Ammunition

An Introduction to Reloading for Newbies

Hundreds of 9mm cartridges

With the current difficulty in getting ammunition, and the high prices when you find it, those who reload have a distinct advantage. If they have a back stock of components, and all reloaders do, they can keep shooting without too much to worry about. Granted, primers have been difficult to get and expensive when available, but it is still better than trying to find loaded ammo and paying today’s prices. As an introduction, handloading or reloading is the process of individuals loading firearm cartridges or shotgun shells by assembling the components (case/hull, primer, powder, and bullet or shot), rather than purchasing completely assembled, factory-loaded ammunition.

When first considering whether you want to reload, here are some things to think about. First, reloading is a very safe hobby — if you follow the precautions and use common sense. When reloading, it is very important not to allow any distractions to be present.

Dillon progressive reloading press
A progressive reloading press being used to reload the popular .223/5.56mm.

That means no texting, watching TV, listening to music, or anything else that will compete for your attention. If you are not the type of person who pays attention to detail, then I would advise against you taking up reloading. I have been reloading for over 55 years and have never had a mishap. I believe it is a great skill to have and well worth exploring.

Centerfire cartridges are fired when the firing pin of the firearm strikes the primer cap at the base of the cartridge. In turn this causes the primer to detonate, thereby igniting the propellant in the cartridge. Unlike a rimfire cartridge, where the rim gets deformed by the striker, a centerfire cartridge case generally remains intact after being used. This means the cartridge case can be recycled after it is fired which is what makes reloading possible.

Historically, handloading referred to the private manufacture of cartridges using all newly manufactured components, whereas reloading referred to individuals making cartridges using previously fired cases with new bullets, shot, primers, and powder. In today’s lexicon, most make no distinctions between these terms, while others find the differences important. Go Figure! Some experts opine that handloads tend to be of high quality, while reloads tend to be just functional.

Reasons to Reload

Regardless of what you call the process, there are many reasons to reload including: economy, increased accuracy, performance, ammunition shortages, hobby interest, survival skills, and high prices. Of course, there are people who reload their own cartridges just because they like it. The practical reasons to reload include the following:

Cost

With the increase in price, ammunition is no longer affordable for many to purchase new ammunition.

Availability

Recurring shortages of commercial ammunition is a good reason to reload. Additionally, someone may be using a cartridge or firearm that is obsolete and the ammunition is no longer available.

Accuracy

The ability to customize the performance of your ammunition is a common goal. Any shooter interested in the greatest accuracy, consistency, and precision will also reload. Many handloaders customize their cartridges to their specific firearm using cartridge cases that have been fire formed in the chamber of a specific firearm.

Wildcatting

Handloaders can create cartridges for which no commercial equivalent exists. Those calibers are referred to as wildcat cartridges.

Special Uses

Handloaders also have the flexibility to make reduced-power rounds for a milder-recoil to encourage newer shooters to become proficient before trying a full-power loading.

Government Regulation

It is unfortunate that this even exists as a reason, but with our Second Amendment under attack, it must be brought up. An example of this would be California. Those not wanting to be registered to purchase ammunition, have only one option and that is to handload.

Brass cartridge cases collected from a shooting range
Discarded brass picked up from the shooting range before being cleaned, sorted, and inspected.

Those explanations only touch on the most obvious reasons to motivate someone to take on reloading as a pursuit besides the fact that it is fun and very satisfying to make one’s own ammunition.

Reloading Components

The most expensive part of the cartridge is the brass case and fortunately it may be reused many times. That puts the cost of brass in the reloader’s control. The second most expensive part are the bullets and unfortunately these cannot be reused after firing. Naturally, it is generally impossible to find and most often gets badly deformed or breaks up into many pieces.

Therefore, bullets need to be either purchased from a manufacturer or made by hand. The next component that needs to be purchased is the propellant, i.e., gun powder. There are many different types of powders available for reloading, and your choices will be governed by the type, size, and caliber of cartridge to be reloaded. Depending on the type of cartridge cases being refilled, the reloader may be able to refill so many cartridges that the cost of propellant (per cartridge) may be lower than the cost of the primer.

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To determine the best choice of powder for your particular needs, a good reloading manual is indispensable. With a reloading manual you can look up the caliber you are loading and get the correct type and amount of powder necessary. Most of the manuals are published by bullet manufacturers and the data in them was developed in labs by professionals — it should be followed closely.

Cracked and dented spent cartridge casings
These are examples of brass that should be discarded during the inspection process.Dented, cracked, bulged, and steel or aluminum cases would be dangerous to reload.

Also, the books give you a lot of great information on reloading techniques and problem solving. I would recommend 2–3 reloading manuals from different sources, as they are a good investment. The least expensive component is usually the primer and these are generally purchased in bulk. They are sold in boxes of 1,000 primers packaged in boxes of 100 and during normal times they typically cost about $30–40 per 1,000.

Let’s go over the components in a bit more detail, starting with the brass. You will need to get some reloadable brass, empty brass, or “once-fired brass” as it is commonly referred to, to get started. Empty brass can be obtained from several sources. One way is if you bought some factory ammo and shot it.

