Range Brass to Finished Cartridge, Tips For The Ubiquitous .223 Cartridge, by R.W. – Part 3

On full charge cartridges, you need to watch for defects, so:

  • Look for any swelling, cracks, splits, or thinning of the brass.
  • Check for fouling, debris, or dirt jammed into the cavity of the shell case. It may be generally noted that discoloring around the top of the case at the neck radius is common with most military surplus brass and will often be polished off in the cleaning of the shell cases.
  • Watch for any heavy corrosion or pitting, as this should be a warning that the bullet has lost some ductility and integrity due to the oxidization process, and it should not be reloaded for fear of failure during the detonation of the round.
  • Always inspect every used shell case for damage or non-conformity, prior to reloading or use.

Primer pockets should also be checked for obstructions in the pinhole leading into the body of cavity, and some like to scrape out the primer residue between reloadings. Again this article is for entertainment purposes and is not a comprehensive text.

If you are not aware, there are two major sources of reloadable military caliber, or “so called” NATO ammo (.556 x 45, .762 x 51, and so forth). The two sources of such brass are the spent cartridges from civilian ammo manufacturers and the surplus military cartridge market. The surplus military cartridges have several avenues of reaching the reloaders’ hands, but for anyone who is picking up range brass or purchasing non-refurbished, used range brass, repurposing either of these two sources of reloadable brass have their pros and cons when it comes to their use in building a new round from components purchased for reloading. The military stuff is going to take some modifications and trickery to make function at the amateur level of reloading that we are dealing with in this article. The two biggest advantages of the military surplus brass are cost and availability. The two biggest drawbacks to the surplus brass shell cases are often an elongated, case neck, length and the military specified, primer pocket crimp. The majority of the cases I seem to acquire from the range or used market, fall into the military, surplus, brass category. Military surplus ammo is usually cheaper or easier to come by, but it requires additional processing for use in reloading. There are a few manufacturers out there who are commercially reprocessing and selling used, surplus brass, but the cost starts to approach that of new brass, and often these cases are not available for purchase.

Your most logical next question might be: how do I reprocess my own range finds that are military surplus so that I am able to use them to load my own rounds? Before I answer this question, allow me to caution anyone who wants to pursue this endeavor. Always follow safe limits set by the powder manufacturer and specifications published in the manufacturer’s reloading publications for the caliber of bullet you are thinking about reloading. Using safe practices and known standards are safest ways to repurpose surplus military brass as well as their civilian cousins. A person can spend a lot of time and effort in producing ammo at home, but I will try and let you know a few ways to safely go about gaining similar, safe results. Remember at the beginning of the article I told you some might call me down right cheap, but I still follow the safest standards available, and I recommend this to anyone considering reloading their own ammo, after all we all want to remain safe and enjoy this hobby for as long as we can. Additionally, we hope we will be able to pass the skills and knowledge on to others.

I will now share some of the low cost, low tech ways that have proven safe for me during the reconditioning of spent brass so that you can have your budget left more intact to buy the components rather than the high tech tools available to rework military, surplus brass. Again, always, this information is used for entertainment purposes and should not be taken as gospel. Consult your loading manuals, copyrighted materials, and publications for data pertaining to making your own ammo.

The main tools I find necessary for the compliance to standards or re-sizing of the overall length on any used brass, whether military surplus or from a civilian cartridge used for reloading purposes, are: a case length gauge (Wilson tools) or caliper (Franklin Arsenal) for measuring the case length of the shell case. These overall case length specs are generally found in the manuals printed by the companies selling reloading presses and dies (see list above).

The second tool I find necessary for the process of re-sizing the neck length (actually the overall case length is measured, but the neck length is the part of the case shortened for reloading) is the case neck cutting tool or chuck. This cutting tool, when combined with the appropriate caliber, length gauge will allow for the safe removal of materials from the overall shell case length. Once you have chosen a method to measure case length, you then need to decide if you want to purchase a motor-driven turning tool or hand powered lathe-type cutting tool or just use a file to correct the case length. I decided to go the inexpensive (cost effective) route, and I purchased a hand drill-mounted, cutting tool to take down the neck length using a pin-mounted depth gauge (Lee or Hornady). These can be had for less than $25 for each caliber (for the chuck/cutter head, depth gauge pin, and hand adapter). I recommend asking a person you know who reloads rifle ammo, or go search on YouTube to learn more about this technique, as it is not talked about much in reloading circles. This manual method is very low tech, and it is almost as easy as filing the case neck down, but it’s a lot less time consuming and less messy.

In order to attain the proper amount of brass to be removed from the case, begin the trimming process as outlined by the tool manufacturer. (It is the law, you know, to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter.) The case should then be trimmed on the outer rim and inner rim, prior to reloading, using a small trimming tool designed for this purpose (Lee, RCBS). I really like the tool made by Lee that is intended for this purpose, but anyone making a case trimmer will have their own version of the same.

