sighters must be every bit as accurate and dependable as the remainder of our ammo.

Range Testing

When we arrive at the range with ammo loaded in this new batch of cases, we will load and test these carefully selected and prepared cases, and cull any that do not deliver their bullets into the group. Despite our very best efforts, and for reasons not readily identified, there will usually be one or more cases that just will not put their bullets with the rest of them. These aberrant cases must go. By loading and shooting your brass and keeping track of the “bad” cases, we can cull them and stay with the cases that will provide us with correct performance.

Finally, one can easily see why we had to start with at least 20% more cases than we needed for our shooting.

Processes:


Brass Preparation For Long Range Precision Rifle

Several things change when we go to non-benchrest precision rifles such as live varmint guns and tactical rifles. We may no longer need and often cannot use true benchrest accuracy, but we still need to make precision shots at small and/or distant targets. These rifles must open tolerances to safely and reliably withstand the less than sterile conditions we encounter when we leave the bench, and by virtue of leaving the bench, we also lose some of our ability to see the difference made by certain extra steps we might have taken.

Because our accuracy standards will still be relatively stringent, it is still important that we remove the most significant variations, and we will again begin by being selective about our cartridge cases.

We should start with brass that is all of one production lot. This can be accomplished by buying new brass in bulk for a reputable source, or by buying loaded ammunition in bulk in the form of several boxes from the same lot number, or even a sealed case. Since our field rifles will not have the extremely tight chambers and necks encountered in benchrest work, we can usually use factory match ammo as a source of brass.

Whatever our desired number of working cases, we must add 10% or more to allow for removal of “odd” cases. We will be culling abnormal and/or defective cases, but not quite as mercilessly as we would for benchrest work. When we see or feel something that sets a given case apart, we will think about the potential effects before automatically condemning it.

Buying higher quality brass is now more a convenience than the true necessity it is with benchrest, since we can accept the slightly greater variations we will see in domestic brass. We will still be sensitive to case wall and neck thickness variations, due to the negative effects of excessive variation in case wall thickness. Many shooters still seek out premium brass, but decent results can be had with Winchester, Remington or Federal brass too. Careful prep tends to equalize the biggest differences we’ll see between domestic and imported brass.

We’ll talk about the process and summarize preparation steps needed for good long range ammo below.

We will visually inspect our cases, new or used, for serious inconsistencies. I prefer to decap once-fired cases with a universal decapping die prior to inspection and cleaning.

When inspecting once fired brass, we will look for signs of excess stretching, any neck cracking, excessive neck thickness variation or flash holes substantially off center. Again set aside any culls encountered at this point, to use for setup purposes later.

Tumble-clean once fired brass to remove grit and carbon. Clear any media from the flash holes, and dump the cases onto a towel or old T-shirt, and rub them thoroughly to remove any abrasive dust left over from tumbling. Note that case cleaning at this stage is more to protect the sizing die investment from grit borne by the cartridge cases than it is for cosmetic purposes.

Truing Primer Pockets

Next, we use a specialized carbide cutter to clean and true the primer pockets. Based on personal preference and priorities, it is acceptable to forgo cutting the primer pockets to fully true the depth for this ammo if expedience is desired. Our main object here is to clean the old primer residue, but for about the same effort, we can lightly touch the bottom of the pocket with a truing tool while we’re at it and eventually we will have trued the pockets. I use a K&M tool, but there are other carbide cutting/cleaning tools that work well too. This step (cleaning) will be executed every time we handload the case. Note that many very good competitors avoid using the carbide cutter, either at all or routinely as a cleaner. They are concerned that the cutter can prematurely loosen pockets, and this is a very valid concern. Use care to align the cutter in the primer pocket to reduce this tendency to enlarge the primer pockets, or use a standard scraper for subsequent cleanings.

Full Length Sizing

We will now lubricate cases to facilitate full length resizing. While we are applying lubricant, it is also necessary to lightly lubricate the case neck interior, to reduce deformation from dragging a dry expander ball back through the freshly sized neck portion of the case. Inconsistent lubrication here will produce inconsistently deformed case necks, and we are still concerned about uneven stretching or pulling the case neck out of alignment with the rest of the cartridge case.

Full length sizing is again necessary to facilitate uniform results with some of the following steps. While we may get away with just neck sizing for a few loadings at a time, most varmint and tactical style shooters will want to full length size every time to ensure absolute reliability of function and fast, resistance free chambering of follow up rounds. As long as our die is correctly adjusted, we aren’t really working the case all that hard, and there is also the compromise of a bushing style full length die that will restore body and headspace dimensions each time while leaving us complete control over neck tension.

