Reloading your own ammunition
Ammunition is expensive, sometimes complicated to get hold of, and you usually end up paying well over the odds for shipping and handling costs. One way to solve this problem is to learn how to reload your own ammunition. It’s a skill that many firearms and shotgun shooters would love to learn, but most are put off either because they think it’s complicated or dangerous.
In fact, when you follow the right guidance, it’s neither of those things. You will always need to take time and care over this process however, so it’s really important that you’re aware of the recommendations that ammunition manufacturers’ give you if you’re attempting to start.
The empty casings of your rifle rounds are actually worth around 60% of the entire composition of a round - and when you leave those empty casings on the ground after a morning at the range, it’s likely that the range owners will collect all of them to either sell them on or reload their own rounds. So you should do the same!
Reloading your own ammunition isn’t just about saving money - you can easily increase your efficiency and enhance your shooting performance too. It allows you to source and put together all of the components yourself - of course within sensible boundaries of safety - meaning the attributes of the round can be slightly unique.
Here are the first steps you’ll need to take on your journey to handloading.
Check the quality of your casings
A new, handloaded round is only as good the case it is housed in - so you’ll have to spend a little while analysing your spent rounds. Sort through which cases are still in good condition - free from any splits, cracking, dents or holes - and chuck out the ones which aren’t suitable. This is important to be brutally honest here as a faulty case may end up causing serious damage.
Make sure your cases are cleaned well.
Once you’ve ensured that you’re left with the best shells, you need to remove any build up of dirt, grease and grime. There are a couple of things you’ll need to think about investing in here to make sure the job is done properly. The first is an ultrasonic cleaner or bath, which are exactly the same type of product that are used in dentists and hospitals to clean tools and operational equipment. Here is a good example of what you’re looking for. It’s not cheap, but as a one off investment, you’ll still be saving yourself a hell of a lot of money in the long run. These machines sort the whole process out for you, all you need to do is buy an ultrasonic cleaning solution to go with it, place your cases and solution together into the bath and let the magic happen!
Once done, the cases will need to be drained of all remaining cleaning solution and left to air and dry slightly.
The second option is using a brass cleaning powder or liquid, to begin a slightly more manual approach. There are solutions out there designed specifically for rifle rounds, but in truth, any brass cleaning agent is exactly the same thing. There are many of these on Amazon, but RCBS Formula 1 is a great option designed especially for empty rifle casings.
If you opt for this method, you’ll want to apply the cleaning solution to your shells and then use a vibrating tumbler to give them a good clean. You can usually get these for a fraction of the price of an ultrasonic bath, but maybe don’t do such a thorough job.
Alter your cases to their correct shape
When your round leaves the barrel, it’s put under such extreme forces that the composition of it is changed. Just as you would notice smaller gaps in your floorboards during warm weather in comparison to cold weather, the shell of a bullet will increase and decrease in size as it is being put under pressure. This results in a shift in dimensions when your empty shell finally lands on the ground. We need to try and return the used casing back to its original form, as accurately as we can.
Before you start, there are a couple of pieces of kit that are essential for you to have access to; a reloading press and a sizing die. There are plenty of case sizing kits like this one on reloading.co.uk, which include a standard sizing die, which you’ll be able to use in most common presses. Make sure that the dies are suitable for the size of ammunition you’re reloading.
There are a wide selection of reloading presses on Brownells.co.uk and these look a lot like a traditional workshop vice or clamp. Presses vary quite a lot in price as you can see, but you can always trust the reviews and the variation tends to be down to how established the manufacturer is. It’s always wise to refer back to your manufacturers recommendations to get a better idea of what style of press is going to be best.
Once you have both of these, you can begin resizing. There is a de-capping pin at the centre of your die - this can be adjusted and will move up and down to aid the resizing process. Before starting you need to make sure that the pin is sticking out of the base of the die by no more than 3/16 of an inch. Take some time to reset this until it’s correct.
You’ll also normally get some cleaning and lubricating equipment with your die - always make sure the die is clean and lubricated before you begin. Once done, you can set the die into the press.
Your press will have a screwhole in the top of it that will fit the die perfectly - match up the grooves and screw your die in place. Next, you’ll take the small circular shell holder and slot your empty case into the entry - it should be a very snug fit if you have the right size. Now you need to put your shell holder on top of the ram; the big metal rod at the centre of the press, which is operated by the lever. The shell clicks into place upside down in the press.
