Reloading Steel-Cased Ammunition

762x392Most people who have ventured into the realm of handloaded ammunition have broached the question at least once: Can steel-cased rounds be safely reloaded? Obviously they’ve been safely loaded at least once at the factory. Why can’t they be reloaded?

The answer is that they can be, and of course that tentative “Yes” is followed by a very big “but…” which should lead you to correctly believe that there are some pretty big caveats. To start with, there is an inordinate amount of military surplus steel-cased ammunition out on the market that is Berdan primed, meaning that it has two or more smaller flash holes and a center protrusion that acts as the anvil for the primer. This obstacle is not insurmountable, but it is significant. The second problem is the steel case itself. Like brass, it is ductile and malleable, but steel is also tougher. In addition it tends to have more memory and will spring back to its original shape after firing, unlike brass which remains formed to the chamber dimensions.

If you’re unlucky enough to have Berdan primed cases you’d like to reload, the first challenge is removing the spent primer. Confirm that you do indeed have Berdan primed cases by using a small bore light to illuminate the interior of the case. The presence of two or three small flash holes, as opposed to the single larger flash hole found on Boxer primed cases, indicates that you you won’t be able to deprime the round with a traditional decapping die. Instead, the best method is to remove the primer hydraulically. Water is incompressible and readily available in most circumstances. Simply fill the case with water and use a piston roughly the same diameter as the case mouth to drive the primer out by rapidly and forcefully ramming it into the case. A screwdriver can work in a pinch. Some water will spurt out around your improvised piston, but the rest should force the primer out of the pocket.

Of course, at this point you’re left with the option of either seeking out very hard to find Berdan primers, or machining out the projection, flash hole, and possibly even the primer pocket in order to safely load a Boxer primer. Whichever option you choose, do not under any circumstances attempt to prime a Berdan case with a Boxer primer: the projection of the case in the center of the pocket serves as the anvil and will cause a Boxer primer to detonate.

Steel cases are much more prone to oxidation when compared to brass. Most are covered with a polymer or laquer coating in order to prevent rust. I’d recommend against using cases that show any signs of corrosion, as this can weaken the case catastrophically and result in a rupture that could damage your firearm, injure you, or even kill you. Cleaning a steel case presents the next problem. Hard media such as stainless steel pins will scratch or even completely remove the protective coating. Ultrasonic cleaning is the best approach, but if you must use a traditional tumbler to clean the cases make sure to use a softer media such as corn cob.

Luckily, for most people attempting to reload steel-cased ammunition, modern steel cases are manufactured using Boxer primers and the single large flash hole to which we are accustomed. This leads us to the next step: resizing. Carbide dies, while not absolutely necessary, are highly recommended. You’ll also need to make sure that the cases are well lubricated in order to avoid getting them stuck in the die.

From here on out, the method for reloading steel-cased ammunition is very much the same as loading brass-cased rounds. The one part that may be difficult in some cases is seating the bullet. As mentioned above, steel cases have more memory than brass cases and will tend to spring back to their original shape. Because of this, seating a flat based bullet can be more difficult even if you’re using a throat expanding die.

Frankly, other than a complete “zombie apocalypse” scenario it’s hard to come up with a situation where you would need to know how to reload steel-cased ammo. Brass, both new and once-fired, is abundant and easy to find. Even preppers anticipating a complete grid-down collapse would have a hard time making the case that brass will suddenly up and disappear. Still, if you’re concerned about whether or not it’s possible to do, or if you just want to try it out on a lark, rest assured: it can be done.

Reloading Safety Basics

Personal Protective EquipmentPresumably, if you’re reading this column, you have at least a passing interest in handloading your own ammunition. This is, of course, a great thing and I would encourage all hunters and shooters to at the very least become knowledgeable about the practice. Like nearly all things involving firearms safety needs to be paramount, and that’s what I’d like to talk with you about today.

First, let’s talk safety equipment. When reloading ammunition we work with components that are flammable and explosive. Loose powders can catch fire quite easily and primers can occasionally detonate inadvertently. Accidents happen despite all the precautions we take. Presses and dies place brass under immense pressure. Power trimmers especially can launch shards of brass at high-speed right at your face. It is exceedingly difficult to be an accomplished shooter without your eyeballs. Take care of them. Eye protection in the form of safety goggles or glasses is absolutely necessary.

Nitrile gloves are also essential in helping to prevent the spread of lead residue. Traces of lead contaminate not the bullets, but the brass. Residue from the primer, along with a tiny amount that is occasionally vaporized from the bullet itself, is left covering the brass when a round is fired. For this reason, even if you are wearing gloves, you should always wash your hands after handling firearms, brass, and other components that may be exposed.

Along those same lines, don’t eat while reloading. Regardless of your dietary needs, a peanut butter and lead sandwich probably isn’t something your doctor would recommend. Again, don’t forget to wash your hands before eating if you’ve recently spent time at the range or been handling any reloading components.

Do I really need to mention that smoking while reloading is a bad idea? Don’t do it. Better yet, quit the habit completely if you’re able.

Your work area should be neat and organized. This not only helps you keep track of what you are doing, it also helps to eliminate potentially dangerous accidents and errors. Additionally, your work area should be distraction-free. This may mean that it’s set up in a designated work area, such as a garage or basement. It may also mean that you only set up your press after the kids are in bed. If you have a television or other media distraction in your work area, turn it off. Your focus should be 100% on the task at hand.

When loading ammunition you should only have the components necessary for that one load out and on your workbench.This helps to avoid inadvertently using the wrong powder or primers. All components should be stored only in the original factory packaging, and care should be taken to verify the label before use. When not in use, powders and primers should be stored separately in a cool dry place. The use of a fire-resistant metal cabinet is highly encouraged.

