It is easy to get started reloading. The best way is to have an experienced friend show you how, or to take a class. But lacking those options there are several excellent books and videos on the market that can help. Whatever route you choose, you will need some basic tools to get started.
The foundation to handloading is a press. Don’t be lured by the glamour of a progressive reloading press, at least not to start. They are wonderful for high-volume reloading, but they are complicated tools that are best used by experienced handloaders. The best tool for the beginner is a single-stage press. If your handloading is for hunting it may well be the only press you will ever need.
While the press is the foundation, the scale is actually the most important tool. Balance beam scales are less expensive than electronic scales and you can get by fine with one if it’s of good quality. Make sure that the scale is on a level surface and treat it like it’s made of expensive crystal to avoid damage. Later you can switch to an electronic scale, as they are much faster and easier to use.
You need dies and a shell holder for the cartridge you are loading, as well as case lube, a powder funnel and a data manual. The data manual is your Bible, and stick with the recipes listed for the cartridge you are loading. Never deviate from the scripture.
Buy a deburring tool. This will put a small chamfer on the case mouth. It’s used to remove the burrs left after trimming the cases to length, but it should also be used with new or once fired cases to chamfer the case mouth so that you can seat bullets without the sharp edge of the case mouth shaving metal from the bullet. It is powered by you and will work well until you start loading in high volume.
You can lubricate cases with your fingers, but it’s easier if you use a lube pad and a nylon brush of the proper size for your case neck. Or better yet, use a spray lubricant.
Eventually you will need a case cleaner. This is a big tub that holds many cartridges along with a cleaning medium, usually ground corncob. When turned on, the tub will vibrate the cases in the cleaning medium. This works great to clean dirty and stained cases so they look like new. It’s also the best way to remove the lubrication from the case after resizing, a very important step. You can do all this by hand, but that gets old fast, so put a case cleaner on your wish list.
You will also need a case trimmer. If you are only going to load one or two cartridges a dedicated, cartridge specific trimmer that fits in a hand held drill is the most inexpensive way to go. The more common bench mounted trimmer is essentially a small, hand-turned lathe. These can trim the case length of various cartridge types.
Tools That Make Reloading Easier
You can load ammo with the basic tools listed above, but there are a few other things that will make life easier. Eventually you’ll need a loading block, which is a plastic or wood block designed to hold the cartridges standing up.
A powder measure is used to dispense a measured amount of powder each time you rotate the handle. Plan on one soon, as they are one tool that can save your sanity when trying to measure charges. A powder trickler is used to dispense powder one grain at a time to top off a powder charge. For working with extruded powders and precision charges it is well worth the low price.
Consider a hand-held priming tool if you can afford it. They are inexpensive and will save you a lot of frustration. Also, consider a good dial caliper. The dial caliper allows you to measure with precision. It is just about a necessity for setting bullet seating depth and for checking case length. If you are priming with the press you will need a primer tray. The primer tray will orient all the primers in the same direction. When you buy a hand held priming tool, make sure it has this feature.
The simple way
If you’re starting from scratch, consider buying complete reloading kits from RCBS, Hornady, Lyman and others that include everything (except bullets, brass and primers) that you will need to get started.
Photos of general step-by-step of handloading:
INSPECT THE EMPTY CASE: Visually inspect your brass for splits or cracks and discard any that are damaged. Small dents are fine, as they will “iron” out when the cartridge is fired. Cases with deep dents should visit the trashcan. The brass should be clean. Any that are heavily corroded should be thrown away.
LUBRICATE THE CASE: Resizing the case imparts tremendous pressure on the sizing die, so lubrication is required to prevent the case from sticking inside the die. It is important that the inside of the neck is lubricated as well as the entire outside of the case. That is because the case neck is squeezed down and then an expander button is drawn back up and out of the case to insure that the inside case mouth diameter is correct to hold the bullet. The secret to lubricating cases is to have a very thin film on the entire outside of the case (except the case head) and on the inside of the case neck. Too much will cause damage, such as dents in the case shoulder, too little will cause the case to stick in the die.
RESIZE AND DE-PRIME (DE-CAP) THE CASE: The resizing die should be installed in the reloading press according to the instructions supplied with it and adjusted for full length resizing. Next, adjust the stem at the top of the die until the decapping pin is protruding slightly from the bottom of the die. This is the pin that will push out the old primer, and it needs to be out of the die far enough to reach through the case head and remove the primer, but not so far that the locking nut will contact the case head inside the case. Place the lubricated case in the shell holder and slowly pull the handle on the press. Guide the case into the die, but be careful not to pinch your fingers. Cycle the press all the way until the handle hits the stop. This may require a lot of pressure on the handle. Then reverse the handle and remove the case from the resizing die. You will feel the neck expander ball pass through the case neck as you are pulling the case out of the die. Repeat with the next case and continue until all the cases have been resized.
