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A Primer on Primers

Firearm primers should be more understood than they are.

As a younger man, I never gave much thought to primers. Oh, I made sure I had the correct ones for the load I was working on — I used magnum primers for hotter loads and standard primers for practice ammo — but that was about the greatest distinction I bothered with.

As the years have gone by, I’ve grown to spend a little more time contemplating the little metallic toys that form the spark plugs of ammunition, and I daresay I’ve even noticed a few things that are worth passing along.

When it comes to primer brands, I never had much preference until I was more or less forced into it. I’d been making liberal use of any brand of primer that happened to be on sale for about 20 years when I finally got pushed into shopping around.

I had purchased a 219 Savage rifle which was chambered for 30-30. This little gun was wonderfully accurate, to the point that it had been the favorite gopher gun of its previous owner.

Eventually my friend’s eyes had gotten rough enough that he could no longer make use of open sights on small targets, so he’d sold the gun to a younger man: me.

I fell in love with the gun right from the start, but it did have one problem: it was prone to misfires. The 219 has a concealed hammer which is cocked when the action is closed. This means that these guns are usually left cocked for long periods of time if the owner doesn’t dry fire them when they’re done shooting.

It’s kind of a catch 22; if you leave the gun cocked the hammer spring eventually gets weak, and if you dry fire it you run the risk of damaging the firing pin.

I could have disassembled the gun and replaced the spring, if I could ever find a replacement, but that requires pounding out pins which never quite go back in the same way they came out. I elected to leave the 219’s springs alone and go in search of a simpler solution.

The rub was that there wasn’t really anything wrong with the gun other than the fact that its hammer didn’t hit like it used to. What I needed was a more sensitive brand of primer to assure ignition.

A little research revealed that Remington primers are a touch more sensitive than other brands due to a different anvil design and slightly thinner cups. I picked up a green box of the little devils and loaded up twenty rounds of 30-30 to test my theory.

RELATED: Core-Lokt Bullets: Remington’s Deadly Mushrooms

The 30-30 ran through all 20 rounds without a hitch, and I’ve been using Remington primers for the gun ever since. My break-open Savage still puts a real tiny dent in primers, but with the Remington primers that’s enough to keep it working.

Recently my primer horizons have been broadened once again by the recent ammo and component shortage. When it got tough to find primers for sale, a good number of the locals around here started ordering primers from a lot of weird companies I’d never heard of.

The two most common brands were Tula and Wolf primers, both from Russia, and both interesting in certain ways. Having a little more time on my hands than most folks, I got asked by a few people to test out these strange primers from a strange land.

Naturally, I said yes. Work, work, work, it’s all I ever do.

The first thing I discovered was that Wolf pistol primers are pretty darn soft. With hand priming tools the ram is often a bit smaller than the primer and it’s very easy to dent Wolf primers.

Before I got a feel for them I actually crushed a couple so bad that they resulted in misfires. Right now the price is definitely right on Wolf products, but you have to be careful with them.

Tula primers have turned out to be the exact opposite. So far, all of the Tula primers I’ve tried are hard as rocks. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — a hard primer can be a handy thing to have around, but I doubt my old 219 would even make a dent in one.

Naturally, these differences in hardness also change the way we have to assess pressure signs. With the softer Wolf primers, just about any load looks like a hot load, and with the Tula primers you don’t get pressure signs until the primer is just about ready to fall out of the spent case.

The point of all this storytelling is that a handloader should realize that not all primers are created equal. For tiny little items they have a lot of character that’s all their own and that character makes a big difference in terms of accuracy, reliability and safety.

Back when I was a kid any primer that lit gunpowder was the brand for me, but over time I’ve become a little more discriminating.

RELATED: 6 Reasons Why Reloading is the Best Thing Ever

Currently, a handloader’s first instinct is to buy up any primers they can find, in bunches if possible. This isn’t a bad impulse, but it can come back to bite you.

If you find a good deal on several thousand primers, there’s a chance that they may not fit your needs as well as you had hoped they might. There’s also the chance they may not work at all. When it comes to buying primers, it’s best to get small lots of them if you can, determine what works well for your purposes and then load up on the brands you prefer when the opportunity arises.

There’s nothing wrong with stockpiling primers — it’s not like you won’t get around to using them — but they should be the right primers if you hope to avoid disappointment.

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A Primer on Primers