March 2000

Progressive Reloaders: We’d Buy The Pricey Dillon RL 550B

Yes, the Blue Press costs more than less expensive products from Hornady and Lee, but we think it’s a good long-term investment that can save you thousands in ammo costs and untold irritation.

To test Dillon’s RL 550B ($326 plus dies),
Hornady’s Lock-N-Load Auto Progressive Press
($350 plus dies), and Lee’s Load-Master ($320
with dies and shell holder for one caliber),
Ray Ordorica chose four cartridges to load: the
.308, .223, .45 Long Colt, and .45 ACP. All three
presses came with four sets of dies and
accessories needed to let us load the four
calibers, and be able to swap calibers easily.

Reloading is a happy time for many shooters, at least until they realize they’re spending more time in the loading room than at the range. Some of us, mostly former pistol competitors, well remember the mad scramble to get all the rounds loaded before the coming weekend’s events, using a simple RCBS Rock Chucker or Lyman single-stage press, automating as many of our movements as possible, having learned to be efficient drones to prepare our many needed cases.

That was before the days of progressive presses. Back 20 or 30 years ago, some makers brought out turret presses to make the reloading job easier. Those who tried them found out that the turret presses simply avoided having to remove one die and insert the next one, and didn’t add much speed. Some tried to run turret presses like today’s progressive, putting the shell into the holder and keeping it there until each step in the reloading process was completed. You’d size the case, twist the turret to stage 2, prime the case and perhaps expand the neck (pistol cases), then twist the turret again and dump the powder. Then with another twist of the turret top you’d place the bullet onto the case and seat/crimp it, and only then remove the case from the press, insert the next one and do it all again.

This quickly can be proved to be an extreme waste of effort. Some of our most experienced handloaders learned long ago to apply mass production methods, and all that was needed for rapid ammo production was a good single-stage press. The fast way to get lots of loaded cases is to size all of them at one time as a batch, expand the necks (as required) on all of them, prime them all, then put powder into each and every case, and then place and seat a bullet into each. Every step is performed on the entire batch of cases before going to the next step. The fingers quickly learn how to insert and withdraw a single case from the press, and the skilled reloader can really make time this way.

Today’s shooter is blessed with much better ways to accomplish these reloading tasks, and because so many of us assign increased importance to our available time, the progressive reloading presses have now become the order of the reloaders’ day. But do all of today’s progressive presses work equally well? Who makes the best one? Are the others worth your time? Do they all let you change calibers quickly, or are they best off being set up for only one caliber? Can you load rifle and pistol ammo equally well on them? Let’s find out.

The Presses
We selected three presses to test based on the manufacturer’s claim that they would work well with both pistol and rifle ammunition. We also wanted to find out how well they’d work with a variety of rifle and pistol cases, so we chose four calibers and presses capable of loading .45 Long Colt, .45 ACP, .308, and .223. The .223 size would also tell us how the presses handled small primers. Our test products included Dillon’s RL 550B ($326 plus dies), Hornady’s Lock-N-Load Auto Progressive Press ($350 plus dies ), and Lee’s Load-Master ($320 with dies and shell holder for one caliber). All three presses came with four sets of dies and accessories needed to let us load the four calibers, and be able to swap calibers easily. The total cost of each setup far exceeded the basic price of each press.

Here’s what we found when we loaded hundreds of rounds using each press over the span of several months.

Dillon RL 550B
Our recommendation: We really liked the Dillon. Workmanship was superb, though we found some burrs here and there. All the components were thoroughly thought out and performed correctly. We’d pick the Dillon in a heartbeat if we were actively competing in IPSC, NRA, Silhouette, or Cowboy Action, and would go the extra mile of buying all the needed powder measures to make changing calibers trouble-free. This blue-colored progressive press undoubtedly looks familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a gun magazine, for Dillon has waged a very effective advertising campaign ever since the company began. That they have been successful is evident in the company’s monthly catalog, called the Blue Press, which now includes a grand line of presses and add-ons, plus every conceivable shooting accessory. The catalog would do them no good if their presses didn’t work, and in fact they set the standard for others to shoot at, in our view.

The Dillon die plate fits onto the top of the
press and is retained by the two pins on the
sides of the dies. This is a sturdy system.

