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Case preparation

Updated on September 30, 2014

The Foundation of Reloading

For many rifles and handguns, cartridges are available commercially, from a diverse suite of manufacturers. Many of these commercial cartridges are superb, providing acceptable accuracy at acceptable prices. For the purposes of hunting, such cartridges are, in most cases, sufficient for the purpose.

However, reloading offers a reduction in cost per cartridge (after the initial investment in equipment and supplies) and, more importantly, the means to develop loads specific to your individual firearm. No two firearms are exactly alike. Small differences during production can produce different results. Although most rifles in North America, and their corresponding cartridges, have been manufactured to comply with SAAMI specifications, deviations (some of which can be quite significant), can (and will) result in markedly different performance between firearms having the same caliber.

There are four components to every cartridge: cases ("brass"), primers, powder and bullets. This lens addresses cases and their initial preparation for reloading.

A Successful Load Begins with Case Preparation

If your objective in reloading is accuracy, then you need to strive for consistency throughout the reloading process. The first step is Case Preparation - the foundation of your Pet Load.

March 2013 issue
March 2013 issue

First Step - Research

Where to begin?

My favourite rifle right now is a bolt action, Ruger M77 Hawkeye in .223. It has a twist rate of 1 in 9 and a 26" barrel.

Therefore, it can fire bullets as light as 40 grains and up to a maximum of about 69 grains. Bullets lighter than 40 grains might come apart due to the high twist rate, while bullets heavier than 69 grains might not be sufficiently stabilized to avoid tumbling. There are, however, many choices of bullets between 40 and 69 grains available for me, from a wide variety of manufacturers, from commercial to custom made.

To date, I have tested 40, 53, 55, 60 and 69 grain bullets, predominantly from Hornaday (53, 55 and 69 grain), but also Nosler (40 gr). I am currently refining a load for Hornaday 50 gr V-Max bullets and need an initial starting pint with which to develop a load specific to my rifle.

There are three articles in Ken Water's "Pet Loads" discussing .223 caliber. In reading the articles, I noted the following comments with regard to Hodgdon's H 4895 powder:

50 Sierra Spitzer - "third most accurate with high velocity"

52 Remington BR - "fourth most accurate with high velocity"

53 Hornaday Match - "most accurate load tested"

55 Speer FMJ - "best all-around load" and

60 Hornaday HP - "especially fine long range load"

From these comments, I decide that Hodgdon H-4895 powder will, in all likelihood, provide the results I am wanting with regards to powder. It works well with a wide range of bullet weights and, I expect, should perform well for the bullets I wish to test.

(Note: H-4895 has worked well for my tests with Hornaday 53 gr HP Match, 60 gr SP and 69 gr BTHP, however, none has yet provided me with the consistent accuracy I am seeking. Furthermore, due to seasonal availability in components, I want to have several loads worked out for different bullets in the event one (or more) become temporarily unavailable. Finally, it is just FUN to evaluate different components).

Having selected Hodgdon H 4895 powder, I note that Ken Water's used 27 gr H 4895 with a Speer 50 gr Spitzer. I then go to my preferred Hornaday Handbook of Cartridge Reloading for data pertaining to 50 grain bullets (which includes my 50 gr V-Max) and determine that the maximum load (and, therefore, maximum velocity) for H-4895 is ... not listed!

Luckily, I have additional references:

Lee's "Modern Reloading" lists a maximum load of 27.5 gr of H-4895 for a 50 gr Jacketed Bullet

Lyman's "Reloading Handbook" also does not list H-4895.

Finally, I refer to Hodgdon Reloading Data Center and find the maximum load for a 50 gr Speer SP is 27.5 gr (slightly compressed). (Note: refer also to Hodgdon's 2013 Annual Manual - see accompanying photo). I now have two references that, rather unusually, return the same maximum weight for H-4895 powder.

The recommended maximum load for my .223 caliber rifle, using Hodgdon's H 4895 powder and a 50 gr bullet weight in 27.5 gr.

Reloading Manuals - Strongly Recommended References

All of the following reloading manuals are published by the manufacturers and, therefore, emphasize their respective bullets. My current preference is for Hornaday bullets and so that is my primary reference. However, the reloader is strongly recommended to use more than one reference and, as one's interest in reloading develops, it is a virtual certainty that you will experiment with other brands of bullets.

The following references are strongly recommended.

