Reloading your own ammunition can be a money saver especially if you shoot a lot. It also allows you to make custom ammunition. You can tailor a cartridge to suit your specific needs. In this article we will detail what you need to get started, where to find reloading specifications, what equipment to buy, and how the process works.
Caution Before starting your own reloading, Read first
Reloading pistol or rifle cartridges can be dangerous. If a cartridge is over filled or a powder charge is too high, it can result in cataphoric damage to the firearm and the user. This article serves as an overview to the entire process. It is designed to inform the reader what is involved in reloading ammunition. It is highly recommended that if you wish to start reloading your own ammunition that you take a course before starting. The NRA offers an 8 hour course that will teach you how to safely reload your own ammo. For course information “NRA Basic Metallic Cartridge Reloading Course”
Benefits of reloading your own Ammo
There are many benefits of reloading your own ammo. However, the biggest one is usually the cost. By being able to reuse the brass shell casing the cost of producing a single round can be considerably reduced. For example, the cost of a new .45 ACP 230 grain round nose range cartridge will cost between $0.43 to $0.90 depending on the quantity that you purchase. To compare, the cost of reloading that bullet is approximately $0.23. Now this is dependent on the type of bullet you choose, the powder used, and the type of primer. All of those factors can influence the cost.
Where some of the biggest differences can be realized are in the match grade rifle ammo. An average cost of a .308 Winchester Federal Gold Match round is around $1.20 to $1.37 each. This can make a day at the range add up pretty quickly. In comparison to reload the exact same bullet it will cost around $0.50 to $0.62 depending on the components used.
Not all bullets have the same cost. There are some types of ammunition where the new supply is so great that it does not make sense to reload it. 5.56 NATO is a good example of that. Because this is a military round and it is made is such a high volume it is cheaper to buy it new than it is to reload it. So, you want to make sure that you do your homework first. Check how much it costs to buy new ammo in bulk and compare it to the individual component cost.
Understanding how Ammunition is made
A single round, (or Cartridge) is made up several components
- The bullet head of projectile. This is what is propelled down range
- Gun powder, when ignited burns to create an expanding gas that pushes the bullet
- Primer, this is what ignites the gun powder after being hit by the firing pin
- Casing, this is the brass piece that holds all components to make up a cartridge
When it comes down to choosing a bullet, depending on your specific use or need there can be a lot of choices. Both pistol and rifle bullets come in different shapes and weights. When starting off reloading I find it best to replicate a current type of bullet that you are already shooting. This will make it easier to get a feel for the reloading process without having to work up a custom load.
If you look at a box of your current range ammo it will usually have the bullet weight, (in grains), the bullet type, (RNFMJ = Round nose Full Metal Jacket), and the speed the bullet is travelling at. You can then use this information to formulate your first load. Later when you get more comfortable with the process you can experiment with different bullet weights and speeds to find what works best for you.
Not all gun powders are created equal. There are different powders for different types of loads. Gun powders used in rifle cartridges are different than those used in pistol loads. The differences are numerous, from different powder shapes to the burn rate of the powder. The best way to find a gun powder for the first time is to use one of the manufacturers links below.
These two suppliers are the two biggest ones that will cover most of the commonly available powders. When you get to their site input your caliber, and the bullet weight you wish to use. Their calculator will show a choice of powders that will suit that cartridge. As well as load data to be able to reload the cartridge to the correct specification.
Usually there will be multiple powders to choose from. It is a good idea to jot the names down and then read about each powder. Some powders are specially designed for certain cartridges. These powders can be a better choice over another similar powder. I also look at availability, cost, and the charge weight required to make the load.
So, you find what you think is the perfect powder, but you cannot seem to buy it anywhere, then you will need to choose another one. If you have narrowed it down to two powders that have similar performance and costs, but one takes more powder to achieve the same performance. Then may be look at the one that produces the performance you want but uses less.
Remember to never mix gun powders. This can result in dangerous pressures that can result in catastrophic damage to you and the firearm.
The primer is the spark that lights the fire. Just like gun powder there are different primers for different cartridges. The best way to choose a primer is to match it to the type of gun powder that you are using. Once you have chosen a powder and have printed off the load data sheet check what they recommend to use for the primer.
