Reloading firearm cartridges: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • It costs too much
  • Case preparation
  • Cleaning detergent
  • At what cost?
  • Why reload?
  • No reloading equipment
  • Why tell you this…
  • Summary

One of the guys at my church asked me to show him how to reload cartridges and by the time everyone standing nearby had chimed in there were five guys on my list — including one man’s son. I remember many years ago when reader Matt61 asked me to teach him and we did it online through Skype. As we did I noted that Matt knew everything to do, but he wanted someone watching to make sure he did it right.

My brother-in-law, Bob, did pretty much the same thing several years ago. That tells me that a lot of people want to learn to reload! And why wouldn’t you want to learn? Ammunition is in very short supply at present, unless you reload. And the current situation has opened the eyes of a lot of people to the futility of depending on store-bought ammo. Yes, we shoot airguns, but there are some things that only firearms can do.

It costs too much

Before recently the biggest objection to reloading was the initial cost. That objection has evaporated in light of the current ammo shortage. However, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to get started. Most guys will focus on a single-stage press when they want to start reloading. Many will look at something like the RCBS RockChucker that retails for $180.00

RockChucker
The RCBS RockChucker is a fine single-stage reloading press, but the cost may be too high for some.

Since there is more to buy than just a press, that represents the start of a large expense. A Lee Challenger press can be purchased for as little as $77, and I highly recommend something like that, but some guys don’t have a workbench to bolt it to and the price may still be too high. Those guys get the Lee Hand Press, instead.

Before I move on, remember that buying used is an option. A reloading press wears out about as fast as an anvil.

Lee Challenger
At $77, the Lee Challenger is about as cheap as a new bench-mounted press gets.

Lere hznd press
At $42 the Lee hand press is as simple as it gets today.

Case preparation

I have learned over the years that preparing the cartridge cases is paramount to reloading well. A clean case loads much easier than one that’s dirty. It takes longer to do it right but the results are worth the effort.

The biggest concern is the primer pockets. They must be scrupulously clean in order to seat the primers properly.

What I do is deprime the cases, then tumble them for several hours. I use stainless steel pins as my tumbling media. Some who reload tumble their cases in vibratory tumblers, but I have found that to be less than satisfactory. The cases don’t always get completely clean — especially inside — and the primer pockets almost never do. A rotary rock tumbler is the best way to do it.

tumbler
I use a rotary tumbler to clean my cases. I let it run for 8-10 hours.

Cleaning detergent

With the stainless steel pins I fill the tub 3/4 of the way with water, some Dawn detergent to soften the water and two tablespoons of Brass Shine detergent. 

inside tumbler
Stainless steel pins and detergent clean the brass.

Brass Shine
Brass Shine is made expressly for cleaning cartridge cases in tumblers.

At what cost?

I am writing all of this from the point of view of having done it for the past 55 years. I know what works and what doesn’t. Cleaning primer pockets with a scraper or a wire brush doesn’t work that well, plus it takes a lot longer. When I finish tumbling my cases look like new and the effort was low.

brass before
These brass .357 Magnum cases were cleaned before by an alternative method but they still don’t sparkle.

brass after
After cleaning in Brass Shine, the cases sparkle!

primer pocket
My method of case cleaning gets every primer pocket scrupulously clean! This is very important.

Why reload?

If all of this sounds like a lot of work — it is! But when we get into the actual reloading process this preparation speeds up the work and gives a good chance of success.

In years gone by we reloaded to get more accurate ammunition. We also did it to save money over commercial ammo.

Today we reload to have something to shoot. Because the ammo makers are going full blast and people are buying up everything they make. Not only can you not buy ammo, there are no primers, very little gunpowder, and almost no bullets. That’s because people who reload are dusting off their equipment. 

No reloading equipment

Not only are supplies unavailable — so are reloading presses, dies and bullet molds. If it has something to do with making cartridges, chances are you can’t get it right now. But I have been putting things aside for years so I have all that I need. A half ton of lead keeps me in bullets. And I don’t go to the range without sweeping up every cartridge case I find. Been doing it for years and I have hundreds and even thousands of cases for key calibers.

Why tell you this…

… when there is no chance of your getting into reloading? Well, that’s just it — there IS a chance to get into it! When my brother-in-law, Bob, got into it a few years ago, things were hard, too. Today he has thousands of cartridge cases, hundreds of loaded rounds, dies, powder, primers and everything he needs to keep shooting. My neighbor, Denny started asking me about reloading. He had almost nothing he needed three months ago. This morning I took a picture of his new Dillon Square Deal B progressive press. 

