by: Bryan Litz
To start reloading, you are going to need several different pieces of reloading supplies, equipment, tools, and components. This article by our Ballistician, Bryan Litz, will go over in detail all the different reloading supplies you might need in order to get started. This article was originally published in the Berger Bullets Reloading Manual and has been updated and modified for content.
Perhaps the most basic question a beginning handloader will be compelled to ask is: “what equipment do I need to get started?”
Likewise, the most seasoned handloaders are always keeping an eye out for new reloading supplies, tools, and equipment that will improve their abilities to make precise handloads, and make them efficiently.
This article will touch on the tools used to make handloads, as well as the actual ammunition components.
For the true beginner who is starting from scratch, the pre-assembled reloading starter kits are a very good way to get the essential tools required. Shown on below is a Deluxe Reloading Kit from Redding which includes all the basic equipment that you’ll need to start handloading metallic cartridges.
Figure 1. Deluxe reloading starter kit.
It’s important to note that each item included in the pictured reloading supplies kit can be replaced with a different type of the same component. For example, the press shown is a single stage D frame press which is just one type.
There are also turret presses, also known as progressive presses, and high volume rotary presses. Arbor presses are the simplest type of press and use special dies. The Arbor press is favored among Benchrest shooters where the ultimate in precision is demanded. Examples of the various types of presses are shown in Figure 2.
Hand Die (for Arbor Press)
Standard Die (for threaded presses)
Single Stage Press
Figure 2. Various types of presses and dies
Note the turret press holds several dies which speeds up the transition between operations. The high speed rotary press has hoppers for brass, powder, bullets, and primers and is highly automated. Most shooters who handload small quantities of ammunition for use in precision shooting competitions favor the arbor or single stage press. Those looking to increase the speed of the handloading operation might opt for a turret press. If you want to make ammunition as fast as possible, the rotary press is the right tool for the job.
Among the types of threaded dies for use in standard presses, there are different types as well. The most basic type of seating die will only have course adjustments. On the high end of seating dies, there are tensioned sleeves which guide the cartridge into the die to insure alignment, as well as micrometer adjustments.
Resizing dies are available as a one-size-fits-all full length resizing die, or in various configurations to allow you to have more flexibility and control over the amount of resizing that’s done to each part of the case. There are resizing dies that only resize the body, and dies that only resize the neck. One popular configuration is a full length body sizing die with interchangeable neck sizing bushings. With this arrangement, you can control the amount of body sizing by adjusting the height of the die body in the press, and you can also control the amount of neck sizing by choosing a bushing to size the brass enough to produce the desired neck tension.
Figure 3. Resizing die.
Presses and dies aren’t the only reloading supplies and equipment required to resize brass. It’s absolutely necessary to apply lubrication to the brass prior to the resizing process to prevent the cases from getting stuck in the dies. There are various types of lube, and different ways to apply it. One common way to lube the outside of cases is to roll them on a lube pad, as shown below. Another method is to spray the cases with an aerosol lube. These methods take care of the outside of the case. If you’re using an expander button in the resizing die, you’ll also need to lube the inside of the case neck. This can be done with a lubed brush.
Figure 4. Case lube equipment.
There are many different tools made to insert primers into cases. The most basic and common tool is the one built into most presses shown below. Although a common option on most presses, this type of priming isn’t always used because it’s generally slower, and lacks the ability to provide the handloader with a sensitive feel for seating the primer to the bottom of the pocket. Achieving consistent and square primer seating can be important to consistent ignition, which in turn is important for consistent muzzle velocity and accuracy.
Another option for seating primers that does provide the handloader with a good feel for seating depth and pressure is the hand priming tool shown here. This simple tool is quite popular and easy to use. Finally there is the bench mount priming tool. This hand priming tool has a long lever arm which provides the handloader with another option for seating primers with a sensitive feel.
Figure 5. Press Priming
Figure 6. Hand priming tool
Figure 7. Bench mount
There are other tools that are made to insert primers not discussed here. The important thing to remember is that you want something that you’re comfortable with and allows you to achieve uniform primer seating depth and pressure.
