The Ultimate Guide to Handloading & Reloading Ammunition

Reloading Ammunition

I’ve always been fascinated by firearms and shooting sports. There’s just something magical about the precision, craftsmanship, and engineering that goes into making firearms and ammunition. So when a buddy of mine first told me about handloading or reloading ammunition, I was immediately intrigued. But first, we must get the legal stuff out of the way because this can be very dangerous if done incorrectly!

Disclaimer: Reloading ammunition and handloading cartridges involves working with hazardous materials and specialized equipment. Appropriate safety precautions, training, and supervision should always be utilized. The author provides information in this article for entertainment purposes only. Any reader choosing to engage in reloading activities does so at their own risk and assumes all liability for their actions. Always follow manufacturer-provided reloading data and warnings. Certain activities described may violate local laws or regulations.

What is handloading? Essentially, it’s the process of assembling your own ammunition from scratch using new or recycled components. Instead of buying ready-made factory rounds, you get to craft each cartridge yourself and fine-tune it for your specific firearm.

After doing some research on handloading, I realized there were two big reasons I wanted to get into this hobby:

  1. Cost savings – Buying factory ammo can get expensive, especially for higher-end match-grade rounds. Reloading allows you to reuse brass cases and buy components like bullets and powder in bulk to save money.
  2. Customization – With handloading, you can craft rounds tailored specifically for your gun. Tweak the powder charge, seating depth, and other variables to maximize accuracy from your rifle or pistol.

Once I decided to take the leap, I knew this beginner’s guide to handloading would be helpful for others looking to get started. I’ll walk you through everything I’ve learned so far on my journey into the world of reloading. Let’s start by going over the basic components that make up a round.

Anatomy of a Cartridge

When you reload ammunition, it helps to understand the different parts that make up each cartridge. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Case – The metal cylinder that holds all the other components together. Usually made of brass, but can also be steel or aluminum.
  • Primer – A small explosive charge located at the base of the case. When struck by the firing pin, it ignites the powder.
  • Propellant (Gunpowder) – Burns rapidly when ignited by the primer. The resulting gas expansion propels the bullet forward.
  • Bullet – The projectile portion of the cartridge, usually made of lead with a copper jacket. Comes in many shapes/weights.

Once fired, the case can be reused if properly cleaned and inspected. The primer, powder, and bullet are replaced with each reload.

Now let’s look at the essential equipment you’ll need.

Gearing Up: Required Reloading Tools

To start churning out your own ammo, you’ll need some specialized gear. Here are the key tools for any beginner’s handloading setup:


Reloading Press

This is the heart of your equipment. The press will hold the dies that resize/shape cases, seat bullets, and more. I started with a simple single stage press which handles one round at a time. More advanced options include:

  • Turret Press – Holds multiple dies to speed up the process.
  • Progressive Press – Automates multiple reloading steps at once for high-volume output.

Dies and Shell Holders

Dies screw into the press and carry out specific functions like resizing cases or seating bullets. You’ll need a die set specifically for the caliber you are loading.

Shell holders secure the case in place while dies do their work. Make sure to get the right holder for your caliber.

Powder Scale

Carefully measuring powder charges is crucial for accuracy and safety. You’ll need a precise digital scale designed for reloading. I use the Hornady  scale which has been great.

Priming Tool

A good priming tool helps seat new primers safely and consistently. Options include:

  • Hand Priming Tools – Uses a lever to seat primers in the case one by one.
  • Automatic Priming Tools – Designed for bulk priming cases. Great for high-volume shooters.

Calipers

Digital or dial calipers are used to precisely measure case lengths and overall cartridge dimensions. This helps ensure proper fit in your firearm’s chamber.

Reloading Manual

Manuals provide load data with recommended powder charges, seating depths, and other key info. I suggest getting a manual from each major bullet and powder manufacturer.

With the basics covered, let’s move on to safety tips for handling powder and primers.

Handling Energetic Materials: Safety First

Reloading gun ammunition means working with explosive primers and flammable powders. Caution should always be exercised to prevent accidents or injury. Here are some key safety tips:

  • Wear eye protection when reloading to guard against debris.
  • Only work in a clean, well-ventilated area away from ignition sources.
  • Store powder and primers in separate locations outside of living areas.
  • Limit your powder on hand to 1-2 lbs. Excess powder increases risk.
  • Handle primers individually with tweezers or a tray. Don’t work directly over loose primers.
  • Dispose of spilled powder carefully. Do not attempt to salvage.
  • If using smokeless powder, ground yourself frequently with an anti-static mat.
  • Never mix or substitute powders from what is specified in the loading data.

Adhering to these precautions will help ensure you reload safely. Now we can dive into the step-by-step process.

Walkthrough: Reloading From Start To Finish

Alright, time for a complete walkthrough of the reloading process from start to finish! Here are the steps:

1. Case Prep

Each case must be cleaned and inspected before reloading. Look for:

  • Cracks/splits
  • Excessive swelling around base
  • Corrosion

Discard any damaged cases. Next, wash cases to remove residue. A vibratory tumbler with media makes quick work of large batches.

Once clean, lubricate the cases lightly with a reloading spray. This helps the resizing die operate smoothly.

