When it came to reloading presses, I was ‘brought up’ on single stage presses; with the RCBS Rock Chucker being the epitome of the “working man’s” tool – solid, affordable, durable, and everything you reasonably need. Of course, it helped that it was Made In The U.S.A. and RCBS had a fine customer service reputation. While the Rock Chucker is still, in many ways, the ‘standard’ against which single stage presses are measured – e.g., “Is it as good as a Rock Chucker at…?” – times have changed a bit.
Recommend this product?
Many have come to the conclusion (unconfirmed so far as I know by RCBS), with some justification, that the Rock Chucker is now, at least, cast overseas...
[Update: I just spoke with an RCBS representative on another product and thought to bring this up. I was told that they were having them cast overseas "a couple of years ago." The representative now claims they know "for a fact" that the Rock Chucker is, once again, cast in the States; and always has been assembled here.]
Just these rumors have created a certain question mark/black cloud over the Rock Chucker’s well-deserved mystique. With the high demand for ammunition, components, reloading tools, and practically everything firearms related combined with, evidently, a bit of a log-jam in terms of resources/materials used in construction of these items, RCBS and other manufacturers fell well behind production schedules. In fact, RCBS has yet to get back on track and their products have been somewhat scarce on store shelves; with higher prices being the result. Once again, the RCBS ‘name’ has taken a bit of a hit in that regard; particularly as some feel that quality has suffered somewhat in attempts to ramp-up production to get back on schedule and meet increased demand.
As a result, the Forster (Bonanza) Co-Ax Press, considered by many to be simply the best single-stage reloading press available and, yet, still predominantly only known by certain ‘elites,’ has come to the fore. If you follow various firearms forums, there’s an ever-increasing number of posts asking: “Is it as good as, or better than, the Rock Chucker?” Even Cabela’s now carries it as a stock item. Yet, I cannot tell that Forster has done anything in terms of advertising to create this increased awareness. I simply think that while the Rock Chucker is still a very good press and continues to serve as something of an industry standard, reloaders have become a trifle less brand loyal and a bit more open to alternatives as the above factors have begun to hit home.
The Box Still Says Forster/Bonanza
Bonanza was the reloading manufacturer that originally produced the Co-Ax Press. As just alluded to, the Co-Ax press has been known among certain ‘elite’ shooting circles for decades; e.g., bench rest shooters, Army Reserve Shooting Teams, etc. Forster has also been known in such circles. As a result, even though they have absorbed many of the Bonanza products and market them under their own name, Forster has realized that, for many, the ‘Bonanza’ name holds meaning insofar as recognition of the press. There is certainly more than a bit of justification in that the current model is, for all intents and purposes, essentially the same as those marketed by Bonanza; with only a few ‘tweaks’ (e.g., how the handle attaches, the color, the name in the casting… you get the idea). You will note that Forster currently lists it as the “Model B3.” (The Owner’s Manual does note that the current model [B3] has 1 ½” more clearance than the “B2.”)
As you may have deduced, I don’t think the Forster Co-Ax is for beginning reloaders. It has advantages that set it apart from and make it superior (in many ways) to any other single stage press on the market. To some degree, I concur with the philosophy that one should find the best they can afford, then go one notch better when they actually make their purchase; which is another way of saying that a poor man can only afford to buy quality. However, with the Co-Ax several of these advantages can simultaneously be disadvantages; particularly making it awkward for beginners. If you have been reloading for some time and already have a bench full of equipment, then many of these disadvantages are mitigated or made moot; but, more on that in a moment.
To look at the advantages the Forster Co-Ax plays in reloading ammunition, one need only go through a few of the long litany of ‘selling points’ listed in the Owner’s Instruction Manual for the press under “Introduction to…:”
1.) Powerful leverage… 40:1 mechanical advantage as the handle moves through a full 180° stroke. – I don’t have an engineering degree and I have seen some pretty technical discourses online regarding the actual mechanics involved with the Co-Ax vs. competing presses that are way over my head. To put it simply, the ‘power’ of a single stage reloading press comes from leverage. Some of this leverage comes from length of pull, some comes from angle of pull, and some comes from a variety of factors which can be lumped under the rubric of ‘size’ (e.g., efficiency based in weight/stability, distance of ‘ram’ travel vs. length of pull, etc.). Factors such as friction and resistance also come into play. As I said, much of the actual mechanics/engineering involved is way over my head.
