Quality Matters

We’ve all felt the delima. You’re standing in one of the isles at Harbor Freight tools (or substitute your own local low-cost import tool retailer) – and you are staring at a tool on the shelf. Should I buy this $19.99 digital caliper, or should I buy the Starrett one for $129.99? Hmmmm – how often will I really use this tool you ask yourself… Well, I won’t be using this digital caliper in extreme environments… so perhaps I’ll just get the cheap one here. Heck, I could buy six of these for the price of one premium digital caliper….

Have you experienced this kind of (sometimes painful) decision? If you are like me, you really have a weakness for quality. For me it goes a bit beyond that. I really like industrial grade tools and equipment. Quality industrial equipment is expensive, there’s just no way around it. If you don’t have the money to buy the right equipment the first time, will you have the money to replace the cheap junk that you thought would get you buy with the “real deal” later? These kinds of questions are good to ask yourself up front.

Quick Side Note:
I recently had two import knock-off camera flashes die on me (after about a year of light use). In frustration, I decided to fork down the money on “the real deal”. Where the knock-off flashes were $109. each, the Canon 580EX-II flash that I bought cost $425. – that’s a staggering price difference for two flashes that are “equivalent” on paper. What I discovered right off the bat is that these flashes were nowhere close in practical use. The import flashes had cheap mounts, noisy zoom motors, loud and slow recharging, inconsistent metering, and the list goes on. The Canon flash is sturdy, fast and silent when recharging, and extremely consistent. The Canon flash IS the real deal. In this case I should have started out with one “real” flash rather than two “knock-off” flashes. This isn’t the first time that I’ve learned that lesson the hard way!

So how does this relate to reloading equipment? Many first-time reloaders need to decide what “grade” of reloading gear to get started with. You can spend $129.99 up to $1700.00+ on a progressive reloading press- so how does the first time reloader (or experienced reloader) decide what to buy? At this point, most first-time reloaders are starting to count the cost. How long will it take for my reloading equipment to pay off? Will I really use this equipment? Those are the kinds of factors that we all face when we go to make these kinds of major purchases. I could go on and on here, but I won’t. 🙂

Let’s focus on some factors and truths that will help shed light on what grade of quality is right for a given application:

  1. Quality stays, junk fades. Remember those flashes that I spent $218. on for two? Those flashes are now worth basically nothing. I bought the Canon flash brand new because used units were selling for ~75% of new cost. That tells you something right there! Reloading equipment is basically the same. You will retain a *much* higher percentage of your investment when you buy quality.
  2. Buy quality, buy once. Buy junk, buy twice. If you approach your investment from a “total cost of ownership” over the long term, it pays to buy quality up front. Obviously this is not always possible:  a college student may need to reload with a $129.99 progressive, because that’s all that’s in the budget, etc.
  3. Safety matters. You probably wouldn’t buy a replacement airbag for your car from Harbor Freight, so should you depend your guns and body on cheap reloading equipment? It’s worth carefully considering.
  4. Nothing is perfect, value varies. Usually you get what you pay for, but that doesn’t always pan out 100%. Shop carefully so that you find the “Sweet-Spot” for value, your requirements, and your budget.

I hope this discussion is helpful. Don’t over-think things, but do think about what you buy.

Do you have thoughts about quality? Please leave a comment!


20 thoughts on “Quality Matters”

  1. Funny, I’ve been pondering this subject for the last couple of years (I guess I’m a slow learner)
    But, having had problems with my Lee Turret Press (the turret sometimes over-rotating, also throwing spent primers, dropping new primers no matter how I adjust things, and the spring on the Lee Powder Measure sounding like an old screen door) I built a new, super strong reloading bench and installed a Redding T-7 with slide bar primer (just last week!). I bought an RCBS Competition Powder Measure to go with it (found a good deal). Fantastic. Having fun again.
    On another related note, sometimes there’s the best tool and sometimes there’s the best tool for the job: I needed to replace a brake line in my wife’s Jeep – a one time event – and Craftsman wanted something like $40 for a set of flare wrenches, so I picked up a set at Harbor Freight for $9. They worked fine.
    But, back to reloading – it’s a hobby and you’re supposed to spend money on it.

