Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Part 2

One of the first questions any beginning handloader asks is, "What equipment do I need to buy?" This installment of "The Minimalist Handloader" focuses on the bare minimum one needs to buy to get a workable portable reloading setup, aside from the components of the cartridge itself.

You've already read your reloading books. You've read posts on reloading forums. You've even watched people reload ammunition on YouTube. Now it's time to buy all the stuff you need...

Reloading Press (REQUIRED)

The press is the device that gives you the leverage needed to perform your reloading tasks. There are some portable methods of reloading that do not use a conventional press - the Lyman 310 tong tool and the classic Lee Loader, for instance. I don't think these are the best ways to go for a portable setup - the Lee Loader is caliber-specific and requires a lot of hammering, and the tong tool is expensive for what it is.

Instead, I bought the Lee Hand Press, a handheld press that doesn't mount on a bench. It's pretty small - it'll fit into the typical backpack or range bag without any problems. More importantly, though, it takes standard reloading dies and is capable of full-length resizing most cartridge brass. This is very important if you want to scrounge once-fired brass from public ranges. A conventional single stage, turret, or progressive press is more convenient if you have a dedicated reloading bench, but I don't, and the hand press works fine.


The dies screw into the reloading press; you pull a lever (or, in the hand press' case, you squeeze two levers together) and ram the semi-loaded cartridge into the die to perform a particular function, whether it's resizing the brass, loading the bullet, or crimping the case.

Dies come for nearly every rifle and pistol caliber you can think of. I prefer to buy the kits that contain all the dies needed for a particular caliber. The carbide dies (which require no case lubricant) are a convenience, but they're more expensive (especially for rifle calibers).

Priming Tool (REQUIRED)

You can prime a cartridge either on the press itself or via a handheld priming tool. Priming is pretty simple - basically just pushing a primer into the little pocket at the bottom of the brass until it's seated. I prefer using a separate tool (specifically the handheld Lee Auto Prime), since it cuts down on the amount of stuff you have to switch out on the press.

Powder Scale (REQUIRED)

This is one item that you cannot go without. To illustrate: a grain is 1/7000th of a pound. It is basically impossible to tell the difference, visually, between a powder charge of say, 3.2 grains of Bullseye and a charge of 4.2 grains of Bullseye, especially when it's already been dropped into the case. Yet, according to Speer Reloading Manual #14, the former is a fairly mild .38 Special target load for a 158 grain bullet, and the latter is dangerously above .38+P pressure for a 158 grain bullet. Weigh your charges!

You can buy both electronic and beam balance scales. The electronic ones are easier to read and use, but the beam balances don't require any batteries and operate in a fashion that's easy to understand. In either case, it's a good idea to check the scale's readings by measuring something of known weight (like a bullet).

Eye Protection (REQUIRED)

This is mostly for the priming process. When you push the new primer into the back of the cartridge, there's a small chance that the primer will explode, showering hot material out the case mouth. Normally, a popped primer can't cause any physical damage, but the hot material is fully capable of damaging your eyesight. Wear chemical eyegoggles (the kind that completely seal your eyes) and you'll be fine.

Lubricant (REQUIRED for non-carbide dies)

Resizing brass involves a lot of friction, and it's definitely possible for the case to get stuck inside the die (it's a pain in the butt to remove). A light film of lube on the outside of the case will prevent this from happening. There are a ton of different case lubes out on the market, but they're all pretty cheap. Brass headed for a carbide die usually doesn't need case lube.

Case Trimming Stuff (REQUIRED for rifle calibers)

The typical bottleneck rifle cartridge undergoes some pretty severe deformation from the pressures of firing. After resizing a rifle case, you'll usually have to trim off some material off the case mouth in order to get the maximum length back in spec, especially after several reloads. Skipping this step can, of course, be very dangerous - an overlong case can generate enormous pressures.

Thankfully, there are a lot of gadgets and doodads available for trimming cases. If you want the simplest solution, just buy a hand cutter (the Lee case trimmer set requires a cutter, lock stud, and the appropriate shellholders and gages for each caliber - but they're all pretty cheap). The ne plus ultra of case trimming is the Giraud powered trimmer - almost $400. After trimming, you'll need to chamfer the rough edges inside and outside the case - the Giraud does this for you.

Case Cleaning Stuff (optional)

Case cleaning is usually not required, unless a case is truly dirty and might damage your die. The cheapest way to clean a case is to polish it by hand using #00 steel wool. Those opting for faster cleaning can go for liquid methods (either a homebrew detergent or Iosso case cleaner) or dry methods (vibratory tumbling). In my travel kit, I include a few pads of steel wool and some gloves in order to polish the nastiest looking cases - be sure to grab a container to catch all the steel wool filings you'll generate.

Powder Measure & Powder Funnel (optional)

A powder measure drops a preset volume of powder into a case. They're not necessary, but they are convenient, and they're practically required if you want to load large quantities of ammo in one sitting. Be sure to check the powder you're dropping with a scale before, during, and after the charging process.

A powder funnel fits neatly over an individual case and allows easier pouring of powder into it. You could jury-rig this, but they're very cheap, so you might as well pick one up.

Calipers (optional)

As you can see above, case trimming is very tedious unless you have some pretty specialized tools. A pair of calipers will allow you to separate safe cases from unsafe cases, minimizing your trimming. Calipers can measure loaded cartridge overall lengths as well, to make sure your bullet seating is adequate.

Bullet Puller (optional)

Reloaders make mistakes - it's only human. Rather than throwing that mischarged cartridge in the trash, you can attempt to salvage the components with a bullet puller. It's also much safer to pull a bad round than to leave it floating in circulation, with the risk that it could find your way into your other ammo loads.

That does it for this installment. Come back next time where we'll look at the components that actually make up a cartridge.


At 10:35 PM, Blogger DirtCrashr said...

Nice video! I didn't know quite how the Lee Loader worked. I'm much more comfortable with a hand-priming tool than using a hammer! :-)

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Mulliga said...

Thanks. I'll post more of my favorite reloading videos. I have to admit, this hobby is addicting.


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