Gear Review: Reloading on a budget with the Lee Loader (VIDEO)

Reloading your own ammunition can seem very intimidating. Indeed, no matter your experience level, there is always a level of challenge to it. But the biggest hurdle to taking up reloading is getting into it in the first place. With hundreds — if not thousands — of equipment options on the market today, from cleaning equipment to presses to manuals, reloading seems like an art that will take a lot of time, money, and space (note, that is not even including bullet choices, powder choices, and even casting equipment).

There is a lot to sift through to determine what is best for you and I certainly felt the same way when I started in reloading. I didn’t have a lot of money or space and I wanted something uncomplicated. It was then that I decided to buy my first Lee Loader. It costs me all of $26. You could call it a reloader’s “gateway drug.”

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Basic Lee Loader kit. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

A sum of its parts

The Lee Loader Kit from Lee Precision has been around for about 60 years now and it represents an uncomplicated way to reload those empty cases you bring back from the range or the field. In the past, the Lee Loader was offered in shotgun chamberings like 12 gauge and 410 bore as well as a great number of rifle and pistol cartridges like 8x57mm Mauser and 32 ACP. Today, the selection available has been compressed to mostly popular calibers.

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The Lee Rifle Loader (left) adjusts via a collar on the die whereas the bullet seating depth is adjusted on the bullet seater on the pistol loader (right). (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Rifle loaders come in 223 Remington, 243 Winchester, 270 Winchester, 30-30 Winchester, 303 British, 30-06, 308 Winchester, and 45-70 Gov’t. Pistol loaders are available in 9mm Luger, 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 44 Magnum, 45 ACP, and 45 Colt.

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A reasonable investment is a good digital scale for dialing in loads of preference. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Each loader comes in a hard, plastic case with an instruction manual and a card with some basic load data along with a meaty carbide steel die that serves as the heart of the set which encompasses not only resizes the brass cases, but also serves to seat bullets and crimp them in place. Also in the case are a bullet seater/primer seater, a long rod, a decapping rod, a decapping chamber, and a yellow powder scoop. Pistol loader sets will have a flaring tool to open the mouth of the cases to take a bullet more easily.

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The flaring tool is as simple as it gets. Give it a tap to get the desired effect. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Setting up

You don’t need a great deal of space to use a Lee Loader. All of what I use to load with can be condensed into a .50 caliber ammunition can. These items include the plastic/rubber hammer which you will need to use the Lee Loader. I also throw in a small digital scale, a small open container, and a plastic funnel to go in nicely with primers and selected bullets.

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Finding a work space for reloading with the Lee Loader is surprising easy. Any sturdy surface will do. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

As for a work space, that too, takes up little room. I use any available table, covering my work service with a piece of rug to protect it. In the past, I have used the loader off a piece of 2×4 over my legs. That is not as bad of a set up as it sounds.

The Lee Loader set as it comes is nearly ready to go immediately. However, once you start you will have to adjust bullet seating depth.

 

On the rifle die, a lock nut is loosened and the die, which is two threaded pieces, are screwed apart or tighter together and then locked with the lock nut at the desirable depth. Pistol loaders adjust by manipulating the lock nut that is attached to the bullet seater itself. I start by loading a dummy cartridge with the rifle die screwed loose and locked in place. The pistol loader’s locknut will start in its furthest position down the bullet seating shaft. The die or bullet seater’s depth is played with until you reach the optimal seating depth.

A note about the powder dipper

In the kit, there is a little plastic scoop. This “dipper” is used to measure the amount of powder needed by volume. An even scoop corresponds with the load data on the provided card. If your powder or bullet choice isn’t there, consult a reloading manual and either go with a bigger dipper or measure the difference out on a small electronic scale. My Hornady scale is a worthwhile $30 investment. It allows me to use different powders and tweak the charges between light and stout.

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The volumetric scoop is as basic a measuring device as it gets, but for base loads it works very well. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

There is a set of dippers available from Lee that come in different volume increments for an array of powders and loads. While I own this little set, I find the scale to be more straightforward, though I still use the dipper to add and remove powder.

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Driving out the old primer is straightforward with a firm tap on the decapping rod. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Loading fresh ammunition

With everything set out, I take my brass cases straight out of the range bag and stack them on the table. The first order of business is taking the dead primer out of the case. Put your decapping chamber on your work space, insert case, then shove the decapping rod into the case. Give the rod a good tap with your plastic hammer to drive the old primer out.

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Drive the case out of the die with the long rod. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

With that done, it is time to resize the case which is accomplished by pounding the case into the die until the case head is flush. This requires some force with pistol loaders as the die fully resizes the entire case, while the rifle loaders will only resize the neck of the case. Rifle loaders require little more than a firm hit or two to accomplish the goal. I find that four good whacks will take care of a pistol case. Now you must get the case out of the die.

