Reloading metallic cartridges is a useful and economic hobby for an enormous number of shooters. In many instances, reloading is done to save money or to have available ammunition for firearms for which factory ammunition is not available. In others, it is done to obtain the greatest accuracy for a particular firearm. In a worst-case scenario, reloading may be the only way to get ammunition for your firearms if you do not have an adequate supply on hand when a desperate situation arises.
This introduction to reloading is intended for shooters who have little experience in that venture, but who want to be able to load when necessary. Consequently, the emphasis will be on using elementary, but adequate, equipment and methods. Loading ammunition is neither difficult nor unsafe if care is taken during the process.
The Metallic Cartridge
A metallic cartridge consists of four components: a primer, powder, bullet, and a brass case to contain the other items. The case is, of course, the only component that can be reused, but it is the most expensive part. To load a cartridge, appropriate primers and powders for different types of cartridges must be selected for the particular cartridge being loaded.
Before a cartridge case can be reloaded, there are some operations to be performed on it. First, the spent primer must be removed and the case be restored to approximate dimensions of an unfired case. These operations are performed simultaneously by a sizing die that contains a punch on the end of a spindle. When the case is forced in the die, which has very accurate internal dimensions appropriate to the caliber, the case is reformed and the punch forces out the spent primer.
Resizing strong brass cases by forcing them into a die requires some type of press be employed. The case is placed in a shell holder that fits the base of the case and moving the press handle forces the case into the die. A lubricant is applied to the case before it is resized to make the operation easier. In order to be able to insert a bullet into the case mouth, the internal diameter of the case neck must be made to correspond to the diameter of the bullet. When the case is forced into the sizing die, the neck is reduced to a smaller diameter than that of the bullet, but as the case is withdrawn, a spindle is pulled out of the case, which expands the neck so it has the correct internal diameter.
In the case of handgun cartridges that do not utilize necked cases, a different procedure is necessary. After the case is restored to the correct external dimensions by the sizing die, a separate die is used to expand the case mouth so a bullet can be seated. The expander die contains a punch that has a diameter that corresponds to the caliber of the bullet to be used and it also has a shoulder that flares the case mouth slightly so the bullet can be inserted slightly in the case before it is actually seated to depth.
Cases that are too long cause can cause problems as a result of the neck not being able to expand at the front of the chamber. Therefore, you will need an inexpensive caliper to measure the lengths of both the cases and loaded cartridges. Case trimmers are available, but it is a simple matter to reduce the length of a case by a few thousands of an inch by use of a flat file. Be sure to move the file directly across the case mouth with a motion that is perpendicular to the axis of the case and measure often to make sure that the case is not made too short.
With either the use of a case trimmer or a file, a bead or rough edge of brass is formed on the case mouth. This can be removed with a small tool that has an outside cutting edge on one end and an inside cutter on the other. The inside rough edge can also be removed with a countersink.
Before a new primer is seated, the residue inside the primer pocket should be removed. As with most reloading operations, a special tool is available for this purpose, but a small blade screwdriver works well. I have also used a Dremel tool with small wire brush. I like beautiful ammo so I clean the cases before reloading them. Normally, I use a case tumbler to clean the outside and an ultrasonic bath to clean the inside. If the cases are dirty, washing with detergent in warm water can help, but be sure they are dry before continuing the loading process. Although I use cleaning equipment, there are other ways to get bright brass. Rubbing the outside of the case with 0000-grade steel wool will produce a nice surface on the case. After that, I use a brass polish known as Mr. Metal. Under desperate conditions, cleaning of cases may be eliminated.
Priming the Case
The spark plug in a cartridge is the primer that contains a material that explodes when the primer is hit by the firing pin. Primers come in types known as small rifle, small pistol, large rifle and large pistol. Although one would not confuse the sizes of primers, it is imperative to use the correct type. Rifle primers contain more of the explosive material because rifle cartridges normally contain much more powder, which requires more “fire” to ignite the charge. The primer is seated in the case by means of a punch that pushes it into the primer pocket. Most reloading presses come with a primer arm that is used for this purpose, but small squeeze-type tools operated by hand are also available.
Adding the Powder
Now that a primed case of correct dimensions has been prepared, the next step is to load powder into the case. The correct powder charge must be determined with consultation of standard loading manuals. This is no time to experiment or explore the fringes. After the amount of powder to be used has been determined, a measure is employed to dispense powder by volume or a scale is used to weigh the charge.
In either case, an inexpensive scale should be used to check the charge if it has been dispensed by volume. When I load ammunition, I always insert a bullet in the mouth of the case after adding powder so there will be no possibility of getting two charges in the case. Just recently, I heard of a chap who blew up his Kimber 45 Auto. Whether it was from multiple charges in a case or using the wrong powder I do not know, but I would wager it was from one of those errors.
Powders have greatly different burning rates and those utilized in rifle cartridges generally have slower burning rates than those used in handgun ammunition. Unless your loading is always going to be for a single firearm you will probably need more than one type. For use in desperate times, I would select a couple of powders that are useful in several rifle calibers and do the same for handgun loading. For example, loading data can be found for powders such as IMR 3031, Winchester 748, Hodgdon 335, and Alliant Reloder 17 in a wide range of rifle calibers. In a similar way, Alliant Unique, Hodgdon CFE Pistol, Winchester Auto Comp, and Accurate No. 5 are some of the most widely used handgun powders. Whatever type you choose, use the data found in reliable loading manuals.
Having prepared, primed, and charged the cases, the final operation is to seat the bullets. A special seating die is used that not only pushes the bullet into the case, but also crimps it in place is used for this purpose. However, these steps should not be performed at the same time. By adjusting the bullet seating screw, the bullet can be pushed into the case to give the cartridge the desired overall length. Crimping the bullet is done in a separate step.
The bullet is either started in the case mouth manually or else placed on the case mouth. The case is forced into the seating die to insert the bullet in the case. The seating die contains a punch with a recess that should match the shape of the bullet being seated. In this way, the bullet is not deformed as it is pushed into the case. To seat the bullet, the die should be screwed into the press only partway. As the press handle is operated, the bullet seating screw makes contact with the nose of the bullet to push it into the case, but the crimping shoulder inside the die does not make contact with the case. After the bullet has been inserted in the case, the desired distance, the seating punch is backed out of the die and the die screwed into the press a sufficient distance so that operating the press forces the case mouth against the crimping shoulder in the die. This produces the finishing roll crimp on the case mouth. A taper crimp is used for straight-walled cases used in auto-loading handguns, but the processes are the same.
Reloading ammunition can be carried out with a minimum of equipment, but the finished products perform just as well as the factory products. Moreover, reloading may be the only way to obtain ammunition when you need it most.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.