With the crazy prices of ammunition over the past few years, along with prolonged national ammo shortages, there has been a lot of new interest in cartridge reloading. It’s not for everyone, but for many people, reloading is one of their primary firearm-related hobbies or activities, and it has a lot of upsides. To help new shooters and new reloaders (or those who want to be), we’re going to go over the basics of reloading, and some tips and tools that make it easier, less time-consuming, and safer. So let’s jump right in!
Reloading Basics: Tools, Tips, and Must-have Gear
Important note: Handloading or reloading is potentially dangerous and should only be attempted by responsible adults who have educated themselves properly, who can follow established safety procedures, and who adhere to published reloading data. Neither Liberty Safe nor the author assumes any liability for the use or misuse of this information.
Why should you get into reloading? 4 primary reasons
Before we discuss the must-have tools and some “nice to have” gear to make reloading more pleasant, let’s go over the key reasons you might want to reload in the first place. After all, it’s a lot easier to just go to the sporting goods store and buy a few boxes of ammo, right? Well, here are some of the primary reasons for getting into handloading or reloading.
You can save money compared to buying factory ammunition
There’s an old reloading axiom that goes something like, “Reloading doesn’t actually save you any money; you just get to shoot more.” There is some truth to that, but in general, once you have amortized the cost of buying a reloading press, dies, tools, and all the components (powder, primers, bullets, and brass) you’ll need–which we’ll discuss below–you can usually reload your own ammunition for a significantly cheaper price per round than buying all-new factory ammo.
Depending on how much you load and shoot, it may take you a couple of months or even several years to realize those savings, because some reloading presses are quite expensive (as are components like primers and powder these days). But in the end, you’ll probably save quite a bit of money, particularly if your ammunition needs are on the rare/exotic side. However, even loading just the popular cartridges like 9mm Parabellum and 5.56x45 NATO/.223 Remington can save you lots of money if you buy primers and powder in bulk when prices are good, and buy bullets the same way. Many people have found they can shoot some centerfire cartridges for the same price or even less expensively than .22LR, depending on current market demand and component pricing.
Of course, you have to factor in your time, and some people value their free time so highly that spending time reloading just isn’t worth it for them.
When you reload, you’re more immune from ammunition shortages
We’ve seen some crazy, unprecedented times over the past 15 years or so in the gun world. Severe shortages of ammunition and reloading components have led some people to give up shooting entirely due to the lack of availability or the staggeringly high cost of factory ammo. However, if you’ve stockpiled a year or two’s worth of primers, powder, and bullets, you can keep shooting even when there’s no factory ammo on the shelves or online. The peace of mind that comes with being well-prepared for ammo droughts makes reloading worth the cost and effort for many people.
You can produce better and more accurate ammunition
Some people prioritize accuracy and consistency in their ammunition or search for the ultimate hunting round for that once-in-a-lifetime hunt. Careful handloading and reloading almost always result in more accurate, more consistent ammunition than buying factory-made ammo. Plus, you can try out multiple combinations of powder type, powder charge, bullet, primer, case, seating depth, crimp, cartridge headspace, and other variables in search of that absolutely perfect load that your gun shoots like a dream.
Many people find reloading a relaxing and fulfilling hobby
While some of us see reloading as a necessary evil that we’ll undergo until we win the lottery, others enjoy the meticulous, repetitive nature of reloading, or they enjoy producing something functional as a result of their efforts. For some people, reloading is the primary reason for being involved in shooting sports at all, and they don’t actually enjoy shooting all that much, except that it produces empty brass cases for them to reload. Some people enjoy the problem-solving aspect of finding the perfect load for each of their firearms.
What’s the difference between handloading and reloading?
Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, and the activities look very similar, but there are differences in the philosophy behind each. Most people agree that “handloading” typically refers to loading ammunition with high-end, (usually) all-new brass cases and premium bullets, with little regard for the cost. Handloaders seek perfection and are sometimes perceived as obsessive, buying expensive gauges or specialized tools to eke out that last nth of a percentage of accuracy or bullet velocity. Almost all competitive centerfire rifle target shooters load their own ammo.
The term “reloading” generally refers to loading your own ammunition, perhaps with the intent of saving money or increasing ammo availability in order to shoot more often, and generally reusing previously fired brass or shotgun hulls. It’s a small nuance, but some find it important to make that distinction. For our purposes here, we’re going to use “reloading” as a catch-all term.
What are the basics of reloading?