There are two basic ways to measure/dispense powder. One is by weight using scales. The other is by volume, using a powder measurer. Weighing powder with scales is the best way to insure consistent muzzle velocities. Even if you choose to use a powder measurer for short range, or high capacity (faster) loading, you will still need the scale to set the measurer, insuring the proper weight of powder is being dispensed. Figure 3 below shows examples of electronic and beam scales, as well as a powder measurer.
Figure 8. Powder scales and measurer.
A common debate is centered around the inherent accuracy of electronic vs beam scales. It’s this authors opinion that both types of scales have the potential to be acceptably accurate for handloading at the highest levels, but it is possible that either type of scales can have defects/problems which prevent them from operating at their potential. When operating scales of any type, it’s important to pay close attention to the environment. This includes insuring the scale is placed on a flat, level and sturdy surface. Also, make sure the scale is not exposed to air currents from fans, vents, or open windows because that will affect the consistency of the scales measurements. Finally, be mindful of how the scale is oriented in relation to your line of sight. If you have a beam scale on a desktop surface that’s just above your lap, it will be difficult to get at eye level with the needle to see when the beam indicates ‘zero’.
As stated previously, the use of powder measurers should be confined to applications where you’re not trying to minimize muzzle velocity variation as in precision long range shooting. Ball powder, being more finely granulated, is known to meter more consistently than the larger granules such as stick powder.
Figure 9. Powder Funnel
In addition to scales and powder throwers, there are a bunch of smaller reloading supplies and tools that are good aids in the powder dispensing process. A funnel for pouring the powder into the cases is a necessary piece of equipment. Powder tricklers are used to easily control the dropping of a small number of granules into the pan when you’re close to the desired charge. As an alternative, one could simply use a small spoon to manually sift the last few grains in. The mechanics and tools used for dispensing powder are widely varied and have a lot to do with personal preferences. The important idea is to develop a consistent and safe procedure for dispensing powder charges using tools you’re comfortable with.
Figure 10. Powder trickler
Bullet seating is done with a die, either a standard threaded die or a hand die. The basic options you have with a seating die have to do with bullet/case alignment, and the seating depth adjustment.
Hand dies aid alignment because they eliminate any potential misalignment from a press mechanism. There are also dies for use in presses that have spring loaded sleeves, which guide the cartridge body into the die and minimize the effects of potential press misalignment and result in straight line bullet seating.
Hand Die (for Arbor Press)
Standard Die (for threaded presses)
Competition Die (for threaded presses)
Figure 11. Hand, standard, and competition style dies.
A micrometer style adjustment is not necessary to make seating depth adjustments in small increments, but it does make it a lot easier, removing the trial and error from the process.
Part of the bullet seating process is measuring to see how far the bullet is seated from touching the rifling of the specific barrel that the ammo is being handloaded for, or Cartridge Base to Ogive (CBTO). Since most types of bullets can’t be measured reliably to their tips (due to the ragged, inconsistent nature of bullet tips) a device is required that allows a measurement to be taken from a more meaningful reference point on the bullet. The tool that’s used to make this measurement is generally called a comparator. A comparator contacts the bullet at a point along its ogive (nose), which produces a more consistent measurement than the tip of the bullet.
Figure 12. Micrometer with a Bullet Comparator to measure CBTO
The basic components of metallic cartridges are: casing (usually brass), primer, powder, and bullet. This section will discuss the various classes of each component of a metallic cartridge.
Most casings are made from brass. Sometimes commercially loaded ammo is made with nickel plated or steel casings which are not suitable for reloading.
Most cartridges used for centerfire rifles are of the bottle necked design shown Here in Figure 13.
Figure 13. Cartridge cases.
