June 19, 2023
My very first metallic handloading experience was with a hand press. I was working at NRA, and my office neighbor Doug Wicklund loaned me that press, gave me a powder scoop, some powder and other components necessary to reload for a newly acquired vintage 1911.
During breaks at work (and to be honest, a lot of times when I was supposed to be working) I’d load a few rounds. By the end of the week I’d have enough to shoot for a bit on the indoor range we had there, and I was hooked on reloading.
That’s how simple reloading can be, and many people would be surprised by how few tools and accessories it really takes to load your own ammo. While it can save you money, to me it’s a great hobby in its own right. And if you keep enough components on hand, you’ll be thankful when ammo supplies get tight.
I’m putting this first because it’s the elephant in the room. Yes, handloading can be dangerous. All the warnings you see in the reloading world aren’t just CYA legalese. But if you stick to accepted practices and follow published reloading data religiously, reloading is a safe hobby.
Bullet and powder makers publish data in book form, online and through various apps. These are your gold standards. Yes, shooting books and magazines do publish load data, but I always compare their recipes against the aforementioned sources. Data you see posted on internet forums? Fuggedaboutit.
The choice comes down to volume. I have a Hornady Lock-n-Load progressive press I use for 9mm practice ammo. Progressives are more expensive and have more of a learning curve, but once you get them set up, every pull of the lever kicks out a round. Besides volume, the great thing about progressives is that basically everything you need comes with the press. For example, they have onboard priming and powder dispensing. All you need in addition to components are the proper shell plate and dies.
If your primary motivation is ammo in volume for training or competition, you’re probably better off going right to a progressive. You can get into this game for as low as $600 to $700, and most allow you to add bullet feeders and case feeders as your needs require.
I actually use my RCBS single-stage press more than I use the progressive because I reload a lot of centerfire rifle for hunting, loads I prefer to build one at a time. On the handgun side, I use it for revolver loads because I don’t need large quantities. Single-stage presses go for around $150 to $300.
The other option is the turret press. I’ve never used one, but I know experienced reloaders who swear by them because they’re faster. All the dies you need are already in the turret and just have to be rotated into position. While not as fast as a progressive, they can crank out loads more quickly than a single stage. Turrets run in the mid $300 range.
One of the great things about reloading straight-wall handgun cartridges is that by using carbide and similar dies, there’s no need to lube cases. Die sets—sizer/decapper, expander and seater—run $60 to $100 for the most part. Crimping is beyond the scope of this article, but depending on your needs you can stick with the standard seating die or opt for a specialized crimp die.
These are cartridge-specific metal fittings into which you slide the base of the case so it’s held correctly for a given operation on presses and accessories like priming tools. Some calibers share a common shell holder. Progressives employ a shell plate, which is also caliber specific.
Progressive and turret presses have onboard priming systems, but single stages typically do not. Fortunately, hand primers are quick and easy to use, and they’re inexpensive— anywhere from $25 to $70 or so. The tools come with different sizes of plungers to accommodate Large Pistol and Small Pistol primers.
Powder dippers like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article do work. Lee sells a set for $20 that covers a lot of powders. Me, I want to have some sort of scale. For a long time I used a simple balance beam, and it was fine if a little slow.
Today’s digital scales are a lot handier. Regardless, whether you’re using a traditional manual powder dispenser ($25 and up) or an onboard one, you need the scale to set the dispenser and periodically check to ensure it’s still throwing the charge weight you want.
You can also step up to an all-in-one electrical unit that dispenses and weighs charges with a few presses on a keypad. They’re convenient as hell, but you’re looking at a couple hundred dollars.
Luckily, for handgun reloading you don’t need a lot of case prep gear like you do for rifles. For non-progressive presses you’ll want a cartridge loading block to hold cases at various stages of the reloading process, and a funnel to pour powder charges into an empty case. A good caliper is invaluable for checking case length. Safety glasses for sure.
Kits My first reloading setup was a Lee 50th anniversary kit my father-in-law gave me. If you’re not going progressive, these kits—which are available from makers like Hornady, RCBS, Lyman, Lee and others—are really hard to beat. For roughly $200 to $400 you’ll have all the basics, and believe me, these basics can take you very far into the rewarding world of handloading.