What Equipment Do You Need for Reloading Ammunition?
Tom McHale 02.04.14
Last week we talked about the 10 basic steps of reloading your own ammunition. Now it’s time to spend a little money and purchase the basic set of reloading equipment needed for your own ammo. Like any activity that requires and investment in equipment, there are a million and seven ways to reload ammo with varying types of equipment. Here, we’re going to focus on what I think is a reasonable trade-off between cost and effectiveness. You can do with less, and I’ll point out some areas where you can skimp.
One more thing: for simplicity, we’ll focus on reloading traditional straight-walled pistol ammunition here. Reloading bottleneck rifle cartridges requires a little more equipment and slightly different steps. I’ll briefly touch on that at the end of the article.
With that said, let’s look at the equipment you need to get started.
When you pick up brass cartridge cases that have been fired, they’ll be dirty. Depending on whether you shoot at an indoor or outdoor range, the relative level of “dirt” will vary. At minimum, you’ll want to remove any loose powder residue and whatever dirt your brass acquired when it hit the floor. While your brass does not have to be shiny and like-new, it does need to have the loose dirt removed.
If you want to go super cheap, you can clean your brass with stuff you already have. Hot water, a plastic container, and some Tide (or a mixture of dish detergent, vinegar, and salt) will get the job done. Your brass won’t be all pretty and shiny, but it will be clean enough to reload. The drawback here is that you have to let it thoroughly dry. I mean bone-dry, inside and out. Unless you bake it in your oven for an hour at the lowest temperature, that can take a day or so. To me, this is a hassle that’s not worth saving $60 to $80 on a…
Brass tumbler. A tumbler is simply a plastic bowl with a motor underneath that vibrates the contents. Add “tumbling media,” which is a fancy term for ground-up corn cobs or walnut shells, and the vibration of the brass mixed with tumbling media will get your cases clean inside and out. After it runs for a while, you simply sift the media from the brass and your cases are ready to go. Some tumblers, like this Lyman model, have a sifting feature built in.
You can also buy an ultrasonic cleaner like this Lyman Turbo Sonic model that I use. Like the Tide or dish soap method, you’ll need to dry your brass. But it will be nice and shiny!
This component is required. Fortunately, it helps you complete several of the 10 steps of reloading. Think of a reloading press like one of those old Play-Doh factories. You know, the ones where you dump Play-Doh in a hopper and press a big lever so it comes out like spaghetti? Like the Play-Doh factory, a reloading press is just a device that uses mechanical advantage to squish things together. A reloading press can be used to:
- Press a brass case against a decapping pin to push out the old primer.
- Press a casing into a resizing die that jams the brass back into it’s original dimensions.
- Press a new primer into the now empty primer pocket.
- Press the casing against an expanding die that opens the mouth just a tad so you can insert a new bullet.
- Press the bullet down into the casing.
- Crimp the casing around the bullet to remove the bell from the expansion step.
You can achieve some of these steps with different equipment. For example, I often use a dedicated priming tool like this Lee Auto Prime to insert new primers. But for simplicity, and the recommended minimum equipment set, we’ll rely on the reloading press for all of the above steps. Many have a priming arm, which lets you use the press to push a new primer into place.
What type of reloading press do you need to get started? I always recommend starting with a single-stage press. Single-stage means the press does one thing at a time. To perform the different steps listed above, you’ll need to reconfigure it—usually by changing the reloading die. Using a single-stage press, you’ll load in batches. For example, you’ll size all your cases, then prime them all, then add powder, then seat the bullet, and finally crimp the case.
The die screws into the reloading press, is caliber-specific, and helps perform the steps listed in the reloading press section. Most pistol die sets have three specific dies. The press holds the case and pushes it into a die.
- Sizing and decapping die: this die pushes the brass case back to factory dimensions from the outside. A rod in the middle pushes out the spent primer at the same time.
- Expanding die: this one opens the case mouth to create an opening just large enough to seat a new bullet. Most expanding dies are hollow in the center so you can mount a powder dispenser on top. This allows you to consolidate the expanding and powder charging steps.
