[ED: With more and more attempts to raise the cost of ammunition — justified by an alleged desire to reduce “gun violence” — more people in places like Washington, California, and Connecticut among others, are considering the benefits (and fun) of loading their own ammunition. Besides avoiding background checks, taxes and who knows what else (depending on where you live) reloading also has the benefit of saving you money over time.]
Reader Thundervoice writes . . .
I’ve been reloading for about four and a half years. The first couple of years saw limited quantities while I adjusted to rolling my own. Then I started cowboy action shooting in June 2017 and started cranking out a lot of .38 Special and 12 gauge reloaded ammo for matches (sometimes I shoot in three or four matches in a month).
About two years ago, I started keeping a reloading log so that I could track what I was doing over time. Between the log and invoices for materials I’ve ordered, I can provide a pretty good estimate of what it costs for me to reload. The costs are broken down by equipment, bullet, primer, powder, and brass.
I don’t include the cost of my time in the overall calculation.
I bought a Dillon 550B off of Armslist in 2015. The person I bought it from had never taken it out of the box and I got a sweet deal on it. The deal included the loader, vibratory cleaner, media separator, scale, dies, and accessories.
If I had bought it all new in 2015, it would have cost about $1200. Yes, you can get into reloading for less, but this is how I did it.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve reloaded about 7,000 rounds of .38 Special. That results in an equipment cost of $0.1714 per round. If I do another 3,000 rounds in 2020, the cost per round drops to about $0.12/round. For purposes of the overall calculation, I’m using the $0.17/round value.
For cowboy action shooting, I use a lead 105 grain flat point truncated cone bullet. These are available from a variety of providers. I have ordered then in quantities of 1,000-3,000 and the cost per round works out to $0.069 including the shipping costs.
Make sure you are on good terms with your mailman. Having them carry 3,000 rounds of lead bullets (~45 lbs.) to your door in a box that is typically close to falling part is something to thank them for.
As a point of comparison, copper plated 9mm 115 gr bullets run about $0.072 each and full metal jacket 9mm 115 gr bullets cost about $0.105 each.
When I bought my reloading equipment, the guy included several thousand primers as part of the deal. The small pistol primers (SPP) were CCI, which I found out are somewhat shunned by cowboy shooters, but they still proved to be useful when I traded them for powder.
I initially bought a bunch of Winchester SPP, then a bunch of Federal SPP when they became available. I bought my Winchester SPP for $0.031 round. When bought in quantities of 5,000 or 10,000, the cost per round for Federal primers is about $0.036 each, including shipping and hazmat charges.
I’m using the cost of the Federal primer for my overall cost calculation. My observation of primer costs in retail stores is that they are much more expensive, typically about $4.95 for 100 primers, or almost $0.05 each.
I use Hodgdon Titegroup powder. It’s been a while since I bought any as I traded my CCI primers with another cowboy shooter for a big jug of powder.
For the purposes of the overall calculation, I’m using the cost of buying a 4 lb. jug online including the shipping and hazmat charges, although you can find specials that reduce or remove hazmat charges if you’re patient.
That results in a per-round powder cost of $0.01. If you buy a 1 lb. can for $30 (about what it costs in local retail stores), the powder cost is $0.012 per round.
Brass is the most expensive of the reloading components. It’s also the only component that isn’t consumed when the gun goes bang. Picking up spent brass is a big part of cowboy matches because almost everyone rolls their own.
I can’t calculate the cost of the range brass because it was either from ammo I bought before I started reloading or stuff I’ve picked up at matches or other ranges that wasn’t my own ammo.
I use the range brass for practice sessions. For competitions, I use Starline brass. When I bought it, I paid $0.1305/round for 1,000. Today, that cost is $0.1415/round.
I mark the headstamp of my brass with a colored Sharpie when I reload it so I know how many times it’s been fired. I’ve got bins with Starline brass that has been fired between 1 and 6 times. My plan is that after I use it 10 times, I’ll put it in with the range brass.
The key question with the cost of brass is whether to include it in the cost per round calculation. If you’re re-using your brass, then there’s no brass cost and this is where reloading really begins to pay off, as the brass is the most expensive component of a loaded cartridge.
When you add up the numbers, you get a total cost per reloaded round of $0.4265 (0.17+0.069+0.036+0.01+0.1415). But wait, you say, I can buy .38 Special ammo for les than that!
AmmoSeek shows per round costs starting around $0.20 per round for 158gr brass case .38 Special FMJ. Yes, you can get ammo cheaper, but that ammo won’t do what I need it to.
Cowboy ammo has to be lead ammo, no metal jackets allowed. And it uses lighter bullets downloaded to reduce recoil. My load produces a velocity of 650-700 fps out of my pistols.
If I were to buy a 105 gr TCFP .38 Special rounds online, it would cost about $0.44/round. So even with all the costs included, I’m still saving money by reloading.
The real value in reloading is eliminating the cost of the brass and the declining cost of the reloading equipment. If you eliminate the cost of the brass, the cost per round drops to $0.285.
After I reload this caliber for another year, the per round cost of the equipment will have dropped the overall price by another nickel. If I eliminate the cost of the equipment from the equation, then the cost per round drops to $0.115. That means it basically cost me a dime plus a cent each time my gun goes bang (that’s the value of the bullet, powder, and primer).
With an assumed cost of $1200 for the equipment and $391.50 for a year’s supply of brass that is used over and over, how many rounds do I need to reload to recoup the cost of the equipment and brass? Based on my per round consumable cost of $0.115 and a retail purchase price of $0.44, I save $0.325 on each cartridge I reload. That means I need to reload about 4,900 rounds to recover the cost of the equipment and brass. I’m well past that point already so I have recovered the cost of my initial expenditure.
A year or so after getting into cowboy shooting, I got tired of paying retail prices for my shotgun shells. I won’t go into the same level of detail for shotshells, but the cost of the consumables are $0.108 for lead shot, $0.043 for the powder, $0.033 for the primer, and $0.054 for the wad, resulting in a total of $0.238 per shell, or $5.95 per box.
I’ve seen retail box prices for the 980 fps low recoil shells range between $7.80 and $13.50, so I’m definitely saving money on my shotgun loads as well.
Overall, having a reloader has been a good deal for me for a variety of reasons. The two biggest are saving money and being able to create exactly the load that I want. But I also enjoy going into my space for 30 minutes at a time to churn out another 100 rounds of ammo (and I can do it in even less time if I want to).
When I bought the reloader, I had no prior experience and no mentor to show me what to do. I just watched some YouTube videos for help with the setup and read some reloading books.
Reloading isn’t difficult if you prepare, make a plan, and go slow. I’m glad I spent more money up front to get a progressive reloader, as that has saved a lot of time over the years.
I’ve made my share of mistakes during the five years of reloading but thankfully have never had a squib, just the occasional primer installed upside down or trying to put a bullet in the case sideways (hint: it doesn’t go in that way).
If you shoot a lot, it is definitely something I would recommend.