Reloading: Reclaiming Brass

Two cartridge cases, one showing a crack

Let’s look at the process of reclaiming the brass for reuse. There is nothing wrong with getting ready to reload by buying new brass. However, after you fire that shiny new brass the first time, you’ll want to prepare it to be used again. You may also scavenge the local shooting range or buy some once fired brass for reloading. Either way, here is your ‘primer’ for reclaiming brass for reloading.

Brass cartridge cases for reloading
Sorting your brass is critical.

Since the brass case expands under pressure during firing, the cartridge case must be resized. We do this with a resizing die in a press. Those who use but one rifle—bolt action or single shot—may resize only the case neck. The benefit of using a case that is formed to the chamber, works well enough for most shooters’ needs. Semi-autos require full-length resizing. All in all, my experience shows that full-length resized cases are about as accurate as neck-sized cases, but the nod goes to neck sizing only when possible.

I think attention to detail when neck sizing can reap benefits. The type of die most of us have used, works the brass excessively by first sizing the brass and then opening it by means of an expander plug. The requirement for care in sizing and lubrication of the inside of the case neck also kills time. Here is where planning ahead is important. Major makers now supply loading dies with interchangeable neck sizing bushings. I have been able to produce excellent results by using such dies. No, I don’t use this type of die when turning out high volume loads for my AR-15 rifles, but when I wish my bullets to go in one line like GI’s waiting for an inoculation, these specialized dies are my first choice.

Next, the emphasis is on the brass itself. Let’s get one thing straight, and I think experienced handloaders will nod in agreement. There is such a thing as bad or weak brass. Some brass won’t survive many reloadings, and others may stretch excessively. Likewise, some brass will suffer wallowed primer pockets more quickly than we would like.

Two cartridge cases, one showing a crack
Be sure to check cartridge cases for cracks!

Quite a bit of the foreign-produced ammunition I see offered for sale isn’t in the same league as American-produced products. This refers to Asian- and Russian-produced brass for the most part. I have used Norma brass with excellent results. One my friends, who specializes in high power, military-type, long-range rifles, swears by the Lapua product. Both are expensive, but neither can be faulted on performance.

Firing factory ammunition merely to obtain brass is not economical. In the .223, I have ordered 1,000 rounds of processed military brass and enjoyed excellent results. In heavier calibers, I have ordered 100 to 200 new cases in order to begin a loading program.

New cases purchased in bulk require attention. There are often small burrs around the flash hole in the primer pocket. These burrs are left over from the production process and it is an even bet they are not polished before factory-new ammunition is loaded. Occasionally, the case mouth will sport a similar burr that should be polished. The overall length is usually uniform, but it is good to check a few cases at random to determine that all are consistent in that regard.

Empty and loaded cartridges for rifle shooting
Cartridge prep and choosing the bullet are each important steps.

Next, attention to the case mouth is important. I have used a small chamfering tool from Lee Precision for several years, with excellent results. Motorized tools are fine, but the handheld Lee has done yeomen service in several calibers. Next, the case neck can be turned for better consistency. This operation ensures cases are consistent from one cartridge case to the next and that bullet pull is uniform. This can be a cut and dry thing, but for the most part, the inside of the case mouth is polished more than cut. Once a cartridge case has been modified to a uniform thickness in this manner, it will not need to be turned again during its useful loading life.

With this initial case preparation done, and the cases nice and uniform, we can turn to preparing to load the cartridge. I am a stickler for handheld primer seaters. There are quite a few on the market, with the RCBS-type serving for many years with little change.

This is another cut and dry or ‘by feel’ skill. I like to feel the primer crunch into the primer pocket. This ensures uniform seating and ignition. Be certain the primer seater is free of so much as a single grain of powder, or you may dent the primer. Next, we are ready to choose the powder and the powder charge, but I’ll cover that in a separate article.

What steps do you take to prepare your brass for reloading? Do you have a favorite tool or brand of reloading equipment that you would recommend? Share your answers in the comment section.


