Rolling Your Own, Part II
September 24, 2010
More tips and advice on getting started in reloading
In the previous story I covered the basics of reloading handgun cartridges with an emphasis on bottlenecked cases. The drill for reloading for straight-sided cases is pretty much the same, but there are differences. Where a two-die system works nicely for a bottlenecked case, a straight-sided case needs at least a three-die system. In addition to the die that does full-length sizing and the die that seats the bullet, a die is added to bell the mouth of the case to make bullet seating possible. I've also routinely added a fourth die to my handgun setups to crimp the case. It's possible to properly crimp a case using the bullet-seating die, too, but you'll get the best results adding a fourth die for crimping.
It's possible to load lots of good handgun ammunition on a single-stage press, and if that's all you have, go at it. Still, I'm going to bet that soon after you learn how inexpensively you can shoot, you'll start shooting more, and the savings might lead you to acquire a progressive press.
While you always have the option to purchase new or used brass to fuel your fire, I've always considered it more economical to buy good-quality, inexpensive ammunition like Federal American Eagle, Winchester USA or Remington UMC and then reuse those cases. You can reload them up to a dozen times.
You'll want to clean 'em up prior to inspecting them. I like to throw 100 cases or so into a tumbler and let the machine run for a few hours. Crushed walnut shells do a great job polishing things, and you'll quickly be able to pick out the cases suitable to hit file 13.
With a few hundred cases cleaned and inspected it's time to head for the loading bench. If you're doing things one at a time, you'll perform the steps one at a time, too. You'll full-length-resize and deprime all the cases before repriming them. Then you'll install the belling die and bell the case mouths. Belling the case mouth is a necessary evil, but don't overdo it. Belling the cases more than necessary hardens the brass, leading to early case failure. Then you'll fill cleaned primer pockets with fresh primers designed for the job at hand. If you're trying to ignite a large quantity of H110 or WW 296, you might need a magnum primer while Blue Dot or Bullseye ignite fine with a standard-heat primer. Check out the reloading manual for a suggested primer. (It's always a good idea to thoroughly read the appropriate manuals before doing any reloading.)
With the cases primed and belled, it's time to drop a powder charge into each case. This might be the time to mention that while I do weigh individual powder charges for my long-range hand rifles, and any rig aimed at sub-MOA groups, this isn't necessary for most handgun ammunition. Let's face it; the best 1911 you can get your hands on might be capable of just slipping under two inches at 50 yards. A great revolver might cut that nearly in half. The point is that it makes little sense to use benchrest tactics to load for a firearm incapable of benchrest groups. While it's perfectly OK to weigh individual powder charges, I'll work up the load for accuracy and then use a powder measurer to throw the charges. I check the measure regularly, too.
Again, it's good to pick a powder charge that fills a large part of the empty case. This makes it impossible to double-charge them in the process.
After the cases are charged, it's time to slip the bullet into the case. I like to use a four-die system here and use the bullet-seating die just to seat the bullet to the desired depth. Again, you can refer to the reloading manuals for the desired overall length, but you might have to play with things, too.
If you're loading for a tightly fitted 1911 wadcutter pistol with a light recoil spring, you might find that the 185-grain semiwadcutter bullets have to be set and crimped just right to function. It's no fun to have a work stoppage in the middle of the rapid-fire stage; take my word on this. One of the great benefits of reloading is that you now have the ability to tailor ammunition to perfectly fit your job application.
If you use your bullet-seating die as a crimping die, you'll note that as the bullet is forced downward in the belled case, the bell is removed, and the case mouth rolls into the bullet. I'd rather have the bullet stationary while the case is crimped around it. Take your pick. This is also a good place to point out that there are different crimp dies available.
The author shoots the .45 Colt regularly in several arms and leaves his Dillon RL 450 set up for this caliber. The RL 450 is a rock-solid, inexpensive, manually advanced progressive loader. Here, the author charges a case and feeds a primer. One fresh round is made with each full stroke of the handle.
