This is a hodgepodge of tips, tricks, and things I've learned or really liked over the years in no particular order and with no particular rhyme or reason. This section will probably just grow as I think of more things to add. There's plenty of objective reasoning, but there is also a boat load of subjectivity and opinion baked into the following, along with a bunch of free plugs for the companies that make the things I like, so read on with that in mind. This is one-way campfire talk, no doubt.
Personal Reloading Habits
In my search for ever increasing precision, I've experimented through the years with certain things. Some have been successful, others not so much. I think these next few tips are for the experienced and novice hand loader alike. The caveat here is that I've never been a long or short range target competitor, so the guidance you will see here is in relation to hunting loads predominantly, but a lot can cross over.
My personal preference revolves around precision, not speed, so for me, that's a fully supported, single stage press. My favorite is Forster's Coax press because it allows just enough freedom for the case to find its own axial alignment with the die. Other designs rely on perfect machining of multiple pieces to hopefully get that same level of precision. While possible to do, it's not probable. The Coax is known for its consistency as it relates to minimizing runout. It so happens with its novel way the dies insert into the press, it's actually very fast in change out as well. Having said all that, there are plenty of good solid single stage presses for the tough case sizing work. For hydraulically forming operations, which I mention later on in the die section, I use a strong cast C frame press. The ram is stroked during this process, so torsional strength isn't relevant, but easy access is, hence the desire for the C frame. It still needs to be steel, however, as wielding a 2 lb sledge around a bunch of cast aluminum never is a good idea.
Let me start off by saying that the best resizing die will be that of a full-length sizer, backed out to bump the shoulder roughly .002". Nothing novel here; many have said this before, including bench rest shooters. A lot of effort in the last decade or more has been focused on sizing the neck with bushings from the OD and potentially neck turning for concentricity. The body sometimes going untouched, or shoulder bumped only. Having an innate knowledge of machining capabilities and how tolerance stacks affect systems, I do not believe some of these methods are best for the average hand loader. I've witnessed shoulder bumped cases that won't chamber because the side walls are bulged out of spec, and neck sizing continues to allow the case to change creating chambering issues as well, and it occurs without any respect to case concentricity. Turning the cases can witness mixed results, due to the fact that local hardness variances within the material many times will create a turned neck with larger variances than what was experienced prior to turning, at least with common neck turning tools. If the necks are so grossly out that turning would be of benefit, do you really want to use that case in a precision load, even if they are turned? In that instance, my suggestion would be to get better brass for precision work.
Two things can be done here if someone wants precise case sizing. One, a custom die honed for your exact chamber can be made by several different custom shops, even the large manufacturers have custom shops that do this work. You will pay for it, but that die conforms to your chamber perfectly. A hybrid of that is to get the neck area custom honed so that sizing of the neck is minimal, and it's cost effective. This way, when the expander comes back out of the case, it is minimally working the brass to just lightly expand it, rounding the neck bore and centering it with the shoulder while putting all the case wall thickness variation of the neck to the outer diameter. With this method, case growth and wear are minimized, yet the entire case is sized perfectly and the same every time. This is the most accurate and repeatable method of case sizing I've experienced. While many companies make good dies, my personal favorite sizer is from Forster, and that is partially due to where the expander sits in the forming process compared to others, and partially due to their very high quality. All my Forster dies go back to the factory to get neck honed to minimize working the brass.
If you're going to spend a little money on a die other than custom honing the sizer, this is where I'd do it, personally. A micrometer seater die is worth its weight in gold if you utilize many different bullets. If you plan to find one ideal bullet for the next four decades and stick with it, save some money on equivalent standard seaters and deal with the lack of fine adjustment, since you only have to deal with it once. I have my favorites here too, but I don't think this is quite as significant of a difference as the sizer, so any of the manufacturers make good products. The key here will be more in relation to the seating stem itself. Afterburner bullets are pointy. Most of the dies today accommodate that very well, but some of the older dies may not indicate off the bullet shank, colliding with the tip instead. Something to consider. In any event, if your particular seating die is creating runout issues, it's time to fix the problem or replace the die.