While the full length sizing die must still be set to correctly resize the case to the individual rifle, we will want to provide slightly more clearance than we would in a bench gun, so that a grain of unburned powder or other small particle of foreign material doesn’t prevent chambering or jam up our rifle.

Use one of your culled cases, a spare piece of brass from another batch, or use one of the good cases if no culls were found or spares available. We will want to follow the same procedure outlined in benchrest. We will expand the neck diameter enough that it will not enter the chamber, then adjust our sizing die down a little at a time until the neck is reduced enough to just allow it to chamber without resistance.

As we adjust the die down into the press, we will see the case neck step down to form a secondary shoulder and we will continue to advance the die downward about 1/4 turn at a time, trying for rifle fit as we go. Clean the case between sizing and the rifle chamber, to avoid introducing case lube into the rifle. When we find the point at which the rifle will close on the case with very little “feel”, we will be at zero headspace in that particular rifle. Turn the die down another 1/8 turn, and lock the die in that position. Test fit a few cases to ensure that they freely chamber.

Note that this adjustment is still quite individual in nature, and cases sized thus may not enter another rifle of the same caliber. If we have more than one rifle in which we would use this brass, we can chamber check our brass in those at this time. We would fine tune our sizing dies adjustment as needed to allow a decent fit in all rifles the ammunition is to be fired in. This setting allows us to shoot and full length resize the case without unduly moving the shoulder and causing case stretch, and keeps the case relatively closely fitted to the chamber while maintaining decent clearance. If the temptation to very tightly fit the brass to your chamber(s) is overwhelming, bear in mind that factory match ammunition is made to fit all chambers between SAAMI limits and is still capable of providing outstanding accuracy.

Now that the full length sizer is adjusted correctly, full length size and clean the entire lot. Because we had lubed the inside of the case neck, we must be very careful to remove any lubricant that might either entrap cleaning media or contaminate powder. All lubricant must be removed from the case exterior to avoid contamination of the rifle. Using the brake cleaner to dip the case necks into before tumbling will help eliminate any tendency for lube to remain after tumbling.

Trimming to Uniform Length

Now we have progressed our brass far enough to trim to consistent length. In this situation, we will either trim all cases to match the shortest case, or trim to the published “trim to” specification, which is important if we use this brass in multiple rifles. Again, the priority is safety, and the exact length is not as important as ensuring the cases are short enough to avoid causing pressure excursions. If we plan to neck turn, we must also have consistent case lengths to control our neck turner.

Using a dial/digital caliper as a gauge, bring the jaws down to the “trim to” length and check your first case. If the case will not slide between the caliper jaws, good, we have a test case to set our trimmer.

Once we verify that we are cutting to the correct “trim to” length, trim the entire batch.

The Lee shellholder and drill motor attachment will help make the next operations easy and quick, all of which will take place on the case mouth.

We will use a standard deburring tool to remove burrs left from trimming, and lightly chamfer the inside and outside of the case mouth.

We really don’t need to deburr and ream the flash holes as we did for benchrest preparation, because we do not wish to waste our time on tedious steps that do not produce tangible results. Without a benchrest quality rifle and every other handloading step and piece of brass being perfectly consistent, we just cannot shoot any difference it may make. Conversely, if you feel better about deburring and reaming the flash holes on your field brass, it surely will not hurt anything and now would be the time to do it.

Internal "VLD" Chamfer

Once the flash hole work is complete (or not), use the “VLD style” chamfer tool to lightly chamfer the inside of the case mouth. Most bullets we will use for long range precision will be of a boat tail design and many will feature “VLD” style design. The VLD tool reduces this angle will reduce the possibility of damaging the bullet heel during seating and reduce the pressure on the ogive required to start the bullet.

Neck Turning

Because field rifles intended for live varmint and tactical style shooting may have neck diameters as tight as “SAAMI minimum”, they should still allow clearance for safe chambering of factory ammo. This means that neck turning will be voluntary, and removing neck material is more a matter of reducing neck thickness variations than it is a matter of ensuring safe clearances and “fitting” of the necks. Good quality brass earns its money here, because it is usually uniform enough that neck turning isn’t critical and we see very little neck thickness variation.

We will not want to remove much material when we turn the necks, and in fact, removal of excess material becomes counterproductive by creating excessive neck clearances, which will allow misalignment of the bullet in the throat. If we are decide we should neck turn, we will be looking to remove material around about 50 to 70% of the neck circumference. From a “perfect neck thickness uniformity” point of view, it would be ideal to cut 100% of the circumference, but this will usually make the neck walls too thin for our purposes. If we cut 50 to 70% of the necks, we have eliminated the thickest areas, the worst of the high spots, while still keeping neck thicknesses sufficient to provide enough tension for those who will use a fixed-neck full length die for all of their loading. Even using a bushing neck die, we still do not want to develop excessive clearance between the case neck and chamber neck.

