If you are like many a shooter you have thought about the hobby of reloading or handloading your own ammunition. Reloading or handloading is the hobby of recycling/manufacturing your own ammo for your firearms. The process basically starts with an empty brass case and involves depriming it/repriming it, adding powder and then a bullet by the use of specialized tools. What tools, you may ask? Is it safe? Why should I do it? These questions have probably crossed your mind if you have been thinking about getting started in this great hobby. In this article I will attempt to provide simple answers to these questions. This article is not intended to be a how to on reloading, or tell you what is the best equipment for reloading, it is just to mainly inform you of what you will need and some possible safety tips.
If you have been around shooting long enough you have probably seen a blown up gun sitting in the gun shop display case with the label "Caused by a Handload". This is an example of the worst that can go wrong in handloading. You are probably thinking to yourself "How can this hobby be safe when that can happen?" Well I won’t lie to you, handloading can be a potentially unsafe hobby. How can you make it a safe hobby? With proper loading practices and taking your time. A majority if not all handloading accidents are caused by not paying attention or not following instructions. Handloading requires patience, 100 percent of your attention, and the ability to follow instructions to the letter. Following those simple tips will insure you a lifetime of safe reloading.
So why should you start reloading? The most obvious reason is cost savings. Take for example shooting a .44 magnum. The cheapest factory plinking ammo I can find in my area starts at around .40 cents a shot. With reloading you can get that down to around .11 cents a shot if you saved all of your brass for reuse. The savings can be even greater if you are buying premium ammo. The second reason is you will have the ability to create custom ammo for each gun or low recoil ammo to condition yourself to the recoil of the magnums. Handloading also gives you the option of making ammo that is not available from the factory. The third reason is that it is just plain fun and will lead to you being able to shoot more.
By this time you may be ready to take the plunge, but you are wondering what equipment you need. You may be confused by the large amount of available equipment. Well, I am going to attempt to make it easy for you and break the equipment down into 3 categories: Absolutely required, nice to have items, and specialty items. Some of the items on the lists are going to be borderline to which category they go into, meaning that they may or may not be required depending on your setup.
Absolutely required items
As the name says, these items are ones that you cannot reload without. The first and most important item on this list is the press. The press is the backbone of your setup. Presses come in many different styles but basically can be broken down into two categories: progressive and single stage. Single stage presses are ones that only do one operation with each pull of the handle. Their main advantages are:
- They are capable of reloading nearly every cartridge on the market depending on the size of the press.
- They are inexpensive to start out with.
- They have the capability of accepting add on attachments that enable the press to do other reloading tasks besides reload ammo.
- They are very easy to learn the operation of.
- They need little to no maintenance.
The main disadvantage a Single Stage press has is that it is slow. The best you may be capable of producing is around 50 rounds of loaded ammo in about an hour.
Where the single stage presses main disadvantage is speed, the progressive presses main advantage is speed. Most progressive presses are easily capable of 150+ rounds an hour. They accomplish this by doing multiple operations on different cartridge cases with each pull of the handle, often creating a finished cartridge with each pull. The main disadvantages of a progressive type press are:
- Cost: they average 2-3 times the price of a single stage press and sometimes more.
- Parts can and will wear out requiring replacement on most models.
- Most if not all models require some type of routine maintenance to operate at peak efficiency.
- They have a slower learning curve and may seem "finicky" until you learn its operation.
So which type should you choose? That depends on your needs. First off you need to choose a press that is large enough. Larger cartridges will require a larger press of either type to accommodate them. Check with the manufacturer if in doubt about a presses ability to handle the cartridges you want to reload. Second you should consider if the press will see more rifle or pistol reloading. Most people prefer to do rifle cartridges on a single stage press because of the extra care needed with bottle neck rifle cases. The next thing you need to consider is how much you shoot. If you only shoot around 200 rounds a month then a single stage would suit you just fine. More then 200 rounds a month and a progressive press may be the ticket for you. As far as my personal recommendation for starting out I would invest in a single stage due to the fact that they are inexpensive to start with and easy to learn on. Progressive presses are nice, but for learning the process of reloading they have too much going on at any one time. Now there are progressive presses out there that can be used as a single stage for learning on, if you decide you need a progressive press that may be the way to go for you. Keep in mind that most reloaders that own a progressive press also have a single stage press around for one reason or another.
