Xtreme Bullets: low-cost alternative or bad idea?


During the severe ammo and reloading component shortage during 2013 and 2014, many folks have been forced to find alternatives to their normal suppliers. As a high-volume reloader this shortage hit me particularly hard. At first I was feeling pretty good because I had several thousand rounds “in the bank” and knew I could shoot the entire 2013 summer with the ammo I had on-hand. Little did I know that this would drag on for over a year. My beloved Montana Gold Bullets became almost impossible to find in stock and I was forced to consider other alternatives. Continue reading “Xtreme Bullets: low-cost alternative or bad idea?”

CED M2: Chronograph that does it all

CED M2 Chronograph Main Unit

For those of us that reload for competitive shooting, knowing a round’s velocity is critical. In USPSA the all-important Power Factor is determined by multiplying velocity and bullet weight then dividing by 1000. Example: 124gr bullets traveling at 1050 fps yield a PF of 130.2 (124 x 1050 = 130,200 / 1000 = 130.2). With USPSA Production having a minimum Minor PF of 125, the above results would comfortably make the necessary minimum PF. In order to determine whether our rounds make the grade we must reliably measure velocity. We do that with a chronograph. While there are many fine units on the market, one company’s offering stands out: the CED M2. Continue reading “CED M2: Chronograph that does it all”

USPSA: 9mm bullets for Production – what weight?

A friend recently mentioned that he had tried out some “sub-sonic 9mm ammo” that was supposed to be good for use in USPSA Production class shooting. He asked me what I thought, which resulted in the following response.

Before I comment on subsonic ammo, a few words are in order:

As a competitive shooter, one of the key reasons for reloading is to work up a tuned round specifically to work with one’s tuned pistol to produce shots with little felt recoil that still achieve minimum power factor for the division one is shooting. In our case (Production division) everyone is scored Minor Power Factor (MinorPF), so there’s no advantage to loading higher than that. Minimum MinorPF is 125. This is Mass (bullet weight in grains) times velocity divided by 1000. So, if you are shooting 115gr bullets at 1100 feet-per-second that equals a PF of 126.5, or just over the minimum for Minor. Most factory ammo is hotter than this, which results in a higher PF but also much greater felt recoil. Shooters desiring less recoil and more control can achieve this by trading velocity for bullet weight. Continue reading “USPSA: 9mm bullets for Production – what weight?”

Mr. Bullet Feeder: Next Step in Press Evolution

Redding Big Boss II single stage press

I have mentioned the Mr. Bullet Feeder (MBF) in my post about the Dillon XL650 progressive reloading press but I feel that the device deserves its own post. It is a product that while obviously working as a part of something larger is in and of itself a remarkable achievement.

For those who started on single-stage reloading presses, the move to a turret press (where multiple dies can be rotated for use above a single case) is a big improvement. It allows the reloader to perform all the reloading steps within a relatively short period of time.

Lee Turret Press

A true progressive press is similar to the turret press. It too has multiple dies in a tool head. The big difference is that the progressive press keeps the dies in place and has the cases move under them sequentially on a rotating shell plate, thus allowing multiple actions with each pull of the handle. Consequently the rate of round production goes up by a factor of X, where X is the number of stations (case/die positions) on the shell plate. With simpler progressives, the reloader still has to perform all the same actions as with the turret press, unless the press is designed to automate additional functions.

Dillon 550B Progressive Press

As press design improved and reloaders wanted more and more automation we got things like the automatic primer and automatic powder feeders, the latter being a huge time saver. Measuring out precise powder loads is of course essential for reloading and once that became automated it really sped up the process. The Dillon 550 press is a great example of a 4-station press that had all these features but it still required manually placing a case in the first station of the shell plate, manually indexing the plate to the next position after each stroke and manually placing the bullet on the case prior to seating and crimping. In the last year or so Dillon has in fact began producing an automatic case feeder for this press so it can be said that the operation can be done without taking one’s right hand off the handle, but the left hand would still have to index the plate and place the bullet.

I’ve already discussed the Dillon XL650 so rather than belabor the point I will simply say that it adds a fifth station and automatic indexing to the already-impressive functions of the 550B. With the 650’s optional case feeder installed this leaves only one task for the left hand: placing the bullet.

As you can see in the picture of the 550B, there is a tray on the left side of the press for placing bullets. This allows quick retrieval and placement of the bullet after each stroke. Many people find this to be a great way to reload. Rounds can in fact be produced very quickly using this setup. Nevertheless, many of us opt for the next evolutionary step in automation by installing an automatic bullet feed system. Once you’ve tried it the system is irresistible .