We were awe-struck when we opened the two huge boxes that contained all the related parts and accessories for our setup. Not the least daunting was the total price tag for all the top-of-Dillon-line accessories that came along, which was $1,070. We had no idea where to begin, or how to make sense out of all the stuff presented to us. We hasten to add, the serious reloader could cut down that price tag a bunch, for not all the stuff was mandatory.

Fortunately, Dillon had sent along a setup video, $6, which saved the day. We watched it, took time to familiarize ourselves with all the goodies, then proceeded with the setup. This was not the easiest thing in the world, but two hours later we had the press properly adjusted and were able to crank out .45 Long Colt cases (the first we tried) with amazing ease and assurance. We were very impressed. There were no problems, just a quickly growing pile of ammo in the bin attached to the blue beast.

It was time to discover how easy it was to change calibers, so we next set up the Dillon to load .308 Winchester. This we accomplished in a fraction of the time, having done our homework with the .45 LC. Again, once all was in order, we cranked out as much ammo as we had bullets for, as fast as we could pull the lever. Dillon’s claim of 500 rounds per hour is easily achievable, providing you have pre-loaded primer tubes and enough cases and bullets. We loaded 100 rounds of .45 LC in well under 15 minutes, for example.

The setup was not without some annoying little problems, though, and they bear mention. Throughout the video, Dillon personnel used the multi-purpose Bench Wrench to tighten dies and perform other assorted setup tasks. The Bench Wrench did not come with our stuff, and we advise all purchasers of the Dillon to be sure to buy this $5.50 tool. We had a hard time tightening the dies without it.

Powder dispensing was by a shotshell-like charge bar underneath a generous hopper. Once we had the right bar in place, it was easy to adjust, threw consistent charges, and was quite foolproof. Prior to our trying the powder measure, we had no idea which of the two powder bars was required for our first setup, and we guessed wrong. To find out if it would work, we filled the measure with powder and discovered we needed to change bars. When we attempted to do so we got a big mess of powder everywhere, and that was made worse when we removed the powder measure to empty it. Dillon should have told us which bar to use with which powder. We looked for some indication of the minimum and maximum charges possible with the two bars with various kinds of powder, but could not find this information. Lee has a simple shutoff on its powder measure, and we wish Dillon had the same. Hornady warned about a condition that could dump out all the powder from that company’s measure, but neither Lee nor Dillon did, and we spilled lots of powder with both of these setups.

Another problem was with our inability to tighten the optional ($25) roller handle sufficiently to prevent it from turning. There is considerable torque put onto the handle in the course of operating the press, and the handle must not rotate. We finally used a pipe wrench on the round handle to snug it up.

To our joy Dillon’s press included an electronic low-primer indicator, and when we were out of primers (this happened very quickly), the beeper told us to stop. Without it, we’d have made another big mess. The powder hopper was fitted with the optional ($33) low-powder sensor, not really mandatory, but nice.

Once we switched to .308, we remembered that rifle cases have to be trimmed to length before they can be reloaded. We trimmed a big bunch, but first it was necessary to resize them. We used the Dillon for this, being sure to lubricate the cases. We used a lube pad, and it would have been faster to lube with a spray, but we didn’t have any. We sized/decapped our test cases at the rate of one every 3 or 4 seconds, which is about 1,000 per hour. (To trim the cases we used the very fine RCBS Trim Pro case trimmer fitted with the 3-Way cutter, a device which trims for length and deburrs inside and outside in one operation. This saved immense amounts of time and frustration, and is highly recommended.)

Once we had our RL 550B set up for .308, we realized how devastatingly simple it is to change calibers with this setup. We had four powder measures ($55 each) that, once adjusted and attached to the die-holding block, stay with that block and never need to be adjusted again. This is the way to go for the serious reloader, but those whose needs are simpler can switch the powder measure from die set to die set, and readjust as needed.

