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Reloading the .50BMG



This is standard reloading. Match grade reloading is Here.


It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the fundamentals of reloading a bottleneck metallic cartridge. This is not a basic reloading course, it is an intro to reloading the .50 for those that are familiar with reloading more typical cartridges. No one assumes any risk for your actions or their consequences! I cannot be there to look over your shoulder when you reload so I take NO responsibility or liability WHATSOEVER! This information is provided for entertainment use only. (And all that other good lawyer-like crap...)

Here's an incomplete quick-index:

Case cleaning
Full Length sizing
Case trimming
Primer pockets
Priming
Bullet Sizing

Where to start?

Reloading the .50 is in many ways identical to reloading smaller cartridges, but different in some. Most of the tools will seem familiar (just bigger). Most of the procedures will seem familiar, but there are some new ones.

I'm going to start with a pictorial description of the process I use for loading 'plinker' rounds. 'Plinker' rounds are those that I make for the most economical shooting - while they can achieve respectable accuracy, it is not what can be done with 'match' ammunition.

Following the section on loading plinking ammo I'll detail the differences in the process I use to load 'match' ammo. Match ammo means 'damn the cost - I want the most accurate ammo that can be made!' Note that this section will only be covering the differences, I don't want a bunch of repetition, so make sure you look at the plinker steps too.

Rather than have a seperate reloading equipment section, I'll briefly discuss gear as we go along. Someday I plan to make a page identifying reloading equipment and costs from cheapest to best for the person considering reloading the .50. For those considering reloading the .50, there is one thing that the neophyte and the experienced reloader-of-smaller-calibers has in common: You will need a whole bunch of new equipment. Woefully few of the tools used for reloading smaller calibers will work for the .50, so it's like starting from scratch.

Finally, a caveat: This is the way I reload for the .50. I'm not about to claim that it's the best or only way, it's just what works for me.

Let's get started!

I guess to start we ought to have some brass (empty casings). There are a lot of sources for brass now, so getting decent brass ought to be fairly easy. A primary source of brass is government surplus. Government surplus is not the highest quality, nicest stuff to work with but it's often some of the least expensive. Some of the differences between reloading the .50 and smaller cartridges are the things we must do to make use of this surplus material. If you get some once fired or 'pull' (pulldown) brass the first thing to do is inspect it. (Pulls are brass or bullets that have been pulled from previously loaded ammo - think of it as 'used, but never fired')

Inspection - Part 1

Inspection is on on-going process. There are several spots when I stop to inspect my brass, but even when I'm not specifically inspecting I am always observing and willing to cull out and destroy any component that appears unsafe. When I inspect brass I look for several things:

  • Berdan primers.50BMG is one of the few cartridges where you still find brass that is Berdan primed. If you don't know what a Berdan primer is you shouldn't be reading this - I told you it was for folks who already understood smaller caliber reloading. Finding a Berdan with your decapping pin is aggravating at the least. With the .50 you not only bend the pin, you may have trapped your neck-expander ball inside the case. The case is thick, and the so is the decapper, so you may have to disassemble the whole operation and saw the brass apart. If that sounds like fun, you may skip the primer inspection.


  • cracks, voids, inclusions, defects A surprising percentage of surplus brass has some of these defects. Pulls are further at risk as they are sometimes damaged by the machines that disassemble the ammo.


  • Incipient splits Those who are experienced reloaders know what this is, if I can find one and get it to show up in a picture, I'll post it. The size of the .50 makes it a little easier to inspect in this regard and an 'L'-shaped piece of wire (coathanger or similar) can be used to probe for non-uniformities inside the case. I think a nicely rounded and polished tip make this tool most effective.


  • We'll pause in the inspection process here, but we're not done!

    Cleaning!

    Now look inside the case necks. If they're government surplus, especially pulls, odds are there's an uneven coating of black 'crud'.
    The case on the right has sealant in the neck.
    It may look like powder residue, soot, or carbon, but it's sealant that was used to make the original load water proof. It is nasty and hard and will not come out during tumbling (the next step). If you leave it in, you'll face two major consequences: You'll need a breaker bar on your press to pull your round down off the neck-expander ball in your sizing die, and your seated bullets will have a lot of runout, resulting in poor accuracy. The best way to remove the 'crud' is with a 1/2" steel brush of the kind used to prep copper pipe fittings for soldering. These can be found at your local hardware store. The brand I usually see is "Oatey" and they have a red handle. Waste no time chopping the handle off so you can put the brush in a cordless drill and go to town.
    When the case necks are clean inside, it's time to polish the brass. Polishing is done in a tumbler, just like for smaller rounds, and you can use the very same tumbler. A small tumbler will usually handle about 25 cases. (Yep, that's all.)

