Survival reloading with the Lee Loader
Major Pandemic 07.23.13
For those that are just getting started with reloading, a “round” of ammunition is composed of the case, typically called “brass” and usually made of reloadable brass, an appropriately sized and powered replaceable centerfire primer, the powder, and the bullet. The whole process of a detonating round is simple; the hammer in the gun hits the firing pin, which hits the primer which detonates a small explosion which ignites the powder. In turn the burning of the powder builds pressure inside the round in the chamber and pushes the bullet down the barrel.
Technically in a survival situation, the only thing required to reload a round is to just knock the primer out of the case, replace with a new primer, add powder, and seat a new projectile. But additional steps can deliver a higher quality, more accurate and consistent round.
There are various levels of reloading ammunition, from very very basic to high volume, all of which do the exact same generally accepted steps of knocking out the primer, resizing the brass case, inserting a new primer, flaring the case to accept a bullet, adding powder, seating a bullet, and crimping the case to finish the round. To do these steps correctly and safely, a recipe is followed for the proper powder and bullet weight, and is used in conjunction with steel forming dies, punches, some rather unique and interesting looking tools dedicated to reloading, and a fair amount of pressure applied via a reloading press. Obviously, someone figured out that you did not need to do one function at a time and the reloading progressive machine was created.
Progressive Reloading machines can deliver a finished round every couple seconds. A single stage press does one function at a time in a more labor-intensive but controlled fashion at a production rate of around two rounds a minute. In most cases, the really super serious target shooters handload with high-precision single stage presses for more control. The high-volume shooters, as you would guess, favor the faster, high-volume progressive reloaders. The Lee Loader is basically a brilliantly redesigned pocket sized single-stage press which can produce stunningly accurate and consistent rounds, but at a fairly slow pace.
For basic survival level reloading, the $30 Lee Loader is the only practical option for a packable pocket sized reloader, and it’s available in a broad array of mainstream calibers. I choose my favorite survival caliber — the .38 Special/.357 Magnum — to test out the Lee Loader’s abilities as a long-term bug out bag solution should I be driven away from my full sized reloading machines. The Lee Loader is also a cool reloading option for tailgate load development at the range, and will allow you to develop just the right powder and projectile recipe.
Why 38 Special/.357 Magnum
I have espoused many times my belief that the .38 Special/.357 Magnum round is “the” ultimate survival cartridge. The main reason is its flexibility.
Let’s say in a survival situation, you stumble on a cache of 9mm, .40 S&W, and .380ACP rounds, but you need .38 Special round. The .38 Special and .357 round can accept any small or magnum handgun primer salvaged from nearly any handgun cartridge, and if tested cautiously can reuse nearly any reclaimed powder. So you can just knock out the primer and harvest the powder from those found rounds.
At that point, all you need is a lightweight Lee mold and you can re-cast any reclaimed lead, giving you the ability to complete a round from salvage. No other round offers this flexibility. The flexibility is due to the longer length of the case, which gives a lot of options on what powders it can use. Furthermore, the non-semiauto actions of this round are not picky about getting the right velocities.
Fit, feel, finish, and features
Lee has made a name for itself as a quality reloading tool company who delivers big on value. Where many other company’s base progressive reloaders start at over $500-$1000, Lee’s is less than $200. Not only do they offer the value option for progressive reloaders, but Lee also offers some unique reloading tools that no other manufacturers offer, including a hand press and this pocket-sized $30 reloader.
From the outside, the Lee Loader is packaged with the looks of any of Lee’s red cased dies. But that little package contains everything you need to knock out the primer, resize the brass case, insert a new primer, flare the case to accept a bullet, add powder, seat a bullet, and crimp the case. It is all there in a durable, all-steel, parkerized and chromed steel tool set which should last a lifetime or two of use.
How the Lee Loader works is a bit brilliant, and it uses several double sided tools. A main, hard chromed, double-ended sizer/crimper, a double-sided de-primer/shell holder, a combined priming base/flat base/bullet seater, a flaring tool, de-priming punch, priming/knockout rod, and powder scoop. Because the only difference between .38 special and .357 is case length, by just adjusting the bullet seating depth on the bullet seater and taking a little care not to over crimp the longer cased .357 rounds, the .38 Special Lee Loader can be used for both calibers. By combining and flipping the dual sided tools, you can accomplish the entire reloading process with a limited number of dies and tools.
Even though I am an experienced reloader, my first round with the Lee Loader was like working through one of those tortuous story problems from my school days. The perfectly clear step-by-step illustrations helped me understand when to flip this and knock that out, and put me into a pace where I could easily load two rounds per minute in a pretty efficient manner. Obviously, 120 rounds an hour is not burning it up, but I would rather have a slow reloading method that I can take with me than a high speed reloader back at home. The way I look at it, in a survival situation you have nothing but time, so it will give you something to do.
The large picture at the end of this review details the process of reloading a round with a Lee Loader.
Making a round is like making a cake. You cannot just toss whatever amount of powder in the case and top it with whatever bullet weight and type you want and expect everything to go well. Most retailers sell recipe books for reloading with tried and tested recipes showing recommended minimum and maximum loads with this specific powder and this or that specific bullet. Disastrous consequences could occur if you just wing it.
I have standardized on a cast 158 grain semi-wadcutter based on a Lee casting mold and Hodgdon Clays powder, which I can also use for 9mm, .38 Special and 12 Gauge loads. There are literally a hundred powders that could be used, however being familiar with the Clays charge for a .38 special round is smart because it represents the lightest grained load of any pistol powder from my research and will give you a starting point for load development with mystery powders. Start at a low power and build up the charges safely. Obviously in a survival situation this test-based technique may not be ideal and could potentially create an unsafe environment.
With the insanity of ammo outages, everyone is now considering reloading, and the Lee Loader is actually the lowest cost reloading option to start reloading on any tailgate, stump, rock, or work table. At a paltry $30, I think everyone should have one in each caliber firearm they own.
Of course, just like I would rather have my toolbox of tools versus a Leatherman if I was going to build something, I would rather have a nice, big progressive reloading machine for high volume reloading than the Lee Loader. Thought slow, the Lee Loader does give you some great options in a package no other loader can match.
For me, the Lee Loader will see a use as I am goofing around with load development at the range versus dragging out an entire loading press just to test a couple rounds. The loader will also be used for throwing together a couple extremely low velocity “gallery” rounds when needed for for pest removal around the house, all without screwing up all my powder measure settings on my larger reloader. Most importantly with just the addition of a bullet mold and a Leatherman, the Lee Loader gives me the ability to scavenge nearly any pistol round to create ammo for my survival gun, and that’s what I call being prepared.