An Introduction to Reloading for Handguns

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Handloading ammo is simply a matter of putting the ingredients together in the right order and amount.

Handloading ammo is simply a matter of putting the ingredients together in the right order and amount.

By Justin Opinion

If you shoot handguns regularly and you are not already a reloader, you have almost certainly considered becoming one. If you are an experienced shooter, then this is probably something you consider on a regular basis and just haven’t decided if it is right for you. And if you are a relatively new shooter, you probably have a lot of questions about it. In both cases, it can seem overwhelming. Let’s try to address some of the common questions, think about who should and shouldn’t do it, and take away some of the mystery. To keep things simple, I am going to focus only on handgun calibers—and use primarily 9mm and .45 ACP as examples, because that’s what I’m loading these days.

Reloading or Handloading ammunition for one’s own use is, at the start, like any other new hobby. There are things you need to buy, things you need to know, and things you need to learn. For the sake of this discussion, reloading and handloading are interchangeable terms. Reloading implies that the brass casing has been previously fired and is being re-used to make a new cartridge. Handloading can mean that too, but it can also mean that all components are brand new – even the brass casing. You’ll hear or read it both ways, so it’s good to understand the distinction, subtle though it may be.

Attention to detail and a 'perfectionist' personality make for a good reloader—like forming a habit of inspecting your brass every time you handle it.

Attention to detail and a ‘perfectionist’ personality make for a good reloader—like forming a habit of inspecting your brass every time you handle it.

I am going to add one more thing to the list above, and we’re going to start with that one: “things you need to be.” Let me explain – reloading isn’t a hobby for everyone. Unlike many other hobbies, you are assembling an inherently dangerous end product, and the process of doing it can be dangerous. The home brewmaster may have the luxury (though expensive) of “getting it very wrong” many times before she’s ready to invite friends over to taste the product. The reloader does not have as much margin of error. Get it wrong, and you could have ammo that won’t feed, won’t fire, jams the gun or plugs the barrel. And those are the GOOD problems. You can also have ammo that blows up your gun and possibly the hand holding it. So, all that (and more) has to do with “things you need to be”. I don’t say all this because I think I’m your nanny, or because I like to be the wet blanket at the beach party – but because I owe you good information that can help you decide if you want to invest significant money and time into manufacturing your own ammo. I will honestly tell you that for me and all the other reloaders I know, there are not many war stories of things gone horribly wrong—nor do we sit and compare scars like Quint and Hooper. So, my message is ultimately this: Be cautious and respectful, not afraid.

I now use a Dillon Precision 550B multi-stage manual press.

I now use a Dillon Precision 550B multi-stage manual press.

Things you need to be:

You should be a person who can become and remain focused on the task at hand. You should be a person who can tune out—or better yet—prevent distractions. You should be detail-oriented. Friends and loved ones should consider you “a perfectionist.” You should be at least moderately mechanically inclined. You should be a “neat freak” (or at least well organized). And above all, you must be able to follow instructions to the letter with perfect repetition. If you don’t recognize these qualities in yourself, you might not make a good reloader, and you don’t want to waste a lot of money to find that out.

Okay, so you’ve decided that reloading is for you, and you can’t wait to get started loading 9mm to feed all those pistols you love to shoot. Now what? Well, now you need the “stuff”. This is the ‘things you need to buy’ part.

You can buy primer sorters, but regardless of how sophisticated and expensive the reloading machine, most--like the author--still pick up the primers the old way.

You can buy primer sorters, but regardless of how sophisticated and expensive the reloading machine, most–like the author–still pick up the primers the old way.

Things You Need To Buy: Equipment

The first, largest and likely most expensive piece of equipment you will need is the reloading press. Presses come in many types, sizes and capabilities, and from many manufacturers. A detailed discussion about that is a long article in itself, but there are basically two main types: single stage manual presses and multi-stage presses that range from manual to fairly automatic. As we move left to right along that path, the price goes up and up. I started, decades ago, with a single-stage manual RCBS Rockchucker press. I loaded tens of thousands of cartridges with it, and it served me very well. I wish I still had it. I now use a Dillon Precision 550B multi-stage manual press. The only differences are cost and efficiency. Every other aspect remains the same—and that will hold true as we move even further into automatically fed, auto-indexing machines. It is beyond the scope of this article to breakdown the types and styles of equipment or to make comparisons between them. I just want to provide a basic understanding of what is used.

