This article will be a short overview of the concepts and equipment involved in reloading ammunition.
The most important thing to remember is that you should take your time and do quite a bit of reading and research before you ever purchase your first piece of equipment.
Reloading can be broken down into a few basic steps.
Case preparation: Whether you start with new virgin brass, or have been saving and collecting your brass, you will need to clean and inspect your cases. After reading the reloading section of a few manuals, you should be familiar with the characteristics of cartridge cases so you can evaluate them for re-use, or if they need to instead be recycled as scrap. This includes looking for signs of case head separation, primer pocket and flash hole damage, bulges, neck and shoulder damage such as fissures and splits and other cracks. Once you have good brass, you will clean it. There are a variety of ways to clean, roller and vibratory media tumblers are the most common. Different media produces different results. For instance corn cob media produces high polish, and walnut media produces a matte finish, but more cleaning action. There are wet ultra-sonic cleaners as well as wet tumblers that use stainless steel pin media. All types have their specific benefits and drawbacks. Case prep also involves case resizing and depriming. Depending on the case type and die type, your cases may need no lubrication. For example, a straight wall 38spl case resized with a carbide die does not need case lube, but a bottlenecked 30-06 case resized in a tool steel die will need lube. Many resize dies include a decap pin that pushes the old primer out as it resizes the case. Lubrication could be an entire article on its own as there are many different products and techniques from roller pads to finger pump spritz and aerosol spray lubes as well as finger applied lubes. You can also apply lube to cases and then tumble them in a zip lock bag. It all depends on the lube and application. After the cases are sized, depending on the type, they may need to be trimmed. For instance, Bottleneck brass tends to grow in length when sized, whereas straight wall cases, especially straight wall pistol usually do not. In any event you will measure the cases with a set of calipers, trim if needed and then be read for the next step.
You case will now need to have a primer installed. Many presses have a device that allows you to prime on the press though many prefer to use a hand tool to install primers.
After priming, you will then need to charge the case with powder. Depending on your equipment, you may be hand charging, or using a manual or automatic powder thrower. Measuring the powder involves weighing out a specific charge. This can be done on an electronic scale or a beam type scale. You can calibrate a powder dispenser to throw a certain weight charge by adjusting a precision cavity within a moving rotor that collects a charge of powder from a hopper, rotates to isolate that collected charge from the hopper, and then drops a powder charge into the case. Depending on your equipment this may happen on your press or manually.
After the case is charged, then you will add a projectile and seat it. Depending on your application, your case may need to have a crimp applied to hold the projectile. Crimping also could be it’s own article, as it covers everything from just straight neck tension, to roll crimps where the cartridge mouth is rolled inwards slightly to taper crimps and collet crimps. In most cases, crimp type is application specific. For instance, cartridges that headspace on their shoulder or a belt or a rim, such as a 38spl, a roll crimp would be common. For cartridges that headspace off the mouth of the case, like a 9mm, a taper crimp would be common. In some applications you could opt to use a collet crimp when another crimp could also be used. For example, using a LEE factory crimp die (collet crimp) to crimp in a projectile vs. the seating dies built in roll crimp. Different crimps give you different options. For instance to effectively use a roll crimp, you need projectiles that have a cannelure groove for the lip to roll into. Without a cannelure, you might opt to use a collet crimp.
Most seating dies come with their cartridges typical crimp method built in. Some reloaders opt to seat and crimp in 2 steps, some opt to seat and crimp in the same step, if possible. Some die sets do not have a crimp function in the seating die and instead provide you with a separate crimp die or make one available to purchase.
Those are the basic steps; now let’s take a slightly closer look at some of the hardware types involved that have not been mentioned yet.
Of the gear you will use, arguably the most important will be your reference material. Reloading manuals: Each major brand or reloading gear has it’s own manual, plus some of the powder and projectile manufacturers also publish one. Everyone has their favorites, but I would like to put in a ‘must have’ comment for the Lyman 49th (soon to be updated and on the market in it’s new version).
Die sets: 2, 3, and 4, die sets are common. For instance, a die set meant for a bottleneck rifle that uses a roll crimp in the seater die might only be a 2 die set. A resize/deprime die, and a seater/crimper die. A 3 die straight wall pistol set is common , with a resize/deprime die, an expander die to bell the case mouth to allow easier insertion of a projectile, and then a seater/crimper die to insert the projectile and remove the case mouth bell and/or crimp the cartridge case. Some die sets include separate dies like extra step crimp dies. Also you can find special dies that have specific purpose, for instance checking powder level in a die, as well as archaic trim dies that you slid a case into and literally used a flat file to trim the case to size using the die as a jig. You may also find older style dies that were designed to be used with a mallet and not a press. Commonly these kits were sold as super economy reloading options for a single caliber without purchasing many other tools. Except for nostalgia, I do not recommend trying to start with these type kits.
