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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
- 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 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!