Change text size: [ A+ ] /[ A- ]

Even if you’re not interested in competition, but instead are just regular plinking at the local range, it is easy to burn through a truckload of ammo before you know it. To do this without selling a kidney or winning the lottery requires handloading your ammunition. We’re talking high-volume handloading. High volume, however, doesn’t mean low quality. The ammo produced by modern presses, single stage or progressive, is usually more inherently accurate than the shooters using it.


The first thing required for high-volume handloading is a progressive press. As useful as single-stage presses are in precision rifle cartridge reloading, they will cause suicidal thoughts in anyone attempting to use one to generate mass quantities of ammo. Progressive presses have multiple stations for dies, and with every pull of the lever a loaded cartridge is produced. Think of them as assembly lines for making ammo.

Progressive presses such as this Hornady Lock-N-Load allow for production of more than 500 rounds an hour.

Investing in a quality progressive press and at least one set of dies will cost $500, and you can spend a lot more than that. For those of you who don’t have a progressive press and are wondering if the investment is worth the payoff, reloaded ammo traditionally costs 60 percent of what new ammo does, and the higher ammo prices go, the more money that saves you. If you shoot two thousand rounds of pistol ammo a year, the press will pay for itself in two years. The more you shoot, the sooner your investment will payoff.

Many companies make excellent progressive presses, and the designs are improving all the time. Dillon, RCBS and Hornady all make excellent progressive presses. With proper care, they will run for years, if not decades.

Not all progressive presses are the same.  Some, such as the Hornady Lock-N-Load, can be had with automatic case feeders, which drastically speed up reloading.

Don’t believe everything you read from the manufacturers about the speed of their presses, however. Just because they say you’ll be able to load 700 rounds an hour doesn’t make it so. There’s always a primer going in sideways or a crushed case slowing you down.

If you want to jump into the deep end of the pool, there is the Ponsness/Warren Auto-Drive. Hook this little motor up to your press, hit the On button, and it’ll be all you can do to keep your press fed with bullets, cases and primers as it chugs out 800 to 1,200 rounds per minute, depending on speed setting. Of course, I wouldn’t exactly consider that “handloading.”

Station 1: The case is taken, deprimed and, depending on your die set, may be resized – Station 2: The case gets a new primer while a new case slides into Station 1 behind it. Most progressive presses seat primers on the upstroke. – Station 3: This is where the case gets charged with powder. – Station 4: The bullet is placed on the case set dies so that the case mouth is flared just enough to hold the bullet in place. – Station 5: Finishing crimp on the seated bullet. With every lever stroke of a progressive press, a finished round comes tumbling out. (click to enlarge)

The dies that screw into the top of the press handle all the work. All the operator does is move the handle back and forth to feed the cases into them, with the shellplate rotating after each pull of the lever. The first station features a decapper, which punches out the old primer. Some decappers have expanding shafts, which nudge out-of-spec cases back into shape.

The second station is where a fresh primer gets pressed into the case, and this is usually done on the upstroke, as the operator has a better feel for the operation. The third station is where the newly primed case gets filled with the designated amount of powder. The operator then sets a virgin bullet into the top of the case, and with another stroke of the lever he seats and crimps the bullet into place.

That was only four stations, and most presses have five. The fifth can be used for a second crimping after the bullet has been seated, for expanding the case a little more prior to hand-seating the bullet or not at all-user’s choice.

While the traditional balance-beam scales work fine, they are much slower to use than digital ones.

High-volume handloading requires a different mind set than precision reloading. When I was loading rifle ammo for bolt guns, I meticulously sorted the ammo by headstamp and inspected each case individually. That’s really not necessary when reloading for pistols.

How closely you examine your brass should depend in large part on where you obtained it. If you’re digging out months-old brass from half-frozen mud on a public range, chances are you should examine what you find very carefully.
Competition shooters hot-loading their .38 Super ammo with compressed loads and Small Rifle primers to make their declared power factor carefully keep track of how many times their brass has been loaded, as the high pressures drastically shorten case life. Low-pressure cartridges, on the other hand, can be reloaded nearly forever.

I’ve seen .45 ACP cases that had been shot so many times the headstamps were unreadable. I do not sort my 9mm or .45 ACP pistol brass by headstamp, but I do examine them all for overall condition. As long as the case still holds bullet, powder and primer, it’s generally still safe to reload.

