A while back Kim asked via email, well, let’s use his own words, since he apparently isn’t going to do the post, and I don’t want my work to go to waste:
After my offhand comment the other day about how people should get into reloading, I’ve received over a dozen emails asking how a complete tenderfoot would get into it: with a low budget, modest reloading amounts, and so on.
I would appreciate advice from you all as the a “basic” set of equipment one would need, as well as some recommendations for stuff like powder and such.
Here are the parameters.
1. Go to this page at MidwayUSA, and select the items you think would work for a beginner. Please use only this page as the starter — I am aware that other places may offer more choices, but this is as good a place to start as any. Get to the item as though you were about to stick it in the shopping cart, and then save the link (eg. thus: Hornady Lock n Load Single Stage Press) and include it in your return email to me.
2. Include everything that will make the beginner’s life less complicated — simpler is better, but precision/quality might also be better. Err on the “budget” side — remember, we’re starting from scratch, and a big ticket will just scare people away. A comprehensive list of stuff is imperative, however: scales, calipers, dies, manuals, videos, whatever.
3. Assume that the beginners will be reloading a modest selection of calibers: .38 Spec/.357 Mag, .45 ACP and and one “esoteric” cartridge like, say, .30 Luger for pistols, if that would require different handling; and .22-250, .243 Win, .308, .30-06, and one “esoteric” cartridge like, say, 32-20 or .30 Carbine for rifles. Assume also that only about 50 cartridges will be reloaded at a time, and assume FMJ “practice” bullets only.
4. Keep it simple. The more technical you get, the less likely someone (like me, for instance) will listen to you. Also, stick to SAAMI “medium-strength” loads if possible.
5. Powders: a single clean-burning “universal” powder each for rifle and handgun cartridges (quick-burning for handgun, slow-medium for rifle).
6. Primers: one pistol, one rifle brand (or just one if that will do double duty).
7. Finally, include a simple, step-by-step process of reloading. Assume you have ONE expended .45 ACP and .308 Win cartridge casing, and take it from there. Avoid jargon. (“Now ream out the casing” is meaningless, for example, unless a description of the tools and action is included.)
I responded almost immediately, and waited for Kim’s post. I waited a couple of weeks, then dropped him an email asking if he was going to carry through, and got no response. Now that it’s been over a month, I thought I’d go ahead and post my response for your review. You can tell me if I was overcomplicated.
Without further ado, Reloading 101:
I started off dirt cheap, and until recently still used the original press I purchased in 1987. Here are my recommendations:
Beginner’s press kit:
Lee Anniversary kit – $89.99
Includes powder measure (not a great one, but it functions), priming tool with (most) shell holders, scale (again, not great, but functional), and a reloading manual.
.38/357 Lee Carbide – $30.99
.45ACP Lee Carbide – $21.99
.30 Luger Lee Steel – $20.99
.22-250 Lee Deluxe 3-die – $24.99
.243 Lee Deluxe 3-die – $24.99
.308 Lee Deluxe 3-die – $24.99
.30-06 Lee Deluxe 3-die – $24.99
.30 Carbine Lee Carbide – $30.79
Hornady One-Shot – $6.99
6″ steel dial caliper – $25.99
I’d recommend case gauges, but this is sufficient for a beginner who doesn’t load large quantities.
Hornady universal 50-round – $4.79
Reloading manual (in addition to the Lee that comes with the press – two manuals are a MINIMUM)
Speer Reloading Manual #14 – $26.99
IMR 4064 – $18.99/lb
Use this for .22-250, .243, .308, & .30-06 – 30 Carbine is more of a pistol cartridge.
.38/.357, & .30 Carbine: Winchester 296 – $17.99/lb
.45ACP, .30 Luger: Winchester 231 – $17.49/lb
CCI Small Pistol (.38/.357) – $21.99/1000
CCI Large Pistol (.45ACP) – $21.49/1000
CCI Large Rifle – $22.99/1000
CCI Small Rifle (.30 Carbine) – $22.49/1000
(It looks like Midway’s getting out of the primer business – lots of “out of stock, no backorder”)
Case Cleaning & Prep:
Iosso Brass Case Cleaning kit – $14.99 (Cheaper than a tumbler)
Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner – $2.09
RCBS Chamfer and deburring tool – $13.79
Safety Glasses – $8.99
Total: Less than $550.00 not including freight, and not using the sale prices.
First, READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. Yes, I know that “real men don’t need instructions,” but seeing that you are potentially building little bombs that can blow up your gun and disfigure you for life (or kill you if you’re REALLY unlucky), RTFI! Read the instructions that come with the press, read the instructions that come with the dies, read the instructions that come with the priming tool. Read the instructions that come with the powder measure. Read the instructions in reloading manuals. READ EVERYTHING.
Familiarize yourself with all the parts. Mount the press to a STURDY surface – you don’t want it moving around too much when you start resizing .30-06 cases. If possible, have a SEPARATE surface nearby on which to place your balance scale. This isn’t imperative, but it can be helpful. Make sure whatever surface you place the scale on is LEVEL and will stay that way.
We’ll start with reloading straight-walled brass (.30 Carbine, .38/.357 and .45ACP). Because this brass does not have a significant taper nor a bottleneck, it can be resized without using lubricant as long as the resizing die has a resizing ring made of carbide or other very hard material. It is imperative, however, that the brass be CLEAN, as grit can damage the ring resulting in scored cases. The brass doesn’t have to be polished to a high sheen, it just needs to have no grit of any kind on it. This is doubly true for standard steel dies, as they are even more vulnerable to scratching.
Locate and insert the properly sized shell holder to the ram of the press – the steel rod that goes up and down as you operate the handle. Raise the ram to its full height, and screw in the resizing die until it just touches the shell holder. Lower the ram, and screw the sizing die in approximately 1 more full turn. Raise the ram back up until the shell holder presses on the die, and tighten the locking ring on the die with a wrench so it cannot back out. Lower the ram and look at the depriming pin on the resizing die. It should stick down low enough to push the primer out of the case completely. Adjust it per the instruction sheet and make sure you lock it down so that it cannot move once it’s adjusted properly.
Fill the reloading block with up to 50 clean cases. Insert the first case into the shell holder and slowly raise the ram. When the case reaches the die and begins to enter there will be significant resistance. It shouldn’t STOP, however. If it does, you need to make sure that it is fully seated in the shell holder, and not offset to one side or you will crush the mouth of the case against the bottom of the die. Operate the lever of the press to the bottom of its stroke. This will take some effort – you are, after all, squeezing metal. When it is all the way down and the ram is all the way up there MAY still be a slight gap between the top of the shell holder and the bottom of the die (that’s why you screwed the shell holder in an extra turn during setup.) You should also hear the primer pop out of its pocket. If the case stops BEFORE the handle is all the way down, the rod that carries the depriming pin is screwed in too deeply and has bottomed out in the case. Raise the operating handle and readjust the decapping rod, then size the case again (it won’t hurt it, and you’ve got to size it all the way.)
Take your first resized, decapped case and MAKE SURE IT CHAMBERS IN YOUR GUN. Drop it into all the cylinders of your revolver or make sure your automatic will close on the empty in the chamber. This is the quick-and-dirty way to make sure you’ve properly resized the case and you won’t be making fifty rounds that don’t fit anything. A better way to do this is to purchase a case gauge, but we’re attempting to start on-the-cheap, and this works just fine. If everything is copacetic, resize the rest of your cases.
Now, INSPECT the cases. What you’re looking for is any evidence of a crack at the case mouth, or a bright ring on the cartridge body near the case rim. If you’re using once-fired brass, or brass you know hasn’t been reloaded a dozen times already, you can probably skip this step, but it only takes a minute. Also, check the primer pocket. If it’s got a lot of soot in it, use the primer pocket cleaner tool to scrape it out. At this point you can use the chamfer/deburring tool to dress the inside and outside of the case mouth, but with pistol cartridges this is seldom necessary.
