At one time or another, most gun owners and hunters begin to wonder if they should start reloading their own ammunition. It is certainly a tempting proposition, particularly for those of us that like to shoot on a somewhat regular basis. The idea of saving a little money certainly adds to that temptation. In some situations, reloading your own shells can save you a substantial amount of money, but the money saving aspects of reloading is probably the least important reason to take up this fascinating and intriguing hobby.
While some of my hand-loaded ammunition would have to be considered a bit on the expensive side to produce, a considerable amount is also fairly cheap to load. When I’m loading for varmint shooting, for practice, for plinking, or for clay target shooting, I attempt to load as cheaply as possible. This sometimes produces substantial savings over the cost of shells loaded by the factory.
I won’t get into the actual mechanics of reloading here, but I want to provide you with enough information so you can determine whether hand-loading your own ammunitions is something you should pursue or not.
As I alluded to earlier, no one should base such a commitment solely on a cost savings basis. That would be a serious error in judgment. On the other hand, if you are looking for a way of extending your shooting enjoyment; you aren’t concerned with the amount of time the process will take; you want to produce the best possible ammunition for your shooting purposes; and you are intrigued with the mechanics of shooting, reloading may be just the new hobby you’ve been looking for.
One of the problems faced by the commercial manufacturers of ammo is that they must factor in a margin of safety with all their cartridges. All of the ammunition they produce must be able to function safely in the majority of the firearms, even if they are not in 100% new condition. This means that in some cases the factory rounds aren’t loaded to the velocity levels necessary for top performance. The factory must also seat their bullets far enough into the brass in order for the cartridge to fit virtually every magazine, even though it is common knowledge in the field of reloading that sometimes bullets seated a little further out may shoot more accurately. And lastly, never underestimate the desire by manufacturers to keep costs down to an absolute minimum. It is always a balancing act for any factory to produce a “good” product, but do so as cheaply as possible. With these objectives in mind it can sometimes mean that quality takes a back seat to monetary gain
Rifle and pistol reloading
Possibly the worst part of getting started reloading is the initial outlay of dollars. At a minimum, in order to turn out that first hand-loaded rifle or pistol cartridge you will need to purchase the following pieces of equipment:
- A reloading press
- Dies and shell holders for each caliber you intend to load
- A case trimmer to trim the brass as it stretches
- A deburring tool to take the sharp edges off the mouth of the brass after it has been trimmed
- A powder scale
- Brass length gauge or micrometer
- At least one reloading manual
- Various powders, primers, bullets and brass
As you get further into reloading you will probably want to add a few more items like:
- A bullet puller and collets, or a gravity-type bullet puller, for when you mess up a load and need to pull it apart
- A powder measurer, in order to “throw” approximate charges before they are weighed, saving you a bit of time
- A powder dribbler (also to speed up the process)
- Polisher or tumbler, for cleaning and making your brass look pretty
Sound like a lot of stuff? It is, but these costs can be defrayed over many years of reloading and shooting.
In the case of shotgun reloading, the equipment necessary isn’t as large as what is required to load for a rifle or pistol. Essentially the reloading press does it all. There are two basic types of shotgun presses: the single stage press and the progression reloader. Single stage presses are the cheapest to purchase and easiest to use. For this reason, they are an excellent choice for the beginning shotshell reloader. This style of press is a bit slower to use than the much more expensive, progression presses, but that is the only disadvantage. Even though I have loaded hundreds of thousands of rounds of shotshells, I still own two single stage presses and frequently use both of them. I find if I’m loading only a box or two of shells that my single stage presses are more convenient. Generally, I can load a 25 round box in about 15 minutes on this style of press. In most cases, unless you shoot a great deal, this is probably fast enough for most shooters.
On the other hand, if you are looking to load a lot of shells of a single kind, fast, the progression reloader is what you want. According to the factory, the one I own is supposed to be capable of turning out around 800 rounds per hour, but in reality I can only load around 500 per hour, and that is when everything goes perfectly. Progression reloaders are not really intended to load a box or two at a time. They are essentially geared to the trap and skeet shooters that will generally load several cases of shells at a sitting. Single stage presses are better suited for hunters and the occasional shooter.
