MY EXPERIENCES RELOADING FOR THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN
By Jay DIY
PART I – “THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE”
got my WWII vintage Model of 1928A1C Thompson Sub-Machinegun (TSMG) last fall, and it did not take long to fully appreciate the cost of buying new factory loaded rounds for it! I had purchased it both for the love of the gun in general, as well as with the full intention of shooting it regularly. Well at $15.00 or so a box, I knew I had to find an alternative. I started with factory reloads that I purchased over the Internet. This worked well, and at about $9.50 per 50 round box of full metal jacket (FMJ) 230 grain 45 ACP, I was thinking “I won’t go to the poorhouse at this price”. But as I shot the gun more and more, I reached the point where I decided that $9.50 was getting pricey, and I switched to round nose lead (RNL). This brought the cost to about $8.50 per box and the little bit of extra cleaning of lead deposits was not significant. Although this price was not that bad, I knew that people reloaded all types of ammunition for themselves as a way of saving money. As a boy, I had helped my father reload for his Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum pistol and his Remington 244 varmint gun. This inspired me to revisit this lost skill for my self.
I had inherited my late father’s balance scale and reloading press, so I started by looking around for 45 ACP dies to fit the press. It turns out that he had made the press and dies himself. He was a “jack of all trades”, with machinist being one of the trades. Since his die thread sizes were not the same as today’s standards, I would have to buy a reloading press too. I was having second thoughts, wondering if I could ever save money if I needed to buy a press as well as the other equipment. I looked at prices for some of the more elaborate turret and progressive presses and found price tags in the $100’s, up to $1,000 plus! I was ready to just put up with the $8.50 per box. I kept looking, on the Internet I found Lee Precision single stage presses and associated reloading equipment. They were simple, and best of all, very low priced! I could not believe it! I found a “local” dealer (45 miles away) that had Lee equipment and went to give a look-see. What I found was simple well-built items that were priced right! I got the single stage press as a start, for about $25.00. Although the expensive presses did more in less time, I figured I have some time to spend on my hobby.
I also purchased a Lee .45 ACP three-piece set of carbide dies for about $35.00. I had remembered how all the cases had to be lubed with my dad’s dies, and opted for the hard carbide version that does not require case lubing. The set of dies included a de-priming/full length resizing die, an expander die, and a bullet-seating die. The later also removes all of the flare put in the case by the expander. This eliminates the need for a separate tapered crimping tool. Also included, were a shell holder, basic instructions, and a small powder measure.
To measure out the powder charges, I needed a reliable measure. As a boy, we had used shell cases cut to a certain length to hold just the right amount of powder. A handle would then be soldered onto the new “powder measure”. Sets of these in plastic are available for about $10.00. This seemed just a little too slow for Thompson Sub Machinegun reloading. I went up a step to the Lee Perfect Powder Measure. With a removable hopper, and micrometer scaled powder setting adjustable from 2 to 100 grains, it is easy to use and I have found it to be “set it and forget it “ reliable. I still check it a couple times per session though. For checking the powder charge I still have my Dad’s balance scale. These are also available for only about $25.00. When I reload, I use the plastic trays out of factory load boxes to organize the shells once they have a powder charge. I have found it good practice to visually inspect the groups of 50 charged cases for consistent powder levels. This is a good safety practice to prevent major powder charge errors getting to the bullet pressing stage.
When helping Dad, I had to manually place each primer in the press, put the shell casing in the press, and PRESSED IT! I was pleasantly surprised when I found the Lee Auto Primer II. A whole box of 100 primers is placed in the removable round tray at each refilling. A special ridged bottom in the tray lets you gently shake the tray and get all primers in one orientation without getting out the tweezers. It is just fun to watch them flip over as you shake the tray. With a little practice, most of the primers are already oriented properly when dumped (carefully) from their box. With fingers as big as mine, I do not want to fumble with individual primers. The primers are gravity fed, and go pretty easily. An occasional tap on the side of the tray is necessary to keep the log jam moving out of the tray. This is easily worked into the hand motion to place/remove the shell casing. The last 10 or so primers need a little extra help, but this is also a minimal effort. This is only necessary when the final batch of 100 primers is being pressed into the shell casings. When the tray empties, it may be detached and refilled. The tool has provisions for using either large or small primers and fits in the top of the press, making it very convenient to use. Only Winchester and CCI primers are recommended for use with the Auto Primer II. I opted for the former, since that is what I could get. Primers cost me about $20.00 for 10 boxes of 100 each.