Looking at our bullet designs, it will become obvious my preference for the Lee Factory Crimp Die. All lines of our bullets are literally designed with that die in mind and for good reason. It not only keeps the bullet securely in place, but it provides consistency during the shot start initiation phase, the most critical part of the powder burn phase. Maintaining consistency here, reduces variation associated with other variables and environmental factors, all of which are important to repeatable performance. I'm not sure why other manufacturers haven't at least provided a like offering, but they really should. Not all loads will need or prefer to be crimped, but utilizing this die to tune loads can be effective.
While certainly not a new idea, it's become more vogue the last few years for sure. I'm a massive fan myself, as the material at the neck sees significant work hardening over time, which can lead to inconsistent neck tension, and cracks at the extreme. This process, when done correctly, brings the neck back to its designed properties, time after time for repeatable performance. I do it after every firing. It's a pain as it's an extra, inconvenient step which requires washing the cases both before and after the process, but the result is absolutely worth it. Elaborate setups exist to do this correctly, but a hand drill and a hand held torch can do a good job as well if on a budget. I recommend everyone does this, and I realize that's not typical of everyone's procedures today. I have Bench Source's Vertex Annealing Machine, and it's fantastic. It's such a well built piece of equipment utilizing torch heat, and I felt the need to mention it. There are high end induction heating machines as well, which produce the best results, but be ready to drop a lot for those. I would recommend those to a small brass manufacturer of high quality brass looking to do volume with hyper consistency.
I always trim to trim length called out in SAAMI. This is for consistency, especially since many times I'm employing the Lee Factory Crimp Die. However, as long as the trim length is always the same and within SAAMI specifications, you're good to go. I know a lot of people let that grow for a while until they need to trim. Personally, I don't suggest that practice. Again, it's about consistency.
Primer Pockets, Case Weight, etc.
Lumping these together makes sense. I used to weigh cases, then I started checking water volume instead. I also used to ream primer pockets out. All or some of those things may be beneficial with lesser quality cases, but now that I exclusively use high quality brass, I do none of it. I will spot check a new lot for primer pocket irregularities, and, after the first firing, for neck runout and case volume. I never weigh cases anymore as it's largely irrelevant. Spot checks on quality brass have always proven within reasonable tolerances. In the end, it has proven better to invest in quality brass and spend my time elsewhere.
I won't claim to be an expert talking about this particular topic and have mostly ridden off the coattails of others' work. However, the release of the bullet from the case during ignition is the most important part of the burn cycle and dictates many other things. Ensuring this is as consistent as possible is critical to precise loads especially in the face of changing conditions. The "stickiness" of the bullet to the case changes over time, as molecularly, the copper bullet begins to surface bond to the brass case. It is referred to as cold welding. A cartridge fired the day after hand loading will exhibit a different neck release reaction to one fired four months after loading, for example. Luckily, very little of an Apex Outdoors bullet actually touches the case, reducing this effect just by design. Still, many bullet coatings address this, but I won't go into those in any detail, because I don't use any of them on purpose. More on that in a bit.
My process is simple. Just before putting powder in a primed case, I swirl the neck of the case in media infused with Imperial Dry Neck Lube made by Redding, then wipe the outside of the case off prior to installing powder and seating a bullet. It provides a barrier separation sufficient to keep the cold welding phenomenon from taking place, and it's a whole lot cheaper and more consistent than trying to coat bullets, whether on the personal or commercial level.
Why I don't use coatings really needs to go back to when we first designed the Afterburner bullet. It was always our intent to release what we thought was the highest performing, expanding, hunting bullet on the market without compromise, and originally, we thought that would have to be coated with hexagonal boron nitride (hBN). It takes care of the cold welding mentioned above, but the process is lengthy and adds quite a bit of cost. In our initial efforts, we realized our friction was so low, we actually didn't want it any lower. It was perfect as is. Compared to Moly, hBN has even less friction with none of the physical compromises of Moly as it fires clean and dry. However, too much of a good thing, is not necessarily a good thing. The addition of hBN would have been, in our opinion, detrimental as consistency from shot to shot may have been at risk. The powder needs something to load up against, and that little bit of friction helps. So, in the end, we didn't need it, and I'm glad we didn't, as it makes it easier switching to and from our bullets and reduces total cost. As a result, I have an unopened pile of it at Apex Outdoors. It's good stuff, just not needed for the bullet lines we offer.
