November 28, 2021

Progressive Reloading for Beginners, by Anthony B.

There is nothing in this article about raising chickens, goats, or vegetables. I have done all the above, but there are experts with more knowledge to share. I do, however, have some knowledge to share on loading ammunition, and believe in the importance of having control over personal ammunition supplies given the current political and social situation. How many have tried to buy ammunition in the last year and a half, only to find the shelves bare? Reloading offers a solution to market shortages but requires specialized equipment and knowledge. New loaders typically turn to those with experience for information and are almost invariably advised to begin with a single-stage reloading press and the associated equipment required to produce quality ammo.

A single-stage press uses multiple reloading dies to accomplish each step of the loading process separately and is perceived as the “simplest” way to learn. I agree with that recommendation but can envision some better served by beginning with a progressive press capable of accomplishing multiple tasks at the same time. This article is for those new loaders and I will use commonly loaded 9mm handgun and .223 Remington/5.56 rifle ammunition as examples.

I have been loading ammunition for more than forty years and casting bullets over thirty. I started with a single-stage press as most recommend, and still load most of my ammunition on the same press. Over the years, however, I have managed to acquire several progressive presses and appreciate their advantages. It is strictly a coincidence that my progressive presses are all manufactured by Dillon. I am not trying to sell Dillon products and know several people who are extremely happy with machines from other manufacturers. This article includes only machines I’ve used. Information on other presses is easily available with a little research. The basic advantages remain the same regardless of the press manufacturer.

Progressive Misconceptions

First, let’s dispel some misconceptions about progressive presses. They are often criticized for not producing ammo of the same quality as a single stage, but there is no technical reason for this criticism. A progressive press simply uses a shell-plate and toolhead to combine multiple operations in one cycle of the press and, given equal tolerances, will produce ammo equal to a single-stage press. Many competitive rifle and pistol shooters load their ammo on progressive machines while they chase elusive factory ammunition sponsorships, so accuracy and reliability are possible with a progressive.

Others believe single-stage presses are safer than progressives. There are more opportunities for mistakes while performing multiple reloading operations at the same time, but a progressive machine is equally safe provided the operator is paying attention and following the manufacturer-recommended procedures. Progressive loading is more mentally challenging and requires concentration. This is not a bad thing. Staying mentally focused, limiting distractions, following manufacturer recommendations, and realizing that suspect rounds may always be broken down into components for re-use will solve any potential problems.

Another related criticism of progressive presses is that multiple operations at once are too much for the operator to monitor. That one is easy; just use the progressive press as a single-stage while learning! While a progressive press can be faster than a single-stage, quality ammunition rather than speed should be the primary concern.

Progressive Advantages

Although speed of loading should not be the new reloaders goal, a progressive press can be faster that a single-stage, producing a complete round with every pull of the operating handle. Although potential speed is the most obvious progressive advantage, there are many others. A single-stage press requires changing reloading dies for each step of the process, increasing opportunities for errors or inconsistent ammunition tolerances. Once the progressive press is set up and put into operation there are no changes required unless components or the desired caliber changes. A progressive press also eliminates handling the case to be loaded at every operation and reduces the attendant opportunities for mistakes.

Progressive presses require less space, a very real advantage for anyone with a limited work area. The required dies, priming mechanism, and powder system are contained and can be stored on the press for safekeeping. A progressive press may also be removed from the loading area, placed into storage, and then put back into operation more easily than a single-stage press and other required equipment.

A progressive utilizes separate toolheads to contain the reloading dies, making caliber changes relatively quick and easy by simply swapping toolheads and shell-plates. A caliber conversion may require a primer system change or powder measure adjustment, but additional toolheads allow the dies remain in place, making more consistent tolerances of loaded ammo easier to maintain. More progressive advantages will become apparent as we go through differing press specifics.

Regardless of the press used, single-stage or progressive, the new loader will require a source of loading data and a powder measure. A caliper to measure loaded rounds is almost a must-have as well.

The Dillon Square Deal B (SDB)

The Dillon SDB is the most compact of the Dillon progressives and is available in eighteen straight-walled handgun calibers from 32 Smith & Wesson Long through 45 Colt. The SDB requires manual insertion of each case and bullet into the loading process, giving the operator more control than with automatic systems. The SDB toolhead has four stations for the loading process. Station 1 de-primes the fired case and resizes it to proper dimensions. Station 2 installs a new primer, expands the case mouth to accept a bullet, and charges the case with powder. Station 3 seats the bullet, and Station 4 crimps the seated bullet and ejects the loaded round from the press. The press may be used as a single stage to perform each operation on one a piece of brass or perform all four simultaneously. The SDB ships with reloading dies for the desired caliber already installed, and small, final adjustments based on powder and bullet selection are all that are required to start loading.