CLEAN THE CASES: Wipe the cases with a rag to remove the lube. If you used a water-soluble lubricant, a damp towel will work best. Make sure all the cases are completely dry before proceeding. If you bought an automatic case cleaner, this is the time to use it. After cleaning the cases, inspect them again for cracks or damage. Don’t forget to check the primer pocket in the case head. Make sure it is free from debris and that the flash hole (the small hole in the base of the primer pocket) is clear of obstructions. The primer pocket will have some black discoloration in it and that’s fine, just make sure there is no build up of debris that will prevent the new primer from seating correctly. If there is, an inexpensive tool called a primer pocket cleaner will quickly remove it.
CHECK THE CASE LENGTH: When a cartridge is fired, the pressure causes the brass to expand and flow forward, making the case grow in length. If it grows too long it may not chamber correctly in the firearm or it can cause a dangerous over-pressure situation. The length should be checked with a dial caliper or one of the simple case length gauges on the market. Your reloading manual will list the maximum length allowed at the beginning of the section on your cartridge. If the brass is too long it must be trimmed to length with a case trimmer.
PRIMING: The primer is the small, round, metal cup that is in the center of the case head. It contains a small explosive charge that is sensitive to impact and is used to ignite the powder. When you resized the case you also pushed out the spent primer. The next step is to replace it with a new primer. There are two kinds of rifle primers, standard and magnum, and two sizes in each, large and small. (The same applies for pistol primers, which are slightly different than rifle primers.) Your loading manual will explain which one you need for the load you have selected. This is important. The primer is “press fit” by force into the primer pocket. Most reloading presses have a priming feature to seat the new primer. However, a hand held tool is much easier to use and should be bought when possible. You should seat the primer fully so that the legs of the anvil are all contacting the bottom of the primer pocket. (The anvil is the triangle shaped, three-legged piece of metal you see in the bottom of the primer. Too much pressure will deform the primer, damage the priming compound and possibly cause erratic ignition.)
CHARGE THE CASE WITH POWDER: Select the correct powder charge from your loading manual to fit the case, primer and bullet you are using. It is best to begin with the suggested starting loads. After you are more experienced, you can work your way up to larger powder charges. Weigh out the correct charge of powder on the scale. Measure out a charge with a powder measure that is slightly lighter than your desired weight. Then use a powder trickler to bring the charge weight up to the correct level. However, lacking those tools, you can use a spoon to dribble the powder into the scale pan until you have the correct amount. Then pour the powder into the case using the powder funnel. Stand the charged case up in a loading block. When all the cases have been charged, hold the block under a light and look into the case-mouth to make sure that each powder charge is to the same level in the case and that each one is charged.
SEAT THE BULLET: The inside of the case mouth will be slightly smaller than the outside diameter of the bullet. The press will push the bullet into the neck and the resulting tension will hold it in place. Install the seating die in the press and follow the instructions on adjusting the bullet seating depth. For now, seat to the maximum cartridge overall length listed in the book. If you do not have a dial caliper to measure the overall case length, use a factory-loaded cartridge as a guide to adjust the seating die. Install the seating die so that it is about 1/8-inch from contacting the shell holder when the ram is in the full up position. Screw the seating adjustment stem back until you can run a loaded cartridge into the die without contacting the stem. Then, with the press ram fully up, turn the stem into the die until it contacts the bullet in the loaded case. Then lock it in place. As long as the bullets are of the same design and shape this will work pretty well until you can buy a caliper. Place a charged case in the shell holder and hold a bullet on top of the neck. Carefully raise the ram while aligning the two to start into the bottom of the seating die. When they are started, slowly work the lever on the press to complete a full cycle of the press. When the ram comes back down a completed cartridge will be in the shell holder.
FINAL INSPECTION: Inspect the cartridge to make sure the primer is in right side up and not damaged, that the case neck is not damaged and that the case is not bulged anywhere. If you did not tumble them before loading, it’s a good idea to re-wipe the case with a damp cloth to remove any residual lubricant and inspect the case again, as you can never over-inspect a handload. Put the cartridges in a box and label it with the exact load info and date. Never skip this part, as this information is critical. You might think you can remember, but trust me you cannot. Write it down.