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Loading Leverguns with Hand Tools
By: Al Anderson
Loading with Handtools has been around for a long time now. From the 1870's when the first reloadable cartridges came out and for the next fifty years the first cartridges were loaded with a variety of tong type handtools before any of the bench type presses came along. The Firearms companies like Winchester and Marlin manufactured their own tools. One of the earliest manufacturers of hand tools for reloading was the Ideal Manufacturing Company, and it made some of the most widely used tools for handloading. Some of the early handtools had a built in bullet molds. There were other manufactures of hand tools years ago but I'm not going to cover them here. What this article is going to cover is what's available today in the line of handtools, as they are still very useful for today's handloaders. Years ago for someone living away from town the hand tools were a must, as the old-timers relied on their firearms weather it be a six-gun, levergun or single shot to use for protection, and food they needed them to survive, so they also needed a way to load their own ammo. Whether they were in the brush, plains, hills or mountains sometimes many miles from town this was the only way they were going to get more ammo and that was to load it themselves. And the same type of tools they used back then still work very well today. I have had good luck using some of them for almost thirty years for my six-guns, single shots, leverguns and bolt actions. But since this is a levergun article that's all I'll cover here.
As you can see from the couple of photo's of my loading room, I'm not bench mounted press or progressive press anti as you can see I use many of them daily. There are just times the hand tools have a place. I'm not denying nostalgia is part of using the handtools its not the only reason. But when using the hand tools its hard not to think of the old buffalo hunters loading their own out on the plains or the old timers keeping there leverguns going with these same tools and how many deer that feel from those loads to feed themselves as well as their families. Wasn't so easy back then, the way fast food was then, you head out with your six-gun or rifle and hope you got some small game or a deer without having to go to far from the house to get it done and be back fast for supper. My Grandpa told how they lived on wild game they shot, as they had to sell the calves and pigs for money, many of the deer were shot from a slot from the loft in the barn with his old Winchester 1894 .32 Special and .45-90 Winchester 86. That barn isn't far from where I built the log house we live in now so I slipped gramps old .32 out one day and it felt pretty good doing what gramp did all those years. If you've ever read Elmer Keith's old book from 1936 called six-gun cartridges and loads in the first page or so there sits a old tong tool and throughout the book shows loading with the hand tool. Elmer used the hand tools and although he always said he thought bench mounted tools were better he knew hand tools had there place and made fine ammo if used properly. I think the dimensions of the newer hand tools and firearms has made using them allot easier. Also who could forget Skeeter Skelton when out at an outpost far away loading his ammo with just a hand tool. It sure makes me think of the good old days when I'm at camp or in the bush sitting by a fire loading ammo on the hand tools is just plum enjoyable and relaxing. Lately they've come in handy as I've been laid up the last few months with neck problems from and old injury of two crushed vertebrae. For me having to travel and stay 500 miles from home to a big town to see the Doctors that are trying to fix me up has been no fun. I guess I've had to be away from home for a month or so. Growing up and living out in the country my whole life, I can't see anything in the city of interest to me and my wife feels the same. I'm used to being able to walking out the door and do some shooting or hunting, taking off ahorseback or just taking the Harley out for a putt on a country road. I guess for people that like the city good for them, maybe I'm the odd one. Well at any rate its worked out well for me taking some Lyman 310 tools and dies for the .218 Bee, 25-20, 32-20 ,38-40 and the .44-40 and on days I felt up to it load some ammo for them as they load with out much effort.
above- handloading in a motel room
I don't know how many times I've read or heard someone say over the years that neck sizing won't work for leverguns. I think its like any other type of firearm be it a sixgun, levergun, bolt or single shot, if someone tries to use ammo that was loaded after being shot from someone else's firearm with larger chamber and then neck sized its just not going to work. In that situation they need to be full length sized. So its not the fault of the neck sizing its the fault of the shooter for using such ammo. There are times when hand tools do have their advantages. They are like a good 4" N framed Six-gun, or 4 5/8", 4 3/4" six-gun portable and packable and there when you need them. I feel very fortunate to be able to shoot from home but for guys that have to travel a long way to a range to shoot they can make up a kit with hand tools and components and throw them in your drag bag and head to the range to shoot or work up a load. Also hand tools would be good for someone that doesn't have the room to set up big bench presses that can take up allot of room. Another good reason is with hand tools and just neck sizing your brass will last allot longer from not being worked as much as full length sizing. If packing out ahorseback they fit o so well in a saddle bag or pack saddle. Even today for guys that head into the back country either afoot or 4 wheeler they are easy to take along and don't take up that much room. I'll get into the different types of hand tools shortly but the smallest and easiest to pack are the Lyman 310 or the Pak-tool. I just slip them into one of those plastic welding rod holders with the cover that screws on and your good to go and also water proof. I've also done a few test with a handful of leverguns in different calibers to show how many times I was able to load a single case with hand tools and just neck sizing before it was hard to load or extract or developed any cracks or splits that would make it unsafe to load.
