The Reloading Press and The Process: Centerfire Ammo
A step-by-step guide to help you through your first reloading session.
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 piece, he explores the actual process of reloading a metallic cartridge step-by-step. In his companion piece, Bryce breaks down the the most basic tools you’ll need to get going. And in a third piece, he’ll teach you how to reload shotgun shells. Shake of your trepidations and start rolling your own ammo!
In part one, I covered the basic tools and components needed to send you off on a handloading journey. Now, I’ll cover the basics on turning it all into ammo.
I know it’s all a bit confusing and intimidating at first, but handloading is pretty simple when you break it down to the basics. With the limited space available, I can’t go into all the minutia of handloading so this is far from a complete instruction manual. I highly recommend that you buy a few handloading manuals.
Not only do they have data, but most of them will also have extensive and detailed chapters on the handloading process that can be great instructional tools.
My goal is to show you how easy it is to get started, and that you can turn out safe and well performing ammo in just a few hours.
10 Simple Steps to Handloading Rifle Ammo
1: Inspect case.
2: Lubricate case.
3: Resize and deprime case.
4: Clean the lube off the case.
5: Measure the case length, trim if necessary.
6: Deburr and chamfer case mouth.
7: Seat a primer.
8: Charge the case with powder.
9: Seat the bullet.
10: Put loaded ammo in a box and label the box with load data.
A Place to Work
You will also need place to work. You can handload at the kitchen table, particularly if you set up your press on a portable pedestal. For apartment dwellers with little space to spare, that might be the best approach.
The biggest compromise is that you will need to set up and tear down each time. It’s also a source of domestic discord when your significant other is trying to set the table for dinner and you still have to seat the bullets on the last fifty .308 cases.
When it’s an option, it’s far better to have a place dedicated to handloading. Even a small corner of a room is fine. When I was young I lived in a few cheap apartments and for a while in a small trailer. I always found a place to set up my handloading gear.
The reloading area must be a clean, well lit place, and it must be dry. A couple of inexpensive florescent shop lights suspended from the ceiling will take care of the lighting and, because some of my loading area is in the basement, I keep it dry by running a dehumidifier year round.
The workbench doesn’t have to be large. While I now have more than 30 linear feet of loading benches, for many years I worked with a single bench that is just 42-inches long. I made it out of scrap lumber when I was in high school. I still use it almost half a century later. Along with a small metal storage cabinet and a couple of shelves, this set up served me well for a long time.
My more recent expansion includes two eight foot long benches that my son Nathan and I made and one I bought for peanuts at a local auction.
There are a lot of plans and instruction on how to build a bench on the internet. There are also a lot of premade benches, including portable benches that you can move out of the way when you are done reloading.
If you don’t have the resources to make a bench, there are commercial benches available, or you can simply improvise. For a while I did a lot of my loading on an old steel office desk that a local business was throwing away. A little ingenuity and imagination go a long way in solving the bench problem.
Regardless of its size, your bench should be heavy and strong. If it’s rugged enough to rebuild a truck engine on it, then it’s just right. You may be putting considerable force on your press at times and the bench must be tough enough to stand up to the pressure and heavy enough not to move.
Some tools, like the press, will be permanently mounted on the bench. The layout for them will depend on how you like to work. I like my press bolted near the left front corner of the bench. I sit straddling the corner when I work. Because I am left-handed I put my cartridge block, trays for shells, bullets etc., on my left behind the press. I work the press handle with my right hand and use my left hand to move the cases or components. Right handed “Commoners” might want to reverse that set up.
My powder measure is in the center of the bench on an elevated stand that I made back in my hungry days when money was tight. There are, of course, lots of commercial stands available. This central location on the bench gives me plenty of room for trays and cartridge blocks in front of the powder measure, but it’s still easy to reach when I need it.
Other tools are mounted on the far right of the bench. Actually, because I use several different tools here, it’s easier to install an accessory base plate at this location that makes it easy to change out tools. The last thing you want is to be drilling a bunch of holes in your bench to accommodate all the different bolt patterns for your tools.
The base plate allows mounting a variety of tools in the same location. For example, you may be using a bullet sizer if you are loading cast bullets, but if you need to trim some cases you can remove it and put your case trimmer in its place.
