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Rifle Magazine
February - March 2001
Volume 36, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 209
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Cooper .17 Mach IV and Remington Model 700 .17 Remington are top choices for smallbore enthusiasts. Photo by Stan Trzoniec. Coyote photo by Gary Kramer. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Product Tests
Lee Precision Deluxe Die Set

R.H. VanDenburg, Jr.


John Lee, president of Lee Precision, Inc., once told me sales of his collet sizing dies, which had an enviable record of producing very concentric cases and, therefore, very accurate ammunition, were somewhat less than he had hoped. Many people, it seemed, felt that with a collet die, which neck sized only, they would have to buy a regular die set as well to get the full-length sizing die that would be necessary from time to time. Not content to sit back and take it, he repackaged his collet die with a full-length sizer die and his Dead Length Bullet Seater and called the assembly the Deluxe Die Set. Since the collet die and the bullet seater tied in nicely with some upcoming tests, I persuaded John to part with a Deluxe Die Set in .243 Winchester for my review.

The dies are packaged in Lee’s familiar, round plastic container. Also included in the die set are a shellholder, a plastic powder dipper and an instruction sheet with load data. My dipper is labeled 2.8cc and will hold about 46.0 grains of IMR-4831, 43.0 grains of IMR-4350, and so on. However, powder charges should be weighed or thrown in a properly set up powder measure. Dipping can be done quite accurately, but it takes a lot of practice. When weighing charges I use a dipper to throw the bulk of the charge and dribble in the last few kernels to reach the de- sired weight. It’s relatively quick, cheap and as accurate as any other method.

The instruction sheet is a “must read” even for, and perhaps especially for, the experienced reloader. There are specific instructions for the adjustment of the full-length sizer, the collet sizer and the bullet seating die, plus general reloading procedures. On the back side of the sheet is a considerable amount of load data for powders from Accurate, Alliant, Hodgdon, IMR, Vihtavuori and Winchester. For the .243 Winchester, bullet weights include 60, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95, 100, 105 and 107 grains. You’d think that would be enough, but the latest bullet I’ve been testing in this caliber has been the new Hornady 65-grain V-Max. And I don’t expect anyone to keep up with the flood of new powders.

Turning to the individual dies, let’s begin with the full-length sizer. This die works just like any other in that it sizes the case body and neck, repositions the shoulder, if desired, decaps the primer and expands the case neck back to its proper inside diameter as the case is withdrawn over an expander button. The die is cylindrical and threaded 7/8x14 to fit standard reloading presses. The upper portion of the die body is smooth with 3/4-inch wrench flats at the top. The one in hand is stamped “LEE-243-C9.” All parts of the die, with the exception of the locknut, are steel. This latter part is uniquely Lee. Instead of the traditional set-screw, Lee locknuts have a cutout on the underside that contains an O ring. This ring contacts the locknut and the die threads and, while permitting the nut to be moved, holds it securely in place otherwise.

The one unique thing about the full-length sizer is the decapper/expander plug assembly. The design is such that the decapper will slide into the die rather than break if, say, a Berdan case with its off-center flash hole is run into the die. Repositioning of the assembly is easily accomplished with two wrenches, a 3/4 inch for the die body and a 1/2 inch for the assembly cap. Actually I was able to reposition the decapper and remove the entire assembly for cleaning with my bench vise in lieu of the 1/2 inch wrench and a crescent wrench for the 3/4 inch wrench. The amazing thing is that with this approach the decapping stem and expander plug were dead center in the die at all times. Try rolling most full-length sizing dies on a table and notice the wobble of the decapper. Try it again with the Lee die.

The collet die is the central part of the Deluxe Die Set. It is also cylindrical with the lower half threaded as before. A locknut secures the die once it is adjusted. It is important that the instructions be followed when adjusting the die. The top is capped with a threaded aluminum stop that holds the internal parts in place. Inside is a collet that is bored to accept the case, a collet sleeve into which the collet is forced as the press ram is raised and a mandrel that holds the decapping pin and restricts the case neck as the collet is closed. There are no markings on the die body, but the collet, which extends below the body, is marked. The collet in hand has “LEE-243-B9” around the lower circumference and can easily be read. The mandrel that controls final case neck dimensions measures .2415 inch. After some inevitable springback, the inside neck diameter is probably .242 inch, about right for gripping .243-inch bullets.