While you are at the range, you can also scrounge brass that others leave on the ground. You will be amazed at how many people who shoot, don’t reload, and leave perfectly good high quality brass on the ground. If you go that route, ensure you thoroughly inspect every case for safety reasons.

deprimed, polished brass cartridge casings that are ready for reloading
Clean, sort, and inspect the brass to ensure it is ready to be reloaded.

You can also buy once-fired brass from various sources, if you wish. Remember, the case lasts for many reloadings, so any costs will be amortized over the number of times reloaded. Personally, I have some brass that has been loaded as much as 25 times. If you don’t “Hot Rod” your loads and overwork the brass, certain calibers have a long life.

Projectiles

The bullets are usually the most expensive component of the reloading process because bullets are a one-time use. In other words, they are expendable. However, bullets for handgun ammunition can also be the best place to save money. I will not discuss making your own bullets, because it falls out of the scope of this article.

You do, however, have the choice of casting your own lead bullets — if you so choose. However, for someone new to the practice, this introduction recommends that you purchase pre-made jacketed bullets. One place to save is to use plated bullets. Plated bullets are a more economical alternative that was made available to the handloader in the 1980s.

packages of bullets ready for reloading
Bullets from different manufacturers are available in quantities from 50–1,000. To save money you can even purchase seconds in a bag with no name.

Copper-plated bullets are lead bullets that are electroplated with a copper jacket. Since the jacket provides the strength, soft lead can be used thereby keeping the cost down. Plated bullets work well in many handgun rounds if one stays below the recommended maximum velocity of 1,250 ft/s. They are not recommended — nor are they strong enough — for rifle cartridges.

Propellant

The next component is the propellant. It must be remembered that modern smokeless powder is a propellant and not an explosive, so it will not explode. However, if exposed to flame, it will ignite quite easily and burn very rapidly and intensely. It is recommended that it be stored safely and secured in a fire resistant container.

Three containers of reloading powder
Powder is sold by the pound and comes in different sizes. Containers of 1, 2, 4, and 8 pounds are the most common sizes.

When handling powder ensure there are no open flames or other sources of ignition present in the area. That means no smoking! Other than that smokeless powder is completely safe to handle. When stored properly, in a cool dry place, in its original container, it will last for years.

Primers

The final component needed is the primer. Priming the case is the most dangerous step of the loading process, since the primers are pressure-sensitive. The use of safety glasses or goggles during priming operations can provide valuable protection — in the rare event that an accidental detonation takes place.

It is also of paramount importance to always store primers in their original packaging and never dump them in bulk into a container of any type.

Boxes of Remington, Federal, and CCI primers
Here are some different brands of primers in the different types of packaging. Despite the appearance, they all contain 1,000 primers.

You need to select the correct primer for the job. There are small and large types. They are broken down to handgun and rifle. Then there are magnums and standard as well as match grade. If you are not sure which to use, consult the reloading manual. The reloading manual will list which primer should be used in the cartridge you are reloading.

Additionally, there are also the costs of purchasing the equipment needed to facilitate reloading. Here is a partial list of some items you will need:

  • Case cleaning system
  • Press
  • Caliber specific dies
  • Case trimmer
  • Vernier caliper
  • Powder scale
  • Priming tools
  • Bullet puller

These items only need to be purchased once and can be used for many years without replacement. Depending on the type and quality of the equipment you are looking at purchasing you can expect about a $600–1,000 investment for a complete reloading starter kit, plus the cost of your expendable supplies (primers, powder, and bullets) to get you started. Don’t forget, you’ll need at least one reloading manual preferably more.

I hope this short explanation ignites your interest and starts you on the road to this satisfying and productive endeavor.

Do you reload and have a tip for someone looking to get into reloading? Which press would you recommend for someone looking to get started in reloading? Share your answers in the comment section.

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!

Comments (19)

  1. Another strong article from Mr LaPorta.
    Anyone else see that picture of UNIVERSAL and cringe at how Hodgdon (my absolute goto PowderPeople) has several different products over the years that are far too closely named? (p.s. if u can get your hands on Hodgdons excellent book on the history of the company do it.
    I prefer single stage presses. Easier to control and CHECK (and recheck) at every stage of development.

  2. Great article!! One thing ANY reloader needs is the “Bible”; The Lyman Cast Bullet or the metallic manual. These cartridge manuals will answer any questions you may have. I have used these for 50+ years.
    The only mistake I remember making was putting in a primer backwards!

    That is why quality control is so very important. That is why Iuse a single stage press; it is easier to check every stage before going on to the next.
    I also cast more bullets than store bought, mainly because of the price and shortage

  3. I understand where Kent is coming from, but then just like the stock market, isn’t NOW the time to BUY? Like stock up on brass, and bullets, as their price is down do to the lack of primer/powder availability. Powder is slowly starting to show up again, but then too, without primers, your investment in brass and bullets is waisted. Or is it? Buying bullets and brass on the DOWN low, can offset the higher price of primers a little, when they do become available. Maybe even trade with friends, bullets for primers? Spreadsheets quickly show how much each component effects cost, when changing the variables, and as we are usually dealing in units of 1,000, sometimes it is surprising the effect on a per unit calculation can be. Depending on your powder charge, for example, out of one pound of powder, one can easily obtain 1,200 rounds of 9mm, yet for 5.56 a pound yields more like 300, and 30-06 more like only 150 rounds per pound, which pushes up cost per unit drastically. I am thinking once primers do become available again, seems that will drive the demand for ALL reloading components. Me, I just need some primers. 🙂

  4. Great article, Ed! You are very attentive to details, great quality to have.
    I agree with the comment, that first few hundred reloads you should make with supervision.