This area has changed substantially over the last few years. There's nothing wrong with the old tried and true, and I still have my budget model ProChrono from 20 odd years ago. It works great, even though the front face plate has fallen off from weathering, and the fact it's been skimmed with a 270 Win. It's relegated for archery work now and continues to perform well. As long as a chronograph is relatively reliable, every hand loader really should use one as it is a main indicator for establishing safe loads. We use the LabRadar for all work done at Apex Outdoors in relation to bullets. For the consumer, this short range doppler radar does so much, and although fairly pricey, is reasonably priced for what it is. First off, the precision and accuracy is incredible in relation to muzzle velocity. However, the really neat feature is the ability to back calculate ballistic coefficients, because it takes a multitude of readings as the bullet continues downrange. Now, keep in mind, this calculated value is only good for the short velocity band within which it was measured, usually out to about 85 yards. However, it is a fantastic starting point to establish an initial curve for long range work, and considering we base our BCs on the G7 profile for the Afterburner, this calculated value will represent the true BC across the velocity spectrum more closely than say the G1 profile that many competitors list. Anyone doing long range work knows that every rifle/bullet combo must be individually calibrated by actually shooting at long range. That is inescapable, but this provides a very valuable starting point. It also allows direct comparisons between bullets quickly on a 100 yard range. For us here, at Apex Outdoors, we would love to get our hands on Oehler's Model 89, and maybe some day we will, to create custom BC banding covering ranges out to 1000 yards or so, but for now, I think the initial value from the LabRadar provides a very useful number that can be counted on confidently for hits at least out to 500 yards, and probably a bit further for those not interested in true long range work and just want a drop calculator they can count on for the majority of their hunting needs.
Pressure Sensing Equipment
Let me start off by saying anything within this category is for the technician. These instruments, while well laid out and straight forward, are not intuitively easy to set up, use, or otherwise interpret. You need to know what you're doing with these pieces of equipment. Having said that, for the consumer, there are very limited options, one actually, the Pressure Trace II by Recreational Software, Inc. Oehler has several fantastic systems for fully calibrated lab work designed for the commercial market, significantly out of reach for the consumer, but I wanted to make mention there as well. Both actually capture the pressure over time event when the cartridge is fired. This is far more important than just finding peak pressure. More on that a bit later. Now, back to the Pressure Trace II. While truly impossible to calibrate without being in concert with something like Oehler's system, the system can be adjusted so that the calculations are what would be expected for something of a previously known, large sample size, averaged value. For instance, for a particular caliber, barrel length, and factory offering with a resultant velocity, the RSI team has a bit of back history knowing what that most likely yields as peak pressure. Internal adjustments to a factor prebuilt into the formula (RSI makes this easy), will adjust the output pressure curve accordingly. Is it lab worthy? Not at all without the aforementioned Oehler system or some other calibrated system calibrating it. Are the curves created by strain gage readings off the barrel from the chamber area real? Absolutely, and amazingly beneficial. The comparisons of these curves from load to load are also 100% real, so there is a lot of value in this piece of equipment comparing different combinations, lab worthy or not. I can't go into everything I love about the PTII, but I've discovered an immense amount as it relates to load choices, setups, and the ensuing pressure curves of the powder burn cycle.