In their catalog and on their website, Forster claims the following: “Because there is absolutely no torque on the head of the Co-Ax® Press, long life is the rule rather than the exception. Due to the design of the linkage and pivots, all forces are in equilibrium whether the press is at maximum work load or at rest… It's so effortless, full length sizing can actually be accomplished by operating the handle of the press with the little finger!”
Inevitably, someone will ask: “Is that greater than, less than, or the same as the Rock Chucker?” My answer is two-fold. Insofar as actual numbers, I don’t know. I’ve never seen a mechanical advantage ratio listed for the Rock Chucker. I have seen plenty of phrases for the Rock Chucker saying “high mechanical advantage” along with claimed pounds of effort for a given cartridge. However, if you were to ask my intuitive sense, based on my experience with both presses…
My answer would be that to my sense of touch, the Co-Ax has a much greater functional leverage for the cartridges I reload. The RCBS Rock Chucker, the RCBS Partner Press (see link below), and similar “O” frame designs require a fairly stout (heavy/well secured) work bench for optimal performance. The torque involved in these designs can, literally, lift an unsecured or lightly weighted reloading bench/table from the floor; tipping it over, beating the bench against the wall, and usually creating all kinds of problems. Been there, done that.
Just for this review (alright, I wanted to test some new handloads for a couple rifles too – happy?), I dug out my Co-Ax press, bolted it to a 2’ long piece of 2” x 6” (which requires four bolts vs. only two for the Rock Chucker) then used two 4” C-clamps to secure it to a wooden saw horse aged to a stage where it is weathered dark gray, cracked, the wood is very dry, and the whole thing is exceptionally light – verging on where it won’t be long before this old warhorse will receive the honorary funeral pyre fitting of a warrior which has seen too many campaigns. In other words, it was the kind of impromptu setup where a standard press would not only work inefficiently (if at all), it would probably outright destroy the saw horse. Long-story-short, other than bracing the toes of my left foot against the one saw horse leg, the Co-Ax never missed a beat, while the saw horse did not shudder or move, only slightly flexed in the center, and was generally happy to once again be useful in life.
You are free to draw your own conclusions from that.
2.) No spent primer issues. – The Rock Chucker and many other presses allow decapped primers to travel down the center of the ram, exiting the ram’s side to be ‘caught’ in a holder of some sort. What usually happens is that the reloader ends up with a plethora of spent primers on the floor. When I solely used RCBS presses, I’d attach a light switch box to the table, place a piece of cardboard in the box as a ‘backboard’ and let the primers ricochet in. I’d only end up with a very few that missed and I’d only feel compelled to dump spent primers after many hundreds of rounds.
The Forster Co-Ax has an extension tube which you screw into the bottom of the press that feeds through the metal lid of a 2” diameter, 1 ¾” tall plastic container. Once you’ve collected approximately 100 – 200 spent primers, you simply unscrew the plastic container and empty. The additional advantage to this system is that, in some respects, it is cleaner; i.e., all that carbon residue from the primer is also gravity drawn through the tube, into the container rather than left in your ram.
3.) No shell holders required! – The Co-Ax press comes with what is called “S” jaws; i.e., spring tensioned plates which automatically adjust to hold the cartridge case. One side is for small cases, the other for large. This is one of the most touted selling points for this press. I will say that, once you get used to the concept, it is convenient if you are working with a number of different calibers which ALL fit that side!!! (See comments regarding this under ‘Disadvantages’ below.) Shell holders can be a pain in the posterior. If working with a number of different calibers, most will require their own, unique holder. This makes organization and keeping track of them a pain so as to assure having the proper one immediately available. In addition, it is less than cost efficient; particularly with many shell holders now going for $7 - $10 each.
This is a very real factor into your purchasing decision vis a vis the Co-Ax. Currently, the Forster Co-Ax can be had for $225 - $260 depending on your source. (These things are listed as $378 direct from Forster.) While that sounds expensive compared to the price of a Rock Chucker Supreme at around $135 - $150, you’re actually comparing apples to oranges when you factor in shell holders. Let’s say you want to load .223, .270, .30-.30, .30-06, .38/.357, 9mm Luger, .45 ACP, and .45 Colt; a not very unique or diverse set of calibers for serious handloaders. This selection of rounds would necessitate FIVE different RCBS shell holders at an average of roughly $8.50 each. Let’s see… That means $8.50 x 5 = $42.50 plus the average price of the press at $142.50 comes out to $184.50. If you add even more calibers which require their own, unique shell holder, how long does it take to draw even with or eclipse the average price of the Co-Ax at around $240; with the Co-Ax handling, according to Forster, “90% of commercial cartridge cases” with the standard jaws?
