Some Thoughts on Cartridge Handloading, by Kent C.

In reading Don’s response to my first article, I’m going to write about a subject I was saving for next month, but I think is germane now. And I’ll probably forget it by then. Let’s talk about reloading, which also gets short shrift in a lot of books.

Note–I’m not going to go into a great deal of technique here. There are books on that. If you like, I can provide my e-mail address and would be willing to answer questions that way. I’m also not going to tell you what brand of press or dies I use. If you want to know, or want my opinions, let JWR know, and I’ll get you a private message.

First off, let me dispel the notion that reloading will save you money. I can almost guarantee you it will not. You will wind up spending more initially (on equipment and your first batch of components), then probably the same amount on components as you previously spent on ammo. Here’s an example:

A box of generic factory-loaded 230 grain FMJ ball .45 ACP generally costs $25 at a big box store. If you use plated bullets (more on that later), you’ll probably spend about $140 per thousand, or $.14 each. A pound of generic pistol powder is about $23. There are 7,000 grains of powder per pound. If you use five grains per round, you get 1,400 rounds out of a pound of powder for a per-round cost of $.0164, which we’ll round up to $.02. A sleeve of 1,000 primers is about $32, or $.03 each. If you’re cheap like I am and salvage brass from the range, you wind up spending about $.18 per round, or $9 per box of 50. Without averaging out the cost of equipment, you can make just over 100 rounds for what you’d pay a factory to load 50. So, why not just double your shooting for the same cash? Note this doesn’t take into account what your time is worth. That’s up to you, so I can’t put a price on it. That’s a really roundabout way of saying you’ll be doing the ballistic equivalent of dollar-cost averaging.

There are items I didn’t discuss, like buying jacketed bullets (more expensive), moly-coated lead (about the same as plated or just a bit cheaper), or casting your own (time-intensive, but potentially cheaper in the long run–like after you pay for the casting equipment). I also didn’t discuss buying brass, which can be really cheap ($.05 per round or even less) or really expensive (brand name brass can cost as much as $.25 per round).

Now we need to discuss setting up to reload. There’s need-to-have equipment and nice-to-have equipment. Then there’s equipment that depends on your intended volume of reloading.

At the most basic level, you need a press, dies, a powder measure, scale, and a priming system. (Yes, I realize there are volume systems which allegedly obviate the need for a scale. I don’t trust them. Tread at your own peril.).

Dies have four basic functions. They make the case round again and eject the spent primer. They “bell,” or expand, the case mouth to allow you to put a bullet into it. They seat the bullet to the required depth (more on that later). And they crimp the case into the bullet. There are many quality dies out there at a variety of prices. I personally recommend against Forster or Redding, unless you’re loading match-grade (read: sniper-grade) ammo. I have a mix of Lee, Hornady, and Dillon. RCBS also makes quality dies. Any of these four companies are quality makers. Note: Lee dies come with a shell holder for a single-stage press, the others do not. All of them come in handy storage cases.

One of the things you’ll have to have is a set of calipers, to measure the overall length of the finished round. Bullets seated too long won’t chamber. Bullets seated too short might cause excessive pressures in your chamber. You don’t need to buy a set from a reloading supplier (Harbor Freight Tools, Lowe’s, and Home Depot also carry them), but make sure you have a set.

The press is what the dies and shell holder screw into and provide the leverage to do the functions mentioned above. There are four basic types of presses. Hand presses are portable and are intended for low volume loading in the field, like for hunting ammo or doing load development.

Single-stage presses are what most people use to start. You perform a single function on the press with one die, then switch dies to change functions. Most people do all of their sizing and decapping first, then move to expanding the case mouth, etc. I have one of these for my low-volume operations, like magnum pistol and all of my rifle loading. Many single stage presses are sold in kits with all of the must-have pieces of equipment.

Turret presses allow you to mount all of your dies on the press at the same time, and switch dies by turning the turret. You could perform all four functions on a single case until you’ve produced a round of ammunition. I’ve never had one, so I can’t say whether it’s worth it.

Progressive presses are the opposite of the turret press, in that you mount all of the dies simultaneously, then the case moves from station to station to complete each step. This is for high-volume reloading and requires a somewhat large dedicated area to do it. Most progressive presses have on-board priming systems and powder measures, which takes care of a bunch of other steps and minimizes equipment requirements. Many people switch to a progressive press to increase their loading rates. I started out on a progressive press, because I was getting into USPSA shooting when I started reloading. Some progressive presses are sold in kits with the most-needed extras.

A powder measure puts the requisite charge of gunpowder into the case. Progressive presses have powder measures on the press itself. For single-stage reloaders, you’ll have to mount it separately on your bench. Lee Precision dies come with a dipper to measure powder (I’ve never used one, because these types of “one size fits no one” solutions don’t appeal to me–your mileage may vary).

ALL powder measures work on volume. That’s how you can use multiple powders in the same measure. This brings us to the need for a scale. You can use digital or a fulcrum scale, but you need something to measure to a tenth of a grain. I use a digital scale, but you might want a spare in a Faraday cage or a spare fulcrum scale if you’re sweating an EMP.

