Handloading can be an extremely rewarding pursuit for any shooter, but it can also be very intimidating for someone who doesn’t have an experienced hand to teach them. But, as with so many things, the Internet can act as that experienced hand. In this story and its accompanying piece, Bryce Towsley, a man with decades of reloading experience with every kind of ammo you can think of, offers his expertise on the basics to you can get started on your own.
In this story, he breaks down the the most basic tools you’ll need to get going. In the second piece, he explores the actual process of reloading a metallic cartridge step by step. And in a third piece, he’ll teach you how to reload shotgun shells. Shake of your trepidations and start rolling your own ammo!
People handload for many reasons, to save money or to create higher quality ammo are two of the most commonly cited. True and fair enough, but for me it’s also recreation. I enjoy the process and I like creating something that I know is the very best it can be. I also find that handloading is therapeutic. When the pressures of living start to well up inside me to where the fanged beast threatens to chew through his cage and charge out into the night I just sit at the handloading bench for a while and things are better.
I often hear uneducated shooters claim that handloads are inferior to factory ammo. Maybe that’s true if they loaded the ammo, but handloaded ammo that is built by a skilled craftsman is the best ammo on earth. No machine in any factory can provide the level of precision and quality that a competent handloader brings to his product.
It is easy to get started handloading. The best way is to have an experienced friend show you how or to take a hands-on course. But lacking that, there are several excellent books and videos out there that can provide in-depth instruction.
To get started you will need some basic tools in addition to the components.
Ammunition for rifles and handguns consists of four components. The brass case, primer, powder (propellant) and the bullet.
The bullet is the component that directs which powder and primer you will use in your handload. With any given cartridge there are likely multiple bullet options available in different weights and design. The cartridge is already determined, so the next step is to match the bullet to the cartridge and your goals.
Decide what you want to use the handloads for and pick a bullet for that use. For example if you are loading 9mm handgun or .223 Remington rifle ammo for practice and plinking, an inexpensive full-metal-jacket bullet is a good choice.
If you are planning to hunt coyotes with your .223 Remington you should consider a varmint bullet.
If you are loading something like a .308 Winchester for deer hunting you would pick a big game bullet.
If you are loading that same .308 Winchester for long range target work a match bullet is the best choice.
As for bullet weights, if you are not sure, usually something in the middle of the weight range of available bullet is a good place to start.
It’s a bit confusing at first, but most bullet makers have information on their websites that provide guidance to help in your selection.
The cartridge case is referred to as “brass” by most experienced hand loaders. The brass case is the only reusable component of the cartridge. Perhaps the most common source of cases is from the empty cases left over from factory loads that you fired in your firearm.
Also, new unfired cases for most cartridges can be purchased. This is a bit more expensive, but they provide cases with a known history.
There are other sources of brass, buying used brass or picking it up at the range for example. However, for now it’s best to stick with once fired or new brass. That way you know the history of the cases.
Make sure you are using a “recipe” from a vetted handloading source. Each cartridge and bullet combination will have multiple propellant options.
The data for all of them can be found in a handloading manual, often published by the bullet or powder maker. Only use data published online if it’s from a reliable source such as Hodgdon, Barnes, Nosler or other manufacturers.
One way to pick a powder is to look for the two or three with the highest velocity listed for your chosen bullet and cartridge and use one of them. Often too, the handloading manual will list the most accurate powder tested or suggest powders that work well with the cartridge.
You might poke around on the internet to see what is the preferred powder, but do not trust the data unless you have confirmed it from a laboratory tested source like a handloading manual or one of the powder or bullet maker’s web sites.
Primers come in four basic sizes: small rifle, large rifle, small pistol and large pistol. Most of these are also offered in a magnum configuration that has a bit more brisance or “fire.”
Some are also offered in match configurations, which means they are held to a higher tolerance when manufacturing.
At this point, the best approach is to stick with the recipe and use the primer recommended.
The Tools You Need
Handloading is very “tool” oriented. If you are starting from scratch, look into the kits from RCBS, Redding, Hornady, Lyman and others that include almost everything (except components) that you will need to get started. You will also need to buy handloading dies and a shell holder for the press to match the cartridge you are loading.
Single Stage Press
The keystone tool of handloading is the press. For the starting handloader the single stage press is by far the best option. It is the easiest to use, the least expensive to buy and offers the most diversity in what can be accomplished with its use.
It’s good advice to select a big, strong, single stage press from one of the well-known manufacturers. You don’t know where this handloading thing is going to take you and someday you may find that you are forming cases for a wildcat cartridge, or you may even be swaging your own bullets. The press that seemed over-built and ridiculously massive in the beginning is now earning its keep.
A single stage has one station where dies can be installed one at a time. So, for example, if you are loading bottleneck rifle cartridges you would first install the resizing die and proceed to resize and de-prime all of the cases.
Then that die is unscrewed and the seating die is installed. After priming the cases and charging them with powder you would return to the press and seat the bullets with the seating die.
Make sure that the press you select will accept the universal 7/8-14 threads that most dies use, and that it will accept the common snap-in style shell holders.
There may be some presses on the market that require proprietary dies or shell holders. While they may be fine tools, it’s like buying a computer that will only run the software sold by the company that made the computer. It limits the options far too much when everybody else is using a different “operating system.”
