This guest post by JP in MT and entry in our non-fiction writing contest.
My reloading started almost 40 years ago. I had no one to show me what to do (or more importantly what not to do) so it has been an interesting process.
This is not meant to be an exhausting discussion on reloading, just what has happened to me. Hopefully, my experiences will help someone else.
Most people reload for one of 2 reasons. First is to reduce that cost of shooting. If you are going to shoot 200+ rounds per month of a particular caliber of ammunition, reloading may save you some money. If you are well off financially and the choice is reload or shoot….shoot. This was why I got started.
The other is for precision loads that are not available for your particular firearm. With the current choices out there, these are pretty much limited to older firearms that have limited volume or target shooters looking for the “perfect load”.
Reloading basically involves taking used brass, removing the used primer, then reinstalling new components (primer, powder, and a bullet). I also put my cases through a cleaning process after removing the old primer and reloading the brass. I prime (install the primer) my cases with a hand operated tool, prior to putting the case in the reloading press but this is a personal preference due to past experiences (more on this later).
I started off reloading for my M1 Carbine. In 1974 (military surplus was not available to me) the ammo was $15/50, as I recall; so shooting a box of ammo cost me 3+ hours of working wages.
I bought a reloading manual, a Speer, because they made the bullet I was going to use. I bought a powder scale (that I still have today), bullets, a 1 pound package of powder, a package of 100 small rifle primers, and a Lee Loader.
Ah, the Lee Loader. What a wondrous piece of equipment. No special table needed, no mounting to something sturdy; just follow the instructions and whack it with a hammer. Now being a poor working stiff, and still living at home, I didn’t have a proper mallet, so I used a 16 oz ball peen hammer. Needless to say, on my 3rd round I tried to reload my thumb into the case and quit for some 3 years. (I recently found this kit in an old box. I thought about bronzing it. Instead I sold it at a gun show to a collector that started the same way I did.)
Next I bought a “single-stage” press in an RCBS Rock Chucker Jr. set. This is a great starting set as it includes most of what you need to safely reload rifle and pistol cartridges, abet slowly. It includes everything you need except the dies for your caliber and the components. I still have this press too, and it works well. I currently use it to deprime used cases prior to cleaning them.
Using a single-stage press (meaning it does one reloading operation at a time) works well and by my understanding is what most people that are reloading for hunting use, as volume is not a major consideration. This was the press that I used for some 20 years.
As my resources (financial) increased I upgraded to a “turret” press. This press is very similar to the single-stage press except is has a steel disk that holds 4+ dies. This way you can set up all 2, 3, or 4 dies in your set (the number of dies depends on whether it is a rifle, pistol, or competition die set). This way you can load a complete round without having to take the die out and set up the next one in the process. You can also purchase as many disks as you want so you can set the dies up once and leave them there. This is the setup I still use for rifle ammunition. I currently don’t bulk reload for my rifles.
My next upgrade was to a “progressive” press. These are not cheap, but they have a “stage” for each step in the reloading process. You can literally put a used case, with the old primer still installed, and have a fully loaded, ready to shoot, cartridge come out.
Currently I use a Dillon XL650, with a powered case feeder. When I bought mine I spend about $900 (but I did get all the toys with it); currently a set up similar to mine is closer to $1200. Set up take an hour or more, but I can put out 500-700 rounds per hour. And it keeps it setup. I had not reloaded with it for more than 3 years, and this week started up again. The powder charge it dropped out was exactly as I left it! Since I have an area to use, I set it up, and get to leave it. I have several sets of parts (similar to the turret press), including powder measures, so I can reduce set up time for the 4 cartridges I currently bulk reload for (this was a big part of the initial cost of my set up).
If the money ever shows up without a higher need, I am looking to get a Dillon 1050. This is a high end press that also takes the crimp out of military rifle cases. It’s also about $2,000! But if you are going to load a bunch of ammo with “recycled” military brass, this may be the way to go, especially for a group buy.
