Senior correspondent Rod Pascoe
Those of us who reload our own ammunition know the routine and while we have a choice of the primer we use, weight of powder and shape and weight of projectile, we also know when we pull the trigger these components are lost to us forever as the bullet hits the centre of the intended target. Although it’s been heated to extreme temperatures and expanded by enormous pressures, the brass case can still have another chance at life and preparing our brass for reloading can be as simple as a quick clean and inspection followed by resizing either the neck or the whole case.
Others spend a lot more energy on case preparation not just to manage more reloads out of their brass but to ensure consistency in brass structure, strength and dimensions. It seems being able to reuse the brass gives them a chance to control performance of one of the most important reloading components. As with most aspects of shooting, maintaining predictable and consistent shot-to-shot performance is the secret to precision.
Annealing brass is becoming a popular part of preparation as more and more shooters demand increased precision from their loads. Factory loaded ammunition does have a high degree of reliability and uniformity but shooters striving for even greater precision will fine-tune loads to their firearm, taking into account the specific characteristics of their rifle, chamber and barrel.
Brass too must perform exactly the same way on every shot and annealing is seen as essential for accuracy with the bonus of extending case life. Yet there are different philosophies surrounding annealing, some swear by it and perform the operation after almost every firing while others treat it simply as a passing fad.
Some claim that by the time the brass needs annealing it’s past its use-by date anyway. Lyman goes one step further by stating in their reloading manual: “It is almost impossible for the reloader to control and maintain the precise temperature required for proper annealing. Therefore, Lyman cautions against attempts to anneal case necks.” The counter argument is that had annealing been done from the beginning of the cases’ life, they may not have deteriorated with split necks and cracks in the first place.
Annealing is the process of softening brass by heating. Brass becomes hard by working it through repeated resizing and firing and when we see splits in case necks we know the brass has become hard. Annealing is not the same as heat treating, a process which makes steel harder when heated to a high temperature then rapidly cooled, usually by quenching in water.
There’s plenty of information available on how to anneal brass but the most important thing to keep in mind is the process must be done properly otherwise absolutely no advantage will be gained – the aim is to return the brass to its original state when it left the factory. Having said that, brass goes through various stages of annealing during manufacture, ensuring the base or head of the case remains hard to withstand pressure during firing and the neck is softer to allow for uniform and controllable tension around the bullet.
Over the years many home-grown machines and techniques have been developed for annealing brass, each with design features the inventors claim have advantages in ergonomics, time and safety and thanks to Australian Tactical Precision, Australian Shooter was given the chance to put the latest one to the test. The Ugly Annealer was developed in Australia by two knifemakers and machining hobbyists who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and spent more than a year perfecting designs, choosing materials and putting it all together. The main body is made of stainless steel, the base-plate aluminium and rotation wheel aluminium alloy, nickel-plated with a covering of natural diamond grit.
The texture of this grit resembles a fine nail file or emery board and prevents the case slipping as it’s being rotated. The catching wheel rotates below the hopper and selects one case at a time and carries it to the rotation wheel to be annealed. Mounted inside the chassis is an electric motor and gearbox which drives the catching and rotation wheels as well as the timing gears.
The top panel houses the power input socket and switch, speed controller and rotation speed indicator and there’s a perspex cover to prevent brass from inching its way forward from the hopper. A brass ejection bar protrudes from the chassis and is controlled by the internal timing gears which, through a caming action, determines the time the case is held in position in front of the torch flame.
The annealer comes with a set of five calibre inserts which fit into the catching wheel and cover a wide range of case diameters (a .22 Hornet insert is available as an optional extra). There are two rotation wheels supplied for different case lengths, a box of spare screws and washers, set of Allen keys, comprehensive manual for assembly and adjustment and a 24-volt plug pack. A clamp is included to fit the propane gas torch to the unit although the actual gas torch is not and is something you’ll have to source. The other thing you’ll need ‑ available from Australian Tactical Precision ‑ is a bottle of Tempilaq temperature indicating liquid.
As with any part of the reloading process the initial setting up is labour-intensive. The crucial aspect of annealing is having the temperature setting correct for proper and consistent operation and you’ll have to sacrifice a couple of cases in setting the temperature through a trial-and-error process to perfect both the time the brass is exposed to the flame and the set of the flame itself.
This is where the Tempilaq liquid comes in. Setting the flame is well explained in the manual and I won’t go into that other than to say the recommended temperature is between 400 and 500 degrees Celsius. The time and temperature settings, once achieved, are only good for that session and the whole process must be repeated each time you decide to do some annealing, so the more cases you anneal the more productive and time-efficient the session will be. The large hopper on the Ugly Annealer allows you to top-up with more cases as the level goes down, apart from that the procedure is fully automatic once set up. With the power setting indicating 65 per cent, each case is exposed to the flame for around 4.5 seconds and rotated five times.
As stated the set of the flame and its distance from the case is also a factor, so fine-tuning the speed settings ‑ and therefore the time the brass is exposed to the flame ‑ may vary from session to session to achieve the same result. However, the accompanying gas torch clamp allows the nozzle of the torch to remain in place on the unit even when removing the propane gas bottle, thereby making set-up of the flame much easier for the next session.
I used a number of once-fired 6.5mm Creedmoor cases for review, the .308 Winchester calibre conversion insert being closest to the diameter of the Creedmoor case. Unfortunately I couldn’t source a gas torch to suit the gas torch clamp supplied so carefully set up the gas bottle with the stand which held the nozzle in position. After sacrificing a number of cases and with the aid of the temperature indicating liquid and adjustment of the speed control, I arrived at the recommended temperature setting.
Once the flame was set I loaded the hopper with brass, turned the unit on and let it run – in no time the job was done and with this speed setting the machine turned out about 10 cases a minute. I’ve yet to load the cases but expect a consistent ‘feel’ during neck sizing and seating the projectiles. I’ve seen many home-made and commercial brass annealers but this pair of inventors have put together a unit featuring all the ‘good bits’ from the rest of the field – and for only $300 this is a sure-fire winner.
If you decide annealing brass is something you should explore or if you want to upgrade your current system, the Ugly Annealer is the answer. I particularly like its metal construction, simple assembly, detailed instruction manual and easy operation. More at australiantacticalprecision.com.au