Nothing is as easy as we would like it, however. Steel cases, usually Berdan-primed, always find their way in when you’re not looking. Some of them are being copper-washed, so they are almost impossible to spot. And a certain manufacturer, not too long ago, decided to load some “environmentally friendly” .45 ACP ammo. The only problem with that is that those cases took Small Pistol primers, as opposed to every other .45 ACP case made since John Browning invented the 1911. One of those in your press will grind everything to a halt and maybe blow a primer in the process.

Which reminds me: Always wear eye protection when reloading. Blowing up a primer while reloading isn’t an “if” proposition, but rather a “when.” Listen to your press while loading. If something sounds or feels wrong, stop. Don’t force it. That’s how you blow primers or break things. Back off the handle, figure out what the problem is, and get back to work. It’s quicker than having to order a replacement part.

While I have been talking mostly about reloading for pistols, it is more than possible to load bucketsful of .223 or .308 for your AR-15 or MIA that will be more accurate than most surplus ammo. Rifle brass takes more prep work, of course, including lubing the cases, but modern progressive presses are more than capable of the precision necessary to produce high-quality rifle ammo en masse.


Buying bullets in bulk is the way to go, but what kind of projectile you buy will depend on your needs and your budget. Lead bullets are, of course, the cheapest, but also the dirtiest. Plated bullets such as those sold by Berry’s split the difference in cost between plain lead and jacketed projectiles, but some guns don’t like them. Most major ammunition makers sell their components separately, and I recommend perusing the Web to find the best deals.

Reloading will force you to get organized whether or not you’re naturally that way. Keeping dies, primers and tools sorted is part of the job.

Feed your press cases that are as clean as you can make them. Not only will this help your press run cleaner longer, a proper cleaning will sometimes reveal splits or other damage that wasn’t visible. Also, keep your press clean and properly lubed. It is a machine, like a car, and if the moving parts are covered with dust, spilled powder and brass shavings, its life span will be drastically shortened.

When loading precision rifle ammo, I weighed every single powder charge. That is not necessary with a properly set-up progressive press. A variation of +/- 0.1 grain is normal, although that could change depending on the type of powder you’re using. You should weigh random powder charges throughout the reloading period to make sure nothing has moved out of alignment (I recommend once every hundred rounds on a new press, every 500 rounds on a proven one).

When you’re loading ammo by the thousands, the little things can add up. My ultra-soft 9mm competition load uses a fast Vihtavuori powder (3.4 grains of N320 behind a 147-grain bullet), which is more expensive and harder to find than most powders. Even so; with a charge that small I can load 2,000 rounds out of a single pound of powder, which makes powder the cheapest component in this caliber.

There are dozens of good loads for the .45 ACP, but I only use Bullseye powder. I can use fewer grains of the fast-burning powder per round, it works no matter what weight of bullet I try, and it costs less per pound and is more readily available locally than a lot of other brands.

Hodgdon’s is the powder of choice for those competitors loading .40 S&W, not just because it is fast and consistent, but because it is affordable and readily available. If you buy it locally, you don’t have to pay shipping or Hazmat fees. That’s another thing: You’ll pay flat Hazmat fees no matter how much you buy, so you’ll pay less per pound buying that eight-pound keg anyway. Buying in bulk almost always saves you money.

Sonic case cleaners such as this one from Hornady work quicker than traditional vibratory case cleaners, but they don’t hold as many cases and can be expensive. The Vibratory one on the right has been cleaning for 17 years.

Sonic cleaners are the “in” thing and use solution as opposed to media. They tend to get cases cleaner than traditional vibratory cleaners, but there are pluses and minuses to everything. Sonic cleaners cost more and hold fewer cases. A vibrating cleaner requires some sort of tumbling media such as corn cob grit or crushed walnut shells. Fresh, clean media works much better than stuff so black it looks like coal, but it gets dirty quickly and it isn’t free. A good tip is to go to your local pet store and search for lizard litter, which is simply crushed walnut shells, only cheaper than the stuff sold specifically as tumbling media.

While reloading your own ammo is significantly cheaper than buying new, it probably won’t save you any money. Why? Because if you’re loading in bulk, you love to shoot and you’re already used to spending a certain amount on ammo yearly. You’ll find that you end up spending the same amount of money; reloading will just allow you to shoot more.

Sounds like a bargain to me.