RIP MCA. Fuck cancer.
Went over to my gun mentor's basement to work on reloading some more. He had ~200 .30-06 Springfield cases from our first shoot, and had saved them back (after depriming and tumbling them clean) so that I could work with them.
Step one was to form the cases. That involved first watching and learning as he set up one of his Dillon 550B reloading presses with the appropriate die set, which was not too complex. But just to teach me a lesson, he let me load the first case into the press without lubricating it or cleaning the die, so naturally the case stuck in the forming die. When I tried to extract it using force, I struggled for a few seconds - and then the rim tore off the bottom of the case, leaving it still wedged into the die.
So he showed me how to partially disassemble the die, enough to see the depriming rod. Loosening the depriming rod left about a centimeter of the rod above the top of the die, with the bottom of it poking through the cartridge primer hole but the 'shoulder' of the rod sitting firmly against the base of the case, around the primer hole. He took a small bar of soft metal, put it atop the die, took a metalworking hammer and-
...and the case popped out the bottom of the die, with the depriming rod stuck into the case (albeit not badly). There was enough of the rim left to carefully reseat the case, put it back into the shell holder at the bottom, and then tighten the depriming rod back into the die and pull down, and now, not stuck into the die, the brass popped off the rod.
One dead case.
Then, or course, we had to reset the die carefully and reassemble the press. We took the die out of the chassis, scrubbed it with a metal brush to remove any buildup of powder residue, lubricant and/or brass dust and filings, then sprayed it liberally with brake cleaner and blew it dry with the compressor.
Afterwards, I put a (properly lubricated) case into the press, pulled the handle down and then back up, and it worked like a charm.
So we hung out and chatted while I (slowly, because I'm learning) ran each of the 199 other cases through the former. The biconic rod ran down into the case necks and even those with significant crimping on one side (some which had been loaded as blanks and folded over) came out properly round and smooth.
Next step: cutting.
Brass cartridge cases must be a particular length - well, within a fairly narrow set of limits - for each gun. In my case, the limits are actually probably a bit tighter, because unlike a bolt-action where the only concern is whether the round will properly seat in the chamber and allow the bolt to close and lock, cartridges I load will need to work correctly in the autoloading mechanism of my M1 Garand. As my fingernail can testify, the spring mechanism in the Garand is authoritative and brooks no cartridge or bullet being out of place. Since it is a well-designed rifle action, it will most likely load and fire almost anything - but at the price of leaving lead and/or brass shavings and dust in the gun, or even loading a round which is far enough out of place to 'seat' badly as it engages the rifling in the barrel. This will immediately foul the barrel - probably not badly enough to prevent the gun firing, but possibly so - and probably badly enough to have a detrimental effect on accuracy.
So each of those 199 cases needed to be measured. That' s a two-step process. First I used a tool called a case gauge. This is a cylinder of steel, roughened around the exterior ends for ease of handling, which has a cylinder cut out of the middle (through the long axis). This cylinder is a proper replica of the chamber of a 30-06 rifle. Cases that are dropped into the 'wide' end should fall into the cylinder open end first. They should seat themselves against a small rim, such that their bases are exactly flush with the 'top' of the gauge. Their necks should fall exactly even with the other end - if they protrude, they're too long and should be trimmed. If they're short, they may be OK - they should be measured with a calipers to ensure they're not too short. And if they don't smoothly seat into the gauge without rattling and slide back out just as smoothly when the gauge is inverted and tapped, then something's not right on them and they need to be inspected.
Over the course of those cases, the thing that was wrong was always that the ejector (maybe extractor?) of whatever rifle they'd been fired in had made a burr on the rim of the case. Using a bastard file, those burrs can be quickly smoothed out, and sure enough, after doing so the cartridges dropped smoothly in. We had to clean the gauge once (the cases still had lubricant on them from forming, and it was collecting inside the gauge) but it was pretty quick.
Of course, then you have stack of cases you need to cut.
When a brass rifle cartridge moves into battery in a firing chamber and is locked in place by the bolt and then fired, the first thing that happens (pretty much before the bullet starts to move) is that the cartridge case expands due to the thousands of PSI of pressure inside, generated by the burning powder. This does two things. First, it propels the bullet down the barrel, but it also 'forms' the case out against the firing chamber it is being fired from. If there is any room at the front of the chamber, or if there's much room around the case anywhere, the brass will 'flow' out towards the open front of the chamber. As a result, the neck of the cartridge case will 'grow' very slightly in the firing - and if it has grown past the limit, you will need to cut it down to size before reloading it.
