Low End Reloading
Notes and Comments on Using the Lee Loader
Lee N. Field

Custom assembling ammunition from component parts and bulk supplies (aka reloading) is a good and useful skill for any shooter to have.

To do it you need, of course, gunpowder and primers, bullets and cartridge cases. The cartridge case (a.k.a. "brass", as all reloadable cases are made of brass) is reusable. Everything else is consumable. Gunpowder is the propellant. The primer ignites the propellant. The bullet is payload. The case holds it all together.

You also need some specialized hardware to put it together -- a set of dies and the right shellholder for each different caliber, and a press that aligns everything correctly. You need a tool to measure gun powder -- a scale at least, and possibly a powder measure. You need tools to measure length to an accuracy of a thousandth of an inch. You need information -- a manual like the Lyman or Hornady manual, or one of their competitors'.

You also need room and a stable bench to mount the press on.

All this can represent a non-trivial front end investment. You can easily spend a couple hundred dollars getting yourself set up with decent quality single stage press and associated equipment. In this article I review a low cost alternative.

Lee Precision (http://www.leeprecision.com) manufactures a unique reloading kit called the Lee Loader. For under $20, you get the hardware needed to reload one cartridge in a kit the size of a mass market paperback.

They are made for a short list of common domestic hunting and foreign military surplus rifle cartridges, and some of the more common handgun cartridges. Newer cartridges like .40 S&W (and newly popular cartridges like 9mm Makarov) are conspicuously absent. There's nothing exotic here.

The Lee Loader comes in a red plastic box, 1" x 4" x 6", and weighs about a pound and a half. The kit consists of a decapping rod, a decapping chamber, a priming rod, a "body" die with adjustable stop and lock nut, a priming chamber/bullet seater, a single plastic measuring scoop for powder, instructions and load chart. Most of these parts have multiple functions.

The handgun kit is slightly different. The body die is a single unit. The bullet seater on the priming chamber is threaded with an adjustable lock ring. There is a case flaring tool that the rifle kit does not have.

For this review I tested a handgun (.357 Magnum) and a rifle (.223 Remington) Lee Loader.

Using the Lee Loader
Lee has a manual (PDF) for the rifle cartridge Lee Loader on their web page. You should download this and read through it first.

  1. Assuming you're starting with fired brass, you must first remove expended primers from the cartridge case. Put the base of the cartridge in the decapping chamber. Run the decapping rod down through the cartridge, line it up with the flash hole, and hammer the primer out by tapping on the decapping rod with a plastic hammer.

    Comments: dead easy, both kits. The decapping rod was sometimes tricky to get lined up properly over the primer in the rifle kit.

    The documentation warns against trying to deprime Berden primed ammo, and tells you how to tell the difference. Look down the empty case. If you see one hole, dead center, you're OK. If you see anything else don't try to deprime or reload it. Most Berden primed ammo you will encounter in the U.S. will be CCI Blazer (aluminum cases clearly marked "NR" (non-reloadable)), foreign military surplus, and stuff like cheap Russian steel cased "Wolf" brand ammo.

    Don't try to remove primers that haven't been fired.

  2. Resize the cartridge case. Hammer the cartridge into the body die until the cartridge base is flush with the body die.

    Comments: Bottle necked cases like the .223 are neck sized (only the neck area is resized, from case mouth to shoulder). Straight sided cases like .38 Special and .357 Magnum are full length resized. This is easy enough with the rifle die that I could do it holding the body die in my off hand. Resizing straight walled .38 or .357 cases was quite a bit more difficult, and required a sturdy surface to brace the body die against as I hammered the case into it. Lee's web site has a footnote noting that .44, .45 and .30 Carbine cases are especially hard to resize.

    The directions advise lubricating larger cases. Lubricant should be cleaned from the cartridge case before it is primed, but there is no good point in the process when this can be done.

    Use a hammer with a plastic or hard rubber head. A metal one will work, but will mar the base of the brass case. Keep that hammer close by -- you'll be needing it.

  3. Prime the cartridge case. Place the appropriate primer (more on this in a moment) in the circular depression in the priming chamber. Center the case (still in the body die) over it. Run the priming rod down the middle of the body die. Hammer the case out of the die, and the primer into the primer pocket.

    Comments: While loading 80 cartridge cases, I had two primers go off during this step (both on the same case). It wasn't dangerous, but it was quite loud. I did the rest of my work with the Lee Loader wearing hearing protection.

    Primers come in a few standard sizes. The 47th edition Lyman Reloading Manual that I normally rely on calls for small rifle magnum primers for .223 Remington. Lee says to use small rifle primers. I will go with Lyman in this case.

    Primers should be seated to a few thousands of an inch below flush with the cartridge base. You'll be able, just barely, to feel it.

  4. Handgun only, flare the case mouth. Remove the case from the body die. Put the cartridge base down in the decapping chamber, place the flaring tool in the case mouth and rap it with a plastic hammer. Put the body die back over the flared case.

    Comment: Easy. Don't over do it -- a light rap is all you need.

    The instructions for the rifle kit say that cases should be chamfered, either with a pocket knife or a chamfering tool. If shooting cast lead bullets, they recommend an additional flaring tool.

  5. Measure out a single scoop of powder with the included powder scoop. Pour it directly down the funnel shaped mouth at the top of the body die.

    Comment: Measuring powder is the most problematic step, in my opinion, in using the Lee Loader.

    The Lee Loader comes with a single plastic powder scoop. This is the same scoop as Lee packages in a graduated set of 15 as the Lee Powder Measure kit. Included with the Powder Measure kit (but not with the Lee Loader) is a chart showing powder weights for each scoop for 95 different powders.

