Handloading is an activity with many benefits for shooters. For some, those benefits are simply about supplementing or topping off the ammunition reserves and spending a relaxing afternoon. For others, it’s an activity with a purpose; saving money, getting the tightest groups possible, or simply self-reliance.
If you’re new to the activity, you may be wondering where to start or even what the point is, especially considering that factory ammunition is not unreliable. Some even say that modern factory ammo is equal to or better than the best handloads.
Learn how to reload with a purpose and how to produce ammunition that satisfies your needs reliably.
What Handloads Can Do That Factory Ammo Can’t
Before getting into the hobby, new handloaders need to understand that factory ammunition isn’t inherently bad. Many experienced shooters and reloaders may still regularly buy factory ammunition because it comes with a sense of security and a guarantee of quality and reliability.
Simply buying the ammo you know will fire and cycle reliably with 99.9% certainty is convenient. However, while it’s true that factory ammunition generally performs well and can be relied upon for most situations, sometimes it simply isn’t enough.
There are three main reasons why handloaders prefer to make their own ammunition instead of buying factory products:
- Economy and quantity
- Accuracy and consistency
- Rare and obscure calibers
Each of these reasons comes with different practices, methods, and good habits, all of which you should clearly understand if you want to achieve the best results.
Reloading for Economy
Economy and pure quantity are perhaps the most common reasons to get into handloading. If you’re the sort of shooter who wants more ammunition for lower cost, you may want to get into reloading purely to save money (or use the money you saved to make even more ammo).
The first and perhaps the most critical fact all new handloaders must understand is the presence of an initial investment cost. You need a reloading press, appropriate dies, and organization equipment; trays for your components, your cases, your finished ammunition, and more.
You may already be aware of these initial costs, but don’t forget that if you mainly reload to save money and you do it regularly, the investment will eventually pay for itself, and you will come out on top with a net gain.
If you want to maximize your savings, it is equally essential to get the most appropriate equipment for the job and adopt the best habits.
Reloading equipment for economy
Although the single-stage press is by no means a wrong choice, especially if you are a beginner, it is also the slowest press type. You can expect to produce 50-100 rounds per hour, depending on your experience level.
While that might be fine if you reload full-power rifle cartridges, it may be too slow and inconvenient for the high-volume handgun or light rifle shooter.
Consider using a turret press (100-250 rounds per hour) or a progressive press (up to 500-600 rounds per hour) if you’re primarily concerned about churning out lots of ammo. They are more expensive, but the more ammunition you produce, the faster you will see a return on your investment.
Economy reloading tips and tricks
Economy reloaders are primarily concerned with quantity. While that does not mean the ammo they make is of questionable quality, it only needs to be good enough for the intended purposes, such as training, practice, sport or competition shooting, or plinking.
It does, however, open them up to methods that are not recommended for maximum accuracy or consistency, such as:
- Reusing fired cases
- Developing light loads to stretch case life
- Home-casting bullets
Even when reloading to produce high volumes of ammo, you should always follow the instructions and load data in the latest reloading manual. Do not use unconventional bullet weights (as there may be no load data for it), do not go beyond the maximum powder charges, and always use the recommended powder types.
When reusing already-fired cases, it is good practice to do the following:
- Use a permanent marker and write hash marks to keep track of the number of times your cases have been successfully fired.
- Always keep an eye on the overall shape of your brass, watching for signs of deformation, split cases, heavy dents, and other signs of significant damage. Do not reuse severely damaged cases.
- Make sure the primer pocket isn’t too loose.
- Always measure fired cases, resizing and trimming as necessary with appropriate re-sizing dies. If your reloading manual provides a recommended trim length, follow that.
You can experiment with relatively light powder loads, developing less pressure and a lower muzzle velocity than standard loads while still cycling correctly and offering you adequate performance. Not only will you save money on powder, but it will also cause less wear and tear on your brass and your guns.
When reloading high quantities of ammunition, be vigilant with your decapping pins, as accidents or mishandling can result in breakage. Be prepared for this situation; buy a set of spare decapping pins.
Reloading for Accuracy
If you wish to be the most accurate shooter possible, you need three things: solid shooting skills, a good rifle, and accurate ammunition. But what constitutes accurate ammo, exactly?
Simply put, the most accurate ammunition is the most consistent ammunition. Tiny variations in bullet and case construction, along with slight variations in powder burn rates and quality, all introduce variables in your ammo’s performance: the more variables, the lower your average accuracy.
Before all else, you must be confident in your shooting skills and your firearms’ accuracy. The most straightforward way of testing any load for accuracy is to shoot multiple groups with it at 100 yards, measure the size of each group, and average the results out.
When testing a particular combination of rifle and ammunition (and shooter, if you want to be pedantic), an average group size of 1 inch at 100 yards equals 1 MOA of accuracy. Most shooters consider 1 MOA or less to be the threshold of high accuracy.
Just as the most accurate rifle in the world will not help a shooter who doesn’t train and practice, there’s no use developing the most precise ammo ever made if the best your rifle can do is 2.5 MOA on a good day.
However, with a quality gun (and especially a quality barrel) and a decent shot behind the trigger, good ammunition can transform a 1 MOA gun into a 0.5 MOA or even a 0.25 MOA tack-driver.
Reloading equipment for accuracy
There’s no secret: if you want to develop the most accurate loads, your components need to be high-quality and highly consistent.