I've witnessed several instances of double spiked events, one situation being somewhat more severe. Other than the incredibly loud muzzle blast, nothing seemed wrong, and accuracy was, not the best per se, but decent, and velocity results were as expected. This particular instance was with a competitor's bullet utilizing what would appear to be a powder, RL16, that would be a top three choice, if not the top choice, based on velocity potential, burn rate, and case fill. As the powder charge weight increased during the work up load, the secondary spike continued to grow at a high rate. Bolt lift and case indicators won't do a bit of good helping to identify this issue, and they were both normal in this scenario. The load itself could have continued to go higher to establish typical peak pressures for hunting loads, but that would have been a poor choice, as the secondary spike would have gotten a lot closer to the peak pressure in another grain or two. Think about that, the bullet near muzzle exit, when pressures are normally much lower by that point, and the entire column of the bore charged to 45,000 psi or so, to include out at the skinnier tip. Not ideal at all, and potentially dangerous if circumstances were even more severe. This isn't a knock on the competitor. Rather, this is a revelation and endorsement for the PTII. Our hand loads define a complete system. That system, and how it reacts depend on the complex relationships each piece has to other pieces. At the end of the day, in the component mismatched example above, the correct thing to do was go from a double-based powder, which RL16 is, to a single-based powder of the same relative burn rate, or drop to a faster powder altogether. A graph of the three shot work up load is below to provide visual reference. The red curve is the starting load, the blue one grain higher, and the green, an additional grain beyond that. The crosshairs at the end represent the approximated bullet muzzle exit times based off calculations.
The PTII was a critical component during the development of Apex Outdoors' line of bullets, especially in validating the low bearing friction and resultant lower, broader peak pressure curve with utmost certainty, not just hypothesizing or through visual observations of the fired cases. This is also why we advocate faster powders when compared to other, like-weighted bullets. We don't specifically promote single-based versus double-based, and the differences between powder styles and all the effects would be impossible to give a broad answer on that topic, but if unsure, and running a powder on the slower side of recommended, a single-based powder will have less propensity to create the secondary spike, in general. Plenty of double-based powders in many instances do very well, so I don't want to dissuade anyone. Pick one on the faster side of recommended, and you're probably going to be okay. As an example, one of my favorites is RL26. The pressure curves I see with it and the resultant velocities working within its sweet spot are unmatched. So as not to get anyone panicking, I've seen numerous factory offerings that have this secondary spike, one mild one shown below, and there's really close to 100% chance that everyone has fired rounds through all their guns with this occurrence. Also, note below the inconsistent bullet release early for the red one. Notice what it does to the time-based curve, and notice where the bullet exited versus the other two. This bullet was 2" off target at 100 yards, high. The other two were touching. Firing that shot actually felt different too. I could have guessed it was a flyer without even seeing the result. This is one of the many reasons we advocate consistent shot start ignition and suggest experimenting with a crimp on our bullets. Factory rounds today do a whole lot better than they did in the past, but comparing mass production to what we, as precision hand loaders can accomplish when focusing on the right things, is a bit unfair. The below factory rounds are sold as precision, long range ammunition, however, and no, I won't disclose the brand, but most of them share similar results anyway.
Our bullets have low friction, which is a good thing, but utilizing a slower burning powder within a band of applicable powders, especially of a double-based variety, can create that secondary hump previously mentioned. We prefer to keep you off that phenomenon as much as we can. Normally, it's small and of no consequence like the factory load above, but still present. Personally, none of my pet loads will have it, but I have a PTII to ensure a good curve. Most hand loaders obviously don't have that luxury. Where we can, we will always help our customers and guide them based off our own knowledge, but keep in mind, we are small and can only test a limited number of situations. Nonetheless, we are an email or forum post away from walking anyone through potential load development beyond the help written here. However, if we say we LOVE a particular case, primer, powder, and bullet combo, you probably want to give it a go if you can, as it's been PTII vetted. Keep in mind, our bullets are seated far off the lands and typically crimped, so our rifles should shoot very similar to yours, if built to normal specs, and loaded like we recommend. The beauty in consistency from rifle to rifle was intentional and is actually part of our patented design.
It would be wrong not to include a representation of a really nice work up load as a point of reference. In our 300 Win Mag, using Federal 215M primers, H4350, Gunwerks brass, and our 153 gr Afterburner, the below four shot string consists of one grain higher increments between shots. Look at how consistent the curve profiles are, both up and down, as well as bullet release at the beginning from ignition. The expectation, if these were all the same charge weight, is that the curves and muzzle exit points would virtually be on top of each other. It's consistent curve profiles like this which will guarantee a precise, pet load when refined.