Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Revisit to Reloading

This is my third year reloading. I was lucky in that two of my friends reloaded, and were there to answer questions and provide tips. If you don't have friends to guide, there are some good manuals out there to get you started. If you buy a starter kit through Lee, there's a manual called "Modern Reloading" by Mr. Lee himself available for just a few dollars extra. Other bullet manufacturers and reloading companies put out manuals. Hornady does a very good manual, as does Lyman and Speer. I am using the Lyman one as my reference.

I can't stress enough, that reloading isn't just something you sit down and do with a few purchased supplies and no instruction or training. Handloading should be approached with the same degree of caution as that science experiment you did in college. Although the manuals are helpful, I'd really recommend you learn from an experienced handloader or a NRA Certified Reloading Instructor.

If you don't know someone who actively reloads, or have an instructor in the area, ask at your local gun club, store or fish and game range to see if there are people who would be willing to mentor you in the process.

Just like in shooting the ammo, reloading the ammo requires the handler to assume the responsibility of safe handling with good judgment. Just as I will say that this post is simply a guide for a beginner and not to be used as a sole source of information; learn as much as you can before you start. Learn from someone with a keen eye on safety and if there is any question between you, use as a reference, a reputable reloading manual. For an excellent overview of reloading safety tips and information, before you get started, check out http://www.three-peaks.net/reload.htm . One of the best all around reference sites I've found as a beginner. The picture above was my "basic starter kit". If you are ahem "mechanically" challenged, don't let reloading intimidate you. At its most basic, it's simply putting a new primer, bullet and powder into an existing brass case. You could probably even teach a Congressman to do that (though they'd probably try to stick some pork in the case). You don't have to be an engineer, you simply need some supplies, and a personality that has some patience and attention to detail.

Most people started off reloading to save money. When your favorite pistols are .45 auto,like myself, the cost of ammo adds up. So you think 'I'll reload to save money!". Well, that is a myth, but don't tell your non-shooting spouse (shhhh). For you will shoot MUCH more for the same money, getting twice the bang for your buck, as they say, which is what makes reloading so valuable, not even factoring in the availability aspect of ammo. You can stop thinking "well that's a Quarter" every time you hear a bang (ah the good old days) and concentrate on practicing. And practicing some more.

I can't give you a precise idea of starting costs. Though I could venture to say if you shoot less than a box a month, it might not pay to reload unless you are having a hard time finding a particular ammo. If you shoot that little, I'm not sure you'd want to reload, but in any event, save your brass, as I guarantee you have friends that would love to have it.

You can easily spend $500 and up for precision and high-speed reloading for both rifle and pistol, especially if you get into the progressive presses. With an investment of this type you can produce some fine ammo at several hundred rounds an hour. If you're mechanically oriented, and have the finances to add to your store of tools, you might well enjoy that. But you don't have to. Buy the basics, save the really expensive high quality extra equipment until you've decided it's really what you want to do long term. You can buy the reasonable starter kits or obtain or purchase used and well maintained pieces, ask friends if they have any old equipment they want to get rid of, and you can get all set up for less than the cost of a fancy steak dinner out with you and the family.

If your budget is a little more than "bare bones" and you don't have a want or a current need for a progressive press, Lyman, Hornady, RCBS, and other companies make fine quality reloading equipment that uses more steel than aluminum and plastic. They each have kits (like the easy on the budget LEE kit) that will provide you all that you need to get started and will last you as long as you wish to use them. These kits can be found from $150 to around $300 and do provide some savings over buying pieces individually. I've been told that these kits will work for rifle or pistol (caliber-specific dies are required, and add a little cost $20 - $40 each, I think.) With this basic reloading equipment, the process is simple.

  • Resize and decap the case (remove spent primer) in a sizing die

  • Expand case mouth slightly so the bullet can be seated, (expander die)

  • Prime the case with a new primer

  • Charge the case with powder, in my case using a simple LEE graduated scoop

  • Seat the bullet in a seating die.

  • Since it’s a 9x19 cartridge that headspaces on the case mouth, crimp the bullet in place using a ‘taper crimp die’ rather than a roll crimp as the bullet seating die will do (if so adjusted).

