This is a copy of a response to a post from Nov'08 about making reloading less daunting to a complete neophyte. I am pulling it up here so that anyone who wants to consider reloading can get some basic info. My first and best piece of info is to buy a book- Lee's Modern Reloading is a great asset and if you get the deal that includes the free single-stage press, it's hard to go wrong.
We are here to help!
Basically, reloading in and of itself is nothing more than a process with written instructions and specific measurements. Just like for example, baking a cake or making cookies. If you can follow a recipe and make Kraft Mac'n'Cheese you can reload.
At minimum you will need a press, dies & shell-holder of the proper caliber, a means of inserting primers, a means of dispensing powder, and a way to measure the powder to make sure the charge is right (a "grain" scale). Also a tool to measure the finished round to ensure length & crimp are right (an inexpensive dial caliper is perfect). A kinetic bullet-puller (Also called a "Mistake-Eraser") is highly recommended.
There are a wide variety of press styles and makers to choose from. With the durable construction of most reloading gear it can literally last for generations so there is little problem with buying used, well-maintained gear. I strongly recommend if you are buying used gear make sure it takes the standard 7/8" die thread size or you may find a hard time getting dies to fit your calibers- worse so in newer calibers. Also some older presses used oddball shell holders and again, these can be difficult to find especially in newer calibers.
Make sure you get a scale that will measure in grains, like a proper powder scale. Most scales do not measure to the finest degree necessary to measure powder. Even some jeweler's scales are not accurate enough, and who wants to convert from troy ounces or carats to grains? 1 grain = 0.06479891 grams. A grain is a very small unit of measurement, and one grain is enough powder to possibly drastically alter a charge! It is very important to precisely measure powder to the 0.1 of a grain. A scale must be able to do this repeatably.
The basic styles of presses are: single-stage, turret, and progressive.
A single stage press has one threaded hole for a single die over the ram. This is the most basic, simple press there is. You can buy an inexpensive Lee for $25 or a super-strong cast iron Rockchucker for $200. Budget is really your only limiting factor. They all work on the same principle: batch process reloading. To perform each process necessary to reload ammo, you need a different die. Since only one at a time fits in the single-stage press, you need to do jobs in batches. This means you will have ammo sitting out in various stages of completion, and won't have ANY finished ammo until the batch has finished all stages and you begin the last stage. If you are interrupted, you will have partially-finished ammunition in different stages of completion.
A turret press combines a single stage press with a means to mount multiple dies on the press at the same time, and change between them. Basically, you set up each die in a removable turret. Typically, you would have a turret for each caliber. To change dies, just move the turret to the desired position- no setting up dies, no unscrewing dies, just turn or slide the turret. With a turret press you can either batch process like a standard single stage press, or do runs of ammo quickly, one at a time, by indexing the turret for each step in the process. By doing this you may have individual finished rounds of ammo ready quickly, but it will take several pulls of the press handle to accomplish this. This in my opinion is one of the best options especially for new reloaders. They are usually a bit more expensive than the single-stage presses of equivalent design. If you are interrupted while using a turret press to finish single rounds, you will have one round that is not finished. Otherwise, it is the same as a single stage if you are batch-processing.
A progressive press is basically a turret press that has had a means of indexing the individual cases added. With the turret press, the dies move, the one round in the press stays in place. With a progressive, the dies in their turret or toolhead stay put, while the cases index around between the dies as the handle is worked. Progressive presses can make ammunition very quickly. For heavy pistol shooters this is the fastest way to get a lot of ammo quickly. Once the press is full of cases, every pull of the handle finishes a round. Since so many operations are going on at once, proper setup and adjustment is crucial, and a mistake can be multiplied many times before it is discovered. Most progressives can be made to load only one round at a time to slow them down for new users. If you are interrupted while running progressively, you can merely withhold new cases from the machine and finish out all the rounds in the press quickly, or you may leave the rounds in the press unfinished at their stages of the process. Progressives are the most expensive presses typically, and require a sturdy mounting area and to be kept clean and well maintained.