- Seating and crimping die: this die pushes the bullet down into the case to the proper depth, based on how you adjust it. At the same time, it presses the case mouth inwards to remove the bell created during the expansion step. Perfect adjustment is critical here as you are pushing a bullet into place and pressing against it at the same time.
Some pistol die sets, like Lee Deluxe Pistol Die Sets, have four dies. These simply separate the seating and crimping functions into two separate dies. Treating seating and crimping as separate operations can be a little more forgiving.
You’ll need a set of dies for each caliber you wish to reload. You’ll also need a shell holder for each caliber. This is a small insert for your reloading press that securely holds the base of the cartridge case.
While you can weigh each powder charge for each cartridge by hand, you’ll quickly grow old reloading your first batch of ammunition. A powder measure is a device that lets you specify a certain amount of powder to dispense with each pull of a lever.
A scale is a necessity. Charging cartridges with too little or too much powder is dangerous! Either a mechanical or electronic scale is used to make sure you powder dispenser is releasing the desired amount each time. Most starter reloading kits include a scale or you can buy your own separately.
While not included in most starter reloading kits, I think calipers are a must-have item. Available in analog dial or digital, a caliper accurately measures things. The most important measurement you’ll need to worry about is the overall cartridge length. It’s critical to make sure that your bullets are seated enough to feed reliably, but not so much that you reduce interior case volume and risk dangerous overpressure. A reloading manual will tell you exactly how deep to seat each caliber and specific bullet type.
Do not reload ammunition, ever, without a reloading manual. Think of this as the cookbook full of recipes for each caliber. Reloading component and equipment companies like Hornady, Lyman, Speer, Barnes, Nosler, Sierra, and Lee all publish books with detailed recipe information. Always, always, always stick within published guidelines for your reloads!
Rifle ammunition reloading equipment
If you want to reload bottleneck rifle ammunition like .223 Remington, .30-30, or .308, then you’ll need a couple of extras.
- Case trimmer: when you resize rifle cartridge brass, it will stretch a little each time you reload it. So you’ll need to invest in a simple device that trims excess brass from the mouth of the case. The classic hand-operated choice is the Forster Case Trimmer.
- Chamfer and deburring tool: when you trim brass with your case trimmer, it will leave rough edges inside and outside of the case mouth. A simple hand tool like this one takes the rough edges off and creates a slight bevel to ease bullet insertion.
- Case lube kit: unlike most pistol cartridges, which don’t require lubrication prior to resizing, rifle cases do. So you’ll need a lube pad and/or spray to lubricate the outside of your cases.
Optional, but really-nice-to-have components
You’ll want a couple of reloading blocks. These are simply trays that hold your cartridges while you’re working on various steps. You can make your own by drilling properly-sized holes in a piece of wood for each caliber you reload, but blocks that accommodate multiple cartridge sizes are cheap and handy. Most starter kits mentioned below include at least one reloading block.
Hand priming tools can speed up your production. While many single stage presses allow you to insert primers, that method can be tedious. A hand tool like one of these allows you to prime lots of cartridges quickly and reliably.
Bullet puller! Hey, with any new endeavor, you’re going to mess up now and then right? An inertia bullet puller is like a hollow hammer. Put a cartridge in and whack it on the floor. Inertia knocks the bullet and powder out of the case so you can start over. It even catches the bullet and powder so you can reuse both.
Reloading starter kits
Most reloading equipment vendors offer starter kits. In my view, this is the way to go. You’ll get a substantial discount for buying a complete set from one manufacturer rather than piecemeal components. A couple worth looking at are the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme Master Reloading Kit and the Lee Breech Lock Challenger Kit. Hornady, Redding, and Lyman also make excellent starter sets with different combinations of gear. It’s hard to go wrong with any of these.
The best part about investing in a quality starter kit is that you’ll use those components forever. Even if you graduate to an atomic-powered reloading machine, you’ll always use that single-stage press for things like small batches or testing new load recipes.