The next piece of required equipment you will need is a set of dies. The dies go into the press and do the actual work on the cartridge case. Dies come as sets that are cartridge specific, but there are sets that may load 2 or more similar cartridges. A .38 special/.357 magnum die set is an example of this. The number of dies that come in a set will usually be 2 for bottleneck cartridges and 3 for straight walled cartridges. In a 2 die set the first die is used to remove the spent primer, resize the case, and expand the throat area for a new bullet. The second die in the set is used for seating a new bullet in the case and crimping it in place. In a two die set you will have to use lube when resizing the case to prevent it from seizing in the die. In a 3 die set the first die is used to resize the case and remove the spent primer. The second die in the set is used to expand the case mouth for a new bullet. The third die in the set is used to seat and crimp a new bullet into place. Three die sets are usually available in steel, carbide and or titanium nitride. The carbide and titanium nitride sets are a little more expensive but have the advantage that they can be used without lube; a steel die set will require lube to be used. It is worth the extra cost to buy a carbide or titanium nitride set when available. Most brands of dies will work in any press, but sometimes you will run into a press that is die-brand specific. This is something to check when purchasing your press
The third required item you will need is a shellholder or shellplate. This is the piece that goes in your press to hold the cartridge case in place. Single stage presses most often use universal shellholders that work in any brand of press. Most progressive presses utilize a shellplate that is unique to the brand and type of press. Shellplates are more expensive then shellholders. Shellplates and shellholders are cartridge specific, but most can be used with multiple different cartridges.
The fourth required item is some type of powder measuring/dispensing device. This can be as simple as a calibrated set of scoops that are used by looking up how much powder each scoop holds on a table to a hopper filled rotary type that is adjustable to throw any charge weight you desire. Depending on the type of measuring/dispensing type you go with you may need to get some more equipment that is described later. If you are using a progressive press it will most likely come with a hopper-type powder measure that is either adjustable for any charge weight or uses removable rotors that throw a fixed charge weight. The hopper-type measures that use removable rotors are used by looking up the charge weight you want to throw and selecting the proper rotor for the measure. The best setup for either press type is a powder measure that is adjustable for any charge weight, but it does require extra equipment that will be mentioned later.
The last item you will need to reload is data. Reloading data is the recipe for the cartridge. It tells what type and how much of each ingredient that you will be using. The best sources are reloading manuals put out by the various bullet manufacturers. Most will contain data for a number of different cartridges, history of the cartridges, and any special tips for the cartridges. The better ones also have sections on how to reload with many good tips. It is a good idea to own multiple reloading manuals if possible. The second best source of data is from the powder manufacturers themselves. Most will provide you with the data for free on their website or through pamphlets available at your local gun shop. The last source of data is from the internet in general. This data may be safe to use in most cases but should always be verified with a reputable source before use. A reputable source is one of the previously mentioned suppliers of data. This is where multiple reload manuals come in handy. As far as using the data some general safety tips are:
- Follow the data to the letter; do not substitute components at first.
- Start low and work up, don’t ever start with the max charge listed or exceed the max charge.
- Some data sources only shows the maximum charge, in this case reduce by 10-15% and work up from there.
That is the list of everything that is absolutely required for you to start reloading equipment wise. The next list is the stuff that is nice to have. Keep in mind though that some of the items listed next may be required items based on your above choices. If this is the case I will state that with the item description.
Nice to have items
These items are items while not necessary to reload with are nice to have around. As stated earlier some of them may be required based on your press type or what you reload. I am going to try and list them in order of importance.
