by: Germán A. Salazar
When I began shooting Highpower, most competitors used military brass for their ammo. If you were lucky, you scrounged enough Lake City Match brass to keep you going; if you were less fortunate you used surplus brass from regular ball ammo. Although commercial brass was the norm for bolt-action rifles, it saw very little use in M1 and M14 service rifles (“Who on earth would shoot an M16?” we thought…). Today, I don’t see too much use of military brass outside of the AR15 shooters who still scrounge Lake City brass (and it is good brass). A lot of it has to do with all the oddball calibers we see on the firing line these days; but some of it, I think, is that we’re pushed into commercial brass by what we read. The popular shooting magazines have advertisers’ expectations to satisfy and military brass isn’t on their inventory list. As a result, a lot of newer shooters don’t have a good appreciation for the real quality and engineering built into every piece of U.S. made military brass and how to properly prepare it for match use.
In this article, we’ll go through all of my procedures for preparing surplus military .30-06 for Highpower match use, from start to finish. I’ll describe what I do, how I do it and some alternatives when applicable. I hope this guide shows a practical, low-cost approach to creating match brass because the price of new commercial brass isn’t getting any lower! The brass we’ll use is Lake City 67 picked up at a CMP M1 Garand match. This is plain old ball brass, fired once through several Garands with their military barrels which have fairly generous chambers. Let’s get started!
At left you see a picture of a bag of brass, just as it was collected at the range. It is dirty, dinged up and generally looking unloved. Don’t be fooled, Lake City (and before that Frankford Arsenal) is the home of the some of the finest ammunition engineers in the world. That brass has the best metallurgy, dimensional uniformity, hardness, annealing sequences and head machining you’ll find anywhere. It just needs a little tender loving care after going through a rack grade Garand.
I don’t really use a tumbler/vibratory cleaner much in my normal reloading procedures. Brass fired in a bolt action rifle doesn’t get very dirty and I don’t let it roll around on the firing line. As a result, I normally just clean the necks with a Krazy Kloth, lube with Imperial Sizing Die Wax and wipe off with a wet towel. However, this brass is very dirty and it’s got to be cleaned before it goes into the sizing die because all the grit on it will score the dies if left alone. I tossed the brass into the old Thumbler’s Tumbler for a couple of hours. A couple of teaspoons of water added in slowly as the brass was beginning to move seems to help a bit. Don’t overdo the water or the corn cob media will just clump up and get stuck in the cases.
I keep an old Rockchucker press set up with a universal decapping die and it’s very handy for this kind of thing. Military brass has crimped-in primers (except Lake City Match) and sometimes they can be tough to remove and may bend a standard decapping pin. This is less of a problem with military .223 on which the primer crimp is generally quite light by comparison to .308 and .30-06 military brass. The RCBS decapping die is pretty heavy duty and has never given me any trouble. We’ll cover primer pocket crimp removal a little further along. As a side note, if you happen across some once-fired Lake City Match brass, apart from having no primer crimp, it was usually made at a slightly slower pace and may be a bit more uniform in neck thickness, but not much, if at all. The biggest advantage of the Match brass is that you can generally count on it having been fired in a rifle with a good chamber, not in a machine gun or a rack-grade rifle with large chamber. That means you might get a couple of extra loadings from the match stuff compared to machine gun fired ball, but if the ball brass came from a rifle with a good chamber, there won’t be any difference.
Once the brass has been decapped, it’s time to resize it. As I mentioned earlier, this brass was fired in Garands, many of them. Although when it left the Lake City production line sometime in 1967 it was all identical, it isn’t all the same anymore after being fired in different rifles. Before resizing, I checked the headspace on about ten cases to get a sense of how long they might be. They were all within normal specs, nothing unusual and they went into the case gauge without any trouble. A few had to be pushed in a little, but that’s because the necks were dinged up, the base dimension was fine on all of them. If I’d run across any with a swollen base that wouldn’t go into the gauge, I would have stopped the process and checked them all. Because my sample showed no problems, I continued on to the sizing step, bearing in mind that any fat cases would be obvious as they went into the sizing die anyway.
Resizing once-fired brass that was fired in a rifle other than the one in which you’re going to fire it next requires attention to a couple of important details. The first is to make sure that your die sizes the base enough to ensure easy chambering and extraction. I used the Hornady New Dimension FL die for this because it has a fairly tight base and produces good, concentric brass. I don’t use it for my normal loading because it sizes the base a bit more than I prefer for routine work, but for this type of sizing (and for Garands generally) it’s a great choice. The second item to watch is the headspace; make sure that you’re pushing the shoulder back enough to easily chamber in the rifle in which you’ll use the brass. If your rifle has +0.003″ headspace, for instance, and the brass is at +0.005″ headspace, then just size it to +0.001″, there’s no need to go to zero in that case. In terms of headspace, you can treat it like you would your regular brass, just make sure you set the shoulder back enough but don’t overwork it.
One point that I need to emphasize is that every time you pick up a piece of brass to perform any operation on it, look at it carefully! That warning applies to all brass, not just military brass, but given the uncertain history of once-fired military brass, paying attention is doubly important. What are you looking for? Look near the base to see if there are any signs of incipient case head separation. While that is unlikely on once-fired brass, if the rifle in which it was fired had really excessive headspace, it can happen. What else? Neck splits, chewed up case mouths, splits anywhere along the body, different caliber brass mixed in (like a .270 in a pile of .30-06). Before you decap the brass, take a look at the primer, if it isn’t a brass-colored military primer with the sealer on it, that’s not once-fired brass, it’s been reloaded already and you really don’t know anything about that – throw that one out. Look at the base, is the rim in good condition, or is it deformed by the extractor? Set aside any with deformed rims, they just aren’t worth the trouble. Is the primer blanked, pieced or leaking on any? Pass on those, who knows what happened, but it didn’t do the primer pocket any good. All of these defects, and more, occur in military and commercial brass – although rarely on the first firing. Still, it pays to be alert when the brass didn’t begin its life in your rifle.
