May 1998

Lee Hand Priming Tools More Convenient Than RCBS Tool

Lee’s Improved Priming Tool and Auto Primer aren’t perfect, but both are simpler and easier to use than the RCBS Hand Priming Tool.

Your loading press comes with a priming attachment of some sort, but it’s not entirely satisfactory. The problem is too much leverage; you can’t feel when the primer is fully seated. In other words, you can’t tell when the primer has been pushed to the bottom of the primer pocket. Continued pressure beyond this point will distort the outer cup and may even crush the primer compound pellet. Failure to seat the primer all the way to the bottom causes another set of problems. The firing pin may expend so much of its energy pushing the primer down into the pocket that it doesn’t have enough left to fire the primer. Or, if friction holds the primer cup in place, the firing pin may drive the pellet and anvil down instead. The anvil is that little three-legged stool in the bottom of the primer.

The proper way to seat a primer is to push it into the pocket until the anvil legs contact the bottom, and the three hand tools in this test are designed to make that easy. Using any of them will allow you to feel the primer hit the bottom. The two most expensive ones also automatically feed the primers in; that is, you don’t have to pick up each primer individually and place it in the tool. But, unfortunately, these auto-feeding priming tools have some problems of their own.

Lee Improved Priming Tool
This simple, least expensive priming tool, which retails for $13.89 plus $2.80 for a case holder, does an excellent job of seating primers. With it you can prime between 10 and 12 cases per minute. It takes only 5 seconds to change shell holders and only 10 seconds to change primer pins. Both the spring and pin are captive; they can’t fall out and get lost. The only disadvantage to this tool is that is a little slower than the other two. You have to pick up each primer individually and place it in the tool.

Our Judgment: The Lee Improved Priming Tool is a very good hand priming tool.

Lee Auto Primer
With this tool, which retails for $18.98 plus $2.80 for a case holder, you can easily prime 20 rounds per minute and change pins and case holders just as quickly as with the above tool. The mechanical portion of this tool is exactly the same as the above Lee Improved Priming Tool. Only the primer feeding mechanism is different; this tool has an added tray that will hold 100 primers. You need only put a box of 100 primers in the tray, and check to see that they all have the anvil side up. If not, shake the tool slightly to make the primers slide across the tray. Serrations on the bottom of tray will make the up-side down primers flip themselves right-side up. A clear, hard plastic tray cover is then locked in place with a slight rotation; it prevents any spilling. In use, a single primer is fed over the priming pin with each stroke of operating lever. If you make a mistake and end up with a loose primer, there is a little hole in the tray cover that permits you to feed it back into the reservoir.

But, this otherwise excellent tool has two problems. First, Lee, the manufacturer, flatly states that it should be used only with CCI or Winchester primers, and that safety glasses should be worn when priming. The latter is a good suggestion under any circumstances. If a primer accidentally explodes, you don’t want to get bits of primer cup in your eyes. Such simple things as trying to prime an already primed case, or a military case with the retaining crimp still in place can fire the primer. A primer tipped on it’s side can also explode. Limiting yourself to only CCI and Winchester primers is another matter. Since this limitation doesn’t apply to the Improved (single) Priming Tool, Lee must be concerned with the tray full of primers being ignited by explosion in the ram. The logic given is that CCI and Winchester primers don’t explode as violently.

The second problem is with the tray. It’s not quite big enough any more. At one time, primers used to come in a little wooden box, packed side by side on their sides. Loading the tray was simple, invert the tray on the uncovered box of primers and turn both right-side up. When you lifted the box off the tray, all the primers fell into the tray without being touched. Today primers come in a plastic container with a little indentation for each primer. The new container is larger than the tray; if you tried that “up-side down” trick at least four primers would fall out. Instead, slide the container cover back to expose one row and dump the primers, ten at a time, onto the tray. Don’t dump 100 primers into your hand, or any other container, and then pour them onto the tray. Primers should not be allowed to come face-to-face, especially in such large quantities. If one ignited, a chain reaction would start.

Our Judgment: The Lee Auto Primer is a very good hand priming tool. Only the two-brand limit precludes an excellent rating.

RCBS Hand Priming Tool
This $25.50 priming tool has a lot of good, new features going for it. A safety gate places a metal barrier between the primers in the reservoir (tray) and the primer being seated. There is a gate on the tray lid that can be rotated to cut off primer feed to the ram. It handles any brand of primers safely. The tray is large enough to invert over a plastic box of primers without spilling any. It uses a standard (RCBS) case holder, so you don’t have to spend $2.80 for a unique case holder. We could prime 10-15 cases per minute with this tool, so it’s almost as fast as the Lee Auto Primer.

Unfortunately, it has a lot of faults and weaknesses too, many more than enough to over-ride its good features. The worst problem is the cover of the tray. It’s made of soft plastic and has a soft plastic pin on the inside center. That pin fits into a hole in the soft plastic tray. The resulting friction is all that holds the cover on, and it isn’t enough. Bump it or set it down wrong and primers spill all over the floor. The cover also lacks a hole to feed an errant primer back into the reservoir.

Another thing that falls on the floor is the priming pin, since it’s just loose in the instrument. Tip it too far to one side and it falls out. If you attempt to prime a case without the pin, the primer will drop down into the spring, and you have to disassemble the whole tool to get it out. We don’t know what would happen if you replaced the pin without first removing the errant primer. Reassembly is not all that easy either, but a pointed tool to depress the link follower to get the pivot link into it will aid the process. As you can see in the photo, you’ll have a handful of loose parts under the best of conditions.

The use of a standard case holder didn’t prove to be much of a boon either. It’s so much of a nuisance to install a case holder, compared to a Lee primer, that we used a spare holder and left it in.

Our Judgment: Despite its shortcomings, the RCBS Hand Priming Tool is not an unsatisfactory tool. It safely seats primers gently on their bottoms at a reasonable rate of speed. We just found the tool aggravatingly inconvenient.

The Bottom Line
We wouldn’t buy the RCBS Hand Priming Tool, because it would try the patience of a gargoyle. If you use only CCI or Winchester primers, you will find the Lee Auto Primer an excellent choice. For a wider range of primers, chose the Lee Improved Priming Tool.