  5. No reason to invest in any reloading equipment and components until PRIMERS are readily available AND affordable… I don’t wanna be “that guy” pushing “conspiracy” but it’s going on 2+ years since the primer supply went the way of the dinosaurs… I’ve been reloading over 40 years & reloading was always the economical way to go until now… without primers … reloading ceases!… just like no gasoline… ya get it ?

  6. Good article and good comments. For newbies, I highly recommend starting with a single stage press, to get the basics of each operation ingrained. Like looking over a tray of brass filled with the correct powder charge to see if each brass has the same level of powder. If not, ask yourself why? And correct the issue. When it comes to dies, I especially suggest the four die sets. I use the collet die only to de-prime, and round out the necks on slightly stepped on brass, then full size die sizing after cleaning. I have been doing this long enough that I have reduce my powder selections to, two; one powder for all hand gun loads, and another powder for all rifle loads, and using a Lee Disk powder thrower for repeat consistency between lots. I also suggest printing labels for each cabler load, with all information, powder brand, powder charge, bullet type and weight, and for the Lee Disk powder thrower, which disk, or in the case of rifles, which disks (stacked 2-high, smaller disk on top). Also noted there are 7,000 grains in a single pound of any powder, dividing 7000 by your specific powder charge yield units per pound, so you can set up a spreadsheet for your cost per 1,000 to see if it is cheaper than buying ammo. At one time, 9mm where actually cheaper to buy than reload, but still a good idea to keep components on hand for times like the present. It is normal to be a little apprehensive when starting out, but just keep it safe, and don’t start out with super maximum hottest macho loads. Work up to those very cautiously. Enjoy

  7. I have been out of reloading for 30 years, and then only did .45 ACP(never rifle)

    What would be the cheapest, simplest setup for reloading 6.5 Creedmore?
    I know it’s a single stage hand press and some dies, but what about scale, powder measure, etc?

  8. Very good article! I have been a reloaded for about 50 years to hard to find ammo. I would agree, and add only, to do it with an experienced reloaded for the first couple hundred rounds.

  9. Anyone needing information and education on reloading, please feel free to give me a call. I have been actively reloading for 50 years.

  10. In response to Walter. I just use the internet. Check your local shops, however they usually have a limit per customer or really jack up the prices…

  11. Do you have a list of sources for primers? They seemed to be the limiting component for hand-loading these days. Easier to by ammo than primers.

  12. A good place to start is a single stage press. It’s cheaper than a progressive setup it won’t make many rounds very fast.However you learn a lot and I don’t shoot more than 1000 rounds a year in my revolvers. I also cast my own bullets for .38 .357 and .44 light mags. In my Henry and wheel guns. If shooting an AR or other auto loading handguns I would definitely go progressive. You need 500-1000 for a good range session with those type firearms to get proficient n shoot once a month or more. It will get pricey. I generally shoot all my firearms twice a year for familiarization. Then comes the daunting task of a three day cleaning for each firearm. Lol…

  13. I can’t imsgine self-loading unless you have had some training. The devil is in the details. Thanks for the heads-up Ed!

  14. Once again Ed bangs out another awesome and informative article. I’m not into reloading but a friend is and he’s almost got it perfected. I can see this being useful if the SHTF (!@#$ hits the fan) and ammo is not available but you have the necessary tools and supplies for it. Have some friends (or make some friends) that reload. One day, their skills will be extremely valuable.

  15. As always an informative read . worthwhile instructions and how too’s . The ol’ fat guy has been at it for years and is happy to pass on his wisdom ‘keep it going Ed .

  16. Tons of good info! Thanks again, Ed. A few of my buddies are getting into reloading. We do it as a sort of team effort, where I buy the components and scrounge up the brass, and they do all the labor. We split the pot and go to the range to test the various loads.

  17. Great overview!
    I’ve been a reloader for over 40 years.
    My recommendation would be a Dillon 550 progressive press for the newbie. It will give you plenty of room to grow. I’ve used a couple of them for over 20 years and they give you the ability to crank out a high volume of cartridges as well as craft very precise rifle cartridges up to .416 Rigby.
    Dillon’s support is second to none.

  18. Your powder scale should be on a stable, level surface and located away from any sources of vibration (air conditioners, computers, your case polisher, etc), as these can throw off accuracy.

    While steel cases are technically reloadable, it’s not advisable. The steel-on-steel contact will quickly wear out your dies.

    For ammo that’s going to the range or match in a box, it’s usually not necessary to crimp, but any ammo that’s going to travel in a magazine, like for hunting or EDC, should be crimped to prevent bullets walking out of the necks.

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