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 (12)

  1. Good article with good information! However, with all the foreign brass out there, picking it up at the range, reloaders must check to see if it is Berdan brass or not. If it is, then may as well cull those at the start, as most presses will choke or break a pin when trying to decap…. and some pins are not cheap!
    Also noted that one reloader use ammonia to clean brass. I am not saying it is right or wrong, however most reloaders do NOT use ammonia as it is rumored to weaken brass. We clean brass commercially (a few tons a week) and avoid ammonia like the plague.

  2. I’ve been reloading for over 25 years. Started with straight wall (pistol) brass then to rifle for last 10+ years. Norma brass is great. Have found Lapua brass not enough better to justify extra cost. You must full length all range brass and any you have shot in any semi-auto rifle. I like using RCBS Full Length X small base dies if available for cartridge as they help reduce case length growth. Otherwise any brand will do a good job. I have polished expander balls in all my full length sizing dies. That helps reduce drag and stretching of neck.

    I then (for bolt guns only) will neck size only until case chambers difficultly and then use a Redding Body Sizing Die that does not size the neck and therefore doesn’t work that part of the brass at all. Neck sizing only extends life of brass as it doesn’t work harden the brass so quickly. I haven’t turned any necks for uniformity. Different brands of brass have different thicknesses of brass and I think the inside measurement of the neck is more important to have uniform than outside and so I don’t use bushing neck sizing dies. I prefer the Lee Collet Neck Sizing die as it presses the neck against a mandrel that stays the same size for that caliber and die. Whereas the bushing die uses an expander ball to set the inside measurement working the brass more.

    I also anneal using a torch and only heat for 6-8 seconds. As previously mentioned, over heating will soften too much and ruins that piece of brass. I anneal after cleaning to get more consistency. I find annealing at least every third reloading improves consistency and group sizes by about 10%. I also always chamfer case mouth inside at least to prevent scratching the bullet.

    I l=also like to use Redding Competition or Forster sleeve style seating dies as they align the bullet with the case better. I then will use an Hornady Concentricity Tool to align the bullet and case. With it I can adjust alignment.

    This all sounds like a lot of time and it is, but I prefer to put time in making the most accurate bullet rather than money into the most accurate rifle. most of my rifles are “off the shelf” brand name rifles. Only a couple could be called “custom” as they have after market barrels like Shilen costing about $200.00 each. Even the most accurate rifle is no better than the ammo you shoot in it.


  3. Wonderful bits of information from all contributors. I’ve been reloading since 1982, and started with a Lyman 310 “Tong” tool and a set of Lee Powder Measure Kit powder scoops. At the time I was loading for a Parker Hale Mauser bolt action in .308 Winchester, and loved the fact I could pack up my rifle, a pound of powder, pack of bullets, 20 to 40 empty cases, primers, lube pad, towel, powder scoops (only one or two needed for one calibur/bullet/powder/primer combination), the Lyman 310 tool and set of dies, and have a full day of fun. No need to have anything pre-loaded just to target shoot. Also, all my cases were checked for overall length and hand trimmed. Although, if I were to be out in the woods while target shooting, I always had my Dan Wesson 44 Mag on my hip with rounds pre-loaded for my safety!

    The Lyman 310 tool was so easy to use, and it was great for hand-loading primers! As one person noted, by hand-loading primers you can feel when it is seated.

    The 44 Mag really seemed to stretch cases, so I had to full length size every loading, which really is difficult using a Lyman 310 tool. Yikes, you need a grip of steel to work 50 or 100 rounds through those dies. I always used a full sized RCBS Rock Chucker press with usually RCBS dies for those cases. I’ve loaded: .22 Hornet, .223 Remington, .243 Remington, .270 Winchester, 7-30 Waters, 30-30 Winchester, .30 Herret, .308 Winchester, .357 Herret, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Hotshot (for the T/C Contender), .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Long Colt, 410 shotgun (and boy are those tough to crimp using a Lee Loader hand loading set with a mallet and a block of wood!), 20 GA shotgun, 12 GA shotgun shells.

    Having the tools to load is always useful, IF you have the components. If you expect to set anthing aside for survival use, think about getting a set of bullet molds for your most common cartridges, and a bullet sizing die/bullet lube too!

