Learning how to reload ammo can seem pretty complex at first. In this guide we will cover all you need to know on how to get started reloading your own ammunition. We will also cover what you will need to get started.
Before we get started, please understand this article is purely educational. View our disclaimers page, and understand that reloading can potentially be dangerous.
Why Reload Ammo?
So, the common question I get is why reload ammo? It seems so complicated to those who haven’t done it.
Here are a few reasons why you should reload ammo:
- Save Money – Despite the upfront costs, ammo can be as little as half the price.
- Personal Control – I have rarely had a squib load or anything go wrong with my rounds. They are also far more accurate. You get to pick exactly what you want from bullet weight to design and load it to your own specs.
- Ammo Shortages – When ammo runs short, the common calibers go first. You will always have access to 9mm, .45, .380, .38, 5.56mm and all the rest.
- Rare Ammo – If you like a rare caliber, you will always have ammo for it. Also, rare calibers are even more costly per round and you will save a ton loading for them.
- It’s a Fun Hobby – When you get into fine tuning loads and working toward the exact round for you, reloading is very rewarding and enjoyable.
If any of those sound good to you, let’s talk about what you need to get started:
Getting the Right Gear
If you have ever watched anyone reload, you have an idea of some of what you need. For those completely new, we are looking at the equipment for pistol and rifle rounds. Shotguns are a different matter.
You can easily start out with one of these, but you will eventually want more than one. Each manual is usually made by an ammo manufacturer and can leave out some loads that may interest you. Here are a few that are worth getting.
- Speer 15th Edition Handloading Manual – Myself and many others started with Speer. It is quite versatile with many different bullet weights and powder types. I think this is a good first book.
- Hornady 9th Edition Cartridge Reloading – Most of the Hornady manuals are more geared toward rifle rounds than pistol, but they do have some valuable information on various pistol calibers including some rare ones.
- Nosler Reloading Guide 8th Edition - Nosler is much like Speer with a variety of calibers and loads. This would also be a decent place to start, but I prefer Speer for most on my load info.
- Shooter's Bible Guide to Handloading – You should also pick this up fairly early on. It’s a cheap book with a plethora of great information on reloading and testing rounds. With this book and a little experience, you will be well on your way!
You will probably want to get updated books every few years as powders, bullets, and load information gets updated. You can end up with quite the impressive library over time.
Tools of the Trade - Basics
I am going to make this very easy on you. There are a lot of tools and different brands, models, makes, etc. It can get very confusing. Starting out, get a kit. My personal favorite:
The RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme Master Kit is a one-stop shop for everything you need to get started. Everything is great quality and will last you a lifetime. Reloading equipment rarely wears out.
This kit contains:
- A Single Stage Press
- Mechanical Scale
- Adjustable Powder Measure
- Priming Tool
- Lube pad and Lube
- Reloading Tray
- Deburr Tool
- Reloading Manual
You won’t save money buying these separately. The only reason to go with individual parts is to get a different brand. RCBS is a perfectly functional brand. If you want precision, that all comes with dies, but we will get to that.
If you want to buy individual, here is what to look for:
Get a single stage to start out with. It's much less investment if you end up not getting the reloading bug. It is also far simpler to operate for a beginner.
I still load on a single stage and have no problem with the speed I can reload. You can upgrade to a multi-stage or automatic press later if need be.
I like a manual scale because I know they are accurate. If you want, you can opt for a digital press now or later. Even if you do, keep that manual scale around for testing your digital scale. With digital scales, there is only one I truly love.
Lyman Accu-Touch 2000 – It’s a scale that comes with a powder trickler built in to keep your loads exactly where you want them. This is worth the money, but I like a manual scale. They are usually more accurate. This is faster though.
If you are buying separately, you can go with something as simple as powder spoons or as advanced as an auto-measure. Save yourself the trouble and stick with a fairly basic powder measure. The RCBS is my personal favorite, but all of them work similarly.
RCBS Uniflow Powder Measure – It's basic, highly adjustable, and works perfectly. I never have had a problem with it. It’s also very affordable!
I still use my hand held priming tool most of the time because I can sit in front of the TV and prime my cases while watching a good movie. If you want to go with separates or get an upgraded priming tool, get a bench mount.
RCBS Auto-Primer – You can stack your primers in the tube and get a good, consistent seating depth. These are a great tool, but are not necessary. It makes a good addition later on.
The rest of the gear that comes with the RCBS kit you will need, but it's all fairly generic. Brownells sells it all and it's all quite cheap. From here, I would rather talk about some add ons to that above kit to really get you started right!
Tools of the Trade - Dies
You are going to need dies from the get-go if you want to reload. However, they are caliber specific. My recommendation is to always try to get a 3 die set just to make sure you have everything you need.