I recommend that a case tumbler be purchased from the beginning unless you only intend to use new brass. Even "clean" once fired brass that never hit the dirt will have soot, grit & powder residue which will make you need to use more force to resize the brass and if the grit gets stuck in the die it will scratch every case that goes through the die thereafter until cleaned out. Polished & cleaned brass works so much better in the dies and reloading steps that I don't even consider it an option anymore. I started out with "clean-ish" fired brass, when I got a tumbler I found out how much better things went when the brass really was clean. It resized so much nicer, the press ran smoother, the finished rounds looked so much better- and pride in your creations is a good reward- when you can look at a pile of gleaming ammo that YOU just made, you feel good!
A media separator is needed to get the tumbling media out of the cases. This can be a commerically-sold device that looks like a whirligig to spin the brass, or it can be as simple as a cheap colander with large holes sitting on a bucket.
Media & Stuff:
Much thought is given to media, but basically it is something that rubs the cases clean. The standards are crushed corncob (softer, gives a more delicate bright finish, takes longer on really dirty cases) or crushed walnut shells (harder, polishes faster, but gives a more scoured look to the brass). You can buy the stuff sold by the big reloading suppliers, or you can go to a farm, pet, or welding supply store to get the same thing much cheaper in bulk packaging. Whatever you get, make sure the screen size is small enough that it does not get stuck in your brass.
To enhance the brass' appearance or help clean, additives are made to polish the brass while tumbling. There are the commercial additives made by the big companies, or you can us NuFinish car polish. Pour a light drizzle in the tumbler while it is running with no brass in it, wait for the chunks to break up, then add the brass. The wax will also help prevent tarnish and make the brass more "slippery" in the dies. To rejuvenate the polish, add a thimble full of deodorized mineral spirits (paint thinner) to the running tumbler to wet it again.
I do not recommend using any type of grit. Some reloaders will tumble heavily tarnished brass in black oxide sandblasting grit to quickly scour it clean. This will scratch and thin your brass quickly and damage the tumbler bowl. Also, avoid using anything with ammonia in it as it will damage the brass.
If you are using nickle brass, be aware that excessive tumbling may wear through the thin coat of nickle! Inspect nickle brass for chipping or peeling of the nickle coat and discard any that are showing wear. The nickle bits can become stuck in the die and scratch the next cases that go through.
For pistol brass there are 6 specific processes that need to be done to make a firing round (For simplicity I am assuming a straight-wall pistol case & brass is already prepped)-
1. Size (or "Resize") the case:
The case will swell slightly when fired and needs to be put back to proper size to fit the chamber again. The sizing die is made so that the case is forced inside it and it is a diameter inside to gently squish the case back to proper size and shape/roundness. Usually at this time, the expended primer is pushed out of the case by a pin inside the sizing die. If you are using new brass, it will still be a good process to resize them to ensure concentric roundness and manufacturing tolerances. Because this process of resizing takes force and friction, the die can become stuck to the case so if your dies are all plain steel the cases need to be lightly lubricated with case lube. To get around this, die makers started using a carbide ring at the base of the die- dies with a carbide insert do not need to be lubricated! This is a great savings in labor and time. You can tell if the die has a carbide insert by looking at the base of the die and seeing if it has a ring of a different metal embedded. Or the box will usually say so.
A sizer die is typically adjusted so that when the press ram is on the top of the upstroke the bottom of the die is just putting pressure on the shell holder on top of the ram. This ensures the die goes all the way down the case to the base web and resizes the whole case.
***Note: Some reloaders choose to deprime their cases before doing any other work to them- to clean the primer pockets, for example. In this case they would use a depriming-only die such as Lee's Universal Depriming Die to remove the primer without resizing the case. This works great where you have dirty brass and don't want to get dirt in your sizer die.