    • Let's start with the equipment - A set of LEE reloading dies. LEE does not have the fancy or high priced "premium" tools, but the quality is more than enough to get the job done right. Sure, I like RCBS. RCBS reloading equipment is the Toyota Land Rover of tools. Extremely rugged and dependable, vastly over-engineered, and as good as you can get. LEE reloading tools are the Toyota Corolla of reloading tools. Relatively cheap, rugged enough for your needs, not too pretty, but you still get the job done and at a much cheaper price. For a beginning reloader the LEE starter sets are handy, as they come complete with shell holder and powder scoop sized to that cartridge.

      For reloading straight wall pistol cartridges, the set needs a resizing/decapping die, a case mouth expanding die, and a bullet seating die. The starter equipment is not ideal for long term use in that regard, but it is a great, budget-minded way to get started. You can add those other items to it later. This will allow rifle or pistol reloading at roughly 50 rounds an hour (maybe 75 with plenty of practice). The sizing die installed on a hand press. To fully resize the case, the die body must be screwed in until it touches the face of the shell holder installed on the press ram. The mandrel rod in the die must have it's decapping pin clear the base of the cartridge to fully eject the spent primer from the primer pocket. I can make a perfect blue cheese souffle. How hard can this be? Here we have a shell casing mounted in the shell holder and ready to be pressed into the properly adjusted sizing die. Watch your fingers! Another view. A shell casing ready to be inserted into the case mouth expanding die. This die should be adjusted in small increments till it 'bells' the mouth of the case just enough to allow starting a bullet by hand. This will let the bullet be pressed into the case without crushing the walls of the case, and without shaving lead from the bullet (when loading lead bullets). Over-expanding the case mouth leads to cracked cases and short case life. A sized and decapped case ready to have a primer installed. The biggest problem I had in finding supplies was in finding primers. Here is the LEE 'Autoprime' hand priming tool already set up to install primers in this size case. This is an area of reloading where you have to be as careful with safety precautions as you are on the range.. Wear safety glasses, follow directions, pay attention, etc. The primer is the only thing in the whole process that is actually explosive. One is not a big deal, but the tool can comfortably hold 50. Pressing the primers in by hand allows the reloader to 'feel' it being seated, and a case with a stretched pocket can be caught and discarded. Voila'. A case with the new primer correctly seated. (and no, I am not going to tell you how many many times it took to get it right. :-) If you can, buy your powders and primers locally to avoid Hazardous Material shipping charges which can quickly add up on a mail order. Gun shows often are a good source of powder and primers. The powder companies produce written guides (free!) that will tell you how much powder to use with particular bullets in each caliber. If you can study the powder manuals ahead of time, you can minimize the different powders you need for different purposes and keep your costs in check. In the picture of my supplies, the powder is what was recommended in the kit. A case with a LEE powder scoop. There are several ways to measure the proper powder charge. The best way is a mechanical powder measure checked by a good quality scale. That said, the oldest method in the world is a simple measuring scoop no different than a chef might use. Make sure you use the powders listed in the directions, if you're not a professional, this is not a process to say "hey let's try this!" Practice using a steady and repeatable scooping method.

