The History Of Reloading

Reloading is approximately synonymous with handloading. The distinction lies in whether or not the cartridge case has been loaded and fired previously. If it has been, subsequent loadings are reloads. If the load is put up in virgin brass, that's handloading.

Books such as this one, containing listings of information on how much powder to load behind a given bullet for a specific cartridge, may be termed manuals or handbooks. There does not seem to be any distinction between one term or the other.

Curiously enough, few dictionaries list either "reload" or "handload," even though most such works cover some thoroughly improbable and unlikely words. The late Philip B. Sharpe published his original edition of "The Complete Guide to Handloading" in 1937, updating it several times in later years. In addition, I have written five editions of a book titled "ABC's of Reloading" (originally published in 1976). So both handload and reload have been solidly planted in the language for quite a few years.

The vernacular of reloading utilizes several words such as resize, deprime and reprime, which also seem to have been ignored by lexicographers. These words occur frequently in publications of the firearms press but such literature tends to be coolly overlooked by people who put dictionaries together.

It is rather difficult to establish the origin of reloading. On page 15 of Sharpe's book, he states that the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus started things along in the early 1600s. He ordered his troops to carry their powder and ball together in the form of a cartridge that was generally a cylinder of paper, twisted on both ends, with the charge ofblack gunpowder poured on top of the ball.

In use, the troops would bite or tear off the end of the cartridge, pour the powder down the muzzle, drop the ball on top of the charge and cram it all into place with the ramrod. The procedure saved some useful amount of time over the usual procedure of pouring the powder from a powder horn into a measure.

It was a Scottish clergyman named Alexander John Forsyth who adapted fulminate of mercury to the ignition of blackpowder in firearms, introducing percussion firearms that replaced the flintlock system. Fulminate of mercury had been produced earlier, but it was Forsyth who recognized its possibilities for an improvement in firearms ignition.

Some 87 years after Forsyth's death, a bronze memorial tablet was placed on the wall of the Tower of London, the only memorial in honor of an individual ever erected in that historic structure. Despite the significance of his contribution, most modern encyclopedias do not accord him even a brief listing. As you may be beginning to suspect, most scholarly works give painfully short shrift to many aspects of the ballistic arts.

Initially, a small amount of fulminate of mercury was placed in a copper cup. The percussion cap, as it was called, was pressed over a steel nipple whose central opening led to the charge of powder behind the ball. Pulling the trigger dropped the hammer on the cap which caused the fulminate to detonate into a stream of hot gasses and particles through the nipple.

This set off the powder charge and launched the projectile.

It becomes apparent that reloading, as a concept, dates back to the earliest examples of firearms. However, reloading as we know it today, stems from the development of the modern brass cartridge which appeared about the time of the American Civil War. Early specimens carried the priming compound within a hollow rim similar to contemporary rounds such as the .22 Short, Long, Long Rifle and Winchester Magnum Rimfire. As such, they were not readily reloadable, due to the difficulty of replacing the priming compound.

When centerfire cartridge cases were fully developed, there were two distinct forms in regard to the priming systems. The "Boxer" primer consists of a metal cup enclosing a wafer of priming compound beneath a disk of sealing foil with an anvil. The Boxer primer pocket has a single, central flash hole.

Cartridges using the "Berdan" priming system have a primer pocket with two smaller, offcenter flash holes. The anvil is formed in the bottom of the primer pocket. The Berdan primer consists of the cup, wafer of priming compound, and the waterproofing foil.

Curiously enough, the Berdan system was developed in America and today finds its major use in ammunition produced outside the U.S. The Boxer primer was developed in England; however, it is the primary system used in U.S. domestic centerfire ammunition.

The key point is the flash hole of the Boxer-primed case, which allows a central decapping pin to push out the spent primer. Removing a spent Berdan primer is considerably more complicated because of the off-center flash holes. It is possible to reload Berdan-primed cases but it is more difficult than most reloaders care to cope with.