The standard, or “S,” jaws are listed as handling: small side = .343 - .422 rim; large side = .468 - .562 rim. Replacement “S” jaws are listed at $33 from Forster. The optional, “LS” jaws (approx. $25 street price; $33 from Forster) is listed as handling: small side = .312 - .375; large side = .531 - .625.
4.) The Co-Ax delivers perfect alignment of the die and case – This is, perhaps, the second greatest selling point of the press, the very reason it has been popular with ‘serious’ shooters/reloaders, and one of the largest points of confusion for users. The vast majority of reloading presses require you to screw the reloading dies into place from the top. With the Co-Ax, you simply slip them into place. An hex screw adjusts the tension with which the die collar is held in place; but, according to the instructions, it “should be just tight enough to keep the die lock ring under tension.” What this means is that you can literally switch from a sizing to seater/crimp die in about 5 seconds. (The catalog claims “2 seconds,” but I’ve never managed it that fast and I’m not a fan of being focused on fast when reloading.) You also don’t run the risk of moving your die adjustment by turning things ‘wrong’ when unscrewing the dies from a standard press.
This feature creates a ‘floating’ die. Yes. The die is supposed to exhibit some movement!!! I’ve seen many posts and ‘reviews’ from new users ‘complaining’ that the press doesn’t hold their die “securely.” In fact, the die is being held securely; you have to deliberately ‘pop’ it out to remove it. However, the die is intentionally ‘floated’ so that, in conjunction with the spring-loaded (‘self-acting’) shell holder jaws, the cartridge case is allowed to center itself in the die. Such alignment allows for less friction, which in turn means less required leverage to size a case. Less friction also means less wear on both the die and the case itself. Finally, this means more consistent and uniform sizing and bullet seating; meaning it draws optimal performance from the die, the case, and the press during the reloading process. In other words, it allows you to load to the accuracy limits of your dies, cases, and bullets without the press itself interfering. In a sense, where other presses force the case to adapt to the rigidity of its structure while ‘fighting’ the torque inherent with an operating handle ‘offset’ from the ram along with the small manufacturing differential between die threads vs. press threads for the die, etc. , the Co-Ax allows the die and press to find the center and adapt to the case itself. In a nutshell, this means that standard dies perform better than average and higher end, ‘bench rest’ or ‘competition’ dies can be used without worrying over whether the press will actually allow them to function to full advantage.
While all of this sounds good and, in fact, is a very great attribute, there are some drawbacks to this system that we’ll get to momentarily…
5.) The unique top priming device seats primers to factory specifications. – While being able to seat primers on the press is not unique, I absolutely love the consistency with which the Co-Ax seats primers. Located at the top of the press, the primer seating device utilizes an almost Rube Goldburgesque combination of jaw block, primer cup, and ‘jaw’ to seat primers to a consistent and repeated depth of 0.005”. Unfortunately, as with everything that sounds too good to be true, there are some very real tradeoffs which will be addressed shortly.
Unfortunately, many of the Co-Ax’s greatest strengths are also the greatest disadvantages; particularly for beginners and/or those seeking a different type of simplicity.
1.) Some of this leverage comes from… - The standard handle on the Co-Ax is overly long for all but the largest cartridges (.458 Winchester Magnum being the ‘largest’ the press was intended to handle). The trouble is that most handle far smaller calibers and the length of pull is just too long for almost any pistol and most smaller rifle calibers. The easy solution is to replace the standard, tubular/rubber gripped handle with Forster’s optional “Short-Throw” handle; with a tube length and a more conventional, though large-ish ‘ball’ handle coming out to about ½ the length of the standard handle. Street price runs around $19 - $25 and I personally find it much more efficient.