My wadcutter .45 likes cases that are taper crimped. In this case the entire side of the case is forced into a long taper, the mouth of which solidly engages the bullet. If you're loading for your pet wheelgun, a roll crimp works just fine. Regardless, you will have to use some type of crimp, and it has to be tight. If you don't use a solid crimp, you'll run into things like bullet jump or jams or both. Bullet jump occurs when recoil causes the bullets in the cylinder to slip forward in the cases. Jams in an auto can be caused when a bullet is forced deeper into a case as the slide forces the round into and over the feed ramp. Semiautos are tough on ammunition for the most part.
Over the years, I've relied on cast bullets for most of my shooting, and I've done a fair amount of hunting with them as well. There's still nothing wrong with a Keith-style 260-grain, .45-caliber semiwadcutter in the field. Accurate and hard-hitting, one of these babies will usually shoot clear through a big-game animal. In addition, cast bullets are darned inexpensive when one can scrounge wheel weights from the local tire shop. There have been books published about making good bullets from wheel weights, so we'll not tread there, but suffice it to say that I've shot a bunch of "10s" and put substantial meat on the table with reshaped wheel weights.
This isn't a pastime for the basement. If there's a downside to loading cast bullets, it crops up when lubed, cast bullets are being loaded into your carefully polished cases. Cast bullets must be lubricated to reduce leading. Some bullet lubes are greasier than others. You may need to clean or wipe down the loaded ammunition prior to dropping it into your 100-round plastic box.
I suspect that if you load on a single-stage press for long, you'll begin looking at a progressive machine. These great machines perform each step of the process with every stroke of the handle. When you return the handle, the resized and deprimed case will be primed while the finished round drops into a plastic box or tray. Some progressive presses are self-indexing while in others it is
a manual process. Self-indexing equipment is state of the art, but it goes without saying that the more complicated the machine, the more complex the setup and operation.
While I've relied on a couple of Dillon presses for my handgun loading for years, I use RCBS equipment for other jobs, and everything with the RCBS name is great. I've also inspected Hornady equipment, and I wouldn't think twice before putting my money down for the firm's products.
You can't build thousands of rounds per day without spending some of that hard-earned green stuff in the process. Speed costs money, and you'll probably spend somewhat more than $300 to get started loading ammo. It can pay huge dividends to hit garage sales, too. I picked up a slightly used Dillon 550 manual-indexing progressive-reloading setup 10 years ago. As I recall, I paid about half of the cost of new equipment.
Still, new equipment really doesn't cost much when you factor in the lifetime warranty offered by the major players in the reloading business. Spending $500 or more on equipment that will be used to load 10,000 rounds, for instance, only adds a nickel to the cost of each round. If 10,000 rounds per year sounds like a lot of ammo, it works out to 192.3 rounds per week. Two hundred rounds a week wouldn't even scratch the surface of the needs of any half-serious competitive shooter. When I was farming, I'd commonly plink away 100 rounds of .45 Colt ammo in an afternoon. In that same light, you get exactly what you pay for. Good reloading equipment works exactly as it should: for a lifetime. You can't put a price on that.
Safety equipment must include safety glasses. In addition, since you won't peer down the case neck to check powder charges when you're using a progressive machine, check everything before each pull of the handle. Make sure that there are primers in the magazine tube and ample powder in the powder measure. I like to fill both of these often, keeping the powder level above the half-full mark. This ensures that powder charges will be consistent throughout the loading cycle.
As with any reloading practice, keep notes on each load in addition to labeling each box of loaded ammo. If you're loading thousands of rounds of ammunition, I also suggest that you shoot the earliest ammunition first to keep everything fresh. Return the unused powder and primers to their original containers. Chemicals in the powder can react to the powder measure as well as dry out, changing the burning characteristics.
Even if you don't cast bullets, there are often local sources for very good cast or swaged lead bullets. Cast bullets offer cheaper shooting and can be driven faster at lower pressure simply because they are softer than jacketed bullets and lubricated. Cast bullets are also very easy on a barrel. You can't miss with a good cast-bullet load.
Depending on what you lay out in an initial investment, handloaded ammunition makes a great deal of sense--and cents, too. It's easy and fun to sit down for an evening that results in hundreds or even thousands of rounds of good, inexpensive ammunition. And it sure beats watching the drivel that's on TV these days.