Hornady Cartridge Reloading Handbook, 8th Edition
Hornady Cartridge Reloading Handbook, 8th Edition

The 8th Edition has a considerable amount of information and is my primary reloading reference


Ken Water's "Pet Loads" - An Indispensable Reference

Ken Water's Pet Loads is a compilation of articles written by Ken Waters over a period of several decades in Handloader magazine. The voluminous text includes data for components (primers, brass, powder and bullets) personally tested by Ken Waters for a wide, and diverse suite of firearms.

Pet Loads provides an excellent starting point for identifying the components one might wish to test for a given caliber. The corresponding loads can then be cross referenced against analogous data from other available references (i.e. those recommended below) to derive a starting point for a test series.

Pet Loads the Complete Volume
Pet Loads the Complete Volume

A strongly recommended, indispensable reference to assist the reloader in identifying the starting components for a test series.


Second Step: Brass

Case Selection

There are several options with regard to cases suitable for reloading: buying new or used (i.e. once fired) brass.

I started out buying commercial ammunition as I did not have, nor could I afford, reloading equipment necessary for my interests. Therefore, I purchased commercial ammunition and saved the brass. Over time, I accumulated enough brass to begin reloading using my brothers equipment, then bought / acquired my own. I subsequently purchased bags of once fired brass to supplement my supply. My wife bought me two bags of Remington .223 brass as a birthday present and so I committed to Remington brass.

Brass can also be purchased new from a variety of manufacturers, including (but not limited to): Remington, Winchester, Federal, Hornaday, etc.

For the purposes of accuracy, purchase of Lapua and Norma is widely recommended. Lapua (and, to a lesser extent, Norma) brass is widely acknowledged to be higher quality, with less variation, than other brands of brass. However, there is a premium associated with its purchase and, more importantly, it is not readily available to me in rural British Columbia.

Therefore, I have approximately 600 Remington cases (no preference, that is simply the brand I started with) and, more recently, have decided to test Federal brass (purchasing 500 once fired cases). Winchester is also widely available.

Case Preparation - Case Prep Centers

Whether you have new or used cases, they will need to be prepared before you do anything else with them.

Much of the work preparing your cases is manual and is summarized below.

However, if you are prepping cases on a volume basis, it can be tough on the hands. Several of the manufacturers specializing in reloading equipment have recognized this and developed "Case Prep Centers". Each center is basically a power supply sufficient to turn a varied selection of supplied tools required for preparing cases for reloading.

Each provides camfering and deburring tools (both outside and inside), brushes (for clearing brass cuttings from the neck) and/or reaming / cleaning tools for primer pockets.

Personally, I have the Hornaday Lock N' Load Center, however, I think i will sell it and buy the Lyman Case Prep Express. The Hornaday Lock N' Load Center has the additional trimming feature, which is the reason I purchased it, however, the trimmer is slightly skewed, which results in the trimmed end being slightly uneven, leading to potential issues with accuracy. In addition, I like the fact that both the Lyman and RCBS Prep Centers rely on downward pressure for case prep, rather than lateral force. Therefore, the desk (or whatever surface I am using) provides the resistance to allow me to apply the force I need for case preparation. The Hornaday Lock N' Load Center needs to be clamped to the desk.

If I am not going to use the trimmer, I don't need the Hornaday Lock N' Load Center. Downgrading will free up some money for other equipment.

Hornady Lock N Load Case Prep Center
Hornady Lock N Load Case Prep Center

This is the unit I currently have, however, the trimmer is slightly skewed and trims the cases unevenly as a result.


Case Expansion

Lee Case Length Gauge

With each firing, brass expands to fit the chamber and tends to stretch forward toward the barrel. Over time, the length of the case can lengthen to the point it may impinge on the throat, making chambering a round difficult, or even impossible (without excessive force). This can lead to a very dangerous situation in which chamber pressures can soar (over-pressure), potentially leading to failure of the rifle's action and injury to the operator.

Consulting the reloading manuals of choice, one can easily find the maximum Case Length. In the case of the .223, the maximum case length is 1.760". Once the case approaches 1.760", the case should be trimmed.

I find a cheap and easy tool to use is the Lee "Case Length Gauge and Shell holder". Simply screw the Case Length Gauge into the cutter (purchased separately). Place the case into the shell holder and insert the gauge into the case. If the cutter cuts the neck, then the case needs to be trimmed.

I generally retain my spent casings until I get a minimum of 100, then prepare them for reloading. I will use the Lee Case Length Gauge to test a random selection of cases. If any one of them is cut by the Lee Case Length Gauge, I trim the lot.


Case Length

There are a variety of trimmers available.

