Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Lee Speed die in .357 Magnum : Can one die replace 3?

Continuing with the Lee products reviews here is one that did not survive for long and was discontinued some time ago. The "Lee Speed Die" was Lee's answer to try and replace a 3 die set with one single die, or was it? Lets take a look at a .357 Magnum Carbide Speed die and see how well this was thought out.

The Lee speed die ad line is as follows "One die replaces three. The first significant pistol die breakthrough since the carbide die. When used in any single station press, the Lee Speed Die reloads faster than three die sets because you don't have to change dies between operations. Carbide Speed Die, shellholder, powder measure and loading data included."

My particular die set is missing the powder worries I have a full set under the bench if I wished to utilize the dippers, everything is present and clean though does show use prior to it coming into my hands.
Seems like Lee was more interested in selling the die as a "faster" option than having to swap out individual dies. Hence "Speed die" I believe they marketed the wrong attribute of the die here. For one I don't believe that hand-loaders as a group really look for any quick way to change out dies really, we'll just go to a turret or progressive press. Correct me if I'm wrong but we don't mind swapping out dies. So what does that mean for the Speed die? can it be the "jack of all trades" and really replace your 3 die set? Lets take a look at how the die is put together.

L-R Carbide sizing ring, die body, decapper/flare stem and seater stem.

The die is basically made up of 4 major components, the carbide sizer ring, die body, decap/flare stem and seater stem. The carbide sizer ring screws into the bottom of the body  and the two stems are placed into the top as needed. This die is well thought out from a engineering stand point I believe. The decap stem is from what I can tell the only thing that makes this a .357 Magnum die set in that the decap stem has a set length from where it would bottom out in the case and the upper stem where it gives a VERY slight flare to the bell the case mouth NOT TRUE, read here to see what I've learned about their differences . OK, so those are the parts let us see this dog can hunt.

Provided instruction sheet- a link to the PDF version of this is provided at the bottom of this post
Following the provided instructions we set up the stripped down die body in the reloading press as instructed making sure the case mouth slightly touches the die.

Next we install the carbide sizer ring and we FL size all of our brass, in this abbreviated test I am sizing 15 pieces of various .357 Mag brass all range pick up that are all various sizes. After sizing the brass I measure the OD of them and compare with my other 3 die sets...exact same OD on both, in fact with the way the carbide sizing die ring is set up it seemed like it sized further down on the case even. On other die sets the carbide ring is recessed a little to protect the carbide, so failure of this component is a concern if die is not set up correctly. 

After our 15 pieces of brass are sized we remove the carbide ring (with die body still in place) this is what makes it a "speed die" remember!? We move on to decap/flaring.

Next in following the directions we drop in the decapper and secure with the bullet seater

Bullet seater threaded on top holds decapper in place. Position is not critical

From here we decap/flare our 15 pieces of brass. Some Lee fans out there might know that the Lee loader (whack a mole type) for the .357 and .38 use all the same components in the kit EXCEPT for the load data and powder dipper (whack a mole review coming soon).  This kind of utility is a boon to the minimalist, so I started thinking "what makes this speed die a .357 mag specific set and it dawned on me The decap/flare stem is the only caliber specific component for this die, a body could make another decap/flare stem and be set for .38 special as theory. I'll report back later on this....NOT TRUE! click here to read what I have learned about their differences

Basically what I'm saying at least in theory as I have not had a chance to compare it with the .38spl speed die I also acquired, is that all you need to make your .357 magnum speed die into a .38spl speed die is the appropriate proportioned decap/flare stem.....something to think about.

Sorry, got sidetracked, lets finish up this batch of 15 rounds, we have sized, decapped and flared our brass, now we need to prime it. For this I will use the Lee Ram Prime tool which forces us to change out the die...they want you to use a Lee Auto-prime in the instructions but I only have a fancy RCBS priming unit and it takes more time to mount it on the bench than setting up the lee ram prime so the lee prime it is. If you are interested in the Lee primer unit there is a review one post down from this review. 

