A few years ago shooters were facing massive shortages of .22 Long Rifle ammunition as well as skyrocketing prices for common handgun and rifle ammunition. Those who did not have much surplus stored up either curtailed their shooting activities or paid ridiculously high prices when ammo was available at the local retailers.
However, for those who were set up to reload their own ammunition, times were not so bad. Sure, there were some shortages from time to time on powders and primers, but for the most part, reloaders just kept cranking out ammo and enjoying their shooting sports.
What is Reloading?
For those new to the shooting sports, reloading is simply the process of reusing the brass cartridge case from a fired round of ammunition.
Modern ammunition consists of the cartridge case, a primer, smokeless powder, and the bullet. By reusing the case numerous times the cost of a loaded round of ammunition drops considerably.
The process is simple, but it does require some tools, supplies, and attention to detail.
The case is usually made of brass. Brass is very soft and when a cartridge is fired the case expands to fill the chamber of the firearm and seal in the propellent gasses generated by the burning powder.
The case can be reused numerous times depending on the cartridge and the condition of the firearm it is fired in.
The primer is a small metallic disk in the center of the case head. The primer consists of an explosive compound that ignites the powder charge when struck by the firing pin of the firearm.
The powder in a modern smokeless powder cartridge fills the cartridge case. When ignited by the primer the powder burns very quickly and produces a large volume of gas that propels the bullet down the barrel and on its way to the target.
The bullet is the component that actually exits the gun. Nothing else, other than hot gasses exit the barrel when the gun is fired. Bullets come in a multitude of shapes and designs depending on the particular task at hand.
The Tools of the Trade
To get started reloading, a few basic tools are necessary.
The first thing to invest in is a current production reloading manual from a reputable company like Speer, Nosler, or Hornady. Each bullet or powder manufacturer has reloading data available in print form or in online databases.
It is critical that regardless the cartridge you choose that you follow the “recipe” in the reloading manual in full. The data printed in reloading manuals has been tested and proven to be safe and functional in modern firearms. Any deviation could be disastrous to you and your firearm.
The press is the tool that will allow you to work on the cartridge case to build a new round of ammunition. Again, there are multiple companies that build excellent reloading equipment. You will find presses from RCBS, Hornady and Lee at nearly any well-equipped sporting goods store.
For the beginning reloader I believe a bench equipped with a RCBS Rock Chucker press is hard to beat. The Rock Chucker has been around for decades and will handle any reloading chore you can dish out. The Rock Chucker is a single-stage press, meaning that only a single operation is completed with each pull of the handle.
Next you will need a quality scale. Again, for a person starting out, I believe a balance beam-type scale is the way to go. A balance beam scale is simple, robust, and accurate. With a simple scale check weight to confirm the adjustments, a balance beam scale will last a lifetime.
I have been loading for over 30 years and I am still using a scale to charge my rifle cartridges and double check powder charges from an electronic scale that was passed to me from my uncle.
It would also be helpful to have a small scoop to place powder on the powder scale. I use a 1-teaspoon measuring spoon that has been in my kit for as long as I’ve had the scale.
Powder Trickler and Funnel
A trickler will allow you to feed powder literally piece by piece onto the powder scale. This makes it very simple to get the exact powder charge every time without going over the weight you have set.
Finally, you need a powder funnel to pour the powder from the scale pan into the cartridge case.
Dies are next on your purchase list. The dies screw into the top of the press and perform various functions.
In a set of dies you will generally find one or two dies in the set.
For rifle cartridge reloading you will have a die for resizing the brass and punching out the old primer.
You will also find a die for seating the bullet after you have seated a new primer, charged the case with the appropriate powder and started a bullet into the case mouth.
In some cases you will need a crimp die to squeeze the case mouth around the bullet to hold it more securely. This is usually found when you are reloading ammunition for gun that feeds from a tubular magazine, like a 30-30 Winchester, or in some cases magazine fed rifles like an AR-15.
Pistol die sets will have the resizing/depriming die, then will have a die to “bell” the case mouth just a touch. This step flares out the mouth of the case to better accommodate seating the new bullet. Next the bullet is seated fully with the seating die and finally a crimp die is used to crimp the case mouth to the bullet.
You will need a caliper to measure the length of your cases and the length of your finished ammunition to be sure it is within the specifications set forth in your reloading manual.
For rifle cartridges you will need to be able to trim your brass cases to the proper length from time to time. Because of the extreme pressures inside the chamber the brass will stretch each time it is fired and when it is run through the resizing die.
A simple trim die that screws into your press is fine. This die allows you to trim your cases to the proper length with nothing more than a file.
A more versatile trimmer is a rotary trimmer from any of the press manufactures or from Forster or Sinclair. While more expensive up front, if you intend to reload for multiple cartridges a rotary trimmer is probably a good investment as you build your tool inventory.
