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.
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
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.
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
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
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.