This is the second of two posts on the basics of reloading ammunition. See part one here.
If there’s one thing I like more than shooting it’s being a cheap bastard saving money. It’s the main reason I got into reloading: more shooting for less bucks. Eco-warrior that I am, reloading spent brass also gives me something to do with all that spare metal. I mean, you can’t just throw it away.
Anyway, despite the hype you may hear from reloading advocates — or more likely, people who sell reloading equipment — the money you “save” by reloading depends largely on how much you shoot. I’ll do a simple cost breakdown and let you, the reader, decide whether reloading makes economic sense. The example I use will be a cartridge I reload.
As I wrote in part 1 of this series, there are four primary components to a cartridge: case, primer, powder and projectile (bullet). When I talk about costs, I’m only going to mention the last three items; the components that are expended when the round is fired. The case is a special case. We’ll get to that….
For .38 Special, the load I like to use is about three grains of Bullseye, a 158 grain Round Nose Lead (RNL) bullet or a 148 Grain Wadcutter (WC). Primers are Small Pistol and my Auto Prime requires that I use either Winchester or CCI primers.
I’m using the prices from the Brownells. And though I think they are a tad high, they are probably fairly representative of what most reloaders would actually pay. Brownells is a mail order company, but for reasons I’ll describe below, I prefer to buy all of my components locally rather than mail ordering them.
Alliant Bullseye powder $21.99/LB
CCI Small Pistol primers: $33.99/1000
Hornady Swaged 148gr SWC Bullet $51.98/500
Of course, that’s the bulk cost. Figuring out the unit cost is a little more tricky, except for the bullets of course which, at $52 for 500, work out to a little more than a dime a piece.
A pound is 7,000 grains, so you can theoretically load 2,333 .38 special cartridges with a pound of Bullseye. That works out to $0.0094 per round. Round it up and call it a penny per round.
Primers are also easy to figure; each primer fills a cartridge. That runs .3399 per round. Round up to $0.034 and call if four cents each.
So at four cents for the primer, 10 for the bullet and a penny for the powder, the approximate component cost per round (not counting the case) is 15 cents. At 50 rounds per box that works out to $7.50. That’s pretty good—the cheapest .38 special FMJ ammo I’ve seen lately is $19/box…if you can find it in stock.
Now, having said all that, you can do better if you shop around. For example, last time I bought bullets in bulk, I’m pretty sure I paid around $35-$40 for 500 rounds.
Really, it doesn’t make much sense to mail order reloading components except for the cases. Powder and primers are considered “hazmat” (hazardous materials). The additional shipping charges will eat up a lot of your savings (unless you live in a really remote area). As you know, bullets are heavy which means shipping can be expensive on those as well. For that reason, I prefer to buy my expendable components locally.
The reason I didn’t count brass in the per-round cost is because, of course, brass is reusable. So, if you only load rounds once, the cost for brass (about 16 cents each for .38) pushes the total costs up to about $15.50 for 50 rounds. You still save, but you safe a lot less. However, every time you re-use your brass, the cost drops. Put more simply, the more you shoot, the more you save.
As for how long you can reuse a case, that’s like asking “how high is up?” I rarely throw away a case unless it has a crack in the rim wall or is so badly bent it can’t safely be reused. Because .38 is such a low-powered round, those cases can usually be reloaded 10 to 12 times before becoming unsafe.
NOTE: ALWAYS INSPECT THE CASE BEFORE RELOADING.
The cost breakdown for rifle cartridges is similar. But because rifles use a lot more powder (my .30-06 loads use about 60 grains of powder), you get a lot fewer rounds per pound of powder. Rifle bullets, being typically complex designs including a copper jacket, soft point and lead filler, are also more expensive.
Even there, though, the money saved can be significant.
Hodgdon H4895 powder $29.99/LB
CCI Large Rifle primers: $33.99/1000
Nosler Ballistic Tip BT bullets, 125 GR $25.99/50
At 60 grains per round, that pound of powder will fill 116 cases. That’s $.26 per charge. With the primer at three cents, and the bullets at 52 cents apiece, that’s $0.81 per round or $16.20 a box—about half the cost of decent hunting-grade rifle ammo.
Of course, you have to consider the cost of the reloading equipment as well. Like the brass, the more you use it, the more you save. Theoretically, there should be a point at which you’ve saved enough to cover the cost of the reloading equipment.
I say theoretically, because, like most hobbyists, reloaders have a tendency to acquire more and more gear as they go along: scales, digital powder measures, case trimming tools, case tumblers, chronographs for measuring bullet speed, bullet casting equipment, and eventually progressive loaders. All of which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
By the time you count the cost of the brass and the equipment you will need/want, the per-round cost savings can quickly disappear. Again…unless you shoot a lot. Even with my single-stage press setup I probably have nearly $500 invested in reloading gear. $500 could buy a lot of factory-loaded ammo. But as much as I shoot, it’s long ago paid for itsef.
Based on the above, it’s obvious that in strictly economic terms, reloading probably doesn’t make sense for the casual shooter. Nor does it make much sense for someone who fires a cartridge that is widely available in bulk quantities at (what used to be) low prices, like 5.56mm NATO/.223 or 7.62 x 39mm (7.62 Russian) and is content to shoot military-grade ammo.
But for someone who shoots hundreds or thousands of rounds a month (competitive shooters, for example), the savings can add up quickly. Particularly when you consider that the most expensive items (the reloading equipment and the brass) are reusable and don’t wear out in a hurry.
There are other valid non-economic reasons to reload. First and foremost these days is basic availability. Good luck finding much of the ammo you like to shoot most often right now. And no one knows how long it will be before production catches up to demand. Judging by past buying surges, it could be years.
Another reason to roll your own is that reloading lets you shoot cartridges that the big ammo manufacturers don’t sell. I hunt antelope in Wyoming using a .30-06 rifle. While the .30-06 is an excellent cartridge, antelope are small and fast and live in wide-open grasslands that demand long shots (200 yards is typical, 400 is not unknown).
Most commercial .30-06 loads are in the 150-180 grain bullet weight category. Which is fine out to about 200 yards. After that it drops precipitously. That’s why I like to load a lighter 125 grain bullet for a faster, flatter-shooting round.
Reloading also lets you experiment with different bullet types and shapes, or you can even cast your own lead bullets.
And the final reason to reload is for the same reason people like to grow their own vegetables, hunt their own food, or build their own houses: the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing that you did it yourself.
My wife says that a bowl of chili tastes better when she knows the peppers in it were grown by her own hand, in her own garden. In a similar way, that antelope steak tastes better to me when I know the round I used to take it is one I loaded myself. As always and in most things, your results may vary.