  2. I have to take exception to your example of calipers. I have used Mitutoyo, Brown and Sharps and Fowlers and yes they might last alittle longer but with the imports being $16 to $25 and the top brands being $125 and up it is a no brainer. A pair of calipers last me about a year and I have been in business for 15 years. Now at $25.00 each that would be $375.00. If the top shelf lasted twice as long (they don’t) but for sake of argument lets say they do they would be replaced 7 1/2 times in 15 years at a cost of $125.00 each or $937.50.

    1. HOW are you breaking calipers every 1-2 years? I work with tool makers who have had calipers for 20 years or longer. I have owned my current pair of mitutoyo calipers or going on 7 years? Measuring equipment like this is high precision and requires that you take proper CARE of them.
      Like anything you get out of it what you out into it. If you by a $70000 car and drive it without changing oil and filters, rotating and keeping proper air pressure in the tires, never wash the car, and only smash down th gas and brakes, your car is going to turn into a pile of crap in a hurry. With maintenance and care the same car can last 20 years and 200K miles.
      Be more careful with your stuff

  3. I have collected tools and equipment of different types for many years. I always buy the best that I can afford. When it came time to buy a progressive press I bit the bullet and got a Dillon 650. I have never regretted that desision. With proper maintianance I expect it to perform well in to the future. I expect to pass it along to my son when I am gone.

  4. Great post. This is exactly the type of decision I went through. I originally bought a Lee single stage because it was cheap. Instantly wanted a turret because I need to get more rounds out quicker. The turret accomplished that, but the powder measure wasn’t very consistent, I constantly had to tweak, I would see videos (such as ultimatereloader 🙂 ), where the user wasn’t constantly fiddling with things. After stove-pipeing a few rounds in competition because my loads were light (metering being inconsistent, I presume), I went with an RCBS pro2000 based on forum reviews and the videos here at UR. Wow! Happy happy happy! Dead-on consistent metering, mostly trouble free operation with minimal tweaking, solid feel, etc. (I really can’t believe how consistent and accurate that powder measure is, from when it is full to when there is very little powder left in it)

    To make a long post longer, I should have bought the Pro2000, or a dillon, from the start and saved all the money I spent on those two cheaper presses. (I’m 54, and I’m still learning these lessons!)

    You buy cheap junk to start ,you always will have cheap junk.
    I volunteer at a public range and it was built by the cheap bidder. The whole range is crooked from the shooting stations! Cheap won again.
    You don’t always have to buy the most expensive but it sure pays not to buy the cheapest or some of the Chinese knockoff crap out there.

  6. That ‘sweet spot’ is where it’s at. A little research and thought to honestly determine real need versus wanted needs. Doing a task analysis before hand will establish how much quality is required for the load or actual work to be performed.

    My first press in the early 90s was Dillon Square Deal B, intended to load from 100 to 2,000 rounds a month of .45 ACP. which turned out to be a good decision. The goals I set for the press were progressive to save time, simple and cost efficient, single caliber pistol loads. The SDB has met all of those with only minor problems, caused by me. Took me awhile to learn how to stop occasional problems with primer seating and the resulting powder bounce out of casings. Proper case prep, press cleaning and adjustment ended that. The powder measure is remarkably consistent and accurate. I find the simpler I keep it and the less I fiddle with it the more success I have and only minor parts have needed replacement. The only draw back to the SDB for me was requirement to use only Dillon dies and that was not big one. Once I built a bench with zero flex, added the riser stand, bullet tray and loaded shell bin it was great. I added the loaded shell bin bracket for the 550, the tool head tool set and personalized the setup. Works great.