The first item on this list is a scale. A scale is used to check the weight of your powder charge, weight of bullets, and to calibrate your powder measure if it is adjustable. As far as reloading goes you will need a scale intended just for that. The scale you use should be calibrated in grains, which is the standard unit of weight used in the United States for reloading. The scale should be accurate to .1 grain. Keep in mind there are 7000 grains in 1 pound. There are two types of scales in common use today, the balance beam type, and the digital type. Both types are very accurate. The balance beam is far more common and is usually less expensive. Depending on your press type and or powder measure setup a scale may be a required item. If you do not have a scale in your startup kit because it was not required I urge you to pick one up as your next reloading purchase.
The second good to have item is a dial caliper. A dial caliper is used to measure length of such things as case over all length, and bullet sizes. The caliper you use for reloading needs to be accurate to .001 inches. This item is more important to a person that loads for semi-auto handgun rounds due to the fact that the cartridge needs to be kept to an overall length specified in your reloading manual for proper feeding and to insure that the bullet is not seated to deeply. It is also used with other tools later on in this list. Once again every reloader should have a dial caliper as one of their tools.
The third item on the list is a case trimmer. A case trimmer is used to trim your cartridge cases all to the same length as specified by your reloading manual. While not as important to the handgun reloader, trimming your cases becomes a necessary task with most rifle cartridges due to the fact that they can lengthen over repeated reloading and firings. The largest benefit a case trimmer provides to the handgun reloader is that it will uniform up all your cartridge cases to the same length, thus giving you a more consistent crimp and possibly more accurate loads. You will need a dial caliper to use a case trimmer and a deburring tool to smooth up the trimmed area.
A case tumbler/vibrator makes the number 4 position on this list. This piece of equipment takes your brass cases and by means of tumbling or vibrating with some type of media and cleaner polishes and cleans them back up to a like new shine. The main benefit this has for the handloader is that your cases will be clean and free of all contaminants before you reload them. This will help prolong the life of your dies, and prevent them from getting scratched up by dirt. As an added benefit you get nice shiny brass and we all know shiny brass is more accurate than dull brass. Just joking there.
The next item on the list is one that some people may consider not necessary or one that you can live without: a chronograph. What a chronograph does is measure the velocity of the fired bullet. Most models will also keep track of the velocities from a number of rounds fired and then tell you the average velocity, high and low velocity, extreme spread, average deviation and standard deviation. This data is a treasure trove to the reloader because it tells you how consistent your loads are and it gives you a measured number that can be used when working up a load. Most people that own a chronograph say they would not live without one. Price wise they are a fairly inexpensive investment with most models starting at less than $100. This is one investment that I encourage all shooters to own even if they do not reload.
The last item, which is not really an item at all but is nice to have, is a place to reload. Ideally you will have a dedicated space for reloading. In the beginning if you are just using a small single stage press you can bolt it to a sturdy piece of wood and then clamp it to any stable surface and reload. This will give you a very portable unit that will not be in the way when it is not being used. As you progress in your reloading hobby though and acquire larger presses or a progressive press you will need a dedicated area and sturdy bench to mount everything on permanently.
Are these all the nice to have items, short answer no. A few other inexpensive items that are nice to have depending on if you need them or not are:
- Primer flip tray. Used to position primers all up or down for ease of loading into primer feed tubes.
- Loading blocks. These blocks hold your cartridge cases in an upright position in a nice organized manner. They can be purchased for fewer than $5 at most gun shops or can be made from a block of wood. This item is not as important to someone that only uses a progressive press, but if you use a single stage I recommend you have one on hand.
- Bullet puller. This item is used to disassemble loaded rounds back to the component state. This item is handy to have around for any mistakes you may make or anything you are not sure about.
This section I am going to dedicate to specialty tools used in reloading. Specialty tools are often tools that do a job that one of the tools listed above already does but does it better or more accurately. Most likely you will not need any of these tools, but some of them can be handy to have around. Below is a short list of some of the more commonly available specialty tools:
- Specialty Dies. These are extra dies you can add onto your existing die sets. Some of the more common ones used are:
- Universal decapper die. This die is pretty much a universal one that works with just about any caliber. Its main use is to deprime a cartridge case without sizing it or touching it in any way. Most people use it for removing the primer prior to polishing the cases in a case tumbler or vibrator.