    I have found that shooting cast bullets in a .44 Magnum makes for a long cleaning session to take the hot lead out of the grooves in the barrel. At least it did in mine!

    My one recommendation to ANY shooter, even those who use factory ammunition, is to get a bottle of engine or transmission ZMAX at your local auto supply store, and after cleaning any gun, run a patch through the barrel with the ZMAX. It will soak into the metal to protect as a lubricant underneath your normal gun lube. Highly recommended for all moving parts inside your guns too! I believe the ZMAX company is marketing their product through gun stores, albeit in small bottles for high prices. Just get the auto version, you will have what seems like a never ending supply, and it can be used anywhere metal parts come in contact (hinges, etc.) it also helps with removing rust!

    One more thing. If you plan to do reloading to work up an accurate load for a single gun/calibur/powder/primer/ brand of brass/bullet (brand/shape) realize that changing even one attribute WILL change accuracy! Even changing bullet manufacturere, using the same weight/shape will give different patterns. Such as one person stated they sectioned off brands of brass to be packaged in vacuum sealed bags. Good idea!

    The more attention to detail, the fewer problems you will have. When loading powder charges I suggest you check with your reloading manual for a powder, then decide on a middle of the range charge, write it down in large numbers on a sheet of paper to keep near your reloading scale. Check the scale’s accuracy every 20 to 50 powder charges for consistency. I once had a scale with a magnetic dampening on the beam, and it picked up metal filings which interferred with the movement of the beam. There was a variance of 0.1 to 0.2 grains. I cleaned the scale and problem solved.

  4. Do not anneal until the neck gets red hot. That’s too high. Flip the case into cold water when you first see the faintest orange glow. Red hot is 900-some degrees. Brass anneals at around 750 degrees.

  5. Like most shooters who reload, I use handgun brass that I pick up at the range. It is very important to clean it thoroughly before reloading. Rifle brass, however, is a different story. With the recent change by some manufacturers to small pistol primers for .45ACP, it is necessary to separate cases by primer size before re-priming. I try not to use pickup brass for rifle reloading. I make sure that the primer pockets are uniform, and the burr on the inside of the flash hole is removed. I always full-length re-size. Neck re-sizing is fine if you are a long-range or bench rest shooter using only one rifle, but virtually every rifle caliber I shoot will group MOA or better when full length re-sized. All cases need to be measured for length after re-sizing, and it is important to trim all of them to a uniform length if a crimp is used. There are cheap and easy tools to do this, but a trimmer like the Forster that has a heavy frame and a micrometer adjustment makes it easy to quickly trim all cases to a perfect uniformity. Norma brass is flawless. The flash holes are drilled, not punched, so there are no inside burrs, and the uniformity is phenomenal. Nosler brass is made by Norma, and the quality is also excellent. I also prefer a hand priming tool for rifle use, but use a progressive press for handgun reloads.

  6. Randy Donk hit upon it.. (and the initial author didn’t even mention it)..that is, how important it is to visually examine any case you are going to reload. Range brass may have been fired multiple times before it enters your collection. I shoot my hand loads almost exclusively, (have for about 40 yrs.) rifle, pistol,even shotgun. I tumble clean, inspect & sort by brand,
    then resize my brass. All rifle ammo is measured ,trimmed, case mouth chamfered -insiside & out, then hand primed, Loaded on a single stage press.Handgun ammo is cleaned,sorted & inspected,
    then loaded on a progressive press. Finished ammo is boxed & labeled with Brand & caliber of brass, bullet brand, shape & weight,brand powder used & weight, approximate velocity, OAL of round, brand primer used & date loaded.

  7. As a preppy, I clean and size brass of many calibers even for weapons I do not own at present; I then watch for bullets at store oryard sales, including primers and Lee’s manual cheap hand loadeekits , and package say 50 expounds in seal-a- meal, all for later barter.
    Also place charts of other ammo powder by calibers equivelentt weights; ie, say military grade 308 powders for 9 mm, 45 or 223, and yes of Soviet powders as well.
    Then of course some for barter or sale as well.
    Each brass gets prepared to original specs by eye and calipers.

