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A Beginner's Reloading Gear Checklist
A common question from newbies is, "What do I actually need, in order to get into reloading?" The answer is varied, but there are several tiers of hobbyist reloading, each with a different kind of budget. Over time, most reloaders find themselves slowly gravitating upwards to the higher tiers. Note that I'm not discussing reloading manuals here - they're great, they're wonderful, but I'm just covering the mechanics. It's your responsibility to carefully research reloading before you get into this hobby.
In order to handle reloading yourself, you need the following items. The sections down below will cover the various equipment which you can use to accomplish these steps:
- Brass preparation equipment
- Case gauges for your caliber
- Depriming equipment (If you use a press and dies, almost certainly you won't need separate depriming gear)
- Priming equipment (depending on your press, you may need separate priming gear)
- Powder measurement system
- Primer pocket swager (or be prepared to toss all crimped brass)
- Reloading dies for your caliber (unless you use a Lee loader)
- Reloading press (unless you use a Lee loader) - I recommend, actually, that you keep a Lee hand press around for reasons you'll encounter later.
- Shellplate or 'caliber conversion kit', depending on the type of press you get
This is simply the process of removing the crud, dirt, etc from brass in order to make it ready for loading.
- Vibratory tumblers: are the main way of doing this; media separators are then used to shake out the cleaning media. Some folks have used cement mixers as an alternative.
I would personally consider case gauges a necessity. They take the guesswork out of determining if a round is going to feed through your weapon, and you know the headspace is correct if the case gauge is happy with the round.
Depriming / Decapping
When dealing with almost any kind of reloading die, you deprime cases simply by running the case through the resizing die. That having been said, there are alternatives, which come in handy if, for instance, you are worried that there may be some Berdan primed brass mixed in.
- Universal Decapping Die: This is a very wide die which only has a decapping pin in the center. It doesn't resize or do anything other than press out primers. As such, it's a nice, fairly universal tool to have mounted on a hand press or single stage press.
With the exception of pre-primed brass, it's necessary to insert a primer into each piece of brass you intend to load. In a progressive reloading press, this is handled for you automatically.
- Hand-priming tools: RCBS and a few other companies make some semi-flimsy little dedicated tools which you can use to insert primers. I don't recommend them.
- Single-stage priming ram: A number of companies make a priming ram which sits on a standard single-stage press, into which you put a single primer and ram it into the case. I recommend this if you want to seat by feel (I do this for 5.7x28mm), but it's nowhere near as fast as a progressive press's priming system.
- Progressive presses: A progressive press will automatically insert primers into your brass for you at a priming station. This is the fastest way, although you will find plenty of challenges in getting it to work reliably until you get a feel for your press.
It's a common misconception that if you get a reloading press, you won't have any use for funnels. To the contrary, even if you go with a Dillon press and powder-level-based charge warning system, you'll want funnels to drain suspect charges back into bullets if the weight turns out to be ok. This is actually very common when you're loading mixed brass in narrow cartridges, with slightly different internal capacities based on the manufacturer. In short, you're going to see this a lot if you load 223, especially with range pick-up brass.
Getting the right amount of powder for your shell is important, if you expect to keep your face and all your fingers. There are a number of ways to measure powder:
- Tray and scale trick: With an electronic scale, you can hold a tray full of powder above the scale's tray and shake it slightly until you reach the weight you're shooting for. I will admit that I do this when I'm only setting up 2-3 rounds to test a load.
- Dippers: the Lee loader uses dippers to dispense powder by volume. It's ok if you weigh your charges, but if you aren't, it's dangerous. You dump the powder into a funnel positioned over the shell, and the charge is set.
- Tricklers: A trickler is a funnel and a little internally threaded tube, which you turn to dispense powder by the grain. It has the advantage of great precision, but it takes forever.
- Volumetric dispensers: this is an integrated funnel and dispenser setup which dumps a charge of powder (by volume, but fairly consistently) into the shell. They are almost always press mounted, however it's possible to get a standalone unit.
- Electronic dispensers: This category of dispenser combines the scale and powder dispenser into one unit. The RCBS Chargemaster I use is actually an electronically governed trickler with an integrated digital scale.
Primer Pocket Swager
First, you don't HAVE to have one of these. If you're comfortable with throwing out all crimped brass instead of being able to re-prime it, then you don't need it. But if you shoot much 223, it will quickly pay for itself if you're using range pick-up ammo or surplus. Another way out of buying one of these, is to buy the top-of-the-line Dillon 1050 press, which automatically swages primer pockets in one of its stations. Other manufacturers might have similar offerings, but I'm not sure.
- Universal primer pocket swager: The good news is that there are only two sizes of Boxer primed pockets... large and small. The universal pocket swager fits into any single stage press, and this is why I say people really have to have a single stage press, in addition to any other presses they may have.
Unless you're using the Lee loader method, you are going to have to buy reloading dies in your chosen caliber. Generally you're best served with getting a 2 or 3 die set. If you wish to evaluate which dies to get, read Brands of Reloading Dies. One general rule is that 3-die sets allow you to have more control over the individual reloading operations than 2-die sets. However, 2-die sets are a lot more convenient for single-stage reloading press operators. Progressive press owners tend to steer towards 3-die sets if they have enough stations for them.
- Steel dies: This is the run of the mill die construction, available from a variety of companies.
- Carbide dies: Where available, carbide dies present the best durability and overall performance. They're also the most expensive.
There are a number of types of presses. One thing to note is that there are also different sizes of reloading dies. The vast majority of reloaders will only ever deal with the same standard dies which practically all presses are set in. However, there are also 50 BMG / 50 DTC presses out there with larger thread sizes.
