Tuesday, January 31, 2006

XL650: .38 Super

AsI mentioned in the first half of this 2-part series about the Dillon XL650 reloading press, after 9 years of usage I had accumulated set-ups for several calibers ... specifically, 9x19, .45acp and 10mm pistol calibers.

A2K and STI:f
In 2000, SWMBO and I flew to Watervleit, NY, for the A2k Aware Match (Aware, 2000). My online (Unofficial IPSC List) friend Patricia LeGere was the MD, and her husband Warren was the Range Master for what turned out to be one of the best organized match I have ever attended, USPSA Nationals not withstanding.

We had volunteered to work the match, as Range Officers. SWMBO was a RO, and I had been a Certified Range Officer (CRO) since 1997. Still, this was the first Major Match we had worked, and we were pretty excited about both the match and the trip. We had never flown cross-country with guns, gone to a match farther from the Pacific Ocean than Nevada, or in fact been to New York at all. And, in point of fact, we had never met Pat or Warren, although I had been corresponding via the Internet with Pat and a group of like-minded IPSC competitors such as Arnie Christianson, Troy McManus, and Pete Goloski (Julie's father).

We got on a plane in Portland, Oregon on a Wednesday morning and spent the entire day flying. This is not one of SWMBO's favorite ways to spend the day, so by the time we landed in Albany, NY, via Atlanta (don't ask) she wasn't feeling well at all.

SWMBO spent the next day in bed, and in the can. I walked across the street from the motel (reservations and payment courtesy of AWARE) and had breakfast, then walked back in the rain where Pat was waiting to take me to the range.

We spent two days helping set up the stages, and Warren LeGere taught me everything I now know about stage design and construction. The man is a literal genious, and I'm disappointed that the LeGere's have burned out and are no longer running AWARE matches.

The match was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, but Friday was the RO match. We had brought only one gun ... the 10mm STI Edge ... with four magazines, one belt (which didn't fit SWMBO all that well), and a ton of 10mm ammunition.

I shot the RO match on Friday Morning, all 12 stages, and it was a blast. I was squadded with Michael Chludenski and "Tillman" (a vendor, darned if I can remember his first name offhand), and a third guy who I can't remember at all. Embarassing, but it was a while ago and I'm old so I can be forgiven these lapses of memory as easily as I can be forgiven for this diversion from the main theme.

I had no problems with the match, other than it was so challenging that I was often not able to shoot up to my class.

SWMBO shot the match in the afternoon, and had a couple of problems. In stage 4, she dropped her fully loaded 140mm magazine during the Load and Make Ready, and the RO there courteously picked it up and handed it to her, so she stuck it in the gun and assumed the ready position.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usDid I mention that the surface at the Watervliet Gun Club is sand? No? Well, it's a funny thing what sand does when it gets inside a hi-tech pistol. It stops it, right now. SWMBO got off 3 shots in a twenty-something stage with a lot of tiny Steel Plates,Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us and had to fight the gun for the rest of the stage, before she finally realized that her time was going to be so long that it didn't matter how many targets she hit, or even shot at. She quit about half-way through the stage, and if she didn't zero the stage it was close enough.

We had been cleaning the gun every other stage, because the hard-cast bullets and cheezy Unique powder combined to foul it pretty fast. The gun had been cleaned (and oiled) before this stage, but we cleaned it again as well as the magazine, and wiped down any ammo that had been in a magazine that was in the gun. Sand was everwhere. That's when I realized that, with a tight slide-to-frame fit, you can't afford to compete with anything but the best powder and bullets available.

The point of this trip down memory lane is that Dave Skinner, President and CEO of STI International, was running a table in the vendor tent, and while Sandie was drooling over a hard-chromed STI Tru-Bore with pink grips, I was finally meeting personally another denizen of the Unofficial IPSC List. I found Dave to be personally charming, technically competent. For example, he told me that "a gun is a machine. It needs oil to work right. Oil on a gun is good; more oil is better.")

He's also a brilliant reconteur, and our evenings around the campfire in the court of the match hotel will remain among my favorite memories. (This impression may be, in part, because one of the benefits of voluteering to work the match for per diem, match fees and lodging, and in recompense for our having paid over $1000 for our travel expenses, Pat had offered to provide all the Crown Royale I could drink around the campfire.)

When I got back to Oregon, I contacted the vendor which Dave had recommended and bought the first of many cases of Montana Gold (200 grain jacketted) bullets for the 10mm. I also ordered a four-pound keg of Vihta Vourhi N320, which works just FINE in the Edge without fouling the frame rails ... and it is a fine-grain powder, so it measures a lot more accurately than did the egrigious Hercules Unique. The only problem is, it's not available 'locally', so you have to look around for a reliable supply. The bullets can be ordered directly from Montana Gold, and I've found that they are an excellent company to do business with.

