The .40 Smith and Wesson is reputed to be one of the
most difficult handgun cartridges to reload
successfully. I have read horror stories on the various
reloading forums about how difficult this this cartridge
is to reload.
Frankly I don't believe it so I am going to find out
I am going to pretend that I don't know anything about
reloading handgun cartridges. I truly do not know
anything about the .40 Smith and Wesson. When starting
this test, I have fired less than a box of factory
loads, and not a single reload in a .40 Smith and
I am going to pretend that I have not read all the
dozens of things that many self styled experts say are
absolutely necessary for successful reloading.
I am going to return in my mind to about 1958 and
remember only what I had learned at that time about
reloading the .38 Special with cast bullets. (I will
make a concession here and use Lee bullet casting equipment
because it is so very popular.)
I am going to deliberately try to screw up anything
I will begin with the following equipment.
Browning Hi-Power Single Action
Hornady LNL Single
RCBS 3 Die Carbide
100% Clip on Wheel Weights
Lee 20 lb Production
Lee Push Through .401
100% Undiluted Lee Liquid Alox
100 Range pickups unsorted, untrimmed,
Selected by grabbing a handful out of the
storage bin that contained around 2500 sorted
only by caliber. Some are dented and oval
Glock style head bulges were tossed into the
scrap brass bucket. Nothing else was eliminated.
Accurate No. 2 - Starting load 4.0gr. Maximum load
CCI No. 400 Small Pistol.
Various Lyman manuals.
The first step was to cast some bullets, starting with a
brand new Lee mold. Cast about 300. That should give 250
keepers for testing. For details of this procedure, see:
They must also be
lubricated. Since this is a tumble lube bullet and since
it is the most inexpensive and easiest method for
beginners, that is what I will use. I will follow the
instructions that come with the Lee sizing die kit.
Step 2) Clean the cases. Tumbled six hours in well
used Lyman walnut shells. I expect half that time would
be enough with new media.
Step 3) Select 100 cases with no effort to do
anything consistent. Reach into a box of about 2000
cases and pull up a fist full. Place them one by one
into a 50 round loading block with no selection for any
defect save one. Found two with bulged heads and tossed
them into the scrap bucket.
I selected 100 cases because I want to load in batches
of 50. I will want to make around a dozen dummy rounds
and I will lose some at the range. I should be able to
complete the experiment with this number of cases
without going back for more.
Step 4) Open the RCBS three die set and read the
instructions. Install the sizing die in the press and
adjust it according to the instructions provided with
the die set. Run the ram to the top if its stroke.
Handle all the way down. Screw the die into the press
until the mouth of the die contacts the top of the shell
holder. lower the ram and screw the die in one eight
turn further. Lock the locking ring up tight.
Step 5a) Screw the decapping stem out until the
decapping pin is barely visible. Insert the first case
into the shell holder and run it into the die. Then
screw the decapping pin down until it contacts and
ejects the spent primer. Then turn it down one more full
turn of the screw. Now tighten the lock nut.
Step 5b) Alternate method of adjusting the decapping
pin. With no case in the shell holder, raise the ram to
the top of the stroke. Screw the
decapping pin down until it extends a little more than
one eighth inch into the primer hole in the shell
holder. Test it by resizing a fired case. If the primer
is not ejected, screw the decapping pin down one full
turn and try again. Repeat until the primer is ejected.
Tighten the lock nut on the decapping pin.
Locate a container for the resized cases. A loading
block if you have one or a small box if you don't.
Resize all the cases. Moving them from one container to
the other as you resize them. Alternatively, if you have
a single 50 hole loading block, place all cases mouth
up. Remove them one at a time and resize them. Replace
them back in the same loading block - base up.
This will allow you to identify the resized cases
because the primer is missing. It also allows you to
inspect the primer pockets. I never clean primer pockets
in handgun reloading.
Step 7) Setup and adjust the expander die.
Screw the expander die into the press until the mouth of
the die is one eighth inch or so above the shell holder
when the ram is at the top of its stroke. This setting
is not critical. The critical adjustment will be made
with the expander plug. Tighten down the die lock ring
and lock it in place with its set screw.
Screw the expander plug all the way our of the die.
Insert a resized case into the shell holder and run the
ram up to the top of its stroke. Leave it there. Now
screw the expander plug into the die until you feel
resistance. That will be when it reaches the mouth of
the case. Continue to screw it into the die, forcing it
into the mouth of the case. Use only finger pressure. At
some point, the screw will become very hard to turn.
This happens when the expander step on the expander plug
has come into contact with the case mouth.
Now turn the expander plug down one half turn. Remove
the case and attempt to insert a bullet. It will not
enter the mouth of the case. Repeat this step until the
mouth of the case is expanded just ( barely ) enough to
accept the bullet. The bullet should enter the mouth of
the case about one sixteenth to one eight inch. No more. You will not be able to see any
expansion of the case mouth, you will not be able to
feel any expansion of the case mouth. It will not look
like a "bell".
Note that the bullet is a snug fit into the
case mouth. If you expand this photo by clicking
it, you can just see the slight hint of
expansion. You probably will not be able to see
it or feel it with your fingers.
Click on this image to expand it.
Another view of the expanded case mouth. The
case on the left is freshly resized with the
same resizing die settings as the case on the
right. The case on the right is the very same
case as shown above with the base of the bullet
inserted. Note that the case on the right is
very slightly larger at the mouth. This is most
visible at the bottom of the photo.
If you have a micrometer, the unexpanded case
will measure .417 at the mouth. The expanded
case will measure .417 one eight inch behind the
mouth and .422 at the mouth.
