Hello Fellow Shootist,
As mentioned on Gun-n-Ammo page, getting involved in Cowboy Action Shooting one quickly realizes reloading is a necessity unless you have a large bank account.
Legalese: I am by no-means any type of professional or expert. I have been reloading 38spl CAS since 2010 – approx 1500 rounds per year…. I had never reloaded before getting started in CAS.... I scanned youtube to see reloading operation of various loaders.
Since CAS is strictly Cast Lead Bullets, for new loaders (such as myself) I highly recommend: Lyman's Cast Bullet Handbook 4th Edition. Wish I would've read this before starting, answered a lot of questions learned by trial & error.
Below is my experience in getting started in reloading for CAS as a necessity.
For myself having an already busy work/family life and limited funds – the Lee Pro 1000 was the easy choice for cost ($150) and Progressive operation for minimizing relaod time in garage. I agree Lee is the Chevy version of loaders – economical and you will have to make some refinements to maximize its operation. Many traditional loaders will recommend starting out with hand loading until familiar with powder weights, measures, bullet length, primers….etc. But I chose to jump in feet first – note I went extremely slow at first checking the primer seating, powder weight, case crimp and bullet length. The Pro 1000 is a 3-stage progressive press meaning 3 simultaneous functions with each lever cycle. All Pro 1000s come with Carbide dies meaning no case lube is required (side note from below, the case tumbler media seems to leave a film on brass for easier sizing….)
1st die is the Sizer/Deprimer which is where the most pressure/effort is required to compress the brass back to original specs (more detailed info in separate article below).
2nd die performs triple function of opening case mouth (flaring), drop powder and press primer into cartridge. You need to adjust die to minimum mouth flare required to accept cast bullet, to little and bullet will not go into cartridge, too much and you will split the mouth and destroy case. I lean toward the minimum opening required to hold bullet in case for 3rd press/crimp die. As mentioned below, the lever upswing pushes primer into case and attention is required here to learn the feel for a full primer seat - just be aware and check often.
3rd die pushes/presses the bullet into case per desired length and crimps case to bullet. Here is where I learned the advantange of using cast bullets with a nice crimp groove which serves 3 functions: (1) it shows you correct bullet length – how far to press bullet into case, (2) allows brass crimp to be flush with bullet for smoother lever action cycling and (3) prevents bullet from being pressed further into case while in rifle bullet tube.
You need to sacrifice a handful of brass/bullets to properly set the mouth flare, bullet press depth and crimp pressure. For initial setup, familarize yourself with the Pro 1000 without gunpowder or primers - Or just use brass with fired primers for setup and use the dead bullets for show in gunbelt loops….
Tedious die setup is why the Lee Pro 1000 is popular for us with limited funds – once the die's are set for brass and bullet type, you don’t want to mess with it to change brass or bullets as diff in 357/38 case length and diff in bullet type/length (semi-wadcutter, roundnose-flattop, standard roundnose)….. most just buy another Pro 1000 for $170…. Another option is buy a separate set of dies and holder as they are easy to remove – but changing the Powder feed is somewhat painful so I’m gonna go the extra Pro 1000 route……
As everyone states, I started at low powder measure and worked up – I took this to the extreme and started at the bottom value and the bullets had a hard time reaching the targets……so I’ve eventually progressed to one grain below max for comfortable, accurate CAS shooting. Coincidence of 1grn below max is use of the Lee AutoDisk .88 volumetric hole for (TrailBoss (TB) 4.1 grn). I wanted more power than the lower AutoDisk .82 (TB 3.8grn), and the next higher AutoDisk .95 was above TB max grains.
The AutoDisk flowed very well with TB and the .88 disk hole. The only issue I’ve had with Lee Pro 1000 powder feed was occasionally a reduced amount of powder would drop – I finally noticed the return spring at end of chain was (1) to short and (2) way to stiff. I could not set the chain length short enough to compress spring to ensure the powder disk return to full open position. Solution was to buy a longer (about 1/2in) and weaker spring that was easy to slightly compress with proper setting of chain length. So now on the Lee Lever up swing, the spring compresses and induced pressure always returns disk to full open alignment with powder feed.
