There are four steps needed to reload a round of center fire ammunition:
- Clean and resize the case back to a serviceable size
- Remove the expended primer and replace it with a new primer
- Replace the gunpowder
- Replace the projectile and crimp it into the case
There are a myriad of ways to approach these tasks, and many manufacturers who produce the necessary equipment. I am not going to be pushing any particular approach, and specifically not any one manufacturer’s equipment. The four big boys on the block, let’s call them Red, Orange, Green and Blue, all make a variety of excellent equipment. Whilst some of their equipment may be better for certain reloading tasks than others, your individual decision will depend on a variety of factors including:
- Do you want to reload pistol, rifle or both pistol and rifle ammunition?
- How much ammunition are you going to reload?
- Are you time poor and finance rich (lucky you)?
- How much space do you have available?
- What is your budget?
My aim is to cover all the issues you need to make an informed decision on approach and equipment. So, let’s get started on the list of 4 tasks above.
I have watched a number of my fellow club shooters experiencing feed problems with their reloaded ammunition, especially with semi-autos. My first question is always: do you clean your cases before reloading? Too often, the answer is no.
When fired, cases experience very high temperatures and lots of residual powder, soot, etc. Oil on the firearm may also burn itself onto the case during firing. These contaminants will attach themselves to the outside of the case, and if not removed, have the potential to transfer to the reloading dies, causing problems with the reloading process, and eventually to various parts of the firearm causing feed/extraction problems. So, please clean your cases. The best and most efficient way is in a case tumbler (Figure 1). A case tumbler is a simple vibrating bowl filled with a mildly abrasive media, usually crushed walnut shells or corn husks. The choice of media is up to you, and often dictated by what your local gun store has available. Case tumblers are relatively cheap, around $150-200. Media costs $1-3/pound, depending on the specific type. The amount of media you need depends on the size of the tumbler, but generally 2 pounds is enough. Walnut shell media is generally used for dirty cases and the corn husk media for a final polish if you want really nice looking brass. Some manufacturers also sell polishing fluid which can be added to the tumbling media for an enhanced shine. I find the walnut shell media is adequate. Do not use normal household brass cleaning fluids as these often contain corrosive materials which will weaken the case walls and shorten the service life of your cases.
Cases are cleaned by placing them into the tumbler containing the cleaning media and running the tumbler until the cases are clean. I use a simple electric timer to turn the tumbler off after 2 hours, which is usually sufficient.
Separating the cases from the media can be accomplished using a purpose built rotating cage separator costing about $50. If you are separating multiple caliber cases, there are sorting trays available which have varying size holes which catch the larger cases in the top trays, and allow smaller cases to fall through to the next tray, etc. A set of these trays costs about $40. Personally, I use a plastic tray (Figure 2) made from an old plant tray I got from a plant nursery, attached to the top of simple plastic box from the local dollar store. Total cost, about $5.
I do not recommend tumbling multiple caliber cases at the same time. Smaller cases tend to find themselves inside larger cases in the tumbler. The small cases don’t get cleaned, and the large cases may wind up in the reloading press with a small case stuck inside them. This leads to feed problems during reloading, and may damage your reloading press, specifically the primer removal pin.
Once you have the cases cleaned, most of the remainder of the tasks are handled by a series of reloading tools or “dies.” These dies are basically hollow metal tubes with nifty little additions which perform the various tasks. Figure 3 is an example of a three die set. Dies fall into a number of categories:
- De-capping dies (for removing expended primers)
- Resizing dies (to return the case to its correct diameter)
- Expander dies (to flare the case mouth ready for a new projectile)
- Powder dies (to insert the new powder charge)
- Seating dies (which push the new projectile into the case)
- Crimp dies (which crimp the case mouth to the projectile)
Whilst it is possible to purchase dies which do each of the individual tasks outlined above, most manufacturers combine a couple of these functions together into single dies, e.g., a combined de-capping and resizing die, or an expander and powder die combined.
The only real standard for dies is the mounting thread size, which is most commonly 7/8”-14. These industry standard dies fit most of the commonly used reloading presses. Dies can be bought individually for $25-30, or in sets of 3 (resizing, seating & crimping) for $60-70.
Also available are special purpose dies which do additional tasks, such as primer pocket swaging, case length trimming or powder level checking.
Dies are used in reloading presses, which I’ll be covering in following articles.
Resizing The Case
Resizing the case is accomplished by pushing the case into a resizing die, which is essentially a metal tube the size of the firearms breach. This takes quite bit of force as the case may have expanded significantly during firing. The leverage action of the reloading press handles this with ease.
Removing The Expended Primer
The expended primer is removed (de-capped) by passing a small pin down through the centre of the case and pushing the primer out. Figure 4 is an example of a de-capping die. Note the de-capping pin protruding from the bottom of the die. De-capping and resizing are often handled together with a single die.
Replacing the Primer
Before new powder is added, a new primer must be inserted. This may be accomplished using a hand held primer punch tool, or using a primer punch as part of a reloading press. When I address the different types of presses, the relative merits of the two approaches to replacing primers should be apparent.
Replacing the Powder
The exact powder charge is probably the most critical part of the reloading process. Stand alone powder scales, often combined with a powder dispenser, can be used for low volume rifle reloading. For high volume production using a progressive press, a powder “thrower” is commonly attached to the press, dispensing a regulated powder charge for each case. Even with this automation, a set of powder scales is essential for calibrating the powder thrower, and periodically checking the size of the powder charge. Scales can be a simple mechanical beam balance style costing $70 (Figure 5), or a more sophisticated electronic set for $150-250 (Figure 6).
Powder may be measured and then inserted manually into the case using a powder funnel, or via the powder thrower, which is commonly attached to a special purpose die in a reloading press.