Do not use primers that are rated for different types of firearms. Using a primer for a rifle in a pistol can result in damage to you or the firearm. The differences between the two primers can be small making it hard to spot the difference. This means that you need to be extra careful when purchasing components that you are sure that you have the right items. When reloading do not mix components on the bench. It is easy to accidently pick up the wrong thing and create a dangerous situation.
Ammo casing or cartridge case
The brass case is what holds all of the pieces together. At first you will be using your own supply from the new ammo you have already purchased. It is a good idea to keep like cases together. Cartridge cases for the same caliber can vary in thickness and quality. When picking up cases at the range make sure to keep them separated from the rest of your cases. You will need to inspect the cases once you get home for any irregularities or differences.
Non Brass cases
Not all cartridges are made from brass. Sometimes cheaper ammunition is made using steel or aluminum cases. These types of cases are generally not considered to be reloadable. The aluminum cases more so than the steel cases. As a general rule I would not recommend attempting to reload these types of cases.
When reloading rifle rounds military cases and civilian cases can vary. Typically, military cases will be thicker to handle the higher pressures in the chamber. Mixing these cases can result in changes in accuracy between loads. They can also result in pressure changes within the gun that can cause damage. When loading for precision it is important to keep all the possible variables to a minimum. I will generally load just one case brand for precision rifle loads.
There are several stages to the reloading process each stage will require specific tools.
- Cleaning stage, brass that has been fired will need to be cleaned before reloading
- Resizing and trimming, when a cartridge has been fired the brass will expand to fit the chamber. To be able to reuse it must be formed back to its original size. It will also stretch and will need to be trimmed to length
- Loading, this involves installing a new primer, applying the correct powder charge, and seating the bullet.
- Checking equipment, gauges to check the cartridge case both before and after loading. Powder scales to check/measure gun powder amount. Lastly a good set of calipers to be able to measure overall lengths
- Bullet dis-assembly, sometimes you will need to unload a cartridge because of a load error or quality issue
Now some of the equipment used will cross over in some of the above operations.
The first stage of the reloading process is to clean the fired casings. To do this there are two types of cleaning methods. These are the dry method and the wet method.
The dry method consists of using a crushed walnut shell or a corn cob media in a vibratory machine. The fired casings are placed in the machine along with the media. When the machine is turned on the shells will vibrate though the media. As the media rubs up against the shells it will clean off the powder residue. The pros and cons of this method are:
- Once the cleaning has been completed the shells can be immediately reloaded
- It takes a long time for the process to work
- The end finish is just Ok but not great
- Often you will have to add other polishes with the media to achieve a better finish
- Media will need to replaced often as it becomes dirty and less effective
The wet method consists of using a stainless steel media with soap and water. The dirty shells are placed into a drum along with the media and soapy water. The drum is then rotated causing the media to circulate against and through the brass.
The pros and cons of this method are:
- This method is much faster
- The end product is much better than using other methods
- Media never needs to be replaced
- The soap used is dish soap which is cheap and easy to get
- The shells must be left to dry before reloading. This can mean having to wait overnight for shells to dry. Or shells need to be heated to remove water before loading. Loading wet or damp shells will result in miss-fires or hang fires.
The reloading press is the heart of the reloading operation. The press is how you will remove the spent primer, resize the case, load the powder charge and seat the new bullet head. There are several different types of presses to choose from. In the end they all achieve the same thing, some just get there faster.
Single stage reloading presses
As the name suggests a single stage press does one operation on one shell at a time. It will mean that you will need to place each shell into the press for each stage of the reloading process. It will also require the die to be changed to suit each operation of the process. The advantages of this type of press it that they are inexpensive to purchase. They are also thought to be more accurate than the progressive presses. This is because the operator is focused on one cartridge and one process at a time.
