Handloading Basics: The Equipment

So you want to load your own ammunition but don’t know where to start? There are a few basic bits of equipment that you cannot do without.

The Components

There are a dizzying variety of bullets, casings, primers, and powders for sale out there, but you need some of each before you can assemble a working cartridge of ammunition. Books, magazines, and Web sites catering to the handloading community are available to help you choose appropriate components for the cartridges you want to assemble.

The Tumbler

Tumblers clean empty casings in bulk. Take a plastic bag full of muddy casings you plucked off the ground, and pour them into a vibratory tumbler filled halfway with corn cob media. Flip the switch and walk away; after a few hours the casings come out clean and polished, ready to be reloaded. What could be easier?

The Scale

You will need a scale to measure the amount of powder you are loading into the casings. Electronic scales are more expensive, faster, and easier to use. Generally, they can measure within an accuracy of one tenth of a grain, which is one hundredth of a gram. Mechanical scales cost less and offer the same accuracy, but are more difficult to calibrate and tedious to use.

The Dies

The dies are the carbide metal cylinders that sit in the press and actually interface with the cartridge components. Up to four dies are required to assemble each round of ammunition. The size die has a long spike running down the middle to punch the spent primer out the back of the casing. While this is happening, the top of the size die re-sizes the shape of the casing precisely, ensuring that its shape is correct. In a press using an automatic powder measure, the expander die activates the powder pour while slightly expanding the mouth of the cartridge to make it easier to seat the bullet, which is the job of the seat die. If needed, the last die is the crimp die, which squeezes the casing around the bullet to hold it in place.

The Press

This is where everything comes together, and there are many varieties of reloading presses from which to choose. Single stage presses only work on one die at a time, so cartridges are not created as quickly as with a progressive press, which activates up to four dies at once. Progressive presses cost more and sometimes are not as precise as their single stage counterparts. If you want to make a ton of .45acp ammo for pistol shooting, the progressive is a natural choice. If you want to make match-grade .308 Winchester rounds with extreme precision, the single stage design is what you are looking for.

The Helpers

There are also some optional extras that come in awfully handy. They do not cost much extra compared to what you already have invested in the necessities, and they sure make life at the reloading bench a lot easier.

The Bullet Puller

Adjustments to the dies are made on a trial-and-error basis, which means while you are adjusting how far you want the bullet seated in the casing, you are going to “get it wrong” several times before your adjustments are done. Why throw away those bullets and casings if you don’t have to? Put your cartridge into this big plastic hammer, give it a sharp smack on the floor, and out pops the bullet. Sometimes it is good to be able to disassemble a cartridge without just shooting it!

The Case Trimmer

The case trimmer is generally not needed for pistol calibers; but for rifle calibers, it becomes important. The higher chamber pressure of rifle cartridges causes their casings to stretch and expand on firing. After resizing in the size die, these cases are taller than their specifications call for, and usually not all by the same amount. The case trimmer trims the mouth of each casing to exactly the same length, making it possible to create consistent, accurate rifle ammunition.

The Chamfer and Deburring Tool

The case trimmer will leave burrs and sharp edges on the inside and outside of the casing mouth. These are sharp enough to cut your hands, and inconsistent enough to grab each bullet slightly differently as it gets seated. Save your hands and make your rounds more consistent with this little tool that neatly cleans up the case mouth.

The Powder Trickler

The amount of powder dispensed by a progressive reloading press or by a dipper can be pretty inconsistent, and inconsistency is the enemy of accuracy. To build accurate ammo, you can intentionally dispense a little bit less powder than you really want, then use this device to “trickle up” a little powder at a time until you reach the perfect amount of powder needed to go into that casing.

It is hard to believe, but these few bits of gear are all you need to set up a custom ammunition manufacturing center in your own residence. Tailor-made ammo that matches your gun and shooting needs perfectly is within your grasp.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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