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« Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun | Main | WRAP SOME LEATHER AROUND THAT GUN »

October 10, 2003

Handloading for Beginners

Handloading is the process of recharging a cartridge case in order to fire it again.

In the early days of firearms that used metallic cartridges handloading was done with simple hand tools. It can still be done with hand tools but there are some innovations that make things a little easier, or at least quicker.

People started off handloading because it was the best way to ensure they had the proper ammunition. Sometimes in some places it was the only way to ensure they had any ammunition. Today some people handload to get a higher quality of ammunition, some people more economical ammunition & some people both a more economical & higher quality ammunition. It is possible to get higher quality ammunition when handloading because you can tailor your ammunition to your firearm. Because of mass production, this is near impossible with factory loaded ammunition. They must produce ammo that will work consistently, reliably & safely in all firearms chambered for a particular cartridge. This generalization often will result in the ammo producing good results, sometimes great results, but seldom the best results possible in your firearm.
Also some people handload because factory ammunition is scarce or non-existent, either in a particular bullet style &/or weight that youíd prefer to use, a certain power level that youíd prefer to use, or a certain cartridge that youíd like to use.

Handloading can be safe if you follow some simple rules & pay attention while loading. It will help you better understand firearms because youíll have to increase your knowledge of how ammunition works in a firearm. I wonít tell you it will save you money, because even when factory or military surplus ammo is more expensive than handloading you wonít spend any less on shooting. You will shoot several times more ammunition for your dollars. Itís not quite the same as having cash left over from what youíd normally spend shooting, but sending more rounds downrange for the same amount isnít a bad incentive.

This post will discuss the basic steps to handloading rifle & handgun ammunition as well as some basic equipment youíll need. Shotshell reloading & bullet casting are also interesting areas, but for this post Iíll stick with rifle & handgun cartridge reloading.

There are a few safety precautions you should be aware of:

When working with primers itís a good idea to wear eye protection. If one discharges the primer alone is capable of putting your eye out.

Never attempt to prime a case with powder in it. If the primer discharges it will ignite the powder & more than your eyesight could be at risk.

Always seat primers at or below flush with the case head. When loading for a semi-automatic always seat primers below flush. Be careful not to crush them.

Always double check the cases to make sure that thereís powder in them before you seat a bullet. A primer has enough force to push a bullet into, but not completely through, a barrel. The next cartridge fired would result in a firearm that explosively disassembles in your hands. We want to avoid that.

Always check your powder charge to make sure youíre not putting too much powder in the case. Too much powder can & will raise pressures in the chamber when fired, sometimes to dangerous levels. Again, we want to avoid explosive disassemblies if at all possible.

Always check your Overall Cartridge Length as well as your Bullet Seating Depth. A cartridge thatís too long will raise pressures if it jams against the rifling prior to firing. It also may not fit or feed correctly in your magazine. A bullet seated too deep will reduce the internal capacity of the cartridge & thus raise pressures.

Always start with the minimum recommended powder charge & work your way up. Do it slowly & check for signs of high pressure.

Any time you change a component, reduce your powder charge to the starting levels & work your way up again. Different makes & even different lots of the same make of primer, powder, case & bullet can vary enough to alter pressures, sometimes to dangerous levels.

When loading military cases, reduce the charge between 1 & 2 grains to compensate for the decreased internal capacity in military cases.

Always put powder back in its original container.

Never have two different kinds of powder open in your work area at the same time.

Never exceed maximum powder charges.

Never load below the minimum powder charge.

Those are some of the basic rules you should abide by when handloading.

Now here are the steps you take to load a cartridge:

One starts with either fired or new cartridge cases, generally called brass. If they have been fired then there needs to be a bit of prep work done to them, but even new brass requires a little prep.