2. Prime the case:
The expended primer was pushed out in the resizing die (or deprimer). Now you need to insert a new primer. You have several options:
a. Prime Off Press: Kits such as the Lee Auto-Prime use a handheld device that you chuck the case into, press a lever, and a new primer is inserted into the case. Usually quick, simple, easy to understand. Typically there is a large primer tool and a small primer tool (or a few small parts needing swapped to convert between large and small primers), the case determines which primer size you need.
b. Prime On Press- manually: Most single-stage type presses have available a tool that inserts a new primer into the base of the round while the round is on the press. For example, Lee has a "T"-shaped tool that has large and small primer size punches on it- insert a fresh primer, slide it into the ram, lower the ram, and it presses a primer in the case. Convenient because you don't have to handle the case on and off the press.
c. Prime On Press- automatically: Some progressive presses, turret presses, and some kits on other presses allow you to load a hopper full of primers (Similar to the hopper for the Off-Press priming tool) and prime automatically on the press. This system is typically the weak link of any press because primers are small, light, and sensitive to getting mis-inserted or misfed. If used properly it is the fastest way to prime.
Basically, the primer is a press fit into the case head. You just put the primer in the pocket and push it in firmly and gently. It stays there by friction.
Certain military brass may have the primer staked or crimped into place. This was done as a safety feature for brass fired in machine pistols and submachine guns, for example. In order to properly prime this brass, the ring of metal in the primer pocket that held the primer in must be removed or you will just crunch the new primer trying to force it in. You can remove it with an RCBS primer-pocket swager, with a reamer, or with a cutter. Swageing does the least damage to the brass. If it is a common pistol caliber and there are only a few of them, just set them aside for later projects if you don't have a primer prep tool.
3. Expanding the case (Also called "Belling", "Flaring", etc.):
The newly-resized case has been sized slightly smaller than the size of the new bullet. This is so that the bullet will stay put in the brass when it is inserted. In order to insert the new bullet without gouging or catching the edge, the mouth of the case needs to have a little funnel-shape created to guide the bullet in without damaging it. This is accomplished by using the expanding die. Typically an expander die is adjusted by putting in a resized case and then unscrewing the die. Raise the ram to the top, then start screwing the expander die down until you feel it touch the case. Then screw it in a little more, checking after every adjustment to see if a new bullet will fit into the mouth without gouging. Yuu want to expand the case the bare minimum necessary to insert the new bullet without damage and no more- because the expanding process tends to work the metal at the case mouth, the weakest part of the case, and too much expanding and working the metal will lead to eventual case failure. Also, too much "flare" applied will make the bullet loose in the mouth possibly ,and make getting a good crimp later harder.
Typically, when loading cast lead bullets, you will need a bit more flare because the bullet is both slightly larger in diameter, and much softer than jacketed bullets, and thus more prone to shaving or gouging the sides on the edge of the brass case mouth.
4. Charging the case:
This is where you actually put the gunpowder in the case. How much powder to use depends on the caliber, bullet weight, and which gunpowder you are using, as well as what sort of gun it is used in, what type of bullet, the bullet shape, and the expected use of the ammo. The powder makers have excellent resources available to help determine minimum and maximum powder charges sorted by caliber and bullet weight/style. If using lead bullets, reduced charges are recommended to avoid possibly leading the barrel. I refer you to the various loading manuals to investigate powder choice and amounts.
There are a couple ways to put the powder in the case:
a. Charging off press: Some loaders use a trickler or powder spoon/dipper to measure powder or drop it onto a scale, and pour it right into the case.
b. Charging on press- manually: Some loaders have a device that measures powder and drops it right in the case without taking the case off the press. Obviously this can be slightly less accurate than using a scale to weigh out each charge manually, however where ammo is used for practice or extreme accuracy is not needed this is adequate for most applications. Care must be taken to recheck the powder amount thrown with an avordupois (actual mass weight) scale periodically to ensure the thrower stays calibrated.
c. Charging on press- automatically: Some presses such as Lee presses use an expander die that is hollow and the powder measure device attaches to the top of the expander die. When a case is present to be expanded, the action of expanding the case activates the trip for the powder measure and the correct amount of powder is automatically measured and dumped into the case through the expander die without needing a separate step to charge the case. Some other presses use an empty station and hollow die that only dispenses powder. Again, periodic rechecking of the amount of powder measured using an actual scale is a good idea to ensure no error or drift is ocurring and if precision is vital these devices may vary charges thrown slightly from case to case.
