The Hobby Gunsmith


A Beginners Guide to Cartridge Loading-Part 1.

The Hobby Gunsmith has received a few letters asking us to do an entire series of articles on how to reload ammunition. Many Cowboy Action Shooters still purchase loaded ammunition from suppliers even though they know that reloading is not very difficult. This is the first in a series of articles intended to introduce the beginner to the fun of reloading and get the person on the right track and help get the beginning reloader started. In this article, we discuss the basic process of reloading ammunition and take a quick look at how to set up the press in ways that do not require a special space for reloading.

   Next month we will actually reload some cases and take the new loader through the simple process of making their first cartridges. We will then move on and introduce the reader to the use of a progressive press, then reloading for the shotgun, and finally loading blackpowder cartridges.

   Letís look at the basics of equipment before we move into the fundamentals of reloading. There are basically three types of reloading presses: single stage presses, turret presses, and progressive presses. There are a few specialty handheld presses, but they will not be covered in this article.

A Lee single stage press set up to unprime a .44 special case.

   While there are a lot of companies making reloading equipment, we will be using presses from Lee Precision for this article. Lee makes a series of presses at very reasonable prices and we find them to be good enough to get the job done without breaking the bank. Dillon seems to be the most popular maker of progressive presses, but they are outside our price range and did not respond to my request for information in preparing this article.

   The single stage press. Single stage presses are the most reasonably priced and are designed to allow the one operation at a time. When using a single stage press, the person doing the reloading will size all of their brass at one time before setting the press up for the next operation. Single stage presses are great for working up special loads and for beginners, but they are very slow to reload a lot of ammunition in a single sitting.

   The turret press. The turret press holds all of the reloading dies in a turret that can be turned to bring the next operation to the empty case. Although some people use the turret press to allow single stage operations and use the turret to keep the reloading dies mounted in the press for a quick change to the next operation. Most people use the turret press to place a single empty casing into the press and then rotate the turret through all operations before removing the completed cartridge. This makes the turret press much faster than a single stage reloading press without adding very much confusion to the process.

   The progressive press. The progressive press is an advancement of the turret press. All dies are located on the press along with a shellplate that rotates the case to the next station on the press. Once the shellplate has been filled with cases, the progressive press completes an operation on the cartridge with each pull of the press handle. Progressive presses are complicated to operate, but they can produce a lot of loaded ammunition for a shooting session.

The Lee progressive press is typical of presses that can produce a finished bullet with each pull of the lever.

   Should the person just getting into reloading begin with a progressive press? I believe this is a bad idea because progressive presses can be very confusing to operate and an accident looking for a place to happen. I prefer to see people work with a single stage press for a few years to develop good habits before moving on to the more complex progressive press.

The progressive press works on the assembly line principle and each function is performed on a cartridge with each pull of the lever.

   A good starter press kit for the beginner is the Lee Anniversary press that is being sold by Cabelas for about $68 plus shipping. This is the press kit my wife bought me when I returned to reloading and I have loaded several thousand rounds of various calibers. The kit comes complete with the basic aluminum press, a powder measure, a scale, a case trimmer, primer pocket cleaners, and a priming tool with shell holders for most cartridges. All that is needed to start doing your own loading are some empty brass, primers, powder, bullets, lube, and the proper loading dies for your caliber.

Ten minutes is all it takes to produce a full box of reloaded ammunition in the cartridge hopper of a progressive press.

   Letís take a look at the components that make up a typical loaded cartridge. They are the case, the primer, the bullet, the powder, and the bullet lube.

      The case. Cases are made out of brass, aluminum, or steel. The only ones we will be reloading are those that are made out of brass. Brass can be identified by its yellow color. When purchasing ammunition that you plan to reload, make sure it is made with brass cases. The case is generally the most expensive part of the cartridge and reloading allows it to be used many times.

A pile of sized and primed cases ready to be loaded into the press and recycled into usable bullets.