To change calibers, first disconnect the rod that activates the powder measure from the press, pull two little pins, remove the entire die/powder measure unit and place it onto one of the ($10) toolhead stands. Then pick up the previously adjusted die set for the next caliber and insert it into the press, drop in the pins, and attach the powder rod. Total time so far is less than a minute, and you’re almost there. You still need to change the shell plate at the bottom, and that requires perhaps two or three more minutes to loosen a set screw and withdraw the bolt holding the shell plate, put in the new one, insert the bolt, and tighten the set screw. If you have to change primer size, that too is simple and fast, and you’re ready to roll. The press worked perfectly with all four calibers.

Hornady Lock-N-Load AP (Automatic Progressive)
Our recommendation: We feel the Hornady Lock-N-Load AP is a fine press. It was very smooth and did a decent job of reloading, and was easy to set up. The manual needs work, but Hornady already told us that. The novice must be aware that if the slightest thing goes wrong, he may have a hard time adjusting things. We loved the smoothness of the Lock-N-Load AP, and this press might be just right for you. The $350 Lock-N-Load progressive press indexes itself very smoothly, is a precise machine, and produces perfect ammo. After our experiences setting up the Dillon, we had an easy time with the Hornady. It came with a “beta” manual, which for you non-computerites means it was a trial manual sent to experienced reloaders for input how to make it better. Although the photos were less than good, they got us through the setup without mishaps, and we were soon churning out .223 ammo with great satisfaction. This press feels extremely good in its operation, and we applaud the smooth indexing.

Ever dump primers from a full primer tube?
Hornady’s on-off switch (arrow) helps prevent
that. Put it to Off when you insert the primer
tube holder, and turn it On to feed primers.

We really like the instant in-out feature of the bayonet-style die bushing system, and recommend it for all loading setups. It’s available for several non-Hornady presses, and some of our personnel who tried this system are looking into converting their RCBS Rock Chuckers to handle the Lock-N-Load system.

As with the Dillon and Lee, the powder measure dumps powder only when there’s a case in the way. Setting up the press was a snap but for one chore, mandated by the manual that came with the press. We had to totally disassemble the powder measure and remove all traces of oil from it. This had a good side. When the job was done, we fully understood exactly how the measure worked. Reassembly was a bit tricky when we had to insert the now thoroughly unlubricated measure rotor back into its housing. Perfect alignment was the key, and we avoided marring the finely finished surfaces.

The adjustable plunger that measures the powder is instantly removable, and Hornady suggests keeping the preadjusted plunger with the die set so you can gain back your settings instantly when you again load that caliber. Cost is only $7.10 each, and it seemed like a good idea to us.

Changing calibers with the Lock-N-Load was relatively easy. The dies came out with just a quick twist of the wrist, and the new die was as easily inserted. The shell holder on the ram is changed with the removal of one bolt, and this was also very easy. We liked the spring-retention device that held the cases firmly yet allowed their easy removal. (Dillon had a system that also allowed the easy removal of each case, but Lee had a system we didn’t much like, adjusted by Phillips-head screws that required a very short screwdriver, which we didn’t have.)

Adjusting the thrown powder charge was a snap, unlike the Lee system. First, we removed the spring on the side of the measure, and then we operated the delivery system by hand, delivering the charge into the powder scale pan. We checked it with our RCBS electric scale, made whatever adjustments were needed, and repeated until it was right. As stated above, the quick way to set the powder charge is to change the metering insert for one that has already been adjusted for the new caliber. The powder measure itself may be removed from the press with a simple twist. The sliding primer delivery tool was also easy to change from large to small primers, though we had a major problem with it along the way. We’d better tell you about it.

While loading .223 cases, we discovered the need for a powder adjustment, and tried to stop the automation. The Hornady press indexes very smoothly and also with very little motion of the ram. Therefore, it is easy to skip several steps when trying to move one case around the press to position it under, say, the powder measure. Neither of the self-indexing presses, Hornady or Lee, could be reversed. Score a big one for Dillon, because the 550B permits you to position the case anywhere you want it, forward or back. We feel that too much automation can be detrimental to the easy setup and trouble-free running of these presses, no matter how smoothly they operate or how many steps they save you along the way. Caveat emptor.

Back to the Hornady, we apparently got a primer into the wrong place when we tried to adjust the powder measure. This happened twice, and the first time we caught it, cleared the problem, and went on. The second time we didn’t quite catch the trouble in time, and with very little effort on our part something went bang and a part went flying past our face and into the wall. Another small part hit the other side of the room. We discovered that the rear portion of the primer feed slide had broken clean off, and we were completely out of the .223 loading business.

