Should You Stay Single?
January 04, 2011
Deciding the progressive vs. single-stage press question.
Traditionally, shooters — especially competitive shooters who shoot thousands of rounds a year — use progressive presses for the high-volume ammo production advantage, but rifle guys shy away from such presses for their perceived lack of consistency. In theory, single-stage presses provide an advantage when loading for accuracy.
In some cases, that's a mistaken perception. There are situations in which progressive presses are not only suitable for loading accurate rifle ammo, they are superior. Yes, progressive presses have more moving parts, have a certain amount of flexibility built in to allow the press to operate without binding up, use metered rather than weighed powder charges and so on.
On the other hand, in a quality progressive press, cases are oriented the same going into the last die as they were going into the first, as were the cartridges loaded before them. That's an advantage single-stage presses can't offer.
I used to make a tiny mark on the rim of my cases so I could orient them into the series of dies I mounted in my single-stage press as I loaded. A progressive press does that for you.
Obviously the greatest advantage a progressive offers is high-volume reloading. A serious loader can easily take an hour to load 20 rounds on his single-stage press. Once set up, a handloader using a progressive press can crank out several hundred rounds in an hour.
So when shouldn't you use a progressive press? I never use one to build high-performance hunting ammo, for several reasons. First, I'm usually not producing more than perhaps 50 rounds of a given caliber/bullet combination, and setup time on the progressive doesn't justify it. Also, I weigh powder charges for my hunting ammo.
Also, although capable, progressive presses are not optimum for loading top-performing hunting rounds such as the .300 Weatherby Magnum. Cases are long, powder charges are large and loading can simply be a sensitive process.
Personally, I don't typically load most long-action cartridges on my progressive, whether they be .270 Winchester or .30-378 Weatherby. I feel those are best left to a quality single stage.
Specialty loading, such as when loading paper-patched bullets or building fodder for blackpowder cartridge rifles, is also best left to the single-stage press where conscious attention to every minute aspect of each step can be given.
On the other hand, I can think of nothing more satisfying than cranking out three or four hundred .308 Winchester rounds for my Springfield M1A rifle. And if I had to load all my .223 ammo on a single-stage press I'd give up shooting ARs.
Short-action cartridges are easy to handle and manipulate through progressive presses, and as far as I can tell, as long as I use a ball, flake or short-cut extruded powder that meters well there is no loss of accuracy.
Recently I've been having an affair with a lovely Remington Model 8 in .30 Remington caliber, which is obsolete. It's hard to even find empty cases. Luckily it uses standard .30-30 projectiles, dies are available from Hornady and RCBS, and interestingly it uses the same shell holder/plate as the 6.8 SPC. I've managed to round up 200 cases, and with iron sights that rifle averages 21/2-inch groups at 100 yards with the ammo I merrily crank out of my Hornady L-N-L progressive press.
For a few years I shot fairly extensively in Cowboy Action matches, and my rifle/handgun caliber of choice was .44-40 Winchester. Now, there is no source of ammo cheap enough to keep a college kid supplied with .44-40 ammo at the matches, so I loaded large quantities of cast bullets in that and .45-70 Gov't (for the long range single-shot and lever-action events) on my progressive. Most classic lever-action calibers such as the .30-30, 38-55, .444 Marlin, .45-70 and so on are prime for loading on a progressive press.
I use both single-stage and progressive presses to load varmint ammunition. Good varmint rifles are typically capable of excellent accuracy, but at least for western shooters who may go through a couple of hundred rounds per day over a long weekend hunt, loading each cartridge lovingly on a single-stage press is out of the question.
I use a single-stage press while developing loads for a new rifle. It's more suitable to loading batches of 10 rounds or so with different powder charges, different bullet types and seating depths and so on. However, once I find a load the rifle likes, I will transition to the progressive press. Again, I try to select powders that meter well to keep charges consistent, and I'll do an accuracy check with the ammo loaded on the progressive just to confirm that its performance is up to par.
Competition? That depends on the type of shooting involved. For matches that call for a finite number of rounds in a situation requiring superb accuracy, such as most High Power shooting, F-Class competition and so on across the board to blackpowder cartridge rifle silhouette, a single-stage press is called for, as well as some pretty involved case prep and so on.
For 3-Gun and other action-type shooting, however, a progressive press can be a shooter's best friend. Bullet placement at speed is what wins the day, and the best way to attain that ability is through lots of practice. Lots of practice takes lots of ammo.
Bottom line? Serious shooters with a broad diversity of interests need both types of press. Luckily, options are many and quality typically pretty good, especially among single-stage presses. Hornady, Lyman, RCBS, Redding, Forester and so on all offer excellent options.
Progressive presses, being machines of mechanical genius (or diabolical bent), should be chosen carefully. Brands I trust are Hornady (L-N-L AP press), Dillon (particularly the 550B) and RCBS. Not only do these company's machines last and perform well, customer service is impeccable. For those of us addicted to producing large quantities of ammo to support our range habits, that's important.