    Surplus brass is usually pretty tarnished and unattractive. It takes some real effort to get it nice and shiny. For this reason I prefer walnut media in the tumbler and for the first run of a given lot of brass I will throw in a teaspoon or so of Brasso. (Brass polish) Now, Brasso contains ammonia, which can embrittle brass, so some folks stay the heck away from it. I use it the first time, and wash the cases in hot soapy water (and rinse) after tumbling.
    A batch of brass going into the tumbler. (I use the small tumbler, because I've added brasso to the mix. The larger tumblers are for more general tumbling.) Note the recently cleaned case neck opening.

    Inspection - Part 2

    Now that the brass are clean and hopefully shiny, I re-inspect. Some defects are easier to see when the case is dirty, some are easier to see when the case is clean. Repeat the inspection process. (We shouldn't have to check for Berdan primers or neck sealant again, though.)

    Resize and decap

    Some folks like to decap their brass before tumbling, but I find that the tumbler is not very efficient at cleaning primer pockets, and I'm going to do that in a seperate step anyway, so I wait until now.

    Most people start reloading the .50 with one of the "everything-you-need kit"s from RCBS or Hornady. It is the most economical way to go, short term, but I didn't find the setup very satisfactory and ended up replacing much of it. If you're happy with standard RCBS dies and a rock chucker for smaller calibers, you may be happy with one of these kits. If you like competition dies, or fancier presses, shell out the dough and setup right the first time. If you're buying dies seperately I strongly recommend CH/4D. Their service has been very good and I am pleased with their product.

    I set up my .50 full-length sizing die just as I would set up a smaller caliber; I run it down until it just kisses the shellholder, then back off exactly one skootch. (I'll cover neck sizing in the match prep section.) The only real difference here is that the shellholder on many .50 presses is threaded in, and can be adjusted up and down. It is also prone to coming loose if not fastened securely. I run it down as far as possible to avoid loosening it inadvertently. I do this before adjusting the die.

    Now lube your cases (I like Dillon spray lube, but any case lube should work if applied properly.) Make darn sure you lube the inside of your case necks! Sizing proceeds as with smaller calibers: The shell goes in the shellholder and is pushed up into the die. The decapping pin knocks the spent primer (if present) out of the bottom of the case, where it falls into the catch bin, bounces out, and comes to rest on the floor. The die shrinks the case down, and during withdrawal expands the neck enough to allow seating of a bullet.
    A case about to be sized


    50 sized and cleaned brass



    Case trimming

    The dreaded-est part of loading the big .50. If you hated case trimming before, you'll really loathe it now. (But there is a light at the end of the tunnel...) The trim-to length for the .50BMG is something like 3.9". Now, I suppose, is a convenient time to mention another aspect of loading this cartridge. At present there are no SAAMI specs for the .50BMG. What this means is that there are no *standards*. So, you may see 3.9" in one book and 3.85" in another... I went with the Hodgdon book.

    The Giraud trimmer in action
    No, I don't trim on the floor, I had to move things to somewhere where the lighting would work for the picture.


    There are at least a dozen case trimmers on the market for the .50 BMG - some good, some bad, some awful. If you start with a ready to go kit from RCBS or Hornady, you'll get the awful method: the trim die. A trim die is a miserable apparatus that the sized brass is pressed into. Any material protruding from the top of the die is filed off, flush with the die. Sounds easy, doesn't it? I consider this 'survival reloading'. You will want a better (meaning faster & easier) trimmer. I have tried a few and recommend the K&M (Address on the links page)for those on a tight budget, and the Giraud Trimmer for those who want the most speed and convenience. I'm going to neglect instructions for setting up a trimmer, because every trimmer comes with them.

    A nicely trimmed case mouth


    Material removed after trimming 50 cases. (Quantity will vary.)



    Primer pocket preparation

    Primer pocket uniforming is generally considered a 'match prep' step. For smaller calibers, I agree. For the .50, I consider it mandatory. There seems to be more variation in .50 cases, and of course more force is required anyway, so I uniform all my BMG primer pockets. This avoids smashed or deformed primers, and reduces the number of high primers or other priming defects that you may incur. I use a K&M primer pocket uniformer. I stick it in a cordless drill to expedite things. The Giraud case trimmer is so nice that I now hate primer pocket uniforming more than any other step.

    If you bought government surplus brass it may have some form of crimp remaining in the primer pocket. (Many military rounds have the primers crimped, or staked, in.) There are a few ways to get rid of the crimp: Some folks use a countersink to chamfer the edge. This has the added advantage of making the primer insert more easily, but may result in loose primers (bad thing) if overdone. Others rely on the primer pocket uniformer to remove the crimp. This works - most of the time. Finally, you can swage the crimp out with a swage kit. Since I've only mentioned them 12 times, I'm sure you will be surprised to know that you can find such tools at CH/4D. (I'm really not affiliated with these guys, it's just that they have spotted this void in the reloading world and filled it. If I knew of others I'd post 'em.) The perfect method is to avoid crimped brass (even brass that has supposedly had the crimp removed), but barring that I'm presently leaning toward swaging...