A modern firearm cartridge is made up of 4 main components: An open-topped, generally cylindrical metal case (often called “casing,” “shell casing,” “shell,” or “piece of brass”), a primer (either contained in a separate “cup” that’s pressed into a primer pocket in the bottom of the case, or included internally in the rim/base for rimfire cartridges), a charge of gunpowder, and a bullet or projectile. The case holds the primer in its base, encloses the powder charge inside, and grips the bottom and sides of the bullet firmly at the case mouth or opening. As the cartridge is fired, a firing pin or striker hits the impact-sensitive primer, which explodes and ignites the powder charge. The powder contains aggressive oxidizers and burns extremely rapidly in a few milliseconds, producing an expanding gas that pushes the bullet out of the case, down the barrel of the firearm, and toward the target, often at supersonic speeds.
Rimfire casings such as .22 Long Rifle are generally not reloaded, since replacing the internal priming compound in the rim is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. However, you can recycle the empty brass casings. Centerfire cases (some popular cartridges are the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, 9 millimeter, .308 Winchester, and 5.56x45 NATO) can usually be reloaded using specialized reloading tools to punch out the spent primer, “re-size” the brass casing back to its original dimensions (they swell and stretch due to the pressure of firing), insert a fresh primer and a new powder charge, and seating and often “crimping” a new bullet in the case mouth. Then the cartridge is ready to be fired again. We’ll go over the required tools you’ll need below.
Shotgun “shells” or cartridges may also be reloaded, and are based on the same principles, with some differences in the projectiles they fire and some internal components such as “wads” or “shot cups” between the powder and the projectile/s. The shotgun “case” is usually comprised of a metal base (with a rim for extraction and provision for a primer) attached to a plastic “hull” that fully encloses the payload of shot. Learn more in our in-depth article, How do shotgun shells work?
What tools and gear do I need to get started in reloading?
Depending on your reasons for getting into reloading, you may have different expectations about what gear and tools you’ll need. You can spend under a hundred dollars for a very basic reloading setup for one caliber, or you could spend several thousand for a fully progressive press with many automated processes. Most people end up somewhere in between, and you can still get a good, quality reloading press set up for a few hundred dollars that produce high-quality, accurate ammunition (if you do your part).
We are going to break down the tools and gear you need to get started in reloading into two main categories: “Must-have” items, and “nice-to-have” items. First, let’s talk about the things you absolutely need.
“Must-have” reloading tools: A reloading press and dies
Since the earliest days of cartridge firearms, manufacturers have offered tools to facilitate the reloading of cartridges. One of the earliest examples was the Ideal reloading tool from the mid-1880s. Today, there are still portable hand tools that allow you to reload cartridges, but they are not commonly used. Generally, a bench-mounted press is vastly preferable, but you can try the Lee classic loader (often called the “whack-a-mole”), or something like the Lee hand press can be useful in some cases. If you don’t have adequate space or want to be able to load in remote locations, a hand/portable loading tool can be appropriate, but the hassle of using these is usually not worth the trouble. (Benchrest shooters sometimes bring portable, bench-mounted reloading setups to their matches so they can load specifically for the conditions on that day. If you want to load in the field, setting up a simple bench-mounted press on a tailgate mount, a shooting table, or a portable stand is much preferred.)
However, for 99% of people, a bench-mounted reloading press is much easier to use, more durable, and more versatile than any hand press or loading tool. There are basically three types of reloading presses to consider:
- Single-stage. These are the old-school presses with one shell holder on the “ram” (the part that moves up and down), and the ram presses the cartridge case into one die at a time, which is usually held at the top of the press’s frame. On these presses, you typically “batch load,” meaning you run 100 or more cases through the decapping/sizing die, then switch dies, and run those cases through the case flaring die, etc. Single stages can be very affordable and are great for beginners since they are typically very simple to operate and understand. However, loading on a single-stage press is very slow. This can be a good thing when you’re first starting out and want to check and confirm each part of the process, but if you want to load a lot of rounds per hour, a single stage has its limitations.
- Turret or “semi-progressive.” A turret press typically has one shell holder on the ram (like a single stage) but a rotating turret above that holds 3, 4, or even up to 7 dies that you can either rotate into position manually or in some cases, the mechanism will auto-index the next die into position when you run the press handle up and down. This can save a lot of time because you don’t have to switch dies on the press between each process. Turret presses can be great for beginning reloaders also, as they are far less complicated than full progressives (see below). You can usually run a turret press like a single stage and batch load if that’s what you prefer, but you can also utilize the “semi-progressive” auto-indexing feature (if your press has it) to greatly speed up the process. An experienced reloader can load 250 rounds an hour or more on a good turret press.
