For the cheapest way to get into reloading, here it is.
It’s the Lee Classic Loader, $26.99 from midwayusa.com.
You’ll also need brass, bullets, primers and powder, of course, but those would be needed for any reloader.
And you will need safety equipment and a couple of tools.
The tools and safety equipment should last for years. And should you later upgrade to a single-stage or a progressive reloading press, all of it except for the Lee Classic Loader will move forward with you.
But I already have a reloader, a Dillon 650, so you might ask, “Why would you regress to such a primitive level?”
For the most part, it was just plain curiosity. I wanted to see if I could produce a quality reload with a bare minimum of tools and equipment.
And, if you take your time, follow the instructions carefully, and pay meticulous attention to detail, the answer is “Yes.”
But it isn’t easy.
And it sure isn’t fast.
But, yes, it can be done.
For someone starting with absolutely nothing, here’s what you’ll need. (Note that the choice of powder, Hodgdon’s Clays, is less than ideal. Later in the article I’ll mention some better possibilities.)
|Lee Classic Loader, 45 ACP||$26.99||midwayusa.com, backordered|
|Vaughan SF6, 6 oz soft-face hammer||15.06||amazon.com|
|Dewalt DPG82-11C Safety Goggles||9.84||amazon.com|
|3M H8A with WP96 Faceshield||22.07||amazon.com|
|Tekton 7165 6-inch Dial Caliper||21.85||amazon.com|
|Hodgdon’s Clays (not Universal Clays), 14 oz
(not a good choice – see text)
|18.29||Local, call for availability|
|Winchester Large Pistol Primers (45 Auto), 1 pk of 100||3.49||Local, call for availability|
|Starline 45 ACP Brass, 100 pieces||19.99||midwayusa.com, backordered|
|Bullets, 45 ACP, 200 gr LSWC, 500 pieces||50.00||Local, call for availability|
|Lyman Magnum Impact Bullet Puller||18.99||amazon.com|
|Flents Quiet! Please – Foam Ear Plugs (6 pr)||3.69||Walgreens|
|Gas, oil, burger and fries||?|
WARNING: Reloading is dangerous.
The safety equipment is essential. You must have it. (Trust me, you will eventually make something go “Bang!”)
I’m wearing both safety goggles, to protect my eyes, and a full-face polycarbonate shield to protect my face because you will be pounding, with a hammer, on a loaded round. And you can see I’m also wearing ear protectors.
Let me make this perfectly clear: Lee’s instructions must be followed to the letter.
If you don’t quite understand something, STOP!
Take a break, ask someone else for their opinion, come back tomorrow.
Don’t attempt this with live components until you are sure you understand what each step requires and exactly how to do it.
The orientation and alignment of the different reloader parts is essential with this kit, not only in the assembly of a new round, but also in doing so in a way that gives you the best assurance against having it explode on the table in front of you.
Let me say this again; you will be hitting a loaded round with a hammer.
This is dangerous!
Do it right and you’ll be OK. Reloading this way is reasonably safe because, done correctly, you won’t be striking the primer.
But if you place the shell incorrectly on the reloader’s base, the primer will be hard against steel and a whack on the bullet end could set off the primer, ignite the propellent, and send shards (as in “shrapnel”) of brass and extremely hot gasses as well as the bullet flying for several feet.
They can easily put out an eye.
Worse, if that ignites the dish of propellant you have sitting on the table — AND FOR PETE’S SAKE DON’T SMOKE! — if that dish of propellant is ignited, the heat will remove any exposed hair and bond (as in melt) that polyester shirt into your skin. The heat is IMMENSE and you will probably be scarred for life.
So proceed only when you understand. The instructions are clear if you take the time to read them fully, look at the pictures, turn the parts over in your hands and try things out without primers or powder.
Do a couple of dry runs before starting in earnest. In particular, always pay attention to where the primer will be and what it is pressed against — if ever — and what you are doing either to the primer directly, or on the other end of the round while the primer is pressed up against something else.
Primers go “Bang!” when their metal cup is mashed.
That’s a bad thing when reloading.
The pictures in the instructions are small but accurate. Look at them carefully. I used a magnifying glass to be absolutely sure I understood. In the pictures, you can see when one of the tools has been inverted and used from the other end. That won’t be clear from the written words.