Obviously your case measurements will differ
from mine because your dies will differ.
Lock down the locking nut.
on this image to expand it.
Step 8) Run all your cases through the expander
Step 9) Initial adjustment of the bullet seating die.
Take a resized and expanded case and place it in the
shell holder. Raise the ram to the top of its stroke.
Remove the bullet seating stem from the die and screw
the die into the press. Screw the die down until it
stops. This is the point where the crimp ring is
touching the mouth of the case. Now insert a
bullet into the case and run it into the die all the
way. Nothing will happen because the seating stem is not
in place. Insert the seating stem and screw it in until
you can feel it touching the top of the bullet. Now
lower the press ram a little and screw the seating stem
in one full turn. Run the case and bullet back into the
die as far as it will go and then remove it and look at
the bullet. It will be seated very slightly deeper.
Repeat this process until the bullet is seated deeply
enough for the cartridge overall length to meet your
requirement. In this case, I used 1.135 as my
goal. When I got close, it was actually 1.133.
Now that you know exactly where the seating stem should
be. Forget it and back it out three or four turns. At
this point you have a dummy cartridge with the bullet
seated to the correct depth but with no primer or
powder. Now turn the die body into the press about one
eighth turn and run this bullet back into the die ( with
the bullet seating stem backed out. ). This will force
the case mouth into the crimping ring. Repeat this
process with very small adjustments of the die until
there is no visible crimp. The case wall should be
perfectly straight. If you have a micrometer or caliper,
the diameter at the exact mouth of the case should be
the same as the diameter of the case one eight inch behind the case mouth. The
case will not be perfectly round so don't worry about a
half to a full thousandths. For a visual example, expand
the photo above with the two cases mouth-to-mouth The
mouth of your case should look like the case on the
At this point, I stop with the crimp adjustment. Lock
down the die body lock ring, and screw the bullet
seating stem back into the die until it just makes
contact with the tip of the bullet. Your seating
die is not perfectly adjusted to seat and crimp this
bullet in a single operation.
If you feel like you just absolutely must have more
crimp, advance the die body about one eighth turn
further into the press. This will move the cartridge
case 0.009 inch further into the crimp ring. Different
brands of seating dies will behave differently at this
point depending on the shape of the crimping ring.
A general rule of thumb I use is: If it is crimped
enough you can see it without an 6 to 10 power
magnifier, it is crimped too much. ( This applies only
to straight walled semi automatic handgun cartridges. )
Step 9) Re-prime all the cases.
Step 10) Charge the cases with powder. Place the
mouth up into a loading block.
Step 11) Hold the loading block under a light so you can
see the level of the powder charge in all the cases
simultaneously. This will make uncharged cases and
double charged cases really noticeable. Correct any that
are not charged correctly.
Step 12) Seat your bullets.
Click on the image to expand it.
With New Lee Mold.
This is not directly related to the reloading but
since it was a brand new mold, some are going to ask how
did it work? ( I do not buy commercial cast bullets so
it was necessary for me to cast them.)
I am aware of the Leementing concept and agree with
most of it. Some of it seems unnecessary to me and a lot
of it is contradictory. That said the Lee two cavity
molds are generally of very low quality and usually need
some "finishing" before they work satisfactorily. I only
buy Lee six cavity molds. They are of significantly
This is what I did, with this new mold:
Since this is 1958, I don't have a lead thermometer.
The rule of thumb I was taught was that if the paraffin
fumes don't self ignite, the pot is not hot enough. Let
it cook until the fumes self ignite. I now know that
that happens around 650 degrees. Since I now have
a thermometer, I monitored the temperature during the
session. It varied from 650 to 775.
I degreased the mold once with Berryman's B12. I
find that 409 also works very well for the initial
degreasing. After degreasing, I
filled the mold 20 times as fast as I could go and
dumped the bullets in the sprue bucket. I knew that none
of them would be any good so I didn't even look at them. By this time, It was taking
around 12 to 15 seconds for the sprue puddle to harden.
I set the mold aside opened, and let it cool while I
dumped the roughly 120 bullets and sprues back in the
pot and fluxed again.
Then, I repeated the same procedure.
By this time the bullets were mostly smooth, well
formed and slightly frosty. At this point, I
repeated the initial procedure of setting the mold aside
to cool and re-melting all the bullets and sprues.
When I started casting again, I
started dumping the bullets on my drop pad, setting the
open mold aside to cool and inspecting the bullets.
About half of them were keepers. I don't cast "by the
clock" but since I knew some beginners would be reading
this, I timed a few steps. At this temperature,
700 degree pot, 50 degree ambient temperature. It took
the sprue puddle 15 seconds to harden. I then dumped the
bullets on the drop pad, set the open mold aside to cool
and inspected the bullets. The entire cycle, from one
filling to the next filling took 1:15 to 1:25 minutes.
Remember, I don't watch the clock. I adjust the
cadence by how long it takes the sprue puddle to harden
and when the bullets become sticky ( stick in the mold )
or too frosty, then I slow down.
After about 20 more fillings at this pace, all six
cavities were dropping perfect bullets every time.
Sizing and Lubricating Lee Tumble Lube Bullets
I used the simplest possible procedure following the
First I sized the bullets by pushing them through the
Lee .401 sizing die. I do not lube them before
sizing them. I lubricated them with
Lee Liquid Alox exactly as described in the Lee
instruction sheet that comes with the sizing die kit.
This is the amount of lube I used. Note that on the
lubricated bullet, the driving bands are also brown "in
real life" The lighting for the photo makes them appear
shiny. The bullet on the left is after sizing and before
lubing. The bullet on the right is after sizing and