A Beginner’s Guide to Reloading Ammunition

by Admin | Last Updated: June 3, 2020

Loading your own ammunition is not only easy, but also a fulfilling process. Even those with the proverbial ten thumbs can master it, following our few handloading tips and rifle reloading basics. So if you want to find out how to get started reloading rifle ammo, you are the right place. Let me briefly explain the process as follows:

During the firing of a cartridge, the propellant ignites. It creates gas that causes such a high pressure that the shell swells or stretches and that pressure drives the bullet down the barrel. The case extends so much that it will not hold a new bullet tight enough, and it may also fit too tightly in the weapon’s room.

So the fired shell should be shrunk (reshaped) so it can hold the bullet and fit comfortably in the weapon’s room. During reform, the fired primer is removed. Then a new primer, propellant (gunpowder) and bullet must be fitted into this reformed case. And then, you have a “new” cartridge!

Caution

It is important to remember that the gunpowder / propellant used as well as the primers are highly flammable and can cause serious injuries or even death, so safety is paramount. When you reload always remember theses safety handloading tips:
• Always wear safety glasses.
• Do not smoke while reloading.
• Store the propellants and primers where children cannot reach them.
• Clearly identify the propellant and primers you want / need to use.
• Never mix or replace smokeless powder with black gunpowder.
• Keep only one type of propellant and primer on your reloading table at any given time.
• Do not exceed the propellant manufacturer’s maximum loads.
• Handle primers with care and always store them in the containers in which they are sold.
• Maintain the correct reload sequence.
• Always check the charge in the casing before pressing in the bullet.
• Keep records for every caliber you reload for.
• Gunpowder and alcohol do not mix. Never use alcohol while reloading – be alert and sharp.
• Never use an electric vacuum cleaner to clean up loose, or spilled propellant or gunpowder granules. The brushed electric motor can ignite the propellant.

Basic Equipment

To reload ammunition effectively and safely, you will need the following basic equipment:

During the discussion of the equipment that follows, I sometimes point out differences and say why some equipment is recommended over others. This advice is more aimed at beginners who have yet to buy equipment. Since we are focusing on basic reloading and rifle reloading basics in this article, I am going to stick to the commonly used equipment and basic handloading tips. For specialized reloading to load competition accurate ammunition, additional equipment can be purchased. Let’s first discuss the above basic equipment:

Reloading Manual

Because the characteristics of weapons and components may differ from one another, resulting in major differences in performance and functioning, it is not good practice to blindly duplicate the loads of other reloaders or “rumor loads”. Reloaders therefore need reliable information about recommended safe start and maximum loads. We highly recommend the Modern Reloading 2nd Edition guide.

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This guide is the most important item on your shopping list. It’s inexpensive, available at most gun shops and can save you thousands in damages and learning curve. Read the first few chapters carefully for background knowledge. It is extremely interesting and gives a clear picture of what you are going to work with and what forces are involved in igniting the propellant to launch the bullet. Gunpowder (although in a fraction of a second) does not explode. Read the section two or three times if necessary, until you have a good understanding of what is explained.

The manual contains loading tables for the more common calibers with recommended starting and maximum loads for various bullet weights and some invaluable handloading tips. The manual clearly warns: “The only loads that can be guaranteed to be safe are the start loads.” This fact cannot be emphasized enough, because too high loads are the main cause of damaged equipment and worst of all, the injury or death of the shooter. Always start at the recommended minimum starting load and work slowly and carefully in small increments.

Chronograph

A chronograph is a device that measures the velocity of a bullet as it is shot past its sensors. There is a relationship between speed and pressure. Pressure measuring devices are very expensive and therefore out of reach of the general public. The most reliable way to ensure that we stay within safe limits is to measure bullet speed. The indicated speed in the RDM tables is therefore the determining factor, not necessarily the loads. Your weapon may use more or less gunpowder to achieve the same speed.

Some loaders consider a chronograph to be a luxury, intended for the more dedicated loaders. Nothing is further from the truth; A chronograph is absolutely essential for any reloader. I think EVERY reloader MUST test his loads with a chronograph and confirm that his self-loaded cartridges are safe to shoot in his weapon. If you can’t afford a chronograph, borrow one or buy one in a group. But, great please, use a chronograph. My motto is: “To measure is to know”.