The second process in repurposing the surplus brass case is to reshape the primer pocket, in order to remove the roll crimp and bevel the outer lip of the primer pocket of the shell case. There are a couple of different ways to do this. The primary method available is to use a primer pocket reamer de-burring tool (Lyman) made by several of the bullet manufacturers. These tools come in two basic sizes– one for large primer pockets and one for small primer pockets. The .223 case calls for a small rifle primer, so that is the one we need. These should be available at most shops that sell reloading supplies. This tool can be used manually or can be removed from the handle and placed in a cordless drill and used at a bit higher output. These tools should cost around $10.00 for a single primer size or purchased in kits with other bits used in the reloading process.

There are other options for re-sizing the primer pocket, but these will cost between $70 to $100 or more to purchase. I am sure there is a “break-even point”; the more ammo you shoot and reload, the easier it will be to decide the cost effectiveness of the added expense of buying this tool. One manufacturer calls this a primer swaging tool (RCBS) while others may have another name, but basically they have a die that is pressed into the primer pocket at the bottom of the case that presses the existing hole to the proper shape without the necessity of reaming or boring out the old pocket to make room for the primer by removing the roll crimp in this area.

The only other step I perform prior to starting the process of turning salvaged brass into a live round of ammo is that I use a (Lee) case lube, which often comes as a paste in a tube that looks a lot like hand cream, to lubricate the case before starting the bullet building process. I put a tiny dab of the lube on the case and work it on by hand as I place the brass in the first (de-priming /sizing) die. I do recommend that once the bullet is ready to take to the range, load in a magazine, or store in a box for later use, you wipe any residue from the bullet lube off of the shell case since it is mildly corrosive. I will often case tumble my used cases in a vibrating tumbler (Frankford Arsenal) using the corn cob media and a polishing compound, prior to starting the reconditioning of the used case. While this step is not necessary, it does give the bullet a lot more finished look and if left in the vibrator for two hours or more will remove carbon/powder residue from inside the case, making for a better purchase between slug and case neck as well as a truer case neck diameter. I leave the spent primer in the case while tumbling to keep the primer pocket from filling with debris.

I have left out a lot of the details and steps to loading a shell and turning it into a bullet, but I will possibly publish a second part to this saga. Most of the subsequent steps are considered universal, but I do recommend case sizing to the smaller diameter using the deliberately undersized die that is called a T/C die and trying to run the bulges left from detonation out of the lower case section as close to the rim end of the case as possible, taking the re-sizing die down as far as you can. In order to insure a properly-sized case for any tight tolerance chamber, I will re-size the case prior to the de-capping step and after the bullet is seated on the shell casing as extra insurance for a proper fit. I also recommend that all case necks are resized prior to the bullet being seated for optimal purchase between case and slug. There are a myriad of locations on YouTube that can tell you more about the entire process, and the video instructions with close-ups of the process can be of great help to shorten the learning curve.

As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words” and also, “seeing is believing”.

Basically, make sure you know what gun powder to use, how much to use, and that the slug is properly seated to the correct depth for the overall cartridge length. Also, know prior to loading that the shell case is defect free and in spec. Follow all the published guidelines given in the sizing die kit, the loading manuals furnished by the powder manufacturer, quantities of powder to use, and the bullet size and weight, as the powder charge will be dependent on these parameters. You can also refer to one of the many how-to publications available as well as going to a powder company’s web site.

I left out many of the details in the steps described decamping (de-priming the case), sizing the case to tolerance, loading the case with powder (know how much to use by referring to powder manufacturer’s loading data), seating the bullet to depth, and making sure the bullet length, size, and length is compatible to the chamber of your gun. However, one thing I will recommend is that when dealing with a semi-auto load, you should try to get the bullet to a slightly smaller size than with bolt action or lever action guns by purchasing dies that are designed for semi-auto loading or you may run into chambering issues, which may lead to failure to feed or other dangerous or problematic issues at the very least, which leads to much frustration.

With the proper caution, quality control, tools training, and patience reloading the .223 can be rather satisfying as well as creating an opportunity to save a few bucks on ammo. You will also have the ability to load a custom-made round that will function in the unique niche you desire. Often we find reloading allows us to shoot a few more rounds down range with the shooting budget remaining in one piece. In addition, you will have the ability and satisfaction to produce bullets of superior accuracy and more diverse capabilities at a greatly reduced price. I would also like to add that it is a good practice to keep track of your favorite load data so you know what you are shooting at the range. Your gun may fall in love with a certain load, and you will know what that load is, if you label or journal this information.

Have fun, be safe, and perhaps I will see you on the range. You will probably know it is me. I will be the strange fellow that comes up to you and asks if you are going to need those used shell cases to reload or if it is alright if I pick them up for you. By the way, are you finished with the empty cartridge box? I can get rid of that for you, too!

I hope I have help and not hindered you from pursuing this new hobby. I can tell you this, I never missed a beat in getting to the gun range due to a shortage of ammo, even during the last few years after some of our politicians tried to make it next to impossible. I was able to purchase components in most all cases when the factory stuff was no where to be found or way too expensive to even consider buying.