Hornady stressed in the manual that everything must operate smoothly on this press, and that at the slightest sign of trouble or binding, you must stop and find out what’s the matter. We failed and a part broke, but we feel this was not entirely our fault. This part that broke ought to have been designed with more strength, or there should have been a fail-safe system in the machine to prevent this small part from being destroyed. While it lasted, we churned out some mighty fine ammunition, and we started to really like this press. It did a fine job with all the calibers, and we might mention there’s plenty of room for extra dies if you want to seat and crimp your pistol bullets as separate steps, or add a case mouth belling die.

Lee Load-Master
Our recommendation: The $320 Load-Master by Lee indexes by the operator moving the lever inward at the end of each ram stroke. This worked well, though the operation firmly vibrated the press. The Lee also performed all its operations, including seating the primer, at the top of the stroke, requiring a slightly greater force than with the other two setups. The other two presses require a forward press on the operating lever at the bottom of the ram stroke to seat the primer. Lee’s press was not all that easy to change calibers, and we did lots of fumbling with the powder-measure adjustment, breaking the chain twice. Still, we feel the Lee is a viable press for the reloader wanting to turn out lots of ammo in a very few, or only one, caliber. We don’t feel, in our limited testing, that it is a finely or precisely made product, but it is adequate.

The arrow points to the Lee’s small
plastic arm that tells the primer feed
that a case is present. The Lee press
proved suitable for rounds like the .45
ACP shown.

We were able to set up the Lee to load .45 ACP quickly, because the shell plate was already in place and the primer seating depth was pre-adjusted. We discovered we had to reset the primer seating depth when we changed calibers. This was simple, but we don’t feel it should have been necessary.

The instructions for adjusting the dies were found within the individual die sets, not in the prime manual for the product. We found lots of information missing from the manual that should have been there. Lee relies on the ingenuity and experience of the reloader, we feel, more than necessary to set up this press. We did not find anything that told us to degrease the shell holder, so when we inadvertently dumped a load of powder all over the press, table and floor, we had to disassemble the shell plate and clean the powder off the oily parts. A simple instruction to remove the oil from the shell plate would have saved us lots of grief. Hornady specifically mentions the need to degrease, and we feel Lee should have done the same.

The primer-insertion process for the Lee utilized a modified primer flipper, one of those disks with circular ridges that automatically turns all the primers face up simply by tapping it. This had a locking lid and a device to secure it to the press, but no way to prevent the primers from pouring out the end while you insert it into the press. The manual suggested holding a pencil in the way, but we got some primers down the spout upside down, and had the devil of a time removing them.

Once in place, the primer setup was simple and functional. The normal bouncing action of the machine kept the primer tray reliably feeding primers into position, and they fed into the cases correctly. However, there was no way to tell when we were out of primers except to keep an eagle eye on the primer feed tray.

A lot of the parts of the Lee automatic press were made of some sort of hard plastic. They worked well, but one wonders how durable they’ll be in the long haul. Having said that, one of our staff has used nothing but a Lee automatic priming tool for many years now to seat all his primers into thousands of cases, and its plastic parts haven’t worn out yet.

Lee’s auto-case-feed setup consisted of four tubes that could be turned when one was emptied. This assembly presented cases one at a time to the in-and-out motion of the case-insertion tool. It worked very well, though it required the operator’s full attention to avoid running out of cases.

We had problems getting the powder measure to work properly. The instructions that told which hole in which plate to use for our chosen charge were wrong, and in the process of experimenting to find the correct hole, we lost half a hamper of powder onto the press, bench, and floor, to our great irritation. Then we broke the little brass chain twice because we didn’t have its setting perfect. It failed to dump powder into several of our cases.

The powder-feed design was pure simplicity, and when it worked correctly it was a joy, and that was most of the time. The measure dispensed powder through a moving plate containing a hole (actually six different-size holes, only one of which was in operation for a given charge). The motion of the plate brought powder from the rather small hopper to the open-top drop tube. It would not feed powder unless a case was present. Four charge disks, each containing six charge holes, came with the Lee. We chose a hole in one plate that was supposed to give us 5.0 grains of Bullseye, and it consistently gave us 4.9 grains. However, another that was supposed to give 10.0 grains of Unique gave about 2 grains less than that. The user must check the powder mass with a good powder scale.

