Getting Started Reloading Part 2: Picking the needed equipment
Today I present part two in my series on getting started reloading: “Picking the needed equipment”. Hopefully you already read part one and decided to continue. In everything we do let us remember to do things safely and carefully. My guidelines here are to help you pick the needed equipment to reload your own ammunition and some things that are nice to have but not critical. Most of my suggestions are based on years of experience and research, some are just my preferences and yours will be different. When I say “equipment” I mean everything from safety glasses to ammo boxes. These recommendations are for someone new to reloading who is just starting out.
If you are going to start reloading, safety is priority number one. To that end, the first thing you need to buy is a good pair of safety glasses. No matter what press you choose or components you have, you need to protect your eyes. If any operation you are performing involves live primers you definitely need safety glasses on. You can argue that you don’t need them for de-capping or resizing as long as there are no live primers involved and that is fine (I wear them anyway). I try to have them on no matter what I am doing. Once live primers are in use it is most important to protect your eyes. When you are priming brass be sure to wear safety glasses. I suggest keeping them on for all of the operations after the brass is primed in case a primer detonates. I realize the chances are very slim that you will detonate a primer, but it is not worth losing an eye. I also suggest keeping your face away from the top of the brass as you prime it, so any flash that could come out of the primer would not hit you.
The next item I consider necessary is nitrile gloves. Yes you can reload without nitrile gloves or latex gloves and I have. But, the best protection against any of the toxic residue on brass and the lead from bullets is a pair of gloves. Again, this is not a true necessity but I don’t do any amount of reloading without gloves. The health risks are not worth it. I always wash my hands after handling ammunition or components as well as wearing gloves. I know some will disagree with wearing gloves, but it is a good layer of protection. It also keeps your sweat and oils off of reloading dies and equipment as well as primers and brass which leads to less corrosion on tools and cases or the chance of contaminating primers.
The next item you need is a fire extinguisher. You can argue that reloading is possible without one and you would be right. You are handling combustible and flammable materials as well as explosive materials (primers) when you reload. It is not wise to work in an area handling those materials without a good working fire extinguisher close by. You can get a home sized ABC extinguisher for twenty or thirty dollars that will be worth a hundred times the cost if you ever need it in an emergency. I have reloaded without one around and decided it was not worth the risk. Now I have one right near my bench and suggest you do the same.
At a minimum you need one reloading manual; I suggest using more than one and comparing the data from a few different sources to make your loads. Online information is very sketchy unless it is from a reliable, verifiable source, such as a powder manufacturer or bullet manufacturer. I personally like the Hodgdon annual reloading manual (yearly and the size of a magazine) due to the layout and information included. Each manufacturer’s manual is different and organizes information differently. Also, some list only maximum loads. How the information is presented and what they include is important and you need to find one you like. Pay particular attention to the section on how information is presented so you understand powder burning rates and what different symbols mean. Also, read the data regarding what firearms or barrels (length, twist rate, etc.) are used to test the loads for pressure and velocity on each listed load. Understanding how the data was gathered and how to interpret the way it is presented is beneficial and valuable. I use Alliant, Hornady, Lyman, Hodgdon, Speer, and Lee reloading manuals. They are all a little different and all beneficial to read and use.
Once you have a manual (or more) you will need a way of record keeping for the loads you decide to try. I suggest writing down your powder lots as you acquire powders and keeping good records on everything you buy and when. A notebook will work for record keeping. I also like to put my load information on 3X5 cards that I put on the bench as I am making the loads and then place the card in the box with the finished cartridges. Include the type of components, overall length and any other pertinent information. There are a lot of benefits to keeping notes and having the information right in front of you. I end up with a log of materials and supplies and also different loads as I try them. I have a second notebook I use at the range as I am doing actual firing and testing, noting the results, and making note of the weather conditions. I am not the most organized and particular and wish I kept better records, but I try my best and do keep records. I have been able to get powder from the same lot months a part because I had the lot number written down. Record keeping for your loads (recipes) and how they perform is the bare minimum you should keep. I also have Excel sheets that I use for load recipes and also keep records of how many rounds have been fired through each firearm. I keep track of each lot of brass cases and how many times they have been fired and resized, neck sized, trimmed, etc. You can be as particular as you like but record keeping is very important.