I have two different recommendations for dies: If you are loading for a precision rifle or when pin-point accuracy is your goal, get good dies from a company like Redding. For pistols, when short range is all you need, get affordable Lee dies.
This could be shortened to Redding for Rifle, Lee for Pistol, but that isn’t universal. Your budget may dictate what you need.
Lee Pistol Dies – These are the standard that I use and I have more Lee dies than any other brand. I always recommend you get carbide dies. This saves a lot of heartache over stuck cases.
Redding Dies – I love Redding dies when I want very precise loading. Not all of my precision loads are done on Redding dies, but many are. Lee does a good job, but when it’s a one-time investment, I want to know I did it right.
Tools of the Trade - Useful Additions
Here are some items that you may want to look into getting to add to your reloading collection. While not all of these are extremely necessary, they can make reloading a little easier.
If you are interested in getting right on the nose when it comes to your powder, get a trickler. They are cheap and fun to use. You can get a very precise amount of powder with one of these.
Redding Powder Trickler – I find the Redding trickler to be a little finer than the RCBS model. The price is minimal and it still matches all the RCBS green machinery.
Powder Measure Stand
If you got the above kit or a similar powder measure, get a stand for it. It greatly simplifies things. For the low cost, it really improves your reloading speed.
RCBS Powder Measure Stand – It's basic, functional, and affordable. It will fit most brand powder measures, but you want to double check to make sure.
Though I prefer a paste lube, because it is less of a mess and more consistent, I have never had a stuck casing with Redding Imperial Die Wax.
Redding Imperial Die Wax – This 2oz tin lasts for years! Get one, it's well worth the money.
I highly recommend getting one of these. It is far more important with rifle cartridges than pistol, but it's best to be sure.
Forester Case Trimmer – This is one of the most affordable trimmers on the market and it does a fine job. You will need to pick up a collet and pilot for your caliber needs. Having one is indispensable, especially on any hot or magnum rounds.
No matter how careful you are, you are going to make mistakes. Rather than waste components, get a bullet puller. When I got my RCBS kit, it came with a kinetic puller, but do yourself a favor and upgrade. The cost is very little extra.
Frankfort Arsenal Kinetic Puller – If you have to have a kinetic puller, this is a solid one that will last and is quite affordable.
Hornady Cam-Lock Puller – These are just a better alternative. They do take some time to set up but are quick if you are doing more than a few rounds. It threads into your press and uses the throw arm to remove the bullet.
Get a good set of calipers to measure overall length, case length, seating depth, diameter, and many other things. These are a must-have! You don’t need fancy; a simple set of digital calipers will work.
Dijite Digital Calipers – These are not the ancient ones I own. I have no idea where I even got mine, but this particular set is very similar, and is well loved by its users. I have no doubt it will do the job!
As you progress, you will likely want to get into case cleaning and trimming, but that can wait. Get a good grasp of what you are doing and how you prefer to do it before you dive headlong into all of the extras. You can get into reloading for the price of a single gun or less. Once you go with everything, you can invest thousands if you want. But you will never have to.
We all love new toys, but we need to get into the meat of the matter.
Tools of the Trade - Components
Everything above, you can order at once, but you want a reloading guide in your hand before you continue. Don’t go spending money on powder and bullets until you do a little research. Once you get an idea of the load you want and the bullet weight you plan to use, you can go forward with components.
The cheapest way however, is to go to your local range early on Sunday morning and gather all you can carry.
When you are getting brass, you need to make sure it’s Boxer primed and NOT Berdan primed. This should be in the description.
There are several brands of powder and each brand makes dozens of formulations. No two powders are equal. When picking a powder, I like to cross-reference the calibers I intend to load and pick a powder that will load most of them. Once you find one you like, get it in bulk!
You should also try to get your powder locally if you can. Shipping charges on powder are insane as they incur a HAZMAT charge and must be shipped ground freight!
If you are buying bulk powder, it may be worth a drive of a couple of hours to get what you need.
Primers come in a few different sizes. You can get large or small pistol primers, large or small rifle primers, and shotgun primers. There are also magnum primers in each of these sizes.
I have never used a magnum primer in any of the dozens of different calibers I have loaded. Your reloading manual should tell you which primers you will need for your caliber. Go ahead and get the bulk box of 5000 if you can afford it. They go fast and can sometimes dry up quick.
You should also source these locally as they are considered HAZMAT as well.
We can only discuss this in brief terms as there are too many calibers and bullet types to cover all of them. Pick your bullet weight based on what you want. You can pick your powder based on bullet weight.