   The primer. Primers contain a small amount of explosive compound and a little anvil. Primers are available in large, small, rifle, and pistol. Large primers are used with the larger cartridges like the .45 and .44. Small primers are used with the smaller cartridges like the 9mm and the .38/.357 magnum. Rifle primers are made a little heavier to withstand the higher pressures found in rifles. Do not use rifle primers in a pistol cartridge because they are also slightly longer and will not fully seat in the primer pocket. The one exception that I must mention is that the S&W 500 Magnum handgun cartridge does use large rifle primers because of the higher pressures of that particular cartridge.

Small Pistol primers ready to be installed in the resized cartridge.

   The Powder. The gunpowder is the fuel of the cartridge. Smokeless powders burn progressively under increasing pressure, which means they burn faster as the pressure in the cartridge rises. Modern Smokeless powders tend to fizzle as they burn in the open air, such as when a little powder is burned while sitting on a concrete floor. Smokeless powder has been readily used since the early 1890s. Gunpowder us usually measured by a measurement of weight or volume known as a ďgrain.Ē Smokeless powders contain a lot of energy in a few grains of powder measurement so measuring powder volume must be done with precision and accuracy.

Hodgdon Titegroup is typical of powders used in reloading.  This will be used in .38 specials.

   The bullet. The bullet is the heavy projectile that is expelled from the cartridge by the pressure of the burning powder. Most bullets are made from various alloys of lead. The softer pure lead is used for the cap and ball firearms while modern revolvers use lead alloy bullets that are harder and can withstand the higher pressures of smokeless gunpowder.

A pile of freshly sized and lubed lead bullets ready to be loaded into some .44 cases.

   Bullet Lube. Bullets need to be lubricated during the loading process to reduce friction and to reduce the amount of lead that is deposited in the bore of the gun when it is fired. Bullet lubes include wax, alox, molly, and copper. Most lubricants are applied by the company that casts the lead bullet. Very high speed projectiles are clad in soft copper to keep the bullet together under high pressure and the copper acts as a lubricant. Blackpowder shooters need a lubricant that keeps the powder fouling soft to prevent buildup that degrades accuracy.

Lee Liquid Alox bullet lube in the bottle.

   The four main components of the complete cartridge work together to accurately and consistently propel the bullet downrange to its target. When purchasing ammunition from a store, we can take it for granted that the manufacturer has handled all of these components and that everything will work correctly when we pull the trigger.

   Factory made ammunition is very safe, consistent, accurate, and can get reasonably expensive for those of us who shoot regularly. A typical CAS shoot will consume about three boxes of rifle and pistol ammunition along with a box or two of shotgun shells. That comes to more than fifty dollars for ammunition for a trip to the range. This series of articles will show you how to reduce that cost to as little as about ten dollars. That represents a savings of about seventy-five percent on ammunition costs.

   Letís take a look at what happens as a cartridge is fired in the gun. As the firing pin strikes the primer, the impact sensitive material in the primer is ignited and a small explosion expels sparks through the primer hole and into the case where the powder is stored. The sparks ignite the powder that begins to burn in the confined case. The pressure begins to rise as the powder burns, which increases the burning rate of the powder.

   The rising pressure starts looking for a place to escape and the seated primer is the weakest plug in the chamber. The pressure pushes the primer part of the way out of the primer pocket and against the standing breech around the firing pin. As the primer is pushed out of the primer pocket and into the standing breech, the cartridge is being forced forward against the back of the cylinder.

   The pressure continues to rise until it overcomes the crimp that is holding the bullet in the case. The pressure is also expanding the case out toward the chamber walls, which weakens the crimp against the bullet and allows the bullet to begin moving forward away from the pressure. The bullet moves forward and irons the crimp out of the case. The pressure is still rising from the burning powder and the release of the bullet allows the case to respond by being forced rearward and back toward the standing breech. This rearward movement of the casing reseats the primer back into the primer pocket.

