One of the first questions a new "handloader" is faced with when they decide to get into reloading is, "what type of reloading press should I buy; single stage, turret or progressive?" If you search the internet, you will receive a wide variety of answers and all of them will be subjective. Why? Because it's frankly a subjective question that's dependent upon a number of personal objectives.
Types of reloading presses
There are three primary types of reloading presses; single stage, turret and progressive. Each has its pros and cons, but each will also produce a perfect batch of ammo cartridges if utilized properly.
A single stage press has just one die station and you perform each function on each cartridge one step at a time (changing dies between functions). Generally this means processing your brass in stages and not having a finished cartridge until you start the final stage of reloading, which is usually crimping. For the sake of discussion, let’s say we are working with 100 pieces of .45 ACP brass. The process goes something like this...
1) Place one piece of your clean .45 brass in the press with a sizing and depriming die installed, pull the handle and the brass will be deprimed or "decapped" and sized. After you do this for all 100 pieces of brass you are going to reload, you would then...
2) take your 100 pieces of sized and deprimed brass and prime them one at a time. This second step would be completed with either a hand-primer or by installing a priming device on the press which allows you to deprime on the downstroke and prime on the upstroke. The point here is that this is a separate step that you do to all 100 pieces of brass.
3) Now that you have 100 pieces of primed and sized brass you would remove the previous die and install the flaring die sometimes called an expander die. When properly adjusted this will bell the case just enough so that the bullet can sit in the top portion of the case and not fall over. Once you have flared or expanded all 100 pieces of brass you are now ready to "charge" the cases.
4) To charge the cases (i.e., fill them with gunpowder) you would take your 100 pieces of brass, place them in a loading block and using your scale weigh out the desired powder charge on your scale. You would then pour the charge into your case. This would be done once at a time for all 100 cases.
5) In the next step of the process you would remove the previous die and install the "seating die" in your press. Taking each charged case one at a time, and placing them in the press, you would then place a bullet in the top of each brass casing and pull the handle to seat the bullet.
6) Finally, you would remove the seating die, install your "crimp die" and crimp each of the 100 bullets one at a time to remove the previously created flare. This would complete the cycle and leave you with finished ammunition cartridges.
This is more or less how it is done on a single stage press. There is nothing wrong with this method or type of press, but it can be a bit too slow and tedious for some. If you want to make 100 rounds of precision long range rifle ammo, and don’t mind spending the time to do so, then this setup will work nicely. If, however, your intention is to load 1000 rounds of bulk 9mm ammo, well then you can see the potential draw back of the single stage press. It can still get the job done, but it might take you a while.
Progressive presses, on the other hand, shine when it comes to loading large quantities of bulk ammo in relatively short periods of time. A progressive press is essentially an automated 4- or 5-stage press (some have even more stages). It holds all the reloading dies at once and with each pull of the handle it adds a piece of brass for processing. At the same time, a shellplate rotates the next piece of brass to a subsequent station where it is deprimed and sized. Simultaneously, a third piece of brass is primed and another piece has powder added to it. Yet another piece has a bullet seated in it while the final station crimps the last piece of brass. Once the press is properly setup and adjusted, one simply pulls the handle, places a bullet in the top of the charged case, and a finished bullet in the final stage of the rotation drops out. As you get it going, it really is an amazing process to watch and reminds me of an automated assembly line. A progressive press like a Dillon 1050, for example, can even be fully-automated and electrically-driven through the use of an autodrive system.
There is a third category of reloading press known as a turret press. It is similar to a progressive press, but lacks the same level of automation, thus requiring a bit more manual intervention by the user. The implicit benefit of the turret press is that they are a lower cost alternative to a progressive press, while more automated than a single stage press.
What type of press is best for a beginner?
Let me first start by saying that, in my opinion, there is no “right” answer to this question. In fact, my perspective has changed over the years. In the past I leaned toward recommending the "buy once, cry once" strategy, meaning that if you go with the progressive you won’t want or need to upgrade down the road. With close to 20 years of experience under my belt though, that perspective has changed a bit. As I try to remember what it was like the first time I pulled the press handle, I remember that it was a bit overwhelming, complicated and I also recall a good bit of nerves. There seemed to be a million things to do, know and remember. Things like which tool to use for each process, how to adjust a die, how to fix a problem with the way bullets were coming out, what the correct powder charge was, am I using the scale correctly and so forth. I started reloading with a Lee Anniversary kit. It included all the parts, tools and little "doohickeys" that I was going to need, along with a decent set of instructions. This was before YouTube, so you actually needed printed instructions and manuals. To the best of my recollection, I actually only loaded on my Lee single stage for about three months. I was loading about 500 rounds a week as I was competing in IPSC and shooting competitively at the time. It did not take long for me to quickly upgrade to a Dillon 650, which I still use to this day...approximately 18 years later. As I mentioned earlier, until very recently, I generally suggested to new reloaders to go with a progressive press if they could afford it. After all, even if the progressive setup cost $1000, if you spread that cost out over 20 years and 10’s of thousands of rounds, the numbers would make sense.
As I prepared to pen this article I tried my best to remember how I felt and what I experienced when I first began to reload. In retrospect, I now think that many would be best served getting started with a single stage kit, especially if you do not have an experienced mentor standing over your shoulder guiding you. The initial cost is relatively small for a single stage, the kits includes all the little extras you will need and there are just fewer things to be concerned about as you begin your reloading journey. Best to take it slow and enjoy the art!