Part 5: Brass Resizing
Part 6: Trimming Cartridge Cases
Part 7: Repriming the Cartridge Case
Part 9: All About Primers
Part 11: Seating and Crimping Bullets
Part 12: To Crimp or not to Crimp
Part 13: Final Inspection and Packaging Tips
There is such a fine line between needs and wants. It’s oh so easy to consider something that’s really a “want” as a “need.” You know, like bacon is technically a “want.” Hang on, upon further reflection that is, in fact, a need. But you get the idea.
The first question prospective reloaders always ask me is, “How much will it cost me to get started?” The problem with that question is that it depends. It depends on whether you want to reload for rifle, pistol, or both. It depends on the number of calibers you want to reload. But more than anything, it depends on your personal definitions of needs and wants.
The list of stuff you truly need is actually pretty modest. When I say need, let’s consider the extreme and rule out gear that simply makes the job easier or faster. Those things are “wants” and you can always add that stuff later. Here, I’ll use this criterion to define gear you need: If you can’t SAFELY reload a cartridge without it, then it’s a need.
So here’s the list of gear you need to safely reload pistol ammunition. At the end, I’ll mention what you need to add if you want to reload bottleneck rifle cartridges. We’ll address the benefits of those pieces of “want” gear in a later article in this series.
Cartridge Case Cleaner
When you pick up fired brass cartridge cases, they’ll be dirty. Depending on whether you shoot at an indoor or outdoor range, the relative level of “dirt” will vary. At a minimum, you’ll want to remove any loose powder residue and whatever dirt your brass acquired when it hit the floor. While your brass does not have to be shiny like new, it does need to have the loose dirt removed. That’s because the brass needs to work smoothly with your reloading dies, and when finished, it needs to reliably load into your gun. If brass is covered with sand and Twinkies filling, you’re going to mess up your dies and run into reliability problems later.
If you want to stick to basic needs, you can clean your brass with stuff you already have. Hot water, a plastic container and some Tide (or a mixture of dish detergent, vinegar, and salt) will get the job done. Throw the dirty brass in there, shake the snot out of it, rinse, and dump on a towel for a day or so to dry. It won’t look pretty, but you’ll achieve the goal of removing loose dirt.
Your brass won’t be all pretty and shiny, but it will be clean enough to reload. To me, this is a hassle that’s not worth saving sixty to eighty dollars on a brass cleaner. These come in various types including ultrasonic cleaners, dry tumblers, and wet tumblers. Since a cleaning machine is a “want” we’ll get into those in much more detail later in the series.
Cost: $0 dollars. Since we’re being hardcore about wants and needs, we’ll assume you can start with a bucket or other container and acquire a fancy case cleaner down the road.
This component is a need, although you can get started with a very simple and inexpensive single-stage (or even hand operated) reloading press.
Think of a reloading press like one of those old Play-Doh factories. You know, the ones where you dump Play-Doh in a hopper and press a big lever, so it comes out like star-shaped spaghetti. Like the Play-Doh factory, a reloading press is just a device that uses mechanical advantage to squish things together.
You can do these things with a reloading press:
- Press a brass case against a decapping pin to push out the old primer.
- Press a casing into a resizing die that jams the brass back into its original dimensions.
- Press a new primer into the now empty primer pocket.
- Press the casing against an expanding die that opens the mouth just a tad so you can insert a new bullet.
- Press the bullet down into the casing.
- Crimp the casing around the bullet to remove the bell from the expansion step.
What type of reloading press do you need to get started? I always recommend starting with a single stage press. Single stage means the press does one thing at a time. Using a single stage press, you’ll load in batches. For example, you’ll resize all your cases, then prime them all, then add powder, then seat the bullet and finally crimp all of the cases. While it’s more tedious, a single stage press is simple to learn, forgiving, and most important for this discussion, inexpensive.
Cost: $150. These range higher and lower in price, but you can buy a good that will last you 115% of forever for this price.
Reloading dies are simply cylinders made of steel that are used like “inserts” with your reloading press. Following from the previous example, they’re kind of like those yellow plastic cutouts for the Play-Doh Factory. As the interior of a reloading die is cut specifically to match the shape of the type of cartridge, you need a set of dies for each caliber you wish to reload.
The reloading dies screw into the reloading press. The press is then used to jam the cartridge case into the reloading die to perform the specific function of that die. For example, there are three types of dies in most pistol caliber reloading die sets.
Decapping and Resizing Die
This die does two things in one step. A steel rod right in the center goes through the open mouth of your cartridge brass and pushes out the old blown up primer. The die itself is shaped exactly like the outside of your cartridge brass, and the diameter of the die hole is the exact dimension specified for that caliber cartridge diameter. It “pushes” the brass cartridge back to the proper diameter so it will easily fit in the chamber of your gun.