You need a set of dies for each caliber that you are going to reload for. You will also need to decide whether to choose steel or carbide lined dies. If you are loading for a “straight-walled” case, such as a 38 Special, carbide dies negate the need to lubricate the case. (Other common examples are 44 Magnum/Special, 357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, 40 S&W, and 45 ACP. There are many others.) The issue is 1) lube is messy but 2) carbide dies are more expensive. For a progressive press (or other high volume reloading) carbide dies are the way to go.
You can buy carbide dies for bottle necked cartridges, such as 357 SiG, 400 Corbon, 44-40, 38-40, and several others, but don’t waste your money. You will still need to lube these cases even if they are carbide lined.
When I started, all there was to measure you powder charge were Lee Powder Measure cups or a balance style scale. The scale is the more accurate of the two by a large measure. Now there are battery or AC operated scales, some with powder dispensers attached. I’d start with a scale that measures each charge, use a “trickler” to add powder to the measuring pan, and repeat this for each cartridge. It’s slow, but you won’t get the “surprise” of a double powder charge in the case (a VERY dangerous situation)!
Currently I have my original balance scale, a PACE battery operated scale, and a Lyman electronic scale/powder dispenser. My Dillon 650 has a powder dispenser as part of the set up.
As I mentioned before, I prime my cases using a Lee Hand Primer, after the cases are cleaned, but before I start reloading. I do this for a number of reasons. But I have to remember to remove the depriming pin in my die that is in the press (it goes bang if you forget, something you will only do once). I also found that the pressure my Dillon exerts will put a primer in sideways, the round is no good, but the primer is flush.
There are other tools for doing this same function. This is just the one I use. I get a positive “feel” when the primer is seated correctly. It is not necessary, many don’t do it this way, it’s just my preference.
A carbide expander ball (the part that goes inside of the case mouth to open it up) may be handy if you are having problems with the expander getting stuck inside the case mouth on cartridges with a small rim (such as the .223/5.56×45). (Using one of these has reduced the number of one syllable works with hard consonants that I use when reloading the .223.)
The most common way of cleaning you brass is in a vibrating tumbler. These have a basket on top that you put your cases in. You then add a “tumbling medium” usually of ground corn cob or walnut shells. It is loud, takes quite a while to clean the cases, and puts dust everywhere when you are separating the brass from the media. (Note: I live in a town with an active open-pit type mine, I already have enough dust in my house.) This is why I have mine in the garage on a timer. Most places that sell reloading supplies will also sell you cleaning medium, but walnut can be found at stores like PetCo., cheaper. Due to the time, noise, and dust, I am going over to a sonic cleaner.
I got one as a present (as requested) distributed by Lyman that will do 250 rifle or 900 pistol cases at a time. I charge distilled water with a cleaning solution at a 40:1 ratio and the cleaner uses sonic vibrations and heat to clean them much cleaner, in less time, and quieter and with the vibrating type. I will just have to make sure the cases are completely dry before I move through the process and charge the cases with powder.
I deprime the case before putting the case in the cleaner. They make a special wire brush to clean the “primer pocket” (where the primer goes into the cartridge). Some people don’t bother cleaning them out, and I didn’t for a long time, but I usually reloaded the case only once or twice. I recommend cleaning the pocket. And if you are using a vibrating cleaner, you will want to check to make sure nothing is left in the pocket.
As I mentioned before, if you are using military cases, you may need to remove the military crimp that holds the primer in place. Dillon, and several other companies, make a tool specifically for this function. I prefer the Dillon but that is a personal preference.
You will need at least one manual. Get your manual from the company that makes the bullet you want to use. I have found the Speer manual was the easiest for me to understand as a new person, and their bullets are not very expensive. Sierra and Hornady make good quality bullets for a very reasonable price, but their manuals are a bit more complicated. I really like Barnes bullets for my primary hunting and defensive loads, but they are much more expensive!
You will need to decide what components you will need to buy. For the most part they will be different for each caliber you are reloading for. A lot of this is about personal preference, but understand that if you load your Glock 19 with a 9mm Luger with a 115 gr JHP bullet, that’s probably what you will want to reload. When buying ammo that is already loaded FMJ bullets are significantly cheaper to buy, but when you are reloading the cost difference is much less. And if the bullet is a different weight, then your load will have to be adjusted. So, load what you shoot.
