The cost of ammunition is rising and availability is dwindling, but I still want to keep shooting. I’ve decided to invest in a reloading setup because I think it will save money, and allow me to keep a flow of ammunition going in times when certain calibers are hard to come by at any price. These are the reasons reloaders always give when they talk about reloading being a smart idea. Do the numbers back up that statement? Will I really save any money? The cost of even a basic reloading setup is pretty high, I’m not going to lie. You need more stuff than you might think, but there is also some expensive machinery out there that is not really required. We can speed up the reloading process greatly by buying automated priming systems, progressive presses, and electronic powder dispensers, but just like with cars adding speed means spending more money. We don’t need a Ferrari to start out with. Let’s price out a sturdy pickup truck of a reloading setup for one of my favorite calibers, the .223 Remington. This article is going to have many hotlinks in it. You can click on them to see the products I’m talking about, so you will know where I’m getting all these prices.
A great place to start is with a Lee Reloading Starter Kit. For $113.13, you get a basic single stage press with a priming system, a mechanical scale, a powder measure, a powder funnel, and some case preparation tools. For the money, it is an unbeatable combination. I personally stepped up to a Lee 3-hole turret press which is still a great value, but if you do that you’ll have to buy all that other stuff separately.
You will need a way to clean up fired casings that you will be re-using. I went with the Lyman 1200 Classic tumbler for $82.04, and some cleaning media, which is gritty polishy stuff that goes in the tumbler, for $14.04.
We need some .223 Remington dies to go in that press. Again, Lee gets the call. Their $28.60 Pacesetter Die Set comes with three dies to go in the press. The first one resizes our casings, the second one puts the bullet in the casings, and the third one crimps the casing around the bullet to hold it where we want. If you’re reloading for a bolt-action gun, you can sometimes get by without crimping your ammo, but for a semi-auto like my AR-15, you need a crimp die. We also need a can of Hornady One-Shot lubricant to make sure we do not get our casings stuck in that resizing die. Cans go for $7.51, and I’m not sure how long a can of this stuff lasts, but I will let you know when I find out.
Since we’re reloading for a rifle caliber, our casings will stretch when we fire them. We need to trim them back to a consistent length to ensure accuracy. There are a lot of fancy expensive electrically powered case trimmers out there, but a basic Lyman AccuTrimmer will get the job done fast enough for most of us. It is still a $51.20 investment but they never wear out; the only other choice is to use brand new casings every time. No way!
Let’s add up the initial start-up costs of our basic reloading setup:
- Lee Starter Kit: $113.13
- Lyman 1200 tumbler: $82.04
- Lyman cleaning media: $14.04
- .223 die set: $28.60
- Hornady One-Shot: $7.51
- Lyman Accutrimmer: $51.20
- TOTAL: $296.52
Whoa! We spent $300 and we don’t even have a single bullet yet! For only a few bucks more, you can get a thousand rounds of quality, brass cased .223 ammo from PMC, currently going for $311 per case. If a thousand rounds seems like a lot of ammo to you, maybe reloading isn’t a worthwhile investment. We still have to buy components to actually assemble ammo. Let’s price those out, per thousand rounds.
Cheaper than dirt! does not sell primers or powder, but we’re looking at about $25 per thousand primers. Likewise, a pound of powder costs about $25. A thousand rounds of .223 loaded with 25 grains of powder each will use up 25,000 grains of powder, or 3.57 pounds worth. We’re going to spill some, so let’s call it 3.6 pounds of powder. That means we will spend $90 worth of powder per thousand rounds. Cheaper than dirt! does have plenty of bullets on hand. If I want to use the same type of bullets as the PMC rounds, 55-grain full metal jackets with cannelures, I will pay $13.41 per one hundred, or $134.10 per one thousand bullets. If I require new brass, I have to pay $28.38 per hundred for new unprimed brass, but I scrounge the brass that my buddies leave behind at the shooting range, so I don’t have to pay that. Thanks fellas! .223 brass can be reloaded six or seven times before it needs to be thrown away entirely, so a little time spent picking up those empties goes a long way towards saving money. I’ve collected over a thousand brass casings, so I am going to leave that out of my equation. I don’t think that’s unfair with a super common caliber like .223. You can do the same thing! It’s not like I’m reloading for .416 Rigby or some other rare caliber.