Start by inspecting them. Look for signs of high pressure or worn out cases. These include but are not limited to: cracked cases, split case necks, backed out primers, cratered primers, gouges in the case, &/or bright rings around the web (or bottom) of the case

Cleaning cases isnít always a necessary step, but I like to do it & it isnít that much trouble.
There are two methods for cleaning cases: chemically or in a tumbler. A tumbler is a device filled with media (corncob or walnut shells) that vibrates in order to clean the cases. This can be done with a fired case that hasnít been deprimed. It is preferred to chemical cleaning by most handloaders that I know of. Never attempt to tumble a case with a live primer in it.

Chemically cleaning the cases involves washing them in a mild acidic solution for approximately three minutes, rinsing the solution off, and then allowing them to dry. It must be done with deprimed cases, so you have to wait until after you size the cases to clean them this way. Itís a great method for apartment dwellers or others who donít want to operate a tumbler for any number of reasons. Also itís cheaper.

The next step is sizing &/or depriming the cases. This is done by running the cartridge case through a specific die in a reloading press, or using special tools if you're working with military brass.

If you are using military surplus brass there are two additional steps you need to take. A military case has the primer crimped into place. You need to remove the primer and then remove the crimp. An ordinary sizing/decapping die will break if a crimped military case is run into it. There are special tools you will need, either hand held tools or press mounted dies. Iím not too familiar with the press mounted tools so Iíll just describe the function of the hand tools. The first is a decapper. It is basically a decapping pin used in conjunction with a special shell holder. You place the case in the shell holder & place the decapping pin in the case. Place the whole assembly on a hard flat surface & strike the decapping pin with a hammer until the primer pops out. To remove the crimp one takes a tool similar to a primer pocket uniformer & twists until the crimp is cut out. You can place the decrimping tool into a drill & save a bit of wrist wear. This only needs to be done once for the life of the cartridge.

If you are working with a bottlenecked case, or steel dies, you must first lubricate the case. You must use lubricant specifically made for cartridge cases, as regular oil or grease will damage the case & possibly the die. You want to lightly lube the outside of the case below the bottleneck if there is one, & lube the inside of the case with a dry lubricant such as powdered graphite. This prevents the case from seizing in the die. If you are using carbide dies on straight walled cases, then no lubricant is necessary.
Set your dies according to the instructions that come with them. Then simply run the case up into the die & back out again. This will pop out the spent primer & at the same time adjust the case to the desired dimensions.

Next you must trim the cases to a uniform length, then chamfer & deburr the case mouth. This is especially important in semi-auto cartridges because they headspace off the case mouth. It is important for other types of firearms because a case thatís too short may not hold the bullet properly & affect pressures, while a case that is too long may pinch itself in the chamber of the firearm & increase pressures to an unsafe level. It must be done every time you fire the cartridge. There are several different tools available for this, ranging from simple hand tools specific to a certain case, to powered tools that are adjustable to accommodate many different cases. With either one set the tool up according to its instructions, then cut until the tool stops cutting. This should give you a uniform case length below the recommended Maximum Case Length & above the Case Trim-To Length. To smooth out the case mouth thatís left rough from the cutting, one uses a chamfer/deburr tool. This is a double sided tool that accomplishes both tasks. One inserts the pointed end of the tool & twists a few times to smooth the inside of the case mouth. Then you place the opposite end of the tool over the case mouth & twist a few times to deburr the outside of the case mouth. Donít over do it as you donít need a sharp edge, you just need a smooth one. This eases bullet seating & prevents the bulletís base from being shaved by burrs on the case.

Cleaning &/or uniforming the primer pocket &/or deburring the flash hole is the next step. Cleaning the pockets is accomplished with any small tool that will fit inside the primer pocket. Special stainless steel brushes are sold for this purpose, but a screwdriver will work as well. One inserts the tool of choice & scrapes any primer residue out of the pocket. One most do this every time the case is fired.
Uniforming the primer pockets is a little more labor intensive. It involves a special tool that cuts the primer pockets to a uniform depth. There are hand tools as well as attachments for power tools that perform this function. Iíd recommend using the power tool attachment. Even new unfired cartridges may benefit from this. Brass has its primer pocket punched at the factory. This usually results in the corners of the pocket being slightly dished. So to ensure a nice level bottom for the primer to rest on, one must cut the pocket with the special tool until the depth is uniform. Uniforming is only necessary once during the life of that case. & it is not necessary for every handloader. But it does provide a more uniform ignition of the primer, which can increase accuracy. & if youíre uniforming the primer pocket, you donít have to worry about cleaning it. Just tap out the brass shavings when youíre done.
Deburring the flash hole involves a special tool made for the purpose. It removes any burrs on the inside of the flash hole left from the punching operation at the factory & opens the flash hole to a uniform circumference. It too only needs to be done once for a particular case. & it too is not essential, but it can potentially aid accuracy by increasing the consistency of the primer.

