By Mark V. Lonsdale
Warning: Hand loading ammunition is a potentially dangerous activity that requires serious consideration, training, and attention to detail. It becomes even more dangerous if the individual is inattentive, drunk, or easily distracted.
It cannot be overemphasized that, for someone getting into reloading, SAFETY is #1. Lack of common sense or fundamental knowledge can lead to dangers not only on the loading bench but also on the range. A not uncommon error is double charging a cartridge which can literally turn a gun into a hand grenade. Another danger is not loading any powder into a cartridge so that the primer alone pushes the bullet into the barrel but not out the other end. So if a second round is fired, the barrel can rupture with disastrous results for not only the shooter but also bystanders. Just Google “exploding guns” and you will see the results.
Lesson Learned: Take reloading seriously!
Individuals get involved in reloading for one of two reasons, economy or accuracy. For some, it can be both. When I was a competitive IPSC/USPSA shooter, I was shooting 200-400 rounds per day of .45 ACP so began reloading for cost and consistency. At that time, no one made factory 200 grain H&G ammunition, plus I was able to adjust my loads to make power factor. At the same time I was also shooting high powered rifle and sniper matches, so hand loaded .308 Win and 300 WinMag for accuracy, knowing that even the best factory match ammo was not as accurate as my own reloads. To this day, I hand load primarily for accuracy and continue to experiment with bullets, powders, and primers to find optimum loads for long range shooting.
So the first decision for the aspiring hand loader is economy or accuracy, since the equipment and requirements are quite different. If you are loading for cost and quantity then you will probably go with a progressive press that can crank out 600 to 1,000 rounds per hour. These are usually the 9mm and .45 ACP pistol shooters and .223 Rem AR shooters who are shooting hundreds or even thousands of rounds per month.
For the precision rifle shooters, the question becomes, “how much precision?” A shooter banging 2+ MOA steel plates does not need the same level of precision as a benchrest shooter looking for one-hole groups, or F-Class Open competitor shooting 5-inch X-rings at 1,000 yards. Similarly, PRS shooters may be shooting 250+ rounds per event, while F-Class and F-TR only shoot 60-70 rounds. So the higher volume shooters may opt for progressive presses and powder throwers, while the hard core precision shooters, seeking ultimate accuracy, will opt for a single stage press and hand weighing every load.
Low budget loading bench for rifle reloading set up with a single stage RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme. From left to right – powered chamfer and deburring tool, loading block and funnel, powder measure, scales and trickler, press with dies, primer press.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the shooter who is new to medium or long range rifle shooting but does not want to commit the many thousands of dollars necessary to be competitive on the national stage. This is the average guy or gal who has $1,500 invested in the rifle and scope but is interested in better accuracy than factory ammo plus a cost saving. Keep in mind that there are only a few calibers that have factory match-grade ammunition, such as .308 Win. .223 Rem, and 6.5 Creedmoor. All the others have a plethora of hunting ammo but not precision match ammo.
To expand on the cost saving, if you already have a good supply of once fired brass, then you can reload for about 50 cents a round – most of that being the cost of the bullets. This is at least half what you would pay for a box of 20 factory rounds, and even more for premium hunting ammo. But this does not include the initial outlay for the reloading equipment. An RCBS starter package with all the basics and a single stage press runs around $350. This includes press, scales, powder measure, priming tool, primer flipper, lube pad, chamfering tool, funnel, loading block, and a manual, but no dies. A progressive press alone could be twice that.
There is also a significant price difference between a basic entry level RCBS reloading die set ($40-$70) and Redding match-grade dies, bushing dies, and seating dies with micrometer adjustment ($180-$280).
Left: Redding 308 Win match-grade dies; Right: 308 dies alongside Whidden .375 CT dies for ELR shooting
If you are getting into extreme long range shooting (ELR) then you will definitely want to hand load for both accuracy and cost savings since a box of 20 factory rounds runs upwards of $140.00. Loading .375 CT, using quality components such as Cutting Edge bullets and Peterson brass, will run around $7.00 per round, but once you start reloading the used brass then the cost goes down. There is also the added cost of custom dies which could run $400.
Left: 308 Win Peterson brass and Berger bullets. Right: .375 CT Cutting Edge bullets and Peterson brass
To begin with, let’s look at the basic requirements for reloading. First is a press, and even with a single stage press, such as the Rock Chucker Supreme, a shooter can load 50 rounds in one to two hours, depending on how much case preparation he or she chooses to do. With the press, and at a minimum, you will need a sizing die that also decaps the spent primer, and a seating die to seat the new bullet. In between those two steps, case sizing and bullet seating, you will seat the new primer and load powder into the case.
A tumbler is another essential for cleaning the brass and there are several relatively inexpensive ones on the market. I tumble my fired brass before resizing so that I am not carrying dirt and carbon into my sizing dies, and then again after sizing to additionally clean up the brass and the now empty primer pocket.
