When I first started reloading, I recall feeling a bit overwhelmed by the perceived complexity of the task. Over time, I realized that reloading a modern metallic cartridge is actually quite a simple process, and is only complicated by the vast choices of equipment that we have to choose from. This post is designed to simplify and demystify the process for new reloaders, or those who are considering it in the future. You will find info on everything you need to get you started without overloading you with excessive options and accessories.
WARNING: The information in this post is designed for supplementary use, and is not intended to supersede or replace instructions from your product manufacturer. Always reference the literature provided by your product manufacturer for cartridge and load specs, as well as proper usage of your specific hardware. Always wear eye protection when reloading. And remember, I will assume no liability for your actions, so reload at your own risk.
There are only four elements in contemporary metallic cartridges;
- case (brass, etc)
- ignition (primer)
- propellant (powder)
- projectile (bullet)
Therefore, a reloader must merely restore the brass back to its original specs, replace the spent primer, fill the case with the correct amount of powder, and finally, seat the bullet and crimp the case mouth to hold it all in place.
The process is indeed that simple, and can be performed even with a limited budget. Just keep in mind that there is little room for error, especially when loading “max loads”. So begin with the more forgiving “start loads”, and slowly work your way up to a more robust load that suits your needs. You will need to make sure you are focused on the task at all times by limiting distractions in your environment. Furthermore, if you are not well rested, or you have just thrown back a six-pack of your favorite adult beverage, it would be wise to just go to bed and reload tomorrow.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we are reloading a rimless, straight-walled auto pistol case such as the 10mm Auto (or .40, .45, .380, etc.). You will need to select the proper components for your load according to the recipe of your choosing.
Aside from the cartridge components, you will also need the following hardware:
- Reloading Press
- Cartridge-specific Die Set
- Primer Pocket Cleaner
- De-burring Tool
- Case Cleaning Device (Tumbler, etc.)
- Priming Tool/Attachment
- Case Trimmer
- Powder Scale
- Caliper or Micrometer
- Case Lube
- Case Holder
- Powder Funnel
- Bullet Puller
- Reloading Manual (Lee, Lyman, etc…)
STEP 1: Case Preparation
So, you’ve been scrounging brass at the range for months, and now you have a pile of filthy cases. The easiest and most cost-effective way to clean them is to invest in a “vibratory tumbler”. This device uses vibration, combined with a mildly abrasive dry media, such as crushed walnut shells, to clean carbon deposits from the brass. Toss a few hundred pistol cases in an let it run for several hours.
You will be using your press in every one of the following steps, so make sure you choose one that suits your needs. If you are new to reloading, you may wish to start with either a single-stage or a turret press. Progressive presses are great for mass production, but are more complex to operate. The Lee Challenger Breech-Lock Press above is a good starter press, offering solid performance and great value for your dollar.
IMPORTANT: Visually inspect all cartridge cases throughout the reloading process, and discard any that are damaged beyond repair.
After your brass is clean, you will need to remove the old primer and constrict the diameter of the expanded brass to meet the original specs. This is generally performed simultaneously, with a single die that pushes out the primer with a center punch as its perimeter re-sizes the case wall.
If you are using basic steel dies, you should apply some case lube to the upper wall of the case around the mouth. You may also use carbide dies, which do not generally require lube.
SIDENOTE: Glock users may want to check out the Lee Bulge Buster Kit for use with their Factory Crimp Die. This is a great way to remove the bulging base that is caused by the relaxed chamber of a Glock barrel. It works on many straight-walled auto pistol cases. I have used it on my Glock .40, and 10mm cases with excellent results.
Once you have resized your cases and removed the spent primers, you need to use your caliper or micrometer to measure the case length. Make sure they are not longer than the maximum allowable length in the cartridge specs. This is particularly important with rifle brass as the increased chamber pressure can result in significant stretching. Pistol cases are less prone to rapid stretching, but should still be measured for safety.
If the case is longer than the maximum allowable length, you will have to trim it down using a rotary case trimmer.
Next, you need to clean out the gunk in the primer pocket as well as removing any burrs on the case mouth. There are some handy multi-tools such as the example above from Lyman that make this job easier.
Finally, you will need to clean any remaining case lube that might exist. There are many good ways to do this, but I have found that gently sloshing them around in a Tupperware container with a mixture of mild dish soap and water, followed by a thorough rinse is usually enough to remove the lube. Afterward, you can place the cases on a cookie sheet and toss them in the oven at about 200 F for 20 minutes to dry them out.
