Over the last several months, I’ve had trouble finding ammunition at my usual carriers. I use popular calibers (.45acp and .223rem) and live in the SF Bay area, so it could be due to small market/high demand forces. In either case, I’ve recently started thinking about reloading–not just to potentially save money, but limit my dependency on the supply chain. I think this might be of interest to other readers, too. Could we see a “Fundamentals of Reloading” installment?
With apologies to the dozens of other Ask Foghorn articles waiting for response, let’s talk about rolling your own . . .
It’s true: reloading can save you a ton of money. It can also render unto thee match grade ammunition precisely tuned to your specific firearm or purpose. The process is relatively simple.
Modern self-contained ammunition is composed of four main parts (from left to right): the primer, the case, the powder and the projectile. These components come together to form a single round of ammunition called a cartridge. But only three of these components are “used up” during the firing process: the primer, powder and projectile. The case can be re-used over and over again. The process of turning that used case into a fresh round of ammunition is called “reloading.”
When you pull the trigger on a firearm, the firing pin strikes the primer at the rear of the case. When it’s struck, the primer is emits a small spark. That spark travels through a small hole in the rear of the case to the main chamber. Smokeless powder waiting in that main chamber reacts with the spark and begins to burn, producing expanding gases.
These gases are trapped by the projectile (a.k.a., bullet)— which is seated in the top or “mouth” of the case and held in place by friction. When the pressure overcomes the force of friction keeping the projectile in the case, the two separate. The bullet heads down the barrel. The gasses dissipate. All that’s left is the spent brass case.
The spent brass has lost two of the components in the firing process (the powder and the projectile) but the primer remains. (You can see the indentation the firing pin made in the primer here.) Primers are self-contained components. We can swap out the used one for a fresh one. But first we need to get the used one out of the case.
Brass is a fairly malleable metal; given the right pressure it will readily expand or bend. When the gunpowder starts burning the pressure inside the cartridge forces the case to expand and even stretch slightly, changing the case’s dimensions. Before we can add fresh powder and projectiles we need to resize the case back to its original dimensions so that it will fit in the gun (magazines and chamber).
So, in short, to reload this cartridge we need to do the following:
- Remove the spent primer.
- Resize the brass case to the original dimensions.
- Insert a fresh primer.
- Add gunpowder.
- Press a new projectile into the mouth of the case.
- Apply the finishing touches.
These steps require some specially designed tools. So before I dive into the play-by-play of the reloading process let’s talk about the equipment (don’t worry — there’s a shopping list at the bottom of the article).
The first thing on any aspiring reloader’s shopping list: a reloading manual. I use Hornady’s. It provides a great overview of the reloading process and offers page after page of handload “recipes”: how much of a specific powder you should use in a specific cartridge with a specific bullet weight. Hornady’s manual also lists “ideal” loads for reloaders looking to create the best balance of speed and accuracy for a given cartridge for a given application (hunting, self-defense, target shooting, etc.).
WARNING! The proper (i.e. safe) powder charge will differ based on the weight of the bullet you use. Heavier bullets have a lower maximum charge than light bullets. While the reason is fascinating and complex (and scheduled for an upcoming Ask Foghorn) the bottom line is critical for new reloaders.
Pay attention to bullet weight so that you never exceed the recommended maximum charge for that bullet weight.
Failure to comply usually forms a direct line between your shooting bench and the emergency room. You have been warned.
The first required piece of equipment: a press. A press makes most of the tasks associated with sizing and pressing the ammunition easier. This is a Lee Hand Press (or Thighmaster, as I’ve come to call it). It’s unique in the reloading world. Most of the presses mount to a counter or workbench. The Hand Press, well, you know. Considering the device’s low price, it’s a good place to start before you invest in a monstrosity of a reloading press (especially true for apartment dwellers like myself).
Next on the list: reloading dies. A set of dies includes three bits: a deprimer / resizer, a seater and a shell holder. We’ll get into these a bit more in a second, but all you need to know right now is that dies are standardized across the industry. So no matter which brand you pick they will work with any other brand of press.
Just be sure to buy the set of dies for the caliber you want to reload (you’ll need a new set of dies for each new caliber). I recommend you get “full length” sizing dies; they do a better job of sizing the entire case. [Note: this article assumes you have full length dies.]
Also of great importance: a scale. We’re working with gunpowder in a confined space (the chamber of your firearm). Getting the weight of that charge of gunpowder is essential not only to the accuracy of your ammunition but also your personal safety.
If you put too much gunpowder in a cartridge your gun could explode in your face, possibly killing you and/or someone you love. It has happened before and it will happen again Don’t let it happen to you.
A good scale is the best step you can take to keeping yourself alive and your rounds on target. It will allow you to accurately—and thus safely—measure out each and every load. Digital scales are fine for reloading, but a simple beam balance scale is the best tool for the job.
Next up: a case trimmer. Remember how I said the case stretches as well as expands when it deforms? This tool will precisely trim-down the case back to the factory specifications.
