Introductory Disclaimer: I am not employed by, or specifically endorse any products mentioned. I only offer what I have found works for me. Your mileage may vary. Also, this article is not intended to be an instruction course in handloading. Seek the help and guidance of a seasoned handloader when starting out, and make a conscious effort to continue to learn, indefinitely!
I apologize if portions of what follow may seem a little lengthy with tidbits of information that don’t seem relevant- I’m attempting to offer insight and convince those on the fence they are fully capable of undertaking the endeavors of handloading metallic cartridges, which can be intimidating to many.
I’ve been handloading metallic cartridges for 25 years, starting soon after I graduated from college. I had multiple reasons for doing so, the main reason being cost. I had learned from vendors at gun shows near my college campus I could purchase handloaded ammo that looked and shot better than factory ammo, for less money, as long as I could deal with their zip lock bag packaging. Some of these vendors were Combat Disabled Vietnam vets who really knew the ins and outs of the 5.56/.223 caliber, asking me what rifle I shot (a Ruger Mini-14 Stainless Ranch Rifle at the time) and recommending a certain load and projectile for the rate of twist in my barrel- selected from the various lots they had on their table.
Another significant reason was consistency of accuracy. Every year when I bought a couple boxes of factory ammo for practice shooting, sighting the rifle and having 10 cartridges left to carry for hunting, it always seemed the rifle was “just off” 1 to 1-½ inches, requiring minor scope adjustments before firing tuned shots for practice. To me, those couple of 3 shot groups to get it there was wasted ammo, and I wanted to avoid that waste and yearly inconsistency.
A bit about my background; I had the luxury of being raised in the “country” which meant often mandatory labor on my Grandfather’s 400 Acre farm. I’m a curious anomaly, being a Gen X’r who had parents of the Greatest Generation, not baby boomers. My grandparents and my parents both lived and worked through the Great Depression. Needless to say, it had quite an effect on my upbringing, learning that waste and unnecessary expenditures were completely unacceptable.
I was also educated in many things by a father who was a WWII combat veteran — Tank Destroyers, European Theater. He always believed you tried to fix something yourself if it broke, before you bought a replacement) and by an older sibling who was an auto mechanic, capable of complete engine rebuilds or bodywork & painting. So I was used to, and had a lot of “hands on” that many people (and youth) lack today. I myself am an engineer and Construction Project Manager with extensive building and civil experience.
But from the time that I was ix years old and started shooting a Crossman 760 air rifle belonging to one of my older brother’s, my passion has been shooting. And from the time I was 12, all things firearms, hunting and especially firearm design and function, with particular emphasis on rifle calibers and their attributes.
That being said, I’m not going to waste reading space with the details of what I learned from trial and error or my own shortcomings. I’m just going to write what I have found to be the most effective, streamlined, efficient handloading process for me.
How I Got Started
When I had the opportunity to start it was on a single stage press with the bare minimum of necessary equipment, however the quality of the equipment I was able to cobble together was a little bit better than average quality equipment today.
It consisted of the following:
- A Lyman single stage cast iron press
- A Lee Precision Single stage press loading kit, with a Lee Safety Scale and hand Auto Prime kit and a Lee perfect powder charger, bench mounted
- An Ohaus 10-0-5 Balance/ Scale
- An RCBS powder trickler
- A plastic Dial Caliper Accurate to 0.001”, made by Lyman
- A Lee single hand case trimmer, .30/06 length, with an inside/ outside case mouth
- chamfer tool
- A Lyman turbo case tumbler & green corncob media
- A set of Redding dies (3 die set) with both neck sizing and full length case size dies
- A Hornady Reloading manual, Third edition, hardcover.
One of the advantages of handloading is you can start with basic equipment and add individual additional tools over time, as I have done over the years. Even with a single stage press you can produce enough ammo for hunting and tuning your rifles or handguns.
The Right Tools
At the time I started my pride & joy equipment was the Ohaus Balance Scale and my Redding Dies (actually I still take a lot of pride in them). They were high quality craftsmanship tools and they still are! I loaded hundreds of rounds for .30-06 on my single stage press for hunting and target shooting. From day one of my endeavors, my objective for handloading was high quality ammunition with tighter groups than factory ammo, and MOA accuracy (or less) from my rifle, a Remington 700.