I discussed reloading presses and kits in part one. If you have decided on the type of press you want, now is the time to buy. I suggest a kit to your liking and price range because in the long run you get more for your money and can start reloading right away. The single stage press is hard to beat unless you are exclusively doing handgun ammunition in bulk. Even then you can get a turret press in a kit.
Your reloading press set up decision is something that will be decided by your budget and your needs.
If you are unsure how much reloading you want to do or whether or not you will do it long-term you may want to do it as cheaply as possible. Also your budget may dictate more or less money being spent. I suggest a kit if you want the best value you can get in the beginning. I started piece meal with the cheapest single stage you can buy. I have had great results but would buy a kit if I did it over again. You can get everything in one box at one time and just add dies, powder, primers and bullets. I also think the better presses last longer and make more precise ammunition. I wanted to start as cheap as I could and I did because money was very tight. I have since added a turret press and a used RCBS Rock chucker single stage press that is in great shape and much nicer than my original press. My original press is now used for de-capping, bullet sizing and priming. If you think you will be reloading long-term the initial cost of a better press may be worth it. If you are going to make handgun ammunition and not rifle ammunition or not “precision” rifle ammunition any of the turret presses will work. For rifle cartridges, especially “precision” rifle cartridges you will need and want a nice single stage press. I don’t want to make recommendations of specific brands because it is a very personal choice. In some ways you are buying into a ‘system’ with some brands of press. In the long run all the presses made today will make good ammunition. I suggest looking at the press information and comparison videos from Gavin Gear (Ultimate Reloader and https://ultimatereloader.com/) on YouTube and on his website.
Once you have a press you will need a bench to mount it to. Benches can be purchased or built. Many times a work bench that is already in the garage or basement is used. Some people use clamps to hold the press to a table or bench. The most important thing with a bench is that it is sturdy and does not allow the press to move around or flex a lot. I am always surprised when I see reloading videos where the bench and press are moving all around. You also need good lighting on your bench. I suggest bolting the press down if you can. Each situation is different and as long the bench is sturdy and safe you can make quality ammunition.
For reloading dies I would start with a set of Lee dies for the caliber you are starting with. They are inexpensive and they come with a shell holder and powder dipper. If you need more precision dies in the future, the cost is so low for the “starter die set” it will be worth it. For pistol dies I usually go with the 4 die set because I like the factory crimp die. I also like the rifle sets that come with 4 dies (I like the neck sizing die), but the 3 die sets work well too. Again, your budget and needs may dictate more expensive dies but when you are getting started the less expensive sets are fine. If you take care of them and clean them they should last for a long time.
I suggest acquiring brass from your own fired cases to start. You can buy new brass if you want, but I like recycling and you can always buy new brass once you get experienced. Brass can be cleaned simply by hand or wiped down by hand. You do not have to buy expensive cleaning supplies or machines. Eventually you may want a machine; I have avoided a tumbler or other machine because of the cost. My brass is de-capped and washed by hand in a solution of hot water, dishwashing liquid and lemon juice, then rinsed really well and dried. I clean my flash holes by hand. I would love a machine, but every time I look at the cost I am reminded of how cheaply I am doing it by hand. Once you get rolling along you will eventually probably buy some new brass cases, but there is nothing like the satisfaction of reloading your used brass. You will need case lube for resizing your cases. Any case lube will work, I like the Lee case lube because it goes a long way and does not contaminate powder. It also cleans off easily.