5. Seating the bullet:
Now the case is resized, has a new primer and a charge of gunpowder. The bullet goes in next. Each specific caliber and type of bullet will have a recommended OAL (OverAll Length) that the bullet should be seated to. By pressing the bullet in deeper or letting it protrude out farther you are possibly changing the case volume and how the powder charge will ignite. Too much setback (pushing the bullet in too far) can result in the charge abruptly spiking high pressures and can damage the gun or cause injury. Bullets seated too far out can jam up the gun or fail to feed properly. Generally, there are safe ranges to OAL that can be used. The loading manual will state an OAL to use as a guideline.
The bullet seating die contains a plug (The "Seater" or "Seating Plug") which is the part that pushes on the top of the bullet to force it into the case. Tightening the plug knob makes it seat deeper. Unscrewing the plug knob seats shallower.
Typically ,to set up a seating die, unscrew the seating plug all the way (but leave some threads to secure it in the die body) and loosen the die up. Place a case with a bullet ready to seat in the shell holder and raise the ram to the top of stroke. Screw the die down a few turns, then screw in the seating knob until you feel the plug hit the top of the bullet. You may need to screw down the whole die body some more if there is not enough travel on the seating plug knob. Once you have the seating plug touching the bullet, keep screwing it in and rechecking the OAL until you have the bullet where you want it. Go slowly as you get close because if you go too deep you will need to pull the bullet out of the case and try again.
Some bullets have a crimp groove (Called a "Cannelure") made in the bullet. Typically, you press the bullet in until the cannelure is just slightly flush with the case mouth and then crimp the case into the crimp groove.
Another way to setup a seater if you are using standard style commercial bullets is to use a factory round of the proper caliber and bullet size. Place the new factory round in the shell holder, loosen the seating die all the way up, then run the new round up into the seating die all the way. Turn down the die and seating plug knob until you just feel the seating plug touch the top of the bullet and then lock it down using the setscrew or locknut. You are now seating to the same depth as the factory. This is great if you are using a common FMJ style bullet that matches factory loads.
6. Crimping the case mouth:
The bullet is now seated. However, if you look, you will see the flare is still on the case mouth from where the case was expanded to get the bullet to seat smoothly. This needs to be removed so the bullet is gripped tightly in the case and the case will feed and chamber properly. It is important to crimp the brass to do this.
Semi-automatics typically need only a taper crimp to hold the bullet in place. A taper crimp is created by only crimping the case mouth just enough to press the metal back in flush to the bullet- basically, undoing the flare you made at the expander. Since the rounds are usually enclosed in a magazine and won't set forward on recoil, a taper crimp helps resist setback when the bullet hits the feedramp and the slide pushes the round forward- for the reasons mentioned in seating, you don't want the bullet to push back into the case.
Revolvers typically need a roll crimp, although some light target loads will do fine with a taper crimp, I roll crimp all revolver rounds so as not to be confused. A roll crimp is created when the brass of the case mouth is brought in towards the bullet, then pressed more and rolled or curled over towards the center of the case. Usually, this would be so the edge of the brass will grip the bullet securely and dig in if the bullet tries to go forward and extend itself out the front of the case. In large, heavy revolvers, the recoil of the gun can cause the bullets to pop forward in the case- this will jam up a revolver. If you look at a flashlight battery, look at the edge of the outside case of the battery where it meets the top or bottom. The material is rolled over so that it overlaps the edge. This is a roll crimp.
Unless you are shooting a heavy Magnum revolver, roll crimps need not be huge or deep- as long as the brass rolls into the crimp groove in the bullet you are fine.
