By: Benjamin Mull
If you’ve done any significant reading on gun topics, you’ve seen handloading mentioned, and it can sound like something of a black art. Really, though, it’s an enormously accessible and rewarding pastime. Below is a list of what you’ll need and what you might want to begin your handloading hobby:
• Reloading Manual
Before buying any actual reloading equipment, the first thing anyone should start with is a published reloading manual. These are available from all the major bullet makers and some equipment companies. Any I’ve looked at have included a comprehensive set of instructions for loading cartridges. I find it helpful to have a minimum of two published sources to compare numbers directly, on the off chance that typographical errors have slipped in.
The two books I would recommend in particular are those by Lyman and Hornady. Lyman doesn’t sell jacketed bullets of their own or powder, but they do sell casting equipment. Their manual includes a variety of makers’ jacketed bullet and lead bullet data, which is lacking in other manuals. Hornady’s manual has the widest selection of jacketed bullets, and their informational blurbs give a nice historical synopsis regarding the individual cartridges and some commentary on their usefulness for particular purposes.
Why not just use the internet? While there’s no end of loading information on the web, the advisability of using said information is dubious to say the least. There are reputable sources online for loading data, such as powder or bullet manufacturers, but third-party sources can be more than a little reckless with their recommendations, and there’s nothing like having a published volume to ensure that a responsible party is on the other end of the numbers.
• Other Books
I find a copy of Cartridges of the World to be indispensable for anyone with more than a passing interest in firearms. This book includes a great deal of information concerning historical and international cartridges – even obscure international cartridges – and effectiveness. While there is a great deal of loading data included, the sources are not, however, always clear or reliable and only provide a general idea of the power level obtainable by the case volume with no practical guarantee of the safety of the included loads. Sources may be anachronistic, using components that have changed over time, leading to potentially dangerous pressure levels.
For those who are sure they want to get into handloading in a big way, Ken Waters’ Pet Loads Complete Volume is highly recommended. The volume is a collection of three decades worth of Mr. Waters’ regular articles from Handloader Magazine, in which he devotes several pages to a single cartridge. Mr. Waters’ limpid prose is a refreshing change from contemporary gun writers. As with Cartridges of the World, the loading data suggested should not be relied on, but in this case solely because of the potential differences in components.
After a few weeks or months of perusing these publications, one should have a pretty good idea of what's available and achievable in his or her cartridges of choice.
To proceed in the typical loading process (in the order of the typical loading process), the first thing one does, regardless of whether one is using empty fired brass casings (steel or aluminum are not reloadable), is to size the cases appropriately for use or reuse. Even when starting with new, unfired, empty cases, the mouths of the cases will often be dented and deformed, which will prevent the seating of the bullet later. For this operation, we will need a sizing die and a loading press.
Loading dies come in a set and are available from several larger manufacturers, as well as smaller shops. What comes in a loading set generally depends on the cartridge. For a typical rifle, it will be a two-die set. One die resizes the brass and knocks out the spent primer, and a second die seats a bullet and provides a level of crimp if the bullet has a cannelure. Pistol and revolver cartridges will typically have three dies, because they'll often utilize non-jacketed lead bullets which require the case mouth to be flared to allow the bullets to be seated. Pistol cartridges, such as 9mm or 45 ACP, may also need a special taper crimp die, because these cartridges headspace on the case mouth, and they can’t be crimped into a cannelure the way revolver and most rifle cases can.
I have the most experience with RCBS, but there are many comparable makers, such as Redding, which, as far as I know, are on par in terms of quality. It comes down to whatever is most convenient for you to purchase.
The outlier among die makers is the Lee company. Lee's die sets tend to be somewhat less expensive than others, but also include some features that may be desirable, especially for a novice loader. Some parts will be aluminum instead of steel, and other sets use o-rings instead of set screws to hold adjustments. While this is handy, especially when starting out and experimenting with different seating depths and crimping levels which require frequent adjustments, the adjustments aren't as secure and repeatable as with the more common set screws. But Lee also includes one of their powder measuring scoops along with a list of suggested loads for the particular cartridge. Obviously, any loads listed with the included measurer will be on the conservative side, but they'll be sufficient to get you out and shooting at targets right away. The only downside is you won't know what those loads are until you already have the die set.