When I started, there were no Internet. web browsers. My primary source of learning was reading, and re-reading the step by step processes from the Hornady handloading manual. When I wasn’t sure, I consulted a co-worker who had been handloading for 30 years.
A quick side note here: If you are ever unsure about a method or process, consult, learn, ask, and ask more until you are absolutely sure you are proceeding right. Far better to stop and learn than to produce bad ammo that has to be disassembled or may even be dangerous. My mentor offered excellent advice and everything he offered was safety first, precision measurement and accuracy driven. He always stressed quality over quantity and I still follow that logic today. As I am constantly refining my process to load more ammo in less time, I refuse to sacrifice quality of my ammo. To me, if it doesn’t work, or if I can’t precisely place a shot where I want it, its wasted effort. Just my personal standard.
You’ll Need Lots of Brass
All handloading starts with the empty brass. I consider brass to be ALMOST as valuable as gold. If reloaded properly and cared for, there are many calibers that can be reloaded a minimum of 10 times (.30-06, .270, .308, .45 ACP). There are other calibers where the empty casing doesn’t have the strength and shape attributes of others, and the brass is “worked” and stressed more in the reloading and firing process, so they don’t last as long (.30 WCF aka .30-30 Winchester, .223 Remington/5.56 Caliber). But in my opinion, even if you get 3 or 4 uses out of a spent casing, you are well ahead of the game.
To obtain significant quantities of brass you need to be somewhat of a curious scavenger. When I was very young, we saved all brass even if it was throwaway brass and calibers we didn’t shoot we gathered from friends and other family members. We saved it simply because it had scrap value, and also “it could be reloaded”, even though we didn’t handload at the time we intended to someday. Those initial buckets of brass became the foundation for my start in loading for the .30-06, and calibers I didn’t shoot I bartered with other handloaders for brass I could use.
With the recent drop in ammo prices, I’ve noticed there is finally a little more spent brass on the ground at public ranges, which I sometimes gather. I also have some family and associates who shoot a fair amount with no intention of handloading, so they also save brass for me.
I’ve obtained significant amounts of brass from a cousin and a co-worker for .223, .30-06, .270, .308, and .22-250. The .223, .308 and .30-06 I load for myself. The .270 is for a cousin and the .22-250 goes to a friend. They are part of my “network” of supply & exchange. When someone gives me brass, especially large amounts, I reciprocate with some loaded ammunition, asking for the empty brass back. It ensures they keep saving brass for me, a win-win for both parties.
I’ve also purchased spent brass from my local handloading shop for varying costs, of $0.05 to $0.20 per case, depending on the caliber and if it was fired only once. But I try not to buy too many cases, as that defeats the purpose. Those purchases were mainly made in the “frightening years” of 2008 to 2016, and for the purposes of building a larger base of .45 caliber handgun ammo in .45 ACP and .45 Colt (a.k.a. “Long” Colt).
For My Wheelgun
A side note here: the reason I selected .45 Colt for my “wheelgun” caliber of choice is due to handloading; the primers, tips and many of the powders utilized for my .45 ACP are the same for the .45 Colt. Just a different set of loading dies. Also, a modern wheelgun in .45 Colt with a hotter load at 1200 feet per second with a 240 grain tip (bullet) has over 700 ft-lbs of energy, significantly packing more punch than the standard 158 grain tip from a .357 magnum at the same speed, approximately 505 ft-lbs of energy.
So in this case bigger (both in weight and bullet diameter) is better. I’m not taking anything away from the .357 Magnum. It is a great shooter and very fine caliber. Also, .38 Special/ .357 Magnum are two of the most loaded handgun calibers, for good reason: they offer a great combination of versatility to the shooter and handloader. I’m just partial to the .45 ACP and the components just happen to go coincide with the .45 Colt. You can do the same with other calibers of your choice, custom tailored to your shooting requirements.
(To be continued, in Part 2.)