Additional small hand tools that are useful for case prep include a primer pocket cleaner and a case neck chamfering tool to debur the neck mouth. A kinetic impact type bullet puller is also a handy item to have available. A powder measure and an accurate set of scales are also essentials. Keep in mind that the less expense powder measures throw by volume not weight so may throw charges a few tenths of a grain either side of the ideal charge. To correct for this, when I am hand weighing powder charges, for example 44 grains, I will set the powder measure to throw around 43.8 grains then use a powder trickler to bring it up to exactly 44 grains on the electronic scales. I than hand pour that into the case with a small funnel before seating the bullet.
Left: Electronic scale and powder trickler. Right: Manual primer press
To seat the primers, several presses include a priming accessory, but I prefer a separate primer press. This gives more control and a better feel to this critical step.
As you begin shooting your brass a number of times, it will be necessary to measure the over-all length of the brass after sizing since it will stretch. At this point it will be necessary to invest in a set of digital calipers and a case trimmer to trim the brass back to spec.
When selecting loading components, it is necessary to decide if you are loading for hunting or target shooting, and what is the optimum bullet weight for your rifle. Faster twist barrels favor heavier bullets and slower twist the lighter bullets. For example, the .308 Win 150 and 168 grains fly well out of a 1:12 or 1:11 twist barrel, while 185s and 190s prefer a 1:10 twist barrel – but those are just broad examples. The preferred way to establish which bullet weight and velocity your rifle performs best with is to run your own tests on the range.
308 Win. rifle with a Bartlein 1:10 twist barrel set up for 185 grain and 200 grain Berger bullets. Atlas action, McMillan A5 stock, Nightforce ATACR scope
The next step, before beginning reloading, is the most important – educate yourself on reloading procedures and safety. The general recommendation is to get a good reloading manual from the likes of Sierra or Berger and study all the early chapters. Then go to the individual caliber that you are shooting and look up the bullet weight and load recommendations with various powders. To simplify matters, seek advice from someone who is an accomplished reloader and is shooting the same caliber as you.
The other alternative is to go on line to review the myriad of videos on YouTube. Look for the ones from reputable professionals in the industry, not just Joe Schmo in his basement.
The next step is to come up with a routine for your reloading. This is important for quality, consistency, and safety. Accuracy is the product of uniformity and consistency, so you need to be doing the same thing every time. This will also prevent missing a critical step. My preference is to do everything in batches of 100 cases, all the same brand and same number of firings (1x, 2x, 3x, etc.)
The following is a simplified loading procedure for a beginner, without getting into all the additional steps used by high level competitive shooters.
- Sort, select and tumble 100 cases. If you are using new cases such as Peterson or Lapua then the first 3 steps are not necessary.
- Lube, full length size, and decap 100 cases
- Tumble again to remove case lube and clean primer pockets
- Inspect cases, check primer pockets, and chamfer necks
- Prime 100 cases
- Set and adjust the seating die into the press
- Set powder scale for desired load
- Throw or hand weigh loads into 10 cases then seat bullets for 10 rounds
- Repeat loading 10 cases at a time until all 100 are loaded
- Place loaded rounds in a plastic ammo box and label with bullet, powder weight, and COAL
Loading powder into ten cases at a time and then seating the bullet
The additional steps common to higher levels of precision reloading include weighing cases and projectiles into batches; turning the necks, annealing, and checking for wall thickness and concentricity. While these are important at the national level, they are not essential for just cranking out ammunition that will consistently go sub-MOA, provided you are using quality components and are diligent in the basics.
A few Safety Tips:
- Organize your reloading bench in a clean, safe environment away from any naked flames or small children
- Don’t accidentally mix components for various calibers. Put all the powders and primers from one caliber away, before beginning with a new caliber
- Don’t get distracted when reloading. There is too much risk of throwing a double charge or no charge at all, resulting in the risk of bursting the chamber or a bullet being lodged in the barrel
- Wear safety glasses when dealing with powders and primers, especially when seating primers
- Don’t force anything. If you have to force it, you are probably doing it wrong
- Be patient, methodical, and take your time to do it right
- Carefully inspect all your brass after cleaning and before loading for any deformities or cracks. If in doubt, throw it out
- Keep written records of the number of times you have reloaded each batch of brass, the powder charges used, and the cartridge over all lengths (COAL). You will also want to track the muzzle velocities and relative accuracy of each load for future reference
- Start at the lower recommended loads and work your way up. Do not start at the max recommended powder charge
- Clearly label your ammo boxes with the bullet weight and powder charge – for example, 185 grain Berger Juggernauts, 44 grains of Varget, COAL 3.030”
.308 Win. on left, .375 CT on right. The larger case volume of ELR calibers use three times as much powder as the more conventional cartridges, and even more for the 50 BMG shooters.
Final word of advice, talk to other shooters who are competent reloaders. You will find they are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience. And don’t think of reloading as a chore. You will actually come to enjoy the process of making your own ammo and seeing the improved results on the target.
Stay tuned for the next installment