Interested in Reloading? Here’s the basics to get you started!
By Guest Author Chad Bliss
I remember sitting at the kitchen table as a kid, watching my father pull the handle of the green reloading press for hours while sipping his coffee, then placing the finished product into two ammo boxes. I never realized what he was doing, or why, but it was just fun to watch, and knowing that he was playing with gun powder made it all the more exciting!
There are many reasons one begins to reload their own ammunition, and the reasons vary greatly. I started because my father did it, not knowing back then that the reason for it was because it was the only way he could afford to shoot that old .300 Weatherby!
There do seem to be four basic reasons for reloading, which are affordability, the improvement of accuracy over factory ammunition, as a hobby, or simply because you cannot find what you need at your local gun shop or outdoors store. Let’s focus on the first two mentioned: affordability and accuracy.
How much you shoot and the volume of ammunition you burn up will dictate how much of a cost savings you can achieve. If you’re only shooting one box of .30-06 rounds in a year, then you can’t expect to save anything unless you already own the equipment to reload. Now I know shooting is so fun that no one in there right mind would only shoot a box a year, so let’s break it down a bit further. To get a cost of factory vs. reloaded ammunition, you must first price out the cost of the four individual components that comprise a complete cartridge; brass casings, bullets, powder, and a primer.
One can of Hodgens Varget powder is roughly 25 bucks, and will load 140 brass cases with 50 grains of powder, which translates into 18 cents per cartridge. Bullets can range anywhere between 20-60 bucks for a box of 50. I know, I know, what about this bullet or that bullet? For this exercise, I’m trying to keep it simple. I typically shoot 168 grain Barnes TTSX bullets, and they cost about $38 for 50 or about $.75 cents a pop. Primers come in a hundred for around $4.00 or $.04 cents each (yeah, they’re cheap). If you already have the brass, then it would cost you a whopping $.97 cents apiece or $19.40 for a box of what can be considered custom ammunition, tailored to your specifications. Try buying that same box of ‘premium hunting ammunition’ for that price! So let’s say you don’t have the brass. Brass can be the most expensive component in the whole process, depending on your chosen caliber. On sale at Cabela’s right now, you can purchase 50 pieces of Winchester .30-06 brass for $21.99 or $.44 cents each. See how it can add up? This is why some of us are brass crazy at the range. Your cost to reload with all new components went to $1.41 a round. That’s about $.40 cents less per round than Nosler custom ammunition featuring Accubond bullets at the local ammo depot. Jump your brass quality up to Nosler Custom brass at $47.99 and the cost keeps going up. Remember though, the better the brass, the more use you can get out of it.
Sometimes you just cannot buy the components to reload your own ammunition cheaper than you can buy it. For example, I cannot load 250 round of .45 acp, buying new brass, for much less than it cost to buy Blazer brass ammo in the same quantity. Buying in bulk will also help to lower the cost of reloading. In a nutshell: do your homework before buying your reloading components. This might save you the pain of realizing you could have done it cheaper with factory ammo and could have saved yourself some time as well!
So lets move on to accuracy. Factory ammo has come a long way in the recent past and it is seemingly more difficult to outperform factory ammo, in some cases, to a reasonable expectation. What is reasonable? Most concerning hunters want their rifle and ammunition to produce one-inch groups at 100 yards. Good factory ammo and a quality rifle should have no problem overcoming this expectation. With reloads, if done properly, you can achieve better than 1” groups. As I alluded to earlier, reloading enables you to build any bullet and powder combination (within safe specifications) you want, exacting the volume of powder, seating the bullet just deep enough, and choosing your favorite primer, wringing every last drop of accuracy out of your rifle.
After briefly discussing the two most popular reasons for reloading you need to ask yourself “Is it worth it?” I hope it is, as I have found a lot of enjoyment sitting at the bench with my family making our own ammunition to take on our hunting excursions. My wife shot her first caribou last year with a load her and I developed, tested and loaded. My son shot his third caribou this year with a round he helped to develop and load. I can only think of one big game animal I have harvested in the last ten years that wasn’t taken with a cartridge that I assembled, including a cow and a pig. Adding up the cost savings, accuracy improvements, and time spent with family while doing it, than it is a big win for me, and I am sure for others. If you don’t want to spend the money for the equipment, maybe find others that have it and work with them to help you reload your ammo. I personally would love to help anyone who wants to test drive the reloading press! I currently help friends that don’t want to make the investment but want to try it out (keeping a close eye on things for safety reasons), and have sold several on hand-loads and the idea of reloading!
Let’s get started on what basic equipment you need to get cranking out some custom rounds. I want to focus on single stage presses and equipment since it is the most common press for beginners. If you plan on loading pistol ammo or any other high volume round, you would be best to look into the progressive presses or a turret press. I load high volume pistol and .223 with the single stage but to be honest it’s because a Dillon progressive is on the Christmas list and that’s a month away! Here is a list of the basics for a single stage setup:
-Case chamfer / De-burring tool
This, in my opinion, is the basics and is offered in kits by Hornady and RCBS, minus the caliber specific die sets. Both kits are a great way to get started and would be the route the way I would advise most beginners to take. Lee makes a kit also but I don’t have enough experience with them to cast a vote, but be sure to look at them.
