Reloading: A Guide to Getting Started

RCBS Rebel single stage reloading press in action

Sometimes we call it handloading, but most folks call it reloading. After all, what makes it all worthwhile is being able to reuse that expensive brass case. We pop out the primer, resize the brass, re-prime, and reload it with powder. Then, we seat the bullet. Those are the steps to reloading your own ammunition.

It isn’t always about economy and saving money. Sometimes, it is about accuracy. The gear isn’t particularly expensive. A good loading setup will cost a bit less than a good quality 1911 — perhaps in the Glock 9mm pistol range. If you get started early in your shooting career, the equipment will pay for itself many times over.

drawing of a cut away cartridge case showing the internal components
A cartridge case, primer, powder, and bullets combine to make a cartridge.

Some shooters like to produce a quantity for practice, others concentrate on loading a pet rifle to its best accuracy potential. Both are valid pursuits. Many of us engage in both bulk loading and loading for accuracy. Sometimes we look at different brands and types of gear and overlook the mechanical aspect. You probably need a little mechanical ability, and you most definitely need the ability to pay attention to detail.

First, obtain a Barnes, Lyman, Hornady, Speer, or Sierra bullet loading manual. The ABC’s of reloading is a thick book well worth a read.

Safety is important. Safety includes keeping powder in its original can, keeping primers in the original case, and paying attention to the powder charge and seating depth and double-checking it on a regular basis. Once you understand safety basics, look to nuts and bolts information such as setting loading dies for the correct length and depth, and careful management of the powder measure.

If you take the time to study the loading manuals, and perhaps even take an NRA-sponsored loading course if one is nearby, you will find the time invested well worthwhile. There are several good names in the field of loading gear — Hornady, Lyman, RCBS, and Redding come to mind. I have had good results with mismatched gear in some cases, but overall, the best choice is to make the gear match. At least it will all be the same color…

Dies are hard items that last forever if cared for. A powder scale should be a cutting-edge item and should not be purchased on the cheap. Ask those who have been in the reloading game for years what they use. If a fellow begins with RCBS, he will sing its praises — and rightly so. But another gentleman may feel the same concerning Hornady or Lyman.

Artistic photo of a reloading setup with the reloading manual in the center
Every piece of gear is important, but the loading manual is most important!

Be certain to take a hard look at the features of each piece of gear. I would not choose the cheapest gear. Be certain spares are available. Certain small parts must be replaced from time to time. For example, decapping pins should be kept as spares.

The better the gear, the greater the resale value when you decide to move to another setup. Pistol dies are delivered in three die sets and the majority of rifle dies are delivered in two die sets. A tip, if you begin with pistol loading — as most of us do — purchase a heavy-duty die press such as the RCBS Rock Chucker. A lightweight press may be a knuckle buster if you move to full-size rifle cartridges.

And don’t forget the nuts-and-bolts gear like a quality case trimmer. If you use enough rifle cartridges, you will eventually have to trim cases as they stretch as they are used. If you become a volume loader, you will need a good quality, heavy-duty case trimmer. And don’t forget, the old-timers may know the mechanics of loading and the quality of certain brands, but there are more up-to-date choices often enough.

Alliant Powder 20/28 bottle
Powder selection is important. Use a quality reloading manual to ensure you are using the right powder and proper charge for that powder.

When you enjoy the shooting sports, that is all that really matters. A .22 rifle or a .300 Magnum may put a smile on your face. The joy of cutting a ragged hole into the paper or taking game with handloads you put together is something worth bragging about.

I began loading with a Lee Loader as a pre-teen. I learned a few things, but this was a very basic kit. I recommend purchasing one of the loading kits such as the Lyman American to get started. Otherwise, you will become quickly frustrated and perhaps even give up.

I cannot stress enough, the amount of study I put into my choices. The time from a handful of components — brass, primer, powder, and bullet — to loaded ammunition got shorter and my results were better. I let accuracy be my guide. I moved into an RCBS single-position press and eventually a Hornady Lock-N-Load press. I once owned a progressive press that knocked a cartridge out with every pull of the lever.

