Building a Reloading Setup: The Essentials
By Gary Zinn
In The Basic Economies of Reloading, I demonstrated the savings that can be gained by reloading pistol and rifle ammunition, relative to shooting factory ammo. I assumed that the reloader already had the hardware needed to load cartridges, including a loading press, case cleaning, powder handling systems, etc. With that assumption, I was able to focus the reloading cost analysis on the expense of loading dies, cartridge cases, and primers, powder and bullets used to load particular cartridges. I did this for specific loads in two cartridges, the 9mm Luger and .223 Remington. See the article for further details on the analysis and results.
The purpose of this article is to back off a step and investigate the cost economies of reloading starting from scratch; i.e., what are the essential tools needed to begin reloading and how much will they cost? How much ammo will have to be reloaded to amortize that cost, based on the cost advantage of reloading versus buying the same quantities of factory ammo? These are the questions I address here.
The reloading setup I describe below is designed to efficiently load moderate volumes of both pistol and rifle cartridges. It reflects the tools I would buy if I were putting a reloading setup together from scratch today, based on almost two decades of reloading experience. Note that the cartridge specific hardware included is for the same two cartridges I mentioned above. I did this so that I could use the results from the cost savings analysis in The Basic Economies of Reloading for an equipment amortization analysis in this article.
This is not a reloading techniques article. I will touch lightly on techniques from time to time, but only to explain why I am recommending certain reloading tools.
Also, I have no recommendations on progressive reloading systems. Progressive presses are complicated and expensive tools that are for the experienced and high volume reloader. They are not suited for, or needed by, neophyte or moderate volume users. I have no experience with progressive presses, so am not qualified to offer advise about buying or using them.
A note on specific brands or models of equipment
I will identify specific brands or models of equipment in the reloading setup below. I do this for two reasons. Some of the specific items are chosen because of purchase price considerations. For instance, why pay $85 for a Hornady brand case tumbler when a $60 Lyman model does exactly the same thing? Also, most of my recommendations of specific brands and models are based on personal experience. In other words, I know they work.
The bulk of my specific product citations are of equipment made by Lee Precision. I am comfortable including these specific Lee brand products in the reloading setup from both the purchase cost and performance perspectives. Lee reloading tools are often the best buy in the market and the ones I include here are personally use tested and proven. However, I am not shilling for Lee Precision. I have tried a few of their products that I did not find satisfactory and I will mention these at the appropriate times.
That said, here is a listing of what I would buy if I were building a reloading setup from scratch today. After reloading manuals, the headings and numbers in parentheses correspond with the steps in the reloading process that I outlined in the article Error Free Reloading. For consistency and to save myself time and confusion, all equipment prices listed are from one source, MidwayUSA. These prices are rounded values of MidwayUSA online prices for each item as of August, 2015. I ignored shipping charges and sales tax, which vary.
One should own the appropriate reloading manual for every brand of bullet one uses. You cannot have too many reloading manuals, they are your basic reference works. Here are two manuals that I use extensively.
Inspect (Step 1) and deprime (Step 2) cases
Clean cases (Step 3)
Resize cases (Step 4)
Inspect, measure, and trim cases (Step 5)
Clean primer pockets and dress case mouths (Step 6)
Flare case mouths (pistol cases only) (Step 7)
No additional tools needed
Prime cases (Step 8)
Load cartridges (Step 9)
Final inspection (Step 10)
No additional tools are needed.
Total cost = $687
Sorry about the sticker shock. Consider, though, that many of the tools, such as presses and dies, will last for a very long time with a minimum of maintenance. Thus, they are a one time investment for most reloaders.
In the conclusion to the article The Basic Economies of Reloading, I noted that the cost savings of reloading 9mm Luger and .223 Remington ammo, respectively, were $11.75 and $59 per hundred cartridges (compared with buying equivalent factory ammo instead of reloading). Given this, how many cartridges would have to be loaded to amortize the cost of the reloading setup detailed above? If one loads 800 .223 Remington and 1800 9mm cartridges, the savings will total $683.50. Consider the $3.50 shortfall your cover charge for joining the reloading party.