      I like to pour the powder into a small dish and drag the scoop through it. Is a scoop high tech? No. . . but it serves well as part of a beginner's cheap and portable kit. Later, when the reloader either obtains or cleans off their "dedicated bench", then a mechanical measure can be acquired and bolted to the bench. Till then, remember, most spouses would be cranky about having holes drilled in the dining room table to mount the measure. Speaking of workbenches. You will need a place to work. It will need enough weight to stay put while you're applying pressure to the handloading press and should be stable. The height should be right about your belt line. Can't find your belt line? Stand about a foot and a half from the wall with your arm at your side. Bend your arm at the elbow, keeping your elbow tucked into your side, and pivoting the arm 90 degrees to point at the wall. The spot where your fingertips touch the wall should be an ideal benchtop height for you. My start up benches were different heights as they were originally old doors made into tables which were beefed up with spare lumber and repainted. Total cost. $4.00. Give yourself enough space to lay out your tools and components. Add some shelves and storage area (secure from young children or grandchildren if you have them in your house) and make sure you have good lighting. An overhead lamp can really augment your garage or basement lighting. Ventilation is nice. I've got a big screened door into the backyard from here for a nice cross breeze. Remember though, if you are CASTING bullets, not reloading, ventilation is a basic necessity, not a nice option.I've got an old sink with hot and cold water next to the bench which makes cleaning of casings and general hand clean up easier. Here we have a case, bullet, and a bullet seating die. In a pistol round this die has two functions. It will press the bullet into the case, and it will apply a 'roll' crimp to hold the bullet snugly in the case. The person that taught me the basics stressed that crimps can only be (and should be) used on lead bullets or jacketed bullets with a cannelure. Jacketed bullets without a cannelure should have a taper crimp applied. Autoloaders generally work best with taper crimped cartridges, but soft lead bullets do not work well with taper crimps usually. The primed shell casing with powder charged, ready to have the bullet seated. Follow the die set up directions to properly set the seating die. If you want some more detailed instruction beyond reading about it, the LEE website has Video instructions on setting up the dies.You'll find them in the "single stage press' section. A loaded cartridge, displayed with a taper crimp die. This die squeezes the side walls of the case into the bullet, holding it in place without rolling the end of the case over. This is important in an autoloader, as most will headspace the cartridge on the mouth of the case rather than the rim. Now for clean up. You don't want to be reloading with cases that have grit or fouling on them. That can wear out your nice dies VERY quickly (including scratching them internally). Many folks have a small vibrating tumbler to clean the cases, equipment similar to what we rock hounders have, the cases vibrating with ground up walnut shells or corn cobs. One of my favorites group of folks, Midway (http://www.midwayusa.com/) has tumbler kits at a good price. But you don't have to have one to clean up. You can simply put the cases in hot water, and then rinse, and rinse again. To dry them out, put the cases on a clean pan in a warm oven for an hour or two to dry them out. Be careful that you use the lowest possible heat setting, less than 175 degrees. Any more than that is a really BAD idea. If you have a teenager in the house let them know, as they've been known to eat about anything found coming out of an oven. In the end you'll find more advantages to reloading than simply saving money on the cost of each bullet (you know, so you can shoot twice as much). You'll be able to tailor your ammo to a particular firearm and you can have ammo for obsolete guns. With practice and experimentation within the prescribed limits of the manufacturers, you can improve your accuracy by developing loads that work best in a specific gun. You can reload ammo that by either market conditions or manufacturing rate isn't readily available. You can also match your ammunition to the type of game you are hunting or the type of sport shooting you are doing.

      It's GREEN. (everyone's favorite buzz word). By picking up all those brass casings on the ground and re-using them you are stopping global warming (OK, NOT, but Al Gore would try and use that line). But it IS fun if you are technical/mechanical minded. But mostly, it's a way to work with your hands, using new tools to enhance another sport you already enjoy, there quietly in your own garage, shop or basement. I can't think of a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon while gaining something truly useful with only a little time, effort and patience.


      1. This would be the start of something completely new for me. Reloading to me is 'putting new bullets in the gun' :-D

        I'm not sure when I will be starting to reload, but this guide that you wrote is excellent. I'll be returning to this to really understand what I'll be getting myself into. The concept is simple, but you've assisted by exposing the nuances of reloading.

        Great article. Thank you for sharing your experience. I see far for I stand on your shoulders.

      2. Sometimes I think I shoot so I can reload. :)

      3. If you don't have a real tumbler for shell polishing, you could do what I do for nice clean shiny shells...

        After a bath in soapy water in a 5 gallon bucket (the shells, not me. Heh), rinse the shells with clean water.

        Load an old pillow case with a couple pounds of crushed walnut polishing medium from the local CutRate Chinese Tool Emporium (*cough*Harborfreight*cough*)and 200 or so shells. Tie the pillow case shut (I use cable ties). Put that pillow case inside ANOTHER pillow case, and tie that one shut.
        Put your double bagged shells in the clothes drier. Set it on medium heat and tumble your bagged shells for 45 minutes or so..
        (Double bag them so you don't wind up with a drier full of crushed walnut medium if the bag springs a leak.

        If you really want to be spiffy, add some liquid shell polish, or even a little Turtle Wax.

        Strain the shells out with a colander of just sift them out with your fingers.



      4. I am sure my cousin would not appreciate your post today! I save all my empty casings and give them to him once a year at our annual reunion. This year I gave him 6 ziploc bags full!!! This was after giving two other bags to another person I know that reloads. Seriously, though, I have thought about learning to reload ('cause I love to shoot .45s), but I really don't have a suitable place in my house to do it.