It’s also worth noting that for straight-sided cases, there are often carbide dies available that don’t require lubricant. The convenience is really worth the nominal difference in price over plain steel dies.
When it comes to a press, there are a few different considerations:
o Hand Press
For the absolute lowest cost and greatest convenience, once again, Lee provides a unique solution with the Lee hand press. Even though it uses full-size standard dies, this press doesn't need to be mounted permanently on a bench or table and is entirely adequate for loading pistol cartridges and most rifle cartridges, so long as one doesn't insist on the last word in precision. The leverage and the stiffness of the components do limit it in terms of its ability to size magnum and larger cartridges, but so long as it’s kept to a neck sizing of larger cartridges or used on hand gun cartridges, it can do a fine job of providing ammunition superior to almost anything available commercially.
The ergonomics, it must be admitted, are not the best, and sore hands will be the result of extended loading sessions. Significant flex will become apparent if used with larger chamberings. But still, it’s a viable option for those who don't have a lot of space or aren’t sure of their commitment to the hobby and would prefer to avoid having a dedicated loading bench for the nonce. I would say also, the Lee hand press makes a convenient second press if you end up upgrading later, as it can still perform less strenuous operations, such as bullet seating, letting you avoid the need for switching dies out of the stationary press.
o Mounted Press
When it comes to mounted presses, there is a spectrum. The less expensive presses will typically be made of cast aluminum and open in the front (C-shaped). Though vastly more powerful in terms of camming ability than the basic hand press, these are still prone to some degree of flex and can be strained, especially with larger cartridges or more advanced loading techniques, such as reforming cartridges into substantially different chamberings. C-models may be the best option for left-handed users, as these are ambidextrous. Though Lyman does offer a cast iron C-type press, I don't have personal experience with it. It seems like it would offer an added degree of precision, stiffness, and durability over the aluminum alternatives.
The alternative is the O-type press. The O-shaped ones can be compromised in the accessibility of the cartridge to your hand, because often they will be offset and not as open in the middle as C-types. This can become annoying, especially if you have a bullet that doesn't want to balance especially well when being seated. The O-type presses, however, all seem to be of heavy cast-iron and steel construction and should outlast the purchaser. You'll wear out your elbow before you wear out the press.
If you know that you're into high volume and making lots of practice ammunition, you might consider a progressive press, but otherwise, single stage presses should be adequate for the typical user. Given the durability of this equipment, if you're not in a hurry, it might be worthwhile to go to a gun show and pick up a used press, which shouldn't be too hard to find, or look at local ad sheets. You can also check eBay. It can make sense to buy a higher quality used item than a cheaper new one because of the durability of the item.
• Lube and Case Cleaners
I do like to run an occasional lubricated case even through carbide dies to keep things working as easily as possible, especially when using the Lee hand press. Using steel dies, cases will need to be minimally lubed with case sizing lubricant. It used to be that one needed to use a lubricating pad to manually apply the lubricant to the cases by rolling them on the pad, but now there are a couple brands of spray lubricant.
After sizing, I like to remove most of the lube with a quick rub-down of each case with a paper towel. I don't want the cases to be lubricated in the chamber when the gun is fired, because I want the brass to be able to grip the inside of the chamber effectively. I worry the lube could compromise the grip and lead to excessive bolt thrust if not removed. Also, even though the spray-on lubricant makers advertise their products as being inert and having no effect on primers and powders, I found that the only misfires I ever had were from a batch of sized and primed cases on which I didn’t clean the cases, going off the manufacturer’s recommendation. After loading I immediately bagged the cases in sealed plastic and left them for a couple of years. When I pulled them out again, those cases had corrosion all over them, and when I used them as practice ammunition, I got about twenty percent misfires. No doubt the sprays are significantly less prone to contaminating primers and powder than the kind of lube applied with a rolling mat, not to mention more convenient, but I’d still get the cases as clean as I could, especially if I were going to store them for a while or use them on a big game hunt.