- Full progressive. These are the top-of-the-line, multi-station reloading presses that have large rams with 4, 5, or more cases being held in the shell holder at once, and the shell holder on the ram is what rotates the cases around. The top of the press holds multiple dies and even bullet feeders and case feeders on some models. Since multiple reloading steps are being performed at once, you can produce a completed, reloaded cartridge with each pull of the handle. Some presses can load well in excess of 1,000 rounds an hour.
There are quite a few companies making reloading presses, and it can be confusing to know which would be the best for you. If you want to start with a single-stage, we recommend a steel, O-framed press (the part of the press that holds the die looks like a rectangular O, rather than a C with an open edge) from a reputable company like Lyman, Lee, Hornady, or Redding.
One of our favorite ways to go for someone who is starting out and wants a single-stage press is the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme Master Reloading Kit, which, at around $470 retail, includes nearly everything you’ll need to load high-quality ammo (other than components and dies). The Rock Chucker is a very strong O-framed steel press, and the kit comes with a balance-type powder scale, powder measure, loading block, hand priming tool, case lube pad and lube, tools, and a Speer reloading manual. You’ll need to spend an extra $40-$70 for a set of reloading dies in each caliber you want to load, but for a very functional, single-stage reloading press setup that will last a lifetime, the Rock Chucker kit is a very good choice.
If you want to start with a turret-type press (which in our view is an excellent way to go), one of our favorites, particularly for reloaders who primarily want to load handgun ammo, is the Lee Classic Turret press kit. For $380 (from Lee, but usually less expensive from other places), the kit includes Lee’s excellent and versatile “semi-progressive” classic turret press capable of loading in excess of 250 rounds per hour (no joke, we’ve done it), along with an Auto-Drum powder measure, a powder measure riser, large and small “Safety Prime” mechanisms, case conditioning tools, a tube of Lee case sizing lube, a cartridge specific case length gauge, a balance-type powder scale, and a Lee reloading manual. Dies are extra, but Lee dies are typically very budget-friendly (see below).
Reloading dies are the cylindrical, threaded tools that insert into your press and perform the various functions of de-priming (often called “decapping”), resizing the case, flaring the case mouth, seating the bullet, and crimping the bullet in place. As far as which reloading dies we recommend for beginners, all of the companies above make excellent reloading dies, but some are quite expensive, which can be a hard pill to swallow for a new reloader that wants to load a few different calibers. For the money, Lee offers the best bang for the buck, and typically their die sets include a shellholder, which you usually have to pay extra for with other brands.
Must-have item: At least one reloading manual (and more is better)
Reloading is a potentially dangerous activity, and you need to make sure your loads conform to published data. Powder manufacturers and bullet makers often test their loads in laboratory conditions to ensure safety, and they publish the information online or in physical volumes or reloading manuals. You should always check your loads to make sure they’re within established safe limits. Most reloaders have several reloading manuals on their shelf to consult, since data from one source doesn’t always agree with another source.
If you understand the basics, you may not need a how-to guide, but even seasoned reloaders can learn from a book like The ABCs of Reloading. If you plan to cast your own or load lots of cast lead bullets, Lyman’s reloading handbook is an excellent resource. Hornady publishes a good reloading manual if you favor their bullets, though some say their data is pretty conservative, particularly for rifles. Nosler and Sierra also publish good manuals with lots of various data for their bullets and similar types. Lee’s reloading manual is a kind of a collation of data from various primary sources and can be very useful to have and cross-check your proposed loads.
There are also various online reloading data resources (though we still always recommend getting at least one physical manual): Alliant Powder, Hornady, Hodgdon, Vihtavuori, Speer, and Accurate Powders are all great places to find published loads.
It’s a good idea to have data from more than one source to double-check your loads and remember to always start your load work-ups at the lower end of the published range, rather than at the maximum.
Digital or mechanical dial calipers are a must-have item
For measuring the length of cases to make sure they’re within specified length, as well as measuring the overall length (OAL) of loaded cartridges, a good set of calipers is a must, in our view. With functional, accurate digital calipers going for less than $25 at Harbor Freight, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have this versatile tool. If you want to go old-school and prefer a mechanical/dial caliper, Mitutoyo makes a good one for under $100.
Measuring and setting the correct OAL of your loaded cartridges is vital because reloading data is based on a certain weight of a certain bullet seated to a certain depth. If you have to seat your bullets deeper than specified, you can dramatically increase pressure and create a dangerous situation unless you reduce the powder charge.