I recommend sticking with bullets that are from major manufacturers and ones that are mentioned in your reloading manuals.
I like to get my bullets from Brownells. However, many other locations sell them as well.
This has been a lot of information to get here, hopefully with nothing overlooked. Once you have your gear, you are ready to move on!
This section is probably going to make reloading sound far more difficult, dangerous, and technical than it really is. It can be completely safe if handled correctly. We just want to be cautious.
First and foremost, don’t listen to things on the internet when it comes to the final word. That may even include us, but is especially true of load data. Consult your books and please get a copy of the Shooter's Bible Guide to Handloading. Read it cover to cover. It is invaluable!
A functional round of ammunition is a complicated thing. Always follow load data from a manual or powder manufacture. Max loads exist for a reason as do minimums. Stay between those numbers! There are those that develop custom loads, but doing so is a complicated process and takes years of practice and a lot of knowledge.
Did I mention the internet? I have found, courtesy of idiots, load data that I would never use all over the internet. Some frankly horrible advice. The only data on the internet you want to trust is that from your powder manufacturer. Most of them have a search section that will get you started. The internet is an invaluable tool as long as you trust no one.
Smoking and reloading don’t go together. I know, it's common sense, but that isn’t always common. It happens a few times a year. A few years ago, it happened just down the street from me. Keep fire and powder away from each other!
The Reloading Steps
We are going to briefly break down the reloading process. This is not comprehensive, that is what the Shooters Bible guide is for. This is just to give you an idea and get you started.
If you know someone that reloads and you trust them, they can be a great resource. Ask around your local gun store, I am sure you can find someone. Reloaders love to talk reloading.
All good reloading starts with prepping cases. Unless you have new brass, you have to do this!
All cases should be clean with no corrosion. Corrosion will make a round stick. You can get rid of any small spots by using a case cleaner or, if it's small enough, a small piece of 0000 steel wool. All dirt should be removed from the case and it should be dry inside and out. Pay special attention to the primer pocket!
When your cases are clean, apply a VERY SMALL amount of lube to them. Some people will only lube every few rounds. I do this now, but when I started, I just used a small bit on each one. It’s less frustrating than a stuck case on your new dies.
If you are trimming your cases, now is the time to do so. I prefer this step, but it does require added equipment. If you do, set up your trimmer to the size in your manual and trim all of your cases. Be sure to dispose of any brass shavings as they can be a huge pain in the foot. Literally.
Sizing, Depriming, Repriming
The next step is to get the old primer out and get rid of any case expansion issues that may have occurred.
Install your full-length sizing die, the long one with the pin, and adjust it. First, make sure the die is clean and that the pin for depriming the case extends only about 1/8 of an inch below the rim of the die. Use those calipers!
Next, install the shell plate on the ram of your press until it clicks and run the ram all the way to the top. Screw the die into the top of the press until it touches, but does not push the ram down. Lower the ram to the bottom and then screw the die down about 1/8th of a turn. Tighten the locking ring. Your die is now ready.
Carefully place your prepped case into the shell plate all the way and run the ram to the top. At the bottom of the stroke on the RCBS press, you should feel it sort of cam over. The primer should pop out. Run the ram to the bottom and move on to the next case.
Once you have your cases deprimed, let's put some new primers in.
First, set up the tool. With the RCBS tool, you need the shell plate (the same one that is probably still in your press) and the appropriately sized primer feed and primer rod. There are full directions on setup in most manuals for this tool. Read through them to get everything in place as it requires photo instructions.
The RCBS manual can be found: HERE
One safety note: Make sure your primer rod is installed with the flat side up.
Fill the tray with primers. A little gentle shaking will usually insure all of the primers are facing the same direction. Turn any primers that are not showing with the open side up.
Install the tray into the priming tool and tilt it slightly until the primers slide into the primer feed. Once you have a primer all the way into the feed, squeeze the handle completely and you should feel the primer slide into place. Remove that round and move on to the next.
I like to set my primed cases on a flat surface. If they set level, the primer is seated fully. If not, the primer is too proud. You can always try putting it back in the priming tool, but often these are just problematic. For now, you are better off discarding them.
Charging the Cases
Now to add the powder. I find this to be the most fun part of reloading because I can take my time and get things just right!
For this guide, I am going to assume a manual scale, but a digital scale will work in a similar fashion. They both start with making sure your scale and brass powder pan are clean and free of dust. Once they are, with the pan on the scale, make sure it reads at a perfect zero. Set your scale to the desired grain weight by moving the balances.
Add powder to your powder measure and throw one shot of powder into your pan. Place it on the scale and see what it reads. You want it to read zero. You can adjust the amount of powder thrown with the screw on the front of the throw handle. This is just trial and error until you get it right.