    My second press was Lee basic single stage intended only as a dedicated deprime/size station. Works fine for that purpose. My third press was Lee Breechlock Challenger for loading limited rifle and specialty pistol calibers. Easy to set up, smooth, accurate and reliable in that use and you can use any standard dies. I used the Dillon riser stand as a pattern to make my own stands for the two dillon presses. I used sheet steel of a heavier gauge, narrowing the footing just a little to save space, customized the top plate for my two Lee presses and made bin brackets for both sides out of old metal computer cases. Add in two layers each of no rust primer and Chevy Red engine paint plus good quality mounting hardware to a heavy no flex bench and they are a pleasure to use and take up very little space.

    The key is to think through what your needs are, take some time to plan out your ultimate set up based on your needs and budget and as you go along personalized it to your needs. There are always revelations of a better way as time goes on and as you decide to do more and more then you will need to make changes to meet those new needs.

    The satisfaction, at least for me, comes from creating a set up that is personalized to suit my current needs which have changed a lot over the years and one that you can take pride in as no one else will have one like it. I now load most of the popular pistol and the most popular rifle calibers and even make unusual things out of unloaded ammo as a side hobby. As the years go by I shoot fewer rounds but spend more time reloading new or tailor made rounds rather than just cranking out quantity for quantities sake.

    Your enjoyment will come from having a clean, well organized and as professional set up as possible. If you can you your creativity and ingenuity to save money and make it unique as well you have hit the jackpot. Every ones idea of the perfect set up will be different, study others and use the bits and pieces you can to suit yours. I went from having a dedicated building with 20 ft of bench to having a 22′ x 24″ space to todays two small benches as we moved and made changes to our living situations. Mine isn’t done yet, it’s still new and I look forward to the improvements I will dream up in the future at the lowest possible cost. This is all part of the fun and satisfaction for me.

    If there are any folks new to reloading who would like to borrow ideas from me I would be glad to email pictures and info.

  7. Quality does matter … a lot. I recently endured the purchase of a Hornday digital caliper (made in china). The bad news is it was defective. It skipped entire ranges of numbers. When I contacted Midway they sent 2 replacements and all were defective. The good news is Midway ultimately sold me a much more expensive Lymann caliper for only $10 more (it works great). I think one asian manufacturer has a handle on quality and the other does not.

    The bottom line is don’t buy cheap and only from a reputable dealer and you’ll be ok.


    1. Why would you not contact Hornady to let them know and ask about replacement? I am sure the $10 more expensive Lyman calipers were made in a factory down the street from where the Hornady calipers ware made.

    2. Hey Bob,

      Although I agree with Gavin, I think you should have been fine with buying a set of digital calipers from Harbor Freight Tool. I have 3 sets of calipers, 2 from Harbor Freight and another from Checker Auto, all cheap and made in China. I’ve only had one problem with one caliper and that was the case pressing on the power button, causing the battery to go dead. The design of the RCBS calipers look exactly the same as the Harbor Freight Tools version, I’m sure that’s the same with your Hornady calipers; the only difference between them is the labeling and the price, not their point of origin. The great thing about Harbor Freight is that if it’s defective, just bring it back; no shipping and no hassles. Gavin is right, sometimes you get what you pay for, but with the calipers…. I’m sure Harbor Freight is just fine.

      On another note, I’m using the Harbor Freight Tool “Vibrating Tool Cleaner” and it works great, another cost savings over the RCBS version and other reloading manufacturers. I’m going to purchase the larger one from Harbor Freight since I’ve had great success with the smaller version.

      I’m not ripping on your decision to purchase a more expensive tool, I’m just stating that some of those tools are the exact same thing as the cheaper version, but you already know that. When it comes to presses, dies and whatever, well that’s a different story.

      1. As a matter of fact I agree with you they may buy components for the calipers in question from the same manufacturers. I also buy many tools from Harbor Freight. I know I am sacrificing quality for price in nearly every situation so limit my purchases to things not very critical.