- Lube die. This die is available for a number of different cartridges, but one die usually fits a family of cartridges. This die is most often used in a progressive press to lube rifle cases for resizing, eliminating the step of you having to do it by hand each time. If you only use a single stage press there is no added benefit to owning this die.
- Factory Crimp die. This item is available from Lee. It is cartridge specific die that is used to provide a factory type crimp and a second sizing of the finished case to make sure it is returned to factory specs. If you are having feeding problems or chambering problems with your reloads this die can be helpful to own.
- Small base dies. These dies are usually cartridge specific dies used on semi-auto rifle rounds to size the area of the case just ahead of the rim down to aid in feeding and chambering in semi-auto rifles. If you reload for a semi-auto rifle and are having chambering difficulties with your reloads this die may help you out.
- Hand priming tool. You do not need this item due to the fact that your press is capable of seating primers, but it can be handy to have. This tool does allow greater control and feel during primer seating. If you use a progressive press this tool will likely be of little use to you. For the single stage reloader this tool can speed up the process of reloading a little depending on your presses priming setup.
- Powder trickler. This item is for the reloader that likes to weigh every charge for every case for maximum accuracy. It is used to trickle very small amounts of powder onto your scale to achieve the desired weight. This item is not easily used with a progressive press setup.
- Digital scale/powder dispensing system combo. This combo utilizes a digital scale that is linked to an electronic powder dispenser. It fulfills the same purpose as a scale and powder trickler listed above but automates the process. Most units allow you to punch in the desired powder charge weight and the machine will dispense exactly that amount. These units are expensive and are only really useful to someone looking to achieve maximum accuracy from their reloads. Once again this item is not easily used with a progressive press setup.
- Primer pocket cleaning tool. This tool is used to clean any buildup out of the primer pocket in your cases after the primer is removed. Most people do not take the time to do this extra step. Of the people that do take the time to do this step most are trying to achieve maximum accuracy from their reloads. The only real need you may have of this tool is if you are consistently getting high primers (a condition where the primer sticks up higher than the head of the cartridge after seating. Primers should be seated flush with the case head for maximum sensitivity and safety. Seating the primer slightly below the case head is ideal). One cause of this is a buildup of junk in the pocket that will need to be removed. This tool is fairly inexpensive if you need it.
Well that should about do it for what you need in reloading tools. Now this is in no way a complete list of tools available to the reloader, but it does include the more commonly encountered items. If you have everything on the required items list you are set to start reloading. The ideal setup for you will most likely be a combination of the above items, but if you stay with the hobby long enough you will most likely get all the items on the nice to have list and maybe a few of the specialty items.
What is the best way to get the above items. Well it depends on your budget. There are a few companies that offer starter kits that will get you a majority of the items on the required list (most kits do not include the dies or a shellholder) and some items on the nice to have list. Most of the starter kits come with a single stage press, but there are a few progressive press starter kits out there. A starter kit is a cost efficient way of starting out. If your budget does not permit the purchase of a starter kit, or the press that is included in the kit will not fit your needs you can easily make your own kit by just purchasing the items on the required list and any that may be needed from the nice to have list. Once you have everything you need you are ready to learn the reloading process.
Unfortunately this article is not about how to reload. Ideally to learn the reloading process it would be best to have someone who reloads guide you in the steps of reloading. Since that is not always possible the next best thing is to have a couple of good reloading manuals around. They will explain in detail the process of reloading and how to set up your dies. Another great source on how to reload is your local gun shop. Some of them run reloading clinics or can tell you when reloading equipment manufacturers may be sponsoring a clinic near you.
I hope this article was of some help to you if you are thinking about becoming a handloader. If you do decide to take the plunge let me be the first to welcome you to a great new hobby.
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I load pistol and rifle, happy to answer any questions you may have