The next year, 2001, SWMBO and I attended the Area 1 tournament in Washington. We realized that we couldn't reasonably share a gun here because we would be competing in the same squad. Consequently, SWMBO opted to shoot The Beloved Kimber (rather than the S&W 659, which made holes too small for her to see) and I shot the Edge.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usTo our delight, we were squadded with a lot of people that we had known either well or peripherably, including Jim "Bumstead" Boemler, Dave Skinner, Steve "Zippy" Zopfi, Randy "Randomly Hitten'" Witten, Mark "Hobo Brasser" O'Shea, George "Earthworm" Jones and his son Bryan "Inchworm" Jones. (George and Jim had come to Oregon in previous years to compete in both the CCS Sectional and the Dundee Croc Match. Mark and Randy are locals, and Steve lives in Washington and was not only a friend of Jim's but also an IPSC List subscriber.)

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usDuring the match, Dave watched SWMBO fight the recoil of The Beloved Kimber ... the only pistol I own which works better with cast lead bullets and chunky powder than with more sophisticated ammunition components ... and commented that it was a shame that I made such a nice girl fight the old clunker. The first evening of the match, we took over Bumstead's house for an impromptu BBQ, and somebody (I think it was Witten) brought along a couple of bottles of spirits. One thing lead to another, and by the end of the evening Dave had made us an offer we couldn't refuse on a slightly used hard-chrome STI Tru-Bore race gun.

Being sober enough not to ignore a generous offer, I not only said yes, but "Hell Yes!". And forgot about it, because Dave had put his nose in the neck a couple of times that night, and I didn't think he would remember it the next day.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usImagine my surprise when, next week, I took legal posession of a beautiful STI Tru-Bore race gun with a hard-chrome finish, powder-blue grips, a "Parrot" OK sight,Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us one 10-round magazine, two 140mm magazines, and one 170mm magazine ... all STI manufacture, of course.

Dave is a man of his word, which is demonstrated daily by his business practices. You buy an STI, you've got not only one of the finest competition-quality pistols on the market today, you get a warranty that rivals that of Dillon itself. It breaks, send it back. They fix it, and send it back to you. Dave has become a friend, but he's a friend to every customer of STI. Everybody gets the same deal, although admittedly the Custom Shop has been pretty busy as their customer base has grown and turn-around time may occasionally been as strained as any of the better gunsmiths. Still, it's an all-American gun, and to misquote Jeremiah Johnson in reference to the Hawkens Rifle, "Hell, it were a genuine STI, and you can't get no better."

During this process SWMBO and I became Marketting Representatives, authorized to possess and use extended-capacity magazines for the purpose of demonstrating the product for LEO, Military and other potential customers. We were agents for the manufacturer, and thus authorized the same privileges as the manufacturer in regards to hi-cap magazines under the then-current laws regulating hi-cap mags. [whew!]

I was in a position of put-up-or-shut-up, so I ordered a case of Montana Gold 115 bullets, a thousand Winchester .38 Super cases, and a keg of Vihta Vourhi N350 powder. I was going by the load data of Jeff Maass's reloading page, and my own prejudice of quality components. Nothing but the best for SWMBO. Also, from Dillon I ordered a Safariiland belt combo and three Safariiland magazine carriers.

 border=Talking to local folks who used the .38 Super, I heard that many people preferred the .38 Super Comp brass rather than the ordinary .38 Super. I asked Dave about that (by email), and with typical Skinner candor he replied laconically: "Why you want to make it more complicated? The regular super brass works just fine, don't muck it up by spending more money on that Super Comp stuff." As usual, Dave was right and the gun ran just fine with .38 Super brass ... from any vendor, the gun didn't care as long as it was the rimmed case. (The extractor was tuned to that brass, and does NOT like the rimless .38 Super Comp brass. Didn't then, doesn't now, and we haven't changed the extractor yet.)

Looking at the Dillon catalogue, I realized that I could load .38 Super using the same Lee Dies that I had been using for the 9x19 cartridge. I didn't bother investing in special dies, just changed the seating depth on the second die and the charge on the powder measure, adjusted the crimp die, and started loading .38 super ammunition. I think it took me about 10 minutes to get the right combination. After that, I spent a couple of hours of range time with a chronograph to determine the best powder charge, and the gun ran like the proverbial fine Swiss watch.

The next year, I had some serious problems with the Columbia Cascade Sectional match. On one difficult stage, I had more penalty hits on close-set no-shoot targets than I got on the scoring targets. Well, it was a tough stage and I was under considerable competitive pressure. But a couple of weeks later, I happened to pick up my WWI 1911 and discovered that I couldn't see the sights. Looking again at the Edge, I found I couldn't see more than a blur where the sights should be, either.

I began a correspondance with Dave, asking him what changes he recommended to change the 10mm Edge into an Open gun. I mentioned that I was considering mounting a dot-sight, swapping the 10mm bull-barrel for a compensated barrel (I knew STI could build me one, or a competent gunsmith could thread the existing barrel and install a screw-on compensator.) I also asked about required changes to the slide and even the ejector.