The SDB is an automatic indexing press, meaning that the shell-plate controlling the brass to be loaded rotates to the next station every time the handle is operated. Automatic indexing makes double charging a case with powder unlikely, and the operator may visually check the amount of powder dispensed by the measure before seating a bullet. The SDB ships with both small and large primer systems, allowing a simple swap if a primer change is required. Conversion kits include the shell-plate, locator buttons, reloading dies, and powder funnel required for caliber changes. Although not required, SDB Deluxe Quick Changes include a toolhead, powder measure, and toolhead stand for added convenience.

Some nice additions to the SDB include the Dillon Strong Mount to stabilize the press on less than sturdy mounting locations, and extra primer pick-up tubes to separate that necessary preparation step and allow the operator to focus solely on the loading process. Extra toolheads to contain dies in different calibers or Deluxe Quick Changes are convenient but not a necessity and not applicable in our 9mm example.

Disadvantages to the SDB include the limitation to straight-walled handgun calibers already mentioned and proprietary Dillon dies. Dies from other manufacturers cannot be used on the SDB, and the dies are more expensive than the standard dies used on most presses. Aftermarket companies offer upgrades to make loading faster and more efficient, but such upgrades attempt to turn the SDB into something it isn’t and move the press into a price category where larger presses become more financially viable. The larger machines are not “better”; the SDB does everything very well given its caliber limitations. Our example new loader with a SDB would still require a way to load .223/5.56 ammo, but anyone concentrating on handgun ammo would be very happy with an SDB or comparable press.

The Dillon 550C

The 550 (pictured, above) is the next Dillon in size and touted in as the most versatile machine in the product line, accommodating more than one hundred and sixty different calibers. The 550C is the latest iteration of the basic design, but the earlier 550B functions just as well. The advantages of the smaller SDB are present with the 550, along with several additions.

The 550 can use dies from any manufacturer to load both pistol and rifle calibers from .32 ACP to .460 Weatherby; oversized cartridges such as the .50 BMG will not fit within the frame opening. Like the SDB, the 550 toolhead contains four stations, with de-priming, sizing, and priming combined at Station 1. Station 2 expands the case mouth (for pistol calibers) and dispenses the powder charge; Stations 3 and 4 are the same as the SDB.

The 550 shell-plate is manually indexed, offering the operator greater control over the loading process and making it easier to see and understand what the press is doing at every station. The 550 may be easily used as a single-stage press (remember, it isn’t all about speed), and the spacious and open frame makes removal and reinsertion of rounds at various stages of the loading process more convenient.

Like the SDB, the 550 includes both large and small primer systems. Caliber changes require fewer parts than the SDB and are less expensive. Conversion kits and Quick Changes are available from Dillon; there is also a relatively large supply of toolheads and shell-plates available on the used market. Dillon’s customer service and warranty are among the best in the industry, so there is no reason to be wary of used parts.

Nice additions to the 550 include the Dillon Strong Mount and primer pick-up tubes already mentioned, and the new loader in our example would require a caliber conversion kit in either 9mm or 223/5.56. An aftermarket lighting system that attaches to the frame of the press improves visibility and is especially useful in verifying powder charges. Dillon offers a very worthwhile roller handle upgrade that greatly reduces muscle strain over long loading sessions. There are upgrades available from other sources, such as a case feeder for handgun cartridges, but I haven’t used them. Using a case feeder solely for handgun cartridges forces the operator to develop muscle memory of two different loading processes, a complication easily avoided with no great loss in production speed.

There are very few negatives with the 550. The 550 does not ship with dies installed, leading to an additional expense, but standard dies from any manufacturer may be used. Dillon dies may be disassembled and cleaned without removing them from the toolhead; dies by other makers may require readjustment. For the new 9mm and 5.56 loader wanting to invest in only one machine, the 550 or comparable press offers exactly the needed capability. The 550 would be my choice if I were limited to one progressive machine.

