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How to Handload Metallic Cartridges

by Jason Wimbiscus

Handloading 101: Getting Started Reloading Your Own Ammo

A fairly common side effect of immersing oneself in the world of firearms is a sudden and uncontrollable urge to reload (or handload) ammunition. After all, it seems downright shameful to leave piles of perfectly good empty cartridge cases and shotshell hulls glinting in the sun, practically begging to be refurbished, refilled, and put back into action, only to instead end up languishing in scrap bins and trash barrels. Luckily, breathing new life into spent cases is a relatively easy process. Here’s how to get started.

Why Handload Cartridges?

One of the most common reasons hunters and shooters take up handloading is to save money on ammo. Handloaded ammunition typically costs a fraction of what factory loaded ammunition costs. For example, factory-loaded, brass-cased .308 Winchester ammo will typically cost $0.75 to $2.50 per round with most offerings falling into the $1.00 per round range. By contrast, quality .308 Winchester ammo can be assembled at home for less than $0.50 per round if scavenged or recycled cases are used. While there will be an upfront equipment investment required to begin handloading (approximately $200 to $400), savings on ammo will pay for the equipment within a few hundred rounds.

Handloading also allows hunters and target shooters to create custom ammunition perfectly tailored to handle a particular task or to optimize the performance of a particular firearm. For collectors of firearms chambered in obsolete or uncommon rounds, handloading might be the only way to keep shooting.

Finally, handloading is a relaxing, rewarding hobby in its own right. In an age when livelihoods are often earned by tweaking spreadsheets and sending emails, it can be refreshing to come home and engage in an activity that yields a tangible result.

Handloading Ammo: Think Safety First

While handloading is a relatively safe activity, some safety measures should be taken to avoid potential mishaps. Obviously, gunpowder and primers should be stored in a dry, secure location far from all sources of heat and flame.

It is also important to avoid distractions while handloading, especially when adding powder to cases. Too much powder in a round can result in dangerously high chamber pressures that can damage the gun and, in a worst-case scenario, injure the shooter. Too little powder in a round can result in a squib, which means a bullet lacks the velocity to leave the barrel, thus becoming an obstruction. Be mindful and careful when charging cases and the above won’t be an issue.

Most importantly, before beginning any handloading project, consult a reputable load data manual to guide the selection of appropriate bullets, cases, powder, and primers. Do not deviate from published load data. Never substitute one type of powder for another, never mix different types of gunpowder, and resist the urge to “hot rod” loads in excess of published maximums.

Tools and Materials Needed for Handloading

A number of manufacturers provide handloading tools and while there are bound to be variations in operating procedures between makes and models (always consult user manuals before diving in) the basics remain the same; a small hand press, a set of dies, and a few other tools are employed to turn empty cartridge cases into useable ammunition.

The guide below details the steps involved in handloading metallic (rifle and handgun) cartridges using a single stage press. Single stage presses allow one die to be installed at a time, meaning the die must be changed every time a new action is to be performed. Single stage presses are far slower than turret presses, but they are more affordable and simpler to operate, making them a great option for beginner handloaders and experienced handloaders who don’t need to produce tremendous volumes of ammo.

The guide below does not cover the handloading of shotshells as this will be covered in a separate article.

Handloading Cartridges Basic Tools and Materials-min

 

Pictured above are the basic tools and materials required to begin a handloading project. They are (numbered as shown): (1) case trimming tools, (2) case lubricant, (3) priming tool, (4) powder funnel, (5) powder measures, (6) reloading die set, (7) scale, (8) gunpowder, (9) bullets, (10) primers, (11) cartridge cases (brass only), (12) loading tray, and (13) reloading press.

Additional tools that may be helpful are calipers/micrometers, bullet pullers (for disassembling inevitable mistakes), powder tricklers, and case polishing tumblers.

Metallic Cartridge Handloading Procedure

Step 1: Lubricate the Case

Upon firing, a soft brass cartridge case will inevitably expand due to the heat and pressure of expanding gas. The first step in reloading a spent case is to force it back into shape, which is accomplished by running it through a re-sizing die.

In order to make sure the case does not end up stuck in the die (which could potentially ruin the case, the die, or both) lubricant must be applied. This is a simple matter of rubbing a small amount lubricant on the outside of the case by hand, and applying lubricant to the inside of the neck using a cotton swab.

Handloading Lubricate the Cartridge Case-min
 
It is important to use only lubricant specifically intended for cartridge cases. Improvised lubricant may inhibit the ignition of primer and powder.

Step 2:  Resize and Deprime the Case

With the resizing die and shell holder installed in the reloading press in accordance with manufacturer specifications, raise the ram and guide the case by hand into the sizing die. 

Handloading Deprime the Cartridge-min

This action will size the case back into its original shape and remove the spent primer.
 
Handloading Deprimed Case-min

IMPORTANT: Never attempt to resize a steel cartridge case. Steel is far less malleable than brass and as a result will likely become stuck in the sizing die.