After we have primed our cases with appropriate primers we are ready to weigh out powder charges, charge the cases and seat the bullets. I am seating 125gr jacketed bullets on top of a healthy charge of 16.8gr of 2400, this has proven to be a pretty good flame thrower load out of my guns and is fun to shoot towards the end of range sessions. The bullet seater is easy to adjust however as mentioned in the instructions you must turn the die body in 1/4 for light crimping and 1/2 turn for heavy crimping which is usually suggested with light bullets on top of slower powders that take up a lot of case space. 

A note on seating, A page on lee's website mentions the die is not to be used with cast bullets. I find this somewhat odd as I don't really see why that would be a issue. The only thing I can come up with is the decapper/flare stem does not bell the case an appreciable amount needed for cast bullets. In fact it is just barely enough for the jacketed bullets I was using and some care must be taken to insure the bullet is started correctly or you run a risk of ruining the case.  I see no reason why you couldn't flare the case a little more and seat cast bullets with this die this die. Maybe we're starting to see exactly why this particular line of reloading equipment was discontinued. It's is great for the minimalist wanting a step up from the lee loader whack a mole type dies but not wanting to have to mess with 3 dies, say a guy who has a S&W 686 that needs 100 rounds a month for matches and or plinking and is loading on his coffee table. I am not sure what the original MSRP was on the speed die compared to other 3 die (or 4 die sets) of the same manufacture. I'm willing to guess it was at least half or 3/4 of the cost of a full die set. But say you wanted to add on a lee universal flare die so you could load cast bullets with this that point you might as well start looking at the regular carbide 3 die sets.

 Speed dies were discontinued in the late 90's.
The Speed die does everything a 3-die set does by combining some steps, and by providing a removable carbide-sizing ring. When used in a single stage press, the Speed die is faster because one doesn't need to keep changing die bodies to perform different tasks. Simply swapping internal components accomplishes the same thing. The speed dies can only be used for jacketed bullets, can't be used for cast bullets.
Cartridges that were available at one time:
  • 9mm Luger
  • 38 Special
  • 357 Mag
  • 44 Mag
  • 45 ACP
Conclusion- The Lee Speed die I'm sure was met with some trepidation at its unveiling to the reloading public. Replacing 3 dies with one for the sake of speed was not the pitch I would have used to sell this product. The fact it was offered in probably the 5 highest selling calibers should have helped but it still was discontinued most likely to people not really sure the best way to use this die, or perhaps expected too much from it. These dies sell around $30 or so when found I have seen, so obviously some people have found a way to utilize the die. I myself will keep mine under the bench to go along with my hand press when I head to the range with plans to load test ammo on site. The 15 rounds we loaded all look very consistent, in fact with the way the decap/flare stem works its impossible to over bell the case mouths so brass should last a little longer. The crimps are consistent and the bullets all seated at the same depths....I'm very happy with the results.I would in fact say that yes 1 die CAN replace 3 however this one die does not have the versatility that 3 can for the weather to clear up and some range time to take place. The bullets I used in these loads were pulled bullets so it wont be fair to measure accuracy on target and compare results with like loads from 3 or 4 die sets as some of their noses were slightly deformed from being pulled down.  If you are a minimalist and wish to not accumulate a great many dies and accessories I believe it may be worth your while to try to track down a Lee Speed die if you are looking to reload for only one caliber (and hopefully its one of the 5 calibers they made). Stay safe out there!

Lee Ram Prime : or : The easiest priming unit I've tried

Lee Precision has some very simple and easy to use tools that I seem to always be pulling out to use. Their powder dipper sets are always utilized when I'm running small batches of test ammo, they allow me to get to within 5% of the intended load and trickle powder into my measure until I get the desired charge. Another one of their handy items is their "Lee Ram Prime" unit.  

The Lee Ram prime is a 2 part tool, the shell holder and ram adapter.
  This is not a priming unit for doing massive runs of ammo and you are forced to handle the primers one at a time....something a few reloaders really dislike doing. I have a nice RCBS priming unit that does not have a dedicated spot on my table, it uses pickup tubes and though its easy to use  I dislike setting it up to only load 15 rounds or so. Which is where the Lee Ram Prime comes in.

