High Primers


The cause of the high primers is apparently not dirty primer pockets which is what this article is about. Although they may be a contributing factor, after cleaning the primer pockets and testing the resulting ammunition, things got worse, not better.

Ultimately, the cause proved to be the Aguila brass I’d been adding to my general pool of brass as I shot up their ball ammunition.

Having forewarned the reader, however, there is still some value in following the chase. I therefore leave this article “as is” so you can see my thinking, my trials, and ultimately the mistakes I made along the way.

We learn from mistakes. So be it.

Everything below is a false positive. I’ve retained the details of the wild goose chase because, while the exact cause remained a mystery for some months, the solutions attempted were valid. They could have been the cause, and might be for someone else.

High Primers?

Around the time of this year’s Desert Midwinter competition, I started getting some high primers. When the hammer falls, instead of going “bang,” it just goes “Click.”

If you then manually cock the hammer and pull the trigger again–now that the primer is fully seated–it goes “Bang!”

There’s no problem with this in Slow Fire other than the distraction from your shot plan. (Well, to be honest, there is the distraction of the smile on the face of the shooter next to you who saw that little tell-tale “jerk” that sometimes sneaks in on a mis-fire.)

In Timed Fire, if you’re paying attention and keep your mind focused, the mis-fire can be corrected by quickly cocking the hammer and firing without too much degradation of the shot.

But in Rapid Fire it’s an alibi, and only if you haven’t already used the alibi for that match. If you have, then it’s a missed shot. Zero points.

That hurts. And at two or three high primers per hundred rounds, there’s a good chance one will happen during Rapid Fire.

So with the air conditioner now installed in the reloading room, it’s time to find, and fix, this problem.

There are two likely reasons for a high primer, both happen when reloading. First not pressing home on the handle when seating the primer will do it. Or secondly, dirt in the primer pocket will prevent a primer from seating to the bottom of the primer cup. An occasional “short stroke” of my Dillon 650’s handle can sneak through but the operator has to be daydreaming for this to happen.

I try to have an environment where this is unlikely. First, no radio or TV are allowed while reloading. Second, there’s no clock in the room to distract my thoughts. Third, I have several safety gadgets on the 650 that keep my attention focused on the machine and what I’m doing.

In a nutshell, I do pay attention to what’s going on and if I short-stroke the machine, I know it. Short strokes don’t get past me. Instead, I immediately stop, survey the consequences and then take the appropriate steps to either complete the cycle, or to remove the partially assembled rounds and set them aside for later disassembly.

So, a short-stroke is probably not the culprit.

My brass, on the other hand, is of mixed age, mixed brand, and mixed history. And I’ve been reloading it for a couple of years. It is, therefore, suspect.

The largest category is from commercially manufactured 45 ACP including a lot of Winchester, purchased at WalMart when I was first starting, and more recently a fair amount of Aguila because I don’t (yet) make my own ball ammo. The Winchester, in particular, has been cycling through my brass supply for several years and although I don’t count reloads, a dozen round trips isn’t an unreasonable guess. (When I find a piece of split brass, odds are it will have a Winchester head stamp.)

But those are just two of the brands. I also have quite a bit of TZZ that has been scavenged over the years when shooting next to military teams who don’t want their used brass – thank you! And a lot of Federal from when I practiced at the Scottsdale Gun Club (ah, air conditioning!) that was, again, scavenged from other shooters who didn’t want it.

Then, there’s the new brass I’ve purchased, much of it Starline – great stuff – and which gets extra attention in the process to make my highest quality of reloads with this highest quality brass.

Finally, my supply of ready-to-shoot ammunition is almost zero right now. Between my business travels and the unusually warm April and May, I’ve fallen behind on making ammunition. As a result, most of my supply of brass is empty shells.

So, it’s a good time to clean the primer cups in all my 45 ACP brass. The needed tool was all of about three bucks and looked simple to use. I planned to put it in the electric drill, fasten that down, set it to a low speed and do each piece one at a time.

“How hard could this be?” I asked, smug in the view that I’d be done in an hour or two. My first discovery was that I have a fair amount of brass. No doubt others have several times my 2500 piece count but, nonetheless, when you start processing them one at a time, that’s a pretty big number.

My second discovery was that they all had old primers still in them and that, before I could clean the primer cup, I needed to de-prime all of them. No, problem, I thought. I’ll just run them through the 650 and let it do the work.