Step 3: Trim and Deburr the Case

Occasionally cartridge case necks will elongate upon firing and must be trimmed back to the correct overall case length.

This step is accomplished with a case trimming kit, which typically consists of a cutter, case length gauge, and shell holder. In this example, the shell holder affixes to a cordless drill to facilitate faster trimming. The drill rotates the case against the face of the cutter while the case length gauge prevents over-trimming.

Handloading Trim the Cartridge Case-min

Once the case has been appropriately trimmed, burrs should be removed from the case mouth using a de-burring tool and fouling should be removed from the primer pocket using a primer pocket cleaner.
 
Handloading Clean and Deburr-min

Step 4: Prime the Case

With the case re-sized and trimmed, it’s time to insert a fresh primer. This is most easily accomplished using a hand priming tool, which is essentially a miniature ram press designed to force primers into primer pockets.  

Handloading Prime the Case-min

After assembling the priming tool in accordance with the manual, simply load the primers into the hopper, insert the case, squeeze the handle, and a fresh primer is installed. 
 
Handloading Primed Cartridge-min

Step 5: Charge the Case (Add Gunpowder)

There are two methods by which to measure powder charges. The first method is to weigh every charge individually on a scale. This will result in highly consistent batches of ammunition that may yield exceptional accuracy at the range, but it is a painstakingly slow method. The second method is to use volumetric powder measure. In this case, I’m using a set of powder dippers. Here’s how they work.

Each dipper provided in the set has a different capacity in cubic centimeters. A corresponding chart (provided with the set) indicates what weight of powder in grains is doled out by each dipper.

In this case, I’m using a 3.4 cubic centimeter dipper to measure a charge of IMR-4064 that weighs 42.9 grains (a safe charge according to the loading manual I’m working from).

Handloading Use of powder measure-min
 
Since slight variations in the manufacturing process can result in slightly varying weight to volume ratios between batches of powder, the weight of the charge yielded by any powder measure should be verified by using a quality scale. It’s not necessary to weigh every scoop, but the charge weight should be re-verified every dozen rounds or so.
 
Handloading Check powder weight-min

Once the weight of the charge has been verified, add the powder to the case with the aid of a loading tray and powder funnel.

Handloading Charge Case-min
 
In order to make the process of charging cases easier, do not attempt to scoop directly out of the jar of powder. Instead, portion out powder into a small ceramic cup or bowl as this will be far easier to work from. Additionally, it can be helpful to rub plastic powder measuring tools with a dryer sheet as this will eliminate static electricity that can cause the powder to cling to dippers and funnels.

Step 6: Seat the Bullet

Seating the bullet is a process within a process that requires nuanced adjustments of the seating die. There is a definite learning curve to this part of the process and it is inevitable that at least a few bullets will be seated too deeply and a few case mouths will be crumpled in the beginning.

Handloading Seat Bullet-min

  • With the bullet seating die installed in the press, place the charged case in the shell holder.
  • Place a bullet in the case mouth, taking care to keep it as straight as possible.
  • Gently raise the ram and guide the bullet into the seating die until the bullet contacts the seating stem inside the die. Do not apply pressure.
  • Loosen the adjustment knob at the top of the die until the shell holder can touch the mouth of the die without the bullet contacting the seating stem.
  • Lower the ram and tighten the die’s adjustment knob by a half turn.
  • Raise the ram as far as it will go. This will begin to seat the bullet.
  • Gradually adjust the seating die in this manner until the overall length of the cartridge meets the specifications of the load data.
  • Cartridge overall length can be determined using calipers.
Alternatively, a factory loaded round can be used as a cartridge length gauge to quickly set the seating die. This is accomplished by raising a factory loaded round into the die (with the seating stem fully retracted) until the shell holder touches the mouth of the die. Without retracting the ram, tighten the adjustment knob until the seating stem contacts the bullet. The die is now set.
Once the seating die is set on the first round, subsequent bullets can be seated without further adjustment.

Step 7: Crimp the Case Mouth to the Bullet

Most cartridges will need some degree of crimp applied in order to prevent bullets from receding into their cases, migrating outward during loading and unloading, or as a result of recoil. Rounds destined for guns with tube magazines will typically need a heavier crimp than rounds feeding from box magazines.

Crimping can be done using some bullet seating dies (instructions on how will typically accompany the die) but I prefer the crimp I get from die specifically designed for the task. 

The closer the mouth of the crimp die is adjusted toward the ram, the more pronounced the crimp will be when the cartridge is forced into it.

Since the cartridge in the photo below will feed from a box magazine, the die is adjusted to apply a slight crimp.

Handloading Crimp the case-min
 
As with seating the bullet, applying the crimp is accompanied by a noticeable learning curve. A beginner should expect to ruin a few rounds by over crimping while they get the hang of the process.

Cartridge Complete

With the crimp applied, the round is now complete and ready for the range or woods. Prior to firing, it is advisable to remove any case lubricant that still might be present.

Handloading Complete cartridge-min


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