The final basic piece of equipment is the priming system. If you’re using a single-stage press, there is a variety of priming systems to use on a press, or you can buy a separate hand primer. I tend to use a hand primer, but that lets me sit on the couch and prime brass while watching a movie or TV (Note: for all of my single-stage reloading, I’m a “coffee can” reloader, more on that in a bit.). Progressive presses have priming on board the press and prime on either the up or down stroke (relative to the movement of the ram or shell plate assembly. I prefer priming on the down stroke, because it gives me more feel for the primer seating. Your mileage may vary.

One thing I didn’t mention is a reloading manual. Some are printed by powder manufacturers, others by bullet companies. Lee Precision includes a set of recipes in their die sets (Note: the recipes are pretty conservative, so you won’t get maximum performance, but you’ll be safe). I prefer the powder manuals, because you get an idea of how the powder performs against a wider variety of bullet types than those made by the bullet companies (who publish against the types of bullets they manufacture, rather than a generic bullet). Some have a variety of manuals and cross-reference them. I tend to use one brand of powder, so I don’t have to do that. (Note: Hodgdon Powder is a Christian-owned company, and that’s the main reason I use them. That’s my only stated preference in this article.)

A couple of other notes. If you buy carbide dies, you won’t have to lubricate most handgun brass. If you are reloading long handgun brass (like .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum), handgun brass with a bottlenecked case (like .357 SIG or 5.7×28), or are reloading rifle ammunition, you’ll have to lubricate the brass, regardless of the type of dies you buy. Some lubricants will compromise your powder and primers, so I generally relegate those to my single-stage operations. Aerosol lubricants are easier to use than those in a bottle, which you normally lubricate by rolling across a pad.

I also referenced “coffee can” reloading earlier. When I use a single-stage press, I do each operation separately and move the brass between coffee cans during each operation. So, I clean my brass, then put it into a container. Then I size and de-prime, moving from one container to another. If I had to lubricate the brass, I clean it again and put it into a container. Then I prime it, taking from one container, priming the brass, then putting it into another. Then I charge with powder, seat and crimp a bullet, then put it into a container for transport the range.

Now for the nice-to-have equipment. I like to have a bullet puller to correct my mistakes and salvage bullets and brass. I also have a tumbler to clean my brass and save wear and tear on my dies, but you can get the same result by putting your brass in a mesh bag (like the kind ladies buy to wash their delicates) and running them in the dishwasher. Some people have bullet and case feeders for their progressive presses, but I find them too expensive to buy at this time (maybe if I ever win a lottery). The last thing you probably want to have is a case block. At its simplest, this is a block of wood with a series of holes drilled into it to keep them together and keep you from knocking them over and spilling your powder all over the place. You’ll only have to do this once to understand.

There are other considerations, but this pretty much covers the basics. If you can, have a friend walk you thru the process and give you suggestions, or check out a book at the library.

To address Don’s basic question, I still buy some loaded ammo, even though I reload. Rimfire isn’t reloadable, so I buy that, obviously. I don’t reload shotgun shells (although I’m considering starting to, so I can generate my own supply). I buy some rifle and pistol ammo to ensure I always have a ready supply, in case I don’t have time to reload ammo before I need it. So, the simple answer is, if you’re reloading, keep a supply on hand to supplement your reloading. Figure out what you have on hand for components, then buy about half that much in loaded ammo. Use only reloads for proficiency shooting.

For my purposes, I have components for about 500 rounds of ammo to reload at all times. Some, like 9mm or 5.56, I have at least a thousand (I have 3/4 of a five-gallon bucket of 9mm brass, for example). I also have a growing supply of factory-loaded ammo.

I also try to limit my purchases of odd-caliber weapons. 9mm, .40 S&W, .357 Magnum, and .45 ACP are the most common calibers of handgun ammunition in America. .223, .308, .30-06, and 7.62×39 are the most common rifle calibers. Your survival weapons should be in those calibers for defense against humans or taking game larger than rabbits (use .22 Long Rifle for that). If you have hunting weapons not in those calibers, I’d recommend keeping at least 200 rounds for each weapon you intend to employ.

Aside–I recently purchased a self-defense rifle in .300 AAC Blackout, mostly for close to midrange work and the wide variety of bullet weights it can employ. I have 200 rounds for it and plan to get that up to at least 1000.

One thing to remember is that .308 Winchester and .223 Remington are not the same as 5.56 and 7.62×51 NATO, respectively.

A final set of notes-much of the supply of foreign-manufactured ammo is Berdan primed, and is not reloadable (because of how the primer pocket is formed). If you want your factory-loaded supply to be reloadable, look for Boxer primed ammo. Also, steel-cased or aluminum-cased ammunition should never be reloaded. Steel-cased ammo will gall your dies. Aluminum-cased ammo will be compromised after the first firing. Neither will work for you, regardless of primer type.

Good luck, and I wish you happy reloading!