Reloading: A Cost/Benefit Analysis – Part Two

In part one of this post, I presented an overview of why you might want to reload as well as a cost estimate for a reloading setup. As I noted earlier, a large factor in determining whether or not to reload is the caliber you’ll need. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples and you’ll see what I mean . . .

For the first scenario, let’s look at a .308 rifle round and compare a couple of scenarios. In the first, we’ll compare factory loaded match grade ammunition to the cost of hand loading some ammo using match grade bullets. In the second, we’ll do the same comparison between the cheapest .308 milsurp ammo I can find and hand loading the least expensive bullets available.

Looking at the match grade round, we’ll select the Remington Premier Match ammunition that shoots a 168 grain Sierra Match King bullet – the gold standard of match grade ammo. A box of this currently runs about $35 for 20 rounds from Midway USA. This works out to a cost of $1.75 per round. If I decide to purchase the all of the components (including new brass) and make a comparable round myself, things look like this: A bag of 50 pieces of Federal Premium .308 brass costs about $25 or .50 per round. 100 bullets of 168 grain Sierra Match King .308 costs about $31 or .31 per round. 100 primers will set you back about $6 or .06 per round and the powder necessary to fill 50 rounds will cost about $10 or .20 per round.

Add them all up and I can make a round equivalent to our Remington example for about 1.07 each, not counting my time or the amortization of the cost of my reloading setup. That’s a savings of about .68 per round. If my reloading setup cost about $728, my break-even point is roughly 1,086 rounds, again not counting my reloading time. Now, let’s assume that I’m going to reuse my brass – the cost per round now drops to about .57 per round, increasing my savings to $1.18 each. Amortize my $728 reloading equipment investment against that and I hit break-even at only 617 rounds.

On the opposite end of the scale, I have about 800 rounds of Portuguese NATO military surplus ammo that I picked up at a cost of .44 per round. The Portuguese stuff shoots pretty well – it’s not match grade, but it’s still pretty accurate and provides a good example of the extreme low end cost of .308 rounds.

Choosing the same components as in our match grade example above, the only difference is that I’ll be purchasing 110 grain Remington .30 bullets that go for about .18 a piece.  Running the numbers above, reloading with all new components costs .94 per round.  If I re-use my brass, the cost drops to .44 per round, again, not counting my time to make 100 rounds of ammunition.

So, on the one hand, if all I plan to shoot is match grade ammo, it makes good fiscal sense to go the reloading route even if I plan to use all new components every time. It takes a bit longer to recoup all of my costs with new brass, but I still come out ahead somewhere north of 575 rounds.

Then again, if I want to shoot non-match grade stuff, reloading using all new components is a losing proposition. And even if I reuse my brass, I’m only at break-even not counting my time, so this does not seem to make much sense.

Two things to keep in mind here: first, finding decent .308 ammo at .44/round isn’t something you will come across every day, so your own breakeven point may be reached faster than mine. Second, while I haven’t weighed the Portuguese milsurp stuff, I would speculate that the bullet used in those rounds is probably heavier than 110 grains. So chances are my cost to build similar ammo would go up as I’d need to purchase a more expensive bullet to approximate its performance.

To summarize, reloading for cost savings on a basic .308 round is probably not the best way to go. On the other hand, if you want to shoot match grade ammo then reloading will probably provide a reasonably decent cost savings to justify it.

Yeah, yeah, but you shoot handguns, right? Fine, let’s take a look at reloading the .45 ACP pistol round. I can generally purchase American Eagle or similar .45s for about $18.00 a box or about 0.36 per round. When I get really lucky, I can find CCI aluminum cased rounds for $300 for 1000 or 0.30 per. For reloading with all new components, I’m going to spend by spending $18 for a box of 100 brass cases or .18 per round.

Handgun bullets are bit trickier to match. My reference American Eagle and CCI ammo has 230 grain FMJ bullets. As a reloader I have access to a number of different bullets.  For argument’s sake, I’m going to try and match the FMJ as closely as possible which means a box of 250 Nosler 230 grain bullets for $51 or .20 per round. I could also use 230 grain cast lead bullets which, in quantities of 500 pieces, go for about .13 per round, but we are trying to compare apples to apples here. The primers are about.04 apiece and the powder runs in the neighborhood of .02 per round. Total cost if using new brass: .44 each. Already a losing proposition against my American Eagles and an even bigger loser against my CCI rounds.

But if we re-use our brass, the cost per round drops to .26 and things start to make some sense, but you still need to factor in your time. Even if I use the cheaper lead bullets, my cost per round assuming case reuse is about .19 a round. With a savings of .11 per round, I would need to make over 6,618 rounds to cover my cost and at a conservative 100 rounds per hour in my single stage press, that’s 66 hours of my time.

Since I figure my free time is worth at least $50 per hour, that adds another $3,350 to my cost, which in turn makes my break-even point much higher than 6,618 rounds. Clearly, using a single stage press to make handgun ammo is a losing proposition no matter how you look at it. But using a progressive press that can turn out several hundred rounds per hour, though, would likely tip the scales in my favor down the road.