There are also kits that have everything in them that save you more over the individual prices. That was not an option for me since I had the balance scale already.
The 45ACP was originally developed as a pistol round. There are a lot of choices for pistol powder, and the selection of powder must to be in accordance with the type and caliber of ammunition being loaded. My local supply store had a lot of choices, but I settled on HODGDON HP-38. It was recommended by the powder manufacturer for the 45ACP, and was reasonably priced at around $20.00 a pound. I also needed some lead, and wanted to stay with the 230 gr. RNL bullets. The supplier had them with beveled-bases (BB) in boxes of 500 for about $26.00. The brand that is available in my location is MAGNUS Bullet Company No 804 (.452 diameter). Since I had purchased about 2,000 rounds of reloaded ammunition before deciding to reload my own, I had plenty of brass. There are however, a lot of sources for once fired brass. The cases can be purchased on the Internet for about $.062 a piece. The eager beaver can sometimes get them from a firing range for just the effort.
PART II – “GETTING DOWN TO IT”
With all the supplies and tools for reloading in my garage, it was time to get started. I had reloading manuals from my father that detailed the steps for reloading. It is important to have a good reference to refer to for bullet dimensions, etc. An efficient method to accomplish a task is to do a lot of the same thing before moving on to the next process. When reloading for the TSMG, you have plenty of opportunity to do a lot of the same thing. With the single stage press you perform a bunch of repetitions of each step, then move on to the next step. This is due to a single die being in the press at any given time. Turret machines will hold all the dies at once, but only use the one that is selected. This minimizes setup time. The progressive machines let you do all the steps for one round of ammunition, with each cycle of the press handle. This capability adds complexity and cost to these units, but buys you a savings in time. I think the single stage press is also therapeutic. I will alternate between my left and right arm to even out the exercise. Reloading sessions of 400 to 500 rounds is a bit of a workout!
I started out with twice fired rounds (once fired factory reloads I had fired) that still had their primers, so the first step was to remove the primers. This is accomplished, interestingly enough, by installing the de-priming die in the press. I will do several hundred de-primings before moving on to the next step. It only takes a couple of minutes to set-up the press by screwing the die into the top of the press and inserting the shell holder into the lower portion. I have found that, not including the set-up time (discussed later), it takes me 3.2 minutes to de-prime 50 cases. I use two low-sided bins to keep the primed (fired) and de-primed cases apart. Once set up, you can really “go to town” on it. You get a “two-for-one” deal with this step as you are doing a full length sizing of the case diameter as well as de-priming the cases.
I believe that a big part of reloading quickly is economy of motion. Wasted motion means wasted time and needless fatigue. I try to get my setup to capitalize on this concept. From left to right, I have the bin for the de-primed cases, the bin for the still primed (fired) cases, and the reloading press, respectively. If this seems backwards, it may be due to me being left handed. As you take the de-primed shell from the press and move it to the far left bin, your eye should be focusing on the next shell to grab for de-priming. Peripheral vision is all it takes to put the de-primed case in the bin. The bins I use are 9 inch aluminum cake pans that my wife had been discarding.
Using a magic marker, I put a thin vertical alignment line on the press and dies the first time I got each one set up. Using these lines, I can go right back to the same setting the next time. The dies have a lock nut to keep them from moving while in use. The lock nut needs to be turned with the die when removing or reinstalling the dies. The alignment line will not be valid, but may still look so, if the lock nut is turned one complete turn around the die.
Through out the process of reloading you need to be looking for any defects in the materials you are using. This primarily means the shell casings. If there are any dents or cracks the case should be discarded. Additionally, some times the cast lead bullets are not quite perfect and may need trimmed. There may also be excessive wax lube/sealant on the bullet. Make sure to take care of these things as you encounter them. These defects are infrequent however, and it would not be time efficient to go through all the materials as a separate step.
The reloading manuals include steps for brass cleaning via tumblers and primer cup cleaning via small brushes. Some good news, the carbide dies set does not require any tumbler cleaning of the casings! Additionally, in my experience (as well as several other fellow re-loaders) the primer cup cleaning can be skipped as well. While handling the cases, I make sure there are no big chunks of debris in the cases or cups. After several thousands of rounds reloaded, I have not seen any discernable degradation from lack of case cleaning. I had been cleaning the cup on each case when I first started. Local old time re-loaders persuaded me to stop doing it, and I have been glad I did.
