Pros: Easy to use; Comparatively inexpensive; Good starting tool; Can produce very accurate ammunition
Cons: Powder dipper; Other tools required
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems; but, the Lee Precision's Classic Lee Loader comes close. It has been my reloading 'bench' of choice for bolt action rifles going nigh on two decades now. It may not appeal to the faster is better and more and... well... faster crowd, but that's okay. Taking your time is a good thing when it comes to reloading; both in terms of safety and accuracy.
Does it replace your entire reloading bench? Nope. Do you need other tools besides what comes in the kit? Yep. Is it a good way to get started in reloading? You bet. Is it less expensive than getting a press and the dies to go with it? Positively and absolutely!!! Does it produce better ammo than from a standard press and dies? To a large degree, that depends on you. For my money, it produces ammunition that is both less expensive and equal to or better than factory match rounds; especially since you can tailor the rounds to your, specific firearm. (Lee likes to point out in their catalog, online, and in their advertising that ammunition loaded with a Lee Loader held a world record that stayed in the Guinness Book of World Records for seven years. Unfortunately, I can't tell you exactly what record that was.)
Sounds Good, But What Is It?
The Lee Loader is really a small 'kit' which fits into a red, plastic box measuring 3 3/4" x 6" x 1 1/4" and weighing about a pound or so. Lee cites it as the most frequently purchased "first reloading tool" over the last 40+ years. Although you will need a couple of extra tools even if you want to use the kit "as is" (read on), in my opinion and with a couple of caveats, it is a good way to get started. Why? First, at an MSRP of $29.98, it is comparatively inexpensive when compared to a press and a set of dies; not to mention it takes up significantly less room. Second and most importantly, it forces you to concentrate on each step in the loading process. In other words, it teaches the focus and patience you should have when reloading while giving you the opportunity to see and perform each operation a press and die set performs for you.
Finally, and this is where the caveats will come in, it makes you realize that there is no short cut to safety, efficiency, and accuracy. If you try to use just what's in the kit, you can produce ammunition that goes "BANG," but it won't be the best you can generate using this kit as the core of your production process. Put another way, it makes you realize that you cannot simply rely on the tools to do "IT" for you; a little common sense and thought is required.
All Lee Loader kits are, essentially, the same. The heart of the kit is a "die" with a body, lock nut, and stop collar. This is what is used to size and hold the case; we'll talk about crimping in a minute. There is a part which looks much like a mallet that is the "priming chamber" and bullet seater. A "decapping chamber" and decapping rod (which many feel is actually the safest and strongest decapping tool on the market) as well as a priming rod. Then there is the "powder measure."
Working With It
Let's start with the powder measure and be done with the first of our caveats right up front. The 'measure' is a small, yellow 'dipper' that Lee has been famous for and even sells as a kit with 15 graduated dippers. In fact, this is the powder measuring 'system' that was being used by Liam Neeson in the movie Next of Kin long before he took up a lightsaber as a more "elegant weapon." The .30-06 Lee Loader comes with the 3.4 cc dipper and you are provided with a very short list of powders and the charge that this dipper will theoretically measure per scoop.
Sounds easy - Right? Well, while a few will argue that, if used correctly, these dippers work well, the first thing most of us realize is that the list of powders generally does not include the one we want to use. The second thing we come to understand is that these dippers generally only work somewhat correctly with ball powders and work horribly with the extruded powders that are often preferred for .30-06. The third thing that happens vis a vis this dipper is that it ends up permanently lost somewhere.
Even with ball powder, you will generally only get sorta close to the charge you expect. Some will find that close enough for them; maybe trying to jigger that extra tenth of a grain or two into the case. I come from the school of "close" ain't no where near good or safe enough. Ultimately, they end up coming to the conclusion that they should have started with. To wit:
You will need to get a good scale to effectively and safely use the Lee Loader; not to mention use it to its potential. I have used the RCBS 5-0-5 for a long time; but, there are a plethora to choose from on the market. The cost will end up being somewhere between $50 - $100 for a good mechanical scale; something worth more than its weight in gold. In conjunction with the scale, I also strongly advise the purchase of a powder trickler; most run between $10 and $16.
A second tool that is absolutely required is a good caliper. While proper Cartridge Overall Length can be a long discussion, let's just say that you will need calipers to determine the proper length of your finished round and, thereby, the proper setting to "lock" the die for bullet seating. (For some discourse on the subject, see Hornady's O.A.L. Gauge: When Length Does Matter, Now There's A Little Help )
Alright. There are seven basic steps...
Step 1 - Place your fired case in the decapping 'chamber' and insert the decapping rod. Simply tap the top of the decapping rod to knock out the spent primer. You will need a plastic or "soft faced" hammer/mallet. These things used to be ubiquitously available in just about every hardware store. Not so anymore. My most current "model" is the Stanley 57-594. At 8 oz., it's actually a little big for the job, but works for both loading and use when disassembling/assembling certain rifles.
