I finally bit the bullet (pun intended of course) and bought a progressive reloading press. My motivation was simple: reloading large volumes of ammo on a single stage press sucks. My RCBS single stage press is fantastic for loading precision ammunition and I will continue to use it for loading .223 for my precision rifles but loading a couple hundred rounds of 9mm and having to change reloading dies three or four times as well as measure out powder for each individual round just isn’t something I wanted to do. I undoubtedly will be giving up some of the precision that the single stage press afforded but I will more than make up for it in raw speed. For 9mm plinking rounds that is a fair trade. The question remains though: does the Lee Load Master work reliably enough (and simply enough) to deliver on that promise?
The first thing I had to decide was which progressive reloading press was I going to get? The most obvious choice was between the Hornady Lock N Load and the Dillon Precision RL550B. These two machines are largely considered the best entry level progressive loaders on the market. They are also significantly more expensive than the Lee press. The Hornady retailing for around $415 and the Dillon around $500. The Lee Load Master with a 9mm die set included cost just about $250. The price of course was only part of my decision. I knew little about the Lee when I started looking at progressive presses. I came across it as I was researching the other machines and after watching a few videos of one in operation I became intrigued. What a neat machine. Not that its unique in any particular way, I just felt like its operation was intuitive and easy to understand. When I realized how less expensive it was I figured at the very least it would give me a taste of what progressive reloading was all about and not be an overly large initial investment. So what is a progressive press? A progressive press is a press that allows several reloading operations to take place either simultaneously or at the very least in sequence without the need for changing reloading dies for each new operation. Some machines are manual-indexed and some auto-indexed. Simply put, manual-indexed means that you move the round to the next operation manually and auto-indexed means that the round is automatically rotated to the next reloading operation. The Lee Load Master just like the Hornady and Dillon is auto-indexing and that is some cool shit. As it turns out, like both the Hornady and Dillon, there is a tremendous amount of information online about the Lee Load Master covering everything from setting it up, to tips and tricks, to aftermarket parts and accessories. It’s a popular press and although there are some negative reviews, the overwhelming feedback is very positive.
I purchased the press from Amazon (of course…) and promptly got it set up. First, bolting it to my work bench. Second, setting up the operating parts of the press. Let me say right off the bat, the Lee instructions included with the press are just about useless. Once you have gone through the procedures of setting everything up they begin to make more sense but as instructions for a first timer they are useful only as a reference. Fortunately there are plenty of resources online including videos on every aspect of installation and setup. I highly recommend this Lee Load Master guide. It covers everything and includes very helpful links and videos. It is frequently suggested that new reloaders start with a single stage press when first learning the process of reloading. Generally I would agree. The Lee Load Master press is considerably more complicated and having some initial experience makes things much easier. Having said that, if you are mechanically inclined I think it could make a good first press, especially considering the cost. The learning curve is just going to be steeper.
The heart and soul of Lee Load Master Press, like any press, are the reloading dies. The Lee press is what’s called a 5-station press. That means that 5 individual and simultaneous operations can be done on the press. This is a bit of a misrepresentation though. In reality the Lee Load Master is actually a 4-station press in that the priming of each round is done on a dedicated station that can’t really be used for any other purpose.
As part of the initial setup I installed each reloading die and tested each for proper function. The following is the order in which the dies are setup:
- Station 1: Full length resizing & decapping die
- Station 2: Case priming (no die required but I do have a resizing die without the decapping pin installed to promote proper alignment of case for the primer)
- Station 3: Case expanding & powder through die
- Stati0n 4: Bullet seating die
- Station 5: Dedicated bullet crimping die
As you can see, Station 2 is for priming only. In other 5-station progressive presses the priming is done in the same station as the resizing and decapping and therefore frees up a station for a powder check die for insuring proper powder levels in your cases. A nice safety measure when using a progressive press. You could of course use a bullet seating die that crimps simultaneously in the Lee Load Master and free up a station for a powder check die if you like. I have chosen however at the advice of many others to use a dedicated crimping die for the finer control that allows in crimping my cases.
The priming system on the Lee Load Master is the major area of contention when it comes to this particular press. From what I can tell the priming system is unique to this press and can be problematic for some.
These problems generally revolve around the primers not feeding properly and the primer pin that pushes the primer up into the case not being aligned properly with the case. I personally have had no problems with the priming system so far. But so far I have only used the priming system in isolation.
So how is the Lee Load Master working for me so far? So far so good, but I am only running single rounds through the press in an effort to test and re-test safe and reliable function of each die and station. In particular I am stopping to check that primers are seated correctly as well as checking the weight of each powder charge to make sure the powder dispenser is consistently accurate. After some adjustments the primers are seating at the proper depth and show no signs of misalignment. The powder measure has been very accurate and is dropping without exception between 4.3 and 4.5 grains of powder into each round. A good range for the 9mm bullets I am loading. So far I have been able to load about 100 rounds per hour using this method. That’s certainly faster than I could load on a single stage press but far from the 300-400 or so rounds an hour I should ultimately be able to load. I have had some problems getting the press to run while using all 5 stations simultaneously as its intended. I think the issue is in the die installation and calibration. I am in the process of tweaking the dies so that they work not just in isolation but also simultaneous to each other.
All in all the Lee Load Master is an amazing machine. Its like the industrial revolution compared to a single stage press. I have no doubts that with some tweaking and fine tuning the press will be capable of manufacturing hundreds of rounds an hour. Below is a video of the Lee Load Master in action. Enjoy and stay tuned. More to come.