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Reloading press a worthy investment

| Friday, July 27, 2007

I watched with a bit of amazement while John Novak set up and operated his well-worn Pacific 366 shotshell reloading press at Lenape Technical School in Ford City. John and I were conducting evening classes on reloading. John was teaching shotshell reloading, and I was handling metallic cartridges.

While the entire class watched with a bit of amazement, John took them through the entire reloading procedure. John stopped now and then, removed one shell or all the shells, while explaining an important point or feature about the 366. It was only a matter of minutes until the students were whipping out 12-gauge trap loads.

After the class left, I examined the old 366. It certainly showed plenty of signs of wear.

"How long have you had this press?"

"Twenty-nine years, and it's been in continuous use.

"Do you have any idea how many rounds have gone through the outfit• By the looks of it, I would think about a million."

"I have no exact count, but I normally shoot well over 15,000 rounds a year, and several of my friends use it extensively. All told, I know it has loaded at least 600,000 shells, and I have had to replace only two parts over that long period of time. Now Homady offers literally the same press in their 366 Auto. Unlike my model, the new 366 is fully automatic and turns out a loaded round with every stroke of the operating handle."

When I received Hornady's new Apex 3.1 Shotshell Reloader with Gas Assist, I called John to help set it up.

Although John had never seen the new Apex 3.1, he had it in operation in about 10 minutes. In short order, he cranked out over 50 rounds of AA cases. It worked flawlessly, with the exception of a case sticking now and then in the final crimp die, which is a dual-action die that crimps and tapers at the same time. We finally decided the problem was not in the die, but was caused by cases that were old and battered around the case mouth.

An annoying problem with most progressive type shotshell reloaders is either upsetting a case or throwing shot out of a case if the shell plate is indexed too quickly due to inconsistent handle speeds. Even presses that are indexed manually will throw shot prior to the crimping die if the shell plate is turned with a quick or jarring motion.

The Apex 3.1 eliminates this nasty feature by incorporating a "gas assist" system that rotates the shell plate in a smooth, even motion. With each down stroke of the handle, the gas cylinder compresses, storing energy. When the handle is raised, the cylinder transfers its energy to the shellplate -- rotating it in one smooth motion, without jerking, to advance the shells and primers with consistently smooth control, regardless of handIe speed.

Over the years that I've been testing reloading presses, especially shotshell presses, I have spilled more than my share of powder or shot by pulling the handle when there is no case under that particular die. I suspect that all operators of progressive shotshell presses have experienced the pleasure of trying to sweep up powder or shot. It seems to me that 11/8 ounces of shot can spread over more area than a pound of grass seed.

Several progressive shotshell presses on the market, including the Hornady Apex 3.1, use automatic shell-actuated powder/shot drop systems. The powder or shot only drops when a shell is present. In other words, a case must enter into the powder or shot die to activate the dropping mechanism. On the Apex 3.1, the primer feed is shell-actuated. A shell must be in place to activate the primer feed which drops a single primer down to the shell plate.

I've tested a fair amount of Lee Precision reloading equipment. For several years, I kept two Lee Load-All single stage shotshell presses (20 and 12 gauge) set up for my hunting loads. This was an inexpensive setup that allowed me to assemble small batches of loads designed for a particular target or area. The only drawback when changing load combinations is removing the powder and shot bushings. Both powder and shot hoppers have to be emptied in order to replace the bushings. However, the Load-All is not designed for mass production, but it turns out quality loads, and that's the end goal for any press.

I have had considerable experience with Ponsness-Warren shotshell presses. If my memory is correct, the P-W800B model was the first self-indexing press that produced a loaded round with every pull of the operating handle. To prevent cases from "collapsing" during certain operations, cases are held in sizing dies throughout the reloading procedure.

At the time of the 800's debut, it was probably the fastest reloading press available for home reloaders. In one test with two helpers -- one setting an empty case in place and the other stuffing a wad -- we were averaging 25 rounds in less than a minute and a half. On the final run, we increased the speed slightly, but the test came to an abrupt end when I pulled the handle before a case was completely seated on the case seating post.

I suppose it's fair to say that the MEC line of shotshell presses more or less ruled the roost for many years. They are durable and easy to use. I reloaded thousands of trap shells on a MEC 650 Hydramec. Instead of pulling a handle, the 650 was operated by a motor-driven hydraulic pump. The hydraulic unit sat on the floor directly under the press. Pushing a pedal similar to a gas feed pedal activated the pump and moved the die head down. When the pedal was released, a strong spring pushed the die head up. The outfit I have is not self-indexing, but MEC's 9000 Series can be set for either manual or self-indexing. I have had no hands-on experience with the 9000 series, but past experiences with MEC products lead me to believe the 9000 series is pretty close the ultimate in high-volume shotshell reloading.

I don't want to give the impression that only progressive type presses should be considered. It would be unwise and probably a waste of money to buy any of the high-volume progressive presses for cranking out hunting loads. MEC's 600 Jr Mark V is an inexpensive single stage press capable of doing over 100 rounds per hour. MEC's Steelmaster is a single stage press designed for steel shot.

I'm sure that most reloaders like the smell of new paint, but don't turn down a good buy on a used outfit. John's old 366 press is still in top operating condition after years of use.

I recently field stripped the 800B Ponsness-Warren for a much needed cleaning and lubricating since it had been idle for several years. Rust and plastic build-up in the shell holders can cause real problems. I clean the inside of each shell holder with fine steel wool soaked with Shooter's Choice. A thorough inspection during the cleaning process showed the 800B showed no signs of wear after more than two decades of use.

While on the subject of cleaning, it's not only wise but mandatory to inspect and oil all types of reloading tools. Another point to remember is that when lubricants become dirty, the performance of the press will be affected. However, don't overdo the oiling process. I suggest using a light gun oil on the majority of visible joints and for wiping on the exterior surface. On gears, guide posts and especially the ram, I recommend STP. I'm not a great fan of anti-seize sprays for reloading equipment.

I'm often asked why go to all the expense offsetting up a shotshell reloading press when inexpensive field loads are available. First and foremost, reloading is a relaxing hobby. Maybe it's true that it will take a long time to reload enough ammunition to pay for the equipment. That's not the point. We buy radial saws, routers, drill presses and a host of other woodworking equipment that will probably not see constant use and certainly could not be considered a sound financial investment. In all honesty, the equipment was not purchased as a money-making venture. Any hobbyist likes tools, and it's just as reasonable to assume that most hunters and shooters will get hours of enjoyment and satisfaction from rolling their own ammo.

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