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When Reloading Brass Fails- Part 1

In reloading, a number of factors bear on the accuracy and safety of your ammo. As you reuse your cases, they wear and stretch. At some point they will fail; it is an inevitable fact. All things that get used will, and cases are subject to various stresses that ultimately result in failure.

One question we all have is, “How many times can I reload a case?” The answer is a lawyerly, “It depends.” It depends on the age of the brass, the pressure of the load, whether it’s a pistol or rifle round, and how accurate you need to be.

Few among us shoot at a level where the accuracy of the rifle, pistol or ammo is a factor. To find out, simply compare how you shoot with some factory ammo with a reputation for accuracy, with how you shoot with your reloaded ammo. If there is a meaningful positive difference between the factory stuff and your reloads, it’s time to sharpen your reloading skills. If not, your reloads are not a factor.

Causes of Case Failure:

High Pressure

The primary cause of case failure is pressure. If you are loading toward the high end of the pressure spectrum for your caliber and bullet weight, you are subjecting your cases to higher pressures which, in turn, is shortening their life. I have always felt that if I need to get above the mid-range loads for a particular bullet weight in a particular caliber, then it’s time to buy a bigger gun (as if I need a reason to buy another gun!).

High-pressure loads don’t do any favors for your firearms either, as they tend to accelerate wear.

Reloading Dies

The next reason for case failure, and one that is well within our control, is how your reloading dies are set. If you are sizing your cases to the smallest possible dimensions, you are working the brass more than may be necessary. However, if you reload for more than one gun in that caliber, this may be necessary.

The same is true if you crimp your bullets too tight, especially if you bell the case more than needed for bullet seating. This spreading and crimping of the case mouth works the brass and leads to case mouth cracks.

Ultimately, all cases have a service life. Some fail with minor cracks, while some become catastrophic failures, occasionally damaging the gun (and sometimes the shooter). Other failure types just bring your shooting to a screeching halt.

In revolvers, case failures usually start with neck cracks. Unless you are at the very highest levels of competition, a minor case neck crack (1/8 inch or less) can be ignored one time.

There may be a slight drop in velocity, but it will be tiny. The one situation where attention must be paid is if the crimp will not hold the bullet. If the bullet creeps forward, it can lock up your revolver and you are done until you drive that bullet back into the case. In lightweight revolvers with heavy loads, I have seen this happen with some lots of factory ammo, usually of foreign origin.

If you are shooting in a semi-auto pistol or any kind of rifle, a more dangerous situation can arise. The bullet may be pushed back into the case during feeding, unseen by the shooter. Fire the round, and the pressure will spike, perhaps damaging the gun and the shooter.

Catastrophic case failures in revolvers sometimes go unnoticed until you extract the empties. In semi-auto pistols, they can be more exciting. I have had any number of cases crack over most of their length and not noticed it until I picked up the brass.

In Part two, I’ll tell you about some of my personal experiences and examine why checking cases is so important.