Look at the pictures to help understand the words.
In my opinion, Lee doesn’t stress enough the critical measurements you must get right so that, later when you shoot your newly reloaded ammunition, everything will still be safe. These critical measurements include the amount of propellant in each case, and the OAL (OverAll Length) of the shell, from absolute bottom of the case to the tip of the bullet.
For the OAL measurement, you must have a means of measuring the finished round to a thousandth of an inch.
A ruler won’t work.
Your eyeball isn’t good enough.
You need a precision set of calipers.
You can use digital calipers, dial calipers or the more challenging vernier calipers. These are a must. For newbies, I recommend either the digital or the dial types. You can get a good instrument for $20-30. Note that it must read in decimal parts of an inch, not in fractions. The one in the auto parts department could be the wrong kind. Check before plunking down your money.
OAL should be stated something like 1.240″ — that third digit to the right of the decimal point is the thousandths. You can allow a little bit of “more or less” in that last digit. (See the table below for what I decided to tolerate.)
Please note, that 1.240″ is for the bullet I was loading, an H&G #68 style. If you are loading a different bullet, you will need a different OAL. Don’t use my 1.240″ number — it will be wrong, perhaps dangerously so. The card that comes with the Lee Classic kit provides a list of “Min OAL” measurements but I would much prefer to see the bullet manufacturer’s recommendation.
I have some other bullets that have an OAL of 1.200″ in the Hornady book.
And still others whose OAL is 1.260″ in that bullet manufacturer’s book.
Each different bullet will have a different OAL recommendation.
I did not include any such book in my “cheapest” list but, if you continue in reloading, you will want these, and probably more than one. But that’s for later. Right now, we’re still focused on “cheap” so borrow a book from a friend, try your local library, check the manufacturer on-line to see if they have the reloading information on the web or, last resort, go to a store that sells the book and stand there, look it up and write it down. (You can come back and buy that book later if you feel guilty.)
The powder throw — how much powder goes in each shell — is another critical measurement. The Lee Classic Loader provides a single measure, a 0.5cc scoop and, no matter which of the powders they list, you will use one (1) scoop.
Exactly one scoop.
Not a heaping scoop.
Not one scoop minus that little bit because you “oops’d” when pouring it.
Exactly one scoop.
I’m guessing that Lee tested several powders — they’re shown on the card that comes with the Lee Classic Loader — and determined that this one size will produce a safe round with exactly one scoop of any of the powders they list.
Don’t use a different powder than is shown on the Lee chart.
And don’t use a different bullet than they show.
And exactly one scoop.
Lee’s instructions say you are to “strike off” the top of the scoop before dumping it into the shell.
Notice in this picture how a straight-edge, in this case the back side of an Exacto knife, is moved across the top of the scoop to “rake off” any mound. That is what Lee means.
Also in this picture, you may be able to see a few flakes of Hodgdon’s Clays clinging by static electricity to the plastic handle and scoop. Since there were only 2-3 of these flakes per charge, I left them alone, but a wipe or two with an anti-cling sheet taken from the box on top of the family laundry dryer will help reduce static.
I loaded ten rounds and measured the powder drop (on a good scale) and the OAL for each.
In the table below, compare the “ideal” of 3.4 grains of powder and a 1.240″ OAL versus what I actually measured and used. The difference is how much difference I “tolerated” from those ideals.
|#||Propellant (grains)||OAL (inches)|
As you can see, the amount of propellant “scooped” each time was relatively consistent. Even with good equipment, ±0.1 grains (3.3 to 3.5 with one exception) would be acceptable. I was somewhat surprised at how consistent this was for something as simple as a little plastic scoop.
Well done, Lee!
I know from experience that these loads are going to be relatively gentle — my normal load on the Dillon press is 4.2 grains of this same propellant, bullet and primer — so the one throw at 3.6 grains did not alarm me. I was below my normal load and well below the MAX load Lee gave in their instructions.
Throwing a safe and accurate load was easy.
Scoop, strike and pour.
Getting the OAL correct, however, was another matter.
