Happy 2014, everybody! May your new year be a cornucopia if happiness, knowledge, and good times…and though we stay prepared, let’s hope we don’t have to use those SHTF preps anytime this year! Hope everyone had a safe and fun New Year’s Eve!
Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to learn how to start reloading your own ammunition? It is? How convenient; because that’s what this post is about! We all know why loading your own ammunition makes sense to us: lowered expense, less dependence on an outside source for a commodity we need, the ability to fine-tune a load to that ballistic “sweet spot” that shoots best in your firearm, the ability to hand-pick your components to the job at hand, the ability to continue making ammunition after a craze has hit the streets and the factory-produced stuff is swept up…..I could go on and on. But the point is, it just plain makes sense. And for all of you out there who maybe have been meaning to start but really don’t know where to begin, I’m initiating a series of posts designed to get you rollin’, where you can start producing quality ammunition without being a danger to yourself, your firearm, or others.
What’s that? A danger? Yes, Virginia, we’re taking about serious danger. When we hand-load ammunition, we alone are liable and responsible for every grain of gunpowder that goes into that case. If we have too much, we can create overpressure conditions and turn our firearms into handheld grenades. Too little or no powder, (called a “squib” round) and the bullet can get stuck in the bore of your gun. When the next round gets sent down the barrel behind it, we turn the gun into a grenade. (see the above pictures for reference) It’s a serious business that calls for 100% dedication and attention. No distractions like a TV (though I do dearly love listening to music while I reload), no in-depth conversations that will make you lose your place, and definitely no drinking, smoking (fire hazard) or drug use. Why? Because we’re talking about not just the danger of kersploding your favorite gun, but the danger of losing fingers, hands, eyes, even your life or someone else’s….so be careful.
Where to begin?
So you’re ready to take the plunge and divert some funds into this new hobby. Where do you start? Well, you’re going to need a decent amount of equipment. Even going bare-bones will be an initial financial hit, so be ready for it. However, the more you load, the faster you’ll make up your investment with saved money. For example, a 100-round box of Winchester white-box .45 ACP 230-grain FMJ is about $48 at the local Wally World, for a cost of $0.48/round. If I already have cases, the cost of components (primers – Winchester #7 Large Pistol, gunpowder – in this case 5.0 grains of Bullseye powder – and bullet – Magtech 230-grn FMJ) my cost is $26.20/100 rounds, for $0.26/round. Folks, that’s almost half off per box of ammo, and it just takes a bit of your time and expertise. It’s immensely rewarding, not just for you, but for your wallet. I almost NEVER buy centerfire ammunition anymore…I take the time to develop a sweet-shooting load for each gun, keep careful records of them, and then load up a quantity. I have ammo in stock, and the ability to make more of a load that I KNOW functions and shoots well in my particular firearm. It’s pretty swell, I tell ya. But I digress.
First, you’ll need a good solid workbench. Using a reloading press exerts a tremendous amount of leverage and stress on what it’s mounted on, and if it’s not rugged and mounted properly, your wife’s kitchen table will soon be two or more smaller kitchen tables. I went to Lowes and picked up a slick workbench similar to this but with no lighting for about $150. For the budget-minded, make your own out of 2x4s, or try out one of these. Make sure that the bench area has a bit of an overhang, so when you mount your press to it, you can use C-clamps to hold it on if you want to be able to take it off later. If you want to permanently mount it, make sure you can access the bottom of the bench area so you can run carriage bolts down from the top and bolt the press securely into place.
Put the bench in a nice quiet area, free of distraction. A nice comfortable office-type chair is good too, because if you get the urge and feel like banging out a few hundred rounds of ammo (it happens!) a nice comfy place to rest your behind is always welcome. Make sure there’s good lighting, a trash can, and an outlet or two in case you run any electric powder measures or a radio. Keep it clean, keep it organized. If you keep track of where everything is, and put everything back in the same spot, you don’t run the risk of getting distracted while looking for something and then accidentally double-charging a case with powder when you get back to it. If you accidentally spill powder, sweep it up immediately (a bit of a fire hazard there) and dispose of it. Only use one powder and primer type at a time. Keep your powder and primers stored separately, in cool dry places. Remember, these are severe fire hazards (we’re talking about possibly POUNDS of stored gunpowder), so keep it in a (preferably metal) cabinet away from anything that may cause a spark or inadvertent flame. An bit of forethought and careful planning here will head off disaster in the future.