I wear snug, thin nitrile rubber gloves (blue colored) during all of the processes. With all that spent gunpowder debris, fingers can get pretty dirty. The rubber gloves also help in the grasping of cartridges quickly. Nitrile is much tougher and chemically resistant than latex or vinyl. They are only about $9.00 for 100 individual ambidextrous gloves. I get mine from Harbor Freight Tools. I wear the medium size so they are snug. And of course it should go with out saying that the proper eye protection is a must.
Moving on to the next step the dies are changed to the expander die. This die bevels the neck of the case ever so slightly so the bullet will go in without scraping off lead. Since the 45ACP is designed to use the end of the case to control insertion dept into the chamber, lead build-up around the bullet at the end of the case may keep the round from being chambered properly. I learned this the hard way, and had to manually scrape lead off of 100 rounds. The expander should be set to just allow the beveled bottom of the lead bullet to easily start in the casing. I am talking about 1 to 2 thousandths of an inch of expansion. It is barely visible, but when you manually test fit a bullet in the expanded case, it will start in slightly beyond the bevel. The more expansion used, the quicker cases will begin to crack at the neck. So remember, just enough expansion means maximum reload life of the casing. The expanding can be performed on the same batch that was just de-primed. With a two-bin setup similar to that used for de-priming, I can achieve a regular rate of 50 cases expanded in 2.5 minutes. The expander die also provides a means to manually add the powder to the casing. When the casing is fully inserted into the die, a funnel may be placed in the top of the die (the die is hollow) and a measured powder charge may be poured into the case through the die. This approach seemed too slow for TSMG reloading so I have not tried it.
Priming requires removal of the expander die, and assembly of the Auto Primer II in the top of the press. Make sure to use the large primer parts, and get the parts in the proper orientation. It is pretty easy, but may take a few extra minutes the first time. With assembly complete, it is time to load primers into the tray. Remember, these are live primers and care needs to be taken during the priming process! You will see cautions in the instructions; HEED THEM! The priming process can safely be accomplished at a rate of 50 rounds in 5 minutes. This includes loading the fresh primers in the tray! When priming each case, the primer should easily go into the cup at the base of the case. If it catches or drags, stop and cautiously withdraw the case from the press. Do not look down into the case while pressing the primer into it. (I hope this would be common sense, but fore warned is fore armed.) After each priming stroke, the primers feeding into the press should noticeably move downward. If not, tap the tray to get the flow of primers going down the tube. If the next primer does not slide into the throat of the press, it can get caught and cause problems. Take it slow until you get the rhythm of the process. At this point, you have live rounds that need appropriate safety care. They also will need protection from humidity if stored. I use tightly closed plastic bags if I am not going to be finishing the loading in that session.
The next step is to place a powder charge in each shell casing. This step does not involve the press at all. Instead the powder measure and scale are used. But “how much powder should be used”, you might ask? The powder manufacturers have taken the guesswork out of it. They all supply the recommended load sizes in grains (gr.) of powder for that particular product. For the HP-38 powder, 5.3 gr. is the maximum load for a 230 gr. bullet. The manufacturer recommends starting with a 10% less load for HP-38, and working up to no more than the maximum. I settled on 5.0 gr. as a nice round number that works fine. I also loaded up some rounds at 5.2 grains and could not tell the difference. Less powder after all, means less cost. Plus, a value in the middle of the 10% range means more tolerance for powder charge fluctuations. You need to go through several iterations of setting the measure and weighing the resulting charge before getting exactly the desired amount. Once set, I have found the Lee powder measure to be very stable and need no further tweaking. The set up I use for this step varies a little from previous steps. I use one low-sided bin for the primed/expanded casing without powder, and instead of a second bin, I use the plastic trays from purchased factory rounds. I have collected enough to do 400 to 500 rounds before moving on to the next step. It is really easy to knock over un-supported cases with powder in them, so this approach works well. The box trays let you count rounds and see if all cases appear to have consistent levels of powder. I have found that it takes me 4 minutes to put powder in 50 shell cases. I never put powder in more cases than I am going to have time to finish (up through putting the bullet into the case) during that session. The powder needs to stay dry in an airtight dry container, and handling the charged cases for temporary storage is asking for spills.
