Reloading scales & measures

Redding’s 30 BR volumetric powder measure is an excellent unit for the man who handloads for hunting.There are a number of different ways of getting an accurate powder charge. Most handloaders rely upon a beam balance scale together with a volumetric powder measure – two pieces of equipment that are mutually dependent upon one another. Basically, the scale is used to adjust a powder measure which drops the desired charge weight directly into the case.

Although some measures have micrometer adjustments which are very accurate, you cannot be certain of returning to a specific charge weight by these graduations alone. this is because propellant powders show considerable variation in bulk and density. It is the normal practice to set the measure, using the micrometer adjustments to achieve a rough setting which is then refined by using the scale. But even after the measure is set accurately, it is wise to check every tenth charge thrown to make sure the micrometer’s lock nut hasn’t vibrated loose. The scale then, is essential to set the measure which is only a tool to speed up production.Of course, cartridges can be reloaded without a powder measure by hand-weighing each and every charge on a scale. I always do this when small batches of five or ten loads are needed for a test series. But weighing every charge will slow you up too much if you’re assembling a large batch of reloads.

As for trying to reload without a powder scale, don’t even think about it! You have to know exactly how much powder is going into the case. Powder charges are measured in grains, and the unit of weight which sees almost universal use is the avoirdupois grain, which is equal to 1/7000th of a pound. Whether or not the canister is labeled one-pound or 454 grams, we still weigh our charges in grains. Sometimes we refer to an individual granule of powder as being a grain, but it’s a misnomer and we should keep the two words separate and use “grain” only to indicate a unit of weight and “granule” when referring to a particle of powder.

Forget about dip measures which are suited to only the most elementary form of reloading; a proper powder scale is essential to the process of assembling safe, accurate reloads. Scales can range from the ordinary old-fashioned beam types to space-age electronic digital read-out models.

The typical scale is a magnetically dampened beam balance with two counterweights, or poises, on the beam. The free end of the beam has a pointer which relates to a scale and there is a leveling screw in the base. Delicate, usually knife-edge, bearings allow extreme sensitivity in weighing.

When a weight is put into the pan the beam’s up and down movement is slowed magnetically. Care must be taken to ensure that a balance beam scale be leveled so that when the counterweights are set at zero the pointer is also at the zero mark. Otherwise the readings will be false. High quality scales come with a set of scale check weights- small bits of metal of a given weight that the user can use to confirm the scale’s accuracy.

Checking through various reloading tool manufacturer’s catalogues we see that balance beam-type scales run from budget models like Lee’s Safety Scale at around $46.00 with a capacity of 100 grains to the RCBS 10-10 which will weigh up to 1,010 grains and sells for about $256.00. Most balance beam scales like Redding’s No. 2 and Lyman’s Scale Pro line have a capacity of about 505 to 510 grains. The added capacity is only an advantage for weighing such things as bullets, because very few cartridges are loaded with more than 100 grains of powder.

If I only needed a scale to weigh powder and set my measure correctly, then the RCBS 10-10 would satisfy all my needs. But weighing cartridge cases and bullets is a tedious chore with a balance beam scale. Now, with my new RCBS electronic digital- readout scale, I have weighed as many as 500 bullets in a half hour.

Handloaders who have been in the game for two or three decades or more don’t often enthuse about new introductions. However, right after I used an electronic scale for the first time I packed my balance beam scale away for use only in an emergency.

When they first came on the market, electronic scales were relatively expensive, but today they are affordable by the majority of handloaders. The RCBS Rangemaster 750 Elect costs about $215.00 and Lyman’s 1000XP Precison Elite even less – about $190.00. Most electronic scales weigh from 750 to 1000 grains, but the RCBS Chargemaster 1500 weighs up to 1500 grains.

Both the Lyman and RCBS Rangemaster 750 can be converted to 9V battery power for field use, and both come with their own calibration check weights. I’ve had experience with a number of different electronic scales and my feeling is that if you’re a high volume reloader of thousands of rounds a year, then you’d definitely gain a benefit from one of this new breed of scales.

