Military and “Once Fired” Brass — Deal or No Deal?
Military brass, range brass, “once fired” brass bought at a gun show. We are all looking for ways to save money these days on reloading components. Buying new brass is always the best way especially if you are just starting out as a reloader. The staff at Sinclair suggests that even the more experienced reloader follow this advice for the safety and aggravation issues that “used” brass may cause.
What are some of the pitfalls we may encounter by using brass that has not been fired in the rifle we intend to reload for? Well first of all we have to realize that brass is a very “elastic” metal and it has a “memory”. When a new piece of brass is fired in a rifle, that is the last step in its forming process and as a result it will try to “spring back” to that form after resizing. This is why brass that was not fired in your rifle’s chamber may not fit even after full length sizing. This is especially true for military brass that may have been fired in an automatic weapon – these weapons usually have very large chambers in them to aid in feeding and extraction. You may be able to get around this sizing issue with a “small base” full length die that will size your brass down to a point below where the spring back will be reduced to a point where it will chamber in your rifle but don’t count on it. In any event we suggest having a Wilson or some other type of case gage on your bench to check your resized brass for headspace, trim length and spring back of the case body. Also when it comes to military brass it has generally has thicker walls due to the fact that it is designed for rough handling and long storage so you should start with the lowest powder charge listed for your bullet, cartridge, powder combination and work up from there while looking for pressure signs. Other issues with military brass include the crimped in primers, badly off center flash holes and Berdan primed cases (two flash holes) instead of Boxer primed cases (standard one flash hole). You can check your cases to determine whether they are Berdan or Boxer primed by looking down through the case mouth. Do this before you try to de-prime any fired cartridges of unknown origin. If the cases are Berdan primed I suggest you discard them.
Now that we have touched on the down side of military and range brass, what are some of the procedures and tools we need to process this brass to where it may be useable again? In my case I was given a large amount of 5.56×45 brass that was known to be once fired out of M-16 military shooting team rifles so I knew right off the bat what I was dealing with, you may not know where your military brass came from so my suggestions may not work for all situations. My first step was to clean all this brass in hot soapy water to remove all the mud and spiders. I rinsed it and then let it sit in the sun to dry. An RCBS decapping die (#87580) was used to remove all the primers before tumbling. This die was used instead of a full length or neck die because I don’t like running brass that may still have some gunk on it through my reloading dies to prevent damage to them. Step two was to run the brass through a Redding small base full length die (RD91323) with the carbide expander ball upgrade kit (RD48223). The set up on the die in the press is so the base of the die is just above the shell holder with the press ram fully raised. In some situations the die may have to be set up so that you “cam over” the press ram to get a little extra shoulder bump if you need it. Step three is to check the resized piece of brass with a Wilson .223 Remington case gage (W223G).What this case gage will tell us is:
1. Have the case body and shoulder sprung back so the case will not fit in the gage? (If so discard the piece and go to the next case)
2. If the case does go into the gage, is the case head above the top of the base of the case gage? If so, adjust the full length die down so the press cams over, then resize the piece and try it in the gage again. If the case head is still above the top of the gage, discard it.
3.I f the case head is below the second step of the Wilson gage you are pushing the shoulder back too far and you need to readjust the die up away from the shoulder until the case head of the sized case falls between the top and bottom steps of the gage.
4. If the case mouth protrudes above the top step of the case gage we need to trim the case to the proper length.
Now we need to remove the crimp from around the primer pocket so we can re-prime the case. To do this you can use a primer pocket swaging tool from RCBS or Dillon. If you have a Wilson trimmer you can use a Wilson primer pocket reamer (Small Rifle – WR175, Large Rifle – WR210). I use one of our Wilson/Sinclair deburring tool and holder kits (05-150) with the inside case mouth chamfering end out along with a Skil electric screw pistol I got from Home Depot (about $25.00). Be careful not to take too much brass out of the primer pocket using this method.
Now it’s time to load up a few “dummy” rounds to test their function through the rifle. If the dummy rounds manually feed and extract okay, load up a few live test rounds using the lowest powder charge listed for your cartridge, bullet, powder combination and test them out at the range. If you are good to go there, start working up your load in small increments looking for pressure signs as you go along. Remember, military brass is thicker and heavier than standard brass so it has less capacity and you will probably see pressure signs before you get to the maximum load listed.
Be safe and good shooting!
Sinclair International Reloading Technician
Certified NRA Metallic Reloading Instructor
Certified NRA Shot Shell Reloading Instructor