Every serious shooter has at least thought about doing it. Reloading, or handloading, is a great way to get the most out of your shooting experience. If you’re into extreme high-accuracy competitive shooting, reloading is a must. If not, you can still tune your cartridge loads to get the greatest possible performance out of your firearm.
Reasons to reload
Besides greater accuracy, reloading can be a fun and highly educational experience in itself. It can be a life-long pursuit and a great way to pass the time between competitions or hunting seasons. If you have a rare, antique gun for which ammunition is no longer sold, you may have no choice but to reload.
There is a huge range of practical reasons to reload. It’s a great way to get around the occasional shortages in manufactured ammunition. Storebought ammo is pretty great these days, but, besides improving accuracy and performance, by reloading you can increase the consistency of your rounds, which can make all the difference in competition shooting. You also get to choose from a wider range of propellants, or powders, and projectiles, or bullets than those that are available in storebought ammo. If you are training a novice shooter who hasn’t yet grown into his or her boots, you can choose to load rounds with a light powder load to reduce recoil. Then, they can graduate to standard loads as they get the hang of things. Conversely, you can push the power of cartridges by reloading ‘hot’ wildcat rounds, but you better know exactly what you’re doing.
There are a lot of safety concerns regarding reloading, it’s not something you do over a couple of beers. First, trying to fire rounds that have been improperly reloaded can cause your barrel to explode, killing you. Besides, there are a lot of safety concerns during the reloading process. A lot of the chemicals involved are corrosive and/or explosive. Use proper protection, like gloves and safety glasses, and keep careful track that you are using the right volumes of the right powders with the correct components for your weapon. If you choose to cast your own lead bullets, you will face a whole new slew of safety considerations regarding ventilation and molten heavy metal.
Will you save money on ammo if you reload? That’s a tough question. Most shooters find that they cancel any cost savings from reloading by shooting more. You will have a substantial initial capital outlay to recoup. If you’re going for the greatest possible accuracy, you’ll have extra expenses for better equipment and components. You will also end up spending a lot on experimentation until you find the right loads for your gun. However, if you buy components in bulk, you will end up saving money.
How reloading works
Each handgun or rifle cartridge has four components:
- a case
- a primer
- a projectile
Reloading is simply the process of researching what the best combination of these four components is for your firearm and purposes and putting them together in the safest and most effective way.
The case is the component that is most specific to the chamber of your gun. You have choices of manufacturers, but not much else to consider here. The case is also the component that requires the most attention in the reloading process, which we’ll get into below. All handgun and rifle cases have a neck that holds the bullet, an internal chamber for the powder, a primer pocket to hold the primer, and a flash hole through which the primer ignites the powder. Cases are made of brass, just like they were over a hundred years ago. Don’t try to reload military surplus steel or aluminum shells.
Primers are about the size and shape of a small pill. They are made of metal and contain a special priming compound. Most primers used today are ‘boxer style,’ and come in two sizes, big and small. It is unrealistic to reload rimfire cartridges like .22LR, which do not have a replaceable primer.
Even though cartridge shell technology hasn’t changed much in over a century, propellant, or powder technology has evolved substantially, giving you a huge range of options to choose from. Different powders burn faster or slower and are suited to different types of shooting. It is essential that you choose a suitable powder for your gun and measure out the right amount. This is one of the key steps to ensure safe, effective shooting.
Projectiles, or bullets, come in different calibers, or diameters. That means that you don’t go out and buy .30-06 bullets for reloading, but simply .30 bullets that can be used in a .30-06 round or potentially in a .308, depending on the bullet weight. Bullet weight is usually measured in grains. This is where a lot of opportunity for customization comes in. Different shooting applications require different bullet weights, so you’ll have to do your research. It’s all part of the fun. Besides, there is a huge variety of bullet designs to choose from. A lot of it has to do with terminal ballistics, meaning, what happens when the bullet hits its target. For example, to kill an animal, you want a bullet that will expand and immediately dump a large amount of energy, mortally wounding the animal and hopefully immediately knocking it down.
There is a huge range of equipment that you need for reloading, or that will at least make the process much easier. The most vital equipment is the reloading press, dies, and shell holder.
A reloading press clamps to a workbench and has a long lever you pull to operate it. With each pull, a shell, sitting in a shell holder, is forced into a die, which performs one of several stages of the reloading process, which we’ll cover below. There are two main types of reloading press today, single-stage and progressive. A single-stage press is best for beginners because it helps you keep track of each step of the process. With a single-stage, you will load shells in small batches of 20-30 at a time. After one step is complete for the batch, you swap out the die and do the next stage. A turret press is a type of single-stage press that makes swapping dies as easy as a twist of the wrist. All the dies are mounted on a rotating structure which you turn to move to the next reloading stage.
With a progressive press, you can do the complete reloading process for each shell sequentially. You put the shell in the shell holder, pull the lever, then rotate a structure holding the shell holder so that the shell will be placed under the next die. Before pulling the lever, put another shell in the first position so that it will go through the first step while the original shell goes through the second as you pull the lever. It’s much more of an assembly line. Once you get started you’ll have a shell in play at all four stages with each pull of the lever. Then, with every pull, a completed shell will drop out. Progressive presses are a lot more expensive than single-stages.