A method for accurately measuring powder charges is an absolute must
For truly budget-minded reloaders, Lee sells a set of plastic “dippers” in varying sizes, along with a chart corresponding to popular powders. This lets you scoop and load fairly close to a specified powder charge without using a mechanical powder dispenser or weighing charges. This can be useful for some people, but in our view, you really should get a decent scale and a good powder measure/dispenser.
Be wary of cheap digital scales. The amounts reloaders weigh are in 10ths of a grain, and a grain is 1/7,000th of a pound. Cheaper digital scales are often not reliably accurate enough to measure such small weights consistently and repeatedly. A mechanical balance scale for reloading is much more versatile and generally more accurate for the price.
Please note: You absolutely MUST measure or weigh your powder charges when reloading. With some pistol powders you can easily fit a double, triple, or even a quadruple charge in a case, with potentially disastrous, even fatal results.
You typically need case resizing lubricant for reloading
Another essential item, particularly for loading rifle cartridges, is some case sizing lube. Since you’re pressing a metal (brass) case into a steel or carbide sizing die and squishing it back to its original size under significant pressure, it’s necessary to lubricate that case so you can get it out of the die again. Stuck cases are a huge pain. You can try an aerosol case lubricant like Hornady One Shot, a spray-on lube like Dillon Case Lubricant, or use a lubricated case lube/roll pad. You can also just wipe a little sizing lubricant like Imperial Sizing Die Wax onto your cases using your fingers as you handle them and put them into the press, which is one of the methods we prefer for sizing rifle cases. You can also make your own spray-on sizing lube from lanolin and 99% Isopropyl alcohol.
Some die manufacturers say you don’t need to use lubricant when sizing handgun brass with their carbide sizing dies, but we’ve found that a light spray of One Shot onto a big batch of handgun brass makes things a lot easier, even with carbide dies. Lube is essential when using fully steel dies.
You need a loading block for batch loading
A loading block is a wood or plastic tray with holes in it that secure the base of cartridges for sorting, inspection, or collation while batch loading. You don’t want to be charging a bunch of cases with loose powder and trying to balance them on your reloading bench… that’s a recipe for disaster. Get a loading block for a few bucks, and be happy.
You’ll need a case trimmer for rifle brass
Handgun reloaders often don’t worry about trimming their brass, as handgun cases typically shrink when fired and resized multiple times, rather than stretch and grow longer, as rifle cases do. After a few firings, due to the stretching of the case wall (near the web at the base) that happens when firing high-pressure rifles, the case can actually grow too long to be safely fired in your chamber. For this reason, if you’re loading bottle-necked rifle cartridges, you need a case trimmer. A good basic one is the Lyman universal case trimmer. After trimming, a quick turn with a chamfering/deburring tool takes the sharp edges off.
Necessary components for reloading: Primers, powder, bullets, and brass
Once you have the needed tools for reloading, you obviously need a supply of the individual components for loading or reloading cartridges: Brass cartridge casings (or plastic hulls for shotguns), powder, primers, and bullets or projectiles. Some people cast their own bullets, but that’s a topic for another day. For starting out, we recommend buying bullets from a reputable maker or supplier such as:
- Missouri Bullet Company
- Rocky Mountain Reloading
- TJ Conevera
- Xtreme Bullets
- Bayou Bullets
- Precision Delta
- Zero Bullets
- Berry’s bullets
- Barnes bullets
Reloading powders are usually available at local gun shops, reloading suppliers, and sporting goods stores, but over the past few years, supply chains have been spotty and prices have gone up significantly while availability has gone down. You can order powder (and bullets) online from places like Powder Valley, Natchez Shooting, Graf & Sons, MidwayUSA, Brownells, Widener’s, and Midsouth Shooters Supply.
Primers can usually be found locally when there’s not a panic going on, but supplies dry up quickly when social or political conditions look sketchy. You can order primers (when available) from the reloading/powder suppliers listed above, and it’s best to buy in bulk when ordering online, because there’s an additional HAZMAT charge on top of typical shipping and handling charges when buying primers or powder over the internet, and it can be significant. Buying in bulk spreads that charge over more components and brings the overall price per round down, plus it means you may have primers on your shelf when they aren’t available at local stores during a component drought.
Many reloaders prefer to buy factory ammunition, shoot it, and save the brass cases and reload those, but some people prefer to buy new brass from places like Starline brass, or buy “once-fired” range brass from one of the suppliers above (or your local range may sell it for a good price). If you’re just starting out and don’t want to spend a lot of money on a bunch of factory ammo to acquire the brass, buying new or used brass can be a good way to go.
