As ammo has gotten more and more expensive over the past few years, a lot of people have begun to consider re-loading, and well they should. Because when you buy loaded ammunition, part of what you are paying for is the bullet you shoot downrange and the powder and primer that burn, and part of that cost is also the brass case. Re-loading, or for the purpose of discussion here, “handloading,” allows you to reuse that brass case for more loaded rounds, thereby saving you money on re-buying the brass. Not all cases are brass of course. These days some cases are aluminum or steel, and these generally cannot be reloaded (That is why steel and brass cased ammo is cheaper). But almost all brass ammunition is capable of being re-loaded, and when you get right down to it, brass ammo was created to reload. Leaving brass on the ground is just plain old wasting, and these days who can afford that?
The mechanics of handloading are very simple. A cartridge has a primer at its rear, powder in the middle, and a bullet at the front. When you fire the cartridge, the primer goes off, the powder burns up, and the bullet chugs its way out of the muzzle. Handloading amounts to nothing more than putting in a new primer, new powder and a new bullet, into the fired brass case.
There are some really good beginner reloading kits on the market. The brands you should search for are Hornady, Lyman, RCBS and Redding on the high end, and Lee is generally going to be the least expensive. Before you rush out and buy one, however, understanding some of the tools and what choices you have might be a better way to start. Sometimes you buy a beginner kit then replace all of the stuff in it within a short time as you discover how more advanced tools are more convenient and more precise. A little bit of overview will help you wade through what you should expect to buy, and some of the options.
THE PRESSThe most important thing you will have to decide is what type of reloading press you want to start with. Lee even has a no-press option called a Lee Loader, and it works, but veerryyy slowly, and most likely you will want a “single stage” reloading press at the very least.
A single stage press holds one “die,” which is the tool that you force the brass shell into in order to make it shootable again. Handloading most often involves three dies, but can be two, three, four, or even five of these dies to make the loaded shell. On a single stage press, you have to insert and adjust the die, then process one “stage” of your ammo, then take out that die, put in the next die, do a round of the same shells with that die, then do the next one, and in between there you drop the powder in and position a new bullet.
Most people start with a single stage press because it is the simplest, and down the road, as you get into more precision handloading with long range rifle rounds, many would argue that a single stage press is the most consistent, but if you are making a lot of handgun rounds, a single stage press may not be your best option. If reloading was something you could do casually while you catch up your DVR watching, spending 3 hours on 500 rounds of 9mm would be fine, but it isn’t. If you don’t want to double charge gun powder and make a bunch of mistakes, you have to focus on what you are doing while you handload, and quicker is usually better.
The next step up from single stage is what is called the “Turret” press. It has four or five die stations built into it so you can build a lot of ammo without having to swap out dies. Lyman, RCBS and Redding all make manually indexing turret presses, and Lee makes a unique turret press that has a rotating tool head, so you pull the handle one, two, three, four (including powder) times, and the press indexes the dies for you. This may sound like a no brainer with the Lee, but some people prefer the sturdiness of the big heavy options, especially when building precision long range rifle ammo.
The next step up is the “progressive” press. Generally they don’t make a beginner kit with progressive presses. You have to buy the other stuff, covered below, separately. This can be a good thing. For example, the RCBS single stage kit comes with a balance beam scale. Today this is nothing short of a doorstop and a complete waste of money. The single stage Hornady kit comes with a proper high quality electronic scale, but not the nicest one Hornady makes. Options are what makes handloading fun, not just about saving money.
With a progressive press, every pull of the handle produces a new loaded round. The press has a “shell plate” that revolves under the die and powder stations, and all the stations get filled as the plate turns itself through the loading process. Progressive presses are more money than single stage and turret presses, but the time savings can pay you back in droves.
Hornady, Dillon and RCBS are the biggest names in progressive presses, and once you start looking into the technology you will see that they are quite elaborate. The basic press requires you to feed a case and bullet by hand for every pull, but all three companies make a bullet and case feeder attachment that will do even that for you.