You can buy a starter kit (most every manufacturer of reloading equipment offers such a kit) that includes a single stage press and the basic necessities (powder dispenser/measure, scale, etc.) for a few hundred dollars or less. Throw in the other incidentals you’ll need to have, and realistically you can round that number up to five bills. Progressive multi-stage presses can be had starting almost as low—but I caution you that those entry-level prices just scratch the surface. It would be like saying the price of a decent fishing rod is all you need to become a well-equipped fisherman. And if you want to impress your friends, you can go all in on a progressive stage, auto-indexing Dillon with electric case and bullet feeders, and primer dispensers—add  on some automatic alarms… and you’re in for a few thousand.

Digital scales are inexpensive, accurate, and simple to use.

Digital scales are inexpensive, accurate, and simple to use.

Once you’ve made the biggest decision and selected your press, the rest of the things you’ll need to buy is an easier list, and is pretty universal.

Scale: You’ll need a precision scale made for reloading. Powder charges and bullets are weighed in grains. A reloading scale will have this unit of measure, and perhaps others. Digital scales are so inexpensive these days that it makes good sense to have one. But a balance-beam scale never has a dead battery, and is also good to have. Whichever style you choose, be sure you can calibrate it, and do so regularly.

Brass Cleaner: Still referred to by many as a tumbler, you will need a machine for cleaning the spent brass cases and making them ready for re-use. The most common type is a vibratory cleaner that uses media made from crushed walnuts or corn cobs, mixed with a small amount of metal polish. The media is vibrated in the machine’s hopper along with the brass cases, and the friction and abrasion clean and polish them. This is more than just cosmetic. Dirty brass will cause problems in your reloading dies and in the feeding system and chamber of your firearm. An alternative to this is an ultrasonic cleaner, but unless you already have one of those—I recommend the dry vibratory type first.

Vibratory cleaners that 'tumble' the brass in a suspension of cleaning media are inexpensive and effective.

Vibratory cleaners that ‘tumble’ the brass in a suspension of cleaning media are inexpensive and effective.

Calipers, Micrometers, and Case Gauges: Ammunition must be loaded to tight tolerance specifications. As you gain experience, you will learn that some tolerances are far less forgiving than others and will cause feeding and firing failures, jams and other problems that can ruin your day at the range. You will need to have measuring tools appropriate for the job. The good news is that these too can be had inexpensively. A caliper or micrometer will measure things for you: overall length, diameter, spacing, etc. A case gauge is a device that is designed to mimic the firing chamber of your firearm. Caliber specific, these gauges make a simple “go / no go” indicator as to whether your finished cartridge will meet the caliber’s specs for diameter, roundness and overall length.

Bullet Puller: The most common and inexpensive way to disassemble a loaded cartridge is a kinetic bullet puller. Made of hard plastic and resembling a hammer, the puller uses kinetic energy to remove the bullet from the cartridge which in turn frees the powder. There will be many times you will need to disassemble a round because you either know or suspect something is wrong with it.

A full set of dies in a Dillon 550B machine, as viewed from below.

A full set of dies in a Dillon 550B machine, as viewed from below.

Dies: You will need an individual set of dies for each caliber that you reload (with a few exceptions, such as .38 Special / .357 Magnum; and .40 S&W / 10mm that can share dies). A good set of dies consists of three or four dies (depending on your setup) and cost in the neighborhood of $50/set.

These are several of the must-have items that will be on your shopping list. There will be many others, including primer trays and tubes, carriers and storage items, funnels and pans, and on and on…. If you buy a kit to get started, many of the sundry items will be supplied with it. Best to hold your shopping list until you know you need them.