Single-Stage Versus Turret Press

A single-stage press is what most of us begin with. Even once you move to a more advanced press, you may wish to keep the single-stage press on hand for select chores. The single-stage begins with a die screwed in and ready to begin.

Single Stage reloading press
For most of us, a single-stage loading press is a good starter rig.

The sizing die is used first. As the case is resized and primed, you move to the second die, a neck expander with the pistol cartridge. Usually, you charge the powder at this point, although it may be done separately.

Next, you screw in the seating die, using this die to seat the bullet and crimp a bullet in place. The most efficient means of using a single-stage press is to complete each stage with as many cases as possible — de-prime a few dozen cases, as an example, and then move to the next stage.

A turret loading press begins with three dies and the powder measure screwed into place. Some presses require the handloader to move the turret to the next stage. Progressive types will move the turret as the device handle is cranked.

Red Hornady Reloading press
This is a modern Hornady progressive reloading press.

A cartridge is more quickly loaded, and the rate of cartridges per hour is much faster. You will need to change the die set and shell holder for each caliber. The progressive press requires some finesse. I recommend a single stage for beginning. This will teach you the nuances of loading, and you will be familiar with each step before adding speed to the equation.

The Drill

Loading cartridges is simple enough. Take the spent cartridge case and place it into the shell holder. Be certain to properly line the case mouth up and work the lever, bringing the case to meet the cartridge-sizing die. The die resizes the case. (It expanded on firing.) The next step uses another die. You may rotate the progressive press or change dies in the single stage.

The case-mouth flaring opens the case mouth. A slight flare is needed in the case mouth to allow seating a bullet. During this stage, a primer is inserted into the cartridge case. While separate tools are used, most die press tools have a priming arm.

Hornady electronic powder scale for reloading ammunition
Hornady’s electronic powder scale offers exact measurement.

The powder charge is addressed next. Some powder measures mount on the case mouth flaring die. Before you perform this chore, the powder charge has been carefully set using a powder scale. The powder measure drops a measure of powder into the case. When using a single-stage press, I like to visually inspect the cases in a loading block to ensure that I have neither chopped short and failed to charge a case, or dropped a double charge.

The Final Step – Seating the Bullet

Seat the bullet in the cartridge case using a crimping or seating die. The bullet is moved into the case and a crimp — moving the brass case against the bullet — is applied to the cartridge case. Inspect the cartridge case to be certain the bullet is properly crimped, the primer is seated properly, and that there are no dents in the cartridge case.

RCBS case trimmer with a brass case loaded
Since cartridge cases stretch when fired, you will need an RCBS case trimmer.

Words to the wise, follow the instructions. Do not begin with high-end data showing maximum velocity. Use moderate loads. The firearm will last longer and be more accurate. It is also important to remember that some firearms get high velocity with modest loads.

A tight, match chamber or thicker brass will generate more pressure and more velocity. Therefore, we have beginning loads. Wear safety glasses when loading and do not allow distractions. In the next installment, we will discuss working up suitable loads for a specific firearm.

Do you have a beginning reloading tip? Share it in the comment section.

  • Lead bullets ready to be reloaded
  • Two brass cases, one showing a crack in the case
  • Using a RCBS press to prime a brass cartridge
  • Rear view of a RCBS reloading press
  • Alliant Powder 20/28 bottle
  • Red Hornady Reloading press
  • Single Stage reloading press
  • RCBS Rebel single stage reloading press in action
  • RCBS case trimmer with a brass case loaded
  • 3 dies pistol set
  • Artistic photo of a reloading setup with the reloading manual in the center
  • Resizing a brass rifle cartridge
  • Hornady electronic powder scale for reloading ammunition
  • drawing of a cut away cartridge case showing the internal components

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (11)

  1. I started and used a Lee Pro 1000 progressive for about 30 years now. Just do lots of reading on the subject and use extreme patience when using a progressive. The Lee is outstanding for all handgun cartridges, which most guys will be doing. Rifles are more complex with more steps and time involved. The Lee cannot be beat for what it does and the price. You can reload .223, .308, and 7.62×39. You’ll need extra turrets and dies which Lee has in abundance at reasonable costs. What really worries me is the cost of shooting is going way up. Factory ammo now costs a dollar or more every trigger pull. Reloading is the only way to go if you shoot often. I’m very concerned about the powder and primer shortage now. I suspect Washington is behind this somehow as the demand cannot be so severe to drain all major suppliers like we have today.

