Well, I finally did it. Took the plunge and diverted 'toy' money to the 'ammo and accessory' account. Which ended up being one of the smartest moves I could have made.
With ammo prices going up, availability headed down and a need to feed my toys it was finally time to look at progressive presses. While perfectly fine for my rifles, the single stage press just couldn't keep up with my handgun consumption.
What arrived in the mail was a new Dillon RL-550b. It was accompanied by the Brian Enos 'as it should be' package. Which he is certainly correct about, although it added $155 to the price. Also ordered was another combo pack of primer tubes (2 each).
Putting it all together. Uhm, pretty simple. The press came with a fairly well illustrated 20 page manual, which includes breakdown diagrams and parts lists. The press comes mostly assembled with the primer system already attached. Install correct primer magazine (large or small primer), primer slider (large or small), adjust the slider for position and then figure out the powder dispenser system. More on that below.
Dillon recommends its own dies for their presses, but they are standard threaded (except the Dillon Square Deal progressive) and will take any manufacture's dies. I loaded mine with a Lee carbide set. The die you won't use is the expanding die. Dillon has a special threaded body that attaches easily to their powder dispenser. The expanding plug then comes in your caliber conversion kit along with a shell plate and some brass pins called locator buttons. The plug, body and powder dispenser go together easily. The hardest part of the entire press assembly was adjusting and aligning the powder assembly correctly. Here is also the one area where a few extra instructions and a picture or two in the manual would have helped. It probally added 20 minutes to my assembly time to slow down, reread the maual and experiment with positioning and function. Not horrible at all, but something they could have cleaned up a bit.
The only other slight assembly failing is a better description of the primer magazines vs the primer pickup tubes would have been nice. The press comes with 4 aluminum tubes, each slightly different. One each for lg magazine, small magazine, lg pickup, sm pickup. They are color coded, but the manual is black and white.
The magazine tube gets installed in the press priming system and lives there, never to be seen or heard from again unless you change primer size. You then use the primer pick-up tube and a flip-tray (not included) to hand load the pick-up tube one primer at a time till you fill it at 100. Loading the tube is THE slowest thing about using the press and the extra pick-up tubes ordered along with the press are a huge time saver during actual production work. You then use the tube to load the magazine by simple expedient of holding the tube over the magazine and removing a cotter pin to allow gravity to do it's work. Occasionally a primer would stick in the far end of the tube, but a quick poke with a stray nail encourages it down to join it's buddies. Dillon includes extra ends for it's pick-up tubes for when they wear out or break. Nice touch.
Final setup and die adjustment was made very easy by the locator buttons. These brass pins simply drop into holes on the shellplate base and prevent shells from leaving the shellplate. Pull the appropriate pin up, and you can remove a casing from that station. Adjusting the dies was done;one station at a time and quite simple, since you can choose where to add or remove casings. Powder throw is adjusted fairly easily and securely by a wrench. Powder quantity was tested in a casing with a spent primer still in it, pulled off and then weighed.
As mentioned earlier, the kit was ordered with the 'as it should be' accessories recommended by Brian Enos. This includes the Strong Mount, Aluminum Roller Handle, Bullet Tray, and Empty Case Bin and Bracket. And he is right. The strong mount adds about 7 inches to the press height (which isn't a bad thing) and allows the metal bullet tray and empty case bin accessories to be bolted on at a wonderful working position. Coupled with the comfy aluminum roller handle, I know my production speed is a measureable percentage faster than if I wasn't running these accessories.
Working the thing. I took my time with the assembly and adjustment. Once I actually drilled and mounted the thing to bench, production started within 30 minutes. It is amazing. The 550 is a manually indexed, 4 position press. Meaning you manually need to move the cartridge holder through it's 4 stations. The 550's big brother, the 650 is auto-indexing with 5 stations but comes at the price of longer and costlier caliber conversions. 550 progression is...slide in spent casing, add bullet to casing on opposite side, pull handle, rotate shellholder, repeat. I started around 200 rounds per hour and am presently working around 400 an hour. Wish I had bought the thing years ago.
As mentioned above, the 550's claim to fame is caliber conversion. With a $45 kit, you change the expander plug, shellplate, and locator buttons. Then you change out your dies, adjust the powder measure, change the primer slide and magazine if needed and go town. More money makes it better. For around $100, another optional kit contains an extra toolhead (die holder), powder measure and powder die body. Combine the two kits with a set of dies, (for around $200 total) and you remove 2 pins and the primer rod, slide off the entire toolhead, install the other toolhead and reattach the primer rod, then change out the shellplate (if needed) and primer slider and magazine tube (if needed) and you're pumping out a new caliber in 3 to 15 minutes.
Pros and Cons
Fairly easy setup. Very easy use.
Relatively simple, quick, and cost effective caliber conversions.
Strong. This thing will easily handle rifle cartridge production. A must of auto-loaders.
Excellent warranty. I've seen 20 year old Dillon equipment serviced and shipped with no hassles.
Very positive primer feed and case alignment and retention.
Locator buttons make quick work of adjustment and clearing problems.
Conversions available for a wide variety of handgun and rifle cartridges.
Slightly better instructions needed for the powder feed assembly.
Explaining/showing differences in primer magazines vs loading tubes a bit more clearly.
Spent primer collection a bit sloppy. Around 2-4 percent wind up rolling around the bench.
Emptying the powder hopper is a bit of a pain. Unbolt it (2 screws and rod), cycle it manually, or slide the toolhead off.
-Worth it? Completely if you're shooting 100 or more rounds per week.
-Ease of use? Very. Can have any responsible person regardless of skill making 100-200 an hour after initial setup.
-Accessories? The 'as it should be' kit isn't required but it helps quite a bit. The various options for caliber conversion makes it quick and easy.
-Entire package of press, dies, and optional equipment costs around the same price as a rifle or standard handgun at around $600.
-Adding 2 complete caliber conversions to allow for 3 or more caliber loadings is around the same price as a rifle+scope or higher end handgun ($1000).
-The cons are relatively trivial and a non-issue once you set up the press once and figure out how it's done. Setting up a second 550 would take around an hour from start to finish including adjustments.
-Dillon's no-hassle, lifetime warranty gets near universal praise. A friend's ancient powder measure unknowingly ate a steel roller bearing that tore up the works a bit. Fixed and returned better than ever.
Last edited by Brian in FL; 07-19-2012 at 11:24 AM.
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