Remove the resizing die from the press and replace it with the expander die. It’s now time to open up the case mouth just enough to let you seat a bullet. Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on adjusting the expander die, but bear in mind that if you mangle a case it may not be correctable. Do your adjustments in small increments until there is just enough flare at the case mouth to allow you to start a bullet without fighting with it. Too much flare may prevent you from crimping the mouth properly, so getting this adjustment right is pretty important, and bear in mind that this adjustment hinges on the cases all being the same length, so if you’ve picked up range brass of unknown origin you might want to check the cases with your dial caliper and sort them by length. (And make sure they’re within SAMMI specifications.) Otherwise, use brass of known origin, or invest in a case trimmer when you can afford one. Once again, once the die is properly adjusted, LOCK IT DOWN so it can’t come loose. Run all the cases through the expander. (They probably won’t chamber now, so don’t bother to try it.)
Now it’s time to prime the cases. These are little explosives, so WEAR EYE PROTECTION. The kit I recommended includes Lee’s AutoPrime tool, which I like a lot. Again, read the instructions and set the tool up for the proper size primer for your caliber. The .38/357 and .30 Carbine use a small primer, .45ACP uses a large primer. The .30 Carbine uses a rifle primer, and yes, there’s a difference. Select the correct primer for your cartridge and PAY ATTENTION because, while they are the same size, rifle and pistol primers differ in hardness and power. I like the AutoPrime because I can easily dump 50 primers onto the tray directly from the primer box. Then by gently shaking the primer tray the primers will all “flip” until they are oriented correctly with the cup facing up. Place the correct shell holder in the AutoPrime before you do this. The shell holder for the AutoPrime is different from the shell holder for the press, but it bears the same size number. Once you have fifty primers properly oriented on the tray, put the clear cover in place, grip the handle so that the operating lever is fully depressed, and move the tool at an angle that will cause the primers to slide down toward the shell holder. Insert the first case into the shell holder, release the lever, give the tool a gentle shake to drop a primer into place, and then squeeze the grip. You should feel the primer hit the primer pocket, and then resistance as it slides into the hole. It is not necessary to squeeze like a gorilla, but a firm grip is necessary. The primer tool handle should move through almost its full range of travel before the primer bottoms out in the pocket. Relax your grip on the lever, but don’t let it open all the way, and extract the primed case. Examine the case. The primer should be seated so that the cup is just below flush with the case head. Run your finger over the case to be sure – the calibrated finger pad Mk. 1 works really well for this. If it is not, put it back in the tool and give it a little more grunt. You don’t want to try to seat another primer on top of the first, which is why I said to not let the lever go all the way open. Once you have a feel for just how far the lever needs to travel, you won’t have to do the visual inspection again. Finish priming the rest of the cases.
If you have a case where the primer went in with suspicious ease, you may want to discard that case, or at least mark it with a permanent marker so you don’t load it again. It has been shot too many times or overloaded so that the primer pocket has expanded. This is much less likely to happen if you use brass that you know the history of. Picking up brass off the ground at the range means having no clue what the yahoo before you did with it. Inspecting such brass for signs of overpressure (like a primer that has flowed out of the pocket) and discarding beforehand is strongly recommended.
Once you’ve resized, decapped, expanded and primed fifty cases, you should be ready for a break. I know I was the first time. WASH YOUR HANDS, kick back, have a drink (non-alcoholic!) or even take a day off. They’ll wait.
Charging the case and seating a bullet is next. Many reloaders charge all their cases and then seat all the bullets. I don’t. I charge each case and seat a bullet before moving on to the next case. Why? For me there’s a lower risk of screwing up that way. Time to set up your scale. Again, the scale needs to be on a level surface. Read and understand the instructions for your particular scale. Set it up and adjust it per those instructions so that it reads 0 grains when the powder pan is sitting in the scale. Check your loadbooks. Check them TWICE. Pick a good starting load, not the one marked MAX. Pull out your powder of choice. VERIFY that you pulled the right cannister (don’t, for example, confuse Winchester 231 and Winchester 296 just because they are in VERY similar packages.)
