If you are a regular reader of TTAG, chances are that you are somewhat passionate about the firearms hobby. Based on some of the responses that I’ve gotten to some of my more controversial posts, I’d hazard a guess that more than a few of our readers can sometimes be passionate to a fault – but that’s a topic for another day. While I’m still relatively new to the firearms fraternity (I’ve only been a gun owner for a little over a year now), I’m the kind of guy who jumps into my hobbies with both feet. In a relatively short time, I’ve amassed a fairly robust collection of pistols and rifles, just laid down the cash for a few silencers and am seriously considering picking up my first full auto gun (assuming I can find one that won’t bankrupt me). Reloading my own ammo was probably something that I was going to get around to sooner or later . . .
So I figured that it might as well be sooner. I spent a fair amount of time reading all I could about reloading before deciding to dive in, but dive in I have. And in the short amount of time that I’ve been doing it, I’ve managed to form some fairly strong opinions as to when reloading makes sense and when it doesn’t.
Since I haven’t been at this very long, I don’t feel qualified to write a technical how-to article. There’s a lot of good info out there and our own Foghorn did a great piece on Reloading for Dummies which I strongly suggest you take a look at. Instead, I’m going to address the question of when you should consider reloading as well as when reloading just doesn’t make sense.
Besides the sense of ownership and self-reliance that can come from knowing that you can make your own ammo if you want to, there are often two main reasons to get into reloading. In no particular order they amount to making individually tailored, super-accurate rounds and saving money on your ammo.
In the first case, the goal is to concoct a bullet and powder combination that provides you with the absolutely best accuracy you can hope to get out of your gun. Commercial rounds are built to give decent accuracy from a wide variety of firearms. But if you have control over the bullet and powder, you can get outstanding accuracy from your gun.
The second reason is that building your own ammo can often save some serious money. The amount of money you save will vary widely depending on the bullets you use and the caliber of your gun. For instance, I can purchase 9mm Blazer ammo for about $11 a box or about .22 per round. I’d be hard pressed to make my own 9mm ammo for much less – the cost of 9mm bullet alone would run about .12 per. A primer’s another .05, so even before we talk about powder, we are at .17 per round. With powder close to .02-.03 per round, even if I re-use my brass, the cost savings would be pretty small. On the other hand, if I run the same comparison with higher end rifle rounds, the per-round savings for hand loaded ammo can be much greater. We’ll get into some specific examples in the next post.
In addition to these two main reasons, there are two other special cases where you might want to hand load. First, if you have a pistol that uses obsolete or largely unavailable ammo, hand loading may be the only way to shoot the gun. Second, sometimes and in some localities, specific types of ammo may be hard to find. If we kick off another war, for example, the military is going to be grabbing every 9mm and 5.56 round they which may dry up the supply for the rest of us. Usually when this happens, it’s still often possible to obtain ammunition components, so you may find it advantageous to be able to make ammo that you can’t easily purchase.
Before deciding what sort of equipment to purchase, you really need to think about what you plan to reload. Are you a competition rifle shooter or long range hunter and want to maximize the performance of your gun? Are you an IDPA/IPSC/Steel Challenge/Cowboy Action shooter who is going to be plowing through hundreds of rounds of ammo a week perfecting your skills? A casual shooter looking to save some coin on ammo? A prepper who’s stockpiling for the day when the S really does HTF? Or are you some combination of the above?
Well, there’s good news and some bad news. The bad news is that despite what anyone tells you, there is no perfect ammo press system that’s going to meet all of your needs. Single stage presses allow you to hold extremely tight tolerances round after round so you know that each cartridge will perform almost identically to the previous one. The problem: they’re dog slow and if you are looking to turn out a few hundred rounds, you’d better block out a good portion of the day.
Progressive presses are much faster with the high end models able to bang out 1,000 or more rounds per hour. But the ammunition they produce is like any other mass-produced item which means that you’re going to experience some degree of variability from round to round. For those folks shooting pistols, this isn’t likely to matter all that much, but if you are looking to nail that 1,000 yard rifle shot time after time, the progressive press probably isn’t going to be your best friend.
The good news, however, is that you can start with a less expensive and simpler single stage press to get started. If you later decide to go hard core, a progressive press can supplement rather than replace your single stage model, so no money will really be wasted. Even if you never get into rifle shooting, a pistol shooter can still use a single stage press to create batches of highly consistent test rounds as you develop that perfect load for your particular gun and then transfer the recipe over to the progressive press for mass production.
So let’s take a more thorough look at the benefits of reloading. We’ll start with the cost savings approach. First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way – if you are looking to save money by reloading, the only way it’s really going to work out is for you to reuse your spent brass. Generally speaking, 1/2 to 2/3 of the cost of a round of ammunition is in the brass. To see any measurable savings, you are going to need to reuse that brass as much as possible.
Yes, in some cases you can still get some savings on a per-round basis buying new brass, powder, primers and bullets and assembling them yourself. But depending on the round in question, the savings might be so small – particularly if you buy bulk ammo when you find it on sale – that it takes a very long time to pay back the initial investment in reloading equipment.
