Making your own precision handloads is a meticulous journey with many steps, many important matters to consider, and many sets of measurements to calculate. For those who pursue the perfect group, the highest score, the really long accurate shot, the rewards more than outweigh the effort. Choosing the right cases, deburring the flash holes, making the primer pockets uniform, trimming the cases, and lubricating them are all familiar - and critical - steps along the journey. And now that your brass preparation is complete, you are at last ready to start running the cases through your press and fill them with primers, powder, and bullets. The very first die the brass encounters is the sizing die. You insert the case, work the press's lever to return the case to its correct pre-fired dimensions - and the journey continues.
There are three types of sizing dies to think about: neck, full-length, and small base. All three have specific benefits and potential drawbacks, and you should choose the type of die you use by thinking very carefully about what kind of shooting you plan to do with your handloads. No matter which type you select, most sizing dies will also punch out the old spent primer with some sort of decapper assembly that uses a hardened steel rod. Many types of sizing dies use an expander ball inside the die to make sure the neck of the case will accommodate a bullet after being sized. With some size dies, the expanders are easily removable and interchangeable, letting you get exactly the neck tension you want. If you are reloading for pistol calibers, carbide sizing dies allow you to quickly resize without applying any lube to the case. But rifle cases always need lube.
Neck Size Die
Neck sizing dies resize only the neck of the case. The benefit of sizing only the neck is that the brass is "worked" very little, letting you reuse the same cases many times over. Also, cases that have already been fired in your rifle are perfectly fireformed to fit that rifle's chamber, which can help accuracy. However, neck-sized cases will fit only the specific rifle they were originally fired in, and may still require a little extra force to chamber or extract.
Neck-sized cartridges should not be used any other rifle besides the one they were originally fired from, or in any action other than a bolt-action. Neck-sized-only rounds are great for the target range or the benchrest but should not be used in critical situations like military or police operations, or hunting. And if you fire them enough times, neck-sized cases will still need to be full-length sized periodically for you to keep using them.
Full-Length Size Die
Full-length sizing dies do exactly what their name says: resize the full length of the case, not just the neck. Full-length sizing helps create handloads that will function in any rifle, not just the one from which the cases were originally fired. The potential downside of full-length sizing is that it may shorten case life because it works the brass more than neck sizing. But it's possible to "tune" today's full-length sizing dies so they barely work the brass at all, as this article by Sinclair Reloading Tech Ron Dague shows.
Another way to reap the benefits of full-length sizing is to use Redding's full-length bushing dies, which size the full length of the case but use a system of interchangeable bushings that enable you give the case neck the bare minimum of resizing needed. This video shows how finely adjustable bushing dies are, and how they resize the case while fully supported. The neck bushing helps you precisely control the neck tension to help increase the consistency and accuracy of your handloads.
Small Base Die
A small base die is just another type of full-length sizing die, but one that is typically used when reloading for semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15, M14, or AR-style .308 rifles. A small base die works exactly like a full-length sizing die, only it compresses the brass just a bit more, usually about .001" more, and may even push the case shoulder back just a hair. Small base dies give that extra bit of compression to the brass to help make sure the case will properly extract from a semi-automatic firearm. The upside is that you get precision handloads that should work flawlessly in your semi-automatic. The downside is case life is really shortened, especially compared to brass used only in one bolt-action rifle, because the brass is worked more.
A handy tool for setting up your full-length sizing dies as close as possible to your rifle's chamber is the Sinclair bump gauge. The bump gauge lets you resize the case as little as possible, to extend case life and help your handloads fit your rifle almost like a neck-sized only die. You use deprimed cases fired in your rifle and bump gauge inserts to help you set up the die so it resizes the case only about .001" to .004", depending on what type of rifle you're shooting. Sinclair has a great video that shows how to use a bump gauge to set up your full-length dies.
These are the basics when it comes to sizing dies. But like so many other things in reloading, we've just scratched the surface. Next month, we'll look at some of the variations of sizing dies, and show you how expander buttons, replacement decapper assemblies and die lock rings help you maintain the tightest control over dimensions and neck tension.