The advent of the centerfire brass cartridge case posed a problem insofar as using fulminate of mercury as the priming compound. Upon detonation, it breaks down into carbon monoxide, nitrogen and mercury. The detonation of one gram liberates a relatively significant amount of gas and the temperature of the reaction is about 7862°F/4350°C. Much of the released mercury remains on the inner walls of the brass cartridge case and, in a short time, it forms an amalgam with the brass, rendering the brass brittle and unfit for further reloading.

That led to the development of non-mercuric priming compounds. Early ones included some amount of potassium perchlorate and that, in turn, posed further problems. During combustion the oxygen is consumed, leaving potassium chloride, a close chemical cousin to sodium chloride or common table salt. Salts are hygroscopic, meaning they attract and retain moisture, and will quickly rust and corrode any iron-bearing metal. These primers are considered "corrosive."

Domestic military ammunition used priming compounds that were non-mercuric, but still corrosive, up through the early 1950s. One exception was the .30 M-1 Carbine cartridge which used non-mercuric, non-corrosive primers in all domestic production. Unless a gun is cleaned promptly after firing loads with corrosive primers, the bore will quickly become rusted and ruined for further use. Not all bore-cleaning fluids will dissolve and remove corrosive primer deposits.

I got my first exposure to the art of reloading at the age of 5 or 6. We lived on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and the bull became fractious, refusing to go back into the barn. As it was a valuable animal, my father didn't wish to cause him permanent injury so he went into the house, pried the overshot wad out of the end of a 12-gauge shotshell, dumped out the lead pellets and replaced them with navy beans before replacing the overshot wad and recrimping the mouth of the shotshell with a hand-powered shell crimper.

With the bean load in the chamber of the old Remington single, he returned to the barnyard. The bull stood atop a large heap of organic fertilizer, bellowing defiance to my father and the world in general. At the conclusion of one such bellow, my father took careful aim, touched off the old Remington and peppered the bull's nose with beans.

The effect was quite salutary. The bull went meekly back to his pen in the barn and that was the end of the matter. It all took place about the latter 1920s. I regret that I can provide little by way of reloading history for the decade of the 1930s. During the start of the 1940s, I was serving as an aerial gunnery instructor in the U.S. Army Air Corps at an advanced training base for B-24 crews near the tiny town of Tonopah, Nevada. During that interlude, I set off enough factory loads to make any taxpayer wince painfully, but I didn't get into reloading.

I have a Stoeger's "Shooter's Bible" I bought during that interlude (Number 36, dated 1945) and will endeavor to reproduce a few pertinent illustrations from it. Hardly any of the pictured items were available for the duration of WWII and not for some few years after.

Reloading items were covered on pages 263 through 279 of the Stoeger catalog, prefaced by a page of introduction by Phil Sharpe. In it, he notes, "Early in 1938 manufacturers of powder discontinued the release of handloading information. This involved the element of safety and it does not mean they consider it dangerous to handload. The true story of this has never been published.

"For many long years firearms editors have been warning handloaders against the use of mercuric primers. They gradually faded out of the picture but are today actually fading back in again. The answer is the non-corrosive primer.

"Non-corrosive primers are excellent but still far from being 100% developed. Changes in priming composition is [sic] constantly being made by our ammunition manufacturers. No announcement of this is being made to the public. Whenever they can improve they will improve.

"In their standard factory loads there are a great many mercuric primer numbers. All components sold to reloaders for handloading purposes are positively non-mercuric primed. No mercuric primers are sold. Nevertheless, the man who salvages miscellaneous shells may get into extreme difficulty with numbers previously fired with mercuric primers. It is well to bear this in mind."