The angle of pull is straight down, over the front of the press. While this allows for the equilibrium referred to above, it does take some getting used to; even if you're accustomed to using a MEC for shotshell reloading. First, you have to learn to trust the shell holder jaws. Second, there is a perceptual ‘lack of access’ that, while it really doesn’t exist, also takes some getting used to. Third, there is yet another learning curve in terms of figuring out how/where to stand in achieving the best ergonomics for your particular body type. Some build a bench which allows for a higher mounting; again, the shorter handle mitigates this problem. Everyone will dance back and forth, from side to side, until they work out for themselves the best arm motion and how not to hit themselves with the handle. In fact, it is the inability to adapt or overcome this ‘start-up’ frustrations which seem to lead to much of the criticism aimed at this press.
Make no mistake. The Co-Ax is a hunk o’ press. Being manufactured IN THE U.S.A. (did I fail to mention that under ‘advantages?’ – shame on me), this thing is made from “automotive grade iron castings,” requiring a commitment in terms of a proper reloading bench. Even if you emulate my earlier cited arrangement (my example provided above being an unique situation), you should still seek out a picnic table or other substantial ‘table’ for reloading in the field. I just doubt that most will find the Co-Ax a suitably mobile press for reloading ‘in the field.’ Remember, automotive grade iron castings make for a heavy monster (which is precisely why I’m not gonna dig mine out and weigh it for ya) that, while very comparable to other, single stage presses, ain’t exactly a Lee Hand Press (see link below).
2.) No spent primer issues. – While this is a very minor gripe and, in fact, is hardly worth mentioning, I have had people ask what I’d do if the primer catching jar breaks. My answer is simple – I don’t do much decapping on this press. That’s part of why I keep the RCBS Partner Press around. I did go into a ‘local’ gun shop and ask what the replacement price would be; but, they claim they’ve been having a little trouble getting a current catalog and some product out of Forster. While it’s being blamed on the same ‘production problems’ which have plagued RCBS and other manufacturers, it does mean that I don’t know what the replacement price would be. Not to mention that the questioner’s point is still there; i.e., if I can’t replace the part, how might I ‘create’ a solution similar to my light switch box rig cited earlier given that the primers exit through the bottom of the base via a tube? While I’m sure something suitable could be pressed into service, I like my solution of decapping elsewhere better since it’s already part of my routine.
3.) No shell holders required! – There are several issues which arise from this. First, the “S” jaws are not as convenient as they appear at first blush. While they do make life much simpler, not to mention less expensive, when loading cartridges which all fit the same side, they are definitely a fiddle to flip over. It’s not that any three-handed buster can’t do it; but, it isn’t as simple as switching out standard shell holders. In other words, if you have finished loading .223 and want to start loading .30-06, you have to…
Undo two hex screws, carefully remove the jaw housing while being even more careful not to lose either of the jaws or the two springs which tension the jaws, then flip the jaws, reinsert the springs, then get the whole assemblage (without losing the springs) back on the wear plate so that the screw holes are aligned, and finally tighten the whole thing down by reinserting the hex screws. The whole process takes no more than a 2 – 5 minutes (20 minutes to an hour if one of the springs is allowed to fly out and roll under the reloading bench) if you’ve got some practice under your belt. Of course, you will then have to readjust the ‘automatic jaw opening screw’ which separates the jaws when the press is at rest, waiting for you to insert a case; being cautious that you don’t set it too high, creating the potential for damaging the shell holder jaws.
Remember, that’s what is involved in having to change from the small to the large size capability of the jaws. For me, there have been times when I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a second Co-Ax Press just so I don’t have to flip the jaws. It’s not as bad as I seem to be making it sound. Just bear in mind that these are the steps and the fiddle factor is real. But, hey. You don’t have to deal with all those shell holders…
Forster does offer an adapter which allows you to use standard shell holders ($15 - $20); but, to my mind, that defeats one of the primary reasons for buying the press. Further, I’ve tried to discover whether this adapter would allow you to use a tool such as the RCBS Primer Pocket Swager. In a nutshell… I can’t get an answer; even from a guy I personally know who has used a Co-Ax press far longer than I have. This leads me to suspect that you’re gonna have to make sure there’s another press available for such doings. Of course, if you simply choose to not deal with military cases, then the point is probably moot.