Once the cases all have their powder, it is time to place the bullet in the neck of the case and press it. For this step the bullet-seating die must be put in the press. There are two adjustments for this step since the lead must be pushed in the correct distance, and the expanded case must be returned to the correct outside diameter. I found it helpful to practice a few times with unprimed fired cases until I got the settings right. You can always pull the lead out of the unprimed/uncharged cases and try again. It is very dangerous doing that with loaded rounds, and could result in serious injury or death! You are trying to get the overall length to be no more than 1.275 inches maximum. I use a verneir caliper to measure mine. Some sort of accurate caliper is needed as you are trying for a length close to the maximum, but not over it. I make mine 10 to 20 thousandths under the maximum. The cases are pretty full of powder and you never want to compress the powder with the bullet! The second adjustment to the die will leave the neck at the specified 0.473-inch diameter. There is a slight taper to the 45ACP, and you are trying to get the casing back to that shape. Bullet seating is the slowest portion of the reloading and it takes me 7.5 minutes to get the bullets in 50 rounds. My setup for this step (from left to right) is as follows: a low sided bin for the finished rounds, the lead bullets in a low sided bin, the cases (with powder) in the plastic trays, and the press. To speed things up, as I am placing the loaded round in the left most bin, I focus on the next lead bullet I will be getting. Grasping the nose end of the bullet as I retrieve it from the bin, I am preparing to use the bullet to pick the charged case out of the plastic tray. I gently hand press the bullet into the neck of the next case. This lodges the bullet into the case sufficiently to permit partial extraction of the case. Before the casing clears the tray, I move my grip down to firmly grasp both the bullet and the case. Then I set both into the press and produce a finished round of ammunition. I do not waste time putting the completed rounds back in the plastic trays. I know how many rounds I have completed by the empty trays. For final storage I use any convenient containers that are fairly airtight. My favorite is the yellow plastic Nestles Quick container. Plastic peanut butter jars are good too. I write the caliber, bullet size, powder, velocity, quantity, and date loaded on the containers with magic marker. I started this practice when I was trying different loads, and have continued even though I now load the 45 ACP all the same.
The accompanying tables summarize the time and costs involved in my reloading efforts. I have not included the setup times as they vary depending on whether or not you pack everything away each session or can leave it set up. The impact of setup is further mitigated, by processing as many rounds as possible in each step. No single setup takes me more than 5 minutes, and there are 5 setups. The actual loading time for a 50 round box of 45ACP comes to about 22.2 minutes. In batches of 500 rounds (10 boxes of 50) the 25 minute overhead would break down to 2.5 minutes /box. The total would therefore be equal to 24.7 minutes.
The breakdown of the costs reflects the price variations resulting from where I buy my supplies. I will go through the calculations for a more expensive set of supplies, and summarize both the cheaper and more expense supply costs in a table.
POWDER @ 5gr. /load: Since there are 7000 gr. / pound (lb.), I get 1400 loads per 1 lb. Jar of powder. The powder cost me $21.70 /jar, therefore the cost is $0.016 / load. (Editor's Note: This load works well for Jay; however, you should follow the Hodgdon loading manual and work up your own loads.)
PRIMERS: @ $20.00 / 1000 primers, the cost is $0.02 / load
HARD CAST RNL : @ $28.21 / box of 500, the cost is $0.056 / bullet
BRASS SHELL CASES: I got my cases as a byproduct of buying the reloaded rounds and have no direct cost information. Therefore I am substituting prices I have seen advertised on the Internet.
@ $62.00 per 1000 cases, the direct cost is $0.062 / shell casing. However, since the expected life of a shell casing is at least 5 reloads, the amortized cost would be ($0.062 / case) divided by (5 reloads / case) equals $0.0124 / shell casing
Summary: In general, the time for each step of reloading is dependant on how much automation is involved. With the single stage press there is not a lot of automation. The Auto Primer II is one exception. It would slow things quite a bit to have to handle each of the primers individually.
Looking at the costs analytically, the bullets and the primers are the “cost drivers”. Collectively they constitute approximately 73% of the cost. I probably cannot do much about the primers. But, as a boy we would cast our own fishing sinkers and bullets. If I start casting my own bullets I will let you know how it turns out.
At 25 minutes and $5.22 per box of 50 rounds of 45 ACP, I am convinced that reloading is the best approach for me.