Never mix components. Every part of a cartridge interacts with the others. If you’re switching out one component for another you need to work the load up again. Changing something as simple as the bullet manufacturer, even if the bullet weight and construction are the same, can have great effect on your load. The same applies to brass. Case volume can vary from headstamp to headstamp, and the result very well could be a boom instead of a bang when you pull the trigger. Any time that any component of your cartridge is changed back off the load by 10% and work it up again.

Keep up to date on your loading manuals. Don’t simply rely on that one reloading manual you bought 20-years ago with your first press. Powder formulas change over time, and loads are constantly tested and refined by manufacturers. Furthermore, use extreme caution when following recipes found on the internet or relayed by someone at the range. What works for their firearms may not necessarily work in yours. Do your research and always start at 90% of the recommended load.

Along those same lines, make sure your reloading log is up to date. You do keep a handload journal, don’t you? Such a resource is invaluable when tracking and evaluating round performance as well as spotting possible component degredation in older rounds. Log details of not only components and weights, but also lot and batch numbers along with date of manufacture, if known, and date loaded.

At the end of the day, reloading is about all the little details. Develop a ritual, a series of steps that you follow and don’t deviate from. Get in the habit of working safely. Creating effective loads requires not just careful logging of load performance, attention to weights and measurements to create accurate and safe cartridges, but also attention to various safety protocols.

Office Furniture Part Deux: Electric Boogaloo

You may recall that around a month ago I bought a very nice hand-crafted table from Phil of Random Nuclear Strikes.

This is how the table arrived.

This is how the table arrived.

I haven’t posted more on it because, well… the table didn’t survive the journey in one piece.

But Phil’s a stand-up guy, who also had the foresight to take out insurance on the package. It was shipped back and will be rebuilt (Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability…) after which it will be repackaged and shipped back – this time with strict oversight of the packing process.

I’m pretty excited to get the finished product back, this time in one piece hopefully. The office remodel has been completed and most of the other new furniture pieces moved into place. The glass top for the table was ordered last month and has already arrived as well. Once everything is put together I’ll post some additional photos in another update.

Reloading Shotgun Shells

IMG_0120When it comes to reloading ammunition, most people immediately think of handgun and rifle cartridges. What many don’t realize, including a avid shooters and firearm enthusiasts, is that shotgun shells can also be reloaded. Whether you’re looking to save a few cents per round loading your own shells for sporting clays, or you’re seeking to develop a specialty load, shotgun shell reloading could be the answer you’re looking for.

Reloading once-fired shotgun shells isn’t necessarily more difficult than reloading pistol or rifle cartridges, but it is different. To start with, there are three main types of shotgun cartridges: brass, paper, and plastic hulled. Plastic and paper cartridges may have “high brass” or “low brass” or the brass may be replaced with zinc coated steel. Additionally, plastic hulls can be a one-piece or multi-piece construction and have a six or eight point crimp. All of this is in addition to the obvious variations of the length and gauge of the hull.

The process for reloading the shotshell itself is actually not that complex. Just as you would with a rifle or handgun round you start by cleaning and inspecting your hulls. If you find any splits or cracks in the plastic, or if the brass has been deformed or caked with dirt, the hull should be discarded. You can clean the hull and the brass using a tumbler and soft media such as corn cob, but this isn’t strictly required.

The process of depriming spent shells is virtually identical to that of a metallic cartridge, and in most cases you will resize the hull and brass base at the same time. Resizing here isn’t a huge deal the way it is with metallic cartridges however. The brass base on a shotshell doesn’t expand much at all, zinc coated steel bases have virtually no expansion, and the plastic hull is flexible enough that crimping will generally force it to the correct shape and size. At this stage in the process resizing basically opens up the mouth of the hull where it was previously crimped shut.

Most presses have a combination priming and charging station where a new primer is pressed into place and the powder charge is dropped. At this point, things get a bit different than what a traditional rifle or pistol handloader might be used to. Shotshells require a wad to separate the shot and powder. The wad also serves to take up any extra room in the shotshell, and to protect the barrel from steel shot.

There are a few different ways of seating the wad. Most presses use a sleeve that slips over the shell, or some other device that will hold the shell open while guiding the wad into place.

With the wad properly seated, the shot charge is dropped and then the shell is crimped shut. The art of the crimp is something that is easy to learn, but takes a bit of practice to get just right. A good press will have 3 separate stations for the crimp: one station to start the crimp, a second one to close it, and a third one to finish it and make a nice rounded lip.

Shotshell powders are fast burning powders and are usually compatible with pistol loads as well. I use Alliant Red Dot and Blue Dot in most of my handgun caliber recipes and try to use the same powders on my shotgun loads just to make the number of different components I have to keep in stock down to a bare minimum.

Hornady, Lee, and MEC pretty much make up the “big three” when it comes to shotshell presses. My first shotshell press was an old Lyman Easy Loader. Lyman no longer manufactures shotshell presses, and I’m pretty sure this one was older than me when I picked it up. Lee Precision’s Load-All II is probably the closest comparable press manufactured nowadays.

Obviously you’ll spend a bit more on a progressive press, and they take a little longer to set up, but you’ll be able to crank out the shells very quickly afterwards. I personally prefer to have multiple multi-station presses like my Lyman or the Lee Load-All. They’re inexpensive enough that I can keep multiple presses ready to go with each set up for a specific load.

Shooting 2 1/2″ blackpowder shells out of my Remington 1894? I can go right to that press and crank some out. Do I need 2 3/4″ loads that will
run reliably in my autoloader? I just go to that press and get to work.

How you choose to set up your own press is of course a personal choice. If you shoot your scatterguns often, whether it’s busting clays, hunting waterfowl, or competing in 3-gun matches, loading your own shells may be something you should look into.