Now we have a bucket of brass; it’s decapped and sized and ready for the next step. That step is trimming, chamfering and deburring the case mouth. I used to really dread this phase of reloading work, but about 7 years ago I bought a Giraud trimmer and frankly it has never been a concern since then. It takes me about ten minutes to trim, chamfer and debur 75 cases on the Giraud tool and they all come out perfect. You’ll notice that military brass used for ball ammo still has some crimp marks near the mouth. Match brass won’t have those because it isn’t crimped onto the bullet. If the trimming doesn’t get rid of the crimp marks, don’t worry, they won’t hurt anything and by the second trim after a few firings, they’ll be gone.
Good, even trimming is always important, but even more so now, because we will be turning the necks on this brass and even length necks are a requirement of good neck turning as it is the neck length which determines how far into the shoulder the cutter goes. While neck turning isn’t an essential part of military brass prep, it’s part of my normal routine and I don’t see any reason to skip it on this set of brass. Neck thickness variance on this particular lot of brass was within the normal range for most .30-06 brass: under 0.002″ average variance. While that isn’t perfect, it’s not too bad and you could certainly shoot good scores with brass like that. I checked the trim length with a Forster case gauge (the same one I used for the headspace checks). This tool is always on my bench and it really gets a workout; I can check all safety related dimensional aspects of brass in seconds with it. You still have to look for flaws as noted above, but the gauge is a very quick check for neck length, headspace, base diameter and shoulder diameter.
Our next step is removing the primer crimp. This is the step that keeps a lot of people from even trying to use military brass, and the truth of the matter is that there’s no reason to let that happen to you. Primer crimp removal is a simple and straightforward operation requiring simple tools and attention to detail, just like any other aspect of reloading. There are many tools on the market for this job; I can only comment on the RCBS primer pocket swage tool, because I’ve been using it from an awfully long time and have had no desire to try anything else. The picture at left shows the tool which consists of a swaging spud (large and small sizes), a die body, a support rod (large and small sizes) and the case stripper (the cup-shaped item with a hole in the middle).
RCBS provides good instructions on its use, but basically, the case is raised into the die body where the support rod makes contact with the web area and as the press stroke is completed, the spud is driven into the primer pocket and reams the crimp out. The ram is then lowered and as it hits bottom, the case stripper, which stops it’s downward travel a bit before the ram, bumps the case off the spud. What you’re looking for from the swager is for it to slightly round over the sharp corner left by the crimp because that edge will impede primer seating and any attempt at seating primers with that sharp corner still in place will result in crushed primers. If you try seating a primer and notice it requires excessive force to seat, the primer looks cupped in the middle and the edge radius is more of a sharp corner, the crimp has not been removed sufficiently. If you go too far, then the primer pocket becomes loose and the case won’t last through many reloadings.
Once I have the swage adjusted to just break the edge of that crimp corner, I very lightly clean it up with a regular case mouth deburring tool. I emphasize that this is a very light pass with the tool, we’re not trying to remove more metal, we’re just cleaning up the roughness left from the swaging process. I hope that my written explanation is entirely clear, but it’s a simple process and once you have it set up it’s about the same level of effort as seating a bullet.
This picture shows cases at each step of the process. 1. Fired, crimped-in primer still in place. 2. Decapped, primer out, edge of pocket still deformed from the crimp. 3. Primer pocket swaged with RCBS tool. 4. Edge of pocket very lightly deburred. 5. New primer in place, note good edge radius, no flattening from excessive seating force. Pay particular attention to the difference between case 2 and case 3; notice in Case 2 the small edge below the surface of the case head that still shows some red sealer on it – that’s the crimp corner we need to get rid of. See that in Case 3 it’s no longer a sharp edge and then in Case 4 the deburring tool smoothed the transition a bit. If your cases look like the primer pocket has a large funnel, you’re swaging too much. Examine the swaged pockets carefully, use a magnifier if you have one just to make sure you’re getting a nice transition. Seat a couple of primers before you swage the whole set, make sure they go in normally. Once you have a few that feel right, then continue with the whole set. The feel of the primer going in is as important, or more, as the visual break of the crimp corner. Click this picture to enlarge it to full size for a clearer view of these details.
Older RCBS dies have the year of manufacture stamped on the top, that was always a nice reminder of when you got something and a useful way to differentiate a couple of similar dies. I don’t know why or when they quit marking them but the newer ones I’ve seen don’t have that.
At this point, the cases should be ready to load and fire. As I mentioned before, I’ll neck turn them first for my use, but that’s not necessary for every situation. Seat a bullet and measure the loaded neck diameter, if there is at least 0.004″ clearance to your chamber neck diameter you won’t have to turn necks if that’s your preference.
Update December, 2010:
I have switched to the Wilson Primer Pocket Reamer to remove the primer crimp. Click here for the article describing the Wilson reamer.
So there we have it, good match-ready brass for a lot less money than today’s high-priced commercial brass. It should last through as many or more reloadings as the commercial stuff and it didn’t cost anything more than bending over to pick them up at the range and a bit of extra effort before the first reloading. Enjoy the savings and the quality – Uncle Sam put many millions of dollars into the design and manufacture of that cartridge case and he got a good return on his investment, it’s a high quality component.