Now there are two ways to throw a powder charge. You can use the Lee dippers (which I do NOT recommend) or you can use the powder measure that came with the press. Bear in mind, it’s a pretty cheap measure and not likely to throw really accurate, consistent charges, so you’ve got a couple of options I’ll get to in a minute. Set up the powder measure close to the scale and follow the instructions to adjust it. This basically consists of closing down the adjustment to its minimum, pouring powder into the hopper, and then operating the handle to dispense powder into the powder pan. Place the pan on the scale, check the weight, and adjust the measure. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you’re at or near the weight you want. It is very important when operating the powder measure to do it the exact same way every time. You want the powder to fill the chamber just-so on each successive attempt so that the variation in weight is minimized. Here are your two choices: live with the variation that will inevitably occur (and, depending on the powder you use and the measure you have, it can be significant) or weigh each individual charge and – by hand – adjust the charge weight. Using a ball powder like Win 231 or 296 the variation is usually small, but on flake and especially on extruded stick powders like IMR 4064, it can be more significant. The variation is more important when the charge weight is small, as it is in handgun cartridges than in rifle cartridges where a +/- 0.2 grain difference isn’t all that much compared to a charge weight of 47 grains. If you want to individually weigh the charges, use a small bowl with some powder in it and one of the Lee powder dippers to add or remove powder from the scale pan. This is quite tedious, and probably the biggest PITA when it comes to reloading, especially if you’re interested in tack-driving accuracy. If you’re building “blasting ammo,” pick a charge weight that is safe +/- a half grain, make sure your scale will throw charges within that accuracy range, and reload.
I STRONGLY RECOMMEND checking the charge weight every tenth round or so to make sure the powder measure has not gone out of adjustment if you go that route.
Once your powder measure is adjusted, you can throw a charge directly into the case mouth from the measure (probably, depending on the measure’s design) or place the funnel over the case mouth and throw the charge into the funnel. Once the powder is in the case, look to see how full the case is. NOTE THIS. On some cases it is possible to throw a double-charge, or put twice as much powder in as you intended to, if you are not being careful. Cases like the .38 and the .357 Magnum are good examples. The .38 was originally a black-powder round. Smokeless powder takes up much less space. This is one reason why I charge the case and then seat a bullet immediately. It greatly reduces the possibility of making this error.
Now it is time to set up the bullet seating die. If you’re using a bullet with a cannelure (a groove around the bullet that the case mouth is supposed to be crimped into) then setting up the die is pretty simple. If it does not (like a .45 hardball bullet) then you need to know what the overall cartridge length should be, and you will need to use your dial caliper to measure the finished cartridge as you adjust the die. Place an empty, primed, expanded case in the press and raise the ram to its full height. Take the seating die and unscrew the seating stem until it is almost all the way out. Screw the die into the press until you feel it touch the case. Back it out about half a turn and lock it down. Now, take the case out of the press, charge the case with powder and start a bullet into it. Place the case in the press (don’t let the bullet fall sideways) and raise the ram SLOWLY. You should be able to put it all or almost all the way up before the seating stem hits the bullet. If it does go all the way up, hold it there and screw the seating stem down until it touches the bullet. Lower the cartridge, screw the seating stem down a little bit, and raise the ram to press the bullet into the case. Again, do this carefully and in small increments. Either observe the cannelure or use your dial caliper to measure the overall cartridge length (you want it a little shorter than maximum) until the stem is adjusted properly for your bullet. Lock the stem down once it’s adjusted properly. You’re ready to rock. Charge a case, start a bullet, seat the bullet. Repeat until you’ve done them all.
You’re still not finished.
You need to crimp the case. The Lee die sets come with a “factory crimp” die. Follow the instructions and you’ll get a good crimp. If you’re using someone else’s dies, the seating die usually will also be the crimping die. The body of the die will either roll or taper crimp the case. It’s possible to do the seating and crimping as a single step, but I don’t advise it. It’s harder to set up, and you run the risk of screwing up your first couple of cartridges if you don’t get it right during the adjustment phase.
Once all your cartridges are crimped, you’re done. There, wasn’t that easy?
Now let’s do bottleneck cases! (Don’t groan!)
Actually, bottleneck cases are a lot easier, with fewer steps, but there is one additional thing that has to be done: case lubing.