    If these were to become 'match' rounds, I'd be uniforming flash holes right now. That's another tool, and another step. If you don't do it for your smaller calibers, don't bother with it here, either.

    Shakedown!!

    At this point I've made some metal shavings. Some are probably still in the cases. (The rest are on my clothing, my chair, the floor... Thank God I have an understanding wife.) At this point I may throw the cases back in the tumbler for an hour or so. (This time in corn-cob media, without Brasso) just to shake any crumbs out. I pick them out of the tumbler one at a time and give 'em a good shake, inspect for remaining debris, and place in my loading block. (Incidentally, the MTM 12 gauge boxes that hold 100 12ga shells, neatly hold 50 .50 rounds. Just remove the top tray. (The tray becomes your loading block.) The model number is SF-100, check 'em out at MTM. You can probably find these at your local department store in the sporting goods section. UPDATE I have been told by a number of people that the newly made 10ga. MTM box - Sorry, I don't have the model number - work even better.


    Priming

    Another place where the .50 is moderately different than its smaller cousins. Priming the .50 can be pretty tedious. Most of the all-in-one kits come with a simple priming system that screws in where the shellholder normally resides, and the shellholder is moved to the top of the press (with the aid of an adaptor). A primer is placed in a cup on the ram and run up into the case. CH/4D sells this style apart from the kits. This is the most economical system, and is typically OK. For those desiring a snazzier seater there are two similar seaters made by Arizona Ammo and M2 Precision. The M2 has the greatest precision potential as the shellholder is tightened (for each case) down onto the shell. The M2 is a marvel of precision machining. Whether this high degree of precision helps or not is left to the judgement of the reader. The Arizona Ammo unit is similar, but with a fixed shellholder. I have not personally seen the Arizona Ammo unit, but have been assured by a third party that it is quite pleasant to use.

    Priming with the M2 tool.


    Powder!!

    It's time to dispense powder! I know of only two powder throwers that will throw a complete .50 load in one toss: Hornady and JDS quick-measure. I use the JDS, and am pleased with it. When I called to order, the fellow I spoke with was very friendly and I received my measure within a week. I throw the powder to within .2 grains, and trickle up to exactly the charge I want. (For plinker, I just throw and go.) I typically combine this step with bullet seating, preferring to throw powder, seat bullet, then repeat. So without much ado:

    Measuring powder with the JDS Quick-Measure


    Bullet seating!!

    We're finally on the verge of completed ammunition. I use a CH/4D in-line seater and seat the bullets to the length I have chosen. Setup is just like with smaller calibers.

    Using the RCBS standard seater for plinking ammo (bullet not yet seated)





    Plinker bullet prep

    Now, a brief segue: Oddly enough, this is where plinker ammo is more work than match ammo. Match bullets are pristine, made to near-perfection, and ready to go, but...

    I load plinkers with surplus pulled bullets and they can be oversized, out of round, and generally mauled by the pulling process. Additionally, they usually arrive heavily tarnished and caked with powder from the shells from which they were removed. Given all that, there are a few steps before I'm going to allow one of them passage down my precious barrel. First I polish them in a tumbler. Again I use walnut media and a teaspoonful of Brasso. I recommend a rotary (as opposed to vibratory) tumbler for this step, as the weight may ruin a vibratory tumbler. - ask me how I know.) Once polished the bullets are run through a bullet sizing die to insure that they are on size, round, and that any blemishes have been smoothed back. Some wildcatters will be familiar with bullet sizing, but many folks will not.
    The process is simple: A ram is used in lieu of the shellholder
    and the bullet to be sized is poked through a die with a constricted opening.
    Because the nominal size for a .50 BMG bullet is 0.510", the sizing die should be 0.5095". CH/4D sells just such a die, and that is what I use. The bullets should be lubed, same as cases, before sizing. After sizing I wash in hot soapy water, rinse and allow to dry. Then the bullets are ready to be seated.
    The two bullets to the right in the foreground are dirty and unsized. The picture doesn't really convey the difference before and after. Also note the mutilation from pulling. In case you're wondering, the blocks are really from loaded .50AE ammunition. Sorry, I don't remember that particular brand, a local gun shop gave me the .50AE brass, and they happen to be in these great trays. Wish I had more...

    A batch of plinker ammo in the MTM 12ga. box - Ready for the range!
    Note: the loaded rounds are actually the same height, the variation is due to imperfect fit in the box.



    Match Prep

    Match loading is more advanced, but relies on the same basics. The match loading page is Here.