  2. My tip is: Now may be a great time to purchase reloading tools and equipment, but don’t expect to get much actual reloading done for a while if you’re just starting out. Until you have every component in hand, you can’t make a single round. I figure I have a lifetime supply of brass for the calibers I use most. And I managed to lay in a supply of my preferred powder and bullets before the component market dried up. But I haven’t seen a primer for sale in over a year. I’m into my last 1000, and I try to shoot at least a couple hundred a month — do the math. I still see a lot of “unavailable” for powder and bullets. Read your manuals — reloading will be a thing again someday.

  3. I worked in a gun shop that had a range. I used to compete and needed to practice as much as possible. I chose reloading as an option to save money, and saw that I could load and shoot up to 2,000 rounds a week. That’s all I seemed to be doing at that time of my life.
    One of my favorite guns was the Colt NM Gold Cup, which optimally used a 185 grain SWC bullet. There was a factory load option at that time, but it is no more. I can duplicate the load, using a cast bullet but that is my only option at this time.
    Many of us have some very old guns, still in shooting condition, but these days you can’t buy any ammo for them. You still need the brass, but if you have that, you can keep on shooting.
    There are limits to everything. My Rockchucker Junior has reloaded over 100,000 rounds, but sits in my closet now. I still have my dies and powder. My melting pot and molds and sizing dies also sit there. I still have various powders and a great scale.
    There is still one thing, a nickel holding up a dollar, but I can’t get primers.

  4. But reloading is a bit hard to do at this time; I have had no luck in locating anyone with primers for sale. Seems to me that primers are the one thing that will guarantee putting a screeching halt to any reloading job. After all, in theory you can make you own powder (I don’t think I would even really think about that one!), lead can be scrounged from many sources, but where is a primer solution?

  5. I have about 40 years of reloading. From the beginning it was so I could afford to shoot more. As I got better I would create loads that made sense to me. A member of my family had a 2″ .38 and for some reason they kept giving her 158gr wad cutters. It was rocking her wrist. So I was able to come up with 125gr .38 which allowed her to practice and then defend herself if needed. I was able to swap FMJ .303 for SP .303 so I could use that rifle on the range where FMJ was not allowed. I also custom load .3006 for hog hunting. Due to an accident I am limited on the recoil my shoulder can stand.
    I never felt the time spent was wasted as I can make my own ammo in a shortage and I can load better for my own needs.

  6. I reload most of the larger pistol rounds above 9mm. I use a Lee turret press which is not as complicated to set upon expensive as a progressive press but faster than a single stage press as you can get all your dies loaded into the press and setup at once plus you can buy extra die holders and set one up for each caliber for easy switchovers. One thing not mentioned in the article is depriming and case cleaning. When you bring your used casings back from the range the used primer has to be punched out and the casings then have to be cleaned of residual powder and any dirt they picked up from being on the ground. Usually your first die resizes the casing and punches out the used primer but I have a depriming die set up for just doing that job before cleaning the casings. I use a Harbor Freight dual rock tumbler with steel wire and it does a good job cleaning the casings. I had tried using a ultrasonic cleaner and the tumbler does a better job. Other than possibly saving money, I reload so I have a way of getting hard to find ammo during shortages and making loads that aren’t commercially available. A good example is 44 magnum where the off the shelf 240 grain bullet loadings were trying to separate my thumb from my hand. I was able to find 190 grain Hornaday bullets that tame the recoil down to a 357 which I have no problem with. From a safety point of view since you are doing repetitive operations your attention may start to wonder. If this happens the best thing is to take a break and come back later to finish. This is particularly important at the powder charging step as you don’t ever want a double load.