   The pressure inside the cartridge continues to rise as the bullet accelerates out of the case and forward toward the end of the cylinder. As it reaches the end of the cylinder, the bullet encounters the forcing cone, which swages the bullet and makes up for any misalignment between the cylinder and barrel. The forcing cone is a bit like the ramp in a threading die that allows the lead bullet to conform to the rifling.

   The lead bullet is forced into the rifling groove, which cuts very mild threads in the lead bullet. The bullet continues forward in the rifling and turns with the rifling like a screw going down a threaded shaft. As the bullet clears the forcing cone an passes into the barrel, the pressure behind the bullet escapes out through the gap between the barrel and the cylinder. This gas pressure is relieved a little as the gas escapes around the entire circumference of the gap. Unburned powder or residue is also blown out through the barrel to cylinder gap and in to the air around the gun. Gas that is forced out through the gap toward either the cylinder pin or the top strap will deposit fouling in both of those areas.

   If the gas pressure was not sufficient to completely force the brass casing to expand against the cylinder wall with sufficient pressure, the gas pressure behind the barrel will be allowed to leak between the casing and the chamber walls. This blowback can be seen as fouling on the outside of the case after it is removed from the gun. This fouling must be cleaned from the inside of the chamber and should be cleaned from the outside of the brass case before reloading. As the bullet clears the end of the barrel, the last of the expanding gas pressure will be relieved out through the front of the barrel.

   The brass case is removed from the gun and either saved for reloading or thrown away. We will now focus on what we can do to with the used brass case to turn it into a usable bullet. This is done in a few simple steps.

1. Remove the primer and compress the  case back to factory diameter.
2. Press in a new primer.
3. Expand the neck of the case to a small funnel to accept the bullet.
4. Add a measured amount of powder.
5. Seat a lubed bullet to the correct depth.
Crimp the case neck into the bullet to hold it in place.

   Despite the six steps looking a bit complex, the process of recycling a used case into a usable cartridge is fairly simple. I focus on the use of the factory crimp dies from Lee Precision in this article and some other brands may have a slightly different sequence. If the loader has access to a tumbler or vibratory cartridge cleaner, the casings should be put into the cleaner until they are clean and shiny. I prefer to leave the primer in the cartridge during the cleaning process.

   If the loader has not yet acquired a case cleaner, each used casing should be wiped down with a damp cloth to remove most of the residue from the outside of the casing.  This will remove much of the dirt and dust that may accumulate on the outside of the case. 

   After bolting the press to a sturdy bench, the resizing and primer removal die is screwed into the press and adjusted based on the instructions provided by the maker.  The purpose is to size and remove primers from all used cases to get them into a state where they can be primed and made ready for the loading process.

   The primer removal step in the Lee sizing die uses a carbide ring to reduce wear and prevent the need to lubricate the casings prior to sizing.  Not all dies have the carbide insert and I recommend that new loaders look into carbide dies for the straight walled case cartridges like the .38, .44 Special and Magnum, and the .45 Colt that are so popular with Cowboy Action Shooters. 

The depriming tool in the center of the Lee sizing die.  The carbide ring can be seen in the mouth of the sizing die.  To help understand the scale of the parts, this is the Lee resizing die for the S&W 500 Magnum.

   The Lee sizing die contains a pin that runs down the center of the die and it sizes and pushes the primer out of the primer pocket in a single step.  This single die prepares the used cartridge case for loading.  After properly adjusting the die by following the maker's instructions, we insert the cartridge into the shell holder and move the loading arm down to force the expended cartridge case into the resizing die. 

   We feel considerable resistance as the carbide ring inside the die begins to swage the brass back to its original dimensions.  We also feel the increased resistance as the primer punch pin passes through the flash hole of the casing and pushes the primer out through a hole in the shell holder.  The shell continues up into the sizing die until it comes to a complete stop and the case has been prepared for the next step in the process.

   Next month we will pick up where we left off with this month's article and step the reader through the process of preparing a completed bullet on a single stage press.  These articles are not a substitute for obtaining good reloading information from the appropriate manuals.  We recommend that the beginning loader work with a more experienced loader to learn good habits and proper safety.