Their use is relatively generic, simply insert the case into the holder and slide the case forward to the cutter, using a pilot (supplied or purchased separately) to guide the neck and prevent lateral movement. Usually, the stop on the cutter will have to be gradually (incrementally) moved until you reach the desired length (again, the manuals often provide a recommended "Case Trim Length").

Some trimmers have a micrometer, allowing the cutter to be moved forward (or back) by a known length. In the case of the .223, the "Trim-to-Length" is 1.750". Using a pair of calipers, move the cutter until the recommended length is reached (or close - one does not have to be exact, provided it cuts to less than the Maximum Case Length and is not significantly below the "Trim-to-Length" size). (Note: In the case of the Federal cases I have recently begun to work with, the fired length is approximately 1.745", well below the "Trim-to-Length" suggested).

Once you have your Trimmer set to the desired length, do not adjust it any further and trim all your brass to the same length. From this point forward, you want all your individual pieces of brass to be as consistent as possible.


Beveling the Case Neck

A Camfer Tool, as are shown in the photograph, is used to remove the flat edge left by trimming. The Camfer Tool is usually double-ended, with one set of cutters to trim the outside of the neck and a second to trim the inside. Ideally, you only want to remove any ridge on the outside that might have been left by the cutter and to provide a slight bevel on the inside of the neck to ease seating the bullet.

I generally use 8 turns on the outside, and three on the inside, of the neck with light to moderate pressure. I do not want to remove alot of brass at this point, simply a light trim sufficient to bevel the inside and outside edges of the neck..

(Note: the camfer tool at the top of the photograph is a Wilson version. They are very common and available from a variety of manufacturers. The left end is used to trim the inside, while the right end is used to bevel the outside of a case. The tool at the bottom is a Lyman, and simultaneously trims both the inside and the outside. I really like the idea, however, in practice I find it awkward. Furthermore, I generally find the outside needs to be trimmed more than the inside and so I like to do them separately.).

Primer Pocket
Primer Pocket

Primer Pockets and Flash Holes

Tools for Reaming and Deburring

There are a variety of relatively inexpensive tools available for reaming and/or cleaning the primer pockets (see photo) as well as the flash hole (in center of primer pocket in photo) in our on-going and continued efforts to achieve uniformity in our cases.

Primer Pocket Brushes - To Clean out Carbon Residue

Primer Pocket Uniformers - I Prefer These to the Brushes

I prefer to use a Primer Pocket Uniformer to clean the primer pockets. The uniformer has a pre-set factory stop to prevent it from cutting beyond the recommended SAAMI depth and so reams the primer pocket to a consistent depth. I have found the uniformer initially cleans the primer pocket down to brass to a uniform depth. After each firing, there is generally a build-up of carbon residue within the pocket and, with each subsequent use, the uniformer removes only the carbon residue (having previously reamed the primer pocket to the pre-set depth).

As a result, I get very clean primer pockets having a consistent depth.

Flash Hole Uniformer - Again, looking for Uniformity

The flash hole uniformer is similarly used to uniform the flash hole from inside the case, to ensure there is no excess brass flanges or ridges that might produce slight differences in the manner in which the powder ignites and, therefore, differences in how the bullet might perform in the barrel and, subsequently, down range.

The Flash Hole Uniformer is inserted at the neck and you align it with the Flash Hole. Again, most of the Flash Hole Uniformers (probably all) have an adjustable stop to avoid over-cutting the Flash Hole.

Primer Pocket Reamer - Required for some Commercial Brass

On some brass, there is a thin rim of brass which somewhat restricts the primer pocket. As a result, more pressure is required to seat the primers. I am very uncomfortable with this extra pressure on what is, in essence, a small explosive charge.

My Remington cases are fine, however, I have found that some of the Federal cases have this brass rim. An example is evident in the photo under "Primer Pockets and Flash Holes" (above) as the thin blue coloured ring inside the primer pocket. This thin brass rim needs to be reamed out, followed by uniforming the primer pocket.

Reloading Dies - A Variety of Options for a Wide Range of Calibers

There are, essentially, two types of reloading dies: full length re-sizing and neck re-sizing dies.

In full length re-sizing, the case is run through a full length die using a reloading press, which re-sizes the entire case. Neck re-sizing simply involves re-sizing just the neck so as to provide sufficient tension to hold the bullet in place.

All new brass should be full length re-sized. Once fired brass should also be full length re-sized, since the cases are either from the factory or from an unknown source (or at least not from your rifle). Full length re-sizing ensures the brass is restored to the SAAMI specifications for your caliber.