Mr. Bullet Feeder installed on a Dillon XL650

There are several manufacturers of bullet feeders but the one that has arguably the best reputation is the Mr. Bullet Feeder. I had used the one Glyn has on his Dillon Super 1050 so I knew how much it increased reloading efficiency. When I started using my XL650 without it I realized immediately that my setup wasn’t nearly as quick and efficient. It wasn’t long before I bought one for myself.

The kit for the XL650 comes with a PVC base that holds the main portion of the device (bullet hopper w/ collator plate, motor, guide plates and bullet tube) and this is attached to a simple but very effective bracket that attaches directly to the case feeder support tube. Included in the kit are replacement bolts to accommodate the additional thickness from the added bracket.

The other component of the system is the bullet dropper assembly, which is mounted as a die in the tool head. This device holds a stack of bullets sufficient to produce the downward force necessary to place a single bullet firmly on each case as the case is raised up into the bottom of the dropper. The dropper also houses a sensor switch that tells the collator motor to run when the stack is short. I in fact had a failure of this switch but one quick email later and Rick had the replacement on its way. Gotta love that kind of customer service!

This system takes up no additional space on the reloading bench, is not in the way on the press and perfectly places a bullet on every case that comes by. I purchased kits for 9mm, .45acp and .223. The bullet droppers stay mounted in their respective tool heads so switching calibers takes about 2 minutes longer than before the MBF. You do have to 1) change the collator plate (just like the case feeder), 2) change a small guide plate next to the exit tube on the collator and 3) depending on the caliber, you might need to swap out the tube that connects to the bullet dropper. Very simple.

A reasonable question at this point is “why not put a motor on this thing and reload while you take a nap?” The reloading process as we private reloaders practice it is one of subtleties. The act of pulling the handle not only produces the force that does the reloading but it also provides us sensory feedback as to what is happening within the press. As I pull the handle I know at each point in the stroke what I should feel during a normal pass. If something feels wrong, it probably is. The most common problem is with primer feeding. I know immediately if the primer didn’t seat correctly so I pull that case out of the press and discard it. This would not be possible with a motorized press.

As for the Mr. Bullet Feeder, I couldn’t be happier. The instructions are good, the installation easy and the performance outstanding.


NOTE: In my original post on the Dillon XL650, I mentioned the following regarding where to mount the MRBF:

“Given that the bullet feeder requires a station and the fact that I wanted to use the powder check die (seeing a pistol go kaboom is an eye-opening experience) I got hold of an RCBS seat/crimp die for station five. I have found this to be an ideal setup for 9mm.”

Montana Gold Bullet, Inc.: Gold Indeed

There’s no question that Speer, Hornady, Sierra, Barnes and so on make really great projectiles for the hand-loading community. In fact, some of the current bullet designs are simply brilliant. My hat is off to them all for all the improvements in projectile performance that have come in my lifetime. There are bullets that have precisely the right performance for a multitude of hunting and shooting disciplines. Bravo. However, for those of us with an interest in practical shooting sports (USPSA/IDPA/Cowboy Action) there’s a need for a different kind of performance, namely price/performance.

MG 124gr Jacketed Hollow Point

Handgun shooting, especially on the move, with moving targets and occurring at very high speed, is an extremely challenging sport. Shooting accurately is very difficult and differences in ammunition may play a relatively small part in the overall accuracy achieved. Even so, nobody wants to give away any advantage. The rounds have to fire reliably, fly straight and meet the minimum velocity for the given power factor. In terms of the bullets themselves, they don’t have to be very complicated for our sport. Cardboard and steel don’t really require reliable expansion or any other fancy terminal ballistics. They do need to be well-made and utterly consistent.

MG 115gr Complete Metal Jacket

Enter Montana Gold Bullet, Inc. This small bullet manufacturer in Kalispell, Montana has been one of the favorites among practical shooters for quite some time. They manufacture outstanding bullets with their iconic gold-colored jackets that look remarkably similar to highly-polished brass. In fact, when I tumble my completed reloads (Yes, more OCD, I know this) the bullet and case are the same color. The rounds have a very distinctive appearance.

