From Single Stage to Progressive Reloading

Each year we attend SHOT Show, the NRA Annual Meetings and several other shows and events where we get to interact face to face with the public. Of course we also have our retail outlet in Scottsdale Arizona where we get to meet with the public year round. Over and over again we hear “well, I’ve got an old single stage that I use, I’m not sure about all this stuff that’s going on with these progressives…” and then we show them just how easy it is to run a progressive press. It isn’t easy because we already have it all setup and ready to go. It isn’t easy because we are standing there walking them through the process. What makes it easy is that these people already know how to reload from the experience they have had with their single stage press. As they watch our staff and see just how a progressive reloader works we often see their faces light up because they know that they can do it because they’ve already done it countless times. All we did was show them how to do it faster and more efficiently.

So what are the arguments against progressive reloading? Ease of use is one and on the surface a single stage press certainly looks much less complicated but that notion is quickly dispelled once you take into account all of the steps involved in using a single stage press. With single stage reloading you get your initial settings dialed in for each die and then you very likely will use a die lock ring to “lock in” your settings. Then you unscrew that die, carefully so you retain your settings, setup the next die and repeat until you’ve got everything set for each die that you plan to use for that cartridge. Over and over you set the dies and unscrew them for each stage of the reloading process each time you make a new batch of ammo. With a progressive you go through the exact same process to setup each die but when you are done you don’t have to adjust that die again unless you decide to change something. After that initial setup your reloading sessions have fewer steps to keep track of, less to remember, and a higher production rate.

How easy is this setup? Let’s take a look at the instructions from the Dillon RL 550C Instruction Manual.

Station One:

Station One is where we are going to resize our case and remove the spent primer. 

Using the die lock rings provided, screw the sizing die into the tool head. Raise the platform and screw the die down until it touches the shell plate. Lower the platform and insert an empty case into Station One. Raise the platform so the case is in the die, tighten the lock ring on the die. This will keep everything centered.

Station Two:

This photo shows the large powder bar in its fully open (rearward) position. Note the position of the white bellcrank cube

Station Two is where we are inserting a new primer, flaring the case mouth (on pistol cartridges) and where we are dropping the powder charge into the case.

On rifle cases, the die should be adjusted so that the powder funnel will contact the mouth of the case and then fully actuate the powder bar. These adjustments are accomplished with a case in the shell plate and alternately raising and lowering the operating handle, while adjusting the powder die. When properly adjusted, the powder bar will be moved to its full rearward (open) position by the case while the handle is at the full up position. When you have determined that your adjustments are correct tighten the die lock ring. On pistol cases once the powder bar travels fully across you should continue to adjust the powder die for the desired amount of bell (turn the powder die 1/8 of a turn at a time). The desired amount of bell is just enough to allow the bullet to sit on the case mouth without falling off and to keep the case from shaving lead during the seating process. The powder die may be higher or lower depending on the caliber it is being adjusted for. You’ll soon learn to judge the correct amount of bell by simply looking at it. In the meantime, you might want to use your dial calipers to check it. Twenty thousandths of an inch greater (at the mouth of the case) than its original diameter should about do it. Once you’ve achieved the desired amount of bell, with the case in Station 2, raise the platform and turn the die lock ring down hand tight.


Station Three:

In this station the bullet is seated to its proper depth. You need to refer to a loading manual for overall length of the completed round. Overall length (OAL) may vary up to .016”, and this is normal. Put a case into the shell plate at Station Three. Raise the platform up and screw the die down until it just touches the shell plate and back it out two turns. Now, back your seating stem out. Place a bullet on the case and operate the handle. Using a dial caliper or case gage, check for overall length. Keep screwing the seating stem down in small increments until the correct overall length is achieved. Once you are satisfied with the overall length, tighten the lock ring.

Station Four:

The crimping operation is performed at this station. Insert the crimp die and place an empty case in Station Four. Raise the platform and screw the crimping die down until it touches the rim of the case. Now lower the platform and screw the die down an additional one-quarter of a turn. Place a round in Station Four with a seated bullet and cycle the operating handle. You will need to refer to a loading manual to get proper crimp dimensions for the caliber you are loading. A dial caliper is required to take accurate measurements from your crimped round. If more crimp is needed, screw the crimp die down in small increments until you get the desired crimp, now tighten the lock ring.

Setup Complete

Once the dies are properly setup in the removable tool head all you have to do is place a case into station one, pull the handle, and start cycling the brass through each of the four stations that you’ve already setup. Following these steps, and using a recipe from a reliable reloading manual, you’ll be able to produce hundreds of high quality rounds per hour whenever you need more ammo.

But Can I Make Accurate Loads With A Progressive?

Another old saw is that progressive reloading machines are, somehow, incapable of producing ammunition of the same quality, consistency, and accuracy as a single stage press. We actually addressed this very issue in the first edition of Dillon Precision’s Blue Press which came out in October of 1990. The article, which was originally written for the June 1990 edition of Guns & Ammo by Bob Milek, covers the author’s efforts at proving that his varmint hunting ammunition was just as accurate when produced on his Dillon RL 550B as it was from his single stage reloader. We won’t reprint the entire article here but you can read the article in the First Edition of the Blue Press here if you like. What is really striking about the article is the accuracy comparison at the end. The Dillon RL 550B produced more accurate ammunition than the single stage press.

Are there those who might report otherwise? Sure. This happens because of many variables that are difficult to predict or measure in each reloader’s setup and techniques. What this chart does tell us is that it is certainly possible to wring every bit, if not more, of the accuracy potential out of a round made on a progressive reloading machine with potentially better results than you might achieve on a single stage press.

In the end you just have to ask yourself if time spent behind the reloading bench is better than time spent behind the trigger. Whichever way you may go the important thing is safety first. Always consult a quality reloading manual, take careful measurements, and stay focused on the task at hand when reloading. Keeping the shooting sports safe and enjoyable is everyone’s responsibility.

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