Using TB and a LED desk light pointed down into case I'm able to see powder level before placing bullet on cartridge - with TB at 4.1grn the 38spl is approx half full, so it's very easy to spot an empty, light or heavy load. With Lee AutoDisk it's near impossible to double load with a normal full lever cycle. Yes you can double load by performing a half cycle on the lever, but with TB you're gonna have powder spilling over top of cartridge.
As with any reloading you need to fine-tune the case opening and crimp/bullet seating dies. I found that to maximize brass life, you need to spread/open case just enough to allow bullet fit/stand just inside wall to allow die to push bullet down into case. Opening case any wider will just stretch brass and quickly cause case-wall cracking. For the next step (press/crimping), my preference is to use a cast bullet with a nicely defined crimp groove. My opinion is this allows the case to be crimped flush with bullet for what seems a smoother bullet feed in the lever action rifles. Plus you can readily inspect/recognize proper bullet length. Also for lever action rifles with a full tube of bullets this bullet/cartridge shoulder provides a "stop" to insure bullet does not push further into cartridge if you happen to have a soft-crimp....
The other nuance of the Pro 1000 is the primer feed/seating…. I’ve found this loader is easy to load primers into case feeder but needs continuous attention/tapping to ensure primers flow down into feed tube. The other factor is the lever action upswing primer seating – this requires constant attention to recognize the “proper feel” of a good primer seat. If you don’t get a full seat then the raised primer will cause many revolver cylinders to bind and not rotate – but this is somewhat easy to check when you have a case full of reloads and run your finger over all the primers – a raised primer is readily recognized/felt.
Reminder to clean loader after every season (1200 rounds), blow off with air, wipe down and lightly oil. Six years and 8000 rounds later, still works great.
GunPowder – as a beginner everyone recommends Trail-Boss as it was designed for CAS and cannot be dual-loaded without over-flowing the cartridge. I have continued using TB as it was designed for and should be supported by CAS. It measures/flows easily, very reliable and clean. Some talk about the cost of TB being sold in at $16 for 9oz bottle vs all others $20+ for 1lb bottle – did a calculation of Grains per bullet for 38spl and came up with TB costing and extra 1 cent per bullet…. I can live with that.
Cast Bullets – well this is a whole separate subject that has many opinions throughout the community. I reload and shoot CAS – not experimenting with accuracy test or anything like that – I simply chose by cost, availability and lever action cycling. My current preferred bullet is manufactured locally here in GA (Georgia ARMs) – their L38A 158gr round nose is longer than other cast for smother feeding into 357/38 rifles. I had many feeding problems with semi-wadcutter and flat-nose 38spl in 357/38 rifle. This longer “round nose” solved all feed problems…. FYI the L38A is visually very similar to Hunters Supply 162gr cast bullet – and other reviewers have same comments about improved feeding in 357 lever actions.
Sample below (right pic, right bullet) is factory 357 compared to GA L38A 158gr 38spl.
38spl AOL = 1.55in / 357mag AOL = 1.59
FMJFN Factory 38spl = 1.41, L38A = 1.522, MHP Factory 357 = 1.551
Cleaning Brass – bought a cheap tumbler and media, run for 3 hours and you’re fine. I’ve noticed the film left by the brass cleaner media causes the cases to cycle through the sizer a bit easier. I tried removing primers before tumbling but this caused the media to get stuck in primer hole and I had to manually remove it with a scribe – now I leave primer in for cleaning and deprime on separate press before reloading…. I use separate press to keep dirt off loader and distraction of used primers falling about.
Specs: 38spl AOL = 1.55in / 357mag AOL = 1.59
FMJFN Factory 38spl = 1.41, L38A = 1.522, MHP Factory 357 = 1.551
I have also read good reviews about use of ALOX bullets lube to prevent barrel leading – so I purchased the off-brand XLOX and coat all my bullets before loading (even with pre lubed bullets) – barrels continue to look great after three years. Common issue is setting up bullets to dry after coating with XLOX, my solution was pour bullets onto wax paper and using a chisel I flip it up on bottom.... over time I've gotten pretty fast - but have some air movement as the fumes are disturbing.