You can load any rifle or handgun ammo on a single stage press. It’s even possible to load shotgun ammo with some single stage presses.
You will need a set of dies and a shell holder for each cartridge that you are loading. Most bottleneck cartridges will use a two die set.
That will include a full length resizing die and a bullet seating die. There are specialty dies such as neck sizers available, but they are for more advanced loading and shouldn’t concern you at this point.
Pistol cartridges and straight walled rifle cartridges will require a three die set. In addition to the full length resizing and bullet seating dies, the third die is an inside expander that resizes the inside of the case to correctly grip a new bullet.
Usually this die will also have a “belling” option that flares the case mouth slightly to allow easy inserting of the bullet.
These straight-walled cases often will have the option of a tungsten sizing die, which eliminates the need for lubrication. I highly recommend that you buy the tungsten sizing die anytime it’s an option.
The shell holders are not usually included with the die set and must be purchased separately. There are charts to figure out which one is the correct size and it’s usually marked on the box the dies come in as well.
They are not very expensive so I usually just buy a new shell holder with each new set of dies. I store the shell holder in the box with the dies, which ensures I always have the correct shell holder available and that I can find it quickly. If I store the shell holder someplace else I always forget where I put it and spend too much time looking instead of loading.
The scale may well be the most important tool on your loading bench. The popular scales today are electronic and some kits come with them. They are faster and much easier to use than a balance beam scale.
However, there is little evidence that they are any more accurate and they are expensive. For the handloader on a budget a high-quality balance beam scale is fine.
It’s important that any scale be placed on a stable, solid and level location where it is not subjected to any air currents from heaters or air conditioners.
Powder Measure or Powder Trickler
A powder measure will dump a measured amount of powder each time you work the handle. (8)
With some loads and powders you can dump from the powder measure directly into the case, which speeds up the loading process. This works well with easy flowing powders like ball powders, which measure out with good accuracy from a powder measure.
With extruded or “stick” powders it is much harder to maintain exact charge weight with a powder measure because they do not flow as smoothly.
For loading with these powders you will need a powder trickler. (9) This inexpensive tool allows you to turn a knob and dribble powder out of a tube as slowly as one grain at a time into the pan on the scale until you have the correct charge weight.
You will need at least one up-to-date handloading manual that lists the components and cartridges you wish to load. It’s always better to have several for cross-reference and wider diversity of load data. You can also get some load data off the internet from the powder, bullet or equipment manufacturing companies.
Be very cautious, however, of any loading data you find from reloaders online. Some that I have encountered are scary enough to keep me lying awake at night. Trust only the data from reliable, known sources.
Case lube is a “must have” as an un-lubed case will stick in the resizing die and require a fairly complicated process to remove. You can lubricate cases with your fingers, but it is much easier if you use a lube pad and a nylon brush of the proper size for your case neck.
Or you can use spray lubricant which is far easier to use than a pad and brush, although it is a little trickier to get the exact amount of lube in the correct locations.
You will also need a powder funnel. This inexpensive little tool has a standard funnel on top and sort of a “mini-funnel” in reverse on the bottom.
This smaller taper will fit over the outside of the cartridge case neck, allowing the powder to be poured into the top without any spilling.
By employing this reverse taper bottom, one funnel will fit most of the cartridges you will be loading for. It’s an inexpensive, “must have” tool.
Another must have is a loading block. This is nothing more than a block with a series of holes in it so that you can stand up a cartridge case after it has been charged with powder.
You will also need some trays to hold the cases you are working with prior to charging them with powder. I found mine in the kitchen department of a local store years ago and they are still working fine.
I would also consider a hand-held priming tool. They are inexpensive and will save you a lot of frustration.
You can prime the cases with the press, but a hand-held priming tool does a much better job because it allows more control.
You will need a dial caliper to measure the case length and the cartridge length. In fact, this is very important and should probably be purchased with your initial tool package. This is a tool you will use a lot.
It’s handy to have a primer tray to flip and orient primers.
At some point you will need a** case trimmer and a deburring tool**.
Further down the handloading road you will need to get a case cleaner of some kind. While the ultrasonic cleaners are all the rage, I still prefer the vibrating style. I like ground corncob best as a cleaning agent.
Here’s a quick list of the tools covered above, plus a few more small essentials for your reloading shopping list.
Tools Needed to Handload Rifle Ammo
Press with primer seating capability
Dies & shell holder
More Necessary Tools
Hand held primer-seating tool.
Dial caliper / Case length gauge
Case lube pad and neck brushes.
Vibratory or tumbling case cleaner.
Inertia bullet puller (for removing a bullet from a case when you screw up)
EXTRA: Reloading Without a Press
If you want to ease into handloading without spending a lot of money, check out the Lee Loader. (17) Think of it as a “gateway” tool for handloading.
It has everything you need to load ammo except a small plastic hammer and components.
By using the plastic hammer instead of a press, the case can be deprimed, sized and primed. A dipper is used to measure the powder according to the chart provided. Then after charging the case, the hammer is used with the adjustable bullet seater to seat the bullet and complete the cartridge.
The Lee Loader offers an easy and inexpensive way to dip a toe into handloading, and once dipped most shooters are hooked.
I suspect that the entire handloading industry owes a great debt of gratitude to Richard Lee for this one simple handloading kit because of all the people it has introduced to handloading.