Read the section about the S / L value (speed divided by the load). It is basically the velocity yield per grain load that is produced by any specific gun and cartridge combination. If the S / L value of your ammunition is less than that specified in the Modern Reloading manual, your combination has a “loose” tolerance that is more forgiving. This means that you can use more propellant than in the Modern Reloading guide tables to reach the indicated speed. The reverse is also true, of course. You can also usually find the reloading tables for your specific propellant on that manufacturers website.

Remember, we measure speed to determine that we stay within the limits of safe pressure levels. This S / L Value is very useful for calculating / extrapolating what speed your ammo will deliver at a higher or lower load than the one you measured the speed at. Here’s how to work with the S / L value: Measure the speed of your own pattern, calculate your own S / L value, simply take the “new” load, multiply it by your own S / L value, and you have the “New” speed. The properties and combustion rate of propellants can vary between lots. So when you buy a new can of powder, pay attention to the lot number. If different from the previous one, shoot about three newly loaded patterns over the chronograph to measure the velocity. If the velocity is higher than your previous patterns, pay attention to pressure signs and make downward adjustments with your load.

Vernier

Also called a caliper, almost any vernier, mechanical or electronic is suitable. However, the electronic types have the advantage that they can measure in both inches and millimeters and it is also easier to read the measurements. Many sizes for reloading are traditionally indicated in inches. Measuring in inches is easier than having to convert it. Self-locking electronic verniers come in handy because the battery does not last long when you forget the device on.

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Be careful not to push the jaws unnecessarily hard during measurement. Pushing too hard can result in incorrect readings. So apply moderate and constant pressure during measurement. It is also good to wiggle the component that is being measured during measurement, to make sure that it gets to its low point and make sure the jaws are properly in contact with it.

Reloading Press

There are basically two types of presses available, namely the single stage and progressive / multi-stage press. The progressive type of press is more suitable for loading large volumes of cartridges where accuracy does not take precedence (handgun shooters use it frequently). Since the head on which the dies are mounted can be changed to index, there may be play of this head. Of course, this is detrimental to the correct alignment of equipment and components and can therefore be detrimental to accurate reloading of ammunition. For reloading accurate ammunition and for effective control of the process, it is suggested that you use a single station type press instead.

Any of the following presses are recommended: RCBS Rock Chucker; Lyman Crusher; Lee Classic Cast & Classic Cast Breech Lock; Redding; Forster Co-Ax, the new Frankford Arsenal M-Press (the Rolls-Royce of this bunch, also a coaxial press), Hornady Lock-N-Load, and probably other manufacturers as well. Even the “smaller” presses that come included in Lee’s entry level kits will suffice for most reloaders.

When you use the link above to shop for one of the products, we receive a small commission from the sale, at no extra cost to you. This helps us keep this site going, and does not affect the price you would pay usually in any way whatsoever.


Dies

A die is a mold that has to resize the shell to its original size. Most standard die sets contain at least a full-length sizing and a bullet seating die. There are also other dies available such as the Lee-factory crimp to shrink bullets into the casings; decapping die to remove only the primer; body die, which resizes only the case body and shoulder; neck sizing, which in turn only resizes the case neck; and other specialist type dies. In essence, a die consists of the molding and a pin mounted within it. The purpose of the pin, which consists of a thick section, the expander button and a thin pin, the decapping pin, is twofold: The decapping pin pushes out the primer during the resizing process and the expander button resizes the neck to the case again to the desired size to accommodate the bullet.

Our preferred die set for any new caliber, that can accomplish 95% of all we need die to do, is the Redding Match Die set. These not only work with bushings, which we love, but also includes a micrometer, which quickly proves it’s worth when you need to make micro adjustments to the bullet seating depth and over all length (OAL) of the cartridge during load development. If used with Titanium Nitride bushings, lube is also not needed for neck sizing.