I put about 200 pieces in the brass hopper and started pulling the handle. The first station removed the primer and I then just let the shells make their way around through the other stations to the final bin. Cranking much faster than when reloading, I could do about one shell per second.

Okay, that’s 2500 shells at one per second. Let’s see, 60 pieces per minute that should be about 45 minutes, right? Three hours and about 1900 pieces of deprimed brass later and even with the breaks that were getting longer and longer, my arm was tired. Very tired. That’s a lot of brass.

And that’s when the ring indexer in my Dillon 650 broke.

This part is beneath the platform and, as the platform comes down on the handle’s upstroke, it advances the brass to the next position. No ring indexer, no advance.

Fortunately, Dillon is just across town, and from time to time, I’ve walked in their front door, handed them a broken piece from my 650, and then walked out in less than five minutes with a new one, no charge. Total time: one hour.

Except that it’s now after 5:00PM on Saturday. Without checking, I’m sure they’re closed.

Well, I can still clean the pockets on those 1900 de-primed pieces. I put the cleaning tool into the drill’s chuck and tightened it down, and then secured the drill in the padded jaws of the vice.

But the drill’s lock should only run the drill at full speed. (Damn. I bought the cheap drill!)

Hmmm, I mumbled, looking around the tool room. Maybe a C clamp or … … I settled for some stiff wire – hmmm, this isn’t real safe – wrapped around the handle and holding the drill’s trigger at the desired (slow) speed.

I’m starting to have second thoughts about continuing.

But how should I position the work? Dirty pockets to the left or right? A quick experiment showed dirty to the left was best so I could pick up a dirty piece with my left hand while cleaning one with my right. Once cleaned, I’d pitch the clean piece with my right hand into the clean bucket, transfer the next dirty one, left hand to right hand, and continue the process.

Inspecting the result, I see that some primer cups still have carbon around the outer edge which is where the new primer needs to seat. That buildup is specifically what I’m after so, a few experiments later, I see I need to maneuver the brass around so the primer pocket cleaning tool scours the outer edge. Only then does the cleaning work like I think it should.

And 400 shells later, I see this is taking 4-5 seconds per shell. For the available 1900, that’s … uhm … maybe two and a half hours with breaks? Gotta fit in some dinner this evening, too.

At last, my better judgement catches up.

I remind myself that I’m now standing very close to a rotating piece of machinery with something hard and sharp on the end. And I’m tired. And a little frustrated as well.

“Stop!” I tell myself. “I can finish cleaning the rest of the deprimed brass tomorrow morning.”

I remove the wire holding down the drill’s trigger and throw it in the trash. “I’ll find something better – and safer – for this tomororow.”

“And the rest of the brass will wait until I get the part at Dillon on Monday. Or maybe Tuesday. Or maybe I’ll just call and have them mail it across town.”

“And then after all that, I can start reloading again and see if cleaning the primer pockets really solves this high primer problem or not.”

Phew! Buying finished ammunition at Walmart sure was simpler.


Many months ago, the two bolts holding the platform to the main piston had worked themselves loose. Dillon gave me the alignment tool and instructions to use before tightening them up again.

When I put in a new ring indexer, I’ll need to repeat that process. So this morning I went searching in the “spare reloader parts” junk box for that tool. And right next to the alignment tool was a “Spare 650 Parts” baggie, original and unopened from Dillon, and therein was a new ring indexer.


So today after lunch, I will put in the new part, align and then bolt down everything according to Dillon’s excellent instructions. That will put the 650 back into operation and, with that, I should be able to deprime the last of the 45 ACP brass and finish cleaning the primer pockets.

I like finishing a job and that “Spare 650 Parts” baggie from Dillon is going to make that happen today. Thanks, Dillon. You guys think of everything!

A Couple of Hours Later


  • The 650 has been re-assembled with the new part and everything has been adjusted to specification;
  • All remaining brass has been de-primed; and
  • The primer pockets in all my empty brass have been cleaned.

I have 12 quart-size yogurt tubs each with approximately 200 pieces of deprimed and primer pocket-cleaned brass ready to go.

The next step will be to reload that brass and see if the cleaning has solved the high primers problem.

But that’s enough for today. Right now I’m thinkin’ Stella Artois. Probably two.

3 June 2009 Note


All this work didn’t help. I’m still getting “high primers.”

Although they may be a contributing factor, after cleaning the primer pockets and testing the resulting ammunition, things seemed to get worse, not better.

So, at the moment, the chase for the source of this problem is still in progress.


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