Reloading Ammo: A Case of Combustion
By Dennis Biswell | Dec 2, 2019
1. Defective cases: cases damaged during projectile insertion (top), split case neck (middle), and bulges (bottom).
Reloading your own ammunition has many benefits, not least of which is a sense of self-sufficiency and satisfaction in putting meals on the dinner table with ammunition you loaded by hand. On a more practical level, reloading your ammunition will increase the accuracy of your firearm and give you the ability to create ammunition for multiple uses, such as hunting and recreational shooting. In the process of reloading ammunition, you’ll also increase your knowledge of firearms. Plus, it’ll make firing your weapon more sustainable, as you’ll be recycling brass cases and cartridge packaging. Finally, you’ll cut the amount of money you spend on ammunition by one-half to one-third, no small amount when it comes to ammunition.
I began reloading when I got my first traditional muzzleloader rifle in the early 1980s. With a muzzleloader, every shot is loaded by hand. (For more information, see my article “When the Smoke Clears,” November/December 2017.) I started reloading modern centerfire rifle and handgun cartridges when my father-in-law gave my son and me an all-in-one reloading kit. Using that kit, I discovered that reloading modern ammunition was fun and rewarding. I soon bought more equipment and began reloading for multiple firearms.
2. A Caliber-sized brush works for case neck cleaning.
A Guide on Guns
A cartridge is made up of a primer, gunpowder, and a projectile all enclosed in a case (see Photo 16). Before shooting, the cartridge is locked into the chamber of the firearm. Squeezing the trigger sends the firing pin into the primer. This creates sparks, which ignite the gunpowder inside the cartridge. The rapidly burning gunpowder creates expanding gas. This gas pressure propels the projectile out of the cartridge neck and down the barrel of the firearm.
Case resizing. For a cartridge to fit into the chamber of a firearm, the cartridge’s dimensions have to be a little smaller than the chamber. The gas pressure that’s generated by shooting propels the projectile out of the barrel, and pushes the walls of the case against the chamber, deforming its width and length. The deformed case must be set back to its original width and length. A resizing die resets the width and a case trimmer resets the length.
3. A combination decapper and resizing die on a single-stage bench-mounted press.
Some dies resize only the case neck. Others resize the entire case. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.
Most all-in-one kits resize the case neck. The biggest drawback to neck resizing is that the ammunition can only be used in the firearm from which it was originally shot. If you have several firearms of the same type and caliber, neck-sized reloads must be kept separate. Another drawback is that neck-sized reloads don’t feed or eject properly in semi-automatic or lever-action guns. They’re appropriate for bolt-action and single-shot rifles, revolvers, and single-shot Derringer-style handguns. Neck-sized reloads have several advantages, including better accuracy from the case being formed to the chamber; less time required because the cases don’t need lubrication; and reduced case stress, resulting in a longer case life.
In full-length resizing, the entire case is set to factory width specifications. The main advantage of full-length resizing is that reloads can be used for any firearm of that type and caliber. The minor drawbacks are a reduced case life and additional time to reload because the case needs to be lubricated.
What type of sizing is best? That depends on your equipment and preferences. Because I have both types of dies for my rifle, I neck size my hunting ammunition and full-length size my recreational loads. Part of the fun of reloading is choosing how you reload your ammunition.
4. Trimming the case length is fast and easy with a drill-mounted case holder.
6.The chamfer and devurr tool is used to smooth the trimmed case neck.
Primers. Most brass-cased ammunition manufactured in the U.S. uses a boxer primer and is reloadable. Some foreign ammunition and military-surplus ammunition use a Berdan primer and aren’t feasible to reload. To differentiate between the two, shine a light into the case. A boxer primer has one hole in the base, while a Berdan primer has two.
Gunpowder and projectiles. The type of gunpowder used and the size of the charge, coupled with the projectile style and weight, will affect accuracy. You can gather this information in several ways.