There are a couple of ways to go when putting together a handloading kit that is packable, and I'll list the ones I've used. If you want to just neck size there are a couple of ways to go and I'll list the two I use. One is with the Lyman 310 Tong tool and the other is with the pak-tool. Both types use their own unique type of dies and neck size only for rifle cartridges. The Lyman 310 is still being made and comes in a variety of pistol, six-gun and rifle cartridges. The handles come in two different sizes, large and small depending what cartridge is to be loaded. I have some of the older Lyman handles that were cast iron and then chromed or blued. The old chromed handles were very good looking. But the older handles were for a specific caliber only. The new aluminum alloy handles can be used to load many different cartridges just by switching the case head adapter that comes with the dies. The older die sets were five dies one to deprime, resize, expand, and another to seat and crimp the bullet and another to reprime. With the new die sets there is only four dies, with one die you deprime and resize at the same time. The new dies are a little faster but the older dies were slick when shooting blackpowder as you could just deprime your cases and then clean them before resizing. Another nice feature with the expander die is that it will expand your case when using cast bullets just the same as using a Lyman M die in a standard bench press. For trimming brass when afield I use one of the Lee case trimmers as its small and works well, I have one for each caliber i load for. Although I must admit with just neck sizing straight walled cases it isn't very often they need trimming even the bottle necked rifle cartridges require very little trimming. For powder charging you can find some of the old Lyman dippers but good luck with that. Or you can use a case from a different caliber and trim it down to the proper charge and attach a handle to it. My favorite way and the easiest is to buy a set of the Lee plastic dippers and find one close and if too much just file it to the proper charge. Its hard to believe how close the dipped charges of powder will be if put on a scale to check, once you get used to dipping the same way each time. One word of caution here is that I would never dip a charge of powder that is absolute max for a given load in any firearm, because if you leave a heap on the dipper it could push the load over max and be very dangerous, and handloading should be fun with good loads produced not dangerous ones that could hurt you or someone else or tie up your fire arm when you need it most. With the Lyman 310 you'd be surprised how fast you can learn to load with them. The latest Lyman 310 handles are very good looking with much better quality than the ones I have from the 70's and 80's. I don't know why but I did break one of the new sets of handles while loading 47-70's but a call to Lyman and they said send the old set in and it didn't take but a couple of weeks and in the mail was a new set free of charge, so can't beat that. The price for a set of handles and dies varies but usually can be had for $75.00 to $85.00 . The Pak-tool is a unique tool that came out in the late 50's and was designed and made by William English of Seattle, Washington. When he passed away Bruce Roberts also of Washington State continued making them. I talked to Bruce the other day and he has moved to Idaho a couple of years ago. The good news is that he is still making them but only has around eighty sets of handles left and because of the price to make the new handles he may not have them for much longer. The good news is if you have a set of handles he can always make the dies for them. I need a couple more myself. The dies can be made for almost any caliber I believe up to .45 Caliber. I tried to have a set made up for my .475 and .500 Linebaugh's but he said there wasn't enough room in the handle for them. I do have several sets for large rifles though they are .35 Whelen, .375 H&H, .444 Marlin and .45-70. For rifles the pak-tool is neck size only. But for six-guns they really work well as they full length size and work very well just make sure to use a good lube, I've used most but have had good luck with GAR no squeak, Imperial sizing wax and believe it or not have had very good luck with the Lee lube for tough sizing operations with the hand tools. The Pak-tool works very well and performs all aspects of loading from depriming to priming, sizing and expanding also seating and crimping bullets. It will be a big loss if this tool is gone forever. If you'd like to talk to Bruce about a Pak-tool give him a call at 208-875-1643. The price of the Pak-Tool with dies is around $60.00 or so but you'll have to check to be sure. Same for the rest of the dies and hand tools the prices may vary.
