With the current shortage of ammunition and the consequent high prices, it makes more sense now than ever before to learn how to reload your own fired brass casings. I even suspect that in the future, this may well be the only way for the ordinary citizen to obtain ammunition. It’s not at all difficult, it only requires a little understanding of the process, and the ability to follow directions. This will become very important later, as each caliber requires its own set of powders, charges, primers, and bullets. No one can learn them all, there are millions of potential combinations. But the data has already been compiled for you in hundreds of tables in loading manuals(more on these later…) and on the Internet.
As a reloader of my own ammunition since 1977, I have come to think that it is not nearly so mysterious as people make it seem. There are many miscommunications, even down to so basic a concept as the “bullet”. Despite what you hear on television and see in the movies, the bullet is the [projectile] part that flies downrange, the actual projectile itself. The complete loaded round consisting of the case, the primer, the powder, and the projectile (or bullet) is actually known as a “cartridge”, or simply a round. This terminology might seem unimportant at first glance, but it is as necessary for the reloader as the words “engine”, and “transmission”, are for a mechanic. The brass case, usually made of brass, is the part ejected out of the gun after the round is fired from a semi auto action, or manually extracted from other firearms. The “primer” is the little silver-colored (or gold-colored if Remington brand) round thing pressed into the center of the rear portion of the brass case, known as the case’s “head”. The firing pin strikes the primer in order to fire the round. This is for centerfire cartridges. Rimfires, such as the .22 Long Rifle, are not reloadable and so will not be discussed here.
The open end of the case is called the “mouth”. The gunpowder is measured (or weighed) and poured into the mouth of the case, and then the bullet is seated into the case, on top of the powder. There are a few basic tools required such as a rubber or wooden mallet, a small funnel or piece of paper, and perhaps a punch and a pair of pliers.
There are also a few specialized tools needed, but they are quite cheap at the starter level. A good gunpowder scale that will measure in grains will usually be needed. A lab scale that measures in milligrams will work, but the result will have to be converted to grains, and a math mistake here could have serious consequences later. The powder charge needs to be quite precise. Real powder scales that measures in grains directly can often be found at swap meets and flea markets for $20. They are about $40 to $100 brand new. The one other indispensable tool is the die, specific to each caliber you wish to reload. They are around $2. I recommend buying dies new, at least until you become experienced enough to recognize a damaged or worn out die just by looking inside it.
This die is a round piece of hardened steel, with a hole in the center machined the exact size that the cartridge should be, according to the specs published by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, or SAAMI (pronounced “sammy” in true acronym fashion). Pushing the case into this die will swage(squash in diameter) the case back down to the proper size, after firing has expanded it. The case is fed into the die, mouth end first, and then tapped into the die with a mallet, or pressed in, if one owns a reloading press. This process is known as “resizing” the case. This die will usually also contain a pin, known as a “decapper” which will push the spent primer out of its recess (known as the “primer pocket”) in the case head.
CAUTION: before this is done, the dirty case should be cleaned in some way, as gritty cases will cause excess wear in your die, and a big enough piece of debris might even scratch your die, rendering it useless. Well, maybe not quite useless, but it will scratch your brass cases from then on, and sometimes cause them to stick in the die, meaning more time lost as you clear the die with a punch or some similar tool. There is no buffing the scratch out, as that would make the inside of the die oversize, and then it will not do the job of resizing. Even a thousandth of an inch matters here. A rag and some solvent will clean the grit off the cases nicely. There are also special tumbling or vibrating washtubs, similar to rock polishers, that clean many cases at a time, making the job quicker and easier. After the case is cleaned, it should be lubricated so that it won’t stick in the die. The reloading component manufacturers make special lubes for this, and they only cost a few dollars for enough to do many thousands of rounds, but any type lubricant will do.
Now, with a sized and decapped case, the next step is to replace the spent primer, as this will ignite the new powder charge. Primers are bought in trays of 100, or cases of 1000, in most any sporting goods store. They come in four basic types: small pistol, large pistol, small rifle, and large rifle. All four types also have a “magnum” primer as a subtype. The small and large refer to the actual size of the primer. Some cases have a small primer pocket, and some a large. Usually, smaller cartridges will use small primers, and so on as one would expect, but not always, so be sure to look up the primer size of the cartridge you are loading before you buy. Or just tell the clerk what caliber you intend to load and if he doesn’t know offhand he will certainly have the ability to look it up.