More on Reloading for the Thompson
By The Virtual Thompson Reloader
First off, I'm making the presumption you know something about reloading, e.g., knowing the difference between a progressive and single stage reloader. Surprise, it's no more complicated than loading a .45 ACP for any pistol. In fact, in my experience (appx. 10,000 rounds reloaded), I have found the Thompson to be tolerant of faults which would cause a pistol jam. I have had many rounds that would not fit in a reloading case gauge but would drop right into the chamber of a new Thompson barrel. My guess is the Thompson chamber is oversized to increase reliability. Let's get started with my equipment.
Today, I'm using a Dillon XL 650
with a case feeder and primer loader. Don't believe Dillon's claim of 1,000 rounds an hour, but it still cranks them out--several hundred an hour. Formerly, I started with a Lee 1000, but the primer feed system is unreliable--hence, the XL 650. One advantage of the Lee system is the resizing die squeezes the fired casing down to a slightly smaller diameter than the Dillon. Point of interest, Mike (not to be confused our friend and member Dave) Dillon got into the reloading business because a friend paid back his debt to Mike with a Thompson!
Rule 1. Go with what the the loading manual says, but start out low (90% of max) and work your way up. Check the fired casings carefully (look at the end of this article for more on casings). The combination a longer barrel and a "semi-locked" breech on the 21 and 28 models lets the cartridge back out of the chamber while the pressure is still relatively high--my opinion, not a proven fact.
The standard 230 gr. loads are straight forward to load as are the 200 gr. semi-wadcutters. One thing I would suggest, especially if you have a compensator, is to use copper "plated" bullets. The difference between copper plated bullets and copper jacketed is the plated bullet has its back end covered with copper rather than leaving the lead exposed. Don't even think about cast lead bullets with a compensator unless you're really into heavy metal! What happens when the cartridge ignites is a great deal of heat and pressure is forced against the back end of the bullet. Lead (actually a lead alloy) with its low melting point turns a small amount of the bullet to liquid. Ever wonder why lead accumulates on the "outside" edge of the lands rather than the "inside" edge which forces the bullet to rotate? To understand this, visualize looking at the bullet from the rear while it's going down the barrel . Assume the bullet is rotating clockwise as viewed from the rear. As the one edge of each land forces the bullet to turn clockwise, the splatter, likewise is moving clockwise, coming off the rear of the exposed lead. The outside edge is the first thing to grab the splatter. When the bullet exits the barrel and enters the compensator, the splatter accumulates on the inside of the compensator. Can you say leading? That's why I use plated bullets. If you're cheap, you can use cast or copper jacketed bullets, then blow out most of the mess with 20 or 30 plated bullets.
If you favorite range decides "go green" what is the reloader to do? Lead free bullets are pricey but available. West Coast Bullet
sells them as do some others. The bad news: non-lead bullets are roughly 60% of the weight of a standard bullet. The worse news, you can't use the usual pistol powders. A little background again. A lighter bullet requires more powder. Counter-intuitive? Yes, but consider this--the lighter bullet will fly out faster do to it's lesser weight. However, in doing so, the pressure behind the bullet won't build up as high. Hence, there won't be enough pressure to cycle the action. The solution? More powder to get the pressure up. The problem with using a higher load with standard powders is they burn too fast and the peak pressure spike can cause casings to rupture, etc. Solution? Use a slower burning powder. I've used Hodgdon
Universal Clays (Hodgdon Clays is their standard pistol powder) for several years for both light and standard weight bullets (different amounts of course). The price you pay for using a slower burning powder is slightly increased recoil and a bigger flame shooting out the barrel. The good news is the increased flame also helps burn accumulated lead, etc., out of your compensator.
Remember above when I said to look at the casings? When I started reloading, I just went to the 100% load and forgot about it. For pistols, I got away with it; however, with the Thompson, I stated getting a minor case bulges. I noticed this when a high percentage of the reloaded casings wouldn't gauge. A little less powder solved the problem. Using non-lead bullets usually involves extrapolation of the loading data, so start very, very low and make sure the bullet makes it out the barrel! Another item to note is how far the ejected casing in thrown. Ten to fifteen feet is typical for a Thompson; however, your mileage may vary.
Let me have some of your comments. Click here to e-mail your comments
Disclaimer: The above article is based upon the author's experiences. Follow the powder manufacturer's loading instructions. Neither the TCA, the webmaster, nor the author assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of information contained in this article.