“Nice-to-have” reloading items that make life easier
Now that we’ve covered the bare minimum of items and components you’ll need to get started in the reloading hobby, let’s mention a few tools and bits of gear that can make the process more enjoyable and efficient.
A progressive, multi-station reloading press
Most people recommend that new reloaders start out on a single-stage press, or at most, a semi-progressive turret press like the Lee Classic Turret. However, if you’re mechanically minded, and meticulous, or your primary goal is loading a lot of ammunition in the shortest amount of time possible, you might spring for a full progressive reloading press from the start. The learning curve is huge, but many people have done it and don’t regret it. All the well-known brands make quality, functional progressive presses, and a lot of the recommendations you’ll hear come down to personal experience and personal preference. Here are a few presses to check out:
Case tumblers and cleaners
Technically, you don’t actually need a case tumbler. Lee used to say that it was actually better to resize dirty brass because the carbon and powder fouling on the case acted as a case lube and helped resizing.
You can also just wipe off each fired/dirty case with a damp rag. They may not be pretty and shiny, but they’ll work just fine. You can also simply wash your brass in soapy water, perhaps with a little citric acid like Lemi-Shine added, and lay it out to dry.
However, for convenience and to save time, most reloaders eventually buy a case tumbler, either a vibratory type that uses dry tumbling media such as corn cob or crushed walnut shells, or a wet/rotary type that uses stainless steel pins in a solution of soapy water to clean and polish cases.
Both have their advantages and there are strong proponents of each method. Generally, if you’re doing a lot of cases, the large-capacity vibratory case tumblers like the Lyman 2500 Pro Magnum or Dillon CV2001 are superior, and you don’t have to mess with collecting all of the pins and drying out your cases. But wet tumbling with stainless pins gets even the crustiest, grungiest cases sparkling clean inside and out. For OCD-type people, those who may only clean a couple hundred cases at a time, or those who really love the look of squeaky-clean, shiny brass, wet tumbling with a rotary tumbler is a good way to go.
Case and bullet feeders
Particularly on a progressive press, a case collator/feeder and bullet feeder can save a lot of time. These may come included in some progressive press packages/kits, or they may be added later. With the case feeder, you just dump loose brass into the receptacle at the top, and an electric sorter orients the brass correctly and fills up the case feeding tube so you don’t have to handle your brass at all. The same concept applies to automatic bullet feeders. If you really want to crank out thousands of rounds an hour, these accessories are essential.
Crimp removal tools or primer pocket reamers
Lots of military brass comes with crimped-in primers to enhance reliability, and if you want to insert a fresh primer into those cases, you need to either cut out the crimp or swage it out. There are hand tools that you can use (some people just use a Phillips-head screwdriver to cut out the crimp), but one of the most well-regarded is the Dillon Super Swage 600. (Some top-end progressive presses include an automatic primer pocket swager in one station.)
Case headspace gauges and “bullet comparators”
For sizing shouldered rifle cartridge cases, particularly if you’re firing them through a semi-automatic or full-auto rifle with a floating firing pin, getting the proper .002-.003” shoulder setback is vital for proper feeding, lockup, and safety. A simple way to check proper case headspace is with a Wilson case gauge (it also confirms proper overall case length).
Hornady’s bullet comparator measures OAL from the bullet’s ogive (the curve on the side of the bullet) rather than from the tip, for improved consistency in measurements. It also allows direct comparison of your loads as you set up your bullet seating die for any desired bullet free-travel (jump).
Cartridge or chamber checkers
Similar in concept to the Wilson case headspace gauge, a chamber checker is a gauge that’s sized like the chamber of your handgun, and you can check each loaded round to make sure it will chamber in your gun. Some of these tools have 10, 20, 50, or more “chambers” so you can insert and check lots of rounds at once. The Shockbottle chamber checker is one such offering. With 100 SAAMI-spec “chambers” you can check to see if your reloaded (or factory) ammunition is within spec and eliminate any rounds that may cause problems before you’re at the range. You can also look to make sure all of your primers are seated flush. For top-level competition shooters, the time it takes to clear one malfunction caused by out-of-spec ammunition can be the difference between first and second place at a match, and they often chamber-check all their ammo before they shoot.
Get started reloading today, and store your guns in a Liberty safe
So there you have it, our list of the tools and gear you need to get started in reloading and make it more enjoyable. The sooner you start, the sooner you can make the most accurate ammo for your guns, and potentially save a lot of money while you do. Remember to keep your guns secure from theft, unauthorized access, and protect them from fire damage in a USA-made gun safe from Liberty. Check out our online catalog, or click to locate a dealer near you.
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