When you use the link above to shop for one of the products, we receive a small commission from the sale, at no extra cost to you. This helps us keep this site going, and does not affect the price you would pay usually in any way whatsoever.

Primer Pocket Cleaner

The detonation of the primer leaves burnt residue on the bottom of the primer pocket. Remove it to ensure that the new primers are mounted correctly and all are uniformly deep. There are many devices available for this. It is important to ensure that the device does not fit so tightly as to damage the sides of the primer pocket. Be careful and use it in such a way that it only removes the residue from the bottom without damaging the case material itself.

Case Length Trimmer

When a casing is resized or pressed smaller, the material that is displaced must naturally go somewhere. The only place it can go in a die is forward, with the case growing in length. It is very important that the case does not get too long for the rifle’s chamber, otherwise the cartridge may not fit. Or worse, by forcing the cartridge into the chamber, the rifling grooves can squeeze the case around the bullet that will increase the pressure and possibly cause the gun to explode. Lee’s length trimmers work well, especially the new Quick Trim. Although the hand lathe type length trimmers are considerably more expensive, their advantage is that the cutting length is more adjustable and that the cutting plane is kept more square.

Deburring Tool

Trimming the length of the casings, leaves burrs on the inner and outer edge of the case. These “burs” can prevent the case from chambering or damage the bullet during pressing and must be removed. New cases’ mouths often also have “burs” that need to be removed.

Priming Tool

Most presses have the capability of pressing primers. Due to the force exerted by the press’s long lever arm, there is a loss of sensitivity and feedback on how deep the primer is pressed into the casing, which may result in them not being mounted correctly and evenly. With tools like the Lee Auto Prime, it is felt when the primer’s anvil feet make contact with the case bottom. In this way, the process is better controlled and the primers are also easier and faster to press.

Powder Measure

The powder measure, dispenses a preset volume of propellant or gunpowder. You then weight the amount dispensed on a powder scale mentioned below, and then adjust the amount that is dispensed accordingly. Some of the more expensive powder measures, feature an included micrometer to accurately adjust the volume of propellant dispensed, but this however is more accurate with powder propellant than with granule-type propellant. To make smaller adjustments to the volume dispensed, a powder trickler is used additionally.

We use the Frankford Arsenal powder measure, as it not only includes the mini mount as most other powder measures do, but also a higher table mount, which needs to be bought separately with the other powder measures. We also like the fact that it is super accurate, and matches the brand and look of our Frankford Arsenal M-Press for some uniformity on our reloading table.

When you use the link above to shop for one of the products, we receive a small commission from the sale, at no extra cost to you. This helps us keep this site going, and does not affect the price you would pay usually in any way whatsoever.

Powder Scale

The amount of propellant (gunpowder) is of course the most important component that will determine whether the cartridge will function safely and effectively in terms of speed and pressure. Relatively small differences in the amount of propellant can make big differences to the energy released during its combustion. Incremental and minor adjustments to loads can be accompanied by drastic increases in velocity when the load is near or above the optimum or maximum safe level. Therefore, it is extremely important to weigh propellant on accurate and sensitive scales.

Propellant is measured in grain – there are 15,432 grains in 1 gram. Mechanical or beam type scales and electronic scales are available. Both are sufficient if it can accurately weigh up to 0.1gr. Mechanical scales are slower to use and it is also difficult to weigh components of varying mass. Electronic scales are more expensive and can be sensitive to electrical interference. The cheaper electronic scales tend to lose their zero more easily and drift more and therefore need to be calibrated more frequently. They are also more sensitive to interference from ultraviolet light, cell phones and the like. In any case, it is wise to always confirm the calibration of the electronic scale, with calibration weights, before and even during reloading. Many loaders prefer the convenience of the electronic scale.

Reloading Method

Because this is a basic introduction to reloading and is of general application to a variety of equipment, it is not always possible to explain in detail how to set up specific equipment for use. Suppliers’ manuals explain how. For more detailed instructions on reloading techniques, tracking preparation and aspects such as taking measurements before, during and after reloading ammunition, I refer you to the Modern Reloading guide mentioned earlier.