These rough calculations should give you a rough idea as to when reloading makes sense.  Keep in mind these are “back of the envelope” calculations and are subject to a fair number of assumptions including small quantity purchases of 100 units of the various reloading components. Brass, bullets, primers, and powder definitely get cheaper if you buy in bulk, so the actual point of your return on investment can be reached sooner if you are serious about this sort of thing.  To really make reloading a cost-saving endeavor, you need to go all-in. Dabblers will likely not see a reasonable ROI to justify the initial up front and ongoing expenses, let alone the time involved.

Let’s shift gears a bit here, though. So far, we’ve only looked at reloading as a potential cost-saving option. Depending on your particular circumstances this may be all the convincing you need to take the plunge, particularly if you’re a prolific shooter who sends hundreds of rounds down range every week.

What about the rest of us who may not be expending that much ordinance? Is there a good argument for getting into reloading even if the breakeven point to cover reloading gear cost is far in the distance? The answer depends largely on what you shoot. If you shoot rifles, then it’s an emphatic “yes.”  If you only shoot pistols, then the answer is probably a definite “maybe.”

When you break things down, there are a lot of elements to shooting well. You need an accurate gun and you need to have good shooting skills. In a contest between me shooting the World’s Most Accurate Pistol Ever CreatedTM and champion shooter Rob Leatham using the Crappiest Gun Ever MadeTM, Rob’s going to kick my butt every day of the week.

On the other hand, if Rob’s shooting against his clone, the one with the superior gun and ammo will likely win that contest every time. So if I’m shooting against other people with skill levels similar to mine, having the better gun and the better ammo will definitely give me an advantage. And better ammo is where reloading can come in.

Every gun is unique in that the tolerances in gun making, while precise, do allow for some variation. When you consider all of the parts that make up a gun, the individual tolerances in the various components add up to slight – but relevant – differences from one gun to the next within the same model.

While the impact of these variances is relatively minor for pistols, rifles are a whole ‘nother ballgame. Rifles are generally shot at much longer distances than the typical 25 yards pistols are used for. This means that minor deviations in the bullet’s flight upon leaving the muzzle will result in much greater deviations in the bullet’s path simply because the deviation becomes more pronounced the farther the bullet travels before striking its target. Add to that the fact that many long range shooters customize their rifles to a greater or lesser extent, changing out barrels, blueprinting the action, etc.

The end result is that almost every rifle is going to shoot a little differently from its peers and the perfect ammo load for one rifle may not shoot as well in another rifle of the same make and model. If all you have to work with is commercial ammo, you have only a few options available to you to try and find the best round for your gun.

You can generally choose the bullet type and weight, but that is pretty much it.  If, for example, you want to shoot 185 grain Sierra Match King bullets in your .308, there are only a couple of manufacturers that offer it. You have no control over the type and amount of powder used. Furthermore, the manufacturer is under no obligation to use the same primer/powder recipe every time, so the batch you buy today might very well perform differently than the batch you buy in a year from the same maker.

As a reloader, though, you get to choose the exact bullet, brass, primer and powder.  Generally speaking, powder manufacturers don’t alter their formulas over time, so you should be able to obtain the same results from a bottle of powder whether you buy it today or in six months. This means that if you take the time to create the perfect load for your individual gun, you’ll almost certainly see better results at the range or on the hunt than you will if you simply use commercially manufactured ammo.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention safety here. One thing that tends to be glossed over in the reloading community is the risk that one takes when you brew your own ammo. There is a lot of science involved in the making of a round of ammunition and if you screw something up, the results can be catastrophic. Put in too much powder by mistake, seat the bullet a little too far into the brass, fail to ensure that the primer is set flush with the bottom of the round, make a bullet that’s too long or too short and you could be facing all kinds of failures that can result in a slam fire or – worse – an explosion that ruptures the barrel of your gun throwing shrapnel in all directions.

Keep in mind that every time you pull the trigger that your face is mere inches from a very powerful explosion. You really don’t want to screw it up. Thousands of people reload safely every day, but once in a while someone makes a mistake and pays the price. Remember, too, every single gun manufacturer states in their manuals that you are only to use factory loads and if you shoot hand loads, you accept the consequences of your actions. You can reload safely, but you need to treat the process with the utmost care and pay close attention to everything you do. Otherwise, well, you get the idea.

Bottom line: reloading may make sense for you or it may not. In my analysis of the payback time frame above, the picture can be somewhat bleak. Again, your mileage may will vary considerably depending on what you shoot, particularly if you buy your components in large quantities, use cast lead bullets, etc.

For me, even if I purchase all of my components in small quantities and use very expensive bullets, in the case of my .300 Winchester Magnum rifle my analysis has shown I can save about $1.73 per round for match grade ammo. This alone allows me to recoup the cost of my setup in as few as 423 rounds for my single stage setup. When I add the benefit of developing the “perfect” round for my rifle, it really makes sense for me.

For someone who purely shoots handguns, the way I look at it, large quantity purchases, cast bullets, and a high speed progressive press are the only way to go if you want to see a reasonable ROI. My goal here was simply to present you with some hard numbers for those interested in cost savings and add in a little of the accuracy argument to tantalize you. From there, the decision is yours. Flame away!