Some of the larger magnums have a belt around the case-head which is there for headspacing and additional strength. Both of these types of cases are suitable for reloading. Some things to look out for on brass casings that can make them difficult or impossible to reload are; crimped primer pockets and Burdan primer pockets. Sometimes military ammo has crimped primer pockets which make it difficult/impossible to de-cap and properly re-prime the brass. If you want to reload brass with crimped primer pockets, you need a tool to eliminate the crimp. The .223 Remington cartridge is one that’s commonly found with crimped primer pockets.
Figure 14. Different types of Flash holes.
Casings having Berdan primer pockets will have two flash-holes from the primer pocket to the inside of the case as shown here. This makes it impossible for a centrally located de-capping pin to knock out the primer. For this reason and because of the primers used, Berdan primed brass is considered non-reloadable. Berdan primed brass is also quite uncommon, so your unlikely to encounter it unless you seek out old military cartridges.
There are 4 basic designations for primers commonly used in metallic rifle cartridge reloading:
• Small rifle
• Large rifle
• Small rifle Magnum
• Large rifle Magnum
All Boxer type primers share the same basic geometry shown here.
Figure 15. Anatomy of a primer
The firing pin hits the cup, crushing the mixture compound against the anvil which sends a small explosion thru the holes in the anvil, thru the flash hole and into the cartridge case to ignite the powder.
The small and large designation refers to the physical size of the primer. A cartridge case will either have a small primer pocket (.223 Remington, 6mmBR, etc) or a large primer pocket (.243 and .308 Winchester, .30-06, etc).
Figure 16. Primers
Magnum primers are made with more mixture compound in order to provide reliable ignition of larger volumes of powder. Magnum primers also have thicker cups to contain higher levels of pressure developed by magnum cartridges.
There are two basic categories of smokeless rifle powders used for metallic cartridge loading: stick and ball powder. Ball powders generally feed better (more consistently) thru powder measurers, which can speed up the process of loading ammunition. However, many discerning handloaders find that the burn characteristics of stick powders are more favorable for producing consistency, so they take the time to weigh charges of stick powder on scales.
It’s important when choosing a type and amount of powder to use in your handloads to stay within the min and max limits given in this manual. A burn rate chart is provided to indicate the relative burn rate of most modern powders.
Figure 17. ‘Stick’ powder
The fill ratio is a value that’s listed for each powder charge in the load data and is used to indicate how full the cartridge will be with a given charge of powder. A fill ratio of 70% indicates that the cartridge will only be 70% full of powder, with 30% of its volume being empty space. A fill ratio that’s near or greater than 100% indicates a situation where seating the bullet can actually crunch down the powder a little bit. This is known as a compressed load, and should be approached in small increments with great caution.
A fill ratio near 100% is considered optimal because it leaves little room for the powder to situate itself differently inside the cartridge. This consistent positioning of powder promotes more complete and uniform ignition, which is a key ingredient in achieving precision.
The bullet is the most critical component of the cartridge. After all, it’s the thing we’re launching downrange, our only physical contact with the target. Care should be taken to properly select the right kind of bullet for the shooters application.
Berger has 3 main lines of bullets: Hunting, Target, and Varmint. The bullet lines are named after their intended applications, and shooters would be well advised to use the bullets within their designated applications.
Figure 18. Berger Hunting VLD terminal performance
Berger Hunting bullets are all of the VLD (Very Low Drag) design, and are intended for use on game. The characteristic terminal performance of the VLD Hunting bullets is 2 to 4 inches of penetration, followed by dramatic expansion as shown in Figure 18.
Figure 19. Target Bullet
Berger Target bullets are made on thicker jackets than the Hunting bullets and are available in several designs including: FB (Flat Base), BT (Boat Tail), LRBT (Long Range Boat Tail), VLD (Very Low Drag) and Hybrid. The various designs available in many weights offer the target shooter a rich variety of options to choose from when searching for the ultimate in ballistic performance and precision at any range.
Figure 20. Varmint Bullet
Berger Varmint bullets are characterized by flat bases, wide tips, thin jackets and middle to light weight for caliber. These attributes combine to produce accurate, high velocity and extremely explosive bullets which are the hallmarks of great varmint bullet performance.