Reloading 101: How to Beat the High Co$t of Ammo (Part 1)

Besides being mechanically inept, I don’t have a particularly green thumb. That’s probably because I’d never been a homeowner until I got married last year. Also, in my 23 years of military service, tending to the greenery was a work detail, or, more often, a punishment (oops, I mean “additional training). So we have a strict separation of duties in our house: I mow and water, and the wife tends to the things that grow.  Luckily, she’s a good gardener. Our yard is a riot of color from spring through fall. Last year, she planted a vegetable garden with tomatoes, peppers, radishes and onions. She insists that a nice salad or a pot of green chili tastes better when it’s filled with veggies she grew in her own garden. I feel the same sense of pride and satisfaction about shooting ammo that I’ve loaded.

Most shooters have probably considered reloading at some point (most likely that point was when they were handing over a large chunk of money for a box of the factory loaded stuff). Reloading is actually fairly simple. Except for a few tricky areas, it’s pretty safe.

I know that doesn’t sound all that reassuring, but it should be. I’ve been reloading for 10 years. In that time, I would I’ve loaded well over three to 4,000 rounds. The cartridges range from pistol calibers like .38/.357 and .45ACP, to rifle calibers .30-06, .308 and .30-30. Thus far I have yet to have even a single malfunction or exploding weapon—which is not so much a testament to my skills as it is to the fact that reloading just ain’t that hard.

A cartridge (the thing you put in the gun) is made up of four parts. Pretty Polly Bites Crackers. Primer, Powder, Bullet, Casing. Helpfully enough for the mnemonically-challenged, there are also four basic stages of reloading.

1.  Resizing/decapping The pressures of firing a cartridge causes the case to stretch both lengthwise and width-wise (filling the chamber) Reloading begins by “squeezing” the cartridge back into its correct size before reusing it. A resizing die performs this function. Normally, the same device has a hardened metal ‘point’ that also punches out the old primer (the cap).

2.  Flaring/Capping Flaring opens up the case mouth slightly so the bullet can be inserted. Capping is, of course, the opposite of decapping: you insert a new primer into the primer pocket of the cartridge case. Some presses flare and cap at the same time.

3.  Charging In this stage, you fill the cartridge case body with powder propellant (.ak.a. gun powder).

4.  Bullet seating/crimping: In the final stage, you seat the bullet onto the cartridge and crimp it in place.

Though you can reload a lot of cartridges with a “progressive” press (also called a “turret press”), a basic single-stage press is the simplest way to get started. All of the big reloading companies (Lee, Lyman, RCBS, etc) sell single stage presses. Most offer “starter kits” that have just about everything you need (see: caveats below.)

My own weapon of choice is a Lee single-stage kit (pictured above) purchased from Cabelas in 2000. It consists of the O ring press and all of the basic tools needed for reloading. The ads claim that “all you need is this kit and a set of dies to get started.”

Well, yes and no. You can reload with the tools they give you, but there is one glaring omission. The kit does not come with a caliper or other measuring tool. Having a uniform overall length is critical when loading cartridges (because, after all, you want all of the cartridges to perform identically and if they’re not the same overall length, their velocities will be different).

Not only is uniform overall length important, but knowing the minimum and maximum permissible overall lengths for a cartridge is critical for safety and functioning reasons. Too long and the cartridge will not fit in the magazine. Too short and the cartridge could have dangerously high pressures that can cause a disaster.

A $15 set of dial calipers from a JC Whitney catalog will save you a lot of headaches and, well, you can imagine.

The Lee kit comes with detailed instructions on the process. Each set of dies also comes with a set of instructions that walk you through the process from case preparation through finished cartridge. Bonus! The Lee kit comes with a “hand primer”: a hand held device (not a part of the reloading press) that can be used to easily and quickly prime the cases. (The hand primer is the paddle-looking thing at the upper right in the picture.)

While reloading is generally a safe process, I use (and highly recommend) eye protection during the priming process. Primers contain fulminate of mercury. While I’ve never experienced a primer discharge whilst priming a case, I’ve heard of it happening to others. So I always put on the plastic glasses before priming.

The other area where the Lee kit comes up a bit short: measuring powder. The Lee comes with a small balance-type scale. While it is accurate, it is also a finicky bitch to keep ‘zeroed’ and requires a lot of fiddling. For $80 you can get a decent electronic scale, which I would highly recommend.

Other than that, the only thing you really need is a place to work and brass, primers, powder and bullets. A garage is you least best option; powder and primers are both sensitive to humidity. A basement works well, as does any other space in the house that has a relatively even temperature. A sturdy bench is a must. The press requires some force (especially in the first stage of resizing/decapping.)

NOTE: a safe and secure (i.e. locked) storage for components (particularly powder and primers) is a must.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll go into a little more detail as to the actual process, share some useful tips I’ve picked up (the easy way and the hard way) and give you the bottom line: a cost breakdown by cartridge. At this point, I’ll leave you with two thoughts about your home bullet depot: you can do it, we can help.