Put your fifty cases in the loading block, neck up. Put your resizing die and the proper shell holder in the press and adjust as directed above (this part is no different from resizing straight-wall cases.) Again, it is very important that the cases be CLEAN. Once the die is properly adjusted, take your can of Hornady One-Shot and shake thoroughly. Spray the cases from above at about a 45 degree angle so that the spray can get into the case neck. Spray one side, making sure you get all the rows. Don’t skimp on the ones on the corners of the loading block. Turn the block 180 degrees and spray the other side of the cases. Let them sit for a minute and dry. If you’ve done it properly, each case should have a nice very thin greasy coating of case lube. More is better than less, but there is such a thing as “too much.” A little practice and you’ll know the difference. Now, resize just as you would a pistol case. Note, it will take more effort because there’s a lot more case to squeeze down, but it shouldn’t require Aaahnold’s biceps to operate the press. If it does, you didn’t use enough lube. If you REALLY didn’t use enough lube, you will get a case stuck in the die. We won’t be going there in this little tutorial, so USE ENOUGH LUBE. This is why I recommend Hornady One-Shot. It’s hard to use too much. Not impossible, just hard.
Now, when you lower the ram you will feel it want to “stick” partway down. This is the expander ball being drawn through the case neck. This die does three functions: it resizes the case, decaps the primer AND it expands the case neck for a new bullet. Rifle case mouths don’t get a “flare” like pistol case mouths do. Once the case is sized and decapped, wipe it clean with a rag or a paper towel to get the lube off. Again, PUT THE FIRST CASE IN YOUR GUN TO MAKE SURE IT WILL CHAMBER. Either that, or buy a case gauge. Once the cases area all resized, INSPECT THEM for cracks, dimples, and that bright ring near the base that indicates incipient case head separation. Little dimples are not a major worry. BIG dimples mean “throw it away, you used too much lube!” Clean the primer pocket if necessary.
Priming a rifle case is identical to priming a pistol case. Select the proper tool size, get out the right primers, and go to work. Verify that you’re seating them to the proper depth. If you’re loading for a semi-auto, a high primer can contribute to a slam-fire, and you can blow up your gun that way so PAY ATTENTION. Once the cases are all primed, it’s time to charge the case with powder and seat a bullet. The instructions are exactly the same. It’s much harder to double-charge a rifle case, but it is possible to accidentally use a pistol powder instead of a rifle powder, and again, you can blow up your gun that way so PAY ATTENTION. It may be a bit more difficult to start a rifle bullet into the case because the case mouth doesn’t get flared. There are a couple of things you can do to make it easier. First, boat-tailed bullets are very easy to get started in a rifle case, so I recommend them if you’re willing to spend a little more money. Or, you can use the cone-shaped end of the chamfer/deburring tool to cut a bevel on the inside of the case neck so that the bottom of a flat-base bullet can start easier. Or, you can just push hard. Set up the powder measure and scale as previously described and charge a case. Set up the seating die as described and seat a bullet. Verify the overall length. Lock the die down and repeat until complete. If you really feel it necessary you can crimp your rifle cases. In most situations, I do not. Unless you’re reloading for a tubular magazine rifle, or your gun is chambered in an überthumper caliber, crimping is not (in my humble opinion) really required. Again, Lee makes a “Factory Crimp” die for most calibers that works quite well.
Please, use eye protection. Don’t eat or smoke while reloading. Don’t reload when you’re tired or in a hurry, and don’t let yourself be distracted. Wash up afterward. The residue from fired cartridges and from new bullets doesn’t contain much lead, but lead is a cumulative poison. It’s easy to wash it off. It’s not easy to get out of your system.
One note about my recommendations. A lot of people hate Lee reloading equipment. Personally, I think they’re equipment snobs. No, Lee does not make top-of-the-line stuff, but this request was not for top-of-the-line stuff – it was for someone trying to get into reloading on a tight budget to make practice ammo. Lee is absolutely fine for that, and a lot less money than RCBS or Hornady or Big Blue (and I love Dillon). Lee die sets come with the correct shell holder so you don’t have to purchase it separately. In addition, I love Lee’s collet neck-sizing dies. If you’re loading for a bolt-action rifle and you’ve only got one in any particular caliber, then neck-sizing is for you! The Lee collet die works beautifully, and without case lube. The “Factory Crimp” dies work as advertised, too. I have RCBS or Hornady dies for most of my rifle calibers, but I’ve got a Lee Collet neck-sizing die for every bolt-action caliber I own. I have a Dillon Square-Deal B press set up for .45ACP and an RL-450 for everything else, but I’m currently considering setting up my old Lee Challenger “O” press again for those jobs where a single-stage press is the right tool for the job.