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Get Started Reloading Handgun Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

As the title indicates, this article is about how to get started reloading metallic centerfire handgun cartridges. 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.")

If you have just reached the point where you have decided to begin reloading handgun cartridges, it probably seems a complicated and mysterious process. However, with only a little practice you will discover that reloading is actually simple and easy to do. Care and attention to detail are required, but the process has only a few steps and is basically repetitive.

A reloading press is the basic machine used to reload centerfire metallic (rifle or pistol) ammunition. What the press essentially does is to hold the dies that reform, prime, and eventually reload the case and provide the mechanical leverage that allows the operator to accomplish these tasks.

Many of us older shooters started reloading with a Lyman Tong Tool (a hand held reloading press resembling a large nutcracker) or a Lee Loader (a set of reloading dies into which you literally pound the cases with a mallet). You don't see these makeshift devices very often anymore, although Lee Precision still markets both the Lee Loader and a tong-style tool called the Hand Press. I strongly advise ignoring these devices in general and the Lee Loader in particular.

Most reloaders use what are called single stage presses. These are not automated, you have to push or pull a handle to accomplish each task in the reloading process. Good single stage presses have a long lever with a lot of mechanical advantage for a handle, and are quite easy to operate. Cheap ones sometimes require a lot of force to resize cases.

A separate powder measure, which dumps a preset amount of powder into each case, is a practical necessity, and a hand priming tool is a great convenience. Centerfire metallic cases are reloaded in batches and a single operation is performed on all of the cases to be reloaded before moving on to the next step. If you are reloading 50 cases, for example, the first operation is performed on all 50 before moving on to the second operation. Performing the same operation on all cases before moving to the next operation saves time and effort.

The first step in reloading a batch of pistol cases is to clean and inspect them. Look closely at the case mouths, as this is the area most likely to be damaged or show incipient splits. Also look for a light ring around the head of the case, which indicates potential case head separation. Discard any cases that are not perfect.

To actually reload straight walled handgun cartridges the following steps must be performed (not always in exactly the same order): resizing, decapping (removing the spent primer) and belling the mouth of the case to accept a new bullet, priming, powder charging, and bullet seating and crimping. With the exception of the priming and powder charging operations, these operations are carried out using a set of three reloading dies, which screw into the top of a single stage press.

To hold the case, a shell holder slides into top of the ram (the part of the press that elevates the case into the reloading dies when you pull the handle). The shell holder must match the case to be reloaded. Different cases require different shell holders.

A single stage press does not have a powder hopper, so powder charging is almost always done by means of a separate powder measure, and priming is best done by a hand operated tool, although it can be accomplished on most single stage presses. (It's just easier and faster to use a separate priming tool.) There is also no bullet hopper, bullets are removed from their box one at a time by hand and fed into the cases, then seated using the press and the bullet seating die.

For reloading rifle cartridges, a few accessories are indispensable. Among these are one or more reloading manuals (At a minimum I like to have the manual for every brand of bullets to be used.). Another is an accurate powder scale, necessary to set up and check the powder charges being dispensed. A lube pad and lubricant are necessary so the cases will slip into the steel resizing die (unless a carbide resizing die is used--a great convenience), as is one or more loading blocks to hold the cases.

While not, strictly speaking, absolutely required for 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.

The experienced reloader usually acquires numerous other accessories that make the job easier, faster, or more precise. Among these are case trimmers, deburring tools, case neck brushes, case gauges, primer flippers, primer pocket brushes, powder tricklers, powder funnels, bullet pullers, dial calipers, and other gadgets. None of them are absolutely necessary to begin reloading, but most are useful. My advice is to buy a "starter set" that includes a press and the basic necessities required to begin reloading, and then acquire additional accessories as you need them.

The RCBS Partner Press Reloading Kit and Reloader Special-5 Starter Kit include a case loading block, case lube kit, primer tray, powder funnel, powder scale, deburring tool, and the latest edition of the Speer Reloading Manual. The former also includes a light duty RCBS Partner Press and a basic RC-130 powder scale (maximum capacity 130 grains), and the latter includes a more powerful Special-5 press and 5-0-2 scale (maximum capacity 500 grains). For either you will want to add at least a powder measure and probably a hand priming tool. Also required will be a set of reloading dies and a shell holder for each caliber you intend to reload.

The deluxe RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme Kit adds a Uniflow powder measure, automatic primer feed, and hex key set. This kit comes with a heavy duty, case iron Rock Chucker press and a better 5-0-5 powder scale (maximum capacity 505 grains) and includes basically everything you actually need to at least get started reloading except a set of reloading dies and a shell holder. Since it includes an outstanding press and a powder measure as well as a primer feed, it is actually the best deal of the three RCBS starter sets.

Everything comes with instructions for set-up and use. If you read them carefully and follow them exactly you will have no problem learning how to reload handgun cartridges. There are also detailed instructions, including tips to make the process faster and easier, in most reloading manuals.

Today it is rare to find a serious shooter who does not reload. 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. Regardless of the motivation, the cost of factory loaded cartridges is at a level where few handgunners can afford to do much shooting without reloading.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.