June 01, 2018
Looking for economical, portable reloading equipment? These hand dies are worth a test
In 1849, William Oswell set off from Kolobeng, Bechuanaland, to escort missionary David Livingstone across the Kalahari Desert in search of Lake Ngami. Among the stores the men packed on their ox carts were an iron spoon for bulletmaking, 60 pounds of coarse gunpowder, 20 pounds of fine gunpowder, 3,000 percussion caps, 150 pounds of lead, 30 pounds of tin, and 60 flints. This load was provisioned to feed the party’s six muskets for as long as a year. Though we have advanced past flints and caps, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of being able to feed my rifles on the road. Hand dies, long available for this purpose, can be a simple and economical way to ease into the world of handloading and could very well be used to keep a hunter in cartridges on a long journey.
Unlike traditional reloading presses, which must be bolted or clamped to a bench, hand dies can be used to load cartridges anywhere: on the shooting bench, on the tailgate of a truck, on the lid of a YETI cooler, or on the kitchen table. I have acquired a roomful of loading equipment over the past twenty something years, but the fact is that a hunter could feed his or her rifle for eternity with a set of tools that would fit inside a lunchbox. So whether you are a prepper who wants to be ready for anything or a hunter who is looking to handload without wasting any square footage, hand dies are worth a look.
Before we get too far into the weeds on hand dies, let’s devote a minute to explaining what it is we are trying to accomplish. Handloading is the process of reloading a spent brass case so the cartridge can be fired again. We may do this because it can save us money, because we want to create loads that aren’t commercially available, or because we want to squeeze the best accuracy possible out of our hunting firearms. The process is relatively simple: The spent primer is removed, the case is resized back to its proper dimensions, a new primer is seated, the case is charged with powder, and a bullet is placed inside the brass case. Specialized tools and processes can turn this into an all-day exercise, but the fundamentals are just that simple.
The Economical Setup
For the hunter on a budget, we will build a loading setup that keeps the investment as small as possible. Lee Precision has produced quality reloading tools at an economical price for decades, and it is one of the few manufacturers producing a true hand die kit. The Lee Loader Kit is available for nine rifle and six pistol cartridges, including .223, .308, .270, and .30-06. This is a small, bare bones kit that will allow you to load for a single cartridge; the only thing missing is a rubber mallet. Let’s say that you’re going to embark on a multiday prairie dog hunt with a .223 and a tiny budget. If you set out with 60 loaded rounds, the Lee kit, a handful of primers, a pound of powder, and a sandwich bag full of bullets, you’d be able to fire 340 rounds before you’d exhaust your powder supply. At retail prices, you’d be out $93 in components to reload the 280 rounds, which would save you $173 when compared to similar loaded ammunition. The $35 investment in dies would pay for itself in a few hours, but you’ll definitely spend more time loading than shooting.
Lee Loader Kit: $35; leeprecision.com
A More Versatile Option
If you’re still on a budget or have limited storage space but want to load for more than one round, Lee offers another option: the Breech Lock Hand Press Kit. This kit uses a hand-actuated reloading press that works much like a bench-mounted press and can accept dies for multiple cartridges. For the purpose of this piece, we’ll be loading for a Marlin Guide Gun. In our setup, we will use the hand press with a set of .45-70 dies and Lee’s powder measure kit, which uses 15 different powder scoops of varying sizes to measure a load using nearly any powder on the market. A sliding scale included in the kit instructs the user on which scoops to use to generate a given powder charge. With the addition of extra dies, a user can load for nearly any rifle or handgun cartridge with this setup, and it takes up minimal space in a boot box, drawer, or even a truck’s toolbox.
Lee Breech Lock Hand Press Kit: $78; leeprecision.com
Lee Powder Measure Kit: $13; leeprecision.com
Lee Pacesetter Dies: $42; leeprecision.com
The Precision Setup
If you’re not on a super-tight budget and want the absolute best, there’s an option for you as well. L.E. Wilson makes hand die sets for benchrest shooters, who often do their loading right at the shooting bench. These two-die sets can be used with either a mallet or arbor press to produce incredibly precise cartridges. The one rifle I will never part with is my French Walnut stocked .270 built by Utah gunmaker D’Arcy Echols.
I feed this rifle using a set of Wilson dies and a Sinclair Arbor Press, and if I’m doing some loading at the range or in the field, I use a tiny DS-750 digital scale made by Frankford Arsenal and a plastic spoon to trickle the powder. The bushing-style Wilson neck die ejects the spent primer and resizes the case neck to hold the bullet at consistent tension while the micrometer seating die allows me to seat the bullets just off the lands of the rifling. Add in a hand-priming tool, a brush for cleaning necks, and a powder funnel and I have everything that I need to produce hunting ammunition anywhere that shoots under
1⁄2 inch at 100 yards. If you think this loading setup is expensive, do yourself a favor and don’t look up the cost of the rifle.
L.E. Wilson Neck Die: $78; lewilsondirect.com
Micrometer Seating Die: $130; lewilsondirect.com
Sinclair Arbor Press: $120; brownells.com
Frankford Arsenal Digital Scale: $40; bitbrands.com
Assorted RCBS tools: $4-$7; rcbs.com
Hand dies are slower to use than some other methods, but with the exception of my prairie dog example, we aren’t talking about high-volume shooting in this context. In a matter of an hour, one could load sufficient ammunition for an average season’s worth of hunting. If you’ve never considered handloading because you didn’t want to commit the resources, or time, these compact solutions offer a way to produce ammunition without investing much in the name of space or dollars.