1. Cleaning of Casings

At the very least, brush out the loose carbon inside the casing and wipe the outside with a soft cloth. Cases can also be cleaned in a tumbler. The most effective is to clean shells chemically, with a cleaning solution.

2. Case Resize and Deprime

During resizing, the case is “forced” into the die (sizing die). It is extremely important to apply lubricant to the case, otherwise it will get stuck in the die and be very difficult to remove. Of course, the case will not survive the trapping / removal episode either. Some reloaders prefer to roll about five cases at once on a lube pad with oil to lubricate the outside and then apply an earbud of oil to the inside of the neck, especially where the shoulder and neck meet. There are various techniques that can be used, but the crux of the matter is to lubricate the case and ensure that there is lubricant on the inside of the neck as well.

Full-length dies tend to bend case necks. To reduce the chances of this, the case should not be forced hard into the die. The expanding button stretches the case neck when the case is pulled from the die. To prevent this expanding button from twisting in the case, the case must be pulled out of the die in one smooth motion (and the expanding button through the case). Some reloaders even loosen the decapping pin / expanding button in the die so it can self-center in the case. The pin’s lock nut is then not tightened so that it has clearance on the thread and centers during resizing. Apply lubricant only lightly on the case. Excessive oil accumulates within the die and can cause the case body to dent in places.

Most full-size dies are set up as follows: Check that the decapping pin’s tip protrudes 5mm at the bottom of the die, to be sure the primer is pressed out. Push the press lever down until the case holder is at the top. Screw the full-size die in until the pin just touches the shell holder and lock it into place. Note that the case’s headspace and diameter can be measured on the shoulder before and after resizing. The full-size die can be adjusted to both these sizes by at least one thousandth of an inch (1 Thou). Using these measurements, the resizing process can be controlled to minimize the case resizing while still allowing the case to comfortably fit into the chamber of the rifle. The case body and neck can, of course, be resized in two separate steps, which means that straighter cases can be reloaded than with a standard full size die.

3. Clean Off Lubricant

Lubricant is detrimental to the primers and gunpowder and can neutralize it. Therefore, all oil, especially on the inside of the case neck, should be removed. I prefer water-soluble lubricants, because then the oil can easily be removed with a wet cloth.

4. Press the Primer

Press the primer into the case with a press or hand priming tool such as the Lee Auto Prime, or something similar.

5. Pour Propellant in Case

Weigh the load to the nearest 0.1gr on an accurate scale and pour it in the case with a funnel. A powder measure helps to accurately measure the load in volume before being weighed. Some reloaders only use a powder measure to measure the load. It may be safer to still weigh each load. After the propellant has been poured in all the cases, look into all the cases from the top, to ensure that all the cases have received their propellant and that the levels mare the same.

6. Mount / Press the Bullet

Most bullet seating dies are set up as follows: Insert a prepared case into the shell holder and push the press lever until the case is at the top. Screw in the bullet seating until it just touches the case and lock into position. Some bullet seating dies have the ability to crimp the case around the bullet during seating. These dies must be unscrewed a three-quarter turn after touching the case, and then locked into position if you do not want to apply the crimping. This crimping should only be applied to bullets with a built-in crimping groove (channel) and only in that crimping groove and not elsewhere on the bullet. To allow for variation in the tolerance of the bullet’s shape and length tolerance, it is wise to allow a jump of at least 0.5mm.

7. Keeping Record

Very important! Without records, things get very messy.

Make a basic table in which you record the following:

To eliminate errors in the amount of gunpowder and bullet weight, I weigh each charged case on my electronic scale, and see that there are no obvious errors or deviations. At the same time, I calculate the average mass of what I weigh and record it. If I re-load this recipe next time, it is quick to confirm that the new cartridges are loaded correctly. I try to keep cases in groups of say 50 per container. That way I easily control how many times shells have been fired. I also record what preparation and steps I do every time.

With these rifle reloading basics, you are well on your way to your own accurate reloaded ammo. Once you have mastered basic rifle ammo reloading, and you want to take your accuracy one step further, you can also read and follow our advanced reloading for accuracy guide. Stay safe and have fun.