By Rob Kay and RN Price
Once you acquire your AR 15, three things are going to happen.
Number one is the certainty that you’re going to need to maintain your rifle. No way around that. Regular maintenance ranges from cleaning and lubing your gun to tightening up gun sights and anything else that loosens up.
The number two inevitability is customization. An owner is never satisfied with “stock”. Making a rifle your own by adding new grip, a buttstock, a scope, a trigger, etc is only natural.
The third certainty is that you’re going to notice how much of your budget ends up going to ammunition. Our crystal ball says you’ll want to learn how to reload. Yes, it will take an investment of time and a few bucks, but it will save you about 50% on ammo, not counting the time you invest on the actual labor.
In order to maintain, customize and reload, you’re going to need tools.
Redding Reloading Equipment is an icon in the world of reloading gear. They are not a subsidiary of some Fortune 1000 company. Like so many endeavors in the firearms world, it’s a family owned company. They’ve been around since 1946 and are focused like a laser beam on one thing–making high quality reloading gear.
Economics and geeky sensibilities drove us to reloading and the dictum we found over and over again to be a constant was that spending money on good tools is a good investment.
We’ve been reloading handguns for a number of years and both own the Dillon 550B, which is terrific for hand guns and works well for rifles. We needed a die set to load 5.56 and opted for the top of the line Redding Match Die Set along with the Redding 2400 case trimmer.
Everything about Redding products tells you that these are made for the long haul by pragmatic Yankee engineers.
The trimmer, which resembles a metal lathe, has a cast iron body that is as solid as White Freightliner. It utilizes a Universal Collet which means it will accept all cases. (If you buy a Wilson trimmer you’ll need to buy a separate shell holder for each caliber). There’s a little button atop the lathe that allows you to easily open or close the collet just by cranking the handle clockwise or counterclockwise.
Just below the button are a couple (large and small) of primer pocket cleaners that are screwed right into the body of the lathe. (These are easier to use that the conventional pocket cleaners attached to a screwdriver type handle). Protruding from center of lathe is a storage place for “pilots”, tiny knobs to guide different caliber cases directly into the TIN (titanium nitride coated) cutter. There’s a also little screw hole on this side of the lathe to place a neck cleaning brush. (The kit comes with two sized brushes). Another facet that differentiates the Redding trimmer from others is a micrometer adjustment dial that comes pre-calibrated for 223 cases.
If you read the comments on some of the forums about this trimmer you’ll find some people sent the tool back to Redding because they said it was ”inconsistent”. We believe this is an unfair judgment.
If the case is set up on the pilot properly and, you don’t use excessive force when actually trimming the brass you’ll get a perfectly square case mouth and exactly the same degree of trim on every shell.
We should know because at first, we made the initial mistake of using way too much elbow grease to trim the cases. The result was a crude and uneven cut.
With the Redding trimmer, a great deal comes down to technique. The technique is to rapidly turn the crank and apply the same pressure constantly. It should be a light pressure–you’re not trying to force anything.
It’s also going to take more than a few revolutions.
Keep on turning until you feel that there’s no drag coming from the trimmer. At this point you can check the length. If there’s still more to trim, put the shell casing back in and crank some more. You’ll find that it will trim the shell to the precise length that the Micrometer is set.
Street price for the Precision Case Trimming Lathe is around $150. It is built to last a lifetime.
The National Match die set came out a few years ago and it’s their top of the line. The set includes a full length sizing die, a completion seating die and a taper crimp die. Prior to Redding selling this as a kit, they were only available individually. These dies are optimized for loading match ammo for ARs. If you’re a precision freak, this is what you’ll want–even if you’re not shooting in matches.
Once the various dies are set up on the Dillon toolhead, using them isn’t terribly different from what you’d be doing to load with standard dies. Perhaps the main difference is the seating die, which utilizes a micrometer so that you can precisely regulate seating the depth of the bullet.
Why is this important?
As an example, we like pushing our AR’s to their limits. That means we like to shoot them to the furthest targets that the range provides—in this case 455 yards. With the wind buffeting lower slopes of the Koko Head, where the target is placed, this is not easy. It means tweaking loads with heavier bullets to very exacting standards. If you’re not seating your 75 gn bullet precisely, you’re not going to hit that 12 inch plate nearly 1/3 of a mile in the distance.
If you’re a precision shooter, even if you don’t participate in matches, the name of the game is consistency. If you’ve got your load down you’re going to need to replicate it over and over again. A micrometer built into the seating die is the best way imaginable to do this.