Neck turning tools require the use of a specifically sized mandrel, to match the pilot on the neck turning tool. The inside of the case necks on once-fired brass should be brushed out with a bore brush to remove fouling, lightly lubed (a very small amount of sizing wax is preferred for this step), and all brass to be turned is passed over the appropriate mandrel.

To find our neck turner setting for our field guns, we will following the tool maker’s setup instructions, and set our neck turning tool to produce a cut of about 30% of the neck circumference. Make a couple test cuts to verify that we are in the ballpark, and if we’re running between 30 and 50% on the cases, go through our entire batch.

We are making a subjective adjustment here, and we are ”sneaking up” on our final adjustment to avoid misadjusting our cutter on an unusually thin case, which would result in removing too much material from the average cases in the batch.

Use care in turning, to avoid heat buildup which will cause variations in pilot fit and therefore variations in neck wall thickness, which will affect neck tension and thus bullet release. Also use care to cut slowly and smoothly to avoid leaving striations which render a misleading measurement and will “iron out” later, leaving you with a thinner neck wall than desired.

Once we’ve been through the entire batch, we will have a good idea of how our adjustment is running. If we are reasonably uniform, find the cases that had the most material removed around its circumference. Readjust your cutter to remove material from this case to about 70% of its circumference, and again run through your batch of brass. This should be a good median adjustment, and you will be able to tell by looking at your case necks how this adjustment is running. If our adjustment to the thickest case gives about 60 to 70% cut to the majority of the cases, this is good. If not, consider culling the thickest or thinnest cases to provide a workable cutter adjustment. Keeping in mind that we are still concerned with uniformity and consistency, know that a very heavy cut indicates thicker than average case, just as when the same setting produces a very light cut shows us which cases are thinnest. Big thickness variations will equal big volume variations.

Final Neck Operations

Finally, we will want to use a bore brush to brush the inside of the case necks, new or once fired, to provide an evenly textured surface, remove any traces of lube, and get rid of any glaze that was induced during the neck turning operation.

I would suggest running through the cases once more with the outside deburring tool, to create a small chamfer that will ease passage of the case into the seating die and rifle chamber.

Now that all cutting operations are complete and all aspects as uniform as we can make them, we can weight sort the cases if we feel the need. While we would not be as concerned about cases for a field rifle as we would be for a bench gun, vertical dispersion may still be our biggest controllable nemesis, and if we can get rid of any vertical at all, it’s generally worth it.

Culling By Weight

As discussed in the benchrest section, a difference in weight will equate to a difference in internal volume, which will result in a varying combustion chamber size, which will result in inconsistent ballistics. Therefore, I like to do a quick weight sort and cull the very heavy and the very light, just because I feel a little better about it. If you choose to skip this step, don’t sweat it, effects are admittedly small, and we may want to remind ourselves that our field positions don’t lend themselves to the level of accuracy we would need to attain to reliably prove that there is a demonstrable accuracy effect.

Annealing

If we neck turned, annealing really should be the next step, due to sizing and expanding and more expanding inducing work hardening. Annealing instructions vary slightly, but the main idea is to apply heat to the neck and upper shoulder for around 3 to 4 seconds, while keeping the case head cool. Once we reach the desired temperature, we quench the case neck in cold water.

If we did not neck turn, we can skip the annealing work and discussion for now, but, I would want to anneal prior to our next sizing process, and every four to five subsequent loadings thereafter. If we had expanded the necks to meet the neck turning tool’s requirements, neck tension may now be insufficient and must be sized again to provide sufficient and uniform neck tension.

Final Neck Sizing

The full length sizer can be used again, but this will add another cleaning cycle as we remove the lube, and yet another trip over the full length die’s expander ball. For this step, I would prefer a bushing style neck die, in order to apply minimum sizing and to eliminate the need for case lube. For a field gun, I usually use a bushing .002” to .003” under our loaded neck.

If a final sizing pass was necessitated by neck turning and then completed and the cases cleaned if necessary, we are ready to prime, charge and seat bullets.

As with benchrest loading, we will pay close attention to our bullet seating process, and set aside any cases that exhibit any major deviation in seating pressure, whether it’s less or more effort required, because this is going to produce vertical deviation. The same case may even out and be OK after a firing and loading cycle, and so not worth culling at this point, only kept separate for practice, fouling or a close range shot with this loading. If the cases have not yet been annealed, it may also be fine after annealing. If it continues to show differing seating pressure, just toss it before it gets mixed in and takes you out of the X-ring.

