Here’s a little about where I am coming from. My Dad first started me reloading ammo, casting and swagging bullets over 50 years ago. In that time I have reloaded and fired ammo from the .380ACP to the .50 cal BMG and, to a lesser degree, shot shells in skeet gauges. I operated an “at home” business, where I have cast millions of pistol caliber bullets, which paid for my shooting “addiction”, and sponsored a IPSC Grand Master and a CAS state champ. In addition I carried the big, brand names in bullets, powder, primers, brass, and reloading tools to 20+ gun shows a year for nearly a decade. In that time I have enjoyed working with thousands of customers from neophytes to national competitors across many varied disciplines that make up shooting sports. I learned from all of them, and I am still learning. It is satisfying to “roll your own” and then enjoy the fruits of your labor with a successful hunt, a day at the range punching paper, or competing for gold.
First, let’s talk safety. You are using components that go “Bang”. You do not want a “BANG” or a “phit”. So remove the distractions– no radio, TV, kids, alcohol, or smoking. Wear eye protection. You always do when shooting, right? Some say to wear hearing protection also, but I do not. Yes, a primer exploding in an enclosed space is loud; think .22 lr. I know! When loading on a “progressive” I like to hear the functioning as you cycle the handle and avoid a malfunction before it happens. It is possible to detonate upwards of 100 primers on a “progressive” press. It has happened. I have neither seen this nor personally known anyone who has, but I believe that if you are paying attention and hear a problem, this is very unlikely. I have seen primers seated side ways, upside down, and crushed into the previously spent primer; there’s no bang. Primers are forgiving, up to a point. However, if primers are the spark plugs, then powder is the fuel, and it currently comes in 150+ varieties. Just as certain fuels fit different applications, powders do also. Loading a variety of ammo types will require more than one powder. You absolutely do not mix them or mix them up. Only have one powder open at a time. When finished, return the unused portion to its properly labeled container and continue to the next task. Using an unsuitable powder may only result in a stuck bullet in the barrel or someone “wearing” half of a rifle receiver as a new “face piercing”! Modern smokeless powder does not explode per se, but it burns very rapidly, especially when contained as in a casing. In the open it burns very vigorously with lots of flame and escaping gas. A clean loading bench, with flammables (think bore solvents and oils, and unused powder, primers and ammo) stored in their proper containers away from the bench, is required housekeeping. A fire extinguisher is a smart idea. Do not mix food and reloading. Handling bullets, which contain lead, is obviously something to avoid around food, but there are also contaminants on spent primers and the fired brass casing, which you do not want to ingest. Wash up after working with components. Okay, here’s last item. I promise. Use only published loading data from reliable sources, then cross reference it with a second (or third) source, and start with the beginning load recommendations and “work up”. Every firearm is different, as are each manufacture’s bullet, case, primer, and powder. Keep good records as to what you load.
I am only talking here about brass cases with “Boxer” primers. You can reload steel, imported ammo with “Berdan” primers, but the effort is not worth it. Shotgun loading is different enough to be treated as a separate subject.
To start simple and build on that, I am going to divide ammo into two different types– “straight walled”, such as a .45ACP, and “bottle necked”, such as a .308. I wish to further divide those into two sub-types that I roughly label as “low pressure” and “high pressure”. Now you may be wondering why I just don’t make the division between hand gun ammo and rifle ammo and be done with it. There are carbines (rifles) in 9mm, .357mag, and so forth, and there are hand guns in 30-30 and .233, to mention only a few. So the process or steps in reloading a spent case is more dependent on its “shape” than the firearm it is used in.
I will talk about reloading “straight walled” hand gun ammo and add the differences about “bottleneck” (rifles), as I go through the steps. In this group the most common examples are 9mm, .40 S&W, 45 ACP and .38 Special/.357 Mag. I will divide thlow pressure– .45 ACP, .38 Special, (.380 ACP, .44 Special, and 45 Colt would also go here) and high pressure– .30 Carbine, 9mm, .357 Sig (bottleneck), .40 S&W, 10mm, and all the magnums.
The first step is to sort the brass by caliber, inspect for any cracks or splits (and ask yourself why), and clean same. Inspect again. For this, you will need a vibratory tumbler, media, media separator, and a polish designed for brass. A table, good lighting, and cookie sheets for inspection are a plus; bins and buckets are useful for storage.
You are going to need a “set” of reloading dies. These are caliber specific, with some exceptions. The most notable are .38 Special/.357 Mag, .44 Special/.44 Mag, and .40 S&W/ 10mm; you can use the same die set, only adjusted for length. Straight-walled dies come in steel and “carbide”. You want carbide; they do not require you to pre-lube the brass and remove later. You can find carbide rifle (bottleneck) dies. You still have to lube them, but they are longer-living and expensive. Clean brass is the key to die longevity. You do not want to force grit into dies, scratching them and every case thereafter. You will also see “small base” dies in .223/.308/.30-06; these “squeeze” the case slightly more than standard, so as to chamber more easily in an auto loader.
With the properly adjusted dies on a single stage or progressive press, the brass is squeezed down in diameter to allow it to be easily chambered and grip a new bullet. At the same time the spent primer is punched out.