What to buy for reloading equipment
Okay, you have a nice, organized, solid workbench. What do we put on it? You’re gonna need a few things to get started, and it can get pricey. As with anything else, get the very best you can afford. Quality certainly matters with reloading gear, especially if you ever advance to the point of loading precision ammunition. Be sure to shop around. Websites like Midway, Brownells, Cabelas, Amazon, and local shops (where I like doing my business) will help you with the gear if you wanna go new. However, local ads, craigslist, eBay, and other places are awesome if you have the time and patience to search for used loading tools. Reloading kits are the best way to go if you wanna do it all and get it over with, since they come with most everything you need, tool-wise, in once big box. You’re going to need the following:
–Powder scale (electronic is cool and time-saving, but make sure you get a manual one for when the power goes out)
–Priming tool (some presses have them built-in, but I’ve had them break before, so I usually get a hand-held one.)
-Loading manual – one or more, as sometimes different manuals only feature one brand. For instance, the Speer reloading manual only provides data for Speer bullets. Go figure, huh?)
-Small items: Powder funnel, hex key set, case mouth deburring tool, lube pad and lube if you want to load rifle cases.
-Case tumbler (optional, but very, very nice to have!)
Now, what brand to get? Like cars, guns, cellphones, and guitars, there are many brands that all do the same thing; they just differ in the user experience. However, I will admit, right here, right now, that I am an unabashed RCBS fan. To me, the green gear means it’s gonna work all the time, every time, and if it does break, their customer service is BEYOND outstanding. I had the ram of a turret press break; I emailed them with a picture and they put a new one in the mail. That day. FREE. No questions. My father has an old RCBS case tumbler – It has to be 15 years old. The lid broke after years and years of almost daily use. Dad called up RCBS asking to buy a new lid, but they refused his money and sent him a new lid, a new media bowl, new fastening hardware, and a media separating plate. Free. No questions asked. That’s why I’ll buy RCBS every time and suggest others do the same.
There may be other companies out there with similar customer service mantras, but I’ve not yet had the reason to try them. However, there are companies out there that make some reputedly stellar reloading products. Hornady, Redding, Dillon Precision, and Lyman all make high-end gear. Lee is OK starter stuff if you need to go in on a budget. Here are a couple kits from the above companies (I sourced through MidwayUSA.com, but please look around) to give you an idea of what to look for, and pricing.
Hornady Lock -N-Load Classic Kit – $309.99 (has an electric scale, you should invest in a manual one like the RCBS kit has)
Also, you’re going to need caliber-specific loading dies. These are the tools that screw into the presses that re-size the fired case, seat the bullets, pop out the primers. For rifles, there will be two dies (usually) in a box, for pistol dies, there will be three (make sure you get CARBIDE dies for pistols!). Again, I have always used RCBS dies to my 100% satisfaction, but have just ventured into the new Hornady Custom line of dies when I got a .35 Whelen recently. They look fantastic, though I haven’t had the chance to use them yet.
Also somewhat caliber-specific will be the shellholder. This is a changeable tool that holds the case by the rim, and allows the case to be run through the die functions. Since many shells have the same rim diameter and pattern ( for instance, the .30-06, .308, .243, .45ACP, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, .35 Whelen, and others all have the same rim, and therefore use the same shellholder), they may be interchangeable. I bought a kit (the Lee Universal Shellholder kit) that has the 11 most commonly used ones, and it’s been a godsend.
So, all in all, you’re looking at around the $500-600 mark to get set up with brand-new high quality gear, from scratch. if you make your own bench and buy used, you can halve that. However, remember that, with a $500 investment, it will pay for itself after 40 boxes of ammo with the above-mentioned .45 ACP load. That’s just 2000 rounds of ammo, if I do my math right. If you load cast lead bullets, or buy in bulk, you can cut that back even more. What’s not to love?
Next week, we’ll delve into how to set it up, and how everything works. Have a great new year!