Both these kits can be purchased for under $300 dollars and are great way to get your feet wet in the reloading pond. I won’t recommend a brand because it’s a lot like the Chevy / Ford debate, and we all know Dodge wins… You get my drift? These kits include reloading manuals that have a ton of great information and reloading recipes that the publisher has tested.
As you learn the basics and load up a few rounds, you will start to see different things that you might want to try, or equipment you might want to upgrade. What might be the first upgrade that comes to mind? The scales! To be honest, I hate beam scales. They are slow and tedious. I upgraded to an electronic powder thrower/scale combo and would never look back. Just remember that the cost of convenience is not always cheap. Another item that I can’t stand is the lube pad and case lube that RCBS has packaged with their kit. If you want one just let me know…you can have em! I came to love the paste waxes and sprays. My point is that we all find what works for us and some of the stuff in the kit may not. You can buy the stuff you want separately but it may cost you more. Remember, garage sales and online classified ads are great places to buy lightly used gear.
Another tool that I feel should be included at the basic level is a case trimmer. You need to trim your cases if they are not within a defined specification. All reloading manuals and data I have seen call for a case trim length. You can’t achieve this without a trimmer. They don’t have to be the expensive either. I first chose a Redding trimmer but will upgrade to a Wilson.
Let’s talk about dies. Once again I won’t get into who makes the best dies. Redding, Forster, Hornady, RCBS, Lee and others all make a good set of dies. It seems in Alaska that the RCBS and Hornady are the most popular on the shelves and run about 35 bucks. I have both and have no issues with either. I prefer the Hornady dies for loading small .224 caliber bullets because it has a sliding sleeve on the seater die that helps keep the bullet aligned as you push down on the handle. This helps a lot with flat base bullets
Always clean new dies before use, and keep them oiled when not in use. Pistol dies usually come as a three piece set, the sizing die, seating die and the expanding die. Rifle comes with two, the sizing die and the seating die. Be sure to read the instructions included with the die set. The instructions will help you learn and understand the different dies and there parts and also there features like crimping and such.
Reloading manuals are another integral tool for reloading. You can never have too many manuals. The manual will give you specific information such as Case trim length, bullet type and weight, COAL (cartridge over all length), powder types and amounts for starting loads along with max loads as tested with their equipment. The equipment they use can make a difference on the performance you get from your own loads. For example, don’t expect to get the same velocities as they post with your 16” barreled AR-15. The .223 loads are tested with a bolt gun with a much longer barrel and will get higher velocities than the AR-15 platform. If you’re going to shoot Barnes bullets then buy a Barnes reloading manual, same as Nosler, Hornady or Speer. Another way to go is buying caliber specific manuals that have most of the major bullet and powder manufactures included in there data. I have one for every caliber I own. I also go to the website for every powder and bullet manufacturer and print off there load data and keep it in a three ring binder. All the loads that are published are safe per SAMMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute inc.) specs. To put it in perspective, all factory ammunition has to be manufactured to the SAMMI specs that have been tested for safety. Be cautions when using old reloading data because sometimes powders may change or data may change.
To finish up with tools, I also suggest two more items that will improve your accuracy with reloads. Both are fairly inexpensive and easy to use. They are the COAL gauge and the bullet comparator. These start to get beyond the basics in general but in my opinion I wish I had learned about these years ago. The COAL gauge will tell you exactly the max length round your rifles chamber will take (which may vary slightly from rifle to rifle, so it’s important to measure accurately). For example, Barnes bullets suggest starting your load with the bullet seated .050” off the lands. With this tool you can accurately do that. The bullet comparator helps you to measure the bullet from the ogive (a consistent point to measure from) instead of the tip, giving you better, more repeatable measurements
Finally, the last piece equipment we need to discuss is your reloading bench. I have seen presses mounted in almost every room in the house (my father used to do it at the kitchen table!). You don’t need a garage to have a place to reload. What I prefer is somewhere that is not cluttered, not too busy, and has solid surface, non-carpeted floors, for ease of sweeping up spilled powder, primers, and the like. I set mine bench up in the garage since I had one. I made my bench high enough so I didn’t have to bend over for long periods of time. Make sure you have good lighting. This will decreases fatigue and strain on the eyes and makes the experience more enjoyable. Utilizing labeled bins to keep my cases and bullets organized and up off the bench also aids in organization, which, to me, is the key to success in anything!
I hope that I have helped people understand the reasons for and the tools necessary for reloading. I am no expert on the matter but have a lot of experiences loading for fun. I have recently stepped up my efforts to increase accuracy in my loads through making everything as consistent in my loads as possible. After losing a long-range shooting bet with a buddy, with only one round separating me from winning the challenge, I promised myself it would never happen again. I hope that, even though I will still be outgunned, my precision loading might make me come out on top next time we shoot.