April 23, 2020
Not all reloading dies are created equal. Each has its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies. These are rarely discussed or written about in articles, which is ironic, because aside from your press, your dies are the foundations of handloading. Dies range from basic to premium match-grade dies that incorporate high-end features, and here’s a look at the brands and types I use most.
I love Hornady dies and own more than by any other manufacturer. They’re well made, reasonably priced and widely available for a wide variety of cartridges.
Historically, Hornady dies typically had two issues. The first was the smooth stem for the decapping pin and expander. If you didn’t have the tensioning nut cranked really tight, the expander would often stick in a freshly sized case’s neck and pull the whole decapping/expanding assembly out of position. Hornady fixed the problem by implementing a “light thread” stem, so that’s no longer an issue.
The second issue involves the expander. Whether it’s a matter of geometry or surface smoothness, I’m unsure, but pulling a newly sized case over it is generally harder than with most competing brands. If you inside-lube your case necks (I don’t), it’s not an issue. I’ve also heard that some loaders have good luck after buffing a mirror polish on the expander using jeweler’s rouge on a fine wheel. At any rate, it’s the only complaint I have with Hornady dies, and it’s certainly not enough to keep me from using and liking them.
Hornady offers three die set types. The American Series ($30) is very basic, offering good functionality at a low price, comes in popular cartridges and includes a shell holder.
Custom Grade dies ($35 to $300) are available for a much broader range of cartridges, ranging from .17 Hornet up through .500 Nitro Express. A floating bullet alignment sleeve and stem make for precise, well-aligned seating. This line of dies is compatible with Hornady’s MicroJust seating stem assembly ($28), making it easy to add a feature that I consider advantageous when handloading for ultimate accuracy.
Finally, Hornady offers its Match Grade bushing dies ($86). These allow handloaders to finesse neck tension to benefit accuracy. Plus, they apply minimal sizing, so brass isn’t overworked and lasts longer. Also, there’s often no need to pull an expander through the neck. This makes for really smooth sizing and avoids the added case stretch applied by tight-fitting expanders.
Each Match Grade set comes with either a full-length or a shoulder-bump-only sizing die with interchangeable bushings (sold separately, $20). Add a MicroJust seating stem and you’re set to create really precise handloads.
This go-to reloading company offers too many die categories to list, ranging from Cowboy to Safari to Matchmaster Competition. There’s even an X die that pushes back and remolds case necks so you never have to trim length again.
Most common—and most useful to riflemen—are the Group A full-length die sets ($34 to $360). These are available for all popular cartridges and a lot of obscure ones and are arguably the user-friendliest basic dies on the market. Because of their easygoing nature and simplicity, this line is what I recommend most when asked what dies to buy.
These do not have a floating, self-aligning seating stem like the Hornady dies do, but they’re precisely machined, and I’ve never had an issue creating concentric handloads using them. Plus, RCBS really has expander geometry and finish down pat, making for smooth, easy sizing.
RCBS’s top-shelf dies are the Gold Medal Match line ($136 to $160). These provide ultimate control over your handloads, thanks to an interchangeable-bushing sizing die in your choice of full-length or neck-only. The seating die has a bullet-loading widow cut into the body, and the Gold Medal Match also features a free-floating, self-centering, micrometer-adjustable seating stem system. Bushings ($12 to $24) must be ordered separately.
I’m a cowboy by upbringing, and this company has a lot of cowboy in its DNA. When it comes to unique die sets, Lyman is my go-to source. Search Classic Rifle and Specialty Black Powder Dies ($75) and pick your poison. You’ll find really cool, unusual stuff like .40-70 Sharps, .45-120 3¼ Sharps, and .56-50 Spencer.
These dies are engineered to work with the soft cast-lead bullets appropriate for the cartridges, and they include a separate neck-expanding/belling die that enables you to get those soft lead bullets started straight and without distortion.
Do you load cast lead bullets in your favorite bottleneck modern high-power cartridges? Not to worry. The company offers neck-expanding dies (sold separately, $26) for those, too.
I’m also a big fan of Lyman dies for use when loading vintage military cartridges such as the 7.62x54 Russian or 8x57 Mauser, and the company offers two-die rifle sets ($26 to $45) for cutting-edge cartridges such as the .28 Nosler as well. They’re simple, without interchangeable neck bushings or floating seating assemblies, but are easy to set up and use and make great ammo.
When precision is your goal, Redding is a top choice. The company’s Bushing & Competition dies are extraordinary, and even the Standard dies ($55 to $250) stand out. I’ve worked a lot with Redding’s Type 2 Match Bushing 3-Die set ($200 to $300). It’s available for most cartridges ranging from .17 Hornet up through .338 magnums, and it provides a superb array of precision-enhancing features.
Each set comes with both full-length and neck-only bushing-type sizing dies, enabling the handloader the choice of full-length or neck sizing only. Plus, of course, it provides the ability to massage neck tension to accuracy-enhancing perfection.
Seating dies are Redding’s exceptional Competition Seater die, which is fit with a micrometer-type depth adjustment. The precision-ground seating stem is free-floating and matches bullet diameter exactly. Both cartridge case and bullet are aligned perfectly and are completely supported as seating is accomplished.
Of all the micrometers I’ve used on bullet-seating dies, Forster’s Ultra Micrometer Seater ($100 to $125, only available separately, not in a set) is my favorite. This seating die, available for more than 80 cartridges, does not crimp cases. It’s for loading match-grade ammo, and crimping rarely plays well in that realm.
It’s got a big, beefy knurled top with a large, easily read 0.001-inch scale that makes large adjustments intuitively and fine adjustments precisely. A snug, machined full-length chamber holds the case, bullet and seating stem in alignment as you seat the projectile. You can even have a custom seating stem machined to perfectly fit your projectile of choice.
Forster’s full-length sizing die ($60) is simple and the die you want if you’re hunting with your handloads. Alternatively, pick the Bushing Bump Neck Bench Rest sizing die ($84), which allows you to adjust neck tension. This die does not full-length size but bumps just the shoulder slightly. This preserves the fire-formed custom fit you got when you fired the brass in your rifle’s chamber. Myriad bushings are available singly or in three-packs preselected for optimal size for a given cartridge.