Press: This is the actual machine you will be doing your arm exercises on. There are many brands and types. Single stage models are units that you fit a single die to, and run a single operation on until you change the die out. For instance, if you had your resize and deprime die in the press, you could run thru your brass and resize and deprime all of it, then change out to your seater die so that you could seat and possibly crimp your cases after you prime and charge them. The press will have a ram and will accept a shell holder that holds the base of the case. Different case bases take different shell holders. Some shell holders fit many different cases bases that have in common dimensions. As you pull the ram lever, the ram drives the case into the die to perform the specific function of the die. To be able to perform more functions without changing out a die, you would use a turret or a progressive press. A turret press works in the same fashion as a single stage, except that instead of fitting a single die to the press, you can fit multiple dies to a tool head, and then you simply choose which function you want to perform with each handle pull. Progressive presses also hold multiple dies; however they perform all actions of all dies on each handle pull. Thus, on a progressive, each handle pull indexes the case thru each function until after all functions are complete yielding a finished cartridge. Each subsequent pull then produces a finished cartridge assuming your powder, case, projectile and primer hoppers stay full.
Hand primer: a hand tool that you insert a un primed case to, and then, usually, squeeze a lever to insert a primer into the case. The hand primer will have a hopper to hold primers and guide them to the insertion ram on the primer tool.
Reloading scale: Most common types are balance beam scales and digital scales. Some digital scales are coupled with an automatic dispenser. Reloading scales are precision calibrated and measure in grains. Do not use a non-reloading specific scale. Stick to one of the major manufacturers: RCBS, Dillon, Hornady, Lee, etc.
Caliper: A precision measuring tool that should ideally be able to read to .001 increments. Calipers can be used to measure case and projectile dimensions.
Case gauge: A collection of tools that are setup to accurately measure specific cases based on drop in or slide in / thru action to give you a quick visual go / no go for case conformity.
Case trimmer: used to trim a long case to a uniform length. These come in many shapes and styles and designs, but most involve a cutter head and either electric motor or hand crank to trim the mouth of the case.
Case Preparation tools: These can be individual hand tools, or a motorized station with rotating tools installed to prepare cases. Common tools are inside and outside diameter neck reamers, which are used to trim flashing off a case neck after it has been trimmed to length in a case trimmer. A collection of primer pocket tools including cleaners, and depth truing tools as well as a flash hole cleaner. In some cases, primers can be crimped or staked in. Many times you see military surplus brass with staked or crimped primers. After this brass is deprimed, it needs to have the raised lip from the primer crimp flattened back into the primer pocket, or trimmed off, thus you would use a crimp reamer or a pocket swage tool.
Kinetic Bullet Puller: This device looks like a plastic hammer. It is used to remove the projectile from completed or partially completed ammunition. Sometimes you find that you nead to break cases down due to an error. If so, you insert the cartridge into one end into a set of jaws and then literally use a hammering action letting inertia remove the projectile from the case, preserving both the powder and the projectile if you choose to re-use them.
This just barely skims the surface of reloading, but if it sounds interesting to you, you might want to give it a try. The easiest way to get into reloading is with help from a mentor, preferably local, but thru an online forum such as TFF is also a good option.
Buying gear: Used or new? Sure, you can save some money buying used, but if you are just starting out on your own with no one to directly guide you, I would suggest buying new. Once you build skill you will be able to know what to look for when buying used. If you are lucky and have other reloaders in your area, you might be able to buy surplus equipment directly from them and be set to go from the start.
Most of the major manufactures sell individual gear and starter kits. Lee, RCBS, Hornady, Dillon etc. All sell boxed kits that come with a press, powder scale and misc. equipment you will need for basic ammunition production. Items like case trimmers usually are purchased separately.
This is a hobby that takes attention to detail, so try to avoid distractions while reloading. Double check your work, and don’t be afraid to double check yourself by breaking down ammo if you think there is a slightest possibility of an error or problem.
Never have more than one type of powder open on your bench at one time.
Always use published load date from a known publisher such as a powder manufacturer or projectile manufacturer (Speer, Sierra, Hodgdon, Alliant, Hornady, etc.).
Never exceed published load specs.
Always inspect your cases before, during and after loading, and pay attention to signs of over pressure situations, IE, hard to open bolt, blown out primers, etc.
Never duplex a load (mix 2 or more powders).
Take your time and read thru your reloading manuals a few times before you ever try to start making cartridges.
Before you know it you will be making ammunition, and while you might not save money, you should find that you can shoot more for what you would spend to buy commercial ammunition. Reloading also lets you custom tailor a load to a specific firearm.
Reloading may lead to other related hobbies like Lead casting. You may eventually find that you want to make your own projectiles and then custom load your own ammunition.