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The case is now ready for priming and sizing. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Put the die over the decapping chamber and use your long rod to force the case out. At this point, if you are using a pistol loader, take the flaring tool and insert it into the mouth of the case. From there, give it a tap with the hammer to allow for a bullet to enter the case more easily.

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Insert a primer on the spring-loaded seater. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Now it is time to prime the case, which can be nerve-wracking for some. Place a primer in the primer/bullet seater and lay the case on top of it. With a few gentle taps of the long rod inside the case, the case is forced on the spring-loaded primer catch which pushes the primer into the case. Very hard impacts can cause the primer to pop in the case, so gentle tapping it is. I like to put my fingers on the long rod so I can feel the progress of the case. You will feel a sudden stop. Look at the case and when the primer is flush with the case head, you got the job done.  Some users of the Lee prefer to drive the sized case out of the die and onto the primed seating tool, but I prefer for the case to be out of the die for priming.

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Powder is poured through the die, like on a conventional press. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

With that done, put the case back into the decapping chamber and put the die over it. It is time to make a live round.

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Drop a bullet into the die. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Take an even scoop of powder or your pre-measured equivalent then pour it down the funnel shaped part of the die. Select a bullet and drop it down into the die. Take your bullet seater and insert it behind the bullet. Tap the seater with your hammer sharply until the seater stops. Remove the round.

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A few authoritative hits on the bullet starter and the projectile is seated to the depth you set. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Crimping?

At this point you have a loaded round of ammunition, but for one reason or another you may want to crimp the case around the bullet. This certainly helps with feeding and promotes good accuracy too.

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The faint ridge within the funnel end of the die serves to put a mild crimp on the case. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

For crimping set your die, funnel up, on your work surface. You will see a ridge just inside the hole where you previously put the powder and bullet. This can be used for crimping. Insert your completed round and put your decapping chamber over it. Give it a smart hit with your hammer and remove the cartridge.

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The finished round inserted for crimping. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

These Lee Loaders are not recommended for use with rounds used in tubular magazine guns like lever action rifles, in which the rounds will be stacked under pressure one behind another. However, in my own use, I never had a bullet push into the case.

Pros and cons

The Lee Loader has a few quirks that are worth covering including the inflexibility of the charging system.  A dipper set or scale is a great minimal investment that will give you more options for fine tuning, but the dipper provided will work for just about any powder recommended for your caliber. I would like to see more popular powder options on the provided load data per bullet used. This isn’t a big deal with great manuals and online resources available.

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It is important to note that the Lee Loader is best used with cases new from the factory or fired in your gun, especially when using rifle loaders. Range found pistol brass can be reloaded and used as it fully resizes pistol brass. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Another quirk of the Lee Loader is that the rifle loader only neck-sizes the case. This is a benefit for military rifles that have large chambers and the fact that the brass will last longer if you don’t have to fully resize it. This is a problem if you want to run your reloads through multiple rifles. My own 30-30 loads won’t fully chamber in a friend’s rifle. Use your own new cases or cases fired from your rifle. Pistol caliber loaders don’t have this problem as it fully resizes the case to factory specs.

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The flaring tool in pistol kits give a light, but distinctive flare to the case on the right for easier acceptance of a bullet. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

The last quirk that in my opinion is also not a deal breaker is priming. Impacting the primer by using the push rod while pushing the case down to seat the primer could set the primer off. However scary that might sound, the spring tension of the primer seater does well to prevent this and you will get the feel of the primer seating. Out of thousands of rounds I’ve loaded with this system, only two primers popped while I tried to seat them. Scary, but harmless.

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The most nerve wracking part of using a Lee Loader pounding the cases onto a live primer. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

There are some unavoidable facets of the Lee Loader that will leave you feeling frustrated. The Lee Loader is slower than just about any other reloading method. I have refined my technique to where I deprime, resize, and prime my brass all at the same time rather than going piece by piece — but even so, one round per minute is about right. This is great if you shoot a box or two a week. If you are a meat hunter wanting to reload your cases for an extended stay in the bush, this is the kit for you. But if you are letting loose hundreds of rounds in competition, the Loader isn’t the perfect answer.

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Groups taken at seven yards. Test weapon is my S&W Model 64 with all shots fired double action. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

With that said, the Lee Loader is still a viable choice. It provides accuracy and power tailored to your needs at lower material costs than any factory ammunition — which is the point of reloading in the first place. At about $30, it is less expensive than a set of dies for a press, yet is complete and ready to go on its own. No press and no shell holders required. Though the Loader is slower, this decreased pace makes you pay more attention so mistakes are minimal — like not putting powder in a case.  Whether you are an average Joe getting ready for a day at the range or a meat hunter wanting to reload your cases without a trip back to civilization, the Lee Loader is a must.