Reloading 101: Introduction to Hand Dies

Hand dies for reloading?

If you’ve been reloading awhile you’ve probably encountered an old set of hand dies at a gun show or garage sale (twenty years ago when I worked the gun counter old timers would bring in sets of hand dies to give away).  Years  ago they were thought of as an entry level reloading tool (you’d actually hit them with a hammer).  Over time hand dies have grown in sophistication and now represent the pinnacle of reloading technology.  They work so well that they are often encountered in use by bench rest shooters.

hand dies and arbor press

This is what a typical hand die set up looks like (above).  A Wilson/ Sinclair Micro-adjust seater die (above, bottom left), Wilson neck die (above, bottom middle) and Sinclair arbor press (above, bottom right).  I order all of the items from Brownells.

In this post I’ll be loading a 308 Winchester with a 175 grain Sierra Tipped MatchKing, however, the process would be similar for most common rifle cartridges.

Before we take a look at how hand dies work, let’s take a minute to read the disclaimer:

WARNING: The loads and techniques shown are for informational purposes only.  They are only safe in the rifle shown and may not be safe in yours.  Consult appropriate load manuals prior to developing your own handloads. and its authors, do not assume any responsibility, directly or indirectly for the safety of the readers attempting to follow any instructions or perform any of the tasks shown, or the use or misuse of any information contained herein, on this website.

Hand dies offers a number of advantages to shooters.  Hand dies are:

  1. Portable, you can easily bring hand dies and a small arbor press to the range.
  2. Accurate, the dies offer low run out and precise adjustment of seating depth.
  3. Easy to set up and use, especially with an arbor press, the press simply sits on top of any bench.

sinclair arbor press

You’ll notice the arbor press (above) typically used with hand dies looks different than the single stage reloading press you’d normally encounter.  This arbor press is small, light and easily transported.  The handle forces the arbor down against the die, which in turn is placed on the arbor press base.  This type of press isn’t as strong as a traditional press and can only be used for neck sizing, decapping, and seating bullets (absolutely no full length resizing).  Some traditional single stage press makers like RCBS, offer arbor press conversions for their presses.

wilson neck sizing die

Wilson neck sizing hand die that has been disassembled.  The body (left) supports the case and holds the neck bushing (center) which is secured by the cap (right).  The bushing shown is a Redding titanium nitride coated bushing, these are also available in steel and carbide in .001″ graduations.  Typically, the bushing is sized to apply .001″-.002″ of neck tension on the loaded cartridge.  Bushings are normally matched to a specific load, so many reloaders will keep a few sizes on hand.

case in neck die

To neck size the brass, the neck die is placed on the arbor press base (the cylinder the die is sitting on).

case pressed down into neck die

The press is used to drive the case into the die and size the neck.

decap set up

The die is now inverted.  Note how far the decapping stem protrudes from the die.  The stem will be used to remove the spent primer and push the case out of the die.

neck sized decapped case and die

The case after it is removed from the die.

At this point in the reloading process the brass can be primed and charged with powder.  For a portable application like this, I prefer a Sinclair hand priming tool to seat primers and a Harrell’s power measure to dispense charges.

micrometer seating die

A Wilson/ Sinclair Micro-Adjustable seating die.

micro adjust

The die is adjustable in .001″ increments.  Each .001″ increment is marks with a line as well as a tactile click.  The die is a work of art.  Less elaborate dies are available as well, click here.

bullet seating set up

The case with bullet is placed inside the seating die and the press is used to seat the bullet, in this case a 175 grain Sierra Tipper Matchking (TMK).

loaded round, seater and sizer

The loaded cartridge, seater, and sizing die on the arbor press.  Fast, easy, accurate.  Plus, I just loaded a 308 Winchester on a tree stump! Hand dies are pretty neat.

To learn more about hand dies and precision reloading, visit Sinclair.