Powder, primers and bullets are all things that will be picked based on your load data and what supplies are available to you. I had a local store that sold Hodgdon powder and I bought CFE pistol, followed the load data in the Hodgdon manual and used primers and bullets that were available at the same shop. If you are brand new I suggest trying one caliber and style of bullet at a time until you get good loads, before you move to a different caliber or bullet. You can buy many supplies on-line and the types of bullets you can get are endless. I started buying commercial lead bullets for pistols almost right away and then decided to cast my own. I suggest taking it slow and being careful in the beginning, keep it simple and don’t try to do too many different things at once. Appropriate powder, primers and bullets are an obvious necessity for any reloading and hand loading. You will need to determine what type of each you need before you start. Always start low and work up loads slowly.
You will need a set of calipers for measuring overall cartridge lengths and brass case lengths. I like the old-fashioned dial type but inexpensive digital calipers will work as long as they are accurate. I suggest measuring your cases after every firing. I have had rifle cases that needed to be trimmed after only two firings but the same brand and caliber brass case fired in the same gun (different lot of brass) did not need trimming after four firings. The lesson is, measure your cases to see if they need to be trimmed after each firing. I have pistol cases that have never needed to be trimmed and have been fired many times, but I keep checking. You don’t want to have problems from long brass causing high pressure or malfunctions. Also check cleaned brass for damage, cracks, stress and stretching. Discard any brass that is suspect. Good calipers are a necessary tool for reloading.
You will need a way to trim brass. You should not need to trim your brass until it has been fired a few times but want to measure it after each use to be certain. I started with no way to trim brass and my pistol brass all took multiple loadings and did not need trimming. When I started doing rifle loads I bought a Lee deluxe case trimmer and die for each caliber. The different brands and types of trimmers all have different ways of cutting the brass to length and chamfering the case mouth. Lee makes several different types of case trimmers and they are all the least expensive ones I have seen. Eventually I will probably buy a “lathe style” trimmer from one of the other manufacturers for the more precision rifle loads. You will need a trimmer eventually but in the very beginning you can wait to buy one as long as you measure your brass after each firing to make sure it is within specifications. A trimmer is a necessity, but can be bought “after the fact” if money is tight.
A way to measure powder and a scale are next. You can use a hand powder scoop or make your own. Dippers and scoops are fine but take much longer than a mechanical powder measure. I suggest a Lee perfect powder measure. Think what you want about the “cheap plastic measure” it is very accurate and very inexpensive. I have a couple of them and think they are great. I still use scoops when developing a load and then trickle up to my desired weight. A powder trickler is not a necessity; I have used a 22-250 case as my powder trickler for years. You can use any clean bottle neck case for a trickler and it works. I am thinking of buying a real trickler now only because it should be a little faster. You don’t have to have a mechanical powder measure, but once you use one you will be glad you did. Again, there are certain loads I make that I still weigh with scoops but generally I use a powder measure. Precision rifle loads get the powder measure for the bulk and then trickled up to the exact weight.
A beam scale is my favorite way to weigh powder. The Lee scale is great for the money, is very inexpensive and is very accurate (if you keep it level, set it correctly and read it consistently). Many people use digital scales. Digital scales are available in many styles. I have a couple cheaper ones and don’t particularly like them because they all seem to wander when weighing powder. I like the beam scales (and the dial calipers) because they don’t require batteries and are very accurate. Most people today prefer the digital scales and that is fine. Just keep an eye on your powder weights and I suggest using a beam scale as a backup to double-check your digital scale. Whichever you use, a scale is a must have item for hand loading and reloading. I would never trust a charge of powder from a scoop without weighing and always check my powder measure weights frequently. Powder charge safety is not to be taken for granted or taken lightly. An accurate scale is a must.