As mentioned under documentation, choose a manual made by the bullets manufacturer. You can usually get good numbers when using a similar weight bullet, but at 1st stick with a book/bullet combination.
Primers are another item that after you get past using the proper size for your case is a matter of personal preference. I have used CCI for a number of years, but currently use Winchester because I and get them for $20.00/1000 versus $35.00/1000. I’m sure you can set up the test equipment and show me mathematically that once set of primers is faster that another, but I’m not that good of a marksman. I shoot for “minute of light blue cantaloupe” either at 5-50 yards with a handgun or 200-300 yards with a rifle, so practically there is no difference.
Powder is like primers. Your manual will give you several options for a particular bullet. I would caution you on a couple of areas. First is if you are going to reload for several calibers, try to find a powder that will work for as many a possible. Second is availability. Common powders are usually available in most stores that sell reloading components. Stay away from specialty powders. I have found that most of the rifle cartridges I reload for can be loaded with Varget. Most of my standard pressure pistol cartridges use Tite Group. My magnum pistol loads use Lil’ Gun. These 3 powders covers about 10 different calibers. Now I could use the “best” powder type for each cartridge, but I’d rather have one powder that does several types. Unique is another very common powder that is used for a large number of pistol cartridges and many people have had very good results with it.
Spare parts are always needed. I have a spare parts kit for my Dillon press. Dillon will replace any part on their machines, even if you loose it, but without spares, reloading stops. And I have a BUNCH of spare depriming pins. I reloaded in Europe and they use a different primer system. Ours is called “Boxer” primers, with a large central hole. Theirs is “Berdan” primed, with 2 smaller holes offset from the center. You’ll know if a “Berdan” case gets in you press, so check your cases, especially if you pick up “found” brass at the range.
There are a large number of helpful products available for the reloader. If you are new to this, go slow. Some of it is like fishing equipment, designed specifically to separate the reloader from his money.
A Note On Cases:
I only reload Boxer primed brass cases. If you are shooting steel cases or copper-washed steel cases, don’t reload them! It might be possible, but I would not recommend it for anyone but a VERY experienced reloader.
First off – SAFET FIRST!! You can loose and finger, an eye, or worse. You are dealing with flammables (smokeless powder) and explosives (primers), so act accordingly! Use a rubber mat or hard wood to stand on, as carpets can generate static electricity!
Second, get educated. There is a lot of information in the front of the reloading manual. There a DVD’s on reloading, put out by both the equipment manufacturer and second parties. Do your homework. Reloaded can be fun and rewarding. You can also blind yourself, or lose body parts you may want later in life, so pay attention. Keep distractors out of your reloading area. I only listen to light jazz music, if anything, because there are no words (plus I find it relaxing). Wear safety glasses or a face shield (I don’t care if your buddy thinks you look funny)! And finally don’t be in a hurry; my 650 says it can load about 650 rounds per hour, but I take regular breaks, so I might get that done in a couple of hours.
These are just some of the equipment issues that I have encountered over the years and choices I have made. Some of these equipment purchases might be better served by a group of people versus an individual, due to the cost. Since I have this stuff, I can fill this capacity for our group and let others who have talents in other areas fill theirs. I am no expert. I have no vested financial interest in any other the products specifically mentioned about. Some are just the outcome of choices made over the years, some were made by recommendation from others, some by the customer service experiences with the companies involved. There may be better choices, but these work for me.
This contest will end on February 16 2013 – prizes include:
- First Place winner will receive Two cases of MRE’s courtesy of Camping Survival, A Wonder Junior Deluxe hand-mill courtesy of Kitchen Kneads, $150 gift certificate for Fiocchi Ammo courtesy of LuckyGunner Ammo, A Big Berkey Water Filter System courtesy of TruPrep Emergency Preparedness and a one year subscription to Personal VPN service courtesy of unspyable.
- Second Place: A $200 gift certificate for any order from their store courtesy of Shepherd Survival and A Doom and Bloom Mini Trauma Bag courtesy of LPC Survival.
- Third Place: A Bar-ricade door bar courtesy of My Locksmith, Inc.