So a thousand rounds worth of components is going to cost us:
- Primers: $25
- Powder: $90
- .223 FMJ Bullets: $134.10
- Casings: FREE! My back hurts a little from bending over to pick them all up though.
- TOTAL: $249.10
Hmm. When it comes to the cost of components, I can build my equivalent of that PMC ammo for $60 less per thousand rounds. If I want to shoot 55-grain FMJ ammo, every thousand rounds I shoot, I save $60. If you only shoot a thousand rounds a year, you are probably not too excited about that. If you are the kind of guy that shoots a thousand rounds each and every month, you’re probably already reloading by now. Let’s assume I’m an average AR-15 owner shooting 2500 rounds of ammo a year, or a little more than 200 rounds a month. I don’t know if that is average or not, but it sounded fair to me just as an example. I will save $150 a year by handloading instead of buying PMC. In two years, the money saved will “pay for” the initial start-up costs of my reloading setup. In five years, I will have saved $750 in ammo costs. I know something else that costs about $750: a brand new AR-15 carbine from CMMG. Starting to get the idea?
Reloading blasting ammo as cheap as possible will save you money to be sure. However, properly handloaded ammunition can more accurate in your gun than even expensive match-grade ammunition, because you can custom-tune ammunition specifications to your particular gun. You can adjust the type of powder you use, the amount of powder, the bullet weight and type, and even the overall cartridge length to maximize accuracy. The margin of savings for loading match grade ammo versus buying match grade ammo are much higher than a blasting ammo vs. blasting ammo comparison. I will use the same numbers as above, but substitute 69 grain Sierra Match King bullets for the 55 grain FMJ bullets. Those awesome bullets cost $23.02 per box of 100, or $230.20 per thousand. Added to the rest of the components, 1000 rounds of carefully handloaded match grade ammo will cost me $345.20 if I re-use scrounged casings. Federal uses that same bullet to make Gold Medal Match ammo selling for $27.23 per twenty round box. That’s a whopping $1,361.50 for a thousand rounds of Gold Medal Match. I can save $1016.30 per thousand rounds if I load my own using the exact same bullets. If I want to shoot nothing but match ammo all year long and I use up 2,500 rounds, I will spend $863 on ammo. However, I’ll save a whopping $2,540.75. That’s more than a new in box FN SCAR in just one year’s worth of shooting!
An additional benefit of handloading is that once you have the initial setup, reloading additional calibers is super easy. It only requires the appropriate components and another $30 for a different die set. The amount of money you will save through handloading depends greatly on the popularity and cost of new ammunition in that caliber. 9mm Luger is already so cheap that it’s hardly worth bothering to reload for right now. On the other hand, I eventually intend to reload for 8mm Mauser as well as .223 Remington. New production 8mm Mauser ammo from BVAC costs $22.79 for a box of 20 rounds, or $1,139.50 for a case of a thousand rounds. I will spend $177.80 on a thousand bullets from Speer, and of course $25 on primers. 50 grains of powder in the casing means a pound will last 140 rounds, so a thousand rounds worth of powder will run through $180. Reloadable casings are pretty hard to come by, so if I have to buy new ones I’ll spend $28.50 for a bag of 50 casings, or a whopping $570 per thousand. I probably wouldn’t actually do that. Instead, I would probably buy 200 casings and reload each one five times, but even on a one-for-one basis with all new components, 1000 new rounds vs. 1000 new rounds, I would save $185.70 by handloading instead of buying from someone else. If I reload 200 casings five times each, I would save almost $650.
Does handloading ammo instead of buying new stuff save you money? There can be no doubt, yes it does. The more you shoot, the more you save compared to buying plinking ammunition. The more precise a loading you can replicate or exceed with your equipment, the more money you save compared to buying match ammunition. The more rare or expensive your caliber, the more money you save by handloading compared to buying new production ammunition. Handloading is not for everyone. It requires a significant amount of time, a significant initial investment, and a methodical, mechanically inclined mind. Handloaders find a rewarding challenge in the math involved and the attention to detail required. Many handloaders describe the time they spend measuring powder, deburring casings, and fiddling with primers as a relaxing endeavor that takes their mind away from the stresses of work and family. To them, this is an added bonus of handloading as part of their firearms hobby. If it sounds like a bunch of bother and endless frustration to you, then the cost savings alone may not be worth the hassle for you. Each of us must decide if this long-term investment in time and money is right for us!