First, review the load data sheet that came with the dies. It’ll list several options for gunpowder and projectiles. Second, go to the gunpowder and projectile manufacturers’ websites. Third, get an up-to-date reloading reference manual. Fourth, chat with your local gunsmith. Fifth, check out online reloading forums. Finally, look at the ammunition you’re currently using. If your firearm is more accurate with a 170-grain projectile, use that weight of projectile for your reloads. Then, experiment with different gunpowder and projectile brands until you find what works best in your firearm.
When experimenting, stay within the specifications listed in the reference material. Never exceed the maximums or go below the minimums. Deviating from the specifications can cause catastrophic problems.
7. The primer pocket-cleaning tool makes it easy to remove debris.
8. A bulk primer loader attaches to a bench-mounted press and makes short work of priming cases.
9. A bulk gunpowder dispenser and a digital scale will give you exact amounts for your cases
Reloading has four main operations: case preparation, loading (sometimes called “charging”), inspection, and packaging. While the basic steps are the same, there are some variations depending on whether you’re loading for a handgun or a rifle. For specifics on reloading, follow the directions in the die kits, in an up-to-date reloading manual, or on the manufacturer’s website.
- Inspect the case for damage, such as splits or bulges. Discard damaged cases (see Photo 1).
- Inspect the case for primer type.
- Clean the powder residue from inside the case neck (see Photo 2).
- Lubricate the case.
- Remove the spent primer (see Photo 3).
- Resize the case back to its original width specifications.
- Remove the lubricant from the case.
- Trim the case to length (see Photo 4).
- Smooth the case neck opening (see Photos 5 and 6).
- Confirm the case meets length specifications.
- Remove residue from the primer pocket (see Photo 7).
- Confirm the primer pocket hole is clear.
- Flare the case neck, if required.
Load (or Charge)
- Place the new primer in the primer pocket (see Photo 8).
- Confirm that the primer’s flush with the base.
- Place a measured load of gunpowder into the case (see Photos 9 and 10).
- Insert a projectile into the case neck (see Photo 11).
- Check the case neck for splits.
- Crimp the case neck, if required for the ammunition (see Photo 12).
- Confirm that the overall cartridge length is within specifications.
10. A gunpowder funnel assures all gunpowder is delivered into the case.
11 & 12. The projectile is seated on the single-stage press. a crimping die finishes the cartridge.
- Check the cartridges for splits or bulges, especially at the neck.
- Confirm the overall cartridge length.
- Check for uniform weight (see Photo 13).
- Package the finished cartridges.
- In a spreadsheet or log book, record the recipe — the projectile type and weight, gunpowder type and weight, overall cartridge length, number of times the cases have been reloaded, and reload date — on the package (see Photo 14).
13. Finished cartridges are inspected for uniform weight and proper length.
14. Record the recipe for the reloaded ammunition.
15. Two die kits and data sheets. a press-mounted kit (left) and an all-in-one kit (right).
Reloading is an expandable operation. Just as my son and I did, you can begin with an all-in-one kit and some basic tools, and expand as the operation grows. You’ll need the following equipment no matter which style of reloading dies or type of press you use.
- Calipers. For confirming measurements.
- Chamfer and deburring tool. To smooth the case neck opening after trimming.
- Case cleaner. For reloading a small number of cases (20 or fewer per session), you can use caliber-sized brushes and steel wool. For larger operations, a case tumbler or ultrasonic cleaner saves time.
- Primer pocket cleaner. A two-sided tool used to remove primer pocket residue. One side is for rifles, which have large pockets, and the opposite side is for handguns, which have smaller pockets.
- Case trimmer. For loading 50 cases or fewer per session, a hand-held trimmer with a drill-mounted case holder is OK. For more than 50 cases per session, a bench-mounted cranked trimmer saves time.
- Primer. These come in a few varieties, including hand-held models good for priming a few cases per session, or high-capacity models that attach to bench-mounted presses.