• Case Trimmers
After sizing, there’s an essential safety check that needs to be performed, and that is to measure overall case length. This is especially true of previously fired cases, because they will elongate, especially in bottleneck cartridges with repeated firings and sizing operations. If brass is allowed to grow to a length where it starts to protrude past the end of the chamber and into the transition from chamber to bore, this could result in the brass having nowhere to go to release the bullet, and the resulting spike in pressure can be catastrophic. At the least it will result in decreased accuracy. For this reason, it’s critical that overall length be checked, and cartridges be trimmed if any are over the maximum length. Even new, unfired cases can be surprisingly variable from piece to piece. Differences in length can also cause difficulty in achieving consistent crimp. Therefore, a minor trimming might be advisable even for new cases, simply for sake of uniformity. There are a few different case trimmers available, and if you anticipate doing high volumes, it might make sense to buy a powered trimmer.
For most shooters, though, several models of top-quality manual trimmers are available from reloading equipment companies such as RCBS and Redding. Again, Lee offers a product that, as far as I know, is unique for this purpose. Lee’s manual case trimmers are made to trim one particular cartridge to the appropriate length, so no need to measure cases. It already has a rod of appropriate length that guides the process – convenient if you don't care about only doing a few different cartridges, aren’t interested in trimming to other than the standard recommended length, and aren’t doing high volume.
• Chamfering and Deburring
The next step after trimming, now that the case has been resized, the spent primer has been removed, and the case has been cleaned and checked for safe overall length, will be to remove any burrs created by the trimming operation and to create or reestablish a bevel to the inside of the case mouth. Using a chamfering/deburring tool facilitates the seating of square-heeled bullets. Even boat-tail bullets often benefit from this step, as it removes any sharp edge that can scrape a copper jacket. When loading revolver cartridges, especially with non-jacketed lead bullets, the mouth flaring step obviates the need for chamfering and deburring unless trimming has been performed.
In this case, I cannot recommend the Lee product despite its much lower cost. The added heft and sharpness of the RCBS and Redding products justify their higher prices.
• Priming Tools
At this point, the brass case is prepped and ready for the actual loading process, which begins with inserting a replacement primer. It should be noted here that the choice of primer is not incidental. Any reputable published load will specify which primer is to be used. Changing the primer can result in drastically increased pressure and should only be done by a knowledgeable and experienced handloaded.
As far as I know, every loading press either comes with a priming attachment or has one available as an accessory. This is really one stage where I feel it is worth paying for a dedicated hand-priming tool. The great leverage of even the Lee hand press, compared with the one-handed squeezing operation of the hand-priming tool, makes it far too easy to crush primers, especially for a starting handloader. This can result in accidental primer detonations at worst, but at best can lead to inconsistent ignition. With just a little practice, the hand-held, dedicated priming tool will provide great results in terms of primer seating depth, as well as give the user a sense of how snug the primer fit is in a particular case.
A primer that seats too easily can be a tipoff that your cases are expanding beyond the reasonable range. Conversely, the primer may not be a good fit if seating is too difficult. For the former, the used cases may need to be discarded, and for the latter, a different primer is needed. That said, if your press comes with a priming attachment, and you’re just in a hurry to get some shootable ammo loaded, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. Regardless, don’t point the case toward your face or anything flammable, and wear safety glasses, because accidental detonation is always a possibility during this operation.
• Brass, Powder, and Bullets
While you can certainly use fired brass, it can be even more cost effective to buy brand new, unloaded brass, which is easily available for most cartridges. Going that route, I have seen a great increase in uniformity, though not necessarily durability. And higher uniformity can lead to better accuracy.
You can also get nickel plated brass for a lot of cartridges, which is nice for corrosion resistance for long-term storage. Nickel plated brass also cleans up easily from carbon fouling, though it doesn’t polish as easily. This can be worthwhile if you don’t want a case cleaner, which takes up a lot of room, is noisy, and is an added expense.
Powder is explained by the loading books. It’s all good, so get what you get.
Aftermarket bullets are, in my experience, always better. In the maybe two dozen firearms I’ve loaded for in any capacity, only one had a factory load that was superior in accuracy to any aftermarket bullet I used. My theory is that this is due to better quality control. I’ve always found factory loaded ammunition to be entirely adequate for any hunting needs, but if you’re going through the work to reload, you can expect to have a significant and measurable increase in accuracy from almost any aftermarket bullet maker. I’ve used several different bullet makers, and they’re all mass marketed bullets, though I have nothing against craft manufacturers.