Case Mouth Burring Tool
This is a simple tool that is used to slightly bevel the inside and outside of the case mouth after trimming to length. This is a step usually reserved for rifle cartridges.
That pretty well wraps up the basic tools need to reload ammunition. Of course as you learn and develop your skills you will find time-saving tools and methods that will allow you to reload more ammo, faster and spend more time on the range.
Basic Steps To Reloading
Got all your tools together? Here’s how to get it going.
Since the case is the component we recycle, it makes sense to spend some time making sure each case is inspected for dents, cracks, splits or signs of case head separation.
Once your cases are sorted and inspected they need to be cleaned. For someone just starting out a simple solution is to manually wash the cases. Use a plastic bucket or coffee can. Fill with hot water, add some dishwashing detergent and get it stirred in. Buy some citric acid from the local home brewer supply store and add about a tablespoon to the mixture.
Now, pour in your cases and stir them around with an old spoon or just swirl the can around. Let them soak for 30 minutes or so.
Pour out your cleaning solution and brass into a colander. Tip: buy one at the Dollar Store. Don’t use the one your wife washes the lettuce with.
Rinse the brass with hot water. Now lay it out on a towel to dry. You want it to be 100% dry before reloading.
This process will clean the brass. It will not make it factory new shiny. To get that super shiny finish you will need to invest in a vibratory cleaner of some sort.
Be sure to clean your brass in some fashion before you run the cases into the sizing die. Any grit or dirt on the case can scratch the honed surfaces of your die.
Resizing and Decapping
The first step on the press is resizing the cases. In most cases the resizing die also has a decapping pin on the assembly. When the case is pressed into the die the die squeezes the case back to factory new dimensions and pushes the spent primer out of the case head.
Most die manufacturers will recommend some sort of lubrication on the outside of the case and inside the mouth of the case prior to resizing. I use Hornady One Shot almost exclusively for my reloading. It is easy to apply and with practice you can get the lube into the case mouth as you spray the cases. One Shot does not have to be removed prior to priming or filling the case with powder.
Trimming and Deburrring
With rifle cartridges you may need to trim the cases to length after resizing. Consult your reloading manual for the correct length.
After trimming use your deburring tool to put a slight bevel on the inside and outside of the case mouth.
Some folks recommend trimming handgun cartridges as well, but I have loaded tens of thousands of rounds and have never trimmed a handgun case.
The cases are now ready for a new primer. Most reloading presses will have a special arm or assembly to press the new primer into the primer pocket. This is a process that you will learn to “feel” when the primer is fully seated.
Charging the Case
Once your cases are primed you are ready to measure and fill each case with powder. For this step you will follow the reloading manual to determine the correct powder charge for the cartridge, the powder and bullet weight you have chosen. Do Not Deviate from the published data!
Set your scale to the proper weight and use your little scoop to start filling the pan with powder. Use the trickler to drop the last few kernels of powder on the pan to bring the balance to the center mark.
Next, use a powder funnel to pour the powder from the scale pan into the case.
Seating the Bullet
After your cases are filled with powder you will use the bullet seating die to seat your bullet in the charged case.
Adjust your die as directed in the instructions. If your die is supplied with different seating stems to match specific bullet profiles, select the one most closely matching your bullet profile.
Place the charged case on the press and hold a bullet on the case mouth and guide it into the seating die.
Fully seat the bullet then check the overall length with your caliper. Adjust the die as necessary to arrive at the length specified in the reloading manual.
Depending on the cartridge you are loading, you may need to crimp the bullet after seating. Refer to your die instructions if the seating die allows for crimping in the seating step. In some cases you will have a separate die for crimping operations.
You now have a reloaded round of ammunition ready for the range.
Use a clean cloth to wipe off the newly loaded cartridge and store in a cartridge box for your next trip to the range.
I suggest that you keep a notebook with your reloading tools and keep notes on every reloading session.
Record the date, the cartridge reloaded, the bullet used, the powder and charge weight, primer used, overall cartridge length, how many times the cases have been reloaded, and how many cartridges you loaded in that session. Leave space for notes to record any data regarding how the cartridges performed at the range.
Does Reloading Really Save Money?
This is a question that comes up all the time. There is a fair investment in tools and equipment to get set up to reload your own ammunition. However, as time goes on, you will find that your cost to reload and shoot your firearms does indeed decrease.
If we plug in some basic numbers in the Beartooth Bullets Load Cost Calculator we will find that reloading is, in fact, less expensive than buying factory ammo.
I plugged in data to reload 100 rounds of 40 S&W and the cost to reload is $20.45 vs $29.00 for factory ammo.
Looking at a typical .308 Winchester load and current costs of components I can load 100 rounds for $48.20 vs. $110.00 for the same factory load.
So, yes, you can save money by investing in good equipment and starting down the road to ammunition self sufficiency.
Tell us about your journey in reloading and how you got started.