Shell holder installed.
The Priming unit is quick and easy, The shell holder...screws into the top of your press in place of your reloading die. The ram adapter goes where the shell holder normally would and you are ready to prime!
The priming unit does come with two sizes of "piston and collar" assemblies for the two sizes of primers you will be using. I even use this set up with a special 12ga shell holder to prime magtech all brass hulls for black-powder loads in my coach gun.

I always leave the press handle down and load a new primer in from this position. No real need to drop the ram all the way down to try and fumble a primer in there.

Primer in place

Case being primed
The lee ram prime is also really handy with the Lee hand press. For a small reloading set up it is a really convienent way to prime your cases. Now I know some will point out the fact my Rockchucker HAS a priming station on it, however for various reasons I've never been satisfied with the way the press mounted unit performed, I feel a lot of people have that same feeling as you see the units in junk reloading boxes often. Lee sells the tool for under $15 or so depending on where you get it from. I believe it is a worthwhile tool if you do small batch reloading and don't worry so much about production.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Practical Dope On The .22 - By Fred C. Ness : or : This book has me sold on a Winchester 54 in .220 Swift!

 This next book review is going to cover a sort of obsolete and  not so obsolete topic of .22 varmint rifles and calibers. "Practical Dope on the .22" By Ness is a roughly 300 page volume originally printed in 1947 covering everything .22 caliber that was around at the time. Both Centerfire and Rimfire cartridges are covered here including but not limited to .22 short, .22 Hornet &  K Hornet, 2-R Lovell, .219 Zipper, .22 Savage HP as well as the .218 Bee. 

This book is a MUST read for anybody interested in early cartridge design and performance. The .220 Swift (which was only 12 years old when the book was published) is given rave reviews and some vivid accounts on its performance on larger game. Now, as it happens with most of these type of books the load data & components are LONG gone to us today. The book however shows the early struggles and solutions that the author and friends came up with to squeak every bit of velocity, accuracy and in the end performance out of their various cartridges of choice. The discussion on ballistics is intriguing and though all of it is still relevant today where applicable we have access to a good many more chamberings, bullets and powders that can take a lot of the work out of vying for that accuracy our predecessors worked so hard for. One thing that caught my attention was that Ness and company used graphite wads with their loads, these wads sometimes weighed as much as 55gr as reported in the book supposedly to reduce throat wear and fouling. I myself would not rush out to try it but if it worked for them they were on to something I guess but it died out as its not a practice we have today obviously. 

I highly recommend this book to those who have a any rifle in .220 Swift especially a Winchester 54 or a pet .22 hornet or K hornet they wish to read more in depth on than just the few pages offered in a reloading manual or a back issue of  "Hand-loader". The book is very thorough on all relevant aspects of precision .22 caliber varmint shooting that was taking place in the late 40' not expect to learn anything about your .223 Remington (invented in the 60's) or .223 WSSM (early 2000's) obviously. This book is purely for the Varmint/Target shooter of yesteryear in equipment as well as in heart.  I borrowed a copy from my local library through their inter library loan program as a copy was not available at my branch. An interesting note, Wolfe publications did the reprint of 1500 copies of this book my library has copy 311/1500 and the publication notation shows it was printed in 1989.  

"Practical Dope" is a great reference for everything .22 that was available in the late 40's. To the left and right.....future book reviews!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lyman 4500 heated lubersizer, Carnuba Red and Lee molds : or : Some must have items for my casting pleasure

