Getting into Reloading

Imagine a conversation with yourself in your own head that goes something like this: 

Bullpup or conventional rifle….give me a break, the answer is bullpup.  

What caliber should I get?…wait a minute, why limit myself, I’ve got an SRS, I can have any caliber I want, whenever I want.  

Let’s see…accessories…bipod, suppressor, tool kit, etc….got that covered, check.  

Now let me think…ammunition;  I’m sure factory ammo is fine (if it’s even available?), but what about reloading?  I wonder how I can get started with that?   

Justification

Let’s take a look at the appeal for reloading, shed some light on this black art, and provide some raw data to help you decide whether or not reloading interests you.  After all it’s a great way to spend even more money on your gun hobby, leaving you with less time for actual shooting, and it’s even potentially dangerous.  Who wouldn’t be interested?

First and foremost, why reload?  Reloading is time consuming, requires an arsenal of specialized tools and knowledge, and carries a real risk for personal injury if done improperly.   Here are three of the primary arguments in favor of reloading:

  1. Accuracy

The most attractive aspect of reloading in this author’s opinion is the ability to customize and fine tune your ammo to a specific gun.  Without a doubt, reloading gives you total control over your ammunition. The skilled reloader has the unique opportunity to craft loads that will be in total harmony with the slightest eccentricities present in his or her firearm.  You will be able to extract every last foot-per-second of muzzle velocity and shrink your groups as much as is humanly possible.  You will be able to eliminate all the variables present in even the highest grade, top shelf, match grade ammo.  As powders and projectiles evolve and new and improved components become available, you’re able to instantly introduce them into your ammunition recipe and continually adjust, evolve, and refine your loads until you’ve reached ballistic nirvana.  

  1. Money

The anecdotal wisdom often refers to the cost savings involved with reloading.  There is a grain of truth in that notion, but…You will need to make an initial investment which can be substantial.  And the payback, if there is any, could take a significant amount of time depending on how much ammo you consume annually.  Also, reloading is time consuming and if you consider your time worth anything you’ll see that it can end up costing you more in the end.  However, you will definitely possess the ability to manufacture higher grade ammo than what you could otherwise purchase for the same price.  If high grade ammunition is important to you then reloading is definitely an attractive endeavor.  If you’re not hung up on quality, then you might view reloading as a way to shoot more ammo for the same price.  Notwithstanding the initial investment for equipment and tools, and of course time, reloading hobbyists might be able to make larger quantities of ammo for a lower equivalent price.   

  1. Fun

If you like to tinker, customize, or experiment then reloading will be a very satisfying pursuit.  Likewise, if you enjoy gadgets, technology, and precision instruments, then building a homemade munitions factory in your basement will definitely suit your tastes.  Reloading can be just as much fun as shooting.  The meticulous attention to detail and the almost medical-grade laboratory approach can be very relaxing for some folks.  Sitting in your reloading room after a long day at the office, brass, powder, primers, bullets all lined up, with your best Waylon Jennings playlist queued, a savory snack at hand…might be the closest to paradise as one might get.  

Instruction

Ok, so you’ve accepted the idea of adding another dimension of intellectual and financial commitment to your shooting hobby.  You’ve decided to go all in on the reloading game.  Now what?  Where can you get started learning how to do this?  One of the best ways to learn anything is by watching someone else.  If you know somebody who is an experienced reloader then ask if they wouldn’t mind showing you the basics first-hand.  There is probably no better way to learn about reloading than by sitting down with an experienced practitioner, asking questions, and observing.  If you don’t have any friends that reload then look into attending a hands on, in person reloading class.  Search the internet and find out if a certified NRA reloading class is offered in your area.  Your local gun shop or range is another great place to look for hands on training and classes.  Next, get a reloading manual.  You are going to want some base line references for load data and official reloading manuals published by powder manufacturers area must have.  Another great resource for instruction and general reloading info is of course the internet.  Gun related forums and Youtube offer a vast amount of reloading information and data.  However, the internet should only be used as a reference and not an authoritative source on reloading.  

Tools

After you’ve squared away the instructional aspects of reloading you’re going to need a bit of kit.  What equipment will you need to get started?  Aside from the obvious components like powder, brass, and bullets, here’s a list which outlines the basic tools needed to work through the reloading process.  This is by no means a comprehensive or authoritative list.  Personal preference plays a large role in the way each person approaches the process of reloading.  As you gain experience, you’ll discover that your priorities and preferences evolve. 

Bench:  All of this reloading equipment is going to need a home and many reloading tools are bench mounted.  A good reloading bench can be DIY or store bought.  Sturdiness is most important.  Some steps in the reloading process can be somewhat jarring and a lot of force/movement is transferred into the bench.  A flimsy reloading bench will be shaking all over the place and making a mess of the more delicate aspects of the process.  Storage is another thing to consider when building or buying a bench.  The reloading process requires many tools and organization of many components. 

Press:  There are several types of reloading presses, but the most popular are: single stage, turret, and progressive.  Most people start with a single stage press because it’s simpler to set up and also the most economical.  The simplicity of a single stage will not be detrimental to accuracy or quality.  

