The Beginner’s Guide to Reloading Ammunition
If you shoot a lot or want to dial in a load for more accuracy, reloading is a great hobby for shooters
Even in good times, when the world isn’t gripped by global pandemic—and ammo isn’t back-ordered everywhere like it is now—reloading metallic-cased cartridges for pistols and centerfire rifles is well worth the time.
After an initial outlay for equipment, the cost savings can be huge, especially if you shoot in high volume. If you invest some time in load development, your best and worst shooting firearms will fast become more accurate. Plus, reloading lets tinkerers like me experiment with wildcats and older cartridge designs for which you can’t buy factory ammo.
The downside is, for beginners, reloading can be confusing, complex—and frankly—a huge pain in the butt. Yet it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to get started down the path of making your own ammunition. And, let’s face it. We all have more downtime at home in front of us.
The Basics: Reloading 101
Reloading ammunition allows you to take spent brass casings and repurpose them into new rounds. You can make ammunition from brand new brass, too, which is why some make a distinction between “handloading” and “reloading.” But whether the brass is new or used, the process is the same. You’ll need a reloading press, some specialized tools, and a reloading bench, to complete all the steps necessary for making your own ammo. You’re also going to need some good-quality information.
Before your hop on Amazon and panic buy everything in the reloading section, educate yourself. Dan Clausen of reloading company InLine Fabrication put it to me best, “People who’ve come to this hobby well before you made all the mistakes, so do a little reading and don’t make them yourself.” It should go without saying, but reloading mistakes can be deadly, so it really does pay to school-up and proceed with caution.
If you’re starting from zero, check out The Practical Guide to Reloading Ammunition by Range365.com contributor Tom McHale, and The Beginners Guide to Reloading Ammunition by Steven Gregersen. Both books are easy, fast reads and provide a good primer (pun intended) on what it takes to start reloading on a limited budget. McHale offers tips like what to look for in Walmart to stay organized, and Gregersen walks through handloading with a $40 Lee Classic Loader, plus an introduction on loading with a basic single-stage press. If you want to take your book learning to the next level, Mic McPherson provides a master class in, Metallic Cartridge Handloading: Pursuit of the Perfect Cartridge.
YouTube is another excellent tool, but beware. There are loads of nutcases on the Internet. My go-to stop for sober, intelligent reloading advice is Gavin Gear on the Ultimate Reloader YouTube page. He has walk-thrus of everything from unboxing and setting up presses to loading your first round. It was invaluable when I put together my first progressive press, an RCBS Pro Chucker 7.
Finally, an absolute must is a good reloading manual. They contain proven load data for various cartridges. Yes, there are reloading recipes online, but you should only trust and use recipes from verified sources like powder and bullet manufacturers. I keep a hard-backed manual on my bench, which I work from and transcribe to my reloading log. Many manuals, like Speer Reloading No. 15 also have several front chapters covering the basics of reloading, which is very helpful for beginners.
How to Set Up Your Reloading Bench
Setting up a reloading bench and organizing it has a lot to do with personal preference. But generally, you want to create a system with ample storage, where everything is in reach, with a place to sit and prep cases, and a place to stand to run the press.
I made my bench from steel pipe and an 8-foot-long butcher block countertop from Lowe’s. First, I bolted a 2×4 to the wall. Then I bolted the back edge of the countertop to the 2×4. Finally supported the front edge of the countertop with a 36-inch threaded steel pipe on floor flanges. If you don’t have 8 feet of wall to work with, this design can scale to 4-feet easily, but really any ultra-stable commercially available workbench will work, too.
You’ll also need bins for holding bullets, completed ammo, and sorting brass. Arko bins are the most widely used. But, once you start reloading, you’ll never walk the Tupperware aisle at Walmart or the Parts Bins & Racks section of Harbor Freight the same way again.
You’ll need to attach your reloading press directly to the bench, and—to repeat—that bench must be rock solid. Any wobble will translate to flex in the press, which is the enemy of consistency, and consistency equals accuracy.
For even more stability, I’m a huge fan of the UltraMount Press Riser from InLine Fabrication. The mount does two things. First, it elevates the press so you don’t have to hunch over at the bottom of the downstroke. (My bench stands 38-inches tall, so counter height, and I need to bend when running a press without the UltraMount.) Second, it spreads the footprint of the press for added stability. But still, make sure your work surface is solid to begin with.
What to Look For in Your First Reloading Press
All reloading presses take removable dies. The dies are designated by caliber. They size brass cases and seat bullets to create rounds that fit in the chamber of any gun of that caliber. The dies also change depending on what step you’re at in the reloading process. The process boils down to taking clean brass, resizing it by pressing the brass into a resizing die, trimming the case length if needed, then expanding the neck of the case so a bullet will fit. With that done, you insert a primer, charge the case with powder, seat the bullet, press it in with a seating die, and finally, crimp the case if that round and recipe calls for it. Those steps, mind you, are not always done in that order as each reloader tends to develop his own best workflow.