Pages 264 and 265 were both footnoted, "Not available for the duration." In smokeless rifle powders, they listed Du Pont 4759, 4227, 3031, 4198, 4064 and 4320; none with the IMR-prefix familiar today. Hercules rifle powders included Lightning, Sharpshooter, Unique, 2400 and HiVel No. 3. Smokeless pistol powders were Du Pont 5, Du Pont 6 and Hercules Bullseye.

Hercules smokeless shotgun powders were E.C., Red Dot and Infallible. Du Pont smokeless shotgun powders were Du Pont MX, Du Pont Oval Lot No. 35 and Du Pont Smokeless; the last apparently the same as the post-war Du Pont "Bulk" powder. They also had King's Semi-Smokeless and black powders by Laflin & Rand and Du Pont.

Ideal, later to become Lyman, then featured two "nutcracker" tong tools, the No. 3 and No. 10 with the distinction that the 3 was for rimmed cases and the 10 was for rimless. After the war, the two were combined and marketed as the No. 310 tong tool. In presses there was the Ideal Tru-Line, using dies other than those for the tong tools, with a note Ideal had just introduced the Tru-Line Jr, model at $15, "a real bench tool using the same dies as the No. 3 and 10."

Pages 270 and 271 featured the Belding & Mull and Modern Bond equipment. Page 272 featured a Pacific press in what we've come to think of as the C-type design. It appears to have used dies with the 7/8-14 thread that have come to be more or less the universal standard although the universal shell holder had yet to make its debut. The same page showed a Schmitt Model 12 which, like many archaic presses of that day, was a horizontal design.

Wilson tools and gages were on page 273. Page 274 featured the Potter Reloading Machine, capable of complete reloading in one operation, at $57.50 for the complete unit.

Consumer goods were slow getting back into the commercial marketplace after the end ofWWII. Things such as camera film and rimfire ammo trickled onto dealers' shelves and were snapped up as if by maddened piranhas. Centerfire ammunition was extremely scarce.

I remember walking into a gun store in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, about 1951, and being greeted by the proprietor's joyous announcement that he had some primers in stock. They must have been among the first-ever output of the CCI folks in Lewiston, Idaho, because that was the brand.

"What do you do with primers?" I asked him, in all dewy-eyed innocence.

"You reload cartridges with them!" was his reply.

I professed to be totally ignorant of the details of the process and he, bless his incautious heart, loaned me his copy of Phil Sharpe's immortal tome. Today, I'd no more loan someone a copy of my Sharpe book than I'd loan them my toothbrush. I'm proud to say I dutifully returned the loan copy three weeks later when I made the Manitowoc sales trip again and then I went out and bought my own copy.

In the interim, I'd gleaned a lot of info on the esoteric intricacies of the operation ... but a few details had eluded me.

In those days, I was a traveling sales engineer in wholesale heating, ventilating and air-conditioning supplies and part of my duties consisted of measuring houses, taking the sketch back and working up plans for dealers to install new systems.

In the course of measuring one such house, I brought my trusty tape measure into a room and paused in puzzled regard of a most intriguing-looking gizmo. Most of it was painted orange. I asked the home owner what it was and he was delighted to demonstrate by turning a spent .38 Special casing back into a live round by means of just a few deft operations.

Quite candidly, I was enchanted clean out of my gourd. During the 1930s, I'd seldom fired the old Remington 12-gauge but my father had paid Sears, Roebuck and Company $7.85 for a "Springfield" bolt-action, tubular-magazine repeater in .22 Short/Long/Long Rifle, made in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, and it was my constant companion whenever I could afford to feed it.

During that era, the E.C. Braun Hardware store in Eden, Wisconsin, sold Remington Kleenbore standard-velocity .22 Shorts at 18 cents for a box of 50, sales tax didn't come until years later. I could use up a box so fast you'd think I had a selector switch on full-auto.

English sparrows and starlings were the prime quarry, with an occasional crow or two. I had a pet tiger-striped tomcat who would come at a mad gallop when the rifle cracked. If I couldn't toss him at least a sparrow, he would impale me with an accusing glare that made my toes tingle.