    I double checked the listed weights for each scoop using the powders that I have on hand. Lee's listed weights for powder measured out with the scoop tend to be higher by .1 grain or so than what I actually measure. (Gunpowder and bullets are measured in grains. One grain is 1/7000th of a pound.)

    In addition Lee Loader's powder charges in their load chart tend to be low -- sometimes at or below what the Lyman manual lists as starting charge for a given bullet and powder. (Starting charge is generally considered to be maximum charge minus 10%.) This should not be a problem with a revolver, or a bolt action, lever action or single shot rifle. With an autoloading firearm light loads can cause cycling problems.

    When it's appropriate, the scoop works. The .7cc scoop included with the .357 kit measures 6.6 grains of Bullseye, a midrange .357 load (per Lyman) for 125gr JHP bullets. The next size down in the Powder Measure kit, the .5cc scoop, measures out 4.6 grains of Bullseye, which is high for a standard .38 Special but within .38 Special +P range (ie. safe in a .357 Magnum revolver and in a .38 Special revolver certified for +P) for loading 125gr JHP.

    If you want to customize you'll need to measure a lighter load into a powder scale, and add powder using a powder trickler to bring the charge up to a preset weight. Doing it like this doubles (by experimentation) the amount of time it takes to load an individual cartridge.

  6. Seat the bullet. Take a bullet, and drop it base down, through the top of the body die into the case mouth. Seat the bullet to the proper depth with the bullet seater.

    Comments: With the flared handgun case it's much easier to seat bullets than with the rifle case (even when chamfered). With the .357 kit I can do it with hand pressure on the bullet seater alone. With the rifle kit it's best just to tap the top of the bullet seater into place.

    Bullet seating depth is adjusted either with the threaded stop collar (rifle kit) or threaded bullet seater (handgun kit). If the bullet has a crimping cannulure, adjust the depth so that the case mouth reaches that. The included documentation gives maximum overall length for each cartridge.

    There's some small Darwination potential with this step and the next. For this step and the crimping step, per the documentation, "To avoid contact with the primer and possible explosion, case must be free from die and resting in the decapping chamber." Do it.

  7. Crimp the case, if appropriate. There is a crimping ring just below the top of the body die. Pull the body die off the loaded cartridge, turn the body die end for end, and feed the cartridge in the top end. With the decapping chamber still in place over the cartridge base, rap lightly to crimp the case.

    Comments: Go easy. A light rap is all you need.

    The same handling cautions as in step 6 apply.

You're done. Repeat as desired.

Test Firing
I shot 40 rounds of .38 Special and .357 Magnum loaded with the Lee Loader (using the loads mentioned above) through my trusty old Taurus Model 66. All rounds fired went bang, nothing went KA-BOOM. There were no surprises.

I fired ~40 rounds of .223 in a Ruger Mini-14. I had problems with some of the cartridges not seating properly, and the rifle not going into battery because of it. The rifle brass, being neck sized not full length sized, fits exactly the chamber of whatever rifle it was last fired in. These were military surplus .223, known not to have been fired in the Ruger.

I had no such problems with commercial Remington Brass (known to have been first fired from this rifle). One round did not go off, even though it got a good primer strike.

For comparison, I also loaded up 20 rounds, full length sized Remington brass, with a conventional press and dies. I had no problems at all with that batch.

Where can you get one?
If you can't find the one you want from a local retailer, Lee Loader kits can be bought from Midway or directly from Lee. Caveat emptor: Both of these vendors have quite high shipping and handling fees for small orders.

Lee Loaders are also readily available on Ebay. Unlike guns themselves, Ebay seems to have no problem at all with auctioning reloading equipment and supplies. The usual cautions about buying from Ebay sellers apply. I bought my .357 Lee Loader kit from an Ebay seller. It came promptly, in good condition, and was complete except for the all-important load chart, which I had to get elsewhere.

Powder will cost on the order of $18 per pound, enough for more than a thousand handgun rounds. A thousand primers will cost about the same.

Bullets are the most expensive consumable item. For this test I bought 100 .38 cal 125gr JHP bullets from a local dealer for $8, and 100 Speer 50gr .224 caliber bullets off the shelf at Gander Mountain for $11. It pays to shop around for bullets. I've seen .38 cast lead bullets advertised as low as $3.62 per hundred, and 55 grain .22 FMJ bullets as low as $4.77 per hundred..

Here are some extra tools you should consider getting, beyond the kit itself. Some are mentioned in Lee Loader documentation, some are not.

  • Reloading documentation, to double check load data. Lyman manual (~$20), or someone else's. Powder manufacturers load data (free, and available online). Without load data, you're limited to exactly the powders and bullets that Lee lists on it's load chart.
  • A powder scale, to verify or customize powder charge ($20 (for the cheapest Lee scale) and up). If you get a scale, seriously consider getting a check weight set for your peace of mind ($20-$25).
  • Powder trickler, used with the scale to precisely measure a customized charge (~$10).
  • Calipers, to measure and adjust overall length, and to check case length ($25, up). A Lyman E-Zee Case Length gauge (~$15) is a good tool for quickly checking case length.
  • A case chamfering tool ($10).
There are quirks, but the Lee Loader works, within its limitations. The Lee Loader would work best for someone with modest reloading needs and extreme space constaints. If your needs are modest and you can live with the loads specified, fine.

If you want to or need to use bullets or powder not on Lee's chart the process slows down considerably. You'll need more equipment, and probably ought to think about getting standard dies and one of the reloading press kits put out by all the major makers of reloading equipment.

Copyright © Anno Domini 2003, by "Lee N. Field"

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