The Dillon 750

I’ve never owned a 750, having found the less expensive SDB and 550 to meet all my progressive needs. That said, the 750 or similar press with optional accessories takes reloading to an entirely new level. The 750 provides the same capabilities as the 550, but more efficiently and potentially with greater speed.

The five-station 750 ships with both small and large priming systems and returns to the automatic indexing of the SDB. The additional station over the SDB and 550 allows a powder check die or bullet feeder as options; the other four stations perform the same basic operations as in the SDB and 550. The 750 can also be used with automatic case and bullet feeders, eliminating the requirement to manually insert cases and bullets into the loading operation. The optional case and bullet feeders allow the 750 to reach its true potential and turn it into a fully progressive loader. Without them, the 750 is not appreciably faster than the 550.

The Strong Mount is available for the 750, along with other aftermarket mounting solutions. Extra primer pick-up tubes are a necessity to keep the 750 or similar press running at maximum efficiency, but the machine really shines with an automatic primer tube filler like the Dillon RF100. The RF100 can be configured to process small or large primers and will fill the appropriate primer tube in about two minutes. Primer tubes may still be loaded by hand, but the time required takes away from the loading process. At this capability and price level production speed eventually becomes a worthy goal, and the RF100 allows more time to load ammunition without interruption.

Like the 550, dies are not included with the 750. The increased capability over the 550 is reflected in the initial price of the machine and accessories. The five-station shell-plate makes caliber conversions kits more expensive, and there are fewer of them available on the used market. The new loader in our example would once again require a caliber conversion kit, but other optional accessories could be added over time as availability and budget allow. Our new loader would be very well served by a 750 or comparable press.

The Dillon Super 1050 and RL 1100

Remember the earlier comment about the SDB and 550 meeting all my progressive needs? That is still true, but I recently purchased a press to satisfy a thirty-year “want.” The 1050 and RL 1100 are the most advanced machines Dillon offers. These are commercial machines designed for extreme production by a small manufacturer or high-volume shooter and are overly capable for our new loader, but many people enjoy advanced machines for the sheer joy of using state-of-the-art equipment.

Dillon calls the RL 1100 an improved 1050 but continues to sell and support the 1050. The 1050 will load handgun and rifle cartridges up to .30-06 in size; the 1100 will load the same handgun calibers but stops with rifle cartridges of the 308 Winchester class. Their eight toolhead stations perform all the reloading steps of the smaller machines and include a swage die to remove the primer crimps found on military brass cases. Both ship with an included case feeder suitable for handgun and rifle ammunition, and reloading dies in the selected caliber are included with either machine. Both presses include only the priming system required for the selected caliber.

A very worthwhile addition to either the 1050 or 1100 is the electric bullet feeder available directly from Dillon. With this addition, the press produces a completed round of ammunition with every pull of the handle and requires no other inputs from the operator. The Strong Mount is not available for the 1050 or 1100, but Dillon offers other mounting solutions. The RF100 primer tube filler is a requirement for the utmost in production rates. There are also aftermarket upgrades that automate either press. So equipped, the operator’s sole function is to keep the machine fed with components.

There are very few whose ammunition needs require the 1050/1100. The main disadvantages at this level are the initial cost of the machines and conversion units required for different calibers. As with the other presses, Dillon offers both caliber conversion kits and Quick Changes. The caliber conversion process is more complicated than with smaller Dillon presses, which is to be expected in what amounts to a small ammunition factory. Although possessing far more capability than required by the new loader in our example, the 1050/1100 or a comparable press represent the ultimate in currently available reloading machines.

Conclusion

Some may question the recommendation to begin reloading now given the current lack of equipment and component availability. There have been shortages in the past, most recently during the Clinton years, wars in the Middle East, and the panic buying of the Obama presidency. Shortages have always ended; these should resolve over time as well. Equipment and components may never be as inexpensive as in the past but even at current prices the ability to control ammunition supplies remains preferable to dependence on factory-produced ammunition. Buy what you can when you can. Quality equipment does not deteriorate with normal use and components store easily. In this case, patience is not a virtue but a requirement.

This concludes my argument for progressive machines even at the beginner level. Start now; choose the capability required at the desired price point and don’t be afraid to use the progressive as a single-stage while learning. Ignore advertised loading rates to concentrate on quality and safety. Multiple manufacturers offer the basic capabilities described here across their equipment lines and a little research will identify the best machine for the needs of the new loader.

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