The rifle and pistol refers to the steel cup the priming compound is housed in. Rifles operate at much higher pressures than pistols, so require a more robust primer cup in order to withstand these high pressures without rupturing. But pistols do not hit the primer hard enough to set off the thick, tough rifle primers. They require thinner and softer primer cups, which is fine at the pistols lower pressure levels. This is another of the detail areas. Make sure never to mistake a pistol primer for a rifle primer. A rifle primer in a pistol will only lead to dud rounds, but a pistol primer in a rifle case might well lead to a pierced primer when fired, which would then allow muzzle blast to come out the rear of the chamber. Not a good situation. Many loading mistakes can generate excessive chamber pressures, but modern firearms have a large built-in safety margin, and also mechanisms to divert the hot gases away from the shooter, even if the primer or case head should rupture.
The magnum moniker just means that the primer contains more priming compound, thus giving a bigger flame, to set off the large charges of the very slow burning powders needed by the large capacity magnum rifle rounds. In my experience pistols don’t need magnum primers, not even in the large magnums like the .44 Magnum or .454 Casull. It doesn’t hurt to use magnum primers in a non magnum case, but they do cost more, which seems a waste, unless it is needed for proper ignition.
When handling primers individually, it is important to use small pliers, tweezers, forceps, or something similar to keep from touching them with your skin. Even chopsticks or toothpicks will work, if you are good enough with them. The slightest amount of any oil, including your skin oils, will deactivate the pressure sensitive material within, leading to dud rounds that won’t fire. The primer is placed on the primer pocket, and simply pressed in. If one does not have a reloading press, I found the best way was to place the new primer, open side up, on a semi firm surface, such as a thick piece of solid(not corrugated) cardboard, or a hardcover book. Then place the case, mouth up, on top of it. Then simply tap the mouth of the case down unto the primer until it is flush with the case head. Care must be taken not to strike so hard that the primer will be set off. If you do, it will sound like a large cap from a cap pistol, but unless you happen to be looking down into case at the time, it is unlikely to cause injury. But it will waste the primer and then you must start over again. Besides, loud noises are scary when you are reloading. Dump the whole tray of primers out on a sheet of light weight cardboard, after folding up the edges to make a shallow box (there are plastic “primer flipping trays” for this, $5 or less) so they won’t all roll around. Then turn each one open end up–either by swirling a primer flipping tray, or manually with a small tool. Then I use a needlenose pliers to transfer them one at a time to the surface of the book and seat that one, and then so on until I’m finished priming.
Now, it is time for the scale. A measured charge, of a specific amount, of a specific powder, must now be added to the case, on top of the primer you just pressed in, under the bullet which you will seat in the next step. This article will only deal with smokeless powder, or guncotton. Black powder is that “other gunpowder” (more misconceptions) that is used in flintlocks and such, that throw out the huge cloud of white(the powder is black, the smoke is white) smoke when fired. Make sure never to confuse black and smokeless powders. There are many different grades of smokeless powder, by many different manufacturers. The primary difference between them is the rate at which they burn. A fast burn rate is for small cases and short barrels, such as pistol rounds. The larger the caliber’s powder capacity, the slower the powder will need to burn, and also the firearm will need a longer barrel to take advantage of the extra powder to generate the higher velocities. This trade off is why pistol calibers are commonly short and fat, whereas rifle rounds are generally much longer and with much heavier bullets, even though the bore diameter might be the same. For example, the .35 Remington rifle cartridge will take up to a 220 grain bullet, whereas the .357 magnum pistol round, with the exact same .357 inch bore, has a 158 grain bullet as the heaviest available.