The last piece of equipment: a set of calipers. These precisely measure the size of the case and the length of the finished cartridge. This is an important measure; a good set of calipers is a must.
Now that we have the required equipment we can start collecting brass and reloading ammunition.
This is where the process starts—a box full of spent cases. After every range trip I pick up my spent brass and put it in a pocket on my range bag. I sort it into a set of boxes back at home based on caliber. This box holds 7.62×51 NATO brass.
Heads-up! Only certain types of brass can be reloaded. “Boxer” style cases have a single central hole for the primer vent that allows the machinery to remove the primer. Other types of primers may have the hole on one side off-center. Steel or zinc cases are also not considered reloadable due to the forces required to form them back into shape. Be aware of the kind of brass you are picking up and whether it can be reloaded.
Check the manual or phone a friend. If in doubt, don’t.
As you empty your brass into the collection box (or bag or whatever) inspect every piece of brass. You’re looking for signs that the brass has begun to degrade, including cracks and holes in the side of the case. These will most likely appear near the base (head) of the cartridge where the pressures are greatest. If you see any stress marks on your cartridges discard them immediately.
Before we can start adding new components we need to remove the last remnants of the spent ones from the cases, specifically the primers. Your die set should include a sizing and depriming die (one single die that does both, often also called a “decapper”). It will remove the old primer by pushing it out and resize the brass to the proper dimensions at the same time.
Look for a small metal rod coming out of the sizing / depriming die. This metal rod will travel through the small hole in the base of the case (where the spark from the primer travels when the gun goes off) and push the primer out of place. The primer will fall through a hole in the shell holder and into a small tube in the bottom of the press. Remember to periodically empty that primer catching hole.
Let’s take a second to setup the press with the sizing die.
First, position the shell holder plate, which should come in the die kit. (If not you can order them individually online.) These plates grip the rim of the case—much like the extractor on your firearm—and hold them in place. They will also pull the cases free of the dies once they have been pressed.
The plate slots onto the bottom of the press. The rod is held in place by friction, applied through the nut at the top of the die. If you ever need to adjust the length of the rod (if it stops pushing out primers, for example) all you need to do is loosen that nut, re-adjust the rod and tighten it back down.
Notice that the die is threaded, and there’s a nut on the outside of the die. To begin, move that nut up and out of the way as you thread the die onto the upper portion of the press. Screw the die into place far enough where the bottom of the die contacts the holder positioned on the bottom when the die is closed. Then turn it 1/4 to 1/2 turns further. Once in place tighten the nut all the way down on the die to hold it in place.
Now that the press is all set up (yes?) we can start running brass through it.
Lightly apply lubricant to the exterior of the case to keep it from becoming stuck in the die. (I have three dies sitting behind me with cases stuck in them.) Lee makes a wax-based lubricant that comes in a paste tube. I highly recommend it; you can see when you have enough or too much lube on a case. The case should be slick, but you shouldn’t be able to see much lube visible on the case. There are other “quicker” ways of lubing your case but I like the slow and steady method. Try to keep the lube away from the neck (the skinny part at the top) of the case.
A properly lubed case can be positioned on the shell holder and run through the press easily. Slow and steady pressure is the best method, making sure that the bottom of the sizing die touches the top of the shell plate. This can take significant force, but the mechanism of the press is doing most of the work for you.
With necked cartridges (e.g., 5.56x45mm NATO, 7.62×51 NATO, 300 AAC BLK) the sizing process as well as the firing process has slightly extruded the case and made it longer than it was when it started life on the factory floor. This extruding process causes the wear that we looked for when we poured the brass into the collection bucket back at home. Take a second look; an unhealthy case could lead to an equally unhealthy situation on the range. It happens with straight-walled cases as well (e.g., .45-70 government, 45ACP, 9mm para) but not as quickly.
Anyway, because the case has become longer we need to trim the neck down to the proper size.
We determine the proper size for a case by looking it up in our reloading manual. There are three measurements which are extremely important on this page: Maximum C.O.L., Max Case Length and Case Trim Length.
Maximum C.O.L. or Cartridge Overall Length is the maximum allowed length of the entire completed cartridge (including projectile) to fit the cartridge into the magazine and chamber of your gun. COL also has an important role to play in velocity and chamber pressure, but that’s another story for a more advanced look at reloading. All you need to know right now: never exceed the listed COL, measuring from the tip of the projectile to the rear of the case.
Max Case Length is the maximum length of the case for the cartridge to fit in the chamber. If the case is too long then it could get stuck or potentially cause the chamber pressure to rise to a dangerous level (see a theme here with the death and destruction?). You do not want to exceed the maximum case length, as measured from the back of the case to the top of the mouth.
The Case Trim length is the ideal length to which you should trim the cases once they exceed the maximum case length. Somewhere between the max length and the trim length is good enough. But be aware that trimming too short could lead to accuracy issues.