Dillon Square Deal B
My neighbor went from not being able to purchase 9mm cartridges to being able to reload 300 rounds per hour in three months of trying. He and his three sons went together to make it affordable.

Summary

In this series I will show you how a firearm cartridge is loaded. There is no reason not to have ammunition at any time!

57 thoughts on “Reloading firearm cartridges: Part 1

  1. B.B.,

    Something completely different today. Unfortunately due to draconian gun laws in my country if you reload ammunition you have to get the license equivalent to a manufacturer with the accompanying high tariffs and fees involved making it usually a nonviable activity unless you make it a group project. This usually entails belonging to a gun club which also adds to the cost. The cost becomes justifiable when you then take into consideration of the number of rounds you will be sending downrange in the course of the year as you practice and participate in club matches.

    Doesn’t that tumbler make a racket while cleaning those cases?

    Siraniko


    • The rotary tumblers are relatively quiet, they are a rubber drum that is spun by a small fan cooled electric motor.
      Very similar to a rock polisher ( exactly like a rock polisher).

      The vibratory tumblers are very loud, putting either in the garage or in an out building helps.

      The vibratory tumblers are faster than the rotary tumblers, but are also a lot louder, and more violent with the cases..

      Case prep is a lot like cooking, everyone has their favorite tumbling media, and cleaning recipes.

      Ian



    • I started off with a vibratory cartridge case cleaner. It did a perfect job cleaning the outside of the cartridge cases, but not the primer pockets or the insides. I switched to an expensive ultrasonic cleaner which did a much better job, but not perfect. Ultimately, I settled on a rotary tumbler, which cleans the primer pockets and the insides perfectly.

      The rotary tumbler is quiet enough to use inside the house. It is high capacity and produces no dust. IMO, it is the best way to go.

      My rotary tumbler is made by Frankford Arsenal and is relatively cheap compared to Tom’s Thumbler, but works just as well. For the cleaning agent I add liquid dish soap and an 8th teaspoon of Lemi-shine to the water.


  2. B.B.,

    This is a really interesting topic that I’m sure many of us (myself included) have had limited exposure to. Thanks for taking the time to share with us, as usual.

    WD



  3. BB,

    Wow! Reloading has come a very long way. I kind of like those stainless steel pins, but you had best have a well made tumbler for those.

    When my Dad and I reloaded, we used a case tumbler that the drum was made of wood and we used corn cob pieces as the tumbling media. We would leave the cases in there overnight. They were clean and shiny when they came out.

    P.S. For those who are thinking of getting started in this, I would strongly recommend that you do not buy a press where the front is open or basically a “C” shape instead of the above “D” shaped presses. There is a lot of force being applied and over time the “C” press will bend. Not good. Bad.


  4. I started in the late 70’s with (and still have) a Lee Reloading kit which uses individual parts to make your own ammo. A small homemade plastic hammer provides the force to do everything from depriming all the way to bullet seating and crimping. Seating the new primer was always a little tense the first few cases at the start of a reloading session, but you got a “feel” for it .I was lucky (scared) enough to never have a primer go off while priming the cases. Loaded thousands , okay hundreds, of rounds before I got a RockChucker.


  5. Good morning everyone,
    I appreciate the topic for today, I have been threatening to start reloading for a while, but never had the drive to do it like the current times.

    But I actually have a different question. I have a 7 year old nephew with cerebral palsy. (my sister-in-law read an article that said the most unwanted group of children in the world was disabled boys in China, so she adopted two) He wants to do everything that Unc (me) does, especially shooting. He is very unsteady on his own, and what we have worked out is that I hold the gun on target and tell him to shoot, and he pulls the trigger. He likes to hit the target as much as any other kid. Last Saturday we shot probably 50 pellets at an 11” x 34” box about 25 yards away and hit it every time, which was quite an accomplishment. He is steadying himself against me, and steadying his trigger hand against the gun while he works at pulling the trigger.

    So my question is, have any of you worked with anyone with cerebral palsy, or any similar issues, and could give me any tips? He really seems to enjoy shooting, so I want to use it both to encourage him and I hope it might help him learn to controll his unsteadiness if possible.