      5. Brigid,
        This is a great article and introduction for someone new to reloading.

        On reloading dies for rifle, I have lately been recommending people go with something other than Lee. I broke the decapping pin on my Lee 30-06 resizing die. I ordered several replacements, and the part of the pin that resizes the case mouth was to small. I also found this on a set new 308 dies from Lee. So, I have switched to RCBS for my rifle dies.

      6. Although the manuals are helpful, I'd really recommend you learn from an experienced handloader or a NRA Certified Reloading Instructor.

        I don't disagree with you often, but I do on this. Reloading is so easy a child could do it. A caveman could, but they were too stupid to invent smokeless powder.

        If you can follow a recipe, you can reload. If you can make precise measurements, you can reload. If you can see the little numbers on the balance beam scale, you can reload.

        Also, for rifle ammo, I decap, resize, trim and THEN tumble. Then prime, powder and seat a new bullet. This order gets the resizing lube off the cases.

        I also recommend latex gloves to keep fingerprints off your shiney brass casings.

        What is the useful life of tumbling media? I have noticed that recently, there is a greenish coating (primarily jewler's rouge) left on the casings with the consistency of dried mud. I have to clean it off with a scotch pad.

      7. I am so grateful that my father started instructing me in the art of reloading at the tender age of 10 years old.

        Yer article here is an extremely well written primer about reloading.

        Keep up the wonderful work that you do, here, and may God richly bless and keep you.


      8. I've been reloading for about 30 years and this is a pretty good article. The Three Peaks website is excellent.

        I use a highlighter in my reloading manual. I learned to do this after a misadventure with a particularly heavy bullet in a .357; No injuries to me but a Dan Wesson went to the scrap pile.

        In addition to Midway USA, I would also recommend Graf & Son (www.grafs.com). They have a local shop which I visit regularly. Others have used Midsouth Shooter's Supplies and Natchez Shooter's Supplies. There are no lack of vendors.

      9. People bash LEE, but their customer service is top-notch when you break something or mess up a die (and we all do it or will).
        RCBS gets persnickety about repairs or replacement and will often subject you to the third degree, hoping that you'll admit that it was your fault so that they can charge you.

        For media for the tumbler, any pet store that deals in lizards will have the crushed walnut that people line lizard tanks with. Same as tumbling media, and much, much cheaper.

      10. I used to know a guy with 2 Title II Class 3 toys.
        He'd spend every week night reloading, so he could empty the cases in rapid succession on the weekend.
        Then, start all over again.
        But, he married, now his wife wants him to do other stuff besides full-auto shooting...

      11. Good article,i learnt to reload in 1971/72 and have been reloading ever since i would hate to try and work out how many rounds i have loaded over that time,at one time when i worked in a Gun Dealers we had a Dillon 1050 press on which we loaded 38spl and 9mm between 6000 to 8000 a day 4 or 5 days a week,still reload most of the stuff i load now is ammo that is difficult ie damn expensive to buy to buy here in the UK for example 38/40 44/40 38/55 6.5x54ms 7x57 45/70 and quite a few more,i still enjoy it although i now have to be in the right mood.

      12. A few thoughts...

        Lee products can get anything done the fancier ones can. The decapping pins should dislodge if you erroneously attempt to deprime a berdan case. Other makes would simply break. Most broken pins happen with crimped milsurp brass.

        A single stage press can be very efficient, and has some advantages in certain cases. I personally do each stage in batches (prime 50, expand 50, etc.). I prefer the quality control this gives me.

        I've never (yet) had to trim handgun cases. Even 357mag brass will crack before it "stretches" in my experience.

        Cast lead bullets and a voluminous (fluffy) powder (IMR trailboss comes to mind), mitigate some of the risk during charging. A fluffy powder takes more case volume, so it's harder, or at least more obvious if you double charge. If you were to over charge, less chance of a lead projectile getting stuck in a barrel than a jacketed bullet.

      13. Skill development is both individual and subjective. While the good Professor may not have needed a coach to get started reloading, not everyone fits that profile; I'm not sure one could even say the majority do.

        When dealing with a potentially catastrophic activity like reloading ammunition, those who are unclear or unsure should feel free to seek out competent instruction.