I will combine Things You Need To Know and Things You Need To Learn into one simple word: Books! What I mean by “know” is that you will need static knowledge about reloading and about ammunition construction. This will be knowledge that should remain relevant and necessary for as long as you are a reloader. Things to “learn” will obviously include the above, initially, but also means that each new cartridge you decide to load, every new purpose you load for, and all the things that will change—are things you’ll need to learn. That part never stops, but it can all be overwhelming at first. I recommend getting at least two good books: One should be a good reference manual for reloading (the good ones are published by the equipment or component manufacturers, such as Lyman and Hornady). The other should be a “how to” book. The latter is far more subjective, and there are many from which to choose. I suggest browsing online and reading the user reviews. One I will recommend to you is “Reloading for Handguns” by Patrick Sweeney.

Precision measuring tools are a must have. A decent digital caliper/micrometer can be had for $30 or so.

Precision measuring tools are a must have. A decent digital caliper/micrometer can be had for $30 or so.

Will I save money if I reload?

Probably the most common question, and a big reason many people get started in reloading. Who doesn’t want to save money? And ammunition prices aren’t exactly falling. But will you really save enough money by reloading to be worth the time and expense? Many will tell you ‘no’. The most common reason I see for that answer is to say that you will shoot more if you reload, so ultimately you won’t save any money. I don’t buy that—and I don’t give that answer. To me, that’s like saying, “If you buy that car that gets better mileage, you will just drive more and won’t save any money”. But, if I have driven more miles and seen more scenery, visited more friends, and improved my driving skills too—for the same cost as previously driving fewer miles without doing those things… there is a tangible value there. I feel the same about reloading.

In general, reloading is less expensive per round that buying commercially available ammo. Yes, there will always be exceptions—and when there is a big “I can’t reload it that cheap” ammo sale on, you should buy some! But over the long haul, it is less expensive to make your own ammo—period . I am assuming you pay yourself $0 labor, and that you’re happy with that deal. Remember, this is first and foremost a hobby—and extension of your shooting passion. And yes, I shoot more because I reload, and maybe I don’t save any money in the long run. But the important part of that statement is I shoot more!

Balance-beam scales never have dead batteries.

Balance-beam scales never have dead batteries.

Is reloading too hard or complicated?

After cautioning so much as to whether reloading may or may not be for you, I always feel bad—as if I’m trying to talk you out of doing it. I am certainly not trying to do that! But another reason people put off the decision to get started is the perception that the process is overly complex and hard to understand. It’s really not.

Someone told me when I was starting out, “it’s just like baking a cake”. Of course, I had never baked a cake, and that seemed complicated! But it’s a good analogy. You use specific ingredients in just the right amount, combined in the proper order, to create the desired product.

There are really 4 or 5 basic steps:

The first die resizes the case and "decaps" it by poking out the old primer with a hard rod.

The first die resizes the case and “decaps” it by poking out the old primer with a hard rod.

–          Resize and de-cap the brass case. This returns the case to proper specifications and ensures that it is round and straight. The spent primer is removed (de-capping) to make room for the new one. These can be separate operations, but on most modern presses these are combined into one step using a single die..

–          Priming the case. This is most commonly combined with the first stage of an operation—even single stage presses usually allow the new primer to be seated at this step.

–          Flare the case and charge it with powder. Again, two steps that are commonly combined. Even if you use a single stage press and separate powder dispenser, you will usually perform these steps together. The mouth of the case is opened like the bottom of a bell, with just enough flare to accept the diameter of the bullet, and a precise amount of gunpowder is deposited in the case.

–          Seating and crimping the bullet. Sometimes these steps are combined as one using a single die, and sometimes they are separated. This will vary based on equipment. Seating the bullet places the new projectile into the case at a precise depth. The case is then crimped – which removes the flare and turns the case mouth slightly inward – to clamp the bullet into place. It is important that it not move easily.

The new primer is pushed up and 'seated' into the primer pocket.