Semi-automatic progressive reloading presses
A progressive press is one that will perform several operations each time the lever is pulled. To do this multiple shells are in the press at one time. These means that while one shell is being re-sized another is being charged with powder and another having the bullet seated. A semi-automatic progressive press means that the operator will still need to insert the shell casing by hand. Then also turn the shell plate to advance each shell on to the next station. The advantages of this type of machine is that the reloading process is sped up considerably, while still maintain accuracy in the load. The down side is it is more expensive than a single stage. It is also not as fast as a full progressive press.
Progressive reloading press
Just as above this type of press will perform several operations at once. The biggest difference is that the operator needs to do less. This helps them concentrate on the load. As the handle is pulled a case is fed into the loader. The shell plate will automatically rotate to the next station. The only thing the operator needs to do is place the projectile on the case. The advantage of this type of loader is that it is a lot faster to load a lot of shells per hour. The downside of this loader is the price, it is the most expensive of all three presses.
A quick point on progressive presses. There are several different brands of progressive presses on the market. Not all are good presses. Generally, the cheaper ones can be more problematic than the better quality machines. Always buy the best machine you can afford for your budget.
The reloading dies are what are screwed into the reloading machine. These dies are caliber specific. To load a different caliber, you will need to purchase a different die set. Generally, the die sets have a universal thread. This allows them to be installed in all different types of machines. There are also varying quality of dies sets available. Die sets made out of plain steel are cheaper but will not last as long. Dies sets made from carbide steel will last much longer but are more expensive.
Depending on the press that you plan on using the method to measure the gun powder may vary. If using a single stage press, then you could use a powder thrower or trickler.
A powder thrower
Is a calibrated measure that dispenses powder by moving the arm up allowing the measured amount of powder to flow out the bottom.
A Powder trickler
A trickler can be manually powered or automatic. It is a method of slowly dispensing gun powder onto a scale until the desired charge weight is achieved. This method can be slow but very accurate.
Progressive Press Powder thrower
When loading on a progressive press most of them will have a built in powder thrower. These powder throwers are adjusted to deliver the desired charge weight. The only real difference is that the powder thrower is operated by the machines linkages as it is cycled through. Adjustment types can vary from turning a screw to change the charge weight to changing a bushing.
No matter what method of powder measurement you use you will also need a good quality powder scale. Whenever setting up a powder thrower you will always want to verify the amount of powder being delivered. When using a progressive press, it is also a good practice to routinely pull a shell out of the process and check the powder charge.
Other reloading items required
Though the above items covers all of the major components needed to following items will also be required to complete the process.
A good quality bench that the reloading press can be bolted to. Ideally it should be in an uncluttered space with room to work.
A good set of Vernier calipers are a must for setting reloading die heights and measuring case and bullet lengths
A case gauge is used to check the case size before reloading. They can also be used to check loaded ammunition for size discrepancies.
Used to trim the case length.
Used to separate the cleaning media from the cleaned cases.
A kinetic hammer is used to disable a loaded cartridge. To disassemble a round, install it into the hammer and then hit the hammer against a hard surface. The kinetic energy of the hammer striking the surface will force the bullet head to work its way out of the case. It may take several strikes for this to happen. Sometimes cartridges you will need to disassemble a loaded round because a primer did not seat properly, or the bullet did not seat.
Setting up your reloading work space
When setting up an area to reload in it should be away from any ignition sources. The area should be clean and dry especially where storing supplies. Moisture can get into powder and primers reducing their effectiveness. This can result in misfires or hang fires. When reloading you need to be able to concentrate on what you are doing. Reloading in a busy part of the household where you can be interrupted can be dangerous. Make sure to keep the area clean, if any supplies are spilled make sure to clean them up immediately. Once you have finished loading remove any excess powder from machines or powder throwers. Powder should always be stored in its original container.
Reloading you own ammunition is a rewarding experience. It allows you to not only save money but also to customize your ammunition to your specific needs. You can make lower power practice rounds to concentrate on your accuracy versus recoil. You can custom match projectiles to make those longer shots more attainable.
In this article I have touched on all of the major components of reloading. There is still so much more to it. I highly recommend taking a course to help you get started. Many of the reloading suppliers offer free information on their sites. (See attached links), I suggest you read as much as possible. If you have questions, ask them in the comments box below. You can also click the link to see what we use here at hold right edge.
Be safe and shoot often.