In use, the collet die is screwed into the press, per instructions, and the locknut tightened. A cartridge case is inserted in the shellholder and the press ram raised. The case slides easily into the die and as the bottom of the collet contacts the shellholder, the primer is pushed out and the collet is brought in contact with the collet sleeve and forced to close against the case neck. This closing of the collet in turn forces the case neck against the mandrel and reduces the neck. The case body is not disturbed. There is no expander plug so when the press ram is lowered the case slides easily from the die without protest. No case lubrication is necessary.

The “dead length” bullet seating die follows the pattern of the others: cylindrical body, threaded, with the upper smooth section marked “LEE-243-D9,” and a locknut. The top portion of the die body is threaded to accept an aluminum bullet adjustment screw. This, in turn, controls the movement of the seating punch and bullet seating depth. The design of the die tends to center the case neck, the bullet and the seating punch as the press ram is raised and the bullet seated. Adjustment of the seating depth is simply a matter of turning the adjusting screw until the desired depth is obtained. The screw utilizes an O ring to hold its position.

During the review of this die set, I received a prototype concentricity gauge for evaluation. I took the opportunity to make a series of tests measuring run-out of the case neck and bullet after firing and various stages of the reloading process using the Deluxe Die Set and a competing standard die set. I did most of the comparisons on nine cases. Typical averages for the nine when measuring neck run-out looked like this: after firing - .001 inch or less; after full-length sizing - .002 inch; after collet sizing - .0012 inch.

Bullet run-out, over several different bullets and in varying weights, typically averaged as follows: Lee Deluxe Die Set - .002 inch; standard die set - .004 inch.

There were numerous range trips involving several hundred rounds and a variety of different bullets and powders. I have to admit that Lee’s boast “guaranteed to load the most accurate ammunition or your money back” is safe with me. Comparing the group sizes of ammunition loaded with the Lee set to those loaded with the standard die set, the Lee ammunition produced consistently smaller groups in this rifle. The most recent test involved Nosler/Winchester Combined Technology 95-grain Ballistic Silvertips. Groups were consistently under 2 inches at 200 yards, ranging down to about 1 1/2 inches. Ammunition loaded with the competing dies averaged 2 inches or a tick larger at the same distance.

After the testing I had several questions so I again called John Lee. My first had to do with the fact that bullet run-out with the Deluxe Die Set was consistently greater than neck run-out. I felt the hole in the bullet seating punch was the culprit, contacting the bullet too close to the nose. A more open and deeper hole would allow the punch to contact the bullet farther up the ogive and produce less run-out. John quickly responded that he was aware of the problem, especially with newer bullet designs (VLD and plastic tip bullets, in particular) and had already made new punches for the .223 and .243 calibers. My die was made before the change. He also indicated that he would check the other calibers and make whatever changes were necessary. I could, he said, drill the punch out myself. The drill bit would follow the existing hole and eliminate the problem. I may do that, but accuracy was quite good as it is.

I also asked about running the case through the collet die after it became necessary to full-length resize. John assured me it would not produce the desired results. After full-length resizing and pulling the case neck back over the expander button, if the case neck alignment were disturbed, the collet and mandrel would simply follow the case neck and not reposition it. So, on those occasions when full-length resizing becomes necessary, it’s best to load those cases as practice rounds. Go back to serious group squeezing with cases that have been neck sized only.

Finally, I mentioned that I had noticed some wear marks on the outside of the collet where it comes in contact with the collet sleeve. He laughed and said I was “wearing it in. You’ll never wear it out.” Actually, since the collet and sleeve cannot have mating surfaces, some wear is to be expected. With use, the indications of wear will cease.

In the end I was quite pleased with the Deluxe Die Set. Even allowing for improvement in the seating punch, the collet principle worked quite well. Ammunition was indeed better, compared to the competing standard die set, both in measured run-out and on target.

The Original Silver Bullet
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