    Sorry, this is long, and off topic, but I know there is a large group of helpful people here from a wide variety of backgrounds. Thanks in advance for any tips.
    C.B.


  6. …And now for something completely different 🙂

    Interesting subject BB!

    Always wanted to get into reloading but other things got in the way. I even have the Nonte book “Modern Handloading” sitting on the shelf beside me. I’m not into powder burners much these days so reloading is not going to happen for me.

    Depending on on how well slugs shoot from my airguns I am considering getting a couple of dies and swaging my own. Hope you talk about the dies, press and process for doing that.

    Don’t know if casting would be better than swaging. Guess that sizing would be needed in any case.

    Was splitting firewood the other day and was thinking that my 6-ton electric splitter might do double duty as a swaging press.

    Hank


  7. B.B.,

    Reloading seems to me to have great potential to become yet another hobby or interest for people who are firearm enthusiasts. (I know for many, firearm ownership is not a hobby and I do not mean to diminish it by calling it such.)

    You touch on this, but wow, the upfront expenses are high, although that can/will be made up by savings from that point on. I imagine folks who wish to shoot vintage firearms that use obsolete ammunition are also drawn to reloading.

    Excellent report.

    Michael


  8. Thank you to all of those who have expressed their condolences to me for the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

    My mother donated generously to a variety of causes. That said, if any of you are so inclined, you might buy a bag of dry cat food or dog food and drop it off at your nearest animal shelter or rescue shelter this week and tell them it is a donation in the memory of a cat and dog lover who recently died. .

    Also, I care deeply about all of you, and I fervently hope none of you suffer this terrible disease. Even those who survive it very often suffer permanent lung and heart damage. I beg you to choose to wear a mask when you are close to others with whom you do not live. The person you save might be you, but as most transmissions are from people who present no symptoms, your wearing a mask might save others, too.

    Thank all of you so much once again.

    Michael


    • “…you might buy a bag of dry cat food or dog food and drop it off at your nearest animal shelter…”
      Michael,
      I will buy a bag, and tell the critters it’s in honor of your Mom.
      Our “farm” is the nearest animal shelter…called “The Sanctuary II”…the original “Sanctuary” was shut down when our neighbors turned us in to animal control; you can only have 3 dogs or 3 cats maximum at our old place; now we are rural, so all is OK; and I think your Mom would be happy to know that zero animals were taken by animal control; all were successfully moved here. =>
      Take care,
      dave


      • Dave,

        Good for you. My sister worked with the local dog shelter and transported them all around the state. She ended up with a few big mutts of her own.

        It does seem like it can be a bit of a bottomless pit though (animal rescue). Hat’s off to those willing to take it on. Get em’ fixed.

        A lady at the prior work had/has? like 30 feral cats. All outside. Rural. None fixed. That is a bit ridiculous. None the less,.. they all get fed and sheltered. No vet care,.. I am sure of.

        Chris


        • Chris, we processed (fixed) about 50 cats; 30 we adopted out; the sick, the special needs, the elderly, and the ones no one wants are all still with us…they are all loveable and have a good home
          …and they are all REALLY spoiled! =)~



        • You are most welcome, Michael; I picked up the food today.
          All our mostly cats and one dog showed up in our yard after someone dumped them. #_#
          But all are loved, and all have a good home now. =>


  9. B.B.
    Something a little different today! Back when I was in my teens, ages ago, I was into shotguns. The only rifle I shot was an old single shot .22 rimfire that had been used by my grand-father to shoot hogs. I was always out hunting for rabbits, partridge, or pheasant using a shotgun. I had a hand clay pigeon thrower that we used occasionally, but then my dad purchase on of those clay pigeon throwers that mounted on a car wheel, I still have it. We used it a few times but my dad had an auto repair shot and there was never much time for him to shoot with me.
    My first experience reloading shotshells was with a Lee hand loader, still have that too. That got old pretty quick and dad bought me a MEC 700 Junior loader. I loaded quite a few shotshells with that and it was actually enjoyable to do. I still have that loader, some lead shot, and powder, but I have not shot any of my powder burners in over forty years. Still have all of them in a gun cabinet though. I think about selling them at times but that is difficult to do, as there are many memories using them.
    I have always been intrigued by centerfire reloading, even though I’ve never owned a centerfire weapon. I look forward to this series and learning more about the subject. Thank you for sharing your experience and keeping it fresh and interesting.
    Geo


  10. B.B.,
    A refreshing little break. Very interesting blog. I too have often thought about reloading, but never took the plunge. I kind of compare it to PCP vs all other airguns. Higher up front costs but the rewards pay off. I have owned and shot black powder guns though. On those it’s kind of like reloading as you go if you know what I mean. Thanks again.