Now if you have used lube itís time to get it off the case. You can wipe it off with a damp towel, throw it back in the tumbler or use a chemical cleaner. In fact, now is the perfect time to chemically wash the cases as the primer is removed & youíve taken care of all the necessary prep work to the case.

After the cases are clean you should run them into a cartridge headspace gauge. This is simply a cylinder whose internal dimensions match the minimum allowable dimensions of the cartridge you are reloading. Follow the instructions & if the case fits properly, then proceed. If it does not fit properly, an adjusting of your sizing die is in order & you must resize the case (be sure to apply lube just as before).

The next step is priming the case. Most presses have a priming tool built into them, but many people prefer using a hand tool as this allows for a better feel when seating the primers, which results in a more uniforming seating. With either you place the case into a shell holder, then place the primer in the tool, and then operate the tool or press to seat the primer in the pocket. You want to get the primer at or below flush. With cases meant for a semi-auto, you want the primers seated below flush to reduce any possibility of a slam fire. (A slam fire occurs when the force of the bolt or slide is sufficient to discharge the primer when the cartridge is chambered).

For handgun cartridges there is an additional step. One must run the case into an expander die. This flares the case mouth enough to seat the bullet. Follow the instructions that come with the die to properly set it up. Ideally you want just enough flare to start the bullet into the case mouth. Too much flare will prematurely wear your brass out. Too little will results in the base of the bullet being shaved (if lead) or in the case becoming damaged when trying to seat the bullet. In this step one can usually add powder to the case as most expander dies are hollow & designed to accept powder funnels.

Next we add powder to the case. We start off by weighing the powder charge to ensure it is correct according to our recipe. Never reload without a published recipe to guide you, as guessing at the right amount of powder can result in too little powder (which might not get the bullet clear of the barrel setting up bad consequences for the subsequent shot) or too much powder (which usually means dangerously high pressures). You can either pour the powder into the scale by hand, or use a powder measure that dumps a set amount of powder each time you operate it. If you use a measure Iíd recommend weighing every tenth charge or so to ensure the measure is consistent. After the powder has been weighed & judged to be correct, simply pour the powder into the case via a funnel.

Bullet seating & crimping comes next. The dies you use will determine if this is accomplished in one step or two. If you have only one die for seating & crimping, then adjust your die according to the instructions. Place the bullet in the case mouth & run the case up into the die. It will seat the bullet while applying a crimp to hold the bullet in place. If you prefer to seat & crimp in separate steps then adjust your seating die so it wonít crimp the case, & seat the bullet. Then place the cartridge in the crimping die & crimp. Whichever method you prefer it will take some adjustment to get the seating die to the depth you desire. Itís a good idea to make a dummy case (bullet in a case with no powder or primer) & mark it with its OAL (Over All Length). This will help you quickly readjust the die for that particular bullet & seating depth. Before crimping always check to make sure the bullets are seated to the desired depth. & make double sure the cartridge does not exceed the maximum OAL or the minimum bullet seating depth.
It is important to remember that because of bullet design, the length of a bullet may vary by as much as .015Ē from another bullet from the same box. To compensate for this & get a more useful number a comparator comes in handy. This is a measurement tool that you place the cartridge into. You then measure the cartridge from the base to the end of the comparator. This gives the length from the cartridge base to the bulletís ogive (the place on the bullet where its diameter begins to decrease). This allows you to seat the bullets more precisely & if you know your chamber length (from the breech to where the rifling beings) this will allow you to seat the cartridge very close to, but not touching the rifling. Anywhere from .02Ē to .05Ē from the rifling is considered best for accuracy, although sometimes magazine length will not allow you to seat bullets that far out in the case.