4.) The Co-Ax delivers perfect alignment of the die and case – The trouble here is not with the performance, the press does exactly what it is supposed to do and, again, this alignment is one of the greatest virtues of the design. Properly setting the dies is pretty much the same as with any other press. The issue here stems from the fact that many users will have to adapt their dies to work with the Co-Ax press. While designed to specifically work with any standard 7/8” x 14 reloading die, it will not work with just any die locking collar. Obviously, Forster’s Cross Bolt Locking Rings will work and the press comes with two. The drawback is that they run $4 - $5 EACH from most sources. That means $8 - $10 to adapt a standard two die rifle set and $12 - $15 to adapt a standard three die pistol set. In addition, while these Cross Bolt Rings do a good job, mitigate the potential for damaging the die threads far more than the typical hex screw locking ring found on dies such as those by RCBS or Lyman, and will work with any press which accept 7/8” x 14 dies, the screw is a bit bothersome to get set correctly; especially when in the press.
My problem? The screw is sized for a #2 Philips head, but the ring only allows a #1 to seat straight into the screw head. Unfortunately, the #1 is too small to properly tighten the screw and the #2 has to be ‘angled’ in; causing very real potential for stripping the screw head. All this back and forth also makes it troublesome to hold the setting on the die; i.e., not move the collar up or down while tightening – something that will occur if you simply try to remove the die from the press, then tighten down on the ring. The solution I’ve found is to use a magnetic head #2 Philips screwdriver. It ain’t pretty. It ain’t precise. But, it does work.
Hornady Sure-Loc Lock Rings will also work if you make sure than the ‘flat’ sides are positioned so that they face you and the back of the press respectively; i.e., you want the ‘rounded’ portions to slide into the grooves on the press. But, if you’re not already using Hornady dies, these rings retail for just about what the Forster rings do; thus, the cost is going to be about the same. You will have to replace the collars on RCBS and Lyman dies. Redding die collars are close enough for some people; but, I don’t recommend them. The Lee die rings? Frankly, now that I think about it, I’ve never tried them. In theory, the width is about right, but I’d be concerned about that rubber O-ring getting hung up; particularly with the newer ones having a tendency to pop out.
5.) The unique top priming device seats primers to factory specifications. – While I am enamored with the consistency of this primer seating tool, it just isn’t the most efficient alternative if you’re loading more than a handful of cases. Once again, setting the priming tools shell holder jaws (different than the press’s “S” jaws) has a high fiddle factor quotient compared to standard shell holders. In addition, you must physically insert each primer; risking transferring sweat and body oils to the primer, which can have deleterious effects. (I’d go through latex gloves at the rate of a surgical team if I’m reloading seriously.) I do have a methodology where I never lay a section of skin on the primer; but, since my technique is drawn from many years of practice in another avocation and does make some cringe vis a vis potentialities, I won’t share it here.
Forster does market a separate tool called a Co-Ax Primer Seater which operates on the same basic principles/design; but, feeds primers from a ‘tube.’ ($59 at Cabela’s) However, I’ve used the RCBS Automatic Priming Tool for over two decades; finding it almost as consistent and decidedly faster. If you don’t have either of these, then you might note that the Forster, at $59 from Cabela’s, is just over half the MSRP of the RCBS at just over $100. While I have been forced of late to use the RCBS hand priming tool (see link below), I have nowhere near the confidence in it that I have in either the Automatic Priming Tool or the priming tool on the Co-Ax press.
In The End
What I’ve tried to do is touch on the major attributes of this press. I’m not sure one could address all the nuances of design or use in a single review; nor would I want to try. As I have stated, there is a ‘learning curve’ with this press. You can successfully load ammunition just about as fast as you can with any other single stage press; once you have everything set and get a little practice under your belt. Becoming comfortable with it, especially if you’ve spent considerable time with more ‘traditional,’ single stage, “O” frames will take a bit of time.
So…? “Is it as good as the Rock Chucker?”
Short answer… In many ways that do matter… Yes.
Qualified answer… Yes, if you’ve got certain other tools and an additional press which will allow you to perform specific, specialized functions if you need to.
Longer answer… If you are a beginner, you’d probably be better off building from a less expensive base of tools, then moving to the Co-Ax when you’re “ready” in terms of having the ancillary tools most reloaders require. In addition, you won’t appreciate the difference until you’re “ready” when it comes to both your shooting and ammunition reloading techniques; i.e., when the differences will make a difference. If you’ve been reloading for awhile and are ‘ready,’ it may be the ‘best’ single stage reloading press on the market; at least I can’t think of any that are ‘better.’
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