Author’s Introductory Disclaimer: I am not a professional reloader. College degrees have only taken me so far into reloading for personal use and formal education cannot replace personal study, experience and common sense–probably true of just about everything these days. Reloading can be dangerous and expose you to toxic metals and chemicals, so please take precautions when dealing with them. The steps below are for informational purposes and are meant to add to the growing conversation on loading your own ammunition in good times and bad. Please use caution at all times!
This discussion will center on case preparation to turn out quality ammo for hunting or self-defense with or without electricity. I certainly prefer all-new components when hand loading for this purpose, but new brass may not always be available. As a result I have attempted to produce reloaded ammunition that meets or exceeds the standards of factory ammo. In years of trials and tinkering I have realized that starting with a good case is crucial to overall end performance. Standard cases ensure uniform bullet-seating depth with an even crimp resulting in a more consistent pressure needed for bullet expulsion. It will also produce a close tolerance in maximum length overall. These factors will improve consistency in bullet velocity and also result in reliable feeding. Notice I did not use the word “accuracy” to describe these improvements. Accuracy involves multiple factors including the shooter, the environment, the gun and the cartridge so even if all of us had the same perfectly loaded ammo your accuracy may vary.
I wrote this for the casual reloader who has a basic understanding and rudimentary tools. If you don’t have those things, they once you have them please revisit this article and hopefully everything will make sense. Having electrical power and access to new material will speed up the process and allow you to learn how to reload while your life does not necessarily depend on it so learn now!
I will use .45 ACP when referencing specifics, as that is the round I recently tested for consistency and reliability. However the techniques described below have been used successfully with both pistol and rifle calibers in semi-auto and bolt-action firearms. With over one thousand of my own rounds down range this past year and some trials of varying techniques I have found that starting with a shell casing that meets tight tolerances can overcome many issues that arise at the range such as failure to feed or failure to eject. Quality control throughout the rest of the process such as using good primers seated to the correct depth, an accurate (ideally digital) scale for measuring individual powder loads, and quality bullets will maximize reliability. While “plinking” ammo can afford to have some variance and a high-end progressive press can churn out thousands of rounds per day that is not the focus of this discussion. I would like to share specifically what I do with some basic tools, a single-stage press and a bit of time on my hands:
1) Tumble: I start with a mixed bag of spent shells and put it all in a vibrating tumbler with a coarse, untreated media (meaning no brass polish). Tumble for about 30 minutes to accomplish an initial cleaning.
Without electricity tumbling becomes quite a chore, so here is one solution that I have tried with some success: I have a media separator that came with the vibrating tumbler. It’s a plastic ball strainer with a bucket, mounting clips for the bucket and a handle to spin the strainer. I lined the entire inside with aluminum foil and crimped the ends so it stayed in place. I filled half the ball with media then dumped in some spent shells. I then sealed it up and had my 6-year-old start turning while I enjoyed a cold beverage. After 20 minutes of her getting bored and tired and another 40 minutes for me
we opened it up. The brass was starting to get clean! Sand and dirt was gone, spent powder in the bottom of the case was starting to come out and the outside of the case was getting clean enough to see small scratches and dents clearly. While not ideal and obviously labor intensive this was a good-enough solution using what we already had sitting around the garage. A more abrasive media would probably be better for this manual method. We also had another batch where we tried putting the media and shells in a one-gallon plastic bag vice using foil, but that didn’t seem to work as well. Maybe with a little more time it would be okay. I would be interested to hear of other cleaning methods sans electricity.
2) Filter: Dump media through a strainer, sort by caliber and inspect for damage like hairline cracks, large dents, etc. I typically reject about 5% of recovered rounds after this process. For hunting or defense reloads I use only Winchester, Hornady, Federal or Remington brass. This is a personal preference as these manufacturers have good reputations. Remove as much media from the case as possible. There may be small amounts of media stuck in the primer and that is okay for now. [JWR Adds: My habit when reloading is that whenever I discover a split neck or other serious case flaw, I immediately squash the case in my workbench vise. This eliminates any risk of accidentally later reloading the same rejected case.]
3) Sort and lube: I sort brass into piles by manufacturer. This helps ensure uniformity in the case based on the manufacturing process such as case thickness and initial case sizing – something that is difficult to determine for your average reloader. Spread out 50 or so rounds on an old towel and spray down with resizing lube being sure to coat the outside vertical wall of the shell. The lube works either wet or once dry so there’s no rush to resize. [JWR Adds: If you use case lube that comes from a squirt tube, rather than a spray can, you can buy and un-inked inkpad from any large office supply store. One good squirt of lube on this pad will give you the most efficient use of the lube for dozens of cases. And snapping the lid of the pad shut when your are finished eliminates the risk of contamination by sawdust or any other foreign matter.]