That is only one scenario, of course. Different proportions of pistol and rifle ammo loaded will change the total number, as will adding or substituting different cartridges. I will ballpark the bottom line by saying that the reloading equipment I have specified would be amortized by loading roughly 5500 pistol cartridges or 1150 rifle cartridges, or some intermediate number combining the two.
Also, the setup above can likely be put together for perhaps $100 less with judicious comparison shopping for best prices and catching items on sale by one vendor or another. In fact, several items were on sale at MidwayUSA at the time I was putting the price list together. This is not reflected in the cost total, however, because I quoted everything at regular prices for the sake of consistency. Here are brief explanations of why I recommend the reloading setup components listed.
Reloading manuals: This is the first category on my list, because I firmly believe that at least two comprehensive reloading manuals are the most important "tool" that a beginning reloader can and must have. By comprehensive manuals, I mean those that cover the basics of how to load cartridges, as well listing load recipes for all popular pistol and rifle cartridges.
My nominees for must have manuals are the Lyman Reloading Handbook and the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading. Each of these devotes about eighty pages to outlining the tools, tasks and techniques of metallic cartridge reloading, followed by load recipe tables for all popular rifle and handgun cartridges.
The Lyman manual is the first place I look if I need to refresh my memory regarding a loading tool, component, or technique. In addition, Lyman is the information source for anyone who is into casting lead bullets. There is a chapter in this manual on cast bullets, plus cast bullet load recipes for a number of both pistol and rifle cartridges. Also, Lyman publishes a separate handbook entirely devoted to reloading cast bullets.
The unique feature of the Hornady manual is the format in which it presents load data. While the normal way of organizing load tables is to show starting and maximum powder charge and muzzle velocity data for a given cartridge and bullet, the Hornady manual tables show the powder charges needed to drive a given bullet at different velocities, generally in 100 f.p.s. increments. For instance, I use 150-grain bullets in my .308 Winchester deer rifle and Varget is one of my "go to" rifle powders. The Hornady manual shows me how much Varget is required to drive a 150-grain bullet at each 100 f.p.s. muzzle velocity increment between 2300 and 2800 f.p.s. The Hornady manual is worth having close at hand for this perspective on load performance alone.
I have a few more thoughts on reloading literature and data, but defer those to the companion article Expanding and Refining Your Reloading Setup. For now, buy these two books and read the first eighty pages of each before you begin buying the hardware I discuss below. The knowledge gained will help you when you are shopping.
The reloading process
Inspect and deprime cases (1, 2): My personal preference is to begin the reloading process by depriming cases before doing anything else. My loading bench has two inexpensive tools for this, a Lee Reloader C-type press, in which a Lee universal depriming die is mounted. All centerfire metallic cartridge cases, rifle and pistol, can be deprimed with this simple setup. I use this press only for depriming cases.
At this point, case inspection is visual only. I take a quick look at each case to check for any obvious damage or defect as I deprime it. This is only a cursory inspection for glaring problems; a more detailed inspection of cases is part of step 5 of the reloading process.
Clean cases (3): Small numbers of cases can be cleaned by hand, e.g., with 000 steel wool to clean case bodies and a bronze bore brush of the proper caliber to brush out the insides of case necks. However, this gets tiresome in a hurry and is very inefficient when one reloads a significant volume of cases.
Accordingly, I say cut to the chase and buy a vibratory case tumbler and a supply of treated corncob cleaning/polishing media. The Lyman Turbo 1200 Pro case tumbler is one of the more inexpensive of those available and I am still using the one I bought over fifteen years ago.
Resize cases (4): I advocate a turret press for a beginning reloading setup. This may seem to be an unconventional choice, but my experience-based reason for it is that a turret press is very efficient at loading moderate volumes of cartridges. Also, the Lee Classic turret press I recommend is no more expensive than a decent O-frame single stage press.