The resizing die reshapes the whole cartridge case back into a proper sized tube. But wait! We’re going to have to stick a new bullet in there at some point, right? Will it fit? That’s where the expanding die steps in. This one simply opens the very end of the mouth of the cartridge case so you can fit a new bullet in there.
Seating and Crimping Die
This is another die that accomplishes two tasks. First, it pushes the bullet down into the case to the proper depth, based on how you adjust it. At the same time, it presses the case mouth inwards to remove the mouth expansion created during the expansion step. Some pistol die sets, like Lee Deluxe Pistol Die Sets, have four dies. These simply separate the seating and crimping functions into two separate dies. Treating seating and crimping as separate operations can be a little more forgiving.
You’ll need a set of dies for each caliber you wish to reload. You’ll also need a shell holder for each caliber. A shell holder is a small insert for your reloading press. It slips onto the top of the piston of your reloading press and grips the rim of your cartridge case — holding it snug while you jam the case into the reloading dies. Some die sets include a shell holder, and some do not, so be sure to check and order it separately if needed. You’ll also need a shell holder for each caliber you want to reload.
Cost: $50. Like anything, the cost of die sets varies, but you should have no trouble finding good pistol caliber dies for less than $50.
A scale is an absolute necessity in my view. Charging cartridges with either too little or too much powder is dangerous! Recipes for reloading use weight measurements for the amount of powder required. Powder is measured in units of grains, which is 1/7,000th of a pound – it doesn’t mean individual kernels of powder. While some basic reloading kits provide scoops of different sizes to measure powder, this method will always be less precise than weighed measures. Sermon over – get a scale right when you start.
Powder scales come in two different types: beam and electronic. Traditional beam scales never need batteries and always work. Electronic scales are becoming more affordable and are pretty darn reliable too provided you keep the batteries fresh. I’ve seen them get wiggy as the batteries start to drain.
Cost: $75. Scale prices go from $30 to $300 depending on how precise you want to get. You can get a decent beam scale in the $60 to $90 range. Some of the newer electronic scales dip down to $30 or so, but there seem to be a broad variety of good ones in the $125 range.
While not included in most starter kits, I think calipers are a must-have item. Available in analog dial or digital, a caliper accurately measures things.
The most important measurement you’ll need to worry about is the overall cartridge length. It’s critical to make sure that your bullets are seated deep enough to feed reliably, but not so much that you reduce interior case volume and risk dangerous over pressure. A reloading manual will tell you exactly how deep to seat each caliber and specific bullet type.
Calipers are also handy for checking the diameter of your cases, but generally, your dies will ensure that cases are sized to the right width.
If you are going to reload bottleneck rifle cartridges, you’ll also need calipers to make sure that your resized cases are the proper length before you start to seat bullets. They tend to stretch a bit when you fire and resize them.
Cost: $40. You can get either digital or analog (dial readout) calipers in this price range, and the quality of those is plenty good enough to get you going safely.
Do not reload ammunition, ever, without a reloading manual. Think of this as the cookbook full of recipes for each caliber, powder type, primer type and bullet type and weight. Reloading component and equipment companies like Hornady, Lyman, Speer, Barnes, Nosler, Sierra and Lee all publish books with detailed recipe information. Always, always, always stick to published guidelines for your reloads!
You can get reloading recipes online, but if you do, stick to data published by the companies that make the bullets or powder. Don’t assume that some recipe from Billy Bob’s Blast ‘Em Up Forum is safe.
Rifle Cartridges: Case Trimmer
When you resize rifle cartridge brass, it will stretch a little each time you reload it. So you’ll need to invest in a simple device that trims excess brass from the mouth of the case.
The idea for almost all types of case trimmers is simple. It’s a lathe-type tool, either hand-operated or electric. You fasten the brass cartridge case on the rim end, and a rotating blade trims off the excess brass from the open neck of the cartridge.
Cost: $100. Hand operated case trimmers start at $50 or so and escalate to three figures. The variety of electric and single-caliber trimming tools is too much to cover here, so we’ll stick to the hand-operated model. Besides, like a single-stage reloading press, you’ll use a good manual case trimmer forever.
So there you have it. If I’ve done my math right, we’re looking at about $340 in basic equipment to get started with pistol caliber reloading. Add a hundred if you want to do rifle calibers. Here’s the good news. Companies like Hornady, Lyman, RCBS, and Lee offer reloading starter kits which include different combinations of the gear we’ve talked about here. These starter kits are priced at a substantial discount over what you would pay separately. Kits range from about $150 to $450 or so and vary dramatically in terms of what’s included. Most of them offer more than the most basic “needs” list we’ve discussed here, so you’re getting some of those future “wants” right up front as part of the package.