The new primer is pushed up and ‘seated’ into the primer pocket.

The companion video to this article shows each of these steps in action and can be more helpful than a description alone. There are numerous adjustments, tweaks and careful measurements to be made for all the above steps, but once you get the hang of it, it is not difficult at all.

If you have been thinking about starting reloading, but have felt overwhelmed about it – I hope this helps you to make the decision that is best for you. And if that decision is to take the plunge, then I wish you the best of luck with your new and rewarding hobby!

 

 

 

 

The bullet is seated to an exact depth. This is a critical measurement.

The bullet is seated to an exact depth. This is a critical measurement.

 

Flaring the case mouth and dispensing the powder are a combined step on this system.

Flaring the case mouth and dispensing the powder are a combined step on this system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After seating the bullet (left) the case mouth is crimped shut (right) to hold the bullet firmly in place.

After seating the bullet (left) the case mouth is crimped shut (right) to hold the bullet firmly in place.

 

 

 

 

 

{ 20 comments }

{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Jeff April 7, 2014, 7:25 am

    As mentioned, there are tons of options and varieties of equipment available. Some of them include things like upgradable presses, you can spend a bit more money on a single stage that can be converted to a multi-stage later. Because of this, the #1 first purchase should be the books. Spend the money getting the right knowledge so you don’t spend bad later, especially since you’re going to be buying the books anyhow. There’s great info in this article, but it’s not comprehensive, the author even mentions that. If you get one of the kits from a manufacturer, like RCBS, they’re great for starters, and they have stuff I still use- but I have gone beyond that, and you will, too. It’s good to know your options before you open your wallet, is all I’m saying.

  • john April 7, 2014, 8:59 am

    books- Speer-Lyman-Hornady- the older the better. Pick them up on E-bay-$4-6.00. The Lee Reloader Press w/ a jelly jar saves a lot of time picking up primers ($20.) along with a universal deprimer. For starters the Lee Classic Turrent Press w/ 4 station turrent, (walk before ya run) for a $100 is hard to beat. Not a fan of U-tube, but there are several helpful videos there. Just believe bout half of what is said. Sad, gone are the days of $9.00 -1000 primers, the $5.00 lb. powder, the $8.00 brick of 22’s, and the .49 cent gasoline.

    • john April 7, 2014, 10:28 am

      just a post script to ta above. if ya shoot a box or two a year at the local range, fer get it,ain’t worth it. If ya take ya car to Jiffy Lube for an oil change, fer get it. If you change your own oil, then ya can reload. Buy a $1.00 worth of stuff at Midway and next week you will have a life time of usefull catalogs to dream of stuff. P.S. will I could afford a $3000.00 Dillion. GREAT PEOPLE.

  • Joe T. April 7, 2014, 10:07 am

    Good basic article. I would think if you could get to a store that gives classes or find someone that can “show me”,
    exactly what to do, how to set your dies up, how to set up your press, etc., etc. This would be a worthwhile expense in my opinion…… Sportsman’s Whse. always offered classes, some other might also? Good luck!

    • Bill April 7, 2014, 9:24 pm

      YouTube has a lot of videos from various sources (including manufacturers) on set-up and use of various equipment. I wouldn’t say that they are all 100% worthwhile, but there is a lot of good information that would go a long way towards getting a press up and running or trouble shooting your set-up if you run into problems.

  • Kim Brown April 7, 2014, 10:29 am

    What happened to the good old e-mail to a friend button? Since I don’t Facebook and I don’t know what Pin it, G+1 and all the other things are. How can I send this to a friend that just started reloading? Thanks, Kim

    • Justin Opinion April 7, 2014, 12:21 pm

      Kim – easiest way (and this works for any web page) is to put your cursor in the address bar at the top of your browser and highlight the entire address. Often it will be highlighted automatically when you click on it… then right-click and copy (or press Ctrl+C). Then paste that into your email – it will be a hyperlink to that page.

  • Dan Koontz April 7, 2014, 10:36 am

    All of us must consider becoming reloading experts to insure our future ammunition.