4) Resize and decap the brass: This is usually done with a single die. For ammo going into a semi-auto gun use a full-length sizing die. If it’s a bolt-action rifle, a collet die that only resizes the neck is just fine. I use a single stage press and it is certainly slow. That is why most reloaders dobatch processes and keep bags or plastic tubs of cases in different phases of production. I do not do more than 100 at a time when loading for hunting or defense. The repetitive nature of doing much more than 100 can lead to lost mental focus and mistakes that could have serious consequences.
5) Measure: This is a critical step in selecting cases for hunting or self-defense. If re-purposing brass from spent shells understand the case expands in the chamber from the pressure of powder ignition and the only place for that material to go is down the barrel. Your cases will get longer over time and require trimming to get them back in specifications (your reloading dies will come with documentation on precise measurements for case length and overall length). Be careful here as after multiple reloads eventually case wall thickness decreases to the point where the case will split. The mitigation for this failure limits the number of times you reload a single case, Always inspect your cases prior to starting the reloading process. Because of this I only use once-fired brass for critical (self-defense) use. After use the spent shell for a second reload goes to the practice pile. I use a digital micrometer to measure my cases (for .45 ACP my tolerance is +0/-.03mm of maximum case length following resizing; you may choose something different based on your firearm or preference.) Cases that are too long are trimmed to within tolerance. Brass that is too short goes into my plinking can and will only be used for practice. Rotate the case to measure across multiple points, since case mouths or rims may be un-even.
5a) Trim: Use the full length sizing gage that came with the die set with a carbide cutter attached to it. For convenience I use a drill to lock the case in a shell holder then insert the brass for cutting, but this can be done by hand. You can also clean the primer pocket with a special tool at this time. I typically do a quality check of a single point measurement with a micrometer to ensure the case is in spec following trimming. If there is a burr from cutting, it should be removed with a chamfer tool.
6) (Optional) Tumble: back in for about an hour in the vibrating tumbler. This time use a medium grit media with brass polish. This will remove most of the residue from resizing, however quality resizing lube has no effect on primers or powder so a second tumble is not required. Note: If you used any resizing lube then you must remove any lubricant that you used for resizing. I realize here that some progressive presses [with carbide dies] do not require the use of resizing lubricant.
Back to my manual tumbler: I found the brass polish slightly tarnished the foil I used to line the filter. I have not done research into the exact cause and it may very well be spent powder grit that is electrostatically attracted to the foil, but given there are undisclosed mild solvents in the brass polish and the long-term effect on powder and primer function is unknown I will not be using brass polish with this method in the future. A tumble without polish should be fine to soak up any excess lubricants.
6a) Optional ultrasonic sink cleaning: If you have the inclination and equipment, a quick turn in an ultrasonic sink will make your brass look like new. Make sure to use a brass cleaning solvent and not a steel one iny our sink and never substitute one for the other when cleaning brass. This will remove all oils and polish from the cleaning and resizing process. You have to rinse with distilled water and dry the brass thoroughly before moving on.
The results of this tedious process have been measureable. I tested 200 rounds of .45 ACP ammo from a SIG-Sauer Model 1911 Scorpion at 20 yards. I used 50 Federal and 50 Hornady factory loads, but chose as a benchmark the 50 rounds of Winchester “white box” factory ball ammo (230 grain) as it was the most accurate. My own 50 rounds used once-fired Winchester brass, CCI primers, Magtech 230 grain ball bullets and Accurate #5 powder. I do not own a chronograph, so I chose group size as my standard. At 20 yards I saw a 21%improvement in accuracy using handloads (meaning reduction of shot group diameter using a gun rest for a 5-shot group was 4.2” for factory ammo down to a 3.3” group for handloads). I had one failure to eject from the Federal factory ammo, but no other failures. Anecdotally, I have seen similar performance from my own 185-grain JHP, but I have not measured the differences.
While there are more variables than simply case preparation I believe that my trials demonstrate that reloads can be a viable option for critical applications in any scenario where factory ammunition or new brass is not available. Reloading will also save you a little money in the near term, and much more over the long term. Keep reloading, and stay safe!