To set up a crimp die, you take a case with a properly seated bullet and place it in the shell holder. Unscrew the crimp die (Some crimp dies have an adjustment like the seater does, with a knob) and raise the ram to the top of travel. Screw down the die (or knob) until you feel it hit the case. Then lower the ram, tighten the die 1/4 turn more, raise the die (applying crimp -some resistance will be felt) and lower the die and check the crimp. If you need more crimp, make small adjustments and recrimp the case until you are satisfied. It is easier to apply a bit more crimp than it is to break down and resize the case if you overcrimp, so go slowly and carefully and check each adjustment before locking down the die.
As said above, semiauto rounds are properly taper crimped when the flare has just been removed and the case mouth is a smooth, straight line again. More crimp is not necessary, and may actually be bad, because most semiauto headspace their chamber by the case mouth, and too much crimping here can make the case set forward in the chamber, affecting headspace. Revolver rounds are properly roll crimped when the case metal has rolled into the crimp groove on the bullet. Too much roll or taper crimp can actually crush the bullet in the brass and damage the bullet, causing loose bullets in the case mouth. It will also over-work the case mouth metal and lead to premature metal fatigue and case splits.
***NOTE: Some die makers (Lee in particular) the crimper and seater dies are combined. The seating die both seats the bullet and applies crimp. This makes setting up the seat/crimp die at the same time a little tricky. Adjusting the crimp by seating the die in or out also changes the OAL by moving the seater plug. For example, if you want more crimp and tighten the die, you also need to loosen the seater knob a bit to compensate or you will be seating deeper. It takes a lot of trial and error to set up a combined seat/crimp die correctly but when it is right, it does both processes well without needing another station on the press or process to be aware of.
Last Step: INSPECTION!
Look over your newly-minted ammo. Compare it to a like factory round to see any differences. Make sure the primer is flush or slightly below flush in the case head. Make sure the bullet did not get a ridge of metal scraped off of it by the edge of the case when you seated it. Make sure the length is similar. Make sure there are no odd marks, gouges, or dents in the brass. Make sure the bullet was seated centered in the case. Make sure the case was crimped right- not too much, not too little.
With lead slugs it is possible you may see a bulge in the brass- looking like a snake ate a mouse- this is the actual bullet in the case, bulging the brass slightly. This is normal with cast bullets that are slightly oversized to begin with to better fit the bores. A slight bulge the size of the bullet is OK and you can measure it with your calipers. Just measure the wall thickness of an empty case, multiply by two (two sides) and then measure the bullet and add that number. If the bulged round is within a thousandth of that number, you are OK.
You can test fit the cases with a case gauge, or you can use the gun's barrel/chamber itself to measure. With semiautos, remove the barrel from the gun. (OBSERVE THE 4 RULES AT ALL TIMES!!!) Take one of your factory rounds and drop it into the chamber. Observe how it fits, how it feels, how far it goes into the chamber- it should stop with the primer at the end of the chamber flush with where the back of the slide and firing pin would be. Now drop in your reloads. They should fit just the same and drop right into the chamber. If not, look to see why. Is the flare not removed? Is it overcrimped? Then make adjustments to your dies to fix the issues.
Guns with very tight competition chambers may have a snug fit with your reloads. Often this pistol may be finicky about factory ammo, too. If you are finding this, one method of fixing the problem is with a Lee Factory Crimp Die. When properly setup the FCD will resize the finished round and bullet to the dimension set when the die is set up. For guns with a tight chamber, the carbide FCD will make sure the finished reloads will fit your chamber. You can adjust the FCD to give more or less resizing of the finished round. Be aware that over-sizing here will damage the bullet and may actually make problems worse if used incorrectly. If the case resizing die was properly setup and the crimp die was properly set up, the FCD should barely, if ever, touch the finished case except on those cases that were out of spec. The FCD should NOT be used as a band-aid to take ammo loaded with misadjusted dies early in the process and make it fireable.
These steps are general steps to help a new reloader understand the process. Your specific press, dies, or caliber may need more or less work to make a safe reloaded round of ammunition. Read & follow all manuals, guides, cautions and instructions that come with reloading equipment and stay safe!
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