One can look up charge weights for different calibers and bullets on the Internet (search for: “loading data .45 ACP”, to get loads for the 45Aauto, for example), but the most convenient way is to have a book known as a “reloading manual”. These run about $25 (new) and each bullet manufacturer produces their own manual for the bullets that they make. They are all full of great general information and loading tips, but the bulk of the manuals are dedicated to tables showing which powders are for which caliber, and exactly how much of which powder for the particular bullet you wish to load. As a rule, the heavier the bullet in a given caliber, the less powder one must use. Heavier bullets will have more momentum because of their extra mass, but they will also push back harder on the expanding gases driving them up the bore. This will generate higher pressures, so the powder charge must be reduced, giving less velocity than a lighter bullet. Thus we note that the bullet and powder charge are co-dependent upon each other, and must be selected together. The easiest way to do this is to select the bullet that you want to use, and then go “shopping” in the manuals(or on the web) for powders that will work for that bullet in your caliber. Then pick the one that generates the most velocity with the powders that you have available. Once a powder, charge weight, and bullet has been decided upon, it is simply a matter of weighing it out and using a small funnel, or a small cone made of paper, to pour it into the case mouth without spilling any(remember, the powder charge should be precise).
Now, all that is left is to seat a new bullet on top of the powder, and you will have a round ready to fire! To do this you place the new bullet, flat side down, into the case mouth that you just filled with powder, and then simply tap it home with the mallet. You need to make sure that the newly loaded round is not too long, but the very scientific process of TLAR (that looks about right) works pretty well. When it looks about right, check the overall length against the SAAMI specs (on the web or from the loading manual), to make sure it is not too long. A ruler works fine for this, as the previous precision is not needed here. Too short is seldom a problem, as around the point of minimum length the cartridge usually begins to look strange. Even if the bullet is seated too deeply, usually the only adverse effect, other than a reduction in accuracy, is potential feeding malfunctions. If a round is too long, it will either fail to go in the magazine, fail to chamber, or worse it could seat the bullet into the rifling, thus creating excess chamber pressures which could even damage your firearm. In any case the overall length specification has a fair bit of leeway in most cartridges. It is fairly easy to get the length between the minimum and the maximum specs, often just by eye. Many bullets will have a “cannelure”, or crimping groove, around their circumference. These bullets should be seated until this ring is lined up with the case mouth.
Once all these steps are complete, the round is ready to fire. However, if it is to be fired in a semi-auto action, it should undergo one final step, the bullet should be taper crimped into the case. This requires yet another die, but this step is optional. The worst that will happen to uncrimped bullets is that the rounds in the bottom of the magazine might become seated deeper into the case by recoil, and get below the minimum overall case length. In manual actions crimping is not usually necessary.
Of course, this has been vastly simplified, as there is a great deal more than these simple basics. An experienced reloader can make his own bullets, and even make his own black powder, but smokeless powder is too dangerous to manufacture outside of laboratory conditions. They can even make cases, and thus load ammunition, for calibers that no longer exist. There are professional reloaders who do just that for a living. Mostly due to the sport of cowboy action shooting, which often uses calibers that have not been manufactured for decades. Also, it is sometimes far cheaper to use another cheap case, as the basis for a more expensive caliber, such as making 300 Blackout brass from the 5.56mm military surplus case.
This, of course, is only the beginning as one can purchase many accessories to make the job easier and quicker including presses, priming tools that hold a whole tray at a time and never require you to touch the primers at all, digital and automatic scales, and “powder measures” that, once set for a particular weight of a particular powder, will continue to measure out that amount at the pull of a handle. So much quicker than weighing each charge! One can even purchase multiple station presses that will do each of these operations, to many separate cases, all at once. These, once set up, will drop a loaded round for you, each time you work the press handle. One can even buy automated presses with no lever, that only need to be monitored and fed reloading components. These will do all processes by themselves, feeding cases, decapping, repriming, adding powder, bullet and crimp, and dropping loaded rounds, one at a time, with no input from the operator, and continue for as long as they have components. These are very expensive though, and still require a highly experienced operator, as all complex machinery does.
One big shortcut that I can heartily recommend is a product called the Lee reloading kit. Lee is a brand and no, I am not, nor have I ever been, affiliated with them. It is just the way I started loading way back in the 1970s, and it always worked well for me. They are for only one caliber, but they are cheap, they last virtually forever (unless you feed enough dirt into the die to scratch its walls, but that is true for any die, from any manufacturer), and they are easy and simple to use. They include the size die for whatever caliber it is, the decapping pin, small plastic powder measure(like tiny measuring cups with long handles) to cover a range of powder charge weights, and instructions with tables telling you what measure to use for which powders and charges, and tables with some loading data to get started with. With this kit you won’t even need the powder scale that I listed as an essential. All you really need is in that kit, but you will find many more items that you will want, quickly enough. For example, with only the plastic powder measures you will be extremely limited in the types and weights of powder you must use, but it works fine. In fact, it is the most foolproof way to load, as there is no scale that could be misread, no measuring chamber to set or calibrate, etc. All one needs to do is look up in the tables provided which measure you want for the powder charge desired, select that measure, dip it in powder to fill the measure, and then use a flat object, such as the back side of a knife, to level the measure off, as one would do while measuring flour. Then drop it into the case, seat a bullet, and a loaded cartridge is completed.