Dies:   Each caliber requires a unique reloading die.  Dies are threaded into the press and perform critical case prep tasks.  The die removes spent primers (de-capping), re-sizes the brass back into spec, seats the bullet and can also crimp the neck.  

Shell Holder:  This is a small steel device that attaches to the press and holds the case in place while it is being worked.  Cartridge specific shell holders are necessary for each caliber.

Case Cleaner:  Before you work your brass it will need to be cleaned.  The most popular case cleaning tools are Tumblers and Ultrasonic cleaners.  Tumblers use a tub full of ‘media’ or small kernels of ground up organic material like corn cob or walnut shells.  The dirty brass is immersed in the tumbling media and over a period of time the vibration polishes the brass, removing carbon deposits, oils, and other contaminants.  Ultrasonic cleaners use high frequency sound wave energy to break carbon and other contaminants loose.  Both methods are proven and work well.  Your budget will likely determine which is best for you.  

Case Trimmer:  Every time a cartridge is fired the case is deformed and elongated.  After a few firings the brass will need to be trimmed, or shortened back to spec.  There are a variety of case trimmers including bench mounted manual trimmers and electric devices.  Essentially a case trimmer is like a tiny lathe for shortening the neck of the case and bringing it into spec.

Deburring/Chamfer Tool:  Trimming cases can leave rough edges at the neck opening.  Deburring tools are necessary to clean up the neck and provide a slight chamfer to the case mouth.  Sometime even brand new brass will need to be deburred and chamfered.  

Primer Pocket Tools:  Over time the primer pockets will deform slightly and become encrusted with carbon and other contaminants.  Primer pocket tools help to clean the tiny recess and bring it back into spec. 

Flash Hole Tools:  New brass sometimes has a rough flash hole and needs to be cleaned/de-burred for consistent powder ignition.  This is usually only done once during the life of each case.  

Case Lube:  Working brass in the die requires lubrication.  There are a variety of case lubes available in different formats including aerosol spray and wax.  Remember that the tolerances involved with reloading are minute and too much case lube can deform the brass.  

Bullet Puller:  Sometimes you make a mistake while reloading.  If you want a chance to re-use the bullet, powder, and brass you will need a bullet puller to disassemble the cartridge.  There are a variety of bullet puller types and in the end they all do the same thing.  Budget will likely dictate which one you choose.  

Primer Tray:  Primers are tiny and sometimes difficult to manipulate.  A primer tray will help you get a large number of primers all facing the same direction.  Most priming tools will have an integrated primer tray for this task.

Priming Tool:  Pressing the primer into the primer pocket of each case is a delicate task and requires a specialty device.  Some reloading presses include a built-in priming tool but dedicated hand-held or bench mounted priming tools are often faster and more user friendly.  Eye protection is recommended during this process since misaligned primers are known to explode and throw small shrapnel into the users face.

Calipers:  Brass must be measured to confirm that it is within spec.  The overall length of loaded ammo must also be measured.  Calipers, whether digital or analog are also required when setting and confirming bullet seating depth in the die. 

Powder Dispenser:  There are two different ways to measure and dispense powder into the case.  Electronic powder dispensers and mechanical powder measures.  The electronic powder dispenser is usually an all-in-one device that automatically dispenses, trickles, and weighs each charge based on input entered through a digital interface.  Electronic dispensers are very convenient and accurate.  They are also typically more expensive than the analog alternative.  Traditional powder measures offer an analog/mechanical means of dispensing a pre-set or measured amount of powder onto a scale.  Once the powder charge has been thrown onto the scale a trickler is used to fine tune the load by as little as 1 kernel of powder at a time.

Powder Trickler:  A powder trickler is used in conjunction with a powder measure and scale.  The trickler can dispense small amounts of powder, 1 kernel at a time, fine tuning the charge to an exact weight. 

Powder Scale:  Unless you are using a digital powder dispenser a standalone scale will be needed to weigh powder charges.  Even if you decide to utilize a digital dispenser, a scale can be very useful for tasks besides measuring powder charges.  If you are producing precision rifle ammo you might have a desire to weigh individual components or fully loaded rounds as part of your QC process. 

Photo by: Serena Juchnowski

Ammo Box:  You are probably going to be making loaded rounds numbering in the hundreds per session.  Sometime all you need for handgun ammo is a plastic bag but for the more refined rifle variety you will most likely want a sturdy ammo box.  Easy to find, cheap, and varieties abound.

Now go do it!  Reloading ammunition is often an incredibly fruitful endeavor.  It’s hard to beat the blissful feeling of satisfaction after developing a load that is in perfect harmony with your rifle.  And few things in life put a grin on a shooter’s face like impossibly tight groups and buckets full of affordable ammo.  Hand loaded ammo offers flexibility and accommodation for unique personal requirements that cannot be found in, off the shelf products.  The return on investment can be high whether you are a competitive shooter, looking to maximize performance, or a weekend plinker looking to boost your ratio of lead per dollar.

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