I mention all that by way of explaining why a low-cost source of infinite ammo sounded like paradise personified when the homeowner demonstrated what turned out to be a Lyman Tru-Line Junior loading press to my glazed gaze.

I was by no means rich beyond dreams of avarice at the time. My routine cash-flow, I recall the figure painfully well, was $6.85 per week and a useful increase from the days when buying a box of .22 Shorts from Ed Braun left me a whole seven cents to spend in riotous living. I had bought a 4x5-inch Speed Graphic with most of my WWII mustering-out money and was somewhat into surreptitious professional photography. That activity enabled me to buy a Lyman Tru-Line Junior all my very own.

Curiously enough, I still have it, but would hesitate to guarantee I could resurrect .38 Special spent brass with it, down to the present. The Tru-Line Junior used its own distinctive size of reloading dies; smaller than the 7/8-14 thread size that has long since taken over the reloading world. The same dies were used in the Lyman No. 310 tong tools upon which I cut my reloading teeth, albeit precariously.

A nearby dentist friend named Gerry Kincannon had the tong tool and we both had .45 ACP M1911A1 pistols at the time. Government Issue ammo was still quite plentiful, much of it with the corrosive primers that were not phased out until after 1952 or so. Loads from Frankford Arsenal used a domestic primer that was somewhat smaller in diameter than the standard .210-inch large pistol primer and I

recall great puzzlement as to why we couldn't seat regular primers into the FA cases.

I found a local policeman eager to swap his Smith & Wesson K-38 even-up for my .45 ACP Colt. One of my dealers in Edgerton, Wisconsin, still had a box of pre-WWII .38 Special ammo on the shelf for $1.75 and I glommed onto it. There is no way you could possibly begin to believe the brevity of the interval it took me to convert those loads into empty cases.

The dealer who set me up with the Tru-Line Jr., Elwood Gosse of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, also furnished me with a pair of Lyman bullet moulds for their No. 358316 and 358425 and again, almost incredibly, I still have both sets of blocks.

Coming home with my new press and the blocks, it was but the work of a moment to founder-up some cast bullets and take them down into the basement to seat them into the mouths of some charged cases.

I did not bother to put any bullet lubricant into the grooves of the cast bullets and that was a serious mistake, indeed. I took them out the next day, fired them off and ended with a bore that was lead-fouled like unto no tomorrow, verily.

On my next visit to Gosse's shop, he managed to scrounge up a spent .35 Remington case. I took it home, cut off the head with a hacksaw and soldered two small handles to the top end. I made up some shallow sheet metal trays into which I placed the bullets, nose-up. I concocted some homemade bullet lube by mixing beeswax with petroleum jelly. When melted, the lube was poured into the tray around the bullets to a suitable depth and set aside to cool. The bullets were then cut free with the punch improvised from the .35 Remington empty.

It was not a great system and I'd hate to have to do it that way today, but it did eliminate the bore-fouling problems. The Lyman No. 358425 was a neat little button-nosed wadcutter weighing about 115 grains, stabilizing quite nicely in the 1:18.75 pitch of the K-38 barrel. I improvised a homemade powder dipper by soldering a nail to a spent .25 ACP case and putting a small handle at the other end. I used Hercules Bullseye as my primary propellant and the dipper dispensed about 3.3 grains.

I did not discover that until after I'd loaded many thousands of rounds with my impromptu setup, finally breaking down and buying a powder scale. I'd like to stress that such a casual approach is definitely not the way to get started in the reloading game!

The Lyman Tru-Line Jr. press and its dies functioned by resizing only a short length of the case at the neck. As I got into working with other calibers, I found I sometimes needed to do full-length resizing, particularly in .30-06 Springfield cases. I bought a drive-in/knock-out die for the purpose and found it painfully educational. A sturdy old bench vise couldn't push the lubricated case all the way in and having done its best, was hard-put to push the case back out again.