You may want to replace that with a bench mounted priming tool. With the accessory plate you can swap to the tool you need at the moment and not have all the tools mounted on the bench all the time, which is a space saver.
The tools that are not being used can be clamped to a shelf, someplace out of the way.
Another trick if you don’t want to go the tool plate route is to mount the tools on a piece of ¾-inch plywood that is several inches wider than the tool, then use C-clamps to lock it to the bench when you need it.
The clamps can also hold it on a shelf for storage. You will not, of course, have all of these tools at first, but it’s best to plan your handloading area with future expansion in mind.
A well-stocked and often-used handloading area is an always-evolving, almost living thing and you will adjust and refine the placement and organization of your tools and components often.
In fact, my loading area has grown from that one small bench to the point where I had a new building constructed to handle the “overflow.” which has inspired this word of caution; “handloading can be addicting!”
What follows are the basics for loading bottleneck rifle cartridges.
NOTE: Straight wall pistol or rifle cartridges are slightly different, as you must use the neck sizing die to expand the inside of the case so it will hold the bullet properly. This is done right after full length resizing the case.
1. Clean and Inspect Cases
If needed, clean the cartridge cases in a sonic cleaner or by tumbling in ground corn cob. If you lack the tools for that, wipe the cases with a cloth wet with acetone. (Wear gloves.)
Inspect your empty, cleaned cartridge cases for any damage. Lubricate the inspected cases by rolling them over a saturated lube pad. A very thin coating of lubricant is enough. Too much causes problems such as dents in the case shoulder. Note: If you get lube dents in the shoulder of your case, it’s still OK to load and shoot the case. The pressure from shooting will remove the dent.
2. Lube the Cases
Now roll the nylon brush on the pad to wet the bristles with lubricant and insert it in the case mouth with a twisting motion to lube the inside of the case mouth.
An easier option is to stand the cases up and squirt them with a spray lube. I keep an old loading block to hold the cases for spray-lubing. It gets all sticky and nasty after a while, but because I use water-soluble lube I just wash it with hot water and dish soap.
3. Resize and Deprime Cases
Install and adjust the resizing die according to its instructions.
Place a lubricated cartridge in the shell holder and lower the handle on the press as you guide the case into the die. Fully cycle the handle (remember to move your fingers out of the way.)
You should have the stem inside the die adjusted to deprime the case as it is sized.
As you lower the ram on your press you will feel the neck sizing button as it passes through the case neck. With the ram at the bottom of its stroke, remove the sized case and put it in a tray. Grab another case and repeat.
3A. Size the Neck
If you are reloading straight wall pistol or rifle cartridges, this is when you would use the neck sizing die to expand the inside of the mouth of the case so it will more easily accept the bullet and allow it to fit the bullet properly.
4. Clean Lubricant Off Cases
After sizing and depriming the cases, wipe them with an old towel to remove the bulk of the lube. As mentioned earlier, as you progress at handloading you will probably want to buy a case cleaner, which will fully remove any lubricant at this stage.
They work well, not only to clean up dirty brass, but also to remove lube from the resized cases by tumbling or vibrating them in ground corncob.
Lacking that equipment, wiping with a damp rag (with water soluble lubricants) will work. Give the cases time to dry before moving on.
5. Measure Case Length and Trim if Necessary
Measure the length of each case with a dial caliper to make sure none of them is longer than the case length specification found in your loading manual.
If they are, trim all the cases to the correct and uniform length. If you don’t have a trimmer, sort the cases and reload only those still in spec.
6. Deburr and Chamfer the Case Mouths
If this is the first time you are loading the cases or if they have been trimmed, deburr the case mouth inside and out with a deburring tool.
You may also want to use a chamfer tool on the case mouths of new or trimmed brass to thin it out a bit, which helps the round chamber better and for the bullet to seat easier. Be careful not to overdo it.
There are several tools on the market that feature a chamfering head on one end and a deburring head on the other. It should also be noted that some case trimmers also chamfer in one step, so make sure you know how all of your tools work.
7. Seat the Primers
Use the hand-held tool or the priming feature on your press to seat the new primer. Primer seating depth is very important. You must seat the primer fully so that the legs of the anvil are all contacting the bottom of the primer pocket and are supported. The depth should be so the primer is just below flush with the case head.
