What Is Handloading?
Modern rifle and handgun ammunition falls into two categories: rimfire and centerfire. Rimfire ammunition by its nature is not economically reloaded, so we will concentrate on centerfire. Centerfire cartridges are built from four components:
- The bullet. The bullet is the part of the cartridge that actually leaves the firearm and (hopefully) strikes the target. In common vernacular, the terms “bullet” and “cartridge” are often interchanged, but it’s helpful to make the correct distinction.
- The gunpowder. The gunpowder is the fuel that propels the bullet up to its remarkable velocity. Gunpowder has a reputation for being dangerous (too many Roadrunner cartoons?) but, while flammable, is a relatively stable material.
- The primer. The primer is a small cup that fits into the middle of the back of the cartridge. Inside this cup is a material that will ignite when struck with the firearm’s firing pin. When the primer ignites, it sets off the gunpowder that actually propels the bullet out of the gun.
- The case. The case is the (usually) shiny thing that holds everything else together.
Handloading is the process of safely and correctly assembling these four components into a working cartridge.
One of my early discoveries upon taking interest in the shooting sports is that it can be a rather costly pastime. Guns are expensive, but good ones properly cared for can generally outlast their owner.
Ammunition is another story. Simply put, high-quality, pre-made ammunition is expensive, and represents a significant ongoing outlay to a shooting enthusiast. And ammunition is not something on which to skimp: whether you’re a serious target shooter, a hunter, or a law enforcement officer, poorly performing ammunition will prove costly in more ways than one. We need our ammunition to be accurate, reliable and well-made.
By learn to handload our own ammunition, we can greatly reduce the cost of your cartridges, but handloading has other advantages as well:
- You can experiment and fine-tune the optimal handload for your personal guns.
- You can ensure that you’ll never run out of ammunition at a critical time, like the night before leaving on a hunting trip (when all the stores are closed).
- If you’re willing to invest the effort to do so, you can produce ammunition that is more consistent and more accurate than standard store-purchased product.
- Handloading is fun! It’s a great way to kill a little time on a lazy afternoon while listening to the radio. (Take care, though, not to become distracted when handloading, as you are working with potentially hazardous materials that require precision handling.)
Steps In Handloading
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you begin with pre-made components. Some handloaders go the extra mile and make their own bullets from molds and molten lead, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
If you are handloading with used “brass” (a common term for cases), the brass must be cleaned. This is almost always done in a media tumbler that uses high-frequency vibrations to run the cases against a mildly abrasive material like corncob particles.
Once the brass has been cleaned, the following steps are performed:
- The old primer cap must be removed. This step is called decapping.
- The case may need to be shortened very slightly to return it to the proper overall length. When a cartridge is fired, the case material momentarily softens enough to “flow” slightly, and sometimes becomes a bit longer as a result. To ensure proper fit for the next firing, the case must be restored to its original length. This step is called trimming.
- As mentioned above, when a cartridge is fired, the case will change shape slightly to match the contour of the gun’s firing chamber. This phenomenon is called fireforming, and a case that is to be reused should generally be returned to its original dimensions. This step is called sizing.
In the case of bottle-shaped cases, sizing can be done to the entire case (full-length sizing) or only to the neck of the case (neck sizing). Both approaches have their advocates, and a discussion of the relative merits of each is probably beyond the scope of this article.
- A new primer must be pressed into the case. This step is called priming.
- The case must be filled with the correct amount of gunpowder. This step is called loading.
- For some cartridges, the rim of the case must be flared slightly to make seating the new bullet easier. This step is called expanding.
- A bullet must be placed onto the case and pressed into the case until the correct Cartridge Over-All Length (COAL) is achieved. This step is called seating.
- For some cartridges, the case must be squeezed against the bullet to ensure it remains properly seated. This step is called crimping.
Equipment Used In Handloading
Handloading requires a bit of an investment, but can quickly pay for itself for a frequent shooter.
Most of the steps in handloading are done on a reloading press. A reloading press is the workstation for a handloader, and can be either single-stage or progressive. A single-stage press performs one of the above steps at a time. Most of the time, the reloader will perform a particular step on a batch of cases, then progress to the next step. A progressive press does several steps at once. It takes a little bit of time to get the knack of a progressive, but once you do, you can reload considerably faster than on a single-stage press.
Several of the steps mentioned above entail the use of reloading dies. A reloading die is specific to the caliber/cartridge you’re working with. In other words, a die for a .357 magnum cartridge can’t be used on a .44 magnum cartridge. Dies are mounted in the press and perform sizing, decapping, expanding, seating and crimping. Some dies can perform more than one task. Most sizing dies, for example, can also decap the case, and many seating dies also crimp.
Besides the press and dies, there are several other tools you’ll need to get started. I may add some information on these when I get more time.