March 30, 2021
By Phil Massaro
"I need to learn how to reload my own ammunition; what do I buy to get started?"
It's a question I get often, and one which has a multitude of answers. A new reloader could make a minimal investment in the simplest of reloading gear, or could spend a significant sum on the best gear available. Either way, the goal is the same: to create the best ammunition possible. But, the financial reality of life can often dictate that the budget is on the lower side of expectations, so I think we should examine the most affordable way of covering the bases for the beginning reloader.
Reloading, in its simplest definition, is the act of recharging those components which can be repurposed to create new ammunition. Looking a bit more in depth, it generally means saving the spent brass or nickel-coated brass cartridge cases, knocking out the spent primer, resizing those cases, repriming and recharging with powder, and seating a new bullet.
Those processes require a certain set of specific tools, which can vary greatly in price, as well as in their functions. Let’s first identify what tools we'll need, and then look at those choices which are most affordable.
A reloading press is the primary piece of gear a reloader uses; it is responsible for generating the forces necessary to resize the cases, seat a bullet in the case, and sometimes seat primers as well. Presses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, mostly shaped like an "O," or a "C." The O presses are more rigid, and usually more expensive, but the C presses can certainly be made to work.
The Lee Breech Lock Reloader Single Stage Press ($59.98) is an entry-level C press which will handle almost all your basic reloading needs. Couple this with the Lee Ram Prime Priming Unit ($19.98) to allow priming from the bench and you’ll not only save the cost of a priming tool, but still be below the cost of many other presses.
Mind you, this isn’t the strongest press on the market, and probably isn’t the best choice for necking cartridges up or down, but it will handle normal reloading duties. It features a cast aluminum frame, and Lee’s Breech Lock quick-change system for easily changing dies.
A scale is a must-have for any reloader, as you’ll need to weigh powder charges at the very least, and sometimes you’ll be weighing bullets and cases alike. If forced to have just one type of scale, I prefer a balance beam scale, as it is the least susceptible to environmental conditions and gravity never wears out.
Like presses, there are many different models up and down the price range, but I feel this is one area where the reloader shouldn’t skimp. I like the Redding Model No. 2 balance beam scale ($150; "street price," $103), as it has proven to be over-designed, and will truly last a lifetime. You’ll probably end up handing it down to future generations of reloaders. It is accurate, simple to use, and the stainless steel bearing seats house two hardened knife points for smooth motion.
Where the scale is used for measuring the weights of the reloading components, a dial caliper will be needed to measure the length of various components.
For the best blend of affordability and reliability, I like the Hornady Dial Caliper ("street price," $50) as a sound choice. It is fully capable of giving you the accuracy level needed for basic reloading, providing you become proficient at reading a dial caliper, without breaking the bank or relying on batteries.
You’ll find yourself reaching for the caliper more often than you’d anticipate. Case length, cartridge overall length, shoulder position, and more will all be measured with the dial caliper, and once you become familiar with the tool, it’ll become an old friend.
Brass cases stretch over time, and you’ll need the ability to trim that brass back down to its proper length. The Lee Cutter and Lock Stud ($6.98) mates with the caliber-specific Lee Case Length Gauge/Holder ($7.50) to trim your cases to the proper length every time.
Though this system requires a bit more time than other (much more) expensive trimmers, it can be used with a drill to speed up the operation. Once trimmed, you’ll need to dress the case mouth to remove any burrs left by the trimming process.
The L.E. Wilson Chamfer and Deburring Tool ($32, "street price," $23) will handle cartridges from .17 to .45 caliber, and it is certainly built to last. I’ve had mine for more than two decades, and it shows no signs of wear.
The Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner ($2.98) will scrape burnt residue out of both small and large primer pockets.
You'll need a means to lubricate your cases for resizing – unless we’re talking pistol cases, where carbide dies won't require lubricant – and I like Imperial Sizing Die Wax (around $10 for two-ounce tin). It comes in a round tin, feels a bit like lip balm, and covers an awful lot of ground. Rub a bit between your index finger and thumb, then spread it on the exterior of the cartridge and you're all set.
For each cartridge you intend to reload, you'll need a set of dies and a shellholder. The die set should include a resizing die, and a bullet seating die – which can usually be used to apply a roll crimp – and in the case of straight-walled cases, a flaring die to open the case mouth just a bit.
I like the value that RCBS dies (prices vary by cartridge) offer. They aren’t the cheapest or the most expensive, but they have served me well for decades, and will continue to do so. The correlative shellholder for your case is also needed; there are charts to indicate which is appropriate for your cartridge, and because there are many families of cartridges sharing the same case dimensions, you can use a particular shellholder for multiple cartridges.
You'll need a static-free powder funnel, in order to safely and neatly drop your powder charges into the cases. The RCBS Powder Funnel ($5.81) is designed to handle cartridges of .22 all the way up to .50 caliber. This clever little funnel has been a staple on my bench from the beginning, and remains there to this day. For the casual reloader, this will do everything you need.
Dispensing powder can be as cheap or expensive as you’d like to make it, from the $1,000-plus automated electronic dispensing units to the simplest of methods that use a small spoon to scoop powder into the pan of the balance beam scale at a cost of exactly nothing. This method requires a fair amount of time, but if the budget is tight, it will suffice.
The same can be said for reloading data. I absolutely love reloading manuals, and pore over them frequently, because of my passion for the science of reloading. But, for those who are trying to maximize their reloading dollar, many companies publish their data online for free.
I’m not talking about some sketchy data on an internet forum. I’m talking about the powder and bullet manufacturers who’ve taken the time to offer their rigorous test results for free. Alliant Powder, Hodgdon Powder (which includes IMR, Hodgdon and Winchester powders) and Nosler all publish excellent, reliable data.
Simple, commonplace tools can probably be procured without much trouble. I’d recommend a few screwdrivers – both flathead and Phillips – in various sizes, a set of Allen keys, an adjustable wrench, and because we’re talking about working on the cheap, you can use various old toothbrushes and small paintbrushes to keep your tools clean and for wiping out the case necks.
This group of tools covers the bare bones, and with this set and the necessary components you could create functioning ammunition. There are fancier options, as well as some complete kits aimed toward the beginning reloader. For example, the RCBS Rebel Master Reloading Kit ($463) checks all the boxes, sans reloading dies and shellholders, and includes an RCBS Rebel 'O' frame press, a Uniflow III powder dispenser and the Speer Reloading Manual No. 15 in addition to the other tools you’ll need.
Whether the convenience of the reloading kit is worth the investment is up to you, but there are options ranging from $200 all the way up to $800 and approaching $1,000.
Covering the bases with the bare essentials will get you started, but I’d wager it won’t be long until the fancier tools begin to catch your eye. One of the best parts of becoming a reloader is the seemingly never-ending quest for the ultimate reloading set-up; after 30 years my gear still changes from time to time, as I’m always happy to experiment with new gear in my quest to make the best ammunition possible.