As the data above might suggest, I was having trouble getting a consistent result from round to round. Indeed, I was making small changes — about 1/16 of a turn or less on the adjustment — for the first several rounds.
In hindsight, I can tell that I was working out my technique of pounding the bullet into the shell. After loading half a dozen rounds, I figured out that the die holding the shell must be grasped very firmly and then pressed down quite hard against the base and, at the same time, whacking it firmly, sometimes with more force than I initially expected, with the soft-face mallet to seat the bullet.
As the data shows, after seven rounds, I got the hang of it and produced three rounds with the same 1.240″ OAL.
But in the beginning, it was not uncommon to pound a bullet into what I thought was the correct depth, take it out of the die and measure it only to find that the OAL was too long. Those had to go back into the die for more pounding with the hammer.
But, in the end and by checking the OAL of each round and correcting any that were too long, all of these rounds with their final OALs as seen here are usable.
Summarizing from the above data, my tolerance in OAL was about ±0.010″. That’s too much for Bullseye shooting at 50 yards but, for fun/casual shooting, I deemed it acceptable.
But don’t take my “tolerance” as an excuse to ignore this critical measurement completely.
The OAL is setting the amount of space inside the shell. That measurement is critical for function and, much more importantly, for safety.
The space inside the shell is where the propellant will burn and develop the extreme pressure that literally blows the bullet out of the barrel at hundreds of feet per second. If that space inside the shell is too small, the pressure is confined to a smaller space and the “PSI” (pounds per square inch) could exceed the strength of the gun’s steel chamber.
The gun could explode.
And that’s what could happen if the OAL for a round is too short.
On the other hand, if the OAL is set too long, you will have feeding issues.
You’ll have jams which, in clearing them, things can again become dangerous.
If I’m at a public range and the shooter next to me has a jam, I stop what I’m doing, put my gun down and step back and watch — I watch like a hawk because this is when they are going to point the muzzle toward me or someone else as they try to clear that jam.
Jams are bad because they often presage safety violations.
And they’re darn annoying.
So, within some tolerance, the OAL must be correct. Neither too short, nor too long. And we’re talking about 10 or less thousandths of an inch.
This is where the digital or dial calipers come in. You don’t need the hundred dollar variety, but you do need something that is readable to a thousandth of an inch.
Every time you make a round, check the OAL. If it’s too long, put it back in the die and beat on it. (You do have on your safety goggles, face shield and hearing protection, correct?)
And if you produce a round that is too short, well you’ve pounded the bullet in too far. That’s why the “Impact Bullet Puller” is in the equipment list.
You’ll need it.
Don’t fire short rounds. They’re dangerous.
Bad things can happen!
I made a total of ten (10) rounds. I took my time, weighed each powder throw, measured each round’s OAL (and crimp), wrote it all down, took some pictures, spoke to the wife and so forth. I was in no hurry.
Start to finish, from opening the package, reading the instructions, doing several dry runs, assembling the ten rounds and recording all the details you see here, I spent several hours.
It was fun.
And a few days later, I fired them at the range.
And they actually flew better than expected. At the long line (50 yards), they grouped to about 4″ and landed about 6″ low. And if I were to crank my sights up to center the group on the X ring, all shots would have been in the nine ring or better.
That’s actually very good.
So, yes, a quality round can be produced on the Lee Classic Loader.
But as somewhat expected, the very light loads didn’t cycle my 1911 completely. In about 50% of the shots, I had some sort of jam.
That could be solved by installing a weaker recoil spring in the 1911 or by dropping a slightly stronger throw of powder. But since the Lee scoop doesn’t permit that fine an adjustment, if I intended to load a lot of ammo with the Lee Classic Reloader, I would need to either change the spring, or change the powder.
The card that comes with the Lee Classic Loader lists several bullets as well as several powders and the expected muzzle velocity for each. I already had the Hodgdon’s Clays powder on hand so I used that but, if you’re starting from scratch, you could buy something else.
If I were going to do that, I’d buy the Lee Classic Loader first so I could then look at the card they provide. I’d look at the muzzle velocity for the bullets I have (or would order) and look for a velocity between 780 and 820 feet per second. For 1911s shooting 45 ACP, they will usually be accurate and function correctly for ammunition with velocities in that range.