A friend ran a downtown filling station and had a huge arbor press with a handle nearly six feet long. Even on that, with two of us chinning ourselves on the end of the handle, we still couldn't quite make it work.

So I broke down and bought one of the Pacific C-type presses and a set of 7/8-14 .30-06 dies and, as the phrase has it, came to know true happiness.

The decade of the 1950s saw a large increase in reloading interest on the part of the shooting public. The broadened market base brought more suppliers and wider assortments of components and equipment. That, in turn, increased consumer interest in a sort of self-fueling chain reaction. I think the shooters and reloaders of the present never had it any better and they should feel appropriately grateful.

In the early 1960s, Richard Lee devised the Lee Loader, small enough to be carried in a fairly spacious pocket. It sold for $9.95 at the time and the modest price induced a great many shooters to take up reloading. Not a press, it consisted of a series of dies into which the cases were driven in and back out by means of a mallet to resize the necks. It worked quite nicely if the given case had been fired in the same gun in which the reload would be fired. A dipper-type powder measure was supplied, with a chart listing powders and bullet weights to be used with it. At the time of its introduction, a four-cent stamp would mail a first class letter. Today, with more than a six-fold increase in postage, you can still buy one of the Lee Loaders for about $20.00.

As you'd suppose, the production rate of the Lee Loader was quite modest, although the resulting reloads were capable of highly gratifying accuracy. There was an obvious market for systems enabling the shooter to turn out more rounds per hour and soon various makers designed and marketed presses to boost production.

One of the earliest high-production systems was from Star Machine Company of San Diego, California. Their progressive press advanced cases automatically from one station to the next, producing a loaded round with each stroke of the operating handle. Star also produced a lube-sizer that pushed cast bullets straight down through the sizing die, rather than the usual down/up cycle.

Turret presses bypassed the tedious chore of turning dies into and back out of the singlestation press, so the various operations could be performed quickly on a case in the shell holder. The Lyman Tru-Line Jr., for example, had a four-station turret accepting the smaller-diameter dies used in the Lyman tong tools. Lyman later introduced their All-American, using the standard 7/8-14 dies, but with non-standard shell holders, going on to offer presses such as the Spar-T with the so-called universal shell holders.

Lee Precision supplemented their Lee Loader kits with single-station and turret presses, culminating with their newest, the Load-Master. Once it is set up and going, it requires only that the operator work the handle and place a bullet on top of the charged case.

Dillon Precision offers progressive presses at various levels of sophistication. Their 650 and 1050 models can be had with optional case feeders and powder level checkers that sound a buzzer if the powder level is higher or lower than a preset point.

Hornady took over the Pacific operation and introduced the Pro-7 progressive press, refining it to the Pro-Jector model, with retrofit kits available to convert Pro-7 presses to full ProJector capability. They also catalog three different progressive loaders for shotshells, the 366 Auto, Apex Standard and Apex Auto.

RCBS, now a subsidiary of Blount Industries, celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1993. Their current lineup of presses ranges from the small and inexpensive single-station Partner, the single-station Reloader Special-5, the singlestation Rock Chucker and the progressive AmmoMaster. The AmmoMaster can be used as a single-station or progressive and it can be converted for loading larger cartridges such as the .50 BMG. RCBS also has the Piggyback II unit that can be installed on their Rock Chucker to convert it into a progressive.

Again, I think the shooters and reloaders of the present never had it any better and they should feel appropriately grateful.

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  • biniam
    How is smokeless gunpowder made today?
    9 years ago
    How to hand load .270 amo using lyman all american turret press?
    8 years ago
  • sabine
    What is the defferent between smokeless powder there name and useage f?
    8 years ago
  • aydin
    Why alexander john forsyth become a father of percussion system?
    7 years ago
  • Nebyat
    When did smokeless powder cartridge started?
    7 years ago

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