A powder funnel is a needed item for the reloading bench. They are cheap and keep your powder from spilling. You will also want a tray for holding your empty cases (reloading tray). The first case holding trays I had were pine boards that I drilled holes in the correct diameter for my cases. The homemade trays worked well enough until I bought some plastic reloading trays made by MTM that I really like. There are many different brands and styles of reloading trays. As long as they hold your cases securely so you can add powder and keep them organized while you go through the reloading process, they are good.
A priming tool is another must have item. Most presses have “on press” priming that is adequate. I have used a couple different priming tools and use the Lee “Ram Prime” tool the most. Every priming tool I have used has advantages and draw backs. The most important things are safety first and then consistency second. Safety first, because you can’t be too careful with live primers and consistency second, because you want them installed correctly and to perform uniformly. Hand primers are good tools and each type seems to have its own quirks. Many people prefer a hand priming tool, I do not. I don’t like squeezing with my hands like that. They work well and are very popular. I suggest trying what comes with your press and then adding a different way to prime if you want.
A primer flipping tray can be a necessity, depending on how you prime your cases. I use a lid from a sour cream tub to hold primers when I prime cases. It does not flip the primers it just holds them. I wear gloves and load them by hand, one at a time. Primer flipping trays are cheap and come with some of the kits. If you are using a tube fed primer feeder you will want the flipping tray.
Sooner or later you will need a bullet puller. My suggestion, purchase a generic “kinetic” bullet puller that looks like a hammer. Eventually you can buy a “collet style” puller sized for your caliber bullets, but the hammer style will work for any mistakes while you are a rookie. I still use mine and they work.
You will need miscellaneous items like a flashlight; paper towels/shop towels, trash can, Q-tips, oil, cleaning solvent/alcohol, based on your preferences and needs. Whatever equipment you buy, be sure to read and understand the directions for each item. The turret press I have very clearly states in the instructions where it needs to be lubed. Yet, several times I have read on-line where guys are complaining because the press is binding or not working smoothly. Every one of them had not lubed the press correctly. Simple cleaning and lubing goes a long way for presses and dies.
The first “nice to have” item I would suggest is a “Universal de-capping die”. I bought one shortly after I got started and now would not want to reload without it. I normally de-cap all my used brass before I clean it and running them through the universal de-capping die is quick and easy.
I re-use my ammunition boxes that my store-bought, factory ammo came in and there is nothing wrong with reusing them as many times as possible. I put a label sticker on the box and keep track of how many times that particular brass has been fired resized and trimmed and keep it separate in the box.
Plastic ammunition boxes are very nice to have but are not a necessity. I like them for holding more cartridges than the normal factory boxes hold.
Another nice to have is a “primer pocket cleaning tool”. I use several different homemade tools, most frequently a small, and worn out, flat head screwdriver. I really do like the nice tools that have a handle and are made for the job. Not a necessity but nicer to use than a pipe cleaner or hack tool. If you don’t mind spending the money, it is nice to have a primer pocket cleaning tool.
A magnifying glass is a useful tool that is not a necessity but comes in handy and sooner or later you will want one on the bench.
Powdered graphite can come in handy for dusting the inside of case necks on rifle cartridges and can also be used as a dry lube in places where you don’t want oil.
There is an endless array of gadgets and tools designed and sold for reloading. I have personally bought very few of them because I take a minimalist approach to my hand loading. If you have the space and the money, you can buy some really nice stuff that enhances and speeds up the process. Read some manuals and check the info on The Reloaders Network to see the different approaches people have. What I have outlined here is the basics to get you started reloading your own ammunition. If you move into specialized loads or precision loading it will require specialized, precision equipment.
Each person does things a little bit differently and likes certain things and doing them a certain way. Consistency and results are what matter. I hope you enjoy reloading, whether you crank out tons of ammo or make an occasional batch. Most importantly, stay safe and be careful with your reloading and your shooting.
John has been shooting since he was a kid and is now a middle aged man. He likes shooting rifles and handguns, reloading, bullet casting and the outdoors. He believes in God, freedom and a good sense of humor.