    Doc


  11. I have mostly been lurking because my air experience is limited. Today’s topic is something I have been doing since the early 70s.

    I started with the Lee set that used a plastic hammer and loaded a few .222 cases. It was a little scary! Then I got the hand loader pictured and things got better. But, loading 7mm mag cases was tough. A friend gave me his RCBS Rockchucker when he moved up to a progressive press. It worked well and I still have it.

    A good source for info is Modern Reloading, 2nd ed, by Richard Lee. He is the fellow who developed the Lee tools. The book is interesting reading and provides data for almost every cartridge i have ever owned, including .17 Mach IV.

    The old C style presses were not strong enough for large case reloading, but the new ones are much better. I bought a Lee C press this past winter to load 9mm. It gives better access for placing bullets in case mouth than the O types. I have a similar problem trying to load single pellets in trays. Old, fat fingers can be a problem.

    I think the series will be very useful to anyone who is thinking about starting. The initial cost for a Lee set up should be around 100. Then you would need dies for additional calibers. I found that the “new” Lee factory crimp dies solved my problem for doing cases that headspace on case mouth. Recommended! No, I don’t work for Lee.


  12. A topic near and dear to my heart. I started reloading in the 70’s as well, starting off with Lee handloader kits (.38, .357 then .45). I moved up to the Lee Challenger and you can buy a kit which includes the press, scale and powder measure. All you need are the correct dies and a primer seater. I’m sure BB will cover that. Because I don’t shoot in the quantity that some of you do, the single stage press and hand cleaning/carbide dies were all that I needed but I like the tumbler that BB mentioned. It is a relaxing part of our hobby, I find.

    Fred formerly of the DPRoNJ now happily in GA


  13. B.B.,

    In addition to obsolete ammo, I just thought of another reason to reload: customizing the power of the cartridges. I learned about this from you. In your report “If I could keep just one…,” from May 30, 2014 https://www.pyramydair.com/blog/2014/05/if-i-could-keep-just-one/ you wrote of how reloading can make certain firearms quite versatile. I now think of that section of that report as a kind of foreward to today’s report:

    “The one firearm I would keep if all the others had to go would be my 1903A3 Springfield. . . . When I reload, I have a choice of 5 lead bullets I can cast to produce everything from a .32 automatic up to a full-blown .30-06, if I need it. The cheapest rounds I make cost around 5 cents, and the most expensive costs under 50 cents. That’s so much better than anything I can buy; but if I do buy, this caliber is certainly ubiquitous throughout most of the civilized world.

    “I have around a thousand empty cartridges; and with my reduced loads I’ll get several hundred firings from each of them. And with reduced loads, I can use pistol powders and primers. So, ammunition will never be a problem.

    “[The 1903A3 Springfield] kicks pretty hard. . . . When I shoot this rifle with powerful loads, I always wear a heavy jacket. The rest of the time a t-shirt is all I need.”

    Michael


  14. Back in my early 20’s I made a special stock for a custom rifle made to shoot. 22 caliber bullets (from necked-down 30-06 cases, don’t know what it was called) at very high velocities.

    The guy was a reloading fanatic (did everything to the extreme) who built the rifle (it was more like a 25 pound artillery piece) to develop his ultimate varmint round for long range shooting. He claimed that the bullets were doing close to Mach 4. Don’t know how fast they were actually going but crows would explode into a cloud of feathers and mist ofsmall bits.

    T’was a weird rifle. Built in adjustable tripod and levels, left hand bolt, release trigger and a very heavy barrel. Scope was huge. Wonder what happened to it.

    Hank



  15. Thanks B.B. for bringing this subject to the conversation table. I don’t burn much powder lately, but this subject brings back old memories.