How do you trim the case so precisely as to not anger the reloading Gods? Using one of these, of course!
What we have here is a miniature hand-cranked lathe. It can be precisely tuned to trim off exactly the required length of brass. In other words, it’s my favorite tool of all time. This one is produced by RCBS; there are other versions available. It takes some trial and error to set up a mini-lathe (expect to throw away some brass). Once it’s been locked down you can happily trim for hours on end.
After trimming, the case is usually ragged around the freshly trimmed mouth. This piece of kit—a chamfering and deburring tool—smooths out the edges. It’s not required equipment, but it helps make things nice and shiny. Check the cartridge length once you’re good to go.
The last step of the prep process is completely optional, but I like to do it. The brass comes out of the reloading process a little dirty (second to right). With a little polish the rounds will look factory new and probably feed better in your gun (right). Brass tumblers are available from a number of different manufacturers.
Congratulations! You now have a “prepped” piece of brass. The most time consuming and annoying parts are over. Now we can actually load a fresh round of ammunition. As we go through this section I’ll throw in a little something about the consumables you’ll need to purchase at each step, starting with the primers.
Primers come in all shapes and sizes; you need to figure out which ones are right for your ammunition of choice. The reloading book (well, Hornady at least) will happily tell you the primers they used in their loads. Primers are usually sold in lots of 1,000 for small primers or 100 for large primers.
Putting a new primer into cartridge = inserting it into the empty “primer pocket” at the rear of the case. Here you can see the primer pocket, and the flash hole where the spark enters the main chamber as the gun goes off (also where the deprimer rod punched out the primer). The primer is held in place by friction. The new primer needs to be “press fit” into the hole.
Before fitting a new primer check to see if there’s been a crimp fitted around the previous primer hole. [NB: military ammunition usually has a primer crimp.] Look for a recessed ring around the primer pocket.The crimp makes fitting the new primer slightly more annoying, but certainly not impossible. You’ll need to remove the crimp before the new primer can be seated. Otherwise, the primer may not function properly. Extract the prime using what’s called a primer pocket swage (or something similar).
Now that the primer pocket is ready we can press-in a new primer. I like to use the Lee hand prime, which allows me to prime lots of brass quickly. Be aware that the hand prime needs its own special shell plate to work. Also: wear safety glasses.
NEVER prime brass which already has gunpowder in it. That could end very, very badly.
Speaking of gunpowder, that’s the next step in the process.
There are a number of different types and blends of powder, and it can be a little overwhelming choosing the right one. never fear: Hornady is here! Well, their book at least.
The reloading manual will describe a number of “recipies” of powder charges for the given bullet weight and type you’re using. Naturally Hornady has hand crafted their book to fit their own bullets. But as long as the weight is the same the charges indicated will be safe to use. As I said before, the powder charge will vary depending on the weight of the bullet, so be sure to pick out a bullet weight and stick with it for that specific run of ammunition.
A little powder safety first:
- Never place the powder near an open flame.
- Never mix powder from different bottles, even if it’s the same company and the same name.
- NEVER exceed the maximum indicated charge (shown above in red) for a recipe.
- Never use pistol powder in a rifle cartridge unless specifically instructed to do so by a trusted source (like a reloading manual).
Now that we’ve picked a powder and charge we can start loading-up some primed cases. Powder weights are usually given in grains. The RCBS scales are calibrated in grains as well. Be sure to zero your scale before you start using it. Be wary of any air conditioning or fans in the area as the breeze will throw off your measurements. No, really.
You now have a primed and charged piece of brass. It’s time to cap off the reload by pressing the projectile into the mouth of the case.
The first thing we need to do: swap out the die on our reloading press. The sizing die has done its job and can be unscrewed. The seating die can now take its place.
The bullet seating die installs the same way as the sizing die, only this time once the die is screwed-in to the point where it contacts the shell plate back it out 1/4 turn. After adjusting the die position and locking it into place with the nut, back out the seating adjustment knob (at the top of the die). This thingie will precisely seat the bullet so that you get the right COL on the cartridge. But we need to start way back so that we don’t accidentally seat a projectile too far.
Once the press is set up simply pop a primed and charged case onto the shell holder, balance a new projectile on top and then close the press. This stage requires some finesse; you don’t want to pound the thing home. Apply just enough pressure to pop the bullet into the mouth, then stop pressing when you feel the press starting to give resistance. Check to make sure your round meets the right COL, adjust and re-press as required.
Congratulations! You’ve made a single round of ammunition! Now to do it again and again and again and again…
Reloading 300 AAC BLK is only slightly more complicated, but the basic steps are the same. Here’s a video I did a while back illustrating how to reload.
I hope that answers any questions you have about getting started, but I get the feeling I’ll be updating this post as the comments come rolling in. Here’s the new reloader’s shopping list:
- Reloading Manual
- Hand Primer
- Bullet Puller
For those about to comment, I salute you! I’d really love to hear your favorite loads for different calibers. Please feel free to post them below.