By Damon Cali
Posted on August 23, 2013 at 12:47 PM
About 20 years ago, I had a Lee priming tool. At the time, it was pretty slick. Grab a package of primers, flip them in the tray and you were off to the races. Just take the case, put it in the shell holder, squeeze the handle and you were good. The built-in feeding tray made sure that the next primer would be ready with a slight twist of the wrist.
But it wasn't perfect. Like much of what Lee makes, cost was a more important factor than sheer quality. The plastic parts felt cheap, and indeed were easy to break. But it did the job. It didn't take me long to replace it with an RCBS model when I finally broke the Lee model (honestly, it's not hard to sell me on an opportunity to buy some new gear). Since I'm a big fan of RCBS gear, especially the Rock Chucker reloading press, I figured it would be a step up in quality.
I was disappointed. The RCBS unit works about as well as the Lee, is kind of a pain to take apart and put back together, and is comprised of cheaply made parts. I guess cost is an issue for RCBS too. I've had that model for at least 15 years, and it's served me well. It's just never been my favorite tool - I've always thought it could be made better.
Well last week I found an excuse to upgrade. During a move I lost the large primer ram for my RCBS priming tool. Since I'm loading up some 6mm XC rounds this week, I needed it. I could have called RCBS and bought another one. Heck, they'd probably have given it to me, knowing how good their customer service is. I could have turned one up on my mini lathe. But the sense of dissatisfaction with my now incomplete priming tool pushed me once again to browse the online forums for alternatives.
What I settled on was the 21st Century Shooting priming tool. But it wasn't without reservation. The 21st Century tool looks very nice. It's mostly stainless steel construction, very well machined, hefty and practically smells like quality. That much is great. I'm a sucker for nice tools. No, what had me questioning the purchase were two factors:
First, there is no priming tray. You have to pick up each primer one at a time and insert it into the tool. Way back in the day, I was taught that any sort of oil will make short work of primers and turn your carefully assembled handloads into duds. It was said that even the oil from your hands would do the job. Then one day, I put some CLP on some primers and whacked them with a hammer to see if it was true. (Don't do that - the last thing you want is to send little bits of primer flying through the room.) Well, they all went bang. I don't know the source of the advice, but I can say its impact was at least exaggerated. Nonetheless, even today I have a strange aversion to touching primers. Old habits die hard, and it makes sense that there is a grain of truth in the "don't contaminate the primers" talk. Aside from that, surely, fiddling with all of those primers would be slow and difficult.
Second, the 21st Century tool is adjustable. You can turn the knurled ring that holds the shell holder in place and adjust the seating depth in 0.0025" increments. The adjustments are locked in place via a ball detent so you get nice, even clicks. For twenty years, I've been seating primers by hand - I know when they're seated because I can feel it. I don't need an adjustable tool, and further, such a thing is probably an impediment to getting the seating depth just right. That's what I thought at least.
It turns out both of my objections to the tool were misguided. Picking up primers one by one is actually not a problem at all. I would even say that the speed lost relative to the tray-type tools is not much. I typically load 100-200 rounds at a time, and would have no trouble making quick work of that size of lot with this tool. Obviously, handling the primers is not a problem for the type of shooting I do. I tend to shoot all of my ammunition within a year of loading it, and do so in competitions, not life and death situations. I still wash my hands first, though.
And the adjustability of the tool does not do quite what I was thinking. Let me explain, because the impact is fairly subtle. As you squeeze the lever on the tool to seat the primer, the amount of mechanical leverage changes depending on how far you have pushed the lever. It's easier to push the lever at the end of the stroke than at the beginning. This impacts how easy it is to feel the primer seating. What the adjustment of the tool allows is for you to control exactly how far you have pressed the lever when the primer actually hits bottom. It adjusts the mechanics of the tool, not the seating depth. If you prefer to have the primer seat a little early in the squeeze, you can adjust for that. If you want it to hit bottom right as the lever is about to close (my preference), you can do that too. The net result of this is that the tool has a much better feel than my old RCBS or Lee units. It really makes a big difference.
So the tool works well. That's the important part. But there are some other things that can make a tool a joy to use or the object of profanity. The shell holders for this tool are good and bad. Good because they're high quality, reasonably priced, and easy to change. Bad because they're specific to the 21st Century tool. One of the nice things about the RCBS priming tool is that it shares shell holders with the Rock Chucker and Partner presses. It's a small thing, but it's a thing.
Another thing you'll spend some time doing is swapping out the ram - you need a different sized ram for each primer size (small and large). The RCBS model was a serious pain in this department. You have to unscrew a pin, pull out the guide, remove the plastic things, and reassemble in reverse. Maybe I just had bad luck, but mine would always lock itself open, doing it's best impression of a Ruger Mark II pistol (just try to put one of those back together!). All in all, kind of a pain.
The 21st Century model is a breeze. You unscrew the knurled adjustment ring, and the shell holder and ram assembly just drop out. Drop the other one in along with another shell holder, replace the adjustment ring and you're done. It's hard to imagine it being much easier.
I'm very happy with the 21st Century tool. It's fast enough for my needs, very well made, and has very good tactile feedback during the seating operation. The only downsides to this tool are that it's slightly slower than the others in that there is no primer tray (although they make a model that uses Lee trays), and it's not cheap ($118 at the time of this writing). That is a tradeoff I'm willing to accept.
Damon Cali is the creator of the Bison Ballistics website and a high power rifle shooter currently living in Nebraska.
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