Now just wipe off the cartridge & place it in a box labeled with its specifics. I use a two step method to keep track of cartridges. The first is to make a card to go into the box that records the brand & weight of bullet, the brand & weight of powder, the brand & type of primer, the brand of case & both the OAL & the measurement taken from a comparator. The next is to mark the cartridge itself. I use a permanent marker to write a ĎUí on the case so Iíll know it has been uniformed & use roman numerals to denote how many times the case has been loaded. On the bullet itself I write the OAL & the comparator length. If necessary I also add the bullet weight & powder charge weight onto the bullet. (Yes, my bullets are crowded with info!) Another method is to use a small bit of fingernail polish on the case &/or bullet. Ideally you use a specific color for a specific load and then copy the info for that load onto a card along with a bit of the color used to denote it.
Whatever method you use it is important to keep track of what components & quantities of components make up a cartridge. This is so if you find a load thatís extremely accurate, or shows signs of high pressure, you know how to duplicate or not duplicate that particular combination.

Now onto the equipment. First a detailed list of equipment & starting prices, & then a list of the basic equipment youíll need to start with an estimated cost.


Components

The price of components for handloading varies. But here are the general costs:

Cases start at around $5 for 50 new unprimed handgun cases & $5 for 20 new unprimed rifle cases.

Primers start at around $2 per 100.

Bullets start at $10 per 100 for jacketed handgun bullets & $15 per 100 for jacketed rifle bullets. Cast lead bullets are considerably cheaper, starting at $5 per 100.

Powder starts at around $15 per pound.

Presses

There are a variety of presses to choose from. The bench mounted presses fall into three main types: Single Stage, Turret & Progressive.

Single stage presses are the cheapest, some starting a slow as $30. As the name implies they are useful for one stage of handloading at a time. They hold one die at a time.

Turret presses are a bit more expensive, starting at around $80. They hold multiple dies at the same time & the dies may be rotated manually or automatically with each operation of the handle. One may place all the dies for one caliber (or for multiple calibers depending on the number of dies it can hold) into the press at the same time.

Progressive presses are the most expensive type, starting at around $150. They hold all the necessary dies for a specific caliber, as well as devices that feed primers, powder & bullets into the case & empty cases into the press. Each operation of the handle will rotate the case from one stage to the next. For example the first station may adds a fresh case then sizes, deprimes & primes the case, the next flares the case &/or adds the powder, the next adds, seats &/or crimps the bullet. So by adjusting the dies & feeding devices correctly & supplying cases, bullets, powder & primer to the respective feeding devices, one may simply operate the handle & repeat until you run out of components. This produces finished ammunition with a few operations of the handle.

Also worth mentioning are hand held presses. Theyíre fairly cheap, running from $15 to $60. These are a throw back to the olden days of handloading, but they can be just as useful today as they were before bench mounted presses became the standard. They are especially useful when out camping or in some other situation where lugging the reloading bench around isnít an option.

Dies

Dies are usually cartridge specific; although some dies will work on different cartridges, such as a 10mm die working with a .40 S&W cartridge or a .44 Remington Magnum die working on a .44 Special cartridge..

Dies come made out of either steel or carbide. The steel dies are usually cheaper. The carbide dies are slightly more expensive but do not require lubricated cases. This applies only to straight walled cases. Bottlenecked cases still require lubricant.