  8. Some very good points and information. I follow a similar process, but don’t do much neck sizing with collet dies, simply because I don’t reload for rifle very much (the indoor range I’m a member of is center fire pistol only). Although I own several rifles, I don’t run enough ammo through them to warrant purchasing collet dies at this time. I recycle brass as much as possible, and purchase once fired over new, simply as a cost savings. I’ve found a good percentage of the overseas manufactured brass to be sub par to domestic too. I see this most in case life. The number of times I can reload the foreign stuff is quite a bit less than the US made brass (only about 1/2 the case life at best).

  9. You first talk about reclaiming brass at the range then jump to talking about neck sizing. I have been told never to do this unless the case has been fire formed in Your rifle.

  10. I have been reloading since 1980. My guns rarely see factory ammo. Almost all of the brass I’ve used for reloading is once fired brass left behind by other shooters. All of this brass was for handgun reloading. I’ve never had a problem with it. A few years ago I bought an AR-15. This was my first attempt at reloading rifle bullets. Again, the brass was once fired brass left behind by other shooters. Now the problems began. I’ve discovered that much of the brass has a crimp around the primer and the crimp has to be removed before the brass can be re-primed. I discovered a simple way to do this. I have a Lyman reaming and chamfering tool which I insert into my drill press. I take the reaming tool and push the primer pocket into the reamer and it digs out the primer crimp like magic. It also puts a slight bevel into the primer pocket. Another thing I’ve learned is that the case & the neck MUST BE resized in order to fit into the chamber. After a few firings, the case length MUST be trimmed or else it won’t fit into the rifle’s chamber thus preventing the bolt from fully loading the round into the chamber. I recently bought a case neck trimmer called the “Little Crow Gun Word’s Finest Trimmer”. This is a caliber specific case trimmer that makes case trimming a breeze. After setting it up in my drill press (you can also use a regular drill) and using a micrometer to check the case length you can trim 100 or so cases in a few minutes. Then I ream and chamfer the case neck then start the reloading process. As mentioned in the article I use and have always used a hand held priming tool to load & seat the primers but before I prime the case I ALWAYS inspect each case for neck and body cracks. Then I put powder in the case, put the bullet into the case and seat & the bullet. After doing all this I’m confident that I have several rounds that will fire successfully and I don’t have to ever worry about having Improperly feeding ammo.

  11. Elmer Keith commented that the weak link in loading hot ammo was the brass and wished someone would find a way to make steel cases. I believe he was disappointed in the 45 Colt case. So, then I read an article in on the major gun magazines 7 years ago, I tried reloading some Tullamo 45 acp, for use in my Colt Peacemakers, Rugers and SW Governor, all with 45 acp cylinders. What I found was that the steel cases actually lasted longer than brass cases. Came as a shock to me, but steel cases can actually be reloaded and it came from a gun rag. The one concern I have is making sure those cases are clean, because unlike brass, it does not expand very much and it seem to me a grain of sand might scar a cylinder. I have not tried it on All brass should be cleaned in my view, if nothing more than to just remove any tarnish, that does not need to be ran through your cylinder. I have not tried the aluminum cases, but seems to me that in 45 acp you could reload them once or twice and if there are any splits, then decided whether they are worth the time. I do notice on the steel cases, I can pick em up in a second with a magnet. LOL

  12. something important I think was missed here. range brass as well as once fired brass was fired in a firearm other than yours, and as such may have had a chamber out of spec, or bad headspace. care must be taken to inspect this brass carefully and sort by head stamps to insure as much uniformity as possible. then cleaning is important, I use household cleaning ammonia at room temp with a couple squirts of hydrogen peroxide. This will fizz and complex any brass oxides (tarnish) as well as remove powder residue. then a propane torch can be used to heat the neck and shoulder to red hot and cool to anneal the brass.(do not heat up the head! if you anneal the head you will ruin the case) use a primer pocket swager to insure primer pockets are uniform (and any military crimps are removed). then finally tumbling to polish. (some folks weigh the cases and toss any light ones with the same head stamp as they feel that indicates a stretched case with weak walls)
    finally trim to length and camphor the mouth inside and out. then they are ready to put into rotation.

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