        Many things are, in fact, so easy that a child can do them - after they've been properly trained.

      14. I learned to reload all by myself with a book, but by God I agree that it's best to learn from someone who Knows.

        (That said, considering the low cost of a press, a simple single-stage might be better than a hand-press, if someone's pretty sure they'll reload more than just a little.)

      15. Great overview Brigid. As along-time reloader and NRA certified reloading instructor, I really appreciate the safety tips and recommendations.

        I can't stress enough about the importance of wearing eye-protection while reloading. I've had two folks in my area over the years who've had primers discharge accidently/negligently with face/eye injuries being the final result.

        You're right, you don't have to spend a lot for quality reloads and the Lee equipment is terrific - and that is from an owner of Lee, Mec, Dillon, and RCBS equipment!

        The final word I tell folks is the only reloads you shoot should be those that YOU reload.

        Dann in Ohio

      16. First time caller: Came for the food, stayed for the wit and wisdom.

        Does this mean you can perform indefinite reloads with same casings?

      17. Excellent primer (no pun intended)!!!

      18. Oh, I hope I approach it with a LOT more care than I did college science experiments...

      19. I figured I wasn't the only one to use the little Lee hand press. Such a useful tool. :-)

      20. Good starter article.

        @Wilko, you can't reload the same cases indefinitely. Eventually the brass will become brittle from the thermal cycling from firing. The cases can be annealed to resoften the brass but that's a whole article by itself.

      21. Very informative, I've been reloading for thirty plus years, and have over the years used a multitude of products, but I would say by far the most serviceable equipment that I own is Lee tools. often times we insist that 'reloading isn't that complicated" or "it's not that hard to get started" , most certainly you did a great job of illustrating that fact.

      22. Since I have always been cursed with performing some error NOT covered in a handbook if I hadn't have had a guru to show or tell me little tricks I would have went through a lot of money on replacement equipment.

        Like how to remove a stuck case from the resizing die. Finding out about the lee scoops like you mentioned. How to set a swagging die. etc. Maybe there is a manual out there to cover these issues (and more) but I never found one. Of course since I had a seasoned expert on call I never needed one either :)

        Good post

      23. Enjoyed your reloading post. I reload with a lee hand press, I like the hand press because I do my reloading at the kitchen table in heated or cooled space right next to the coffee pot.

      24. wilko - welcome.

        As to the rest of you, two 13 hour days back to back, I'm not sure what my own name is, but thank you for all the comments. .

      25. Great article, Brigid - I have only been reloading a few years - took it up late in life - as well as some savings (??) it allows me to be creative - I totally understood Tango Juliet's comment!

      26. What a great post, and thank you for putting it into easy to understand terms for beginners. I had to laugh when you wrote about the costs. I recently entered the world of backyard chickens, and when I read the post I thought, "Sure, chickens. $2.50 a chick at TSC, nail a few boards together for a coop, and all the free eggs I can eat or sell!" Yea, right! Same with reloading! "All the free ammo I can shoot!"

        Thanks for putting reloading into perspective!

      27. After several years spent reloading, I've come to think that a vibratory tumbler is a must-have, even for a beginner. They're fairly cheap, easy to use, and produce a nicer-looking end product. Most importantly, when cases are clean, it's a heckuva lot easier to see defects (case head separation, neck splits, tiny cracks, etc.). For a product that costs less than $50, that's cheap insurance.

      28. Great primer, Brigid. As usual, you've done your homework.

        Recently crunched some numbers and figure that 60% of my pistol reloading costs is in cast bullets, so I think I'll start casting soon. My time is free.

        And for the more frugal reloaders out there (but I repeat myself) check your local pet supply for corn cob and crushed walnut. Seems that when it's re-labelled from "case polishing media" to "pet litter", the price drops substantially.

        WV: bultes - appropriate

      29. @ Sherry: If you want to get into reloading, but don't have the space, invest in a Lee Hand Press Kit, Like the one in Brigid's pictures. No bench mounting required. That's what I did, since I live in a single wide triler without alot of extra space. It goes slower than with a progressive press (way slower) but you learn the basics, and get the feel of it. When you get more space, get a bigger set up.

      30. Quote: same degree of caution as that science experiment you did in college. :Endquote

        I hope not! I used NO caution in college. I was hoping to become the next Spiderman or Hulk.


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