        If for example I want a good cordless drill I buy mainstream products like Makita, Dewalt or Porter Cable and just pay the price for one that I know will last me for years.

        As for why I didn’t go back to Hornady I had just purchased and unboxed the caliper from their licensend dealer (Midway) and realized that they were aware of the problem from other reviews posted. I knew they would make it right quickly and they did.


  8. Great discussion. I’ve had great luck with RCBS digital calipers I bought quite a few years ago. Not sure of its origin but suspect China. I guess I hit one of the heads up manufacturers. As for presses, I’ve never had a Lee press and understand their place in the market because of their low cost. I feel fortunate to have a RCBS single stage and four Dillon presses although I did go through a couple red presses before going strictly with Dillon (and the RCBS single stage). Nothing really wrong with the red presses except that I found them quite quirky in several area. Much faster than my two 550’s, too fast for my needs I should add. Quality-wise, can’t complain about any of the presses I’ve had or have but in the end feel that the extra money spent on Dillon presses comes back through reliability and second to none customer service. Somehow I think that all the press manufacturers offer great customer service and for that we’re extremely lucky.

    I second the bottom line about not buying cheap and from a reputable dealer. I plan to have the presses I presently own and reload for a long time to come. They, in turn, will be handed down to any of my kids who wish to learn the art. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of new technology lurking around the corner causing me to look over my shoulder for a newer design or model. I suppose that might change.

  9. My only piece to add is do not assume quality based on reputation only. Each reloading manufacturer makes quality equipment, but not ALL pieces are great. I own equipment from Lee, RCBS, Hornady, Dillon, Lyman, and more. Each manufacturer has let me down with some things and performed flawlessly with other equipment — often at a savings. Due diligence helps in finding bargains; personally I know few people without a budget they need to keep to, and with some bargain hunting a satisfying reloading experience can be had on most budgets.

    1. I think Michael’s comment is spot on, and I’ll add that quality cannot necessarily be determined from the price of the product. Feedback from owners is a more reliable indicator than price.

  10. All my reloading equipment is Lee. I really like the Classic Cast press as I am a lefty. So far, for pistol cartridges all has worked well. Someday I would like to get into shooting rifles for competition, maybe then Redding dies would be a good investment? Good thoughts though.

  11. Pay once…Cry once. It is difficult to even find American made tools…or is it? If one shops Lowe’s or Home Depot for tools…or Harbour Freight…you can expect to find mostly sub par tools…mostly…unless you pay for the higher priced itmes. So why not just go directly to tool sources…mostly,,,to find U.S. made items. This is the internet and I understand that it does cut into tax revenues and local business profits by using internet buying. Complicated for a small business to compete with box stores that carry Chinese junk. But we must stop buying non Made in the USA junk!!

    When it comes to reloading…we all seem to reload for the main obvious reason….you can shoot more for less and you cannot include your time it takes to reload..for then…you’d be better off time wise to just buy new. But then there is the other reason many reload…accurracy! With that in mind…we then have to start looking at what a tool will do for your reloading.

    Now…I’ve reloaded now for nearly forty years. I’ve hunted (And have taken many many animals!) til I do not want to hunt anymore..but I am into pistol…auto pistols that is and more on the tactical/precision side of things. In the past it was the Big Name items that were the only thing to buy. But then I discovered Lee reloading products….a long time ago now! Before anyone scorns…there are reasons why. They tend to work and last. I’m not into burning hundreds of rounds of 5.56 or 7.62 x39…but during the warmer non snowy months…I can go thru 300 to 400 rounds of auto pistol per week along with around 100 rounds of rifle ammo. That may seem alot to some…but it doesn’t take long to burn up this much rifle/pistol ammo. I cast my pistol bullets for obvious reasons…it costs me approximately $4.00 to load 50 rounds of 45 ACP and alittle less of 40 S&W and 9mm. I do not cast any rifle bullets…remember precision. Lee reloading equipment works..mostly and some items I would never use again. Without experience with reloading…I think I’d be lost with all the variety of equipment available in todays reloading environment…if I was just startging out.