Summary

While this entire process also seems like a lot to do, we have been able to omit several steps routinely used in benchrest preparation and can still be assured that our ammunition will not be the limiting factor in the field.

Our priorities have shifted away from having the brass very tightly fitted in all possible ways, and as uniform as possible in every way we can control. We now are looking to strike a reasonable compromise between fit and reliability. Due to abandoning the bench and front rest system for the exclusive use of field positions, we can look for another balance between ultimate accuracy and the ability to produce usable quantities of decent ammunition with a reasonable amount of time and effort. Our ammunition is still complementary to our custom rigs and high grade factory rifles, but didn’t require nearly as much work to produce as the ammunition that benchrest requirements would command.

Processes:


Brass Preparation For Hunting or Informal Practice

Ammunition for mid-range hunting or for informal practice will not require nearly so much accuracy-minded preparation. I will refer to the ammunition in this section as “hunting ammo”, but all comments will apply equally to ammunition produced for informal practice.

Here, we also begin to make the subtle transition from “handloading” (implying custom crafted specialty ammunition) to “reloading” (simply refilling cartridges cases to facilitate efficient and economical reuse). The biggest factors that make our ammunition perform better than factory ammo will be the ability to choose an effective bullet design, then to tailor charge weights and seating depths to rifle preferences.

Our accuracy requirements will not be as stringent as they would for varmint or tactical style shooting; ranges will be shorter, and targets bigger. Hunting bullets are designed for their terminal ballistics, and are often not as accurate as match bullets, thus negating our best efforts at precision brass preparation.

We will not really need brass to all be from one production lot, although, due to very real volume differences from brand to brand it will be important to keep it segregated by headstamp. Lot to lot variations will usually fall below the threshold of detection with hunting rifles using hunting bullets. Brand to brand variations will almost certainly be detectable on target and can often be dangerous with regard to pressure variations, so we still must keep brass segregated by headstamp as we develop loads.

As always, we must visually inspect our cases prior to processing for reloading and I prefer to decap once-fired cases with a universal decapping die prior to inspection and cleaning. When dealing with fired brass, we will look for signs of stretching or neck cracking. Culls from this operation will be in the “unserviceable” category, so they can be mashed and tossed now.

Next, I like to tumble-clean fired brass to remove grit and carbon. Clear any media from the flash holes, and dump them onto a towel or old T-shirt, and rub them thoroughly to remove any abrasive dust left over from tumbling. I would note that this cleaning is still intended more to protect the sizing die investment than it is for cosmetic purposes.

Cleaning Primer Pockets

Next, we need to clean primer pockets. This cleaning is simply to make sure a new primer will seat deeply enough to be below the case head and thus safely function in any rifle it may be used in. If one wishes to use a cutter, it certainly won’t hurt anything, but it is slightly more effort than required and things go faster with a simple scraper, especially if we run it in a drill motor.

We will now lubricate cases to facilitate full length resizing. While we are applying lubricant, it is also necessary to lightly lubricate the case neck interior, to reduce deformation from dragging a dry expander ball back through the freshly sized neck portion of the case. Inconsistent lubrication here will produce inconsistently deformed case necks, and we are still concerned about pulling the case neck out of alignment with the rest of the cartridge case.

Full length sizing is necessary both to facilitate uniform results with some of the following steps, and to allow the finished round to freely chamber under a wide range of environmental conditions. Hunting ammunition is not normally neck sized and we will want to full length size every time to ensure absolute reliability of function and fast, resistance free chambering of follow up rounds. As long as our die is correctly adjusted, we aren’t really working the case all that hard and we don’t often load hunting ammo enough repetitions to damage the cases anyway.

While the full length sizing die must still be set to correctly resize the case to the individual rifle, we will want to provide slightly more clearance than we would in a tactical or varmint rifle. This is due both to the desire to be able to chamber a round gun with a grain of unburned powder or other foreign material present, and also that we may want to interchange ammo between rifles.

If you have two rifles with the same chambering, such as a main rifle and backup, set your die to accommodate the smaller chamber. We will want to follow the same procedure outlined in long range rifles. We will expand the neck diameter enough that it will not enter the chamber, then adjust our sizing die down a little at a time until the neck is reduced enough to just allow it to chamber without resistance. Test size and chamber check several pieces of brass in both rifles.

