In this Shootout! we’ll take a look at what can be one of the most important accessories for any firearm: reloading dies. Some folks handload to save money, others do it to customize their ammo for special needs and some folks with a love for antiquated cartridges have no other choice. To reload your own ammo you need reloading dies, but what’s the difference and which ones are superior? Let’s take a look at the offerings from two old and well-established companies to try and sort things out.
Hornady’s largest claim to fame when it comes to reloading dies is their introduction of carbide or lubeless handgun dies to the market long ago. Essentially, carbide dies are so hard and so smooth that empty cases can’t really stick to them. This means that the user doesn’t have to spend time rubbing individual, and usually pretty small, handgun cases on a lube mat before they go in the dies, which saves on mess and annoyance over the course of a reloading session. Another point of interest with Hornady dies is the sliding bullet guide built into their seating dies. This is a simplistic steel sleeve that moves up and down inside the die, ensuring proper alignment of the bullet with the case mouth as it travels up into the die and is eventually forced into the brass. The guide can be a real time- and brass-saver and is held in place with a bit of wire spring and it easy to remove and clean if it becomes gummed up, such as when reloading cast bullets.
Lee dies are probably best known for the huge variety of dies they offer, their slightly odd packaging and their very affordable prices. Lee dies have many points in common with other die designs currently on the market. Handgun dies from Lee are now carbide, make lubrication unnecessary, and their spindle assembly is held in place with a collet much like those that Hornady use. The most interesting departure from tradition with Lee dies is the method used to hold the outer lock ring in place. For many decades these rings were all essentially kept from wandering by the same method: a set screw was tapped into the side of the ring and then driven into the die’s threads after the die was properly adjusted. Lee has replaced this screw with a simple rubber o-ring that, with a little use, works its way into the threads of the die and more or less jams it in place. With a bit of oomph the die can still be moved, but will not travel during the course of casual use.
So which is better? Well, the answer to that question has a lot to do with what the handloader wishes to accomplish. For cartridges that I know I’ll be loading in volume I prefer Hornady reloading dies . They seem to lock up tighter and just have stronger, meatier construction overall, which leads to longer life. Making adjustments to Hornady dies is more involved than with the Lee dies, but when I’m turning out 1000-1500 rounds with the same powder load and bullet, this isn’t as much of a concern; one setting is used for quite some time and Hornady dies definitely stay locked in place once they are set. For loading cartridges like the 10mm Auto or 45 Auto that I know I’ll be shooting in considerable volume, I will almost always pony up the extra dough for Hornady equipment.
If I feel that I’ll only be loading smaller, less frequent lots of ammo then I usually take the added cost of other brands into account and end up purchasing Lee reloading dies. Years ago I purchased a 6.5mm Arisaka to goof around with a bit. Other companies offered dies for the cartridge, but they were all in the neighborhood of $100, which seemed expensive given the fact that I only paid $80 for the rifle. Fortunately, the Lee dies were $20 dollars and have been giving good service for years. If you are into oddball or antiquated cartridges, you’ll probably find yourself in this position frequently. If you’re wondering if the cheaper dies will toe the line, they will, and the extra cash can go to brass and bullets. I chose Lee dies this year for my new .480 Ruger knowing that it would never be the kind of thing I’d use for plinking. So far, Lee’s low-priced dies are turning out beautiful ammo and have allowed me to use the money I saved to offset the cost of the 50 cent bullets my new toy requires.
Occasionally you won’t have a choice when it comes to reloading dies. Years ago when I needed a set of .405 Winchester dies, Hornady was the only game in town and currently, if you’re a fan of the Ackley improved cartridges, Lee is going to be your best resource. If you’re truly walking on the wild side and forming your own cases, I’ve found the seating guides in Hornady dies to be well worth the added cost. It’s darn difficult to get bullets properly aligned in rough, fire-formed cases, but the guide in Hornady dies makes it a snap and saves a lot of cussing.
All things considered, if a winner has to be declared in this comparison I’d have to give the edge to Lee dies. While Hornady makes great stuff, one has to consider that the Lee dies do accomplish the same results and can almost always be had at about half the cost of a new set of Hornady dies. As previously stated, I tend toward the Hornadys for high volume operations but, that having been said, I’ve never worn out a set of Lee dies, so I can’t honestly say how much longer a set of Hornady dies will last over Lee equipment. The drastically lower price of Lee dies will likely result in far more sets of dies in your collection, which probably offsets any minor deficiencies you’ll encounter during use.