By Jason Baird
If you want to handload, your first purchase should be at least one, if not several, reloading manual(s).
"Nah, we don't carry much reloading stuff anymore, what with the price of metals nowadays, not many people want to reload." So said an employee of a sporting goods store in response to my query about where to find the rest of the handloading gear.
I nodded my head, and then I wandered to another part of the store to browse while my wife was boot shopping. Then it struck me -- wait a minute! The price of metals has raised the cost of ammunition, too, not just bullets, brass and shot!
If you've paid attention to the cost of ammunition in the past year, you know the truth in what I was thinking. Nearly all ammo has increased in price, for whatever reason. Since factory ammo has increased in price, too, cost-savings is still one of the reasons to handload.
As I've mentioned in previous articles, you can still produce better ammunition at a lower cost by handloading that you can obtain by purchasing the "white box" stuff at your local sporting goods store.
Also, if you've read my previous articles, you've seen my admonition: If you want to handload, your first purchase at this point should be at least one, if not several, reloading manual(s). There's no better introduction to handloading than these manuals. Once you have selected a manual, grab a beverage, sit down and read the manual.
Powder, primers, bullets and cases are the ingredients you'll need to create your handloads.
There is a wealth of great information in the manuals, and if you purchase more than one, you'll notice that each includes details that are common (safety, etc.), but each also includes tidbits that you won't normally find elsewhere.
For example, the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, Sixth Edition has an excellent introductory section that explains how reloading reverses the process of firing a cartridge. Until I read this section, I had not thought of reloading in that way. Richard Lee's Modern Reloading, Second Edition has a wonderful section on bullet casting that I think is the most comprehensive look at casting I have ever seen in a reloading manual.
Okay, time to get down to business. I'm not recommending any particular brand of equipment, unless there are only one or two companies in a niche area, because I make my purchases based on my judgment of the individual merits of each. Nothing wrong with brand loyalty, but my engineering profession and my Scots heritage gets the best of me when it comes to how I spend my cash on equipment.
To begin with, there are some basics needed to reload rifle or handgun ammunition (shotshell reloading requires different gear, and I may get the opportunity to cover that topic in a later article).
The essential equipment: a reloading press (a handheld press, such as the Lee Loader, will do), shellholder(s) to fit the press and the cartridge caliber(s) you select, reloading dies to fit the cartridge caliber(s), a priming system to insert fresh primers into resized and de-capped cartridge cases, and a powder scale or powder dipper to measure the powder for each cartridge case. A rudimentary priming system is included with most presses, but you may want to upgrade to a better system later. Bottlenecked rifle cases must be lubricated to be resized; straight-wall pistol cases must be lubricated, too, unless you are using a carbide resizing die. There are many different lubrication techniques, none of which uses motor oil. Some lubricants spray-on, and some are rolled-on by the handloader using what is basically a souped-up ink pad.
Powder scales are used to measure the powder for each cartridge case.
In addition, if you reload many cartridges you will want some sort of powder measure to speed-up the powder loading process. You must also have a place to reload that is free of distractions, and, if you are using a bench-mounted press, you must have a sturdy bench or platform on which to install the press. Have containers in which to store your completed handloads -- re-use old ammunition boxes, or new specially-made ammo boxes, or whatever, but make sure you can label the containers with information about the loads you create.
You'll also need a supply of brass cartridge cases, bullets, smokeless gun powder and primers. Consult your reloading manual(s) to decide which bullet types, gunpowder and primers to use to build your load. Closely examine the cases, and clean, put aside, or discard any that are dirty, full of stuff, or are not correctly made. In a new batch of unfired bottlenecked rifle cases I have found cases that had malformed extractor grooves. Others had bits of foreign material (brass, cardboard, foam packaging) inside them. Some did not have a primer hole, or the hole was not cleanly punched. Cases you pick-up at the range may have small rocks inside them.
Make sure you are using the correct gunpowder for the load, and never have more than one powder container open on your loading bench.
At this point, I'll repeat the reloading basic safety rules since seeing information repeatedly is one of the keys to learning. (Another key is experience, but learning safety the hard way is ill-advised.)
- mix or substitute components
- eat or smoke while reloading
- reload while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs that affect motor skills and brain functions
- guess; stop and find-out for sure that what you are doing is correct
- wear eye protection
- work where you are free of distractions
- keep your workbench free of clutter
- keep reloading components in their intended containers, and stored properly
- keep good records
- keep ammunition and ammunition components out of the reach of unsupervised children
- establish a good loading routine, and follow it exactly
- check for over- or under-pressure signs in ammunition while shooting
- use common sense and good judgment
- enjoy reloading
When you begin a loading session, take a few minutes to think about what you are loading, what components you need and what equipment you will be using. Clear the extraneous stuff away from your work area (be it a bench or the kitchen table), and get set-up in an organized fashion. Taking a few minutes to get organized pays dividends during the reloading process, saving you time and effort later in prevented mistakes, spills and searches for things you need to finish the loading session.
Three single-stage presses made by RCBS: (from left to right) .50 BMG Ammomaster (for loading the larger .50 BMG caliber rifle cartridges), an older Rock Chucker, and a newer Rock Chucker Supreme (or Rock Chucker IV).
Otherwise, guess what will happen. You clear the kitchen table a half hour before supper so that you can set-up your reloading gear on the table (your usual reloading "bench"), and in about 20 minutes you've sized, primed and dropped the powder into the 50 rifle cartridges you want to shoot the next day. Murphy strikes! You can't find your bullet seating die because you didn't put it back into the die case after you last used it. Your spouse wants your stuff off the table so that it can be cleaned for supper, and you know that if you move any of those 50 powder-laden, but open-mouthed cases you'll spill some of them. Not a good start to a reloading session.
After you've organized your gear, take the cases that you've checked and cleaned and get them ready to be resized. Since a brass case expands when fired to seal the gun's chamber against expanding gases from burning gunpowder, the case must be squeezed back into a semblance of its original shape when you reload it. Run each of your cases through the sizing operation. Even if you are using brand new, unfired cases, run them through the sizing operation. You'll be surprised how many new cases need to be sized. If you are loading bottlenecked rifle cases, or pistol cases using a non-carbide-type resizing die, lubricate the cases.
Using your reloading press on the cases, resize and deprime them, bell the case mouths for easier bullet insertion and prime the cases. Load the correct amount of powder into each case using your scale or powder measure, and then use your press to seat the bullets and crimp them into place. Make sure you label the loads by identifying the cartridge and caliber, date, components, bullet weight and powder weight. It's a good idea to keep a log of what you load, so that two years from now you can go back and see what was in that special deer load, the one that your son shot using the last cartridge you had.
Finally, clean-up your loading area. Put your equipment away, empty your powder measure back into the original gunpowder container, and put primers back into their original container.
In this article, I briefly covered the basics of handloading. As you look through your reloading manuals, in addition to the basics you'll see sections on how to wring the best accuracy out of your rifle, how to create pistol loads that you can shoot all day and not go home with a sore hand, and interesting historical information about the hobby of handloading. In future articles, I'll describe some of those techniques.
Take a look, and I'll bet you'll get fired-up about what you can create with some fairly simple tools and a bit of your time.
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