Is Handloading Ammunition For You?

Do you want to reduce the cost of ammunition? Do you want to shoot more? Perhaps you want to quickly learn more about ammunition than most shooters ever will. Maybe you want to develop more accurate ammunition customized for your favorite rifle or handgun. Then handloading ammunition is for you!

Is Handloading Ammunition For You? It is if you are a shooter who wants to save money, shoot more often, and develop loads custom-made for your rifle or handgun.

For experienced ammunition handloaders, ammunition handloading is considered a normal and even essential practice for improving firearms performance as well as saving money. For other shooters, the idea of handloading their own ammunition may seem quite intimidating.

Handloading ammunition is actually a simple process. The empty case is restored to correct dimensions, the spent primer is replaced with a new one, a new powder charge is poured into the case, and a new bullet seated. That is it! Simple, huh? Well, almost. In practice, those steps are somewhat more complicated than that description makes them sound, but not much.

Oh, you may have heard terms such as 'case neck turning', 'primer pocket uniforming', and 'flash hole reaming'. Those are actually advanced ammunition handloading tasks that beginning handloaders need not be concerned about. You can reload functional ammunition without performing those and many other extra tasks. Advanced handloading terms only confuse beginning handloaders so just forget about them for now. There will be plenty of time to learn advanced handloading after you have mastered basic handloading.

Handloading Ammunition

There are two areas of handloading ammunition - cartridge handloading and shotshell handloading. Shotshells are typically shotgun ammunition. Cartridges are ammunition for breechloading handguns and rifles. Cartridge handloading is the best way to begin handloading ammunitionbecause handloading cartridges is normally simpler than handloading shotshells.

Each cartridge consists of four components - a case, a primer, a powder charge, and a bullet. Of these four components, the last three are all consumed or expended in firing, leaving only the case. Cartridge cases are typically made of brass, but you may find cases made of steel or aluminum. Brass cases are the most expensive component comprising between 55% and 60% of the cost of each cartridge. Fortunately, centerfire brass cartridge cases can be reused - that is reloaded - several times.  Cartridge handloading means replacing the primer, powder, and bullet into a brass, centerfire cartridge case.

How many times can each cartridge case be reloaded? There is no specific number of times cases can be reloaded. Each case can be reloaded as many times as the case remains sound. The number of times a case can be safely reloaded depends on several factors that will be explained below. Generally, cases for higher power cartridges can be reloaded fewer times than those for lower power cartridges. Just to be safe, shooters new to ammunition handloading should limit the number of reloads per cartridge case to five or fewer until they learn to recognize the signs of impending case failure. Most cases can certainly be reloaded many more than five times before being retired if a handloader proceeds with increasing caution tempered by experience.

The expense of factory ammunition is the primary reason shooters assume handloading. Reloaded cartridges cost between one-third and one-half the price of factory rounds because the original cost of your ammunition is amortized each time you reload the brass cases. Actually, handloaders don't save any money because they shoot so much more after they get hooked on handloading. Most handloaders will shoot his rifles and pistols from two to three times as much for the same cost in ammunition. But that is okay because they will recover their investment in handloading equipment that much quicker. Spend less money to shoot or shoot more? Hmm. . . Either way you look at it, ammunition handloaders win! That savings is substantial for shooters like varmint hunters and competitive shooters who shoot quantities of ammunition frequently.

Although reducing the cost of shooting is a great incentive for handloading ammunition, it is not the only one. Other reasons to handload are to develop loads customized for your firearm or to keep old firearms supplied with ammunition after factory ammunition is no longer available. Also, there is a certain amount of pride in knowing that you are shooting ammunition that you handloaded yourself. No longer will you be considered just an ordinary shooter by your peers at the shooting range. They will humbly step aside after you tell them you are a handloader.

In addition to those brass cases you saved up, plus new bullets, primers, and powder, you will need the minimum equipment to complete the basic handloading process. A single-stage reloading press, a set of reloading dies for the cartridge you will be handloading, a shell holder for the cartridge, a reloading block, a powder funnel, a primer seating tool, a powder scale, and most importantly, an ammunition reloading manual is all that you need to begin handloading your own ammunition.

Still not sure what equipment to order to begin ammunition handloading? The equipment needed to begin handloading ammunition can be purchase as single items or as a starter kit. Ammunition handloading starter kits cost from $135 to $330 and include only the items needed to perform basic handloading except a set of handloading dies and a shell holder. As expected, the higher priced ammunition handloading kits include a few extra items.

