Updated December 2006

The Blue Bitch in the Garage


The Redhead Memorial Reloading Station


When I started shooting SASS I tried buying ammunition. But .45 Colt ammunition is (a) expensive and (b) not necessarily loaded appropriately for CAS usage. The only thing I could find in bulk at reasonable prices was from Houston Cartridge Co., and it chronographed at 975 ft./sec. out of my short barreled Ruger Vaqueros! With a 250 gr. bullet, that has some kick to it.

Average for factory loads is $20/box. That's $0.40/round. I'll shoot 300 rounds in a practice session-twice a week! $240/week.



There are multiple solutions to this. For one, instead of .45 Colt, get .38 Special. Then cheap .38 ammo is reasonable. You still can't tailor the load, but maybe you can afford to shoot. Reloading components for .38 Special are cheaper, and it's an easy caliber to reload.

If you haven't already bought guns, start with a .38 Special. Virtually all of the winners have used .38 Special for several years—low recoil, cheap to operate. I've figured the difference in costs and how many rounds it would take to amortize a change from .45 to .38 at Ammunition Calculations (2001 figures).

If, on the other hand, if you already have another caliber, and you don't want to buy new guns, then use what you have. .45 Colt and .44 Special become viable. .44-40 and .38-40 are bottlenecked cartridges and thus require case lubrication, which made me not choose them because I didn't want to lubricate cases. (See below. I eventually lubricated .45 Colt cases.) You DO want the same caliber for both guns. I've seen good shooters put the wrong round in Winchesters and lock them up.) .44 Special, while not authentic, is easy to reload and accurate, so it has a lot to recommend it.

Competitively, the only reason to ever not use .38 Special is you shoot Classic Cowboy, which requires a .40+ caliber rimmed cartridge (.38-40, .44-40, .45 Colt for example).

The Redhead Memorial Reloading Bench

Shown above is my reloading setup. It is named after The Redhead because she handed me a stack of $100 bills one day (royalty for my latest book) and told me to go spend it on something for myself. Some of it went for the Dillon XL650 and accessories. The rest went into other CAS gear. With this setup I could keep ahead of my practicing without hurrying the machine.

It's called The Blue Bitch in the Garage because I spend so much time with it I feel like I'm with a finicky mistress (without the sex).

Production Reloading

Back when I had spare time I was shooting nearly 1,000 rounds a week. That meant I needed to reload at least that much. I needed all of the time savers possible.

I loaded a 200 gr. RNLFP bullet at 675-700 ft./sec. originally. This, believe it or not, is a medium to hot SASS load, not Warthog territory, but way hotter than necessary. There is no velocity floor anymore in SASS. Eventually viable 160 gr. bullets came along, and that was my main load before switching to .38 specials and 125 gr. bullets. 125 gr. .38s are a mid to heavy .38 bullet now. 90 gr. and 105 gr. bullets are popular.

DO NOT BE TEMPTED TO USE 230 GR. RNL .45 ACP BULLETS IN A .45 COLT RIFLE. The nose of a bullet can fire the primer of the next round in the tubular magazine.

Ruger Vaquero front sights are not set for light SASS loads. Complaints of Rugers shooting low abound on the SASS Wire. (Shooting low is fixable. Shooting high is a problem.)

We used to have to shoot a 125 yard bonus rifle target, I used a 250 gr. bullet with the same powder charge as my 200 gr. It shot higher, of course, so I could aim for the top edge of the head of the silhouette and hit it somewhere. The 250 gr. bullets, when loaded, are visually the same as the 200s, so, mark them some way, such as with a magic marker to mark the completed rounds of 250s. The 250s also became pistol loads for the occasional mis-adjusted knock down target. And they're good Thunder Ranch loads. One doesn't take wimpy loads to Thunder Ranch.

If you encountered this while shooting .38s, you would need some 158 gr. full power loads, nothing magnum, but flatter shooting than light 125 gr. loads.


I standardized on one load for pistols and rifles both partly because the XL650 is a very fast reloader as long as you don't have to keep readjusting things. If every 1000 rounds you're changing powder and bullet shapes you'll spend a lot of time non-productively. (A very good local shooter uses .38s in his pistols, .357 Magnum in his Marlin rifle, same load, same bullet. To switch from one to the other all he has to readjust is the bullet seating die. .38s in Marlin rifles are notorious for hangups at particularly bad times.)

I would really try to avoid this. Using a different .38 bullet for the rifle, such as one of many designed to feed in the finicky .357 Magnum Marlins, and 90 gr. for the pistols, is no big deal. Loading .357s and .38s is a pain in the neck. Some .357s will get through in the .38 batch, and you'll ruin them belling the cases, or .38s will get through in the .357 batch, and you'll wind up with a bullet sticking way out. The same would be true with .45 Colt and .45 S & W.



I tried several brands of bullets. The Laser-Cast, with a trace of silver in the lead look best, especially if a round gets left in a pants pocket and gets washed. But they're no more consistent and well done than some locally produced bullets that were a lot les per 1,000 bullets.If you can find quality bullets locally or at a match, you'll save a lot in shipping.

