Last time, we discussed ways to clean used brass to get it ready for the actual reloading process. Now, it’s time to talk about actual brass processing – getting it ready for a new primer, propellant, and projectile. The steps you have to take depend on the source of your brass and whether it’s a straight wall or bottleneck cartridge.
Sources of Brass
Depending on where you get your brass for reloading, you may have to perform from zero to several steps to prepare it for reloading. You can certainly buy ready-to-load brass that’s never been fired. The first time you load it, you usually don’t have to do anything. The brass vendor should have delivered it clean and sized and shaped to proper specifications. Of course, after you load and fire this “new” brass, you’ll need to clean, inspect, resize and maybe trim to get it back to original specifications.
Speaking of buying brass, you can also buy once-fired brass. Enterprising folks out there collect, sort, and clean brass that’s been fired at places like police and military ranges. That brass came out of a new box of factory ammunition, was fired on the range, then collected for resale, so it’s in pretty good shape. If you start your process with once-fired brass, you’ll need to inspect each piece. There’s no telling if some were damaged during its initial use. Some once-fired brass may already have the primers removed and some may not. Most of it is at least cleaned, but most of what I’ve seen still needs to be resized and trimmed if it’s bottleneck rifle brass.
Even with factory new brass, it’s a good idea to look over each piece, even if you do so when picking it up to go into the loading press.
Look for any signs of cracks or splits. If you see those, toss that case! A few cents isn’t worth the risk of a case rupture when you fire it later. I also like to look for for abnormal bulges anywhere in the brass. You might see these around the base. For example, .40 S&W cases fired from guns with partially unsupported chambers can create bulges near the cartridge case base. You can purchase push-through dies that reform brass like this, but just know that even when reshaped, that’s still a weak spot as the brass had been overworked. You’ll have to make your own call as to whether you use or toss these cases. I toss them as I prefer to operate with an overabundance of caution. I call out the .40 S&W example, but you might find bulges and significant indentations on any caliber for a variety of reasons.
If you plan to load your new cartridges to the maximum pressure and velocity range, you also might look for signs of previous overpressure situations. Does the spent primer look flattened around the edges or is the firing pin indentation all flattened around the edges? That might be a sign that the case has been subject to higher than normal pressure.
If you’re working with previously fired range brass, be picky. You don’t know the history of any given cartridge case. You’re not hooking up with just a piece of brass, but rather every previous conflagration that brass has had before. If you see signs of abuse, toss it.
One more thing. I’m starting to find a lot more once-fired brass with the “wrong” primer sizes, so you’ll want to look out for that. For example, normal .45 ACP cases use a large pistol primer. Yet I see quite a few Blazer and Federal cases with small pistol primer pockets. I’ve also seen .308 Winchester cases that small instead of large rifle primer pockets. New ammo manufacturers will sometimes do runs like this so you have to look out for these anomalies. Trying to stuff a large primer into a small pocket will bring your process to a grinding halt, especially if you’re using a progressive reloading press. It’s easier to catch these flukes during the inspection step.
Should you sort your brass?
Depending on how you’re going to load, you may or may not want to sort your brass by head stamp. Different cartridge case manufacturers have slight differences in the way they make their brass. In theory, exterior dimensions and things like case mouth dimensions will always be the same. However, interior specs like wall and interior base thickness will vary. You can easily see differences by weighing a few random cartridge cases.
For example, I weighed these randomly picked .223 Remington empty cases and found the following:
Lake City: 97.0 grains
Winchester (plated): 96.9 grains
Winchester (brass): 97.2 grains
Winchester (5.56mm brass): 98.6 grains
Federal Cartridge: 95.8 grains
PMC: 96.2 grains
Hornady: 96.9 grains
Perfecta: 100.6 grains
PSD: 96.8 grains
Remington Peters: 94.8 grains
If there’s more brass material inside of one case, then the interior volume is going to be smaller. When fired, this cartridge will have higher pressure than one with a larger interior volume. If you’re loading at the maximum end of the scale, this could become an issue. Accuracy can also be affected by using different brass in any given lot. Don’t get too concerned about this for recreational shooting – the differences are usually pretty small. I did an informal test with .223 Remington a while back, using moderate loads, and didn’t see much practical difference. Certainly, if you’re shooting a precision bolt rifle, you will see a more significant variance.
For pistol brass, unless I’m trying to create some super accurate load, I don’t bother sorting by head stamp. Besides, I load most of my pistol cartridges to moderate pressure and velocity so I have safety margin when it comes to pressure.
The same rule of thumb can apply to rifle cartridges. If you’re making plinking ammo not loaded to extreme maximum pressure, there’s not much reason to sort by head stamp. If you need top end velocity or extreme accuracy, then consider loading for specific head stamps only.
Resizing and decapping
The process of resizing involves using the reloading press to jam a cartridge case into the interior of a resizing die. “Resizing die” is a fancy term for a hollow tube of metal where the inside is cut to the exact original shape of a new cartridge case. By jamming a used case, that’s probably stretched a bit, into the resizing die, the brass is forced back into its original size and shape.
Decapping means poking out the used primer from the cartridge case. A steel pin sticks out the bottom of most resizing dies. When you press the case into the die all the way, the pin pushes the spent primer out from the inside. You can buy a dedicated decapping die that does nothing but remove primers from virtually any type of case with a “boxer” (one-hole) primer pocket. There are reasons you may want to do that separately from resizing. We’ll get into that in a later article in this series.