Now, full length size and clean the entire lot. Because we had lubed the inside of the case neck, we must be very careful to remove any lubricant that might either entrap cleaning media or contaminate powder. All lubricant must be removed from the case exterior to avoid contamination of the rifle feed system and chamber.

Using the brake cleaner to dip the case necks into before tumbling will help eliminate any tendency for lube to remain after tumbling.

Trimming To Uniform Length

We are now ready to trim to length. We will either trim all cases to match the shortest case, or trim to the published “trim to” specification. Because hunting ammunition may be crimped, it can be quite important that all cases be the same length.

Using a dial/digital caliper as a gauge, bring the jaws down to the “trim to” length and check your first case. If the case will not slide between the caliper jaws, good, we have a test case to set our trimmer.

The exact length is not as important as consistent length and ensuring that the cases are short enough to avoid causing pressure excursions.

Once we verify that we are cutting to the correct “trim to” length, trim the entire batch.

Final Neck Operations
The Lee shellholder and drill motor attachment will help make the next operations easy and quick, all of which will take place on the case mouth. We will use a standard deburring tool to remove burrs left from trimming, and lightly chamfer the inside and outside of the case mouth.

A pass with a bore brush is suggested to remove fouling and ensure good contact with the bullet.

Summary

At this point, we can use this brass to produce hunting or informal practice ammunition that will easily exceed the performance of factory loaded hunting ammunition and with good bullets in an accurate rifle, one minute of angle is not an unreasonable expectation. We have done everything necessary to safely "reload" the empty case with a decent degree of uniformity and reliability, and brass prepped in this manner will allow us to appreciate as much accuracy as the average hunting rifle will deliver.

Processes:


Brass Preparation For Close Range and High Volume Shooting

Ammunition for high volume and/or close range shooting is definitely in the “reloading” realm, and we need pay very little attention to accuracy concerns. Our major concerns are that this ammunition is safe, that it will function in any SAAMI or “Mil Spec” firearm, and that it will go “BANG!” every time.

As with hunting ammo, we will not need brass to all be from one production lot. To remain safe to shoot, we do need to segregate by headstamp so that we can adjust the powder charge for the volume variations.

As always, we must visually inspect our cases prior to processing for reloading. When dealing with fired brass, we will look for signs of stretching or neck cracking. Culls from this operation will be in the “unserviceable” category, so they can be mashed and tossed now.

Using a dedicated decapping die adds an unnecessary step for this standard of brass prep, so we’ll go straight to tumble-cleaning fired brass to remove grit and carbon. Dump them onto a towel or old T-shirt, and rub them thoroughly to remove any abrasive dust left over from tumbling. Cleaning prior to sizing helps protect the sizing die from scratching by grit.

Full Length Sizing

We will now lubricate cases to facilitate full length resizing.

Full length sizing is necessary to allow the finished round to freely chamber under a wide range of environmental conditions in a wide range of firearms. This is the only situation in which I will actually follow the die manufacturer’s recommendation to screw the die down until it contacts the shellholder. It is very important that our ammunition is at SAAMI minimum size, since we will use it in any number of firearms, and because it is imperative that our automatic and semi-automatic firearms are able to freely go completely into battery. I do not lubricate the interior of the case necks for this use. We can eliminate that step, as well as the need to carefully clean up afterward. If a carbide expander ball can be used, so much the better.

Cleaning Primer Pockets

Next, we need to clean primer pockets. This cleaning is simply to make sure a new primer will seat deeply enough to be below the case head and thus safely function in any rifle it may be used in and can be quickly accomplished with a simple scraper. The scraper can be power driven with an electric screwdriver.

Trimming To Uniform Length

We are now ready to trim to length. Because most mil spec ammunition will be crimped, it is actually quite important that all cases be the same length. We will trim all cases to the published “trim to” specification. If any cases fall below this length, they should be set aside. If they are not too numerous, they can be discarded. If there are a large number of short cases, we might consider changing the trim length slightly, but only if they are just a little short. We don’t want to trim too short, since this will take us out of spec for overall loaded cartridge length if we crimp to the bullet’s cannelure.

Using a dial/digital caliper as a gauge, bring the jaws down to the “trim to” length and check your first case. If the case will not slide between the caliper jaws, we can use this case as a test case to set our trimmer.

Once we verify that we are cutting to the correct “trim to” length, trim the entire batch.

We can use the Lee shellholder and drill motor attachment in conjunction with a standard deburring tool to quickly remove burrs left from trimming, and lightly chamfer the inside and outside of the case mouth.

Summary

In this method of brass preparation, we have not done anything not strictly necessary to simply and safely "reload" the empty case for reliable operation.

Processes:




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