Using the Dillon electronic scale, I've weighed a lot of bullets and measured a lot with the digital calipers. There's no perceptible advantage to the expensive Laser-Casts. The Dillon "D-Terminator" electronic scale is expensive, but it is so much faster than a beam scale you'll use it a lot more to check loads, bullet weights, case weights, loaded round weights that the extra cost is justified in productivity.

(I guess you can tell I'm not sponsored by any bullet company. This space for rent.)


I settled on Winchester primers initially because of availability and previous good experience with them.

Federal primers are considerably softer, meaning they will fire with a light primer hit that might not fire a Winchester. When I tested Taurus Gauchos for the Cowboy Chronicle, the ultra-light triggers of the early production guns wouldn't fire Winchester primers reliably, but Federals were no problem.

The rule of most successful competitors is to set their guns up to fire Winchesters but to use Federals.

The fact that Federals are softer also means they get deformed more easily, and they are more prone to detonating in the press. This happened to me twice, from the same lot of primers. AT THE TIME Dillon recommended against Federals. That was several years ago, and a recent call to Dillon resulted in no such warning. I presume Federals have changed, but I would be careful with any old lot of Federals. I probably wouldn't start off with them simply because a beginner doesn't know how a primer is supposed to feel when it's being seated. After a case of Winchesters, if you're careful, it's probably reasonable to move on to Federals if you want to.

If it doesn't feel right, don't seat the primer.

CCI are a DISTANT third choice. Whenever you call Dillon to complain about a problem involving primers, the first question they ask is, "Were you using CCI primers?" So I don't. Remingtons I've just never used because of availability.

When I switched to .38s I started with Federals and haven't bought anything else. I am very careful, and I clean off the primer mechanism with compressed air often.


For brass I got Starline brass. I also use brass from factory rounds, of course. But match ammunition is made with Starline brass. I noted it weighs more than other brass by about 5 grains in .45 Colt. I've never encountered an out-of-spec Starline case.

Switching to .38 resulted in reloading more kinds of brass, not because I bought it, but because it wound up in my collection by the end of the match. The brass pickers would hand me brass, and I would load it. The most problems come from Winchester. Their primer pockets are tight. Dillon makes a tool to swage primer pockets, but it's not worth the time and effort with .38 brass. Range brass is too cheap.

I'll load up all of the brands, but when I put it in boxes, I separate the Starline. If I don't have new Starline brass loads for a match I'll use those rounds. I find it easier to sort rounds than to sort brass.

Dillon XL650 Setup

I assembled the XL650 per the instructions and used the Dillon video and consider it worth the extra $5.95.

I got all of the accessories.

The Strong Mount raises the machine enough that I'm more comfortable loading standing up. This is something you should consider when building your setup. Try to fix it at a height which will work sitting down.

This setup was planned with a reloading machine in mind when I built the garage (which is before the strong mount came out). The counter is a 10' long Formica countertop. It is well and thoroughly attached to the wall and studs and sits on cabinets which are also well and thoroughly attached to the wall and studs and to the countertop. Nothing moves.

This is important. An awful lot of force is involved in loading. If your bench isn't well and thoroughly tied down, it will move and/or break something.

Lighting is extensive as I'm somewhat visually impaired. The walls, counters, ceiling, and floor are white to reflect light, and the ceiling has excessive florescent lighting. Additionally florescent lights are mounted under the upper wall mounted cabinets.

Production Techniques

I shot 600-1,000 rounds a week at one time (not right now because of no spare time), not every week, but most of the time, totaling over 30,000 rounds a year. I bought powder 4 or 5 cans at a time, primers in cases of 5,000 and bullets in 10,000 round lots. When I got to 2,000 primers left or 1 can of powder or 1,000 bullets left I bought more so I didn't run out. If I wasn't set up for production reloading, I couldn't keep up with my shooting.

Some Hints

When weighing powder charges, I throw 10 charges and divide by 10. If I'm trying to do 4.8 gr. of powder, for example, I might get 4.6, 4.7, 4.9, 4.8, 4,8, 4.7, 4.9, 4.8, 4.6 and 4.9. This averages 4.77. If you can find a powder that throws more consistent charges, obviously your loads will be more accurate.

When I started I weighed every 100th charge (when I added primers to the primer tube), and when I opened a new box of bullets I weighed several of them and measured them to make sure they hadn't gotten out of spec. The results were so consistant that I don't weigh as many charges, usually one per session.

And I'll check Overall Length at the beginning of each session and when/if any round looks suspicious.

I'll also weigh an occasional loaded round so that I know what a loaded round of this load with this brass should be. When having some problems with the reloader I neglected to reattach the rod which actuates the powder measure, and some rounds got out with no powder in them.