Step 2 - Insert the deprimed case into body or 'bottom' of the "die" - using the hammer so that the case seats flush with the end of the die. (While case lube is supposedly not required with the Lee Loader, I find that applying a light amount of lube is helpful.) This NECK sizes the case. Neck sizing is easier on the brass and extends the case life. It also helps increase the accuracy of the ammunition by leaving the body of the case properly "fire formed" to the chamber of your rifle. (This means that the ammunition loaded with the Lee Loader must only be used in the same firearm. In other words, you can't fire a .30-06 round from a Remington 700, reload the case with the Lee Loader, then fire that same case through a Ruger M77, etc.) Neck sizing also makes the Lee Loader inappropriate for semi-auto rifles; most of which require cases to be full-length resized. (Alright. While this isn't always or strictly true, I'm gonna leave it right there.)
Step 3 - Insert a primer in the priming chamber, place the case (still inside the die) in the chamber, over the primer, insert the priming rod, and tap on the top of the rod. Do this on a solid surface and realize that every 1,000 rounds or so, you will set a primer off; whether because you caught it just wrong or it was a sensitive one. Always wear eye protection... So long as you are aware enough to NEVER have your face over the top of the thing and karma isn't working against you, generally, the worst of the experience will be the first time this happens to you and you have to rinse your shorts before putting them in the wash.
Step 4 - Take the now-primed case, still in the die, and set it in the decapping chamber and tap the priming rod to knock the case loose in the die.
Step 5 - With the case still in the die and still in the decapping chamber, add your chosen powder charge. (Get yourself a $3 powder funnel rather than simply trying to pour directly into the stop collar/seating end of the die.)
Step 6 - With the case still in the die and decapping chamber, insert your chosen bullet, then...
Step 7 - With the case still in the die and decapping chamber, insert the "handle" end of the priming chamber "mallet" and tap the top to seat the bullet.
There are arguments for and against crimping cartridges; arguments too lengthy to engage in here. ("Crimping" is where the case mouth is pushed in against the seated bullet.) Many reloaders feel crimping to be unnecessary for bolt action and single-shot rifles; but, it is required with tubular feed magazines and semi-autos. Ultimately, if you determine that crimping is best for your needs, the Lee Loader will do it, after a fashion, by inserting the 'finished' round, bullet first, into the top of the stop collar (where you inserted powder and bullet), placing the decapping chamber over the case end, and tapping until you acheive the crimp desired. Since I use this for my bolt-actions, I never worry about crimping.
You're done. While this sounds complicated, with a little practice and experience, you can actually crank out a round in about a minute using the Lee Loader. Yes, there is decidedly more to reloading. But, them's the basics; no matter whether you're using the Lee Loader or a press and dies. With a little care and attention to some additional details, I am able to use the Lee Loader to produce .30-06 hunting rounds using 165 gr. Nosler Partition bullets that shoot more accurately from my firearm than the comparable Federal Premium ammo that now runs approximately $35 - $40 per box of 20 in my neck of the woods.
A Brief Review Of What's Needed
For my purposes and to my way of thinking, if you intend this as your "first reloading tool," then it's a good place to start, but you need to have a couple of other things to go with the Classic Lee Loader to be able to use it effectively. Even if you were to purchase a press and dies instead of the Lee Loader, you would still need:
* A good scale (and powder trickler)
* A good dial caliper
* A good reloading manual (Sierra, Speer, Hornady, and Nosler are all good and provide a tutorial on basic reloading)
* Case, primer, powder, bullets
* Primer Pocket Cleaner
* Case Lube
To use the Classic Lee Loader, you will also need:
* A good plastic or 'soft faced' hammer/mallet (Get a good plastic such as the Stanley. I do not recommend a 'rubber' mallet of any kind or any of the 'all plastic' hammers now flooding the market.)
Down the road, although not too far, you'll find yourself assembling a box of tools. A case trimmer and the accoutrements to go with it are the first things to spring to mind; but, the neck sizing attribute of the Lee Loader helps mitigate the upfront 'immediacy' of this. Just be aware that you shouldn't reload your cases more than a few times without trimming them.
With All That, Is It Worth It?
Remember, things like a scale, caliper, case trimmer, et al. are going to be required for reloading whether you use the Lee Loader or go another direction. Aside from the addition of the aforementioned hammer (which can be used for other things), the price difference and the space savings between the Lee Loader and a press/die setup is significant. As an example, let's say you go with an RCBS Partner Press, the smallest press I'd recommend, as a starting point (see A Cost Effective Tool To Start With ), you're looking at an MSRP of $82.95. A set of full-length dies for .30-06 will run $38 - $50 depending on manufacturer; with a neck-sizing die set running about $5 - $10 more, again depending on manufacturer.
These are MSRP; but, even though deals can be had, you're still looking at a significant difference in price. (I recently bought myself another Lee Loader in .30-06 just because the price tag read $17.95 - either a mismark or I should have bought a Lottery ticket that day.) Then there's the idea that you will have to set up the press on some sort of sturdy bench; meaning that it will be bolted to it or, at the very least, bolted to a piece of steel and/or heavy board and C-clamped to the bench.
How good is the $29.98 MSRP looking? Do you really need to crank out a bandoleer of ammo for that bolt-action in one sitting? What was that about quantity versus quality?
Now, for the big question. Will it improve your shooting?
Uh... Did I mention it makes a great stocking stuffer?