My gun mentor explained that one way to limit this growth is to try to always fire your cases in the same gun. If they have already been 'formed' to the chamber they're being fired in, there tends to be much less case growth. Also, the rougher the fit the more it will grow; hence, the mass-produced wartime chamber of my M1 Garand will allow more growth than the finely-machined chamber of his M1903 Springfield rifle, also military but made during peacetime by craftsmen. He estimates that with decent brass and keeping it in the same gun, seven to ten reloads of a case should be attainable.
"What do you do when the case is too short and there's not enough metal in it for it to grow anymore?"
He grinned. "If it isn't cracked, cut it down and make a .308 Winchester out of it." The .308 is a shorter cartridge than the 30-06, but the case diameter and base measurements are the same.
Anyway, when gauging the cases was done I had a pile of cases waiting to be cut, and a very few (around 15) cases which were under the length limit. These tended to all be military cases. Their headstamps read Lake City, Salt Lake, Springfield Armory, Twin Cities Ordnance Plant, Frankford Arsenal; some were even labelled "SA 4" which mean 'Springfield Armory 1904'! He has a bunch of rounds he acquired which were surplus; rather than fire them (because they were loaded with corrosive primers back then, even if they would still fire) he disassembled them, saved the bullets, and inspected the cases. Those without corrosion or cracks, he reloaded (albeit saving a couple hundred for collectors, in 'as found' condition). There were a few commercial cases, usually Remington - he told me the commercial cases tended to be good brass for two reasons; first, they are generally slightly thicker to handle hotter loads for bolt-action hunting, and second, they haven't had their primers swaged into the round like the military requires. Military rounds are required to survive a period of time underwater, loose (ten minutes? An hour? I can't remember) and still fire when pulled out, so they tend to be tightly assembled with swaging used to hold things in and sometimes are coated in a lacquer to seal them. All of these mean they're a bit of a pain to reload; you especially need to chamfer the primer pockets to get rid of the swage so that new primers may be inserted.
So then the fun part. While there are automatic electric case cutters, we didn't use one. (No, grasshopper. You must use hands.) He has a manual case cutter mounted to his bench - it looks like a tiny model of a lathe or lateral drill press. To use it, he takes a reference case (he has reference cases for all the type he reloads - cases which have been measured to be precisely the required length or a few thousandths of an inch shorter, carefully painted red) and puts it in the cutter. Then he adjusts the cutter so that the blades are resting against the neck of the reference case, and tightens everything down. Now, if you put a case in the cutter and lock it down with your left hand by turning a small vise bar at the end of the tube the case mounts in, then slide the other - cutting - end inwards (to the left), you can turn the cutter handle as you press leftward, and the cutter will shave brass off the neck of the case until it is the requisite distance from the base of the shell. Then, when you remove it, you know it's the right length.
Of course, do that operation 199 times. I did. You get into a rhythm, and one of the things you do is to rather than grip the small handle on the cutter, lay your right palm against the handle. That lets you push to the left, and you can move your palm in a circle to rotate the cutter. This cuts back (HAHAHAHAHahaha cough) on finger fatigue. However, when you finish a couple hundred cases as I did, you'll find you have a big gray circle on your right palm where the Rem Oil and metal dust have been worked into your skin by the handle, as well as (once you wash that off) a bit of a bruise beneath it.
So my right hand now has that plus the M1 thumb mark on my forefinger. Woohoo, no project is proper until you've bled on it at least once, right?
That leaves you with a pile of now-cut cases, the right length. However, their cut edges are flat and sharp, meaning that if you tried to seat a bullet into their necks you might cut the bullet lead, and if you tried to crimp the bullet on the rim would stick out around the bullet - maybe enough to catch on something. So next? You chamfer the case neck.
This entails using the first powered tool of the day. It looks like a cross between a mad dentist's torture toy and a sex toy for Barbie Dolls - basically it's a small box with four or five different rotating tool heads projecting out of it. Going from one to the next with a case, you first clean out the primer pocket using the first tool. Then the second tool is a convex cone; you place the neck of the cartridge around it. This cuts an angle into the inner surface of the neck. Then the next is a concave cone; this cuts the outside accordingly. Finally, you shove the case down onto a rotating metal brush to remove dust and filings, and you have a formed, cut, cleaned, chamfered case, ready to go into the reloading press to be turned into a live cartridge.
I didn't get through all 199 cases on the last step. I had to leave to get home for dinner, and also my fingers were getting really, really tired. Back later this weekend or early next week to finish up.