STEP 2: Priming the Cases
So your cases are all clean, in-spec, and generally purdy… now you are ready to prime. Pistol and rifle primers come in four sizes; small pistol, large pistol, small rifle, and large rifle. Shot shells and modern muzzle loaders generally use #209 primers. So reference your cartridge specs to ensure you have the correct type of primers. There are also “magnum” primers available in all four sizes for magnum loads.
Using either a stand-alone priming tool or a press-mounted version we start installing the primers. This Lee press kit came with a large and small priming device, and many press kits come with some form of priming tool. However, some presses do not include this vital component, and it must be purchased separately. So, make sure your setup includes a priming tool so that your road does not end here.
The primer itself consists of three components; the cup, the priming compound, and the anvil. The compound is ignited when it is crushed between the cup and the anvil by the force of the firing pin.
IMPORTANT: When you seat the primer into the case, you need to apply enough pressure to force the anvil flush with the mouth of the cup. However, too much pressure will crush the cup and could cause the primer to discharge… hence the need for eye protection. Go slow and seat the primer firmly, using arm strength only… do not apply your body weight to the press handle. This step is really a matter of feel, and you will get used to it after a few dozen loads.
Visually inspect all of your installed primers to ensure that they are seated properly.
STEP 3: Expand Case Mouth & Add Powder Charge
The Lee Carbide 4-Piece Pistol Die Set that is being used here comes with a case mouth expander die that also serves as a holder for the powder funnel.
This die will bell-out the mouth of the case ever so slightly so that the bullet can be inserted without shaving the jacket. Other manufacturers offer similar products.
You will also need a sturdy case holder. You can either buy one such as the example above by Frankford Arsenal, or you can make your own by drilling some holes into a flat piece of wood or plastic. This will help you keep filled cases from spilling, and serve as a way to tell which cases have received a powder charge… the empty cases are placed upside down until you add the powder.
You then measure the powder charge on your scale to match the “start load” of your chosen load recipe. You will need a scale that is capable of accuracy down to 1/10 grain for reloading. This RCBS Rangemaster 750 has served me well for some time now. Analog scales are also reliable and accurate, but they tend to be slower than a quality digital scale. Powder tricklers and various mechanical charge dispensers are also available to supplement your scale.
After you have run the expander die and added a powder charge to all of the cases in the case holder, you should always visually inspect them to ensure that you have not added a double charge. Choosing a powder that fills at least half of the case is also very helpful in preventing a double charge.
STEP 4: Bullet Seating and Crimping
Now that the cases are prepped, the primers are seated and the powder charge is installed, you are ready to seat the bullets and crimp the cases. Crimping is the process of forcing the case mouth shut around the bullet. This serves to hold the bullet in place during recoil, and a good crimp can improve accuracy. Many bullet-seating dies also apply a basic crimp by pressing a small inward taper into the case mouth as the bullet is seated. I prefer not to use this built-in crimp for anything but range plinking ammo, as it does not offer the same quality as the separate Factory Crimp Die. It also makes for more work if you happen to seat the bullet too deep (or not deep enough) and need to pull it from the case.
IMPORTANT: Set your bullet-seating die according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Your bullet must be seated deep enough to fit within the maximum cartridge OAL (“overall length”; total length of the entire loaded cartridge) specified in the cartridge specs. The maximum OAL does not vary, and applies to all load recipes in a given cartridge. Staying under maximum OAL is crucial in ensuring that your loads function in guns designed for that cartridge. On the other hand, the minimum cartridge OAL is specified in the load recipe and varies from one load to another.
In simple terms, seat your bullet as close to the minimum OAL as you can without going under.
This minimum OAL is crucial in maintaining safe pressure levels in a given loading. It is always provided with the load recipe, and is highly dependent on the bullet and powder type. Seating the bullet deeper into the case reduces case volume, and will increase chamber pressure upon ignition. Therefore, if you have to go deeper than minimum OAL, you must reduce the powder charge accordingly to compensate for the added pressure. If you are new to this process, then please… DO NOT SEAT BULLETS DEEPER THAN MINIMUM OAL!
After the bullets are seated to the correct OAL, it is time to run them through the crimp die. Adjust your crimp die according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The Lee Carbide Factory Crimp Die creates a smooth, steady taper on the case mouth while also acting as a secondary case sizer to smooth out any remaining imperfections in the case wall.
After running all of your loaded rounds through the crimp die, you are ready to head to the range and make some holes in stuff. If you did everything correctly, you will feel a great sense of personal satisfaction and self-sufficiency knowing that the lead you are sending downrange is a result of your own hard work.