Of all the reasons to reload, none is more satisfying than the pinpoint, round-after-round accuracy of shooting your own custom-tuned ammunition. Consistent, tight groups are something to be proud of and can be easily achieved with the proper tools and equipment. Experimenting with various reloading powders and bullet types/weights allows you to find the most accurate combination for your firearm and application.
By Mat Brost & Phil Villareal
Reload for Increased Accuracy & Shot-After-Shot Consistency
Customizing ammo to your specific needs — predator or big-game hunting, long-range shooting or competitive shooting — is more valuable than you might realize. The ability to precisely duplicate ballistics ensures that once your firearm is dialed in, you won't need to blame a miss on factory ammo.
Starting with a basic reloading kit and adding additional reloading tools and accessories to your reloading bench makes this an economical hobby that enhances your accuracy and overall shooting experience. If you're anything like us, chances are you have boxes of once-fired brass in your garage or basement. Brass is approximately one-third the cost of each reloaded round. If you have an obsolete-caliber firearm such as a .32-20, reloading is the only practical way to continue shooting it. Plus, it's something you can do year-round. What better way to pass the time when snow is flying?
These are the 10 Basic Steps for Reloading Handgun & Rifle Cartridges
Getting into reloading can feel overwhelming at first. Yet, a small commitment of time and research will have you quickly reaping the benefits of reloaded ammo.
Tip: A reloading manual from the same manufacturer of the bullets you use will take you step by step through the entire process. Having an additional manual on your bench allows you to cross reference load data.
1. Inspect and clean cases. Wipe dirt and grime away from each case. Inspect each case for deformities and splits. Defective cases should be thrown away. To remove carbon buildup and oxidization, use a sonic cleaner. To clean and polish brass, use a tumbler.
2. Lubricate cases to prevent them from getting stuck in the sizing die (not necessary with carbide/titanium nitrate dies for straight-wall cases).
3. Install the shell holder and adjust sizing die on your press.
4. Insert case and resize/decap/expand the mouth. Mouth expansion requires a separate die to be installed for reloading pistol cartridges.
5. If needed, trim case to specified length. After being fired, cases can lengthen beyond safe limits. Use calipers or a case gauge to check length.
6. Trimmed cases need to be chambered and deburred to allow the bullet to seat easily and uniformly. Clean primer pocket if needed.
7. Prime case with proper primer size and manufacturer as specified in the reloading manual.
8. Weigh the correct powder charge and pour into the case with a powder funnel. Consult your reloading manual for data on powder type. Double check that you're using the correct powder and proper load for your bullet weight and cartridge.
9. Thread the seater die into the press and adjust for proper seating depth. Reference your reloading manual for adjusting and setting proper seating
10. Go shoot! Keep detailed records of how cartridges perform. Check for signs of pressure and accuracy before increasing powder charge. Safe pressure limits combined with consistent accuracy is what you should be looking for. Once found, these details will be stored so you can later reproduce the exact load. This is known as a pet load.
Gun Reloading Components
- Powder (Three basic types):
- Extruded Stick — Cylindrical-shaped granules. Main use is rifle reloading.
- Spherical — Ball-shaped granules. Applicable for rifle, pistol and shotgun reloading.
- Flake — Round- or square-shaped flakes. Used for pistol and shotgun reloading.
Getting Started & Learning the Basics of Reloading
Reloading kits are an excellent investment for beginners to get into this fun and rewarding hobby. The centerpiece of a reloader's workbench is the press. A press allows you to easily complete functions with the pull of a handle. Different kits include different tools. Determining your goals and researching various kits will help you decide which is most suitable. Most kits include a reloading manual, powder scale, case-loading block, priming tool, powder funnel and case lube.
Besides components, cartridge-specific dies, shell holders and calipers will need to be purchased separately.
Understanding a Reloading Press
Understanding the differences in press styles is key to optimizing your reloading experience and getting the most out of your time and the ammo you reload. Primary press styles are single stage, turret and progressive. Your primary shooting style and the amount of ammo you'd like to reload will help determine the most suitable style for you. Serious shooters using high volumes of both pistol and rifle ammo might consider using a combination of either a single-stage or turret press along with a progressive press.
Single Stage Press — Ideal for benchrest shooters and beginners, single-stage presses complete a single function with each pull of the handle. Dies must be changed in order to complete the next function. They are slower than other presses, but give the user total control over the reloading process. Single-stage presses are perfect for shooters who don't need to reload large quantiies of ammo at one time.
- Performs a single function with each pull of the handle
- Total control over the entire reloading process
- Produces high-quality, accurate ammo
- Teaches beginners step-by-step procedures
- Ideal for reloading less than 1,000 rounds per season
Turret Press — Multiple stations increase volume without the need for changing dies. Turret presses are similar to single stage presses in that they complete a single function with each pull of the handle. Once one function is complete, rotate the turret to the next step. This eliminates the need to change and reset dies between functions and speeds up the process. Ideal for pistol and rifle shooters who value attention to detail and want to increase productivity. Great for beginning reloaders, turret presses are quicker than single-stage presses.
- Perform multiple functions without changing dies
- Simply rotate turret to move to next function
- Use as a single-stage press until comfortable
- Quicker than single-stage presses, simpler than progressive presses
- Ideal for reloading less than 1,000 rounds per season
Progressive Press — For high-volume shooters, progressive presses complete multiple functions on multiple cartridges with each pull of the handle. Progressive presses pump out large quantities of ammo in the shortest amount of time. They are more complex than turret and single-stage presses.