    I started reloading in the early 80’s for tow of the reasons already mentioned: power and cost. At that time my only handgun was a S&W in .357 Mag. Shooting factory loads for practice was expensive and punishing, more so for my wife who also wanted to be proficient with the gun. Purchasing .38 specials was an option but with two drawbacks: not much lower cost and extra work to remove the fouling ring in the front of the chambers.
    A guy at the range suggested to try reloading where I could reuse the longer cases but with cast bullets and reduced charges. This worked really well for both of us. The initial investment in basic equipment was quickly recovered in ammo savings. The only minor drawback was that using 148 gr wadcutters over a light load of 231 my wife became the better shot. Humble pie for the ‘instructor’:)

    Henry


  16. I really enjoy loading 8mm Mauser on a Lee Loader . These are a great way to get started in reloading . I take mine to the range and use it to develop better loads . set up my scale and then seat the bullet . Try again !! I have one in 243 Winchester also . For a low volume shooter they are more than adequate as long as you don’t own multiple guns of the same caliber neck sizing will not be an issue. Over the last 30 years my reloading has got me through the Crime Bill in 1994 , Y2k scare , Sandy hook and now this mess . You just have to put back components in the good times . This latest scare even has all the components dried up , usually it is just the ammo that goes , interesting times.

    Gene Salvino


    • Gene,

      Have you ever tried a light load of powder over 55 grain bullet in your 243? At 2800 to 2900 FPS, I would guess you could get performance very similar to a 223 without having to buy another rifle. I have been shooting mostly air rifles with very little center fire over the past few years and now a full house 100 grain bullet in that ultralight 243 kicks like a son of a gun. I keep all the brass I shoot so it might be a fun investment as I retire over the next month. What do you think?

      Brent


  17. Hi BB, thanks for this series. It’s so different and VERY interesting. I am bouncing with anticipation to read the upcoming segments! Learning something new is always exciting for me. I guess we never stop learning. This is such a departure from airgunning hehe! 🙂
    Regards,
    Peter


  18. I could never get my Ruger 77/22mag in stainless with laminate to group well. I wanted to make custom loads for it, but I sold it. I wanted a 10/22 in 17hmr, or an HK sporter in 22mag, but I keep a plain 22lr Marlin. It shoots great with the right ammo, if you can find it.
    R


  19. “This morning I took a picture of his new Dillon Square Deal B progressive press.”
    B.B.,
    That was my first press, first used to load .357 magnum, and later .44 magnum…a great little tool; I’m sure they’ll be happy with it. This is a very good and timely report that [I predict] will be of use to many. =>
    Take care & God bless,
    dave


  20. Brent ,

    I have loaded 85 grain Sierra bullets and 75 grain Hornady bullets they shoot great in my rifle . I use IMR4064 powder . The load is 10% below max and it groups well . I don’t think a 55 grain bullet would do well in a rifle that is designed around a 100 grain bullet . I have never thought of the recoil as being hard in a 243 but I own a standard sporter rifle not a ultra light . The 55 grains might shoot well you could always load up a few and try if recoil is a concern . Another trick is to put some shot in the buttstock to add some weight to mitigate recoil .

    Gene Salvino


  21. BB

    Very useful report. Looking forward to more.

    Long time readers may recall I reload a number of military calibers. I started in the early 1980’s with the most basic Lee Hand Loader. This is the way to start but do dedicate reloads to each gun. Brass can even be washed well enough to see whether or not you like reloading. Just get the primer pocket and hole clean with a screw driver or whatever tool does the job. Buy or borrow a powder listed in the well written Lee instructions. Get the correct primers, bullets, a funnel, safety glasses and a heavy plastic/rubber head hammer. Scales, calipers, case trimmers, a squeeze type priming tool, brass trays and brass cleaners will be wanted after you are committed to reloading. I have a Rock Chucker which will load almost anything and will out last me.

    Last but not least: Never allow yourself to consume alcohol while reloading!

    Deck



  22. Thank you for this post, B.B. – going to pass it on to some buddies to see if can plant the idea of reloading for the group of us who enjoy our shooting sports; some of us have been doing it 50+ years. We could all chip in to acquire the necessary tools and supplies for the calibers we like to pop off. One of them has a small manufacturing business and is quite mechanically savvy; possibly could set aside some floor space around his shop for reloading activities. Reloading 9mm would be a good start. In a pinch, I can at least cast .58 “minnys” for the percussion rifle-musket. Come to think about it, haven’t fired it for too many years…it’s time to give it some exercise. It was fun punching holes with it in discarded appliances at junk dumps “back in the day.” Not doable around here any more, sadly.



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