Now that the infinite gun-gasm known as SHOT Show is over, it’s time to get back to reloading! If you read the first article in this reloading series, “To Reload or Not to Reload: 12 Important Considerations,” and decided reloading might be for you, read on! Today we’ll talk about the basic steps of reloading brass ammunition, like common rifle and handgun cartridges. Shotgun reloading is fun and rewarding, too, but we’ll handle that as a separate topic as the steps and equipment are different.

First, the safety warning! I don’t have a lawyer, but if I did, he would tell me to tell you to exercise extreme caution when reloading ammunition. Always, and I mean always, follow printed loading recipes from major bullet, propellant, or reloading equipment manufacturers. They have lots of expensive testing equipment that ensures their published loading data is within safe pressure limits.

Okay, I feel less legally exposed now, so let’s get back to the fun stuff.

When you boil all the complexity down, reloading is simply recycling of fired cartridges—like plastic milk containers, but a lot less smelly. For most modern ammunition, a cartridge is made up of several components, some of which are expendable and others reusable. The only “directly” reusable component in a cartridge is the brass casing. Fortunately, that’s generally the most expensive component. Let’s take an insanely practical look at the steps involved in reloading rifle and handgun ammunition. We’ll walk through the process today and discuss the equipment needs next week.

Save the brass!

If there is the slightest chance you might take up reloading in the future, the very first step is to hoard brass. Yes, like that show on A&E. Hoard brass until your living room is knee-deep with the stuff and the dog can’t make its way to the kitchen. Why? You’ll need it. And it’s expensive. Every time you bend over to pick up a casing, think $0.10 to $0.75! You’d pick up a quarter or two every time you saw one on the ground, right?

Clean the brass.

Technically, you don’t have to clean brass cartridge casings to reload them, but I always do. Cleaning the brass helps you make nice, pretty ammunition that is sure to impress your friends. More importantly, it reduces the risk of your reloading dies getting all gunked up. Clean ammunition also feeds into your gun more reliably.

Deprime the brass.

The primer is one of the expendable items. Once it’s blown up, it’s no good anymore. Either a dedicated decapping die is used to punch the old primer out of the bottom of the casing, or more commonly, the die that resizes your brass will also knock the old primer out.

A .223 case is about to be jammed into the resizing and decapping die.
A .223 case about to be jammed into the resizing and decapping die.

Resize the brass exterior.

When you fire a rifle or handgun cartridge, the whole brass casing actually expands in the chamber of the gun. As the pressure goes down when the bullet leaves the barrel, the brass shrinks back a bit, thereby allowing extraction from the chamber and ejection towards the person next to you. While it shrinks, it doesn’t shrink all the way back to original size. A resizing die is used to “encourage by brute force” the brass back into the correct exterior dimensions. This step ensures that your reloaded ammunition will fit back into the chamber of your gun and fire properly. If you reload bottleneck rifle ammo, you will also need to trim the case back to the proper length. All this mashing tends to make it stretch.

Belling the case mouth.

While this sounds like a boxing move, it simply means opening up the opening of the cartridge case mouth so you can fit a new bullet in there. In the previous step, you squish the dickens of the brass from the outside in and in this step, you “re-open” the case mouth just a little.

Priming the cartridge.

Remember that spent primer we knocked out earlier? It’s time to shove a new one in the primer pocket.

Charging the cartridge.

At this point, we have clean and properly-sized brass. And since we just put a new primer in, there’s no longer a hole in the bottom, so we can add a new measure of propellant. We’ll get into this in more detail in future columns, but there are more propellants on the market than lobbyists in Washington, DC. It’s critical to use the right one, and exactly the right amount, as they are all designed with different burn rates dependent on the cartridge and projectile type. Using the wrong amount or type of propellant can blow up our gun and/or injure people, so be careful. Propellant charge is measured by weight, in grains, but the right equipment allows you to dispense the correct amount by volume.