From here, the sky is the limit as your experience increases. Soon you will find yourself wanting a scale so you can use any powder and charge, not just the few listed in Lee’s tables. With a scale you can still use the Lee measures, you will just need to fill one with the unlisted powder you want to use, and then drop it on your scale and weigh it to know what size charge that size of measure throws with that particular powder. A single station press will probably be wanted next, as the tapping with the mallet method is slow. Don’t get me wrong, this method is not difficult, just time consuming. A couple of hours will only produce 20-40 cartridges. Not really practical for shooting 500 rounds from a semi-auto, for example. At the other end of the spectrum are the multi stage progressive presses that can load up to a thousand rounds an hour. There is even a press that is built for working in your lap using both hands, so you can have a portable reloading setup!
All the loading data, ballistic charts, burning rates of various powders, bullet types, and more can all be found in the loading manuals. There is such a wealth of firearms related information in them that I would recommend every shooter have one, even if he never has any intention of reloading. All of the equipment, supplies, and components are sold in most any sporting goods store. You might need to ask the man behind the gun counter, though, because the reloading stuff is often kept in the back, or at least behind the counter. A good gun shop will also be glad to answer any other questions that might arise. They are generally happy to help a beginning reloader, as reloaders usually shoot much more than non-reloaders, meaning more sales. While it is true that reloading your ammo is much cheaper than buying factory, I have found that whatever money is saved, is generally spent on more components. Thus the reloader really gets to shoot lots more for same money, rather than actually saving any. Of course, if you only want the savings they are there, as reloaded ammo generally runs 25-50% of the price of factory ammo with the same bullet. This is 50 to 75% off! Quite a sale! That didn’t work for me. I found that whatever I saved, and usually more besides, got spent on ammo anyway. I just ended up shooting a lot more!
Well, that’s it, that’s all the basics. The rest is up to you. Either way, cash savings or more shooting, it’s really your choice. The main point is; there is no real need for all the expensive equipment that most will want to sell you. That equipment is nice to have, but not necessary. Also, the more complex the equipment, the more knowledge is required to use it. Thus I recommend starting with the simple and cheap equipment, and then progressing to more elaborate gear as budget and your level of reloading knowledge dictate.
Reloading is not dangerous when done properly, but it is unforgiving in certain areas. For example, if you misread a scale, or get interrupted while dropping the powder in the case, forget when you return, and then put another charge in the same case, that could easily damage a firearm. Accidentally reading a table incorrectly and using the load for a .30-06 110 grain bullet, when you are actually loading a 220 grain bullet can easily do the same, as the stiffer powder charge for the light bullet will probably be too much with the heavier bullet. Reloading is not difficult, but certain aspects of it, particularly reading the information from the tables, is not forgiving. The writers of the manuals know this and arrange the data to avoid errors. Still, one needs to be methodical and double and triple check the crucial steps of reading the data, and measuring and dispensing the proper type of powder and matching it to the bullet. Nothing will blow up a gun quicker than accidentally using Bullseye or Unique (both fast burning pistol powders) with loading data for something like IMR3031(a slow rifle powder).
Except perhaps for mixing different powders together. Some old timers(older even than me) say that they made good loads that way, but I suspect that was with black powder which only has one real burning rate. Never confuse black and smokeless powders as they are two very different animals. Every time I have seen mixed smokeless powder used it blew the gun up. They were always quite worthless firearms and triggered remotely so no one was hurt, but the way some of them blew, I was certainly glad I was not holding it at the time! But if one can follow the proper data, and do so carefully, then there is nothing to fear. I am not a detail type of person, but I haven’t had any loading “accidents”. It is just a matter of knowing that at certain stages, reloading is a detail task, and there is a very large difference between 32 grains of IMR4831 powder and 32 grains of IMR2400 powder!
Good luck, and happy reloading!