Lee, again, is a much less expensive option in a progressive press, but if you plan to be a handloading snob don’t bother. Lee uses aluminum and some plastic in place of steel on their press designs, and though all the Lee stuff works great, many hardcore handloaders opt for the more expensive brands. Eventually we’ll get to some actual overviews of some of these presses, but for now just Google around and you’ll find plenty to help you make an informed purchasing decision.
WHY HANDLOAD?Before moving on to the rest of the stuff you’ll need, any conversion about handloading should include a little history of what is correctly called, “precision, ” as opposed to “accuracy.” When you handload, most of the time you will end up with more precise ammunition, loaded round compared to loaded round compared to loaded round. Commercial ammunition is manufactured on automated equipment flying at thousands of rounds per hour. When you slow down and do it by hand, one at a time, or even on a progressive press at one per pull, you are generally going to produce more consistent and precise ammunition than can the factory.
As we have discussed here before, Hornady ammo has definitely pioneered genuinely precise and consistent factory ammo. Some of the testing we have done with our resident US Army Sniper Ben Becker has been truly amazing. But you will note that Hornady makes not only some of the most advanced handloading equipment, they are also the largest producer of packed bullets for handloading, and they have worked with Hodgdon Powder to bring even their exclusive “Superformance” and “LeverEvolution” brands to the handloader. Even Hornady, the pioneer in precise factory ammo, recognizes that handloading is an enormous asset to shooting sports, and if anyone knows the difference, they do.
Can you save money? Yes, you actually can. If you take just simple 9mm rounds, a box of the cheapest factory ammo you can find is amost $20 per 50 rounds these days. In comparison to handloading, assuming you have the spent brass cartridges, a box of 500 Hornady 124 grain bullets on Midsouth is $53. One thousand (1000!) primers are under $30, and a pound of Hodgdon Titegroup, enough for approximately 1500 rounds, is $15. Conservatively that is under $150 per thousand. I was unable to find 9mm even in bulk surplus crates at under $250 per thousand delivered. You definitely will save money.
Should you handload? Safety is a big deal. If you can exercise common sense and follow directions, then yes, please keep reading. If you have attention issues or think that it is ok to “half way” the safety issues of reloading, let me tell you right now that there is a whole world of difference, and a ton of hurt, between 2.7 grains and 7.2 grains of Bullseye, and both measurements fit in a .45ACP case. This is not something you want to experience. You will need to be extra careful when handloading. If you’re someone who thinks a maximum recommended load is merely a suggestion or think loading manuals have “lawyered down” data, please don’t handload.
A BRIEF LAUNDRY LIST OF STUFF YOU NEED
Enthusiasts use the term handloading instead of re-loading because though most of us get started re-loading, to save money on shooting, it can quickly turn into a labor of love and learning. There are so many variables that effect long range rifle accuracy that it would take a book to cover them. Over the years, ingenuity has bred some interesting products to solve problems that are thought to cause a lack of precision in handloads, and one company especially, Redding Reloading, has dedicated their entire company to the needs of the thoughtful handloader. There is also Dillon that has take the progressive reloader concept and turned it into a thousand dollar plus commercial grade machine, for consumers. Handloading can end up costing you a lot more than you initially saved on ammo. What these days that is much if any fun isn’t expensive? Handloading is fun! Testing handloads is even funner, and there are a lot of side things, (like bullet casting we have already started to cover), that bring whole new aspects to this really great hobby.
Many people think that the era of the gun nerd and voracious handloader is over, or in the process of ending. This is anything but true. The previous generation is indeed aging out of the active reloading years, but it will only be a matter of time before all of these new shooters discover what the previous generation discovered decades ago. Few hobbies are as fun and rewarding as shooting sports, and handloading brings a rich dimension to shooting that you have to experience in order to understand. Stay tuned for more articles in this column on specific choices within all of these tools above. We have a lot of ground to cover, but don’t let that stop you from going out and buying a press and getting started. Most of us are self taught when it comes to handloading, and other than getting sloppy with unsafe practices, there isn’t a lot you can do wrong.
Scott Mayer March 21, 2012
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