If you’re reloading for accuracy, you are presumably working with rifle cartridges or possibly high-powered handgun cartridges for a pistol-caliber rifle (e.g., .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum).
You will need a variety of tools to ensure the highest consistency possible:
- Brass sorting containers with clear labels
- Deburring tools for primer pockets and flash holes to ensure a consistent diameter
- An electronic scale accurate to 0.1 grain for measuring your brass
- A powder scale accurate to 0.1 grain for measuring your powder charges
- High-quality bullet seating dies, necessary to get the proper bullet seating depth and cartridge overall length
- A concentricity gauge to ensure your bullets are as close to perfectly concentric with the bore as possible
Accuracy reloading tips and tricks
First and foremost, always start from proven load data as listed in your reloading manual and at the recommended starting loads. Do not go straight to a maximum load, and especially do not test randomly-provided load data from internet forums or other people.
Consider sorting your components to eliminate as many unknowns and variables as possible. Sort your brass by cartridge, manufacturer, and, if possible, lot number. Do the same with your bullets: sort by intended cartridge, diameter, nominal weight, manufacturer, and if possible, lot number.
Naturally, you should use the highest-quality brass and bullets possible. Reusing cases is acceptable and even encouraged in some situations, as it means the brass will have slightly deformed to match your chamber’s dimensions.
Keep track of two critical factors for each case: The number of times fired and the number of malfunctions sustained while firing, presumably with markers of two different colors.
Use your electronic scale to weigh your brass and your bullets. Ensure your bullets’ actual weight is within 0.5 grains of their nominal weight (e.g., acceptable 150-grain bullets should weigh no less than 149.5 grains and no more than 150.5 grains).
When resizing your cases, prioritize using competition-style dies whenever possible, favored by benchrest and extreme-long range shooters. Although more expensive, these dies allow you to seat the bullet, resize the neck, and adjust for concentricity with micrometer precision.
Don’t forget to clean your brass. Avoid dry-media tumblers, as they can corrode and degrade your cases. Instead, use a wet media tumbler and your own soap-and-water mixture. You can also use cotton swabs to reach inside the case and remove oils and residues.
After loading, measure your ammunition and check for concentricity issues.
The most common concentricity-related problem is bullet run-out. This phenomenon is when the center axis of the bullet does not match that of the case, causing the bullet to become slightly misaligned.
Misaligned bullets are less accurate, often turning into the dreaded flyers when measuring groups on the target.
If you have the time, or if extreme accuracy is critical, you can use your concentricity gauge to measure and sort your ammunition by runout values. Your accurate loads should have no more than 0.003”. In comparison, most factory ammunition averages at 0.005” – 0.006” of runout.
Reloading for Rare and Obscure Cartridges
For handloaders who enjoy rare, obsolescent, wildcat, and otherwise obscure calibers, the joy is in the uniqueness of shooting something nobody other than you knows about, let alone possesses. For these shooters, factory ammunition may as well be unobtainium; it is either out of production for decades or it never existed in the first place.
Maybe you have a rifle chambered in some type of obsolete black powder-era metallic cartridge, like .50-110 Winchester. Perhaps you enjoy AR-15 wildcats like .277 Wolverine or 6x45mm, or you enjoy shooting your WW2-era war bring-back 8mm Nambu pistol.
Whatever your reasons may be, you will likely need specialized equipment and knowledge of unique techniques and habits if you want to shoot these calibers.
Reloading equipment from obscure cartridges
You will seldom find dies explicitly labeled for your cartridges of choice. Finding the right dies is all about thoroughly understanding your cartridges’ external dimensions and reusing dies for other cartridges for the best fit possible.
For example, if you’re loading .357 Maximum ammunition, you can reuse .38 Special/.357 Magnum dies because .357 Maximum is dimensionally identical except for case length (a .357 Maximum case is longer than a complete .357 Magnum cartridge).
Finding load data for your cartridges may also be a significant challenge, as the latest reloading manuals may not necessarily possess the information you need. Turning to load data on the internet may be tempting, but you must exercise extreme caution. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t try to develop a load blindly.
If there is no information for your specific cartridge, call the customer service of your favorite powder manufacturers and ask them to help you. If they can’t, it’s probably safer not to attempt hand loading until load data does surface.
If possible, source older reloading manuals, manufacturer information, or manuals dedicated to obsolete or wildcat cartridges in the off chance they have the data you need.
Rare cartridge reloading tips and tricks
Sourcing brass for obscure cartridges is a constant challenge, as even the most reputable reloading brass manufacturers do not necessarily produce cases in your cartridge of choice. If you’re lucky, they may offer seasonal or periodical lots.
If new brass is not an option, you may have to turn towards case redimensioning techniques, such as cutting, fire-forming, resizing, and trimming. Case redimensioning repurposes a casing of a different caliber to the dimensions of your choice.
For example, if you need 8mm Nambu brass, it’s possible to convert .30 Remington, .40 S&W, or .357 SIG casings through various resizing methods. Research online whether there are resizing methods and processes for your cartridge of choice, and do not attempt experimenting on your own if you’re inexperienced with wildcat cartridge development.
Safe Reloaders Are Responsible Reloaders
Remember to be safe and mindful of all safety rules when reloading. If you feel tired, light-headed, or unable to concentrate, you should stop manipulating ammunition or reloading equipment. Inattention or negligence increases the risk of creating squib loads, double charges, or other potentially dangerous situations, which may damage your firearms and endanger your life.