For rifles there are three types of sizing dies to consider: a full length sizing/decapping die, a neck sizing die & a small body die. The full length sizes almost the entire cartridge to the correct dimension. The neck sizing die sizes only the neck. The small base die sizes the cartridge more completely than the full length sizing die.
Full length dies are the standard dies that most people use & except for special requirements they will adequately size your brass, although you may have to play with their adjustment to achieve just enough sizing to ensure reliable feeding while minimizing case wear.
Neck sizing dies are used by bench rest shooters & others who use their firearm only for competition. It wears the brass less than the other two types of dies, but since the caseís body is left untouched it may not feed or extract reliably. For competition this is not usually a concern, but for hunting or defense proper feeding & extraction is vital. If you wish to neck size only it is recommended that you only do so in bolt action or single shot firearms.
Small base dies are recommended for semi-auto rifles. They wear brass out faster through more vigorous sizing, but brass life is usually abbreviated enough in semi-autos that this is not a big concern. They size the brass more completely throughout the length of the case. As with the full length die, some experimenting is required to achieve a balance of adequate sizing & minimal case wear.

Seating & crimping or crimping dies come in two varieties: taper crimp, for semi-auto cartridges & roll crimp for revolvers.

Charging dies simply facilitate adding powder through them. They do not affect the cartridge in any way.

Decapping dies remove the primer from cases. They do not size the case in any way.

Dies are sold separately as well as in sets. They start from $12 for an individual die & $25 for a set of dies & can go up into the hundreds for custom dies.

Priming tools

Most presses come with a priming tool built in. But hand held priming tools are generally preferred as they allow a more sensitive feel, which results in more consistent primer seating. They start at around $15.

Powder Measurement Devices

Mainly this would refer to scales. But powder measures should be included as often times these are set, checked & then operated with the confidence that they will deliver the desired powder charge every time.
Scales range from the relatively inexpensive beam type starting at $25 to the more expensive digital models which start around $140. Which you use doesnít matter so long as they are accurate & measure to the tenth of the grain.

There are many models of powder measures to choose from, ranging from the simple mechanical type to the digital ones. Prices start at around $40. Which type you use isnít as important as long they are consistent & accurate.

Powder tricklers are also worth mentioning. They are devices which trickle a small amount of powder. They are useful for adding a small amount of powder to a scale to get an exact charge. With a little practice they can drop a fraction of a tenth of a grain at a time so you can get your charges just right. They come in manual operated as well as motor driven models. They start at $10.

Powder dippers are very useful. They allow you to scoop up a certain amount of powder. They can be accurate to within a few grains so if youíre loading mild cartridges & wish to save some time you can just use a powder dipper (although I wouldn't recommend it). They start at around $10 for a complete set. However with a little ingenuity they can be made from spent .22 rimfire shells casings or any similar container.

A powder funnel is essential as it keeps you from spilling the powder when you pour it into the case. They start at around $5.

Case Measurement Devices

Calipers will become your new best friend. They range from the inexpensive vernier models which start at $25 to the more costly digital ones. Micrometers are useful as well & available in the same basic configurations as calipers along with ones specifically made for certain types of measurement. Micrometers start at $25. You can get by with just a decent set of calipers but both are useful to have. As long as they are accurate to .001 then design doesnít matter.

Cartridge headspace gauges are invaluable, especially when loading for semi-autos. They range from $20 on up. They will let you determine if your case is sized small enough to reliably function in a firearm with minimum chamber dimensions for that caliber. Donít reload for a semi-auto without one.

Bullet Measurement Devices

Comparators measure the length of the bullet from the ogive. They are invaluable for determining the proper seating depth when you wish to seat the bullet a certain length from the rifling. They start at around $20

Case Prep Tools

Case length trimmers range from $5 for the handheld tools on up into the hundreds for the more elaborate powered devices. The handheld tools consist of a shell holder & a cutting cylinder that fits inside the case. The blades on the cylinder are at a fixed depth in relation to the shell holder when inserted into a case so it can only cut to a certain length, thus eliminating the need for a case length gauge (although it's wise to check the case with calipers to make sure the trimmer is set up correctly). The case is the right length when the blades no longer cut.
There are also mini-lathe like devices which hold the case while a pilot is inserted into it. A crank is turned which turns the pilot & cuts the case to the desired length. The powered models are similar to this except a motor operates the system.

Chamfer & deburring tools start at $15 for the hand held combination tools. They are used to smooth the edges of the case mouth after trimming.