- Powder measure. Most die kits come with a gunpowder dipper, which is OK for loading a handful of cases per session. For more than a few cases, a bulk gunpowder dispenser is helpful.
- Digital gunpowder scale. To ensure consistent gunpowder charges, weigh each charge on a digital scale before pouring the gunpowder into the case.
- Gunpowder funnel. To ensure all the gunpowder goes into the case.
- Bullet puller. For disassembling a defective cartridge, because mistakes are bound to happen.
- Mallet. If using an all-in-one kit.
- Safety equipment. Gloves (when working with lead projectiles), safety glasses, and a fire extinguisher.
- Caliber-specific dies. Each caliber and ammunition type requires a set of reloading dies. These sets typically include a case holder, case width resizer, projectile seater, and gunpowder dipper. Some kits also include a crimper. Dies come in all-in-one kits or in sets that mount into a press (see Photo 15). All-in-one kits are available for popular rifle and handgun calibers. They’re good for reloading a small number of cases (20 or fewer) per session, and are portable and useful when experimenting with different loads at the range. These kits resize only the case neck (see “Case Resizing”).
- Reloading presses. The dies used in the following presses resize the entire case.
Single-stage press. The single-stage reloading press is the next step up from an all-in-one kit. These can be portable or bench-mounted. The portable models are good for those without a dedicated workspace, or for reloading at the range. Bench-mounted models require dedicated workbench space. For many hunters and recreational shooters, a single-stage press meets all their reloading needs. A single-stage press has one die mount and one piston that holds a case mount. Operations are batched. For example, the resizing die is loaded into the press and all cases are decapped and resized. After the cases are trimmed to length, the bulk primer is loaded and all the cases are primed. With some practice, a reloader can make up to 100 rounds per hour.
Multiple-turret press. The next step up is a multiple-turret press. This bench-mounted press has several die mounts on a rotating turret, and one piston that holds a case mount. Dies are loaded onto the turret, and an empty case loaded into the case mount. Each pull of the lever raises the case into a die and then rotates the turret for the next operation. Once calibrated, an experienced reloader can make up to 300 cartridges per hour with this press.
Progressive press. For serious reloaders, the next step up is a progressive press. This press has several stationary die mounts and several case mounts on a rotating plate. Each pull of the lever inserts all case mounts into the dies and then rotates the cases to the next die station. Once all case mounts are full, an empty case is inserted at the starting station, a finished cartridge is dropped out of the final station, and the ones in the middle rotate through the stations. With a progressive press, an adept reloader can make 500 to 700 cartridges per hour.
- Case lubricant. Follow the recommendations in the die kit for the proper case lubricant.
- Primers. Handgun ammunition uses a small primer, while rifle ammunition uses a large primer.
- Gunpowder. Refer to the load data sheet in the die kit or a reloading reference manual for the appropriate types and charges of gunpowder.
- Projectiles. Refer to the load data sheet in the die kit or a reloading reference manual for the appropriate types and weights of ammunition.
Tailoring Ammo to Your Firearm
It’s hard to believe, but even in modern firearms, there are variations in the chambers and barrels. These variations can cause two rifles of the same caliber from the same manufacturer to perform differently. In ammunition, differences in gunpowder types and loads, projectile styles, and weights can cause shooting variability too. Many shooters go through a few boxes of ammunition before finding the one that works best in their new firearm.
With reloading, you take control of the variables to maximize the accuracy of your firearm. These variables include neck sizing versus full-length sizing; different projectile brands, weights, and styles; different types of gunpowder; varying the gunpowder charge between minimum and maximum loads; and trying different projectile seating depths between the minimum and maximum to find the sweet spot for your gun.
If you’ve been considering reloading, give it a shot. Take control of your ammunition by joining the ranks of reloaders.
Dennis Biswell is a frequent contributor to Grit. He’s an avid outdoorsperson, and has been around firearms all his life.
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