Remember the scenario that underlies this article: I am assuming that the reloading setup is intended for loading two cartridges initially, 9mm Lugar and .223 Remington. Accordingly, the equipment setup includes an extra turret, so that the 9mm dies can be permanently installed in one turret and the .223 dies in the other.
Once dies are installed in the turrets and adjusted, switching calibers to be reloaded is as simple as switching out the turrets in the top of the press and the shellholders on the press ram. This takes less than a minute. The dies are undisturbed when a turret is installed or removed, so the seating of individual dies does not have to be rechecked, as it must be when dies are installed in a single-stage press.
The Lee turret press comes with a spindle which indexes the turret to the next die station with each stroke of the press handle. I remove this spindle and use the press as a multi-station single stage press. For resizing cases, the turret is indexed with the resizing die over the press ram and when I am ready to move on to the next stage of case working I manually rotate the turret to the next die station.
Turning to dies, I am including Lee Deluxe carbide 4-die and Pacesetter 3-die sets for 9mm and .223 Remington cartridges, respectively. It may seem that each of these sets has an extra die, but there is a method to the apparent madness. It would be premature to explain the purpose of the extra die right now; I will cover it in step 9, below.
To resize pistol cases, simply run them through the carbide resizing die, no muss and no fuss. Full length resizing of bottleneck rifle cartridges is a bit more involved, because the cases must be lightly lubricated before they are resized. This is where the Hornady One Shot spray case lube and universal reloading trays join the party. I previously explained the technique for and benefits of using this product in Hornady One Shot Spray Case Lube, so will not repeat them here.
Inspect, measure, and trim cases (5): After resizing, cases are ready for a thorough inspection and measurement routine. This is one of the two most critical steps in the loading process, the other being measuring and weighing powder charges.
The first task is to check cartridge case length, using a caliper. I start by checking about twenty percent of a batch of cases to establish a baseline of cartridge length and uniformity. If these cases measure out within maximum length parameters and are essentially uniform, I move on to the next task. One can pay over $100 for, say, a Starrett brand caliper, or about $30 for a Frankford Arsenal caliper of either the dial or electronic type. The least expensive brand is good enough for government work.
Next, I do something that is not routinely suggested in most reloading guides. I drop each case into a cartridge gauge, which is a cylinder with a cavity that exactly conforms to SAMMI dimensions for the cartridge in question. If a case fits into the gauge, it is good to go. The cartridge gauge quickly shows if a case is out of spec (e.g., too long, too short, or improperly headspaced), or if there is a burr on the rim (the case will not drop fully into the gauge). On bottleneck cartridges that headspace on the shoulder, the gauge is the surest way to quickly check that the shoulder has been set back properly during resizing (and to adjust the sizing die for proper setback).
Lyman, along with Dillon Precision and L.E. Wilson, make cartridge gauges for many popular pistol and rifle cartridges. If a gauge is available for a cartridge that I load, I own and use it.
I closely inspect each case that I measure and gauge. If I find any damage such as a distorted case rim, the beginning of a crack in the case mouth or body, or a ring on the body that indicates incipient case head separation, the case is culled. If there is a small extractor burr on a case rim, a few swipes with a steel manicure file will generally smooth it out. If I find any cases that are over maximum length, I break out the case trimmer
The simplest and most inexpensive case trimmer is another Lee product. There are two pairs of components to the tool. The first is a universal case trimmer and lock stud, the second is a cartridge specific case length gauge and shell holder. The case length gauge screws into the center of the cutter face on the trimmer, while the lock stud is used to hold a case being trimmed in the shell holder. The system can be used manually, or the lock stud can be chucked into a low speed drill for power trimming. It is a simple system that works, although switching cases being trimmed is a bit slow.
Clean primer pockets, dress case mouths (6): Primer pockets can build up a residue after a couple or three firings and this needs to be removed. Lee makes a simple cleaning tool with a large primer pocket scraper on one end and a scraper for small pockets on the other. A twist of the wrist is all it takes to scrape the residue from the primer pocket.