The 3.4 grains of Clays I loaded had a listed velocity of only 706 ft/sec. That’s very, very low.
To pick a different powder to use with the 200 grain LSWC bullets I had, the Lee card suggests one scoop of Winchester Autocomp would result in a muzzle velocity of 806 ft/sec. That would be a good choice.
And for a 230 grain jacketed bullet, Hodgdon’s Longshot would be excellent at 810 ft/sec, so says the Lee card.
So the strategy is to buy the Lee Classic Loader first so you can see what they recommend for bullets and powder. Then, using that card, find a combination of bullet and powder that produces a velocity, if you’re reloading 45 ACP, between 780 and 820 ft/sec, and for which you can find the bullets and the powder. (With today’s reloading components being in such short supply, that may take some searching and patience.)
Buy the powder, primers and bullets locally if you can. The powder and primers will have “hazmat shipping fees” that pretty much prohibit having these shipped to your home unless you’re buying in very large quantities.
And I recommend buying the bullets at a local store because their weight makes shipping expensive, and vendors don’t like to sell small amounts.
As with all things, if you get into reloading in a big way, you’ll want to buy in bulk, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
In this article, we’re looking for the cheap way in.
Cleanliness of the loading dies is another issue you’ll need to watch with the Lee Classic Loader.
Dirt or bullet shavings from one round will result in poor or even dangerous ammunition on the next round.
I discovered, for example, that the bullets I was using were being “shaved” while being pounded into the shell. This shaved lead was falling into the lower part of the die and, on the next round it boosted up the base and resulted in my seating the bullets too far inside the shell.
The resulting OAL was too short.
Those rounds are dangerous to fire and had to be disassembled. There is no other choice. (Hence, the presence of the bullet puller in the equipment list.)
A flaring tool, not included in the 45 ACP set, might have avoided this shaving with these bullets. That’s the sole negative critique I have.
The crimp operation worked fine and would have removed any such flare.
But with a different bullet, you may not notice this issue.
Also, I tried both new and used brass with the Lee Classic kit.
New brass worked fine but the old, fired many times brass that I used was so much of a problem that I abandoned the effort. That old brass had already been through the Lee Pass-Through “Bulge Buster” Resizer in a regular press and, before giving up, I ran a couple of pieces through again and again, but they were still too big to go into the Lee Classic Loader’s reloading die. Indeed, before I gave up the effort, I crushed three pieces of this used brass trying to get them in.
Well-used brass and the Lee Classic Loader do not mix, at least not for the brass I had.
But if you start with new brass, your first time through will be straight-forward as you learn the process. It works, and without too much effort.
Just pay attention and you’ll be fine (if you’re wearing your safety equipment).
And when you later make your second pass through that now “once fired” brass, it should still be fairly straight-forward to hammer it into the die. It’ll take more effort but it should be do able.
But if you go to YouTube, you will find videos where the reloaders are just plain beating the crap out of the brass to force it into the die. At that point, I have to say, “Enough!” When that happens, I think it’ll be time to buy new brass or, if you’re ready to move up, a single-stage press and some full-size dies.
An RCBS Rock Chucker, a set of four pistol reloading dies and a reasonably good digital scale will cost another $300-350 with tax and shipping. And you will find all of these for considerably less in used condition. Google “RCBS [or other brand name] reloading press [or dies] for sale.” Be sure to consider shipping costs in your final total. Craigslist is another option. And ask around at the range!
When you make that move, the good news is that everything you have will be re-usable except for the Lee Classic kit and the soft-face hammer. You’ll be out that $26.99 for the Loader but I’m assuming you can find a tool box for the hammer so your remaining $150 investment will mean you are just about ready to begin making ammo with the new press almost immediately.
You can keep the Lee Classic Loader around for the zombie-apocalypse if you envision yourself stuck in a cave without your single-stage but still need to make ammo.
Or you can bring it out to help teach someone how to reload because there is nothing more basic than this. Using the Lee Classic Loader, you really will understand where everything goes, why it goes there, where there are safety issues, and what the measurements mean and how to take them.
The Lee Classic Loader is, if nothing else, a valuable learning experience for $26.99.
But I didn’t buy it for that reason.
I just thought it would be fun.
And I was right!