Case lubricants start at around $5 for the water soluble lubes & $3 for the powdered lubes. The grease, oil &/or spray lubes are for the case body, while the powdered lubricants are for the inside of the neck of cases.

Primer Pocket Tools

Primer pocket cleaners are merely stainless steel brushes of a certain size which are inserted into the primer pocket to remove any primer residue. They start at around $6

Primer pocket uniformers are used to even the depth & level of primer pockets for more consistent seating. They start at around $15.

Flash hole uniformers even the edges of the flash hole for more consistent ignition. They are available as hand held varieties as well as power tool attachments. They start at $10.

Decappers & bases are hand held tools used to remove primers from the crimped primer pockets of military cases. They start at $5.

Military crimp removers come as either hand held tools or dies. They remove the crimp from military cartridges either by cutting (hand held units) or swaging (dies). They start at around $12 for the hand held units & $25 for the dies.

Case Cleaning

Tumblers are devices which vibrate media in order to clean cases. They are either hand operated by a crank or motor driven. They start at around $45.

Chemical cleaners are a concentrate of a mild acid. They are mixed with hot water & used to clean cases. Each batch of cleaner/water is reusable. Prices start at $10 per bottle.

Accessories

Reloading trays are very useful as they allow you to place cases upright for work or inspection. They start at around $3.

Case lube pads are used to spread lubricant evenly onto the cases. A pad is saturated with lubricant & the case is rolled across it. They start at $10.

A bullet puller is very useful for disassembling loaded ammunition. They come in two forms: inertia or impact bullet pullers (hand held tools that resemble a hammer) & dies. To use the hand held tool one inserts the bullet into one end, tightens down the cap, & then strikes the tool onto a hard surface. The inertia will separate the bullet from the case. The dies use a collet to hold the bullet while the case is pulled away from it. The impact tools start at $15 & the dies start at $25

Books

Single cartridge data books are an economical way to gather recipes for a specific cartridge without having to purchase several different reloading manuals. They start at around $10.

Major component manufacturers offer reloading manuals. These contain recipes for a variety of calibers as well as informative articles on handloading techniques. They start at $10.

There are many books on handloading that cover the basics as well as those dealing with advanced or specialized techniques. They start at around $12.

The book I would recommend for the beginner or those just curious is The ABCís of Reloading 6th Edition by C. Rodney James. Itís available in the Sports section of Barnes & Noble for $21.95

The Basic Equipment You Need To Begin Handloading

A bench suitable to mount a press on $?

A reloading press $50

A set of dies for each caliber you wish to load for $25

A scale $50

A set of calipers $25

A powder dipper $10

A powder funnel $5

A cartridge headspace gauge for each cartridge you load $20

A primer pocket cleaner $6

Case lube $5

Case neck lube $5

A case trimmer $5

A reloading tray $5

A reloading manual with recipes for every cartridge that you load $10

Total $211

Now keep in mind that most manufacturers offer Ďkitsí that greatly reduce the start up costs. For example Lee offers the Anniversary Reloading Kit for $71. The kit includes a single stage press, a hand held priming tool, a case trimmer, a powder measure, a chamfer tool, a primer pocket cleaner, a scale, a powder funnel & resizing lube.
So with the Lee Anniversary kit we would only need to purchase:

Case neck lube $5

A reloading tray $5

A cartridge specific reloading manual $10

A set of powder dippers $10

A set of calipers $25

A cartridge headspace gauge $20

A set of dies $25

A bench sturdy enough for a press $?

That brings the total down to $171. You can cut the price down another $20 by buying Lee dies which include a powder dipper & a data sheet with recipes for that cartridge, although Iíd still recommend at least buying a cartridge specific reloading manual.

While it does take an initial investment to get started it more than pays for itself not only in the cash youíll save compared to buying quality factory ammo, but in the knowledge you gain about ammunition & ballistics.

So think about handloading. If you wish to learn more pick up The ABC's of Reloading 6th Edition as it is far more detailed than I could be in a single post.

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