So, why are these folks so popular? Zero Bullets and Black Bullet International are also popular for bulk bullets but Montana Gold has developed into a small company that does

MG 147gr CMJ

one thing supremely well: manufacture, sell and deliver high-quality, metal-jacketed bullets. They don’t sell anything else. They are incredibly easy to deal with and because they ship based on USPS Priority Mail flat-rate service, they can include the shipping in their per-case pricing and the resulting value is amazing. I just received a case (3750) of 9mm, 124 grain, jacketed hollow-point bullets for $305, shipped to my home. That’s just over eight cents a bullet! This year  I’ve loaded around about 13k of these fine bullets. I’ve also bought and loaded 2,000 .45acp FMJ bullets from MG and loved those too.

MG 55gr FMJ with Cannelure

MG ships on Tuesday so make sure you order by Monday morning so that your bullets will arrive on Thursday (at least here in New Hampshire it only takes two days). Given the high round counts most of us require, MG makes it easy and affordable to get all the trigger time we need.

I love ’em!

Reloading 101: brass preparation

The first step in reloading for most folks is to get a supply of brass ready. If you have any desire to reload, start saving your brass immediately. I could kick myself for all the brass I’ve thrown away but such is life.

Unless you are buying new brass, you are probably saving your own or picking up “free range” brass at your gun range. The first step is to sort the brass. I like using an old lunch tray. I typically use large plastic coffee cans into which I sort the various cases. Kevin reloads .40S&W, Glyn reloads his beloved .38 Super and I reload 9mm, .45acp and .223 Remington. The rest goes in the trash. There are usually some aluminum and steel cases in there also and those are discarded as well. I try and knock the dirt and sand out as I sort them. If a case is really gunked up or damaged I will discard it. Resizing dies can work miracles on a misshapen case but I would rather toss them than deal with the possible problems and wear on the die.

When I have a fair amount of one type of brass, or I simply need more for reloading, I move to the cleaning phase. I like to use those nylon lingerie laundry bags for this step. They can be found at any dollar store for a couple of bucks. I dump about 500 rounds of 9mm (about 300 .45) into the bag while holding it over a trash can. I then proceed to hold the bag by either end and then lift each end alternately, kind of like you do with a slinky. This causes the cases to tumble back and forth which dislodges most of the remaining dirt and debris. Once I see little or no more stuff falling out the bottom, I dip the bag into a bucket with cleaning solution in it. I really like the Birchwood Casey Brass Cleaner solution. You mix 1/2 bottle with 1 gallon of hot water and it’s ready. I do the slinky routine with the bag while it is in the cleaning solution and let it sit for 3 minutes. I normally slinky them a couple of times during that 3 minutes then I lift the bag out of the solution and slinky it several more times to get the solution out of the cases.

After the cleaning solution I normally dip the bag into a sink full of clean hot water. I then slinky the bag a bunch of times but this time I am lifting the bag out of the water each time, then once the cases have tumbled to one end I dunk them again. Then I drain the water out of the sink and empty the bag into a colander. I use a plastic one because it makes less noise. A word of caution: the cleaning solution is non-toxic but it does etch metal so don’t put it in a metal container and do NOT leave the cases in there longer than three minutes. If you do it really weakens the brass. You can tell because it looks really dull.

With the cases in the colander, I rinse the brass with a sprayer while mixing them around with my free hand. Yes, that’s a lot of rinsing but it gets all the cleaning solution out of the cases and that’s the goal. I then turn off the water and continue mixing the cases, then I begin drying them with a hair dryer. I don’t try to get them completely dry, only mostly dry and the cases hot. This makes them dry out on their own pretty quickly.

I then remove the cases from the colander and stand them on the kitchen counter so they can finish drying out. If you shake the colander, the cases will tend to orient themselves case mouth-up. This makes it easy to grab them 5-10 at a time and set them down in the right orientation. I then usually repeat this process with another bag of brass so that I have about 1k cases on the counter.

cases_on_counterAs you have no doubt deduced by now, I am not married 😉

This process takes about 20 minutes total. I then leave the cases for about an hour to dry out thoroughly. If there’s a lot of moisture on the counter I will use the hair-dryer to blow down on the cases while slightly moving them around with my free hand.

Once the cases are dry, they could be reloaded at that point but I like my brass to be really clean and really shiny so I then put them in a vibratory cleaner for a couple of hours. My RCBS cleaner holds about 500 9mm cases. I use the Lyman’s Green treated corncob media. It works great and there is no dust like with the walnut stuff.