Now back to earth.
We did go through some hiccups in the first loading episode with the new dies but they had little to do with Redding. Fortunately, they were minor. The Dillon powder die was seated a bit too deeply, which resulted in a few crushed cases. We had trouble seating some of the primers. This was because we were using military brass that hadn’t been swaged deeply or resolutely enough with the Dillon “Super Swage 600”. The result was half seated primers.
We don’t want to make this review sound like a comedy of errors but it’s best to be truthful.
The biggest hiccup (or screw up as it were) was the episode of the stuck shell case in the decapping die and the ensuing drama involved with removing it. We won’t go into the gory details but suffice it to say, we needed the help of Redding tech support and we ended up having get a part replaced after we incorrectly removed the shell case and in doing so, damaged a part. Redding was extremely helpful and replaced the part at no cost.
There’s a lesson here.
If you do end up getting a stuck shell, Redding recommends that you send it to them. They will remove it, polish the die, clean it ultrasonically send it back to you for the price of $30. They will also send you a stuck case removal kit. This little tool kit handily and safely removes a shell casing so you don’t have to do what we did, and have to send for new parts. (In the future we’re hoping to do a review of this item).
Another thing to be cognizant of with the National Match die set is that “compressed charges” should be avoided with the seating die.
There is a clue to detecting a compressed charge. If you’ve filled the cartridge case up to near maximum and you hear a ‘crunch’ sound when seating the bullet, be alerted. If this is the case, you’ll need to back off. The seating die is a sensitive instrument with very close tolerances. It simply can’t handle the stress that is takes to compact a charge. If this happens on a regular basis you’re almost guaranteed to damage the die.
The National Match die set retails for around $170.
Wheeler Engineering Delta Series
As we said at the beginning of this article, you’re going to need to maintain your rifle and have the capability to start customizing or swapping things out. Want to swap the plain Jane buttstock for a UBR? Interested in building your own lower receiver like we did? Essentially, with one tool you’ll have the ability to tighten or loosen any nut and change any part on your rifle. For example, a common occurrence with the vibration and stress that comes from shooting an AR is that the castle nut on your stock starts to loosen.
In situations like this, the Delta Series Combo Tool (which comes with a torque wrench) is invaluable.
An innovative layered and laminated stamped steel construction makes the Delta Series Combo Tool particularly durable. This construction method allows the use of hardened steel barrel nut pins designed to hold up to heavy torque requirements. A cut out for a ½” drive allows the tool to be used with a torque wrench or ratchet driver.
There are a number of versions of armorer’s wrenches out there but we really like the Wheeler design. In our build of three lower receivers we learned, you’ve got to have the right implement for the right job.
The Delta Series Combo (with torque wrench) retails for $45. You can also get the wrench separately at Amazon for around $23.
72-Piece Screwdriver set from Wheeler Engineering
We learned the hard way.
Without the right screwdriver set, you’re almost guaranteed to ruin the screws on a gun. Whether you’re going to do a DIY AR 15 build out or simply tighten up a gun sight on a 1911—you’re going to need the right type of screwdriver. The fact is, there are real design differences between a standard screwdriver and one designed specifically for a gunsmith. For starters, the quality and hardness of the steel differ between the two variations. However, the main distinction is that the gun smithing screwdrivers have hollow-ground tips. By contrast, the standard version for contractors and carpenters (ie Craftsman) are taper-ground.
Wheeler Engineering has a whole complement of high quality screw drivers that are specifically designed for gunsmithing. The Wheeler set is made from S2 tool steel and hardened to 56-58 Rockwell “C.” There are also two handles that will work for most situations—a regular sized handle, and a second that is slimmer and shorter for “Close Quarters” work.
Wheeler states that their engineers calibrated the screws on over one hundred types of old and new firearms to be certain that the Phillips, Allen, and Torx bits would provide the right fit for any gun smithing need. This would include scope rings, bases, recoil pads, etc.
We found the 72-piece kit extremely useful for tweaking the trigger for our fancy billet lower from Franklin Arms. We were hard pressed to find the right tool but the 1/16” bit in the Wheeler kit, combined with the regular sized handle (which has a 4” shaft) was able to plumb the depths of the AR 15 grip so that we could make the adjustment. The kit is available from outfits such as Midway, Amazon, Cheaper than Dirt and the like for around $50.
All photos except for Wheeler kit by On Target Hawaii Staff.
Questions? Comments? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org