    Bottom line is…as what Michael stated…every manufacturer as let me down…on some items..as well. When it comes to reloading…Lee has across the board served me well and I must tell ya…I do not suffer from inaccurate rifle rounds or iffy pistol rounds. Now it comes to reputation. I as most reloaders..am frugal…but it is a jungle out there when it comes to reloading!! Stick with the basics that work for your reloading needs and buy USA made. A company such as Lee Precision could not survive for decades if all they produced was junk…now I could say things about RCBS….AND SOME OTHER JOHHNY COME LATELY Chinese made reloading equipment. And to be fair…I am using a RBCS scale that I have had for a long time.

    If one shoots precision target competition..you’d better buy the best there is in dies/scales/reamers/arbour presses/brass…be prepared to weight out bullets and brass and generally..it will cost you plenty to even compete let alone getting set up in very high end equipmet…did I even mention what the firearm will cost ya besides?

    There is simply being frugal and then theres being under a mind set that no one can shoot as good as you could if you’d just buy this more costly reloading equipment…sounds confusing..yes?!

  12. I think new guys just coming into reloading have a hard time with complex choices, and it’s not just cheap stuff versus quality. Why would I want a balance scale instead of a electronic? Is a single-stage press right for my purposes? So many propellants, how do I decide? Should I bother with an automated priming system? Can I trust an automated powder measure? Am I going to get into casting? You can sure waste a lot of money buying the wrong things, even if they are quality articles. I got a lot of the feel of what I wanted by watching dozens of guys (God bless ’em!) who took the time to do their stuff on YouTube for us. I didn’t just see their demo, but why they were doing what they were doing; this guy is loading pistol ammo in large numbers, that guy is doing highly customized match rifle ammo, etc. There’s no one way to get going, all of us have finite resources and have to make judgment calls, but the most important thing is to get the Right Thing instead of what someone else tells us is The Best Thing.

  13. I somewhat agree with that statement. I’ll approach this as I do with my other projects; How much am I willing to pay for a tool that I may not use much in the future?

    I don’t benefit from promoting Harbor Freight Tools, but I do buy a lot of stuff from them because of the savings. I’ve only had a couple of things go wrong with Harbor Freight Tools and that was just poor designing; one was a torque wrench and another was a wire-stripper. The other stuff I’ve purchased works great. I’ve purchased air tools, socket wrenches, combination wrenches, angle grinders, a reciprocating saw, a vibratory cleaning tool, 2 sets of digital calipers, and the list goes on. Yes, reloading presses, dies and other accessories are completely different, they’re specialized tools, but simple things you’ll use in your reloading room are just fine when you’re on a budget. In all honesty, I sometimes laugh at my friends that spend all that extra money on the contractor grade Dewalt or Milwaukee version of something that they’ll use only a few times, why spend more when you can save a few bucks with a cheaper version? Most of the tools we find at Sears are made in China, I personally think it’s foolish to spend more on something when you can find it at Harbor Freight Tool with the same warranty on hand tools.

    Yes, sometimes you get what you pay for, but just because it cost’s more doesn’t exactly mean you’re getting more quality for the price. That’s my 2¢.

  14. This has been my argument for years. Ive bought the best for better quality. Even my use of that spaecific product was not extensive, it still lasted longer than the other my buddy purchased. Im not one of those guys who has money to throw around but I will save up to buy the higher quality product. Everytime I have a project my equipment works Everytime. I purchased a great Hornady Progressive reloader and its been great. Quality not Quantity is wheres it at.

  15. Quality is a subjective word that has no direct meaning. Your view of a quality product and mine can vary greatly. If a Harbor Freight caliper provides accurate measurements and performs a function adequately it’s a quality product.

    If I am buying a drop cloth for painting does the “quality” matter if it functions adequately for a given role?

    Basing your decisions off of proverbial phrases is stupid at best.

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