When the cleaner’s timer goes off I dump the contents into a neat little device from Frankford Arsenal called a Standard Media Separator. It sits down inside a five gallon bucket. It has holes to allow the cleaning media to fall through but not the brass. (NOTE: the item in question is the one on the right on the linked page). I then dump the remaining brass into an RCBS media separator that tumbles off the remaining bits of cleaning media. You really do want all of that stuff gone because if there’s any left, it will clog the case feeder on your press. Trust me on this one.

I then place the finished brass into a suitable storage device until it is needed. I like to use clear plastic storage boxes, about shoebox size. This allows me to see the brass so I can tell what type it is and also how much is left.

This might sound like a lot of work but really it isn’t. Once you get the process grooved, it takes little time or effort. Mostly it’s a matter of managing She Who Must Be Obeyed while you invade the kitchen, but I can’t help you guys on that one.

Dillon Super Swage 600: cure for mil-crimp brass

Dillon Precision Super Swage 600

When I started reloading I had three calibers in mind: 9mm, .45acp and .223 Remington. These are the calibers I shoot the most and I had a lot of brass saved up in anticipation of reloading. Many manufacturers of ammunition use a military crimp, or mil-crimp, around the primer pocket. This is a circular stamp that creates a crimped connection between the primer and the bottom of the shell casing. This keeps the primer from easing out of the pocket. This is commonly found on rounds with some sort of waterproofing sealant around the primer pocket, usually military surplus ammo. One common commercial manufacturer that also uses mil-crimps on their brass is Federal .223 in the 100-round bulk packs.

Having a mil-crimp on a pistol round is usually not a problem as the primer seating die will normally just shove the primer right in past the crimp without issue. I would guess that around 1 round in 100 doesn’t seat properly and that is almost always a result of a mil-crimp piece of brass. One notable exception I’ve seen is with Speer brass. I can feel immediately when the primer die tries to set into a Speer case and I stop, back out slightly and remove the case from the priming die and sure enough, it will always say “Speer” on the headstamp.

Unlike pistol rounds, the mil-crimp on rifle brass is a much tougher problem. I’ve certainly loaded a bunch of mil-crimp brass and it can work but the failure rate is much, much higher (I would bet around 25-45% are unusable) and the force required to seat the primers is enormous. This doesn’t do the press any good either.

RCBS Tim-Mate Case Prep Center

So, what’s the solution? For many reloaders the simple answer is to cut away the crimp using a reaming tool either manually or by using a brass prep machine like the RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep Center. This does work but the problem is that it involves removing material from the case. The evidence lies in the accumulated brass shavings around the tool. Any time material is removed, the case is less than when the process began. With the high pressures in rifle rounds this is really not a good thing, especially as the brass ages and is reloaded several times.

Another solution that many reloaders prefer is to swage the crimp back from the primer pocket, pressing the brass back into its original form. Dillon Precision has (of course) an ideal tool to accomplish this: the Dillon Super Swage 600. This small, simple device is basically two pivot hinges on a metal base, one housing the brass holder and the other holding the swaging rod. The rod rolls the primer pocket back such that it ends up with a perfectly radiused edge, transitioning from primer pocket to case head smoothly. No material is lost and the pocket accepts primers perfectly.

I bolted mine to the reloading bench on an angle so that the handle comes out and over the edge. This has proven to be a great way to use the device because it is still sideways enough to allow one hand to position the brass and the other to operate the handle while still standing essentially facing the bench. Even though the process is one-at-a-time, the design with its thumb flip case holder and bullet-proof construction is very quick at processing a large amount of brass.

I consider the SS600 an essential part of my reloading system and recommend it to anyone who reloads mil-crimp brass.

Reloading: how I found my way to the Dillon XL650

Once I got the USPSA bug my round count per month went up dramatically so it was inevitable that I would start reloading. The question then was: where to start? Conventional wisdom says to start off with a single-stage press and learn the subtleties of reloading before moving into a progressive press. This is certainly not a bad idea but life is short and I was lucky enough to get right into the big leagues.

After months of ammo shortages our local sensei offered to let several of us use his Dillon Super 1050 to load a bunch of 9mm one weekend if we would get our own 1) bullets, 2) powder, 3) primers and 4) prepped cases. I said, “sure” and started collecting money and placing orders. CZ Custom was our bullet source for 115gr FMJ bullets, Powder Valley sold us the TiteGroup powder and I bought a bunch of Wolf primers on eBay. This was fall of 2009 and reloading components were still tough to come by but we eventually got everything and scheduled a weekend for the reloading party. I spent many hours washing, drying and cleaning brass so that we were ready for our scheduled 6k rounds (2k each for three guys). We headed to Glyn’s house and that’s when the fun began. Over the course of that weekend I learned an enormous amount about reloading in general and the characteristics of the 1050 in particular. I was hooked.