- Performs multiple functions on multiple cartridges with each handle pull
- Reload large quantities of ammo in a short amount of time
- Recommended for high-volume shooters
- Can load up to 800 rounds per hour
Required Reloading Equipment
The Reloading Press is the centerpiece of a reloader's workbench. Presses use compound leverage to perform loading operations — resizing/decapping/mouth expanding and bullet seating with or without crimping. They vary from simple single-stage models and turret types to complex progressive models that complete multiple functions with each pull of the handle.
Having a Reloading Manual specific to the brand of bullets you're using on your workbench is essential to consistency and safe reloading. It's your step-by-step guide through the entire reloading process. Keep updated reloading-manual materials in your library as technology and improvements are made to powders and bullets. Minimum and maximum loads may change and it is your responsibility to keep pace.
A Powder Scale ensures each cartridge is consistently loaded with precise, accurate powder charges that result in shot-after-shot accuracy.
Case-Loading Blocks keep cases organized and within arm's reach
A Priming Tool feeds primers and inserts them into the priming pocket of each case The priming tool can be part of the press or a separate tool that increases efficiency by priming many cartridges in a short period of time.
Pour measured powder in casings with a Powder Funnel. Improved, caliber-specific funnels prevent spillage around case mouths.
Case Lube reduces friction between the brass case and the sizing die. It is a must for resizing bottleneck cases. Available as a liquid, aerosol or wax.
Dies are cartridge-specific and used to resize cases, deprime, expand the case mouth, seat and crimp bullets.
Shell Holders are cartridge-specific and hold the case in the press for proper alignment with the die. Check with the shell holder's manufacturer to determine which shell holder will fit each cartridge.
When .001" can be the difference between a hit and miss, a quality caliper is essential for ensuring your ammunition dimensions are safe and consistent.
Carbide/Titanium-Nitrate Vs. Steel Dies
Carbide/titanium-nitrate dies are more expensive than steel and can only be used on straight-walled cases. They do not require case lube and are hard and highly polished, requiring less resizing force. Steel dies require case lube and are generally only used for bottleneck rifle cases.
Optional Reloading Equipment
While not initially required for reloading once-fired brass, a case trimmer and prep tools become necessary for reloading cases that have been fired multiple times
Case Trimmers trim elongated brass to safe dimensions. Brass casings can lengthen with repeated firing and sizing, making them unsafe unless they're trimmed and retured to the proper length. Trimmers are available in hand and electric versions with a universal cartridge chuck head or a cartridge-specific shell holder. Case trimming is necessary if you are crimping the case mouth into the bullet because the crimp is set for an exact length.
Case-Prep Tools perform multiple functions such as primer pocket cleaning to remove carbon buildup. This will allow for consistent ignition. Other accuracy-enhancing case-prep tools include primer-pocket uniformer, flash-hole uniformer/cleaner and very low drag chamfer/reamer. These tools are available as hand tools or as part of power-prep centers. Power-prep centers have most of the basic tools in a single package and are enhanced with the speed and power of electric.
OAL Gauge and Gauge-Modified Case accurately determine overall cartridge length and ensure proper bullet-seating depth.
Sonic Cleaners and Tumblers remove tarnish, oxidization and carbon buildup from cases. Clean cases increase consistency and will not attract dirt that can scratch dies and firearm chambers. Prior to sonic cleaning, decap the casing with a decapping die so the primer pocket can also be cleaned. A clean primer pocket ensures consistent powder ignition.
When measuring powder, make sure there are no drafts blowing through your reloading area. The slightest draft or breeze can cause fluctuation in your powder-measuring device.
Balance Beam Scale — Slow but extremely accurate, balance-beam scales require no batteries or electricity, making them portable and simple to store.
Electronic Scale — A little quicker than balance-beam scales. Electronic scales are accurate, but require batteries or electricity to function.
Powder Drop — Perfect for high-volume reloaders, powder drops speed the reloading time by dropping a measured volume of powder. They work best with ball and small short-cut extruded powders. Powder drops need to be set for the average charge dropped and should be periodically checked with a scale throughout your reloading session to ensure consistency.
Powder Dispenser — Ideal for high-volume shooters, powder dispensers are precise and increase reloaded rounds per hour. The dispenser communicates with a scale so an accurate load is dispensed. Dispensers are quicker than powder drops.
Differences in Handgun and Rifle Reloading
The major difference between handgun and rifle cartridges comes in the casing shapes. Most handgun cases are straight-walled, while rifle cases are generally tapered with a bottleneck design.
Straight-walled cases can be resized with a carbide/titanium-nitrate die that does not require case lubrication. Tip: To reduce resizing force, apply lube to every 15th round. Resized handgun cases require a separate expander die to bell or flare the mouth for easy and proper bullet seating. After the case is resized and the mouth is expanded, a seater die seats and crimps the bullet. Handgun dies come in three-piece sets that include the resizer, expander and bullet seater/crimper. A roll crimp is for revolver or tubular-style handguns while a tapercrimp is for semiautomatic pistols.
Rifle cases tapered with a bottleneck design require case lube for full-length resizing. WIthout lube, the bottleneck design will get stuck in the die. Rifle dies come in two-piece sets, one resizing/expanding die and a bullet-seating/crimping die.