Beginning Shotshell Reloading
By Chuck Hawks
As the title states, this article is about how to get started reloading shotgun shells. I'm going to assume that you already want to reload, and have some idea of the advantages of so doing. (If not, see my article "Introduction to Reloading" on the General Firearms Information Page.) Most shotgun shooters find that the greatest benefit to reloading is lowered ammunition expenses. Reloads are cheaper than factory loads, so you can shoot more for the same amount of money.
If you have just reached the point where you have decided to take the plunge and begin reloading your own shotgun shells, right now it probably seems a complicated and difficult process. However, with only a little practical experience you will discover that reloading is simple. Care and attention to detail are required to produce safe and reliable ammunition, but the process has only a few steps and is basically repetitive.
A reloading press is the basic tool used to reload shotshell ammunition. What the press basically does is hold the dies that reform, prime, and eventually reload the shell and provide the mechanical leverage that allows the operator to accomplish these tasks.
Shotshell reloading presses are generally pretty much self-contained, and come complete with all the dies, bushings, charge bars, and accessories required to load one gauge of shotshells. Even entry level presses usually have powder and shot reservoirs, and allow the operator to sequentially perform the steps required to reload a shotgun shell without recourse to other tools.
Some of the relatively inexpensive shotshell loading machines usually chosen by beginning (and many experienced) reloaders are ordinarily designed to reload only one gauge of shell. So if you want to reload, say, both 12 and 20 gauge shells, you will need to purchase a 12 gauge press and a 20 gauge press. This in not as much of a hardship as it may initially seem, as your can then leave each machine set-up with the powder, shot, and bushings required for loading that gauge shell without having to change everything over each time you reload the other gauge. Changing powder and shot bushings, for example, may require emptying and refilling the powder and shot hoppers, which can be a messy job.
Paper hulls can be reloaded once or twice, but plastic cases are so much more durable that it is pointless to buy any other kind of shells. Buy only one piece, compression formed shells if they are to be reloaded, such as the Federal Gold Medal, Winchester AA, and Remington Premier STS brands.
The first step in reloading a batch of shotgun shells is to inspect the fired hulls. Make sure the shell is completely empty. Look closely at the case mouths, as this is the area most likely to be damaged or show splits. Also look for cracks or incipient separation above the brass head of the hull. Discard any cases that are not perfect.
About seven pulls of the press handle are required to resize the case and remove the fired primer, prime the shell, drop a powder charge, seat a wad, drop the shot, start the new crimp, and complete the crimp. After those seven steps are completed, a fired hull has been transformed into a loaded shell. All operations are performed on a single shell before starting over with the next shell, usually by moving it from station to station on the reloading press.
My suggestion is to buy a basic and relatively inexpensive shotshell loading press, which ordinarily includes the basic necessities required to begin reloading, and then acquire additional accessories if and when you need them. I started with a 12 gauge Lee Load-All (discount priced at about $40 in 2003), used it for about 5 years, then switched to a pair of MEC Sizemasters in 12 and 20 gauges, which I have used ever since. There are die sets available for the Sizemaster from .410 bore to 10 gauge (about $60 per set), but I simply find it more convenient to have a separate press for each gauge.
I'd recommend purchasing a MEC Sizemaster (discount priced around $150), or something similar, to really get started right. For the shooter on a tighter budget, the similar MEC 600 Jr. Mark V is discount priced at about $105. It lacks the automatic primer feed of the Sizemaster, and the Sizemaster's more advanced resizing method. The E-Z Prime V primer feed can be added later to a 600 Jr. press for about $27. Extra die sets are available for the 600 Jr. at a discount price of about $40.
For shotshell reloading, only a few accessories are really necessary. The most important of these is one or more shotshell reloading manuals (the more reloading data the better--always follow published data exactly). Another useful accessory is an accurate powder scale. This can be used to set up and check the shot and powder charges actually being dispensed. (The powder bushing guides that come with the reloading presses are sometimes pretty conservative.) Something along the lines of an RCBS 505 reloading scale will do fine (discount priced at about $70).
While not absolutely required to start reloading, a solid and dedicated reloading bench is a practical necessity. Presses can be clamped to breadboards or kitchen tables, but these temporary set-ups are rarely completely satisfactory.
Many shooters enjoy reloading as a hobby in itself; to others it is merely a necessary chore that they must finish before the next shoot. But anyone who does much shotgunning, and particularly if they get involved in one of the clay target sports such as trap, skeet, or sporting clays, is probably going to eventually become a reloader.
Copyright 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.