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Ramshot Powders
Rifle Magazine
June - July 2000
Volume 35, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 205
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Ruger Bisley, Vaquero and standard Blackhawk... Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Rifle Magazine
Product Tests

RCBS Cowboy Dies

R.H. VanDenburg, Jr.

I must admit to being somewhat surprised last winter when I discovered RCBS had introduced a line of loading dies marketed directly at the cowboy action shooter. Most products for this group of shooters are unique, at least in style and sometimes utility. But loading dies? The market is awash with completely serviceable loading dies for most any caliber imaginable. Why would anyone need “cowboy dies?”

The short answer is, one wouldn’t. On the other hand, a shooter entering cowboy action shooting and purchasing a gun in a caliber not currently being loaded might well opt for a die set with packaging and cosmetics tailored expressly for this fast-growing sport. For that matter, so might someone who already has dies for a particular caliber.

What interested me most were the dies’ dimensions. Were the differences only cosmetic? Would these dies be better suited for loading the traditional cast lead bullets required under cowboy action (Single Action Shooting Society) rules? It didn’t take long for me to get in my request for a set to test. I chose those for the .45 Colt caliber.

Currently RCBS’s cowboy dies are available in 13 sets encompassing 17 calibers. All the sets consist of three dies: a full-length resizer and decapper, a neck expander and a bullet seater and crimp die. Four of the die sets for straight-walled cases have a carbide insert in the full-length sizer die - hardly traditional, but imminently practical. The other nine sets are for bottleneck cartridges - with one exception. The dies for the .38 S&W, a straight-walled case, do not have the carbide insert. When asked why, RCBS’s Customer Service personnel indicated the company simply does not have a carbide insert    in that size (.385-.386). A .38 Special/.357 Magnum carbide sizer would measure .378 to .379 inch. The sizer measurement is inside and is intended to bring the outside case diameter back to unfired specifications. It has nothing to do with bullet diameter. To tool up to manufacture carbide inserts for the infrequently used .38 S&W would most likely put the die set out of the RCBS cowboy die price range.

All the die sets are attractively packaged in a cardboard box with markings reminiscent of an earlier time. The die bodies are made of steel and are heat treated and blued an attractive blue/bronze color. The top portion of each die is knurled, followed by a smooth section. The lower area is threaded with the standard 7/8x14 threads. Each die consists of a body and a stem that screws into its respective body to perform the duties of decapping, neck expanding or bullet seating. All stems are also steel. Each die has a nut to lock the die body to the loading press when in use and a smaller nut to lock the die stem to the die body. These nuts are brass with a knurled outer surface. There are no screws or other devices to hold the locking nuts in place once die adjustment has been completed.

From now on, I’m only going to be discussing the .45 Colt dies on hand. Only dimensions and markings should differ from dies for other calibers. My full-length sizer/decapper die is roll-marked on the upper smooth surface of the body in three lines: ***RCBS***, Oroville, CA. and .45 Schofield/Colt Carbo. The decapping pin is of the headed or nail type and is secured to the bottom of the stem by a threaded retainer.


The only markings on the neck expander die are on the stem itself. They appear on the smooth section below the knurled top: RCBS O .452, for example. The stem is all one piece with the lower portion residing inside the die body turned to the appropriate diameter for neck expansion and belling the case neck for easy bullet insertion. For the die set for the .45 Schofield/Colt there are two stems, one labeled .452 and another, .454. As any aficionado of the .45 Colt cartridge can attest, the fairly wide disparity in chamber and barrel dimensions among guns made in this caliber over the last century and a quarter have made developing accurate hand loads sometimes quite trying. As a generalization with more than a little truth to it, guns made by Colt and their clones often provide better accuracy with cast lead bullets sized to a .454 inch, even if the nominal barrel groove diameter is a modern .452 inch. This is in part due to the often generous interior chamber dimensions and, I believe, the traditional shallow groove barrel interior. Conversely, guns manufactured by Ruger, notably, and others with tighter chambers and deeper grooves are usually best with .452-inch bullets. At any rate, hooray to RCBS for recognizing the distinction and providing both expanders. All this is in reference to cast lead bullets. Jacketed bullets, all of which are .451 to .452 inch in diameter, should be paired with the .452 expander.