Here “bottleneck” cases have to be checked for length. You will need a dial caliper to measure this value and a way to trim to obtain the proper length. There is a maximum and “trim to” length listed for each cartridge. Trimming may not be necessary after each firing, but you need to check. Keeping various lots of brass separated, as to how many times it has been fired, cuts down on the work load. Depending on the caliber, once you start getting more than an occasional failure, you may then junk the whole lot rather than risk a jammed or damaged firearm. Occasionally, you will find a batch of Mil brass that was fired in a MG, and you cannot get a second loading. So, beware of brass you may pick up that is not yours. Keep it separate. Now, I will risk a little more with my practice ammo but save my best for serious social work.
A new primer is pushed into place using the above mentioned press(es) or a hand tool. The primer must be below flush. If you have a”high” primer, you could have a slam fire from the bolt striking same before the round is chambered (ouch!) or a misfire due to the lack of energy of a handgun’s lighter striker/firing pin/hammer parts not able to finish seating and initiating the primer. You have choices here on brand, standard or magnum, et cetera. Stick to the load data.
You reduced the diameter of the case above. Now you need to “bell” the case mouth to accept a new bullet, as little as you can, just enough so as not to damage the base of the bullet, especially a soft lead bullet. A bevel base versus a flat base helps. (About brass: Brass work hardens– the more you stretch and squeeze a case, especially the mouth, the more brittle it becomes until it cracks or splits.) You do not do this step on bottleneck rifle cases, except for lead bullets, say for reduced loads and/or “low pressure” rounds like a .30-30. This hardening can be reversed with annealing, but that is Reloading 201. (Some progressive presses combine “belling” and powder drop at the same time.) Now you add the powder. One manufacturer supplies “scoops” of known volumes that hold specified weights of a specific powder; this is simple, cheap, but restrictive. Using a powder scale– a balance beam with adjustable weights or electronic version– you can weigh each individual charge; this is slow. Alternatively, you can use the scale to adjust a powder measure to throw the correct weight, which is fast. This could be a stand-alone unit or mounted on the press. When loading with a single-stage press and loading blocks, visually check each case powder level. On a progressive, watch the powder measure operate. You don’t want any empty or double charges, please! ( “phit” and “BANG”) With the variety of different powders available (or presently not available) this is the most versatile. From a prepper POV with as few as four powders you could load almost all handguns plus 30 carbine, 300BLK, .223/5.56, .308/7.62, .30-06 and 12 ga., and with two addition powders there is little you could not load, if you have the dies. (A note here about powder suitability. Simply, what works say in a “low pressure” caliber may work in a”high pressure” cartridge but at reduced performance and the reverse not at all. Changes in case volumes and bullet weights are a couple of variables. Whole books are written on interior ballistics. Enough said. Now you may seat a new bullet. The seating depth is important. COL (cartridge overall length) is usually specified in the load data. It is dependent on bullet shape, flat nose or round, weight, crimp or not (more in a minute), and magazine or cylinder length. For example, my Remington 700 PSS “likes” a specific bullet and COL =<1/2 MOA,. My AR “scatters” 55gr FMJs all over the paper.
Most die sets seat and crimp as one step. I use a separate crimp die for better quality ammo. Rimless auto loaders– 9mm, .40’s, and 45’s– headspace on the case mouth, so a slight taper crimp is used. How much? If you placed the bullet against the edge of your bench and pushed with your thumb it should not move. A 45 cartridge feed from a magazine has a dynamic ride to the chamber. If the bullet were to be pushed into the case significantly reducing the volume a dangerous amount of pressure could result. Revolvers headspace on the rim. A roll crimp is used, if the bullet has a crimp groove. Magnum revolvers must have a strong crimp to prevent bullet jump and moving forward due to inertia, thus preventing the cylinder from rotating (bad in a gunfight). You will crimp .223/.308, if the bullet has a groove, as in Military type bullets; otherwise case neck tension holds the bullet.
Now you have a completed round, or 50 (or 100 or 1000). Inspect each round. Run your finger tip over each primer, looking for a high primer or other fault. Does the length look right? How is the crimp? Is there any excess lube shaved from a lead bullet? At this point is when you remove the case lube from the sizing step above. Observe the bullet on “bottleneck” rounds laid flat on the bench (clean) and rolled back and forth; it should not “wobble”. A further check is to “drop” a round into a “check die”. Is the roung a “go” or “no go”?
Now box or bag. Label the box or bag with date, load information, reference to your notes and so forth. Keep the box size to 50 or 100, even if you loaded 1000. By keeping your stop, check, and packaging to 50 or 100 rounds, you will not end up with a 50 cal can with 800+ rounds, not knowing when the automatic powder measure went dry. (Don’t ask.) Set any suspect lot aside. You can pull them apart and check further.
I have just scratched the surface here, as you can surmise. As with any prep or skill building, you start will small steps. Pick up your brass, clean it, choose one caliber to start (straight walled is best), get a set of dies, a scale, a press, load data, powder measure, powder, primers, bullets, calipers, blocks, boxes, bags, miscellaneous tools, and supplies. Before you know it, you will have accumulated all you need for your first 1000 rounds– all for less than the cost of a new handgun.
What are you waiting for?