One disadvantage with shotshell reloading is the difficulty of changing the dies. This process is time consuming and the costs of the dies are quite high when compared to the cost for a complete press, including one set of dies. For this reason most shooters purchase a separate press for each gauge shotgun they intend to load for.
Outside of the reloading press the only other item that you will find absolutely necessary to reload shotgun shells is a manual. In the manual you will find the recipes for the various loads. Shotshell hulls vary dramatically, making it necessary for you to precisely follow the recipes and never interchange one type of hull or other components for the ones listed.
You will have to invest in powder, primers, shot and wads, of course. And it is always a good idea to have a powder scale or balance, in order to check the weight of your charges. There are charts and tables available in many reloading manuals that will permit you to select the appropriate charge bar or bushing for a particular load, but for safety reasons I always prefer to double check these amounts with an accurate scale.
Ways of saving money
Used reloading equipment can often be found listed in the newspaper want-ads, at garage sales, at gun shows, and on Internet sites like eBay. The problem with these sources is that you have to know what you’re looking for and be able to evaluate the usability and condition of these items. While in some instances these sources may be good ones for purchasing the actual equipment necessary, you should be very skeptical of buying reloading components this way. A buyer can never be absolutely sure what they are actually buying. For example, how could you be sure a can of powder actually contains the same type of powder that the label says it does? Or whether the bullets are of the same caliber and weight as the box says? How do you know if the powder or primers haven’t become wet, rendering them ineffective? For these reasons, I would recommend that your components always be purchased from reliable sources as new products.
Buying your reloading components in large quantities through mail order houses or wholesalers will often provide substantial savings over buying small quantities through your local sporting goods store. Shipping costs can be quite high for products like powder and primers, because the shipping companies tack on an extra charge for what they consider hazardous cargo. If you do decide to order these products, you need to order in quantity in order to offset these charges. By talking with other shooters that reload their own ammunition, you can often get great advice on the best buys on components. Sometimes two or more people can go in together and place an order, and then split it. Some of the mail order houses that I frequently deal with are:
- MidwayUSA, 5875 West Van Horn Tavern Rd., Columbia, MO 65203-9274; 800-243-3220; www.midwayusa.com.
- Lock, Stock & Barrel Shooting Supply, West Hwy. 20, Drawer B, Valentine, NE 69201; 800-228-7925; www.lockstock.com.
- Precision Reloading, Inc., PO Box 122, Stafford Springs, CT 06076-0122; 800-223-0900; www.precisionreloading.com.
- Widener’s Reloading & Shooting Supply, Inc., PO Box 3009, Johnson city, TN 37602; 800-615-3006; www.wideners.com.
Another way of cutting your reloading cost is to check with local gun clubs. Many clubs sell components for a reduced rate to their members, or if they don’t, certainly the shooters will have information on where to buy at the best prices. A great way to save on your lead shot cost is to use reclaimed shot for your practice shooting. Many gun clubs actually reclaim the fired shot by periodically mining their range. It’s amazing how much lead shot can be salvaged from these sites. After mining, the shot is screened, washed and graphite is added. Because this shot has traveled down the barrel at least once previously, it won’t be perfect in appearance. Much of it will contain flat spots or slight irregularities, and chances are your pattern will be a bit more open than with brand new shot. Nevertheless, this shot will work great at short yardage and for practice. Reclaimed shot will sometimes cost about half that of new shot. Sometimes I even use reclaimed shot for the first shot while hunting. I actually think that the more open patterns works to the benefit of most shooters.
Reloading can be great fun. It’s the ultimate way of recycling and if you shoot a lot it has the ability to save you money in the process. But possibly best of all, reloading your own ammo extends your shooting enjoyment, expands your knowledge, and increases your outdoor adventures.