Some ammunition handloading equipment manufacturers offer 'Deluxe', 'Supreme', and 'Expert' ammunition handloading kits include additional items you may want to order later anyway as you get deeper into ammunition handloading. These more complete kits run from $320 to $450 but still cost less than ordering the items separately should you progress into advanced handloading someday.

The major operations of are performed in reloading dies. Bottleneck cases require a 2-die ammunition reloading set. A 2-die set includes one case resizing die and one bullet seating die. Straight-wall cases, on the other hand, require a 3-die set - one resizing die, one case mouth expanding die, and one bullet seating die. The die set must be for the specific cartridge you will be handloading. For example, you will need a .308 Winchester handloading die set to reload .308 Winchester ammunition. (Standard .308 Winchester handloading die sets are 2-die sets because the .308 Winchester cartridge is a bottleneck cartridge.)

All of the ammunition handloading equipment manufacturers, most bullet suppliers, and a few powder producers publish a reloading manual.Most handloading kits include a reloading manual. Reloading manuals typically have chapters about basic ammunition handloading, advanced ammunition handloading, ammunition handloading safety, basic ammunition ballistics, load development, and reloading tables. Become familiar with your reloading manual, especially sections about ammunition handloading safety, before you attempt to reload your first batch of ammunition.

The handloading tables are about 75% of the contents of most reloading manuals. The handloading tables include information such as cartridge dimensions, bullet diameter, recommended bullet weight, expected velocities, and suitable primers and powder for nearly every cartridge available when the manual was printed plus a few obsolete cartridges.

The most important information included in handloading tables is the minimum and the maximum powder charges for each cartridge. Exceeding the maximum powder charge or failing to load the minimum powder charge listed for a particular cartridge could result in damage to your firearm and injury to you.

The basic steps for handloading all ammunition cartridges are the same. It involves only six steps:

  1. Cleaning and inspecting the cases
  2. Pushing the old primer out of the case
  3. Resizing the case
  4. Installing a new primer into the case
  5. Charging the case with propellant
  6. Seating the new bullet into the case

Steps two and three are performed in one smoothly operation within the resizing die.

That doesn't sound very complicated. And it really isn't. There are, however, a few simple steps left out of that brief description. For example, the cases must be lubricated before pressing them into the resizing die (unless it's a carbide die, used mostly for pistol cartridges). After resizing, the lubricant must be wiped from each case with a rag or paper towel. If the cases have been fired several times, they may have to be trimmed back with a case trimmer to a specified length, after which case mouths must be chamfered and deburred. Clean the residue out of the primer pocket with a special brush before repriming. Straight-walled cartridge cases require an additional step that is not required for handloading bottleneck cartridges - the case mouths must be expanded before inserting the bullet. Finally, the cases should be crimped to the bullet if the ammunition is to be fed from a tubular magazine or a high-capacity box magazine.

There currently is no federal license required to purchase handloading equipment, supplies, and components or to handload ammunition strictly for your own use. Local codes may restrict where you store primers and smokeless powder and it what quantities.

Handloading accidents are extremely rare considering that there are millions of active handloaders. There's no reason you cannot safely handload ammunition also. However, handloaders younger than 18 years old should have adult supervision. The adult present should perform the critical tasks of seating the new primers and charging the cases with powder.

Ammunition handloading equipment seems expensive until you consider that it will provide a lifetime of reliable service. How many rounds will you reload in your life? Your handloading equipment can reload tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition without wearing out if you take care of it. However, you will easily recover the cost of your handloading equipment by the time you reload 1000 cartridges. Can you fire at least 100 rounds each year over the next ten years? You will when you handload your own ammunition. Then handloading equipment is a sensible investment.

Handloading equipment is an especially good investment if you plan to handload more than one cartridge. That's because you won't have to order any additional equipment except for a reloading die set for your other cartridges and maybe a different shell holder. All of your other handloading equipment will work with almost any centerfire cartridge.

Our reasons for handloading ammunition are diverse but include improving the accuracy of our firearms; developing special-purpose, custom loadings not available in factory ammunition; selecting a perfect bullet for a given purpose; or supplying ammunition for a foreign, obsolete or wildcat gun for which commercial ammo is not available, to name only a few.

Handloading is not just a source of inexpensive ammunition; it is a pleasant and relaxing activity for many shooters. A shooter hooked on handloading is forever scheming, studying, and plotting new ways to improve firearm performance. Handloaders, by the nature of their hobby, understand more about ammunition, ballistics, and firearms than shooters who stick to commercial ammunition. There is a feeling of gratification that's hard to describe when a new handload produces the smallest group ever fired from a favorite rifle.

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