Other Helpful Items
If you bought some unused brass and don’t have boxes to reuse, you’ll probably want to get some plastic cartridge boxes for a couple dollars per piece. They’re more durable than cardboard, easier to stack and carry, and you can put stickers with the load information on them and change them out as needed. You can get different colors for different cartridges that are similar in size to make it convenient for yourself.
One thing that seems like a big expense, but is really rewarding, is a chronograph. This is also a safety measure, because you don’t want to depend on published velocities. I’ve seen factory information off by as much as twenty percent. This has been getting better over the decades as more people have access to chronographs, but published velocities are still usually very optimistic.
A “chrony” will let you know if your loads are doing what you want to them to. If you’re getting higher velocities than what’s listed in the manual for a specific load, you must be suspicious that you’re getting higher pressures, too. Chronographing the load is the only way to know for sure what’s happening. You’ll probably want to get an inexpensive camera tripod that will mount to most chronographs – double check before you buy to make sure they’ll mate up. It’s a lot easier to set up a tripod than to set up a table, giving you much more flexibility in where you shoot. It also weighs next to nothing. I just leave my chrony permanently on the tripod. And then you know you have a tripod if you ever want to take photographs!
• Bullet Puller
For the price, it’s worth it to pick up a bullet puller. There’s always going to be a mistake made or a load you’re just not sure about when you stop and think about it. It may be over charged, under charged, or not charged at all, and the temptation will be to go ahead and shoot it. You may not think you’re prone to that until you’ve done it. Or, as happened to me one time, I had a really successful load that I shot all but one example of. Later, when I went to make up more, I knew what powder I had used but wasn’t sure what the exact load had been! But since I had one cartridge left, I was able to pull the bullet and weigh the powder charge. You can also have times when a bullet gets loaded a little crooked or a cartridge gets dented, and you want to reuse the components.
• Case Cleaner
A case cleaner is something a lot of more experienced loaders have around, and you might feel like you need one. You don’t, really. Just give the case a wipe-down with a little solvent (such as acetone or something similar) on a paper towel to clean off any residual oil. If you really want to clean your brass, go ahead with it, but don’t use a case cleaner on already loaded cases. The powder might have some coating to regulate the burn rate, and the vibration can wear this down. Thus, it won’t burn at the engineered, intended burn rate. Also, if the bullet has any lead exposed, you don’t want that bouncing around and getting damaged. A case cleaner does clean up cases and make them pretty, but Brasso will also clean them up nicely for display. You just don’t want any of that going in your firearm to scratch up the bore.
Final Safety Notes
You need to listen carefully while you’re testing your loads and be awake to the sound a cartridge makes and the feel of the recoil. In the off chance you get a load wrong or have a misfire, if you’re aware of what the load should sound and feel like, you’ll be able tell if something went wrong. The sound difference between a bullet that has exited the muzzle and one that has not is significant, even if you have some kind of light, quiet load. I’ve experienced this in the process of fire-lapping a revolver, using really minimal charges to just get the bullet through the barrel at the slowest feasible speed. The misfire sounded more like a small “pop” than a shot fired. Even a .22 rimfire fired out of a revolver will give a distinct concussive sound which is completely missing from a .44 which is stuck in a barrel and which gives a quiet, dead thud.
If you notice a strange sound, check and make sure the barrel is free of obstructions. You NEVER want to fire a second bullet down the barrel if there is any obstruction, especially something as heavy and well-sealed as another bullet. This is why you also never want to go too low on velocity. Even as a published expected velocity, under 800 fps a jacketed bullet can lodge the jacket in the barrel or bore while the lead core continues to fly forward, strike the target, and make a hole. Now you have a stuck jacket that needs to be cleared before the firearm is used. If you don’t know how, take it to a gunsmith. It should take a gunsmith five minutes to fix, and I’d be surprised if they charged you for it. Keep track of that sound. If it doesn’t sound or feel right, unload and check it.
A common rule of thumb is that whenever any component is changed, even if it’s a bullet of the same weight or a primer with the same description, i.e., small rifle, large magnum rifle, etc. but from a different company, the powder charge should be reduced by ten percent to begin developing a new load.
Handloading is arguably the best way to save money on ammunition. But really, regardless of whether your main interest is target shooting, hunting, or if you’re a hobbyist who wants to get some oddball firearm functioning, handloading is the way to get the most satisfaction out of your shooting sport.
Benjamin Mull writes from Miami, Florida.