- Single stage presses have only one station (slot where an action, such as inserting powder or placing the bullet in the case, is performed). You set the correct die for stage 1 of the loading process, perform that on each round you're loading, then remove that die and insert the next die, then perform that action on each round, and so on.
- Hand presses, like single stage presses, have only one station. However, instead of being secured to a surface, the hand press is meant to be operated with your hands. I'm not sure if many people use hand presses to perform all the stages of reloading, however I do like them for case prep (decrimping military-primed cases in particular) while watching a movie.
- Turret presses are like a single stage press, except they have a revolving set of stations that dies can be put on. This reduces the bother level slightly, and reduces the chance that you'll accidentally skip a stage.
- Progressive presses are like a turret press in that there are multiple stations, but each time you pull the handle, the round being loaded rotates clockwise to the next station. Thus, each step is performed in parallel, and after a brief startup period, every time you pull the handle you will produce a new, completely loaded round. Progressive presses are the fastest user-level reloading technology, however fully harnessing their speed requires automated case feeders, etc. The top-rated Dillon press (the 1050) can produce over 1000 loaded rounds per hour in the hands of a skilled operator. It also blurs the line with the next category, given that I personally know one commercial ammunition reloader who uses several guys in a warehouse pulling the cranks on 1050's to load his commercial ammunition.
- Commercial presses are a whole different world of speed, automation, and tight tolerances. I'm not aware of many vendors for these, but by reputation the commercial grade presses are highly dedicated machines which require operation by folks who are intimately familiar with the specific machine itself.
- Camdex is the only commercial reloading machine company website I know of so far.
It's important to own a high quality scale. Common designs are either balance beam based, or electronic. Scales are available from a variety of vendors and in a variety of types.
- Balance beam scales: This is similar to the weight systems commonly used in doctor's offices or gyms, but for much smaller weights. Inexpensive but very slow.
- Digital scales: A digital scale provides near-instantaneous weight readout. It's worth noting that the RCBS Chargemaster dispenser can mate to the back of a Chargemaster scale at a later date, so there is some extra flexibility provided when you go with an RCBS scale. There are other scales out there with optional integrated dispensers, but the Chargemaster was the only one which will dispense powder charges up to and including 50 BMG/DTC range.
Shellholder or Caliber Conversion Kit
Depending on whether or not you bought a progressive reloading press with a disc-style setup, you will need either shellholders for your caliber or a caliber conversion kit.
- Caliber conversion kit: This is if you buy a progressive reloading press from a manufacturer which uses this method. Dillon Precision is one notable company which does this.
- Shellholder: This is if you buy a type of press which doesn't use a caliber conversion kit. You may want to get shellholders anyway, if you end up using a hand press for primer pocket swaging, etc. I also recommend that you pick up, as your first shellholder investment, a variety pack. Lee puts out one with 11 different shellplates, which will cover most of the calibers you're likely to run into. The pack is cheaper than having to buy all the different shellplates over time.
An Expandable Beginner's Reloading Setup
Of course, most folks just want to know, "How much should I expect to spend on a reloading setup?" So, I'm going to outline a basic setup which could have led to my own setup, if I were to go back in time and advise myself on what to buy and for some reason didn't want to just start off with the Dillon 650 like I did in real life. I do not make any claim whatsoever that this is really the best way to go about it, only that this is what I would tell myself.
Total price for cheapest setup I'd recommend: 105+30+10+22+9+27+30+25+30+20 = $308
- Brass preparation: Vibratory tumbler from Dillon for $105 (other brands' motors often burn out, however they're less than half the price!), media seperator from MidwayUSA for $10-$30. In a pinch, you could pluck brass from the media by hand though, but you won't want to do that for long.
- Case gauges: Assuming they're available for the caliber in question, they run $10-$30 or so.
- Depriming equipment: Not needed since I'd be using reloading dies.
- Powder measure: You'll want a volumetric dispenser, calibrated using your scale. I have one of the Lee powder measures, which dumps a pre-measured volume into a shell at each throw of the lever. They cost $22 new, and are frequently available used.
- Electronic powder measure?: If you end up buying an electronic dispenser down the road, the money you spend now on a scale and manual powder measure will have been wasted. I would have told "me-in-the-past" to buy the RCBS Chargemaster 1500 for $275 (midsouth shooter's supply). The RCBS scale, without the dispenser (but upgradable at a later date), runs $175 at MidwayUSA. If you go with that route, you're only wasting the price of your powder dispenser if you buy the electronic upgrade later on.
- Priming equipment: Lee ram prime, $9 (I still use this for 5.7x28mm, which Dillon won't support)
- Primer pocket swager: RCBS, $27. Pays for itself very quickly with the ability to re-use crimped brass.
- Reloading dies: Totally depends on the caliber involved. See Brands of Reloading Dies for some general advice, but figure between $30 and $75 for a set.
- Reloading press: Lee hand press, $25 - optionally add a Lee 3-hole turret press for convenience's sake ($60). The hand press is indispensable - no matter what your primary press is, you can use the Lee press to swage primer pockets without changing your primary press's configuration!
- Scale: Around $30 if you go Frankford Arsenal, more for other brands.
- Shellholder: I'm going to just recommend the $20ish Lee variety pack.
Total price for ideal, fully expandable beginner's setup: 105+30+30+275+9+27+75+25+60+30+20 = $686 (the electronic dispenser and second press are most of it)
-- SeanNewton - 07 Feb 2008