Check out our guide to the best single-stage, turret, and progressive reloading presses. If you’re looking for the best one for a beginner reloader, check here. If you demand the utmost precision, check out some of these presses.
The shell holder and dies are designed for the specific caliber that you are reloading. You can buy different sets for the same press. Generally speaking, each set of dies includes:
- a resizing and decapping die
- a bullet seating and crimping die
- maybe a neck expanding die for straight-walled cases, to help seat the projectile
Here are our reviews of the best reloading dies.
Presses can have a powder meter stage before bullet seating which attaches like a normal die and deposits the correct amount of powder into the case.
Resizing is necessary because used shells expand in the chamber. They must be returned to their initial shape before being reloaded. Bullet seating means installing the bullet in the neck of the case. Crimping means tightening the neck to the bullet, protecting the powder, and increasing the pressure upon ignition.
You will need to use tiny amounts of die lubricant on your cases.
Before getting busy on the press, you will have to prepare your brass. The first step is cleaning them. For that you will use a brass tumbler. You can choose a rotating filled with liquid cleaning chemicals or a vibrating tumbler filled with abrasive media made of walnut shells or corn cob. Both work fine. Ultrasonic tumblers are a more space-age option.
As noted, cases must be resized to a slightly shorter diameter. Over time, re-shot shells will increase in length too. You will need to cut the neck back to the correct length. For that you will need a case trimmer, which is often like a hand-held lathe. Calipers can come in handy to guarantee uniformity in length. Then you’ll use a chamfer to smooth the hard edge you just cut. If you have really shot a given shell many times, you may even want to use a case annealer to restore its structural integrity.
Here’s a look at the best case trimmers out there.
Then, you have to make sure that the primer pocket and flash hole are clean and smooth. For that, you’ll need handheld primer pocket cleaning and uniforming tools. If a priming stage isn’t set up on your press, you’ll probably use a handheld priming tool to insert the primer into the base of the case.
A good scale is essential for reloading. Ideally, you want to make sure all of your components are uniform in weight. This is crucial for the powder load. You can use a powder trickler to fine-tune the amount of powder that you are loading.
Here are our picks for the best powder scales and powder tricklers.
A headspace gauge can help you determine the perfect bullet seating depth.
Finally, a bullet puller lets you take cartridges apart. This can help you reuse components or correct any reloading mistakes.
The reloading process
You can get a pretty good idea of the reloading process from the equipment descriptions above, but here it is all laid out.
- The first step is to research and consult reloading manuals to determine the best load for your intended purpose.
- If your empty cases are not new, clean them in a vibrating, rotating, or ultrasonic case cleaner.
- Then, ensure that all the cases are free from any cracks or defects. Consider annealing them if their structural integrity is at all suspect. If you are not using carbide dies, lubricate every 5th or 6th case with a tiny amount of lube.
- Resize the cases using the appropriate die on the press. The spent primer will usually be removed at the same time.
- Measure and trim the length of your cases as necessary. Deburr and chamfer the lip of the cases.
- Resize the neck with the appropriate die.
- Use your primer pocket cleaning and uniforming tools and flash hole cleaner to prepare the shell for a new primer.
- Seat a new primer into each case until it is flush with the base of the case.
- Add the correct amount of powder, possibly from a powder measure attached to your progressive press. Ensure absolute accuracy in the type and quantity of powder loaded.
- Seat and crimp the bullet into the shell using your press.
- Finally, Inspect your finished product.
Here are some important rules for safe reloading. Remember, you could kill yourself or others if you are not careful. This is not an exhaustive list. You are responsible for taking all necessary precautions.
- Store powder in a cool, dry, safe location. Do not use the wrong kind of powder. Be especially careful not to confuse modern smokeless powder with black powder. Never smoke anywhere near powder. Discard any unlabelled or potentially mislabeled powder.
- Follow the recommendations you find in reloading manuals to the letter. Do not substitute with components, especially powder and projectiles, that have not been recommended. Start with the minimum recommended powder load. If unsure of the minimum load, start at load 15% lower than the maximum load. Inspect each shot for excess pressure before continuing to shoot. Do not exceed maximum or minimum loads.
- Check each case visually to avoid double powder loads. This is a common mistake and it can kill you.
- Any time you change a reloading component, pressure levels will change, so you will have to start developing your load from square one again. Even different lots of product from the same manufacturer can cause a significant difference.
- If a few hundred primers go off together, the impact will be equal to a hand grenade. Do not store them together in bulk. Discard unlabeled primers.
- Follow bullet seating and overall length recommendations carefully. They can have a huge impact on pressure levels.
- Keep your reloading area tidy, organized, and clean. Immediately clean up spilled powder or primers
- Read the instructions that came with your reloading equipment and contact the manufacturer with any questions.
- Only reload in a sober, alert, undistracted, and well-rested state of mind.
Reloading can be lots of fun as long as you respect the safety precautions necessary. It is a skill that every accomplished shooter should have. Check out our guides on some of the best reloading equipment that money can buy. Stay safe, do your research, hit the range as often as you can, and have fun!