There are three kinds of metallic case reloading presses: single-stage, where each pull of the lever completes one step of the process; turret presses where you rotate the dies manually and press the round through each step; and progressive, where a pull of the lever automatically completes every step for multiple rounds at the same time. Universal advice says start with a single-stage, and there’s no reason to buck that. It’s the clearest, most direct way to fully grasp all the different steps it takes to reload a single round.
Reloading is gear intensive and selecting what you need can be overwhelming. The press manufacturers recognize this and offer starter kits, which will take you from a bare benchtop to (almost) everything you need. And, unless you’re shooting precision benchrest competition, all the name-brand presses do the same thing, the same way, without much variation. (If precision rifle is your game, the Ultimate Reloader YouTube page did a very good single-stage press test.)
If you don’t want to compare and contrast every press on the market, and just want something reliable and easy with all the tools you need, check out the RCBS Explorer Plus Reloading Kit, which comes with a compact Special 5 press and all the accouterments. If that doesn’t work for you, the Hornady Lock-n-Load Classic Reloading Press Kit is also excellent and has a large following of devoted reloaders using it. If you’re on a budget, it’s hard to beat the Lee Precision Breech Lock Challenger Kit.
Reloading Dies, Components, and Case Prep
Notice I said kits come with most of the things you need to start reloading. You’ll also need reloading dies. These are the hollow hunks of metal that brass and bullet are pressed into to form your ammo. Every caliber has its own die, so a .357 die will not load 9mm and vice versa. But, just to keep you on your toes, a .357 will load .38 Special.
If you’re loading pistol cartridges, spend a little more for a three-die carbide set and if you’re loading for a rifle, you’ll need at least a resizing die, which shapes the brass to conform to that caliber and a seating die, which seats the bullet into said brass. Some cartridges like those for straight-walled pistol rounds also require an expander die, which opens the case neck slightly so you can get the bullet started by hand. If you’re loading pistol and rifle rounds, start with pistol cartridges as the process is simpler.
Dies are mostly interchangeable from manufacturer to manufacturer, but when you’re starting out, buy them from the maker of your press, so RCBS dies with an RCBS press, Hornady with Hornady, etc. If you have a problem with your press and dies, it will be helpful when you call customer service for support if everything is the same brand. And everyone who has ever reloaded anything has, at one time or another, called customer service with a question or help with a broken part. Thankfully, I’ve never had a bad experience with a reloading support rep. They know their stuff.
You’re going to need bullets, powder, and primers. Depending on the cartridge and the load, these components will vary, so it’s important to consult your reloading manual before buying anything and to only use the components designated for a specific load. Substituting powders, primers, and bullets can be disastrous, resulting in injury and even death. Stick to the recipe if you value eyes, ears, and limbs.
Components are available from the usual suspects, like Brownells, Midway, Natchez Shooters Supply, Graf & Sons, and some local gun shops. Also, once you dial in a particular load, it pays to buy reloading components in bulk as there are steep discounts when buying, say, 1,000 bullets compared to 100. This is especially true with powder as it requires an additional $25 hazmat fee to ship.
Finally, one thing most beginner reloading kits are missing is brass prep tools. Brass casings get dirty and stretched out when they are fired so before you can reload one with a fresh primer, powder, and bullet, they need to be cleaned and sometimes even trimmed. Case trimmers, tumblers, sonic cleaners, and cleaning stations like the RCBS Trim Mate, are all used to prepare shot, spent brass for reloading.
For beginners, it’s wise to simply start with new brass—which is available from many major manufacturers—as it takes these extra steps out of the equation. New, unfired brass typically doesn’t need much work unless you’re doing precision shooting.
If you do plan on reusing shot cases right from the jump, a case trimmer like the RCBS Trim Pro 2 is a very good thing to buy. For cleaning, the Hornady Lock-n-Load Sonic Cleaner is hard to beat. You’ll also want the Digital Case & Parts Dryer or a cheap food dehydrator to dry the cases after they’ve been cleaned. If you’d rather use a tumbler—which cleans the cases using dry media like walnut shells—you can skip the drying process altogether. The Lyman Turbo tumbler line is very good.
Having piles of ammo for every firearm in your gun safe is good, whether the world is falling apart or not. It’s nice to not have to count shots at the range. It’s nice to take a ho-hum rifle and load test it into a tack driver. Plus, if the world does descend into a Cormac McCarthy-like dystopia, we’ll probably start using ammunition for money. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could print your own?