  7. I have been reloading since 1980. With the amount of ammunition I’ve loaded since then my reloading equipment has paid for itself many times over and over compared to buying factory ammo. I am able to also make custom loads to meet my needs. This helps especially when loading for my .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. After shooting about 10 rounds of these calibers my hand is shaking so much from the recoil I can’t hold my hand still. Reloading my own ammo fixes this problem because I can alter the load by using a different powder and make a load the has less felt recoil and makes the gun now more pleasurable to shoot. The biggest problem I now have is finding primers. They are nowhere to be found. Yes, I can find primers occasionally but the prices that the sellers are charging is absolutely prohibitive. They want at least $100.00 more for a box of 1,000 primers than they use to charge before Covid and the ammunition shortage hit. I used to pay about $30.00 for a box of 1,000 primers. Now, they cost about $130.00 to $140.00 for 1,000. That said, I am forced to limit my reloading to the bare minimum. I do have some primers remaining in my reloading cabinet but I must use them sparingly. I hope this price comes down soon so I can restock my supply. Another Item that is getting harder and harder to find is gunpowder. It probably won’t be long before the supply of gunpowder dries up and the price of gunpowder becomes prohibitive.

  8. Years ago, to get the most accurate load for your gun, you would need to reload. Today, factory ammo is as good, or even better, than some folks will reload. However, reloading does let you create loads that fill specific needs. If you have an “odd ball” cartridge, like .300 Savage, reloading can be the only way to get ammo for a favorite firearm. What most folks don’t understand is that reloading is also a great hobby, and with the current availability of reloading “packaged kits”, it is so much easier to get started in reloading, without a major expense. With 50+ years in reloading, I did have to replace my powder scale, and my powder throw, because they got damaged in a move. Cleaned my Dies every so often, and after 50 years, they still work.

  9. For beginners, speed should NEVER be a priority, however safety should ALWAYS be. Simplicity is always nice, and LEE offers it in abundance. Like their case trimers are simple, non-adjustable, and thus repeatable from lot to lot, as is the LEE disk powder thrower. Once you have established the correct powder disks to use for your load, it is also repeatable from lot to lot. Tip: I use printer labels to put all load data one a box, for future reference for powder, load, disk, bullet. A tray of 50 count, like a box of ammo, is a good size for a lot, and like looking over a tray of 50 cases loaded with powder, looking for an even level in each case, any irregularities then to be obvious, and thus correctable before seating bullets. Tip: When it comes to selecting dies, in a given calibre, if one set offers two dies, and another offers four? ALWAYS go with the most dies. Why? Like in rifle dies, the fourth die is probably a collet neck sizing die, which is usually intended for rifle specific reloads, I use mine just for de-prime, and to re-round the necks, like ones that may have been stepped on, in stead of collet sizing only, and this allows the use of the LEE case trimming cutter, and later for full case sizing. Tip: Using the LEE case trimer, LEE also offers a three jaw chuck, to be mounted into a battery operated drill motor, to be used with the case trimer simplifying the process. I had a Harbor Freight battery drill last for about 10 years before the battery died, and it trimmed thousands of cases over that time. Enjoy

  10. This is great information for people wanting to get into reloading. I started shotgun reloading in ’83 but just getting my gear together to start pistol and rifle reloading. It is much more complicated and time consuming than shotgun reloading and I wish I had run into this information years ago. Not everyone can simplify the process and this leads to confusion and frustration when first learning to reload.

  11. I enjoy reloading bullets. I enjoy the savings involved with it, and the details involved in reloading a bullet. I admit that I only reload, but handgun bullets. From what I’ve read rifle loads are more involved, and I only own 22 LR rifles so I have no need to reload rifle rounds. The expensive part of reloading is the start up cost. Buying the press, and once you purchase a reputable powder guide and all the dies you need, your only other expenses are primers, shells, powder, and bullets. I’ve got it to the point where I can reload 100 bullets in 45 mins with being careful not to load a squib or +P+ round. This hobby is only for the people that pay close attention to detail.

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