    Based on Homeland Security purchasing over $1.8 billion in ammunition, what more proof
    is needed that the U.S. government wants to limit our access to ammunition.

  • john April 7, 2014, 10:49 am

    p.p.s don’t crimp 45 acp or 9mm, just swag the case neck. Made that bo-bo on my first 50 45’s. Or for that matter 380,40 or 10’s. Straight wall semi auto’s head space on the case neck. Sorry to go on and on, My first reply to such.

    • Justin Opinion April 7, 2014, 12:25 pm

      This is true, and a good point. Most die makers and process manuals will still refer to the step as “crimping”, however. You must insure that the bullet is held tightly by the case – and for the auto-feeding cartridges, the die makers make them that way. Revolver dies tend to really turn the case mouth inward dramatically by comparison. Thanks for the comments!

  • Josh April 7, 2014, 1:27 pm

    Good article, it shows how simple it CAN be. We always seem to make it more complex, but on the surface it is simple. If you love shooting, you should consider reloading. This post actually reminds me of a short video I made a little while back with the Vir Network. Just about how guns/shooting are meant to be enjoyed and are overdramatized by the world at large:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXUBKjhaOxI

    *live primers were intentionally avoided because we were filming and not on a range, hence the gun doesn’t fire intentionally at the end.

    • Administrator April 7, 2014, 1:38 pm

      Amen brother. The me too safety freaks have taken our little corner of the world and made it into mommy central. Every unemployed moron and his brother is now a publisher and commentator.

  • Tom April 7, 2014, 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the good info and perspective as to reload or not reload. I AM NEW TO reloading have read every artical that comes my way. I found youtube to be very helpfull as well. Watching a video for me has really gave me more confidence about the process.

  • Tom April 7, 2014, 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the good info and perspective as to reload or not reload. I AM NEW TO reloading have read every artical that comes my way. I found youtube to be very helpfull as well. Watching a video for me has really gave me more confidence about the process.

  • Ernie April 7, 2014, 4:12 pm

    I’ve been reloading since 1975 and I’m glad to see a renewed interest it however, there is just one problem today, no powder is available anywhere I’ve tried to buy it. Oh sure, most distributors and retailers have powder for 50 BMG or IMR 4064, but absolutely no pistol powder is available. Just like .22 LR ammo, it’s just not there. Someone should try looking into that mystery.

    • Dean April 7, 2014, 4:55 pm

      That has been a problem lately. It is a bit of a quest to locate pistol powder these days and then it is often something that is unfamiliar. Finding a pound of Win 231 would be like meeting an old friend that hasn’t been heard from in years.

  • Bullet Bob April 9, 2014, 12:18 pm

    You forgot to mention the accuracy aspect of reloading. Now I know that not so important in short range pistol ammo, but it is very imporant when it comes to rifle ammo. A few weeks ago I grabbed a box of fractory ammo (.223), went to the range. My AR will hold about 2.5 inch group, at 100 yards, but with factory ammo it jump to over 6 inches. Just think about it, does the factory hold to plus or minus 0.0 grains? I think not.
    I send about 5 hours a week at the range (retired) but spend my evenings (3 to 4 hrs.) reloading, cleaning brass, casting bullets and reading everything I can find about hand loading/reloading. Sure beats the crap that on TV.

    • Justin Opinion April 28, 2014, 4:18 pm

      Bullet Bob – you’re absolutely right. Better and more reliable accuracy is probably the #1 reason that most rifle shooters reload. Let’s face it, if you’ve got the skills and patience to shoot 600 or 1000 yards… you’re a prime candidate for reloading (on a single stage!). Pistol shooters will also find consistency and accuracy can be improved, but most (of us) are just cranking them out for volume.

  • Boyd the Reloader August 1, 2014, 12:33 pm

    Wow, this is one extensive article on reloading! Thanks. I have a turret press myself. Loading .357s and .45 ACPs. Allows me to get away from the missus when I can.

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