You then want to push your lever all the way down so that the ram pushes the shell all the way up into the die. When you’re in this position, start screwing the die down towards the shell, so that the round collar stops flush with the base of the press, but not yet tightened. Keep your hand on the lever whilst you’re doing this to keep the ram in the fully up position.
Now you can release any pressure off of the lever and let the handle raise up fully so that we can tighten the die. Screw the die down by just ¼ of a full turn - and then we can start pushing the lever up and down. You should feel a tightening when you reach the bottom - you can almost feel the pressure being forced into the empty shell. This pressure is what will force the casing back into its original shape and form.
Measure for the correct length - cut down to size if needed
The pressure of the resizing may sometimes stretch your case a little, so take a measurement to see if it is the appropriate length. Should you need to cut it down to size, you’ll need a case trimmer to get an accurate result.
You’re almost ready to load the powder and primer, but there are a couple of preparations that will need to be finished before proceeding. Seating your primer will be a much simpler task once you have Chamfered and Deburred the mouth of the case. Deburring tools are very cheap and all you need to do is use a twisting motion - first using the sharp end, then the pincer style end - to work at the brass. You’re just looking to slightly alter the angle of the mouth so that an easier entry is formed for the primer.
Time to get the primer seated
The primer is arguably the most important component of your ammunition, so it goes without saying that it needs to be installed with precision and care. Any damage to the primer could result in serious accidents, or just a very poor shot quality. The most important thing to manage when seating a primer is placing it at the correct depth within the case. As you’re probably aware, the job of the primer is to act as the ignition for the gunpowder which on contact causes the propulsion of the bullet.
Failing to find the perfect depth could mean the primer ignites when you’re not expecting it - which is really bad news. This is relevant for both seating the primer to high and too low. There are certain brands that offer automatic priming machines to try and help remove some of that risk of human error - but the majority of people will opt for hand priming equipment.
You may be using cases where the primer housing has crimping or staking - approach these with added caution as you’re more likely to damage the primer.
Image Credits: Rifle Shooter Magazine
Time to add the Powder
It’s absolutely vital that you know exactly how much powder your casing needs to keep the power and control at a safe level.
Every combination of casing and powder will require new measurements, as the mass of the casing and the type of powder you use will result in changing weights and amounts.
Take a careful look at the Load Data from Nosler, it goes into extreme detail for each casing/calibre type and gives you the safe ranges in which you can load your powder. It’s an absolute bible of reloading knowledge and even features some tips and precautions that you should consider when reloading.
Now that you have made a note of the powder quantities you need, you’ll have to weigh it out precisely. This is to be done using a set of reloading scales, which are extremely accurate for measurement of grains. Some of the best reloading scales sets are listed here. Just remember that it’s very easy to assume a very slight over measurement isn’t really worth anything as it looks incomparable when sitting on the scales, however the results would be enough to cause serious trouble.
It will obviously take some trial and improvement and you may need to add a bit more here or take a little off there, but after you’re confident the figure is exact, you’re ready to fill! Fill each case one at a time and take regular pauses to just check that you’re still making your measurements as accurately as you were to start with - it’s easy to get on a roll with things and start rushing a little.
Complete your ammunition by adding the bullet
You’ve made it to the last stage of this process and all you have left to do is apply the bullet head to the top of your case. It was mentioned earlier that you’d want to purchase a resizing kit which comes with a set of dies. You should have a bullet seating die come with your resizing die, but if not then there are plenty of options to buy them standalone. Most of the journals and manuals you have read in the build up to this will give you a good idea of the full round length you are looking to achieve.
Start by placing your primed and powdered shell on your reloading press, with your shell holder. Then simply line up your bullet head with the empty case neck and keep your hand there whilst you push down on the press lever to move the two components together. This action should feel a little tough to start with as they fit together. Once done, take your round and compare the length to the recommended figure in your guides. If it’s still too tall, take it back to the press and apply a little more pressure to help the bullet head fall a bit deeper. A cartridge that isn’t the right size simply won’t function properly in a chamber and magazine that is too small for it. However, don’t force this process too hard, as you may upset the live components in your freshly loaded cartridge.
Of course there are a lot of instructions involved with reloading and a lot of care and attention needs to be taken in order to keep the whole process safe and sufficient. There are obviously a few startup costs that may set you back a little to begin with too, but all of these tools you buy will most likely last a lifetime, so you won’t have to worry about this in the future, and you can start saving yourself some big money!
Make sure to watch handy walkthrough videos on Youtube as well as reading guides like this, as visual demonstrations are always the best way to learn!