Lee also makes a chamfer and deburring tool that fits all cartridge mouths up to 45 caliber. Again, a twist of the tool is all it takes to chamfer the inside of a case mouth or deburr the outside.
Flare case mouths (pistol cases) (7): It is time to rotate the turret containing the pistol die set to the second die, which is used to expand the case mouths slightly, so that a bullet will start smoothly when doing bullet seating in step 9, below. The case mouths should be flared just enough to accept the bullets. Exaggerated flaring is not necessary and is hard on the brass.
Prime cases (8): Most loading presses come with a "ram prime" attachment that can be used to press primers into cases. I have detached these from my presses and tossed them into the corner of a drawer. I tried to use the ram prime when I started reloading, but found it slow and inefficient, because the primers have to be inserted into a holder individually and then seated with a delicate stroke of the loader handle. Moreover, anyone who says that they can feel when a primer is seated just right through a loading press handle will lie about other things, too.
My choice for priming is a hand held tool. I started out with the original Lee Auto Prime, wore it out after priming many thousands of cases, and bought a replacement. The original (distinguished by a round primer tray) has been replaced by second and third generation models (square trays), called the Auto Prime XR and Auto Prime Ergo, respectively. These newer models have not established a clear track record. Reviews I have seen on them are all over the map, with some reviewers liking them, others not so much.
As things stand, my recommendation is the RCBS Universal hand priming tool. This has been around for many years and has a good reputation. Besides its track record for durability, the RCBS has a convenience advantage over the Lee tools. It has a universal shell plate instead of case head specific shellholders that must be bought for the Lee models.
Load cartridges (9): At this point, a batch of cases is ready for the final key steps in the loading process. The next task is powder charging. The essential tools here are a powder measure, scale, and funnel.
My first powder measure was a Lee Perfect Powder Measure. It served me well for several years, but I gradually became frustrated with it. It threw very consistent charges of ball and fine flake powders, but was erratic when I tried to use it with large flake or extruded powders. I felt this was cramping my style, so I replaced the Lee measure with another brand (no longer marketed), that does a much better job of digesting all types of powder. Moreover, it has easily interchangeable charge metering inserts, one for throwing small charges, the other for larger charges (up to 100 grains). All this, plus a mounting stand, for about $80, if memory serves.
I have been very satisfied with this tool and it is still going strong. However, since it is no longer available, I did some research to find another measure that comes as close to it as possible at a reasonable price point. The one I settled on is the RCBS Uniflow powder measure. The Uniflow comes in two sizes, large and small. The better choice for versatility is the small one, which will throw charges from 0.5 to 50 grains. (The large model is rated to throw 5 to 110 grain charges.) The small measure will throw charges ranging from those for the smallest pistol cartridges through the majority of popular rifle cartridges. If one occasionally loads cartridges with charges that exceed 50 grains, the measure can used by setting it to throw half of the required charge and cycling it twice to get each full charge.
RCBS will sell you a mounting stand for this press for another $22. This seems steep to me, but fortunately there is an alternative. The powder measure comes with a bracket that is drilled for mounting under a reloading die lock ring. Since the C-type press with the depriming die is not otherwise occupied, I would mount the powder measure sidesaddle on it. The money saved by not having to buy a separate mounting stand nearly pays for the depriming press, which makes for a win/win situation.
Turning to weighing, the Lee Safety powder scale is a very economical starter scale, at $25. The low price might lead one to suspect that it does not work well, but it does. The scale is easily adjusted and consistent. My only gripe with it (or any other balance beam scale) is that using it is slow work. I cannot see paying three times as much for a big name beam scale, because those will not weigh powder much more quickly or precisely. Besides, the powder scale is the first thing I would upgrade on my loading bench, as I explain in Expanding and Refining Your Reloading Setup.
The only other essential accessory needed for working with powder is a simple funnel. The Lee model, with a neck tapered so that it will fit over cases with throats anywhere between 22 and 45 caliber is fine. What about a powder trickler? I do not consider this an essential tool, as I also explain in Expanding and Refining Your Reloading Setup.