Once you have your measure set to throw a charge, you are good to go. Some people only measure every few charges to make sure that the measure is still calibrated. I measure every load because I like to be sure. You can use a powder trickler to fine tune to exactly where you want if you are throwing a grain or two light.
Set your primed cases in a reloading tray and use the funnel to charge every case. This step is often the most frightening to new reloaders, but you have it done! Time to seal up those cases.
Seating the Bullet
This is a two-step process, but you can do it all as a single step with the right setup. The first is seating the bullet to the proper depth. The second is applying a small crimp to hold the bullet in place. Some reloaders do not use a crimp, but for any auto-loading weapon, its invaluable to your ammo reliability.
If you are using a 3-die set, this will be a two-step process. I find this to be the most accurate and better for autoloading pistols and rifles.
Step 1 - Seating
Seating the round uses the other long die without the pin. To set it up, screw the depth adjustment on the top up, so it does not touch the round. Place your charged case into the shell holder on the ram, place a bullet on top and run it all the way to the top of the ram stroke. Screw the die in until it impacts the shell holder and stops. Screw the depth adjustment screw down until it touches the top of the bullet.
Now to get it adjusted. Pull the ram down a short way and turn the depth adjustment screw about a half turn. Run the ram back to the top and it will barely seat the bullet. Bring the ram down and check the bullet length against what your reloading manual says.
From here, it's creeping up on the right length. Tighten the depth adjustment screw slowly and run the same round to the top. Measure it again. Go slow, especially as you get close. 1/8th or even 1/16th of a turn until you get right on the length. If your die has a locking nut, tighten it without moving the depth screw.
Seat each bullet, measuring every so often to make sure that nothing has loosened up. When all of your bullets are seated properly, it's time to crimp them.
Step 2 - Crimping
Run the ram with a round in place to the top of the ram stroke and install the crimp die. Screw it down until it stops but does not push the ram down. Lower the ram and screw the crimp die down about 1/8th of a turn. Raise the ram back to the top, you should feel a very small resistance.
Remove the round and examine it. The crimp should be visible, but barely. It doesn’t take much. If your round has a noticeable swell behind the crimp, it's crimped too much. Adjust your die for less crimp. Repeat on all of your ready rounds.
If you are using a 2-die set with a seating and crimping die as a single die, you want to get the depth first then the crimp.
First, run the ram to the top, with the depth adjustment screw out of the way, screw the die in place until it stops. Back the die out about a half a turn then repeat the depth adjustment from above.
Once you have the correct depth, screw down the locking nut until it touches the top of the die but don’t tighten. Without moving the nut, screw the depth adjustment up and out of the way then adjust the die as specified in the crimp section above. Move the depth adjustment back down until the locking screw touches the top of the die and tighten it.
You should be able to run a case and bullet up and get the right depth and a small crimp in one stroke. Measure your completed rounds to make sure nothing is off then repeat.
With this step done, you are ready to test your rounds, but that is a whole other topic.
Tips and Tricks
Go Slow - At first, always go slow. Fixing mistakes costs time and components. Make adjustments small until you get where you need to be and then double check.
Use Manuals - Keep your manual(s) handy and reference them often to avoid mistakes. It only takes a little negligence to ruin a round or make it dangerous.
Setup - Setup may seem a pain and it can be at first. I can get everything set up and reload 10 rounds in less than 10 minutes. This comes with time.
Don't Rush - Don’t get frustrated with speed. You will get faster. I can load 500 rounds of pistol ammo in an hour. The key is to do everything in batches. Clean all your cases, resize, de-prime, re-prime, charge, and seat a bullet. Once you get the hang of each step, it goes fast!
Turret Presses - Turret style presses are great, but they don’t save as much time as you think. You still have to go through every step on this list, you just do them all at once. For the beginner, there is too much room for error for the small amount of time savings you get.
Reloading Station - Get a dedicated space with lots of organization. Your reloading time will be more fruitful with less effort wasted trying to find the small collets, pins, and other parts you need.
Measuring Spoons - Each die set comes with a measuring spoon for the caliber specified. Because no two powders are equal, this is not really a useful thing. However, they can work in a pinch if you measure every powder charge. Keep them around. They can make for a fun collection.
Shotgun Shells - Reloading shotgun shells is a whole different process, with different equipment. This is not a guide for them.
Reloading can seem daunting. At first, it's complicated and there is a lot to remember. This passes with time and confidence.
I encourage you to seek out other hand loaders. If nothing else, there are groups on Facebook. Just remember, don’t blindly trust anyone on the internet. Be sure to double check information from a manual or powder manufacturer!
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