While we’re here, people often wonder what a grain is. While intuitively it sounds like one little speck of powder, it’s actually 1/7000th of a pound. As a handgun cartridge might use four grains of powder, think of that as 0.00057142857143 pounds. It only takes a little.

Seating the bullet.

Seating refers to pushing the bullet into the (now slightly opened) case mouth to the proper depth. Proper seating depth is important for a number of reasons. The cartridge has to fit properly in the chamber and/or magazine. It’s also a safety issue. The further you push a bullet into the brass casing, the smaller the interior volume of the cartridge. As the famous physicist Bill Nye the Science Guy once said, lighting off a given amount of propellant in a smaller-than-anticipated space will send pressure to the moon. And that causes bad things to happen to both shooter and gun.

Crimping the cartridge case.

This last step generally refers to pressing the brass around the case mouth back into proper shape once the bullet is seated. Remember earlier when we opened the case mouth a bit to allow for bullet insertion? This step puts things back to normal. We’ll get into more detail later, but for now, just know that crimping is not what holds the bullet in place. The tension of the bullet and cartridge case interior walls does that. Crimping just evens things out and removes the belling we created.

Packaging and inspection!

I like to list this as the last step as it’s important to check your work. For me, doing this as I put completed cartridges into containers makes sense. I look to make sure that primers are seated correctly and that bullets are seated to the right depth. The inspection steps is important for safety and reliability. You don’t want to be blazing through the Smoke and Hope stage of your local Steel Challenge match when you encounter a cartridge where you forgot to insert a primer, right? That empty-sounding “click” would be embarrassing.

This sounds like a lot of steps, doesn’t it? It can be, but fortunately you can pay for automation. Depending on your equipment choices, many of these steps can be consolidated into a single action. We’ll get into that more when we talk about basic equipment next week. Stay tuned.

  • slotsavegas

    I am forced to do all my shooting at a private indoor range. It is usually forbidden to pick up used brass. Even if I could do so, would I need to use only my own brass, or could I collect all the same caliber I found. Would I need to consider other steps or controls to insure a safe reload if I could not determine the source of fired brass ?

    • Coffee49

      Same caliber is fine, naturally inspection and utilizing micrometer for dimension check is the proper way to ensure a servicable cartridge, watch out for military cases as some if not most use berdan priming system, not the same as boxer primers in civilian calibers. .223 is boxer, 5.56mm is berdan. Difference is boxer is 1 single centered hole in case base, berdan has 2 offset holes in case base, they are not interchangable.

      • disqus_xMJXFQWBl8

        I have heard by those who should know, that 5.56 brass has a slightly thicker neck as well, for rapid extraction by military grade weapons….this true?

      • Not all 5.56 is Berdan primed – most that I’ve seen is Boxer primed. Actually I run across very few Berdan .223 or 5.56 and it’s usually cheap overseas stuff.

    • This is a great point. My article comments refer to saving your own brass as you know how many times it’s been used and what condition it’s in.

      With that said, I’ll pick up range brass if I know it’s once fired. For example, the person next to me shooting boxes of new factory ammo and leaving it. I’ll grab that in heartbeat! The best days are when a LE, Coast Guard or other unit has a training or qualification day at the range. They’ll fire truckloads of brand new ammo and won’t want to keep the brass. It’s my birthday!

      You do need to be careful about using brass of unknown origin as for all you know, it may have been reloaded numerous times already. For pistol brass, I inspect the condition and make sure there are no cracks etc. For rifle brass, I’m much more picky. I won’t reload rifle brass of unknown origin. I want to know exactly how many times it’s been reloaded. Rifle brass gets worked a lot harder in reloading so over time it can lose strength – not a good thing with higher pressures involved with most rifle calibers. After I know a batch of rifle brass has been used 8 or 10 times, I’ll typically destroy it.

    • Kevin Profitt

      So if they allow you to pick up your own brass why not ask the guy to pick up his… and the next guy etc. and see if they will give you (or sell for a couple bucks) their brass.

  • Kevin Profitt

    Bill Nye was never a physicist. He was a mechanical engineer.