2. Resizing and Decapping

Mount the resizing/decapping die in your press. Adjust it to the proper specifications for the caliber. Cases are inserted into the die and squeezed down to the correct dimensions. This resizing also pushes out the spent primer.

Lube your cases and run them through the die one by one. The press handle will take some effort to stroke. Don’t hesitate to decap a second time if needed to ensure primers are knocked free.

3. Case Trimming

Depending on the caliber, you may need to trim the case length back to the proper specification. Case length directly impacts headspace and chamber fit.

Trim each case with a cutting tool specific to the caliber. Chamfer and deburr the case mouth after trimming for a smooth finish.

4. Priming

Time to insert new primers into those decapped cases!

Make sure your work area is free of clutter, excess powder, etc. Wear safety glasses.

I prime using the RCBS Hand Priming Tool. With each stroke of the handle, it inserts a new primer I have placed in the tray. Other options work well too.

Seat primers fully until flush with the base. Uneven depth can cause ignition issues.

5. Powder Charging

Here’s where that precise powder scale comes in. Referencing a load manual, I carefully measure out the desired charge weight into each case.

A powder trickler makes it easy to fine-tune each charge to the exact weight specified.

I find it helpful to do batches of 10-20 cases at a time to keep the process moving efficiently.

6. Bullet Seating

The seating die presses the bullet into the charged case at the desired depth in the neck. Adjust your die so the seated bullet aligns with spec data.

Too deep risks pressure spikes from reduced internal volume. Too shallow can cause feeding problems.

I like to seat a few test rounds first before doing a full batch. This dialed-in die setting helps ensure consistent seating.

7. Crimp (Optional)

For semi-auto firearms, a final crimping step may be needed. This uses a separate die to squeeze the case mouth tightly against the bullet base.

This prevents the bullet from shifting deeper under recoil during cycling. It also provides reliable feeding from magazines.

And that covers the full reloading process end-to-end! Next I’ll go over some quality testing tips.

Quality Control: Inspect, Measure, Test

To guarantee your handloads perform safely and as intended, rigorous quality control testing is a must. Here are some proven techniques:

Visual Inspection

Look over each round carefully for any flaws:

  • Damaged cases
  • Improper primer seating depth
  • Inconsistent powder charges
  • Misaligned bullets

Cartridge Measurements

Use calipers to verify critical dimensions:

  • Case length
  • Overall loaded length
  • Bullet seating depth

Chamber Testing

Test fit some rounds in your firearm’s chamber to check function and fit. Watch for any issues with feeding or extraction.

Velocity Testing

Use a chronograph to measure muzzle velocity. This verifies your loads stay within safe limits and match expected performance.

Meticulous inspection and testing are crucial to handloading quality ammunition. Now let’s go over some troubleshooting tips.

Troubleshooting Guide: Diagnosing Reloading Issues

No process is perfect, so expect the occasional hiccup when reloading. Here are some common issues and fixes:

Problem: Crushed or damaged cases

Solution: Loosen the sizing die tension slightly. Lube cases more liberally before sizing.

Problem: Failures to extract after sizing

Solution: Cases may be undersized. Bump up the sizing die adjustment in small increments.

Problem: Rounded case necks

Solution: Replace the neck resizing die bushing with the proper sized one for the caliber.

Problem: Inconsistent powder charging

Solution: Check scale calibration and operation. Use a powder trickier for precision charges.

Problem: High/low muzzle velocities

Solution: Remeasure powder charges closely and compare them to manual data.

Problem: Failure to chamber fully

Solution: Re-trim case length or adjust bullet seating depth as needed.

Careful process refinement and component inspection will help resolve many issues. Still, have questions? Keep reading for more tips.

Handy Tips and Final Thoughts

Here are some final pointers to help you master handloading:

  • Meticulously clean cases before reloading for smooth operation. Consider a vibratory tumbler.
  • Label your ammo! Masking tape on box lids lets you ID loads at a glance.
  • A reloading block helps hold multiple cases securely for efficient processing.
  • Sort brass by headstamp for consistent case volume and improved accuracy.
  • Store powders in their original containers to avoid any mixups.
  • Double-check your data! Refer back to manuals to verify powder type/charge at each step.
  • Take detailed notes on your loads and results to aid in perfecting your handloads.

Handloading ammunition has been an incredibly rewarding hobby for me so far. I love experimenting with new cartridge designs and tailoring loads to get the best accuracy from my rifles. Plus, it feels great to shoot ammunition I crafted myself!

The learning curve is part of the fun. Start with trusted load data and focus on developing consistent reloading habits. With some practice, you’ll be churning out precise handloads in no time. Hopefully, this beginner’s guide gives you a solid foundation to start your own reloading journey. Let me know if you have any other questions. Happy handloading!

And one more time:

Disclaimer: Reloading ammunition and handloading cartridges involves working with hazardous materials and specialized equipment. Appropriate safety precautions, training, and supervision should always be utilized. The author provides information in this article for entertainment purposes only. Any reader choosing to engage in reloading activities does so at their own risk and assumes all liability for their actions. Always follow manufacturer-provided reloading data and warnings. Certain activities described may violate local laws or regulations.

Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.

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