The seater/crimp die is marked much in the same manner as the sizer die: ***RCBS***, Oroville, CA. and .45 Schofield/Colt Seat. The nose of the seater is, mercifully, mostly flat with a modest rim that allows most round, flatnose or semiwadcutters to find their own center. On the smooth section below the knurled top of the seater stem is RCBS O .45 CBY.

To answer my questions concerning dimensions I again turned to RCBS. I was informed the interior dimensions of the cowboy dies are the same as one would find in the standard die sets for this caliber. The   expander buttons, however, are different. A standard .45 Colt expander button might measure .449 inch to ensure a positive grip on jacketed bullets measuring .451 or .452 inch. The cowboy die expanders, as noted, are stamped .452 and .454. Those included in my die set actually measured .4502 and .4525, respectively; about right for holding cast bullets of .452 and .454 diameter.

Measuring cases that have been sized in the new cowboy sizing die showed a measurement of the base in front of the rim of .478 inch. This is very good, taking up space in larger Colt chambers while still fitting the smaller Ruger’s. The neck diameter measured, as best I could ascertain, about .4685 inch. Another die set from another manufacturer, designed more with cast bullets in mind, reduces case necks to only .473 inch. This tells me the RCBS dies ensure a good grip on jacketed bullets. It might mean the cases are being sized more than necessary for cast bullets, even those sized .452 inch. This is of small import, though, as the expander button will determine the final diameter, and it is repeated crimping rather than sizing that is likely to be the primary cause of eventual case failure.

In test firing .45 Colt ammunition loaded in the new dies, I used a load of R-P cases, Federal 150 primers and 8.5 grains of Unique with 250-grain cast lead bullets. This is a standard Colt load, and I’ve fired many thousands of them. The loads were fired in a second generation Colt with a 4 3/4-inch barrel and in a Ruger Bisley Vaquero with a 5 1/2-inch barrel. The loads were developed using the  .452- and the .454-inch expanders. Chronograph results were:

 

     

.452 inch 

.454 inch

   

(fps)

(fps) 

Colt

914  

879

Ruger

963

937

Accuracy was as good as I’ve come to expect. The Ruger is more accurate than the Colt, frequently producing sub-2-inch, five-shot groups at 25 yards. The best this time was 1 1/2 inches. The Colt is hard pressed to turn in a 2-inch group but did manage a 2 1/8- and a 2 1/4-inch effort in these tests.

The final tests dealt with the dies’ ability to produce .45 S&W or Schofield ammunition. As most know, this case differs from the .45 Colt principally in its shorter length of 1.1 inches. (The Colt is nominally 1.285 inches.) Cases can be made by shortening .45 Colt cases or by purchasing new ones. If new ones are purchased, a separate shellholder will also have to be obtained. RCBS’s .45 Colt shellholder is number 20; its .45 Schofield shellholder is number 35. It seemed the most severe test of the dies, after loading full-length .45 Colt cases with 250- to 255-grain bullets, would be to try 155- to 160-grain bullets in the .45 Schofield. This would probably produce the most extreme test of die adjustability. These stubby bullets were developed, I think, for the .45 ACP cartridge but have seen use in cowboy action contests, where keeping recoil to a minimum is desired. I obtained an excellent mould from Magma Engineering that drops wheelweight cast bullets right at 160 grains. Bullet seating and crimping were completed without a hitch.

All in all, these are fine dies. I’m particularly pleased with the two expander buttons, and others can be obtained separately for custom turning if desired. The inability to secure the lock nut to the die body after final adjustments have been made is the only weakness. If it is really bothersome, the nuts can easily be replaced with RCBS’s steel, hex-sided nuts from its standard dies.

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