However, you don’t want to seat it with too much pressure as this can deform the primer and possibly cause erratic ignition. At the other end of the spectrum, if a primer is not seated deep enough it can prevent the firearm from going into battery correctly.
In some circumstances a high primer can be dangerous and cause the cartridge to fire without being properly inside the firearm’s chamber.
8. Charge the Case with Propellant
Weigh out the correct charge of powder on the scale. If you are using a powder dispenser, set it to throw a charge that is just under the desired weight, then use the powder trickler to slowly add powder until the scale is reading the desired weight. It’s easiest to throw the charge into a cartridge case and then pour it into the pan on the scale.
Pour the powder into the case using the powder funnel and stand the charged case up in the loading block. My grandfather taught me to reload when I was 12 years old. He made it a rule to never stand a case up in the loading block until after it was charged with powder. I have stuck with that rule as it prevents mistakes.
Keep the cases in trays until charged with powder and then stand them up in the loading block.
When all the cases have been charged, hold the block under a light and look into each case mouth to make sure that each powder charge is to the same level in the case and that each case is charged.
9. Seat the Bullets and Measure Overall Cartridge Length
Install the seating die in the press and follow the instructions on adjusting the bullet seating depth. For now, seat the bullet to achieve the maximum cartridge overall length listed in the reloading manual.
If you do not have a dial caliper to measure the overall cartridge length you can use a factory-loaded cartridge with the same bullet to adjust the seating die. Screw the seating adjustment stem up until you can run a loaded cartridge into the die without resistance.
Then with the press ram fully up, turn the stem into the die until it contacts the bullet in the loaded case and lock it in place. As long as the bullets are of the same design this will work pretty well until you can buy a caliper.
Now seat a bullet in each of the charged cases.
Once you do have a set of calipers, be sure to measure the overall length every few rounds to make sure it remains consistent.
If you did not tumble the cases before loading to remove the lubricant, it’s a good idea to re-wipe them with a damp cloth to remove any residual lubricant and inspect the case again.
Straight walled cartridges require one final step (most of the time). Remember when you flared the case mouth to allow the bullet to seat correctly? Well now you need to crimp that case mouth around the bullet to make sure it stays in place.
An uncrimped cartridge can have feeding problems and a loose bullet can experience severe setback, meaning it becomes pushed too deeply into the case. This can be hazardous, as pressure can build to dangerous levels when such a cartridge is fired.
Loose bullets can also become partially unseated in transport, or especially while in a magazine under the recoil of previously fired rounds. This can result in jams from a cartridge that is now too long, or other problems.
There is more to this step than it seems.
Many seating dies will also add a crimp if you set them up that way, but you may want a different type of crimp or to keep it as a separate step.
You should also always use a tapered crimp, not a roll crimp, when reloading handgun cartridges, as many pistols headspace off the case mouth.
If you’re going to be starting out reloading straight walled ammo, it’s best to follow the directions on your die and look up specific crimping instructions for the cartridge you’re working with.
10. Box, Label, and Shoot!
Put the cartridges in a box; label it with the exact load info and date. Record that date in a book or data base as well.
Now go shoot them!
EXTRA: Reloading School
Some of the folks at Hodgdon Powder company looked back to the early years of reloading when guys like Bruce Hodgdon, Vernon Speer and Fred Huntington (founder of RCBS) were traveling around the country putting on reloading clinics. Hodgdon recognized that hands-on instruction is a far better way to learn than some YouTube video from a guy who has loaded six cartridges and decided he is an expert.
Hodgdon decided to go back to those roots and set up a program that will bring reloading instructors anywhere in the country to teach the basics of handloading.
They call it The Hodgdon Reloading Road Show. Dealers, gun clubs, shooting ranges or anybody who is interested can arrange for a reloading seminar to come to them.
My friend Kent Sakamoto is heading it up. Kent worked for RCBS reloading for many years and has recently moved to Hodgdon, in part, to start this program. Contact him for more information or to schedule a clinic. He told me that even though it’s out of fashion today, he prefers a phone call, but emails work too.
Kent Sakamoto 530-990-4049 • firstname.lastname@example.org