Dave replied that he would hate to see me "muck up" a perfectly good gun, and made me another offer on a gun they had in their shop which had been built as (apparently) a prototype of the Competitor.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThus I ended up with another .38 Super to load for, albeit with a Scheumann Barrel and the necessary blast shield to protect the C-more sight.

I immediately put in an order for "replacement" 140mm and 170mm magazine tubes, springs and followers. NOT a manufactured magazine (illegal under then-current laws, and the vendor didn't have my documentation which stated that I was an "agent" for the manufacturer). I bought the magazine base-pads from another vendor, and was able to assemble completely legal hi-cap magazines for the pistol. I admit, the gun was so fun to shoot, I went a little crazy for a while there.

The Scheumann (I'm probably not spelling that correctly) barrel had an entirely different reaction to the load which I had been using for SWMBO's ammunition. I experimented with the loads, and found that the 7.9 gr VV N350 load with 115gr MG bullets was just a little light for that barrel. I increased the powder charge up to, eventually, 10 grains of VV N350 powder, and the Scheumann barrel handled it just fine!

Unfortunately, in SWMBO's gun it was just a little too hot, because the end-of-the barrel compensator didn't release the excess gas as quickly as the holes-in-the-barrel Scheumann barrel did. We saw not only flattening of the primers on rounds fired through that pistol, but in some cases the primer metal actually flowed around the firing-pin hole and over the boundary of the primer cup until it overlayed the base of the cartridge! Decidedly too hot for that gun. Finally, I settled on an 8.0 grain charge of powder, which seemed to be a usable compromise between the two guns.

In 2004, one year almost to the day from when I started using this load, I cracked the slide. STI was very nice about replacing both the barrel AND the slide, and I was able to get rid of the Scheumann Barrel. I was glad of that, because the blowback from the compensating ports was so powerful that I had already spent a few uncomfortable sessions in the Dentist's chair. I had cracked a tooth, which had to be ground down and capped. I wasn't happy about this, but I felt it was worth it to be shooting an Open gun and besides, it was an old tooth and I didn't actually LOSE it, I only had it replaced with the cap.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usI note parenthetically that the people in my Section who had been working local matches as Range Officers were glad to hear that I had replaced the Scheumann barrel with a 'regular' barrel. They were being buffetted by the muzzle blast, whether I was shooting the "Loaner" gun or SWMBO was, even more than we were.

Now it is two years since my last change to the load data for the .38 super ammunition, which we shoot between 20,000 and 30,000 rounds per year.

The load has remained consistently at 8.0 grains of VV N350 behind a 115 grain MG Jacketted Bullet. (I won't supply the Over-All Length of the load, because I don't want to tempt anyone to assume that this load will work as well, or as safely, in their gun as it does in ours.) Our load chronograph consistently at about 171PF at major matches, and I don't expect to change it in the near future.

I should note, however, that the Dillon XL650 is getting old and has shown some wear.

Last Summer I replaced the Link Arms - a forged-steel connection between the body of the press and the cyliner. One of them broke, and I replaced both of them while I was doing my mechanical duties. Other parts which have broken include the platform assembly, and the entire Primer Feed Assembly. (Early models of the Primer Feed Assembly failed to protect the operator and the machine, and they were capable of mis-feeding the primers. I once crunched a primer while reloading 9mm ammo, and the primer blew up ... along with several other primers in the primer feed tube. Dillon replaced the entire assembly without change, as they have replaced all other parts of the reloading press, and I have experienced no other problems with this portion of the press.)

The Dillon XL650 is prone to cycling problems with small primers, and I can load ammunition using large primers much faster. The primer disk doesn't seem to align as perfectly and as consistently with the primer punch with small primers as it does with large primers.Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us To illustrate, if I have a constant source of components (including loaded primer feed tubes) and I'm feeling energetic, I can load 1000 rounds of .45acp or 10mm in about one hour, on a good day. Conversely, I load about 400 - 500 rounds of .38 Super in an hour. This is entirely due to the occasional problems conversant with using smaller components, both the primers and the cases (which sometimes don't 'drop' as perfectly as they should when reloading .38 super brass, but which almost always align perfectly using the large .45acp brass.)

My machine is about 15 years old now, and many parts have been replaced. I'm not a good mechanic, so my maintenance is not as good as it should be. I need to send it back to the factory so it can be reconditioned. I've been putting it off for three years now, because I just don't want to miss any club matches because I haven't loaded enough ammunition ahead of time to carry me through the period when the press is not set up and ready to reload.

But I can send it back to Dillon any time I want, and as long as it isn't during the winter (when most people send their loading press back for refurbushing), I can be confident that it will come back to me as good as new, and with a minimum of time lost.

It's just . . . hard for me to face the prospect of not having my XL650 already mounted on my loading bench, and ready to use.

I've grown accustomed to relying on it, and any time I want to spend a half-hour at the bench, I know I can load up enough ammunition to carry me through another club match.

That kind of reliability is hard to find, but I've found it from Dillon and STI.

Life is good.

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