With a batch of pistol cases primed and charged with powder, it is time to seat and crimp the bullets. Rotate the turret to the bullet seating die and adjust the seating plug to seat the bullets to the desired depth, measured by cartridge O.A.L. Seat all bullets in the batch of cartridges and then move on to final crimping.
Most pistol die sets include sizing, neck expanding and bullet seating-crimping dies. The problem I encountered early in my reloading experience was inconsistent bullet seating and crimping with the third die. The crimping action, which happens at the end of the stroke that seats the bullet, would sometimes keep bullets from seating to a uniform depth on cartridges that use a taper crimp (e.g., 9mm) and I sometimes had inconsistent crimping of cartridges that require a roll crimp (e.g., .357 Magnum). Logically, these blips happen because the die begins to make the crimp before the bullet is fully seated.
Lee adds a separate carbide crimping die to the Deluxe pistol die set, so that bullet seating and final crimping are separate, sequential operations. Also, the Lee crimp die does a final full-length sizing of the loaded cartridge, which is a bonus for dimensional consistency between individual cartridges. This adds a step to the reloading process, but to me it is worth it.
The two-step bullet seating and crimping process is similar for rifle cartridges. Use the second die in the 3-die set to seat the bullets and then the third die to crimp them. The crimp die setting will be different depending on whether the bullets being used have a cannelure. The crimping action on a bullet without a cannelure should pinch the mouth of the case against the bullet just enough to keep it from slipping or pulling, without distorting the body of the bullet or crushing the outside edge of the case mouth. This crimp will be essentially like the taper crimp on a rimless handgun cartridge. The crimp on a cartridge with a cannelure will more pronounced, much like the roll crimp on a rimmed handgun cartridge.
The obvious purpose of crimping rifle bullets is to keep them from either slipping deeper into the case or pulling out. The former is a risk with cartridges jammed into tubular magazines or violently slammed over the feed ramps of autoloading rifles. Conversely, slight bullet pull is possible with cartridges sitting in the box magazines of heavy recoiling rifles. Less obviously, the folks at Lee Precision point to experimental evidence that crimping of rifle cartridges gives more uniform bullet velocity and chamber pressure, compared with otherwise identical loads that are not crimped. This should improve accuracy and group consistency, at least a little.
One final point and then I will get off this soapbox. Obviously, I have taken a large drink of the crimped bullet Kool-Aid. I can only say that I have loaded and fired enough rounds of ammo, both crimped and uncrimped, that I am convinced of the benefits of separate crimping of handgun bullets and of adding the crimping step when loading rifle cartridges. Lee Precision, the leading proponent of crimping, offers die sets that include the additional crimping die in all popular pistol and rifle calibers at prices that are generally lower than the prices their competitors charge for comparable die sets without separate crimp dies. Adding a cherry to the sundae, Lee also includes a shellholder in every die set they ship, something that no other die maker does. All together, Lee dies are a definite best buy
Oh, there is one final miscellaneous tool to mention. This is a bullet puller. I use and recommend the impact bullet puller by Frankford Arsenal. Get a bullet puller of some sort, because sooner or later you will need to unload some cartridges, for one reason or another.
Final inspection (10): First, take each cartridge in turn and look it over, paying particular attention to the neck area. Is the bullet seated straight? Is there any deformation of the case neck from a bullet somehow being improperly seated, or any hint of a crack in the case neck from the expansion force of seating the bullet?
Second, check that the primer is seated just below flush with the case head. Any cartridge which fails either of these checks must be laid aside to be unloaded, using the bullet puller I just mentioned.
Use your caliper to check a random sample of the lot of cartridges for correct overall length. This should not reveal any problems if you did the bullet seating operation properly, but seating dies can slip out of adjustment.
Remember the cartridge gauge I described in step 5? Hunt it up and drop each cartridge into it, as a final verification that each one is good to go. That is the reloading process in a nutshell, with the basic tools that are needed to accomplish it efficiently. Learn, enjoy and save some money in the process. See Expanding and Refining Your Reloading Setup for some additional points not covered in this article.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.