Rather than pull 50 bullets, I weighed each round and pulled the suspiciously light ones. I caught the 5 without powder (and pulled some suspicious ones with powder). I didn't miss any without powder. That batch of ammunition became PRACTICE ONLY ammunition anyway.

Starline brass is not only heavy, it's consistent, making this exercise pretty accurate.

NEVER HURRY! Move the lever in a smooth motion. If the cases are bouncing around, they'll throw powder out, and your charges will be more erratic, costing you accuracy.

Loading so much ammunition, usually of the same load, leads to some shortcuts in ammunition storage. While shooting smokeless ammunition, I kept one ammo can with practice ammunition in it and one with match ammunition in it. Match ammunition was just the best ammunition selected from a normal loading session. The reliability of my practice ammunition, for practical purposes, is the same as the match ammo. But I've looked at the primers and the crimp on every match round. No upside down primer has gotten into a weapon during a match. (Of course using a 20 round loading strip at the loading table helped that. If I'm to load 9 rifle rounds and 10 pistol rounds, the loading strip will have 19 rounds, primer up. I'll load the pistols first. Then the 9 rounds for the rifle won't be miscounted. Under stress of competition you need all the safeguards you can get.

With blackpowder the rounds should be stored in ammo boxes. I get them from Midway and Top Brass and mark the boxes with the powder, charge, bullet weight, primer, and brass and either "practice," "match," or "Super Match." Super Match is for major matches and gets a lot of TLC.

Buy the spare parts kit, and when you use a part, get another. Dillon machines are guaranteed for life, so I just order another one when a part breaks. For a long time the only time the machine was down was when the microswitch in the case feeder broke. Every other part that has broken or gotten lost was replaced with a spare. After 7 years use the machine needed to go to Dillon for a virtual rebuild, and it was back within 3 weeks.

Selecting Powders

I went online and got the online reloading manuals of every company which has an online manual. I ordered the free manuals offered. I looked at every reloading manual in a well equipped gun store and bought a few.

I found the best information to come from Alliant and Hodgdon. Alliant's powders are so old that low velocity loads are well established, and Hodgdon worked up minimum loads for each of its powders for Cowboy Action Shooting. Most loading manuals give MAXIMUM loads. We don't want maximum loads. We want low recoil loads. The regulations say below 1,000 ft./sec. for pistols, 1,400 ft./sec. for rifles. There is no longer a minimum velocity. On the other hand, match directors do throw in knock down targets.


Since I wrote this IMR's Trail Boss has come out. Trail Boss Loading Data

Trail Boss is a high volume powder. This pretty much eliminates double charges, making it harder for you to blow up your new Colt. I really liked it for .45 Colt and recommend it heartily. I haven't used it on .38s simply because I only load black powder and substitutes now. The minimum load shown for .38s is a lot hotter, believe it or not, than the winners are using. Going below the minimum load shown results in inconsistent loads.

Use something within the tables. Don't go below the tables in either bullet weight or powder charge. The problem with reloading these old cartridges is they were designed to take a large charge of black powder, and we're putting in 4-10 grains of smokeless powder and leaving a BIG empty space. There are powders which work well like this. Clays, Universal Clays, Unique, Titegroup, to name a few.

Titegroup is supposed to work well in these situations and is supposed to not be position sensitive. Try tilting your gun muzzle down then carefully leveling it back to level and chronographing all 6 chambers. Then tilt muzzle up and leveling it and chronographing all 6 chambers. If there's a big difference, you have a powder which is too position sensitive. Use something else.

Equipment, Accessories

I got the Automatic Case Feeder. I recommend it. It has been virtually trouble free. It's a necessity for production reloading speeds.

The Low Powder Sensor, the Low Primer Sensor, and the Powder Level Sensor were all good investments. I recommend anything to idiot proof the operation.

At first I didn't get the RF100 Primer Filler. But then I realized the only slow, tedious operation I was doing was filling primer tubes. If you're trying to load 1000 rounds in an evening, it becomes REALLY tedious. So I got the Primer Feeder. It speeds things up immensely.

Again, if you're doing production reloading, you need every trick to speed things up.

Reloader's Elbow

Whenever I did a lot of rounds in a sitting I began to suffer serious pains in the right arm, "reloader's elbow." After talking to Dillon's people, I followed their advice and started lubing cases per their instructions. I begged The Redhead to buy me NEW cookie sheets. I did NOT take hers. I put a layer of brass on the sheets, sprayed lightly with Dillon Case Lube, shook them up, and let them sit. When the lube covered them, I put them in the case feeder. I tumble loaded rounds just enough to get the lube off. For this I use clean crushed walnut hulls without additive. Fired brass is tumbled in crushed corn cob with Dillon's case prep added. The amount of effort needed to work the cycle is MUCH less. I looked the first time to see if a case was missing.

This isn't necessary with itty-bitty .38s.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Using the same load and components means when I've emptied 500 or 600 cases, I can fill everything and turn out 500-600 carefully reloaded rounds ready to shoot in less than an hour, not counting the time the case cleaner is doing its thing. This leaves time for more important things.