After burning through those 2k rounds in short order I realized I needed to come up with my own solution. Glyn’s generosity was admirable but if I wanted to tune my own 9mm load I really needed my own setup. I began the process that so many of us follow: search the Internet and drink from the fire hose. In hindsight I should have stuck to Brian Enos’ forums since not only is that the best source of information on USPSA shooting in general but the reloading forums there are superb. I owe a lot to the excellent information shared there.

I toyed with the idea of a Lee Loadmaster since it is a progressive, auto-indexing press that would allow me to really crank out the rounds and it was very cheap. I think the press with set up for one caliber (dies included) was around $250. I think there were other items needed like a powder measure perhaps but I don’t remember with certainty.

At this point my friend Bruce, who has been reloading for decades, shook his head and said that if I bought a Dillon press I would never regret it. Remarkably I listened to his advice and began bracing myself for the wallet-draining that was to come.

Dillon Precision has been the leader in progressive presses for a long time and there are many reasons why. The foremost is that they are utterly dedicated to their customers. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best engineered presses on the market either. Their Square Deal presses are a low-cost solution that allow entry into progressive reloading with minimal cost. The downside there is that they use non-standard dies and they are limited to pistol cartridges only. I wanted to reload not only 9mm but also .45acp and .233, so that was not an option.

Dillon’s three main offerings are the 550, XL650 and the Super 1050. The 550 is a 4-stage press with manual indexing. My sense is that this press was designed for the medium-volume reloader whose interest was primarily in a very precisely loaded round. It is an excellent press but would not suit my needs since I was interested in high-volume. The Super 1050 is the top-of-the-line, 8-stage, auto-indexing press already mentioned. It is Dillon’s most sophisticated offering. It is also very expensive. A single caliber setup can cost $2k, depending on options. One drawback to the 1050 is that it is considered a commercial press which means that Dillon doesn’t give it their “no B.S. warranty”. In other words, as things break on the press Dillon expects the customer to pay for parts and/or repair. For a true commercial reloader this is reasonable but for my purposes I wanted the comfort of knowing that whatever goes wrong they will cover. This left me with the XL650 as the obvious choice.

The Dillon XL650 is a 5-stage, fully progressive press with a removable toolhead and optional case feeding system. The basic press is around $540 with the case feeder adding another $250. The press comes with one caliber kit, matching primer feed system and dies. This means that for around $1k you can start reloading your cartridge of choice. If you want to quickly switch calibers then you will want to purchase not only the necessary caliber kits and dies but also additional toolheads. This allows for the permanent mounting of the dies, powder feed, etc. right in the respective toolheads for each caliber.

I decided to get setups for 9mm, .45 and .233. In addition to the toolhead items, the case feeder requires a different collator plate for each caliber. Once all three calibers have been set up I can now switch from one to the other in about 20 minutes. All dies and adjustments remain untouched. This is a huge time saver considering how long it would take to remove, install and adjust dies in a single tool head.

Having used Glyn’s 1050 with a Mr. Bullet Feeder it wasn’t long before I yearned for the same setup. I eventually added a Mr. Bullet Feeder to my system, allowing for one-handed operation. Given that the bullet feeder requires a station and the fact that I wanted to use the powder check die (seeing a pistol go kaboom is an eye-opening experience) I got hold of an RCBS seat/crimp die for station five. I have found this to be an ideal setup for 9mm. I can produce 250 rounds (one full bin) in about 10-12 minutes without breaking a sweat.

There is an awful lot to reloading and safety cannot be shortchanged. Never reload without eye protection and never, EVER have more than one powder type in your reloading area. I’m not kidding.

This post is meant to give the reader an overview of my reloading experience and to hopefully share a bit of what I have learned. If you are considering reloading get hold of a reloading manual and read the whole thing. If you can, get yourself a mentor or three. Kevin, Bruce and Glyn have helped me tremendously.

If you are considering a Dillon press, do yourself a favor and talk to Brian Enos. I bought mine through him and he was a wealth of knowledge and helped me get precisely the setup I needed and wanted. You won’t be sorry.