Neck sizing should be limited to cases previously fired in your rifle. Neck sizing limits re-sizing to the neck of the case and reduces the extent to which case hardening occurs. Brass starts out soft and, with each subsequent "working", whether by firing or by re-sizing, becomes progressively harder, eventually brittle. By limiting re-sizing to the neck only, you extend the life of your brass. Furthermore, the brass retains the fire-formed shape specific to your rifle.

500 prepared cases of Federal brass
500 prepared cases of Federal brass

Case Consistency

Weight vs. Volume

Having finished your case preparation, all your cases are, in theory, the same. However, variations remain which can affect the volume of powder the case can hold, the amount of space remaining in the case for the same weight of powder, the extent to which the powder might be compressed, etc. between cases.

Ideally, the cases need to be as consistent as possible and so should be sorted. Two means of sorting are available - by weight or by volume. To sort by volume, the flash hole needs to be blocked and the case filled with a liquid. Generally, either water (with detergent added to reduce surface tension) or alcohol is recommended. The case is filled with liquid and then the volume of liquid measured. I find this technique unappealing for two reasons: 1) dealing with a fluid and 2) consistently filling each case so as to produce an identical meniscus (the convex or concave shape the liquid will have due to surface tension).

The second method is to sort by weight. Each case is individually weighed, then categorized by weight. Recently, I sorted five hundred Federal cases by weight, sorted in to 0.1 grain increments between 90.4 and 93.9 grains. Generally, it seems that the experts recommend accepting cases varying by +/- 1 grain. Therefore, for my Federal cases, I accepted the 456 cases between 91.1 and 93.1 (92.1 +/- 1 grain).

Federal Brass Sorted by Weight
Federal Brass Sorted by Weight

Sorting By Weight

An Example

I prepared 500 once-fired Federal cases I purchased. They were all prepared according to the instructions provided above, as consistently as possible. I now have 456 Federal cases, trimmed to the same length (1.7415"), camfered and reamed in the same manner.

When I weighed them, I found I had a range between 90.4 and 97.7 grains. I then selected all those cases which fell within a range of 1 grain from a median weight. The maximum number of cases was located between 91.1 and 93.1 grains, or 92.1±1.0 grain. Therefore, having a similar weight, they should have a similar volume and should be relatively consistent in their behaviour when fired. As a result, I expect more consistency in performance and, ultimately, better accuracy due to minimization of variation between cases.

This lens summarizes the basics of preparing cases for reloading, with the objective of minimizing variation so as to produce more consistent performance. Ultimately, consistency in your cases should contribute to better accuracy.

Let me know what you think. Have I missed anything? What alternative methods do you use?

What Do You Think? - Was this of any Assistance to you?

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    • Dynamic1 LM profile image

      Dynamic1 LM 4 years ago

      @TV-Tech: I imagine it's a "major pain" for the initial processing (i.e. removing the crimped in primer). Similarly, with the Federal brass I am using. Although it is commercial, not military, I still have to ream the primer pocket wider for the first reload. I then have to further ream a sub-set of those a second time. After that, the brass is fine.

    • TV-Tech profile image

      TV-Tech 4 years ago

      @Dynamic1 LM: The swaging die completely removed the military crimps I had. Years ago, I could buy loads of brass from Ebay. I bought all the military brass I could get my hands on. But it is still a major pain to use. When I get that lens finished (well never actually finished) I will link over. I don't want to duplicate any of the info you've already got here.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile image

      Dynamic1 LM 4 years ago

      @TV-Tech: No, I don't have a problem (yet) with loose primer pockets. I expect that to arise with continued reloading, not from reaming. I think I will have less problems with the reamer than I will with a primer pocket cleaner (i.e. wire brush). The reamer has a "stop" which prevents me from reaming too deeply. I find I can do a better job cleaning the pockets than with the pocket cleaner.

      I also found that the primer pockets on Federal brass was too narrow and I was having considerable difficulty loading the primers, crushing some. The brass is not crimped military, but commercial, yet there appears to be a thin rim of brass which narrows the primer pocket. The reamer has helped (but not eliminated) this issue. The second pass with reamer should resolve this issue on the remaining problems cases.

      Certainly! I don't mind if you link to this lens.

    • TV-Tech profile image

      TV-Tech 4 years ago

      Great lens!!!! Should make for some very accurate loads. One question, do you notice primers getting loose after reaming? When I first got into reloading, someone told me not to. But then after thinking about it, it didn't make much sense. But, because of that, I got a swaging tool. And it is a pain to use....Also would you mind if I link over to your lens? My reloading lens is geared more towards pistols.