FYI - checked gun barrels and as of Jan 2017, six years of CAS Cast Bullet shooting the barrels are clean as new... think I only ran a wire brush through them a couple times since new.... mostly just push a cleaning pad through with few drops of oil..... Guess I'll always use ALOX/XLOX....
Primers – due to design of Lee Pro 1000, they only approve use of CCI or Winchester brand primers. CCI is available at all gun-shops here in middle GA so that’s all I’ve used. They are very reliable although community opinion is they require a bit more striker hit pressure to fire than other brands. This is not an issue to me being a casual enthusiast Dualist shooter.
Just a final comment, there are plenty of videos on utube showing users blazing away to get max count per hour - I do NOT recommend this process for CAS speed shooting - no time to react to a bad load, your health and equipment is worth the extra time.
Go at a steady safe pace, feel the lever pressure for proper primer seat, for TB visually inspect the powder level and when box is full give a look and feel of primers.
Have fun and be safe.
Capt Kirk SASS #87080
Additional SASS members comments from the The Cowboy Chronicle:
Carbon Deposits On Brass
By Blackthorne Billy, SASS #74914 SASS Chronicle 2012-7-July
My reloading Guru instructed me to load 148 grain full wad cutters using the very lowest “Starting” loads with “Unique,” as I remember it at the time. This caveat was to facilitate my learning curve in developing accuracy while becoming used to what the revolver would do when it went BANG!
After several months, I progressed to Max loads, and became proficient with the heavier recoil. Then I decided it might be better to go back to somewhat lighter loads instead. I went to the lowest loads shown in my original Lyman manual, and gee, it was more like I was shooting a .22 Long Rifle instead of the .38 Special. But, the cases had this nasty black deposit of carbon on them, and looked like they were 100 years old! Dang. I showed them to my reloading Guru, Tom, and he laughed, telling me I had TWO problems that created the smudge.
One was the powder charge was so light, the powder didn’t develop sufficient pressure to expand the case walls to tightly fit the cylinder chambers to seal them.
The second problem was the crimp, which was just barely against the first driving band of the wad cutter bullet. He explained that when powder “burns” rather than exploding, as some believe, it gradually develops pressure that forces the bullet to begin moving forward. The problem occurs when the bullet begins moving prior to maximum pressure being achieved, and the case walls do not expand sufficiently to prevent the hot gases from flowing back along the case!
Most Cowboys use semi-wad cutter bullets with a rounded nose to facilitate feeding in rifles. These bullets generally have one or two grease grooves and a crimping groove. The case mouth should be tightly roll-crimped into the crimping groove to prevent premature movement before maximum pressure is achieved. This ensures the case walls expand under pressure, theoretical velocity is correct, and there’s no escaping hot gases to blow back along the chamber! You should not be able to feel the edge of the case mouth after correctly crimping in this manner.
I use two separate bullet loading dies, one to seat, then one to crimp correctly into the crimp groove, and I don’t experience any black smudging of my cases. They clean up quickly in the vibratory tumbler with coarse-ground corncob. That crimping groove is there for two good reasons. One is to prevent too-early bullet release, and the other is to ensure the next bullet doesn’t move forward under recoil and jam itself between the cylinder mouth and barrel breech! (Never had THAT happen to me … Ooops!)
There is another cause that is caliber specific—the venerable .45 Long Colt. The walls of this ancient development are thicker than the .44-40. and .38/.357 case walls and resist the low pressures created with Cowboy loads. Increasing the powder charge enough to expand the case walls and seal the chamber will likely create a much heavier recoil. But, you must keep in mind that in 1873, this was the caliber of choice for bandits, gunslingers, Indian fighters, Sheriffs, and ranchers defending their families against outlaws and attacking Indians. Therefore, it was designed to utilize heavy loads of blackpowder and send that 255 grain slug singing out at close to 1000 FPS. It was designed to do damage.
Whatever powder you decide to use, check the powder manufacturer’s recommendations for the minimum starting charge weight and work up from there. Trying to get a light recoiling load by going below the minimum amount is dangerous. If less recoil is the thing you are looking for, use a lighter bullet, not a lighter powder charge than recommended.
BOOK: Want to start reloading? Everything you need to know is in "The Hobby: Cowboy Action Shooting."