Reloader in a Cigar Box

By Marshall Williams.

February of 1964 found me a brand new "2d. Lt., USAF" stationed as a supply officer at Laredo Air Force Base, Texas, then a small pilot training facility with about 800 USAF personnel. Like most USAF bases of the time, Laredo AFB had a Skeet range left over from the WWII-Korean War era, a time when Laredo had been, among other things, a flexible gunnery training range. "Flexible guns" were the machine guns used to defend bombers of the period. As they could be aimed in any direction, they were called "flexible" to distinguish them from "fixed" guns in the wings of fighter aircraft.

During the earlier era, pilots, navigators, and other rated air crew were required to shoot a monthly round of Skeet. Skeet taught one how to lead a moving target and it was considered a good thing for a pilot, navigator, or other aircrewman to know in case he had to defend a B-17. Of course, true to military form, most air crew did not like getting kicked around by a shotgun and let those who did shoot their rounds for them.

The requirement had been abolished by my time, but many older USAF air crew were superb Skeet shooters. Among the regulars at the Laredo’s little Skeet range were the wing commander, Col. Gailard R. Peck, Major Vern Rourke, and then-Captain Art Sidereas who many years later would be NSSA .410 bore national champion. Non-USAF shooters included retired US Army Col. Evan Quiros, a close friend and confidant of two top gun writers, Col. Charles Askins and Skeeter Skelton. The best shot among the regulars was E. A. Beckelhymer who owned the local gun store. I may be one of the few people who knew his real first name and initials, he was "Beck" to everyone including his mother. Beck was a well-known south-Texas shooting character. In addition to being an all-around shotgunner, he was an outstanding live pigeon shooter, rifleman, and had set a couple of NRA national pistol records. These gentlemen, and half a dozen others, were wonderful mentors for a brash, upstart, and reprobate young gun-nut-in-training like me.

In 1964 my only shotgun was a little Mossberg Model 183 K, a three-shot, bolt-action .410 bore shotgun with two interchangeable choke tubes, modified and full. My father had given it to me in 1955 for my 15th. birthday/Christmas present. (Those born in December know about birthday/Christmas presents.) I was determined to learn to shoot Skeet, anyone learning to shoot Skeet with a bolt-action .410 had to be determined, and became a regular at the little range.

In order to keep my shooting expenses within an unmarried second lieutenant’s meager budget, I needed a .410 reloading outfit, and I obtained my first "store boughten" reloading outfit, the original Lee Loader for 3" .410 shells. I bought it in 1964 from Beckelhymer’s Gun Store in Laredo Texas. Note the faded original solid red box, now a good deal frayed around the edges. This original red box was replaced early on with the more familiar and slicker black and red box, probably even before I bought the set. I do not recall exactly how much I paid for it. Retail price would have been $9.95, but Beck was generous with "GI" discounts, and I probably paid about $6.00. At the time I reckoned a real bench mounted reloader would have cost about $40.

The Lee Loader is a set of hand tools which, in the days of paper shells, did a very satisfactory job, including both fold crimping and even roll crimping the old-style paper cases. The .410 set differed slightly from the Lee Loader for larger gauges in that the shot dippers are fixed, not adjustable. The powder dipper is set for 16 grains of 2400 and the shot measure is set for 3/4 of an ounce of shot. [NOTE: This load was intended only for the old paper shells using with cardboard and fiber wads; don’t use any such loading data with modern plastic shells and wads. For current data, consult reputable modern sources.]

The .410 set includes a tool not present in other gauges, the so-called "shell-conditioner." This is a conical tool used to slightly bell the case mouth to ease wad insertion. Shell-conditioners were available as accessories in other gauges, but were included with the .410 set.

The only tool not included was some sort of mallet to knock out the old primers and seat new ones. At first, I used a short length of hardwood, probably oak, but later acquired a little rubber faced mallet from base salvage.

Had I wished to do so, I could have ordered from Lee a set of dippers and a shell body and used the same tools to reload the 2 ½ inch shells. However, as the local Base Exchange sold only three inch shells, I saw no need.

But I needed reloads to keep up my efforts at learning to shoot Skeet.

To the best of my recollection, at any given time, I never had more than three and one half boxes of empty shells to reload. Every Saturday morning I sat at my desk and knocked out about 75 reloads with this little outfit. As I recall, this took less than an hour. I then went and shot them up on the Skeet range. Since we also shot on Sunday afternoons, I repeated the procedure on Sunday morning. As the shells were usually good for about five or six reloads, I probably bought two boxes of new shells twice a month on paydays. I shot this gun using the reloads for about a year, and, as I shot about 150 to 175 rounds each week, and allowing for buying new shells to replace those worn out, I probably loaded 5000 shells with the little kit. In spite of my never hitting it with anything harder than a small piece of oak, the nickel-plated iron capper actually shows peening from extended use.

Nor was I the only Skeet shooter at Laredo in 1964 who got along using a Lee Loader. One of the base physicians, Capt. Marty Abrams, shot a little 20 gauge Beretta Silver Snipe. He and his pretty wife were as regular fixtures at the Skeet range as I was, and he kept himself in shells with a 20 gauge Lee Loader. In fact, he probably loaded even more shells than I did. He had an advantage, though. His 20 gauge shells used a fold crimp and fold crimping was faster than roll crimping.

Even though I had to shoot doubles with a bolt action, I made progress. My best round with the little Mossberg was at least a 23 and may have been a 24. In the course of that year, mostly using the little Mossberg and reloads made with the Lee Loader, I progressed to where I expected at least a 21 or 22.

Eventually, fortune shined on me, shined dimly as I thought, but shined none the less, and I got faster shooting guns and faster reloaders. Nevertheless, even after I had a satisfactory reloading press, I acquired a 12 gauge Lee Loader because, with their adjustable shot dippers, they were quite versatile and useful, especially if I wanted to make up just a few shells for trial or hunting.

Old and NewPlastic shotgun shells and wads probably spelled doom for the Lee Loaders; they did not work as well with plastic shells. Among the problems with plastic shells was that most required a wad guide and a crimp starter. Lee in its usual responsive way, designed and marketed both items, but only as after market accessories. They were not included in the basic set. The Lee Loader had no provision for resizing cases. One could resize paper shells by putting them on a cookie sheet and placing it in the oven over low heat, but there was no way to resize plastics In addition, crimping certain brands of plastic shotshells required a great deal of force. All of this reduced the speed of an already slow process, and the Lee Loaders for shotgun shells disappeared. I would point out that Lee Loaders remain available for a limited number of rifle and pistol calibers.

Forty years have passed since I bought my first little Lee Loader for shotgun shells. Now I have enough reloaders that I can rapidly load large quantities of everything from a 2 ½ inch .410 to a 3 ½ inch 10 gauge. The little Lee Loader sits on my nostalgia shelf where it sees no use and is history, but, to my personal knowledge, forty years ago, at least two of Laredo Air Force Patch’s young Skeet hopefuls made their first faltering steps and a whale of a lot of reloads using them. In its day and in its way, it was an outstanding value


Reprinted curtesy of Shotgun Sports Magazine, P.O. Box 6810, Auburn, CA 95604.