The powder measure was held to the press by two small screws and brass thumbnuts, and we found that if we tightened the nuts too much, the plate couldn’t move easily. If we loosened them, the nuts fell off from vibration. Small lockwashers might prevent this problem, but we didn’t like the flimsy feel of this part of the setup. After a bit of use, we found that the plate moved freely with both nuts tight.

We admired the powder shutoff of the Lee. When we remembered to use it, it saved us grief. To stop the flow of powder, grasp the hopper and rotate it clockwise until the index at its base lines up with “Off.” This made it easy to change powders. We also liked the zerk fittings on the ends of the main pivots of the press that make it easy to grease the unit.

Gun Tests Recommends
One of the biggest differences between these three presses was that the Dillon did not index itself. The operator had to move the rounds from station to station by the use of his left thumb, which we found to be a very easy and natural process. As stated above, the operator could move the cartridge anywhere he wanted, and we found that to be a major boon to troubleshooting and initial setup of a new caliber. All three presses nominally required the insertion of both case and bullet before pulling the lever. The Hornady required both the case and the bullet to be put into the press from the left side. The Dillon required us to use both hands to accomplish this chore, one from each side. Lee included an optional feeder for pistol cases that worked very well when we tried it with .45 Long Colt cases. It held 48 cases.

While they lasted, all that was necessary was to insert a bullet and pull the lever. This was the fastest ammunition production we experienced with these presses. The operator has to keep his eye on the case feeder to index the next tube-full at the right time, and with his eye already on the primer feed he’s got busy eyes. Yes, we loaded a few cases without primers. Score another for Dillon’s low-primer warning. Neither Hornady nor Lee had a system to tell the operator when the primers were about to run out.

Lee Load-Master, $320. Conditional Buy. We found the affordable Load-Master to be less than easy to change calibers, and decided that if we owned the Lee we’d set it up for one of our most-used calibers, such as the .45 ACP, and never change calibers. Bottom line, we didn’t much like the vagueness and simplicity of the Lee, but concede it worked well when all settings were exactly correct. We’d buy it and put it to work on one or two calibers only, and they’d be pistol calibers to make the most use of the case feed design.

Hornady Lock-N-Load AP (Automatic Progressive), $350. Conditional Buy. We liked the Hornady a lot, and not just the Lock-N-Load mechanism. The precise feel of the self-indexing Hornady and the instant-changeable dies spoke volumes to us of a fine machine. We’d buy this press if we wanted full automation, and some need that. Still, during our testing we were able to break the press during regular use, so we can’t give it an unqualified thumbs up.

But if the description of our mishap with the Lock-N-Load AP doesn’t put you off, we’d simply make darned sure everything was set up exactly right and put this press into operation. Its precise manufacture and feel gave the impression it’ll last a long time, it has a lifetime warranty, and it was affordable.

Dillon RL 550B, $1,070 (as tested). Buy It. If the shooter can’t come up to the full cost of our test setup, or doesn’t need to swap calibers in a big hurry, we recommend omitting one or two of the $55 powder measures, the $33 low-powder sensor, the $26 roller handle, the $33 “strong mount,” and the $27 bullet tray, all of which came with our $1,070 setup. We highly recommend the spare parts kit ($11) and a couple of spare primer tubes ($4.20 each) so you can keep on cranking out ammo. Dillon’s RL 550B is claimed to be able to load over 120 different rifle or pistol cases, and we have no reason to doubt it.

We’d buy the Dillon first over the other two systems because of Dillon’s experience at producing these things, the grand feel of precision this machine gave, the fact that it worked to perfection with all our cartridges, the availability of Dillon’s instant help over the phone, their lifetime warranty, the great appearance and fine finish of the machine and all its parts, and, not least, their great resale value. Also, no matter what we could think of to ease our loading chores, Dillon had an accessory available for the RL 550B. Neither of the other two press makers had a fraction of the extensive accessories of the Dillon, all of which makes us put the RL 550B at the very top of our list.