On top of the component costs, you need to factor in your time. What’s an hour of your time worth? For me, between my job, my family with two young children and my other interests, I have precious little free time. So spending a lot of it reloading for a miniscule cost savings doesn’t make sense to me. On the other hand, if you are single and your job doesn’t consume a lot of your time, you might consider your time to be cheap and reloading – even if the savings is small – still makes financial sense.
Let’s look at the cost for the reloading gear. One of the first things that a beginning reloader will have to decide on is what type of press to get. To massively generalize, there are three main types of presses available. The first and simplest is the single stage press. Examples include the RCBS Rockchucker, the Hornady Lock N Load and the Lee Challenger.
This type of press has a single reloading die socket which means that each round will require multiple passes through the press. This is the slowest arrangement as you have to adjust each die each time you mount it. For rifle rounds, you’re going to be using two dies and for most handguns, you’ll be using three.
On the plus side, a single stage press affords the most precision, so it makes sense for larger caliber rifle rounds as you generally don’t need to make a ton of them. In a typical shooting session, I might touch off 150-200 pistol rounds, but it’s rare for me to shoot more than 40-50 .300 Win Mag rounds. The obvious exception here is rounds destined for your AR or similar military style rifle where shooting a couple hundred rounds of .223 or .308 in a single session isn’t unusual. A single stage press runs in the range of $100 – $150.
The second style is the turret press such as the Lyman T-Mag 2, the Lee Classic 4 hole, or the Redding T-7. These models are similar to the single stage except that they have a rotatable turret that allows you to mount all of your reloading dies and possibly a powder measure at the same time. You mount your shell in the press and then rotate the turret head between the various stations for each step.
Most of the turret press manufacturers offer spare turrets so you can set up your dies and swap turrets for different calibers. This the basic entry level set-up if you plan to do moderate volumes of pistol reloading and a turret press will run you between $150 – $200.
The final style is the progressive press such as the RCBS Pro 2000 and the Hornady Lock N Load Progressive. Like the turret style press, these models have multiple stations for your various dies and powder measure. On these systems, you rotate the shell holder between the stations as you do the various reloading steps. These are the fastest reloading systems with hourly outputs of several hundred rounds, but they are also the most expensive running in the $400+ range.
Just like asking someone what’s the best gun for a beginner, there are plenty of opinions about which is the best type of press for the beginning reloader. Based upon my (albeit limited) experience, let me add my thoughts to the mix. If you primarily plan to reload rifle rounds, go with the single stage press. It’s the simplest, the cheapest and the type most capable of producing very consistent loads.
If you want something that can handle rifle reloading accurately but you also want to dabble in handgun reloading, go with a turret press. And if your primary goal is large volume pistol reloading, then the progressive is really the only way to go. Many reloaders have two or more presses for different tasks, but as I’ll argue later, unless you’re into competitive handgunning where you need a large amount of custom-tuned handgun ammo, chances are that when you factor in your time, it will take a very long time to recoup your costs on the reloading gear if all you plan to reload is handgun ammo.
I decided to initially go the route of the single stage press as my primary need was for very accurate rifle cartridges. For this, I purchased the RCBS Rock Chucker starter kit which included most of the things you need to get started including a scale, a powder measure, a handheld priming tool and some other accessories. While I don’t plan to reload most of my handgun cartridges, I do want reloads for my .44 magnum as ammo for this caliber tends to run $30+ per box. To handle that, I added the Lyman T-Mag 2 and a .44 caliber die set to my setup.
OK, get our your calculator. The RCBS Rock Chucker Master Kit cost me $345. Die sets in .300 Win Mag and .308 ran me $32 a piece. I also needed shell holders for each caliber which were another $7.22 each. Cases tend to lengthen a bit on shooting, particularly rifle rounds, so I needed a trimmer. I went with a Hornady Cam Lock trimmer for about $69.
You’re going to need to clean your cases after each shooting session. You can do it manually, one case at a time, but that takes more time than I want to invest. So I purchased RCBS’s vibratory case cleaner for $78 along with 5 lbs. of walnut cleaning medium for $17. A bullet puller is a good idea since everyone makes mistakes. My Kinetic Bullet puller clocked in at $17. You are also going to need to prep your cases. This involves some reaming as well as cleaning the primer pocket. The RCBS kit included manual tools for this, but I wanted to automate this step as well. I purchased the RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep center for $120.
Finally, I needed a way to measure the length of the cases. As I noted earlier, cases stretch a bit on shooting and you need to ensure that they’re within SAAMI specs. To do that, you’ll need a set of calipers, so I added a Frankford Arsenal Digital Caliper to my collection for about $23. If you plan to reload military brass, you are going to need a tool to remove the primer crimp placed on military cartridges, so I bought a Dillon Precision Super Swage for about $101.
Total cost for my reloading setup to handle two rifle cartridges was about $728 not including the $120 trim mate case prep center which is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have item. To enable me to reload my .44 magnum cartridges, I had to get a .44 mag die set for about $51 and a shell holder for another $7. As I said before, I plan to use my Lyman T-mag 2 press for this, which added $185 to the cost. Total out of pocket including the case prep center came to about $907.
So that’s our introduction with an overview of reloading gear cost. In part two, we’ll take an in-depth look at the two primary arguments for reloading; cost savings and accuracy.