Targets shot at 100 yards
There are other small portable hand presses that you can use if you want to be able to use your standard loading dies and full length dies. These would work well for someone that doesn't have allot of room to set up a full blown handloading room. Although not as small as the Lyman 310 or the Pak-Tool they are still small enough to be portable and you don't need a bench to mount them to to use them. I'll list the ones I've used, The Lee Hand Press $20.00, Lyman Accupress $35.00, Huntington HDS Handpress $ 70.00-$75.00. I've used all three and my favorite is the Lee, it is larger but it sort of reminds me of a Pak-tool. One advantage to the Lyman is that it can be also mounted to a bench just by switching the linkage and handle to a different position. There is a new press out by Mecham but I haven't had a chance to pick one up yet but it looks like a dandy and should work well
Handtools -L to R - Lyman AccuPress,
Now for the results of the test I did loading Marlin and Winchester Leverguns to show how well they work just with neck sized ammo. First let me say this if you are on a hunt of a life time or after game that would take a bite out of you, and you have just neck sized your ammo, make sure each round you will be using feeds well from magazine to chamber and that it extracts well, if not full length sized, even then you should always try you handloaded rounds to make sure everything is okay. What I've found with using hand tools that neck size only, that with each different load you use and firearm used results will vary. Light loads can be neck sized many times and work very well, but max loads that are sticky may give you trouble after neck sizing only a time or two. As a matter of fact be careful with real hot loads even if they were full length sized as you may find yourself in trouble with a stuck case at a bad time. Its just not worth using these type of loads as performance on game they buy you nothing usually and sometimes the higher velocity loads can actually hurt penetration or performance on game if your bullet falls apart weather it be cast or jacketed. Use cast bullets of the proper alloy and jacketed bullets of the partition type or X bullets and stay away from the light or fragile type of bullets on big game and when you hit the game in the right spot you'll be bringing it home and not chasing it all over the country side.
Here's the results from loading a single case in the same Levergun just neck sizing. With a Marlin 94 in .218 Bee using a Lyman 310 and a load consisting of a new Winchester Case, Hornady 45 grain bullet over 14.1 grains of IMR 4198 and velocity from the 22" barrel at 2850 FPS. I loaded the same case twenty three times before I noticed a line around the body and quit loading it before the case separated. I trimmed the case at shots 10,15 and 20 and on shot 15 you could start to feel that it was getting sticky when chambering and extracting. With a Winchester 94 Classic 30-30 26" I loaded two different loads one a lower pressure load with a cast bullet and another higher pressure load with a jacketed bullet. With a Lyman 310 and With a one time fired Remington case a 170 grain cast FN bullet over 10 grains of A Unique and velocity at 1520 FPS I loaded the same case 23 times before the case mouth developed a small split in it. With a one times fired Winchester case and a 170 grain Remington Jacketed soft point over 32 grains of A RL 12 Velocity 2107 FPS I loaded that same case 14 times before it was hard to close the lever and at shot 13 I trimmed the case and you could feel it was getting sticky. With my Winchester 73 in .38-40 and a light plinking load, and a Winchester case loaded with a RCBS Cast 180 FN bullet over 5 grains of W 231 Velocity 747 FPS I loaded it 7 times and could have loaded it many more times. Same thing goes for my old Winchester 92 in .44-40 loaded with a plinking load of a 200 cast FN loaded over 7 grains of W 231 velocity 1051 I loaded that one 7 times and could have many times more. With my .444 Marlin Outfitter and a one times fired brass then full length sized I then loaded it with a Pak-Tool and neck sized only a load with a 330 grain LFN GC I cast from a Ballisti-cast mold loaded over 38 grains of IMR 4198 and velocity of 1900 FPS I was able to load it 9 times before the lever was sticky and getting hard to close. I could feel that it was getting sticky at shot number 8. The last one I kept tract of was with a Marlin 95 45-70 Guide Gun 18 1/2". With a new Starline case loaded with a 410 grain RCBS FNGC cast bullet loaded over 50 grains of AA 2495 and velocity 1650 FPS I loaded a single case 55 times neck sizing with the Lyman 310. ON the 49th shot it developed a small crack in the case mouth but I still loaded it 6 more times and as small as the crack was I could have loaded it a few more times if a guy was out and had to. This is around an 18,000 PSI load so I'd say that awesome service from a single case. From the photo you can see the cases that I loaded so many times. And I'm sure results will vary from load to load, gun to gun and also brass will vary but they do work well.
One last way I use the hand tools is sometimes I'll just neck size them and then run them through my Dillon 550 when I want to load up a bunch fast.
So if you've used hand tools I'm sure you've enjoyed them and if not give them a try and you'll probably have some fun with them. The nostalgia part is worth it itself.