Powder measures have improved out of sight too. Not too long ago, the handloader bought one measure for all powders, and for both rifle and handgun reloading. Then he took a chance that it would do the job properly. Mostly they did with flake or ball- type handgun powders, but more often they didn’t with extruded type rifle powders. That’s how the powder tricklers came about. After a relatively inaccurate charge of extruded powder was thrown from the measure and put into the scale, the trickler was used to bring it up to correct weight.

Today, we have powder measures with separate drums and micrometer adjustments for rifle and handgun reloading, we also have benchrest quality measures like Redding’s Match-Grade Model 3BR which measure from 5 to 100 grains and the 3BRK which comes with two metering chambers – one for handguns (0-10grains) and one for rifles (5-100 grains). Redding’s Competition Model BR-30 features an entirely new repeatable micro-adjustable drum and metering unit especially designed for benchrest competitors whose charge requirements are usually between 10 and 50 grains.

Most versatile of all are the RCBS Quickchange Powder Measures which offer the ability to go from light pistol to heavy magnum rifle charges quickly. They include one each small and large metering assemblies that are changed with the pull of a pin. A convenient drain attachment empties the powder hopper without the need to remove it from the stand or press. Q/C accessories including different calibre drop tubes, are available to upgrade your old RCBS Uniflow Measure to this system. A Quick Change High Capacity version with a large hopper holding two pounds of smokeless powder offers the ability to dispense large rifle charges up to 250 grains.

Then there’s the automatic measures used on progressive- type reloading presses like those made by Dillon, Lee and Hornady. These measures are not hand-operated. Rather the rotational movement of the press actuates their charge bars to dispense the powder. In my expereince they are very accurate, since the mechanical movement of the press is more consistent than a human operator.

Inexpensive powder measures sell for less than $50 for say the RCBS Little Dandy or the Lee Perfect Powder Measure. Or they can cost well up to $300 for competition-grade types. Scales likewise start at $50 and go into the hundreds, so powder dispensing can be as cheap or as elaborate as the handloader cares to make it.

The latest advance in powder handling combines a scale with an automatic measure for the utmost accuracy and convenience. Typical is the RCBS Chargemaster Combo which features the Chargemaster 1500 scale and powder dispenser. The hopper is filled with smokeless powder of any type, and buttons are pressed to enter the desired charge weight which is displayed on a LED readout. All that remains is to press the dispense button. Average dispensing time is under 30 seconds for a 60 grain extruded powder charge. Dispensing can be done in grains or grams. The RCBS Combo accurately weighs and dispenses all extruded, ball and flake smokeless powder from 2 to 300 grains at +/- 0.1 grain.

Furthermore you can store up to 30 of your favourite loads in memory for fast recall. Power to the Combo is provided by a single plug-in power cord. The Chargemaster Combo costs around $600, but the 1500 scale and dispenser can be purchased separately or as a combo set, to suit individual budgets.

Lyman also offers an electronic powder system which works as a scale or as a complete powder dispensing system and can store up to 100 loads in memory. Based upon a new improved DPS III Digital Powder system it quickly and accurately weighs each and every load to 1/10 grain. It can be used as a complete dispensing system, as a scale only or as a scale and powder trickler.

This highly sophisticated unit allows you to transfer memory directly from your computer to your DPS system and has a separate electronic reloader’s log for storing all of your valuable reloading data. It stores virtually thousands of loads in standard reloader’s log format and has a section for comments. Selling for around $480, it represents unusually good value, particularly since it represents the latest technology and the ultimate in powder dispensing.

These automated powder dispensers do away with the charge-to- charge variation displayed by volumetric measures, most of which function by measuring powder that’s gravity fed from a hopper into an adjustable cavity in a rotating drum. Their consistency depends to a great extent upon the proficiency of the operator – how uniformly he strokes the handle. The secret lies in developing a consistent technique. The measuring strokes of the handle should be at the same speed and the bumps made at each end of the stroke made with the same amount of force for every charge.

Sooner or later, of course, every shooter setting out to reload his own ammunition will get a powder measure to complement his scale. Only those who reload vast quantities of cases, however, will realize the need for an electronic powder dispenser. Most will stick with either a basic beam balance scale or one of the cheaper electronic scales and a simple powder measure, both of which are an absolute necessity on any reloader’s bench.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, November 2010.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.