A bullet caster has a whole other set of tools he begins to accumulate besides that of just a casual hand-loader. One of the tools a bullet caster requires if he uses traditional type molds and not the tumble lube molds now produced by lee and some other companies is a Lubersizer. That is a tool that injects lube into the lube grove and sizes the bullet down to the size you have determined best for your particular needs. The lubersizer I utilize is a Lyman 4500 and its probably going to be the only one I'll need for the rest of my days.  The big thing about the 4500 that makes it work so well for me is that it uses a little heating plug in the back. NOT all lubes require a heater but I exclusively use Carnuba Red from for all my cast bullets that are not tumble lube, it is a harder lube and the heater in the 4500 helps it flow. Carnuba red is not only the best all around lube that I've found for my shooting but its also AFFORDABLE!   $1.80 a stick (bagged) or  $2.05  (rigid tube) is FAR cheaper than any of the stick lube that I've found on midway .  I've shot the lube on cast  bullets ranging  from 75gr to 535gr and going at speeds from 500FPS to 3000FPS and if sized correctly to the bore have had little to no leading in most of the pistols and one 300 Win mag I've tried the lube out of. My 1911 especially loves bullets lubed with Carnuba red and after several hundred rounds and not being cleaned between some matches the bore has only a slight hint of leading starting to build up around the throat area. 

The lee bullets are something that will be touched on in another post but just to cover them here really quick I would like to throw my opinion out on their line of molds. I know some people really hate on lee and I'm not exactly sure why. I have had just as many issues with LEE products as I have with the higher end dies and molds like RCBS and Redding make. Lee makes an affordable product and they are well thought out most of the time. I think if you are looking to get into casting lee molds is something to consider. I like their 358-158-RF mold (produces a SWC type bullet)  6 cavity mold so much I purchased another one so I can cast with two molds at once and not risk overheating the one mold. I learned awhile ago casting with two molds of different calibers and designs gets to be frustrating when it comes time to sort the bullets out especially if you dump the castings in a water bucket like I do. So now I just cast one caliber at a time. 

Thats pretty much all I wanted to share right now, The lyman 4500 is a great press and lee molds are a lotta bang for the buck. If you're a bullet caster or are thinking about getting into casting you might want to check out the Lyman 4500 and lee molds...also check out the lars lube site for stick lubes as well as liquid alox type lubes that are used for LEE tumble lube bullets.....Carnuba red might not be the lube you need so  I urge you to research his other lubes and see what you think might work out for you. I have done business with him several times getting over 100 sticks of lube (mostly Carnuba red) from him. Great small business to do business with.

Lyman 4500 with ram down, bullet would be pressed into the die and come out sized and lubed.

The Lyman 4500 uses changeable dies (not included) to produce sized and lubed bullets appropriate for your needs....So long as you've predicted your needs well enough.  

A batch of LEE 158gr LSWC were lubed in about 45 minutes with the Lyman 4500

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bumping up jacketed bullets: or : The 9mm gains girth

I am mostly a cast boolit (bullet) kind of guy but sometimes jacketed bullets are needed or desired or are simply all you have on hand. In looking for versatility out of a gun (recently the .38 special/.357 magnum) In a pinch 9mm diameter bullets could possibly be loaded in .38/357 but accuracy would most likely suffer if left at their present diameter. This would be a sort of last ditch method to procure jacketed bullets if all other solutions have been exhausted. Access to a lathe could make a simple set of swage dies for a reloading press that could allow one to bump up the size of the bullets to proper jacketed diameter as well as change the nose shape.  Which could tailor the bullet to the intended use, one example could be to made a die and punch set that would give 9mm 124gr FMJ's a deep hollow point decreasing the likelihood they would over penetrate game or other predators. A letter drill bit size "T" has the happy coincidence of being exactly .357 diameter and could be used to make the die body.  If a reloading press is not a ready option (such as for people reloading with a lee loader kit or a small hand press) A thick plate of steel and a top and bottom punch used with a arbor press or even a hammer could be used to bump up the bullets in size.

I have a small box of range pick up 9mm jacketed bullets I have slowly pulled down over the years, people are always dropping bullets in the snow and rain or simply eject duds and I happily pick them up as there are always ways to recycle such things. Powder however is always disposed of as it is unsafe to try to identify and reuse such pulled down powder in such tiny lots. Just as an experiment I took a small sampling of bullets and ran them through my .357 single step swage dies pictured below are the resulting mostly formed SWC .357 bullets, all 124gr in weight. These could be loaded in .38 or .357 easily from here and sent happily down range. As with most things this novel concept is not is simply not practiced often.

9mm bullets bumped up to .357 in a single swage die, not perfect but they should fly just fine.