All fellow gun enthusiasts must plan for one major recurring expense.
It’s a cold hard fact, for enthusiasts the initial purchase of your firearm will pale in comparison to your ammunition costs over its lifetime.
Assuming, of course, that you actually fire the weapon.
Obviously, you could reduce this cost by just stashing and neglecting your firearms.
But since I know you’re serious about your guns, your survival firearms should be fired; early and often.
The main reasons for owning a firearm are simple and few:
- Collect them as a hobby
- Use them for a utilitarian task (such as hunting)
- Use them for self-defense
Two of these three require continual, recurring practice to maintain your skills. And admiring an antique in your gun safe doesn’t require practice, but let’s face it if you’re a firearm hobbyist you likely enjoy firing them.
This means ammunition purchases are a regular part of your shopping and budget.
Aside from proficiency training, personal recreation, and hunting, there is one more reason for buying ammo; Preparing.
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When the SHTF ammunition will be the coin of the realm. It will mean life or death for many people.
So prepared survivalists want a healthy cache of ammunition hidden away. Ready for that day when you can no longer stop by your local Wal-Mart for a box of 38 Special.
How large that cache depends on the individual, on his or her comfort level.
I know some people with stockpiles containing thousands of rounds of 9 mm Luger and 5.56 mm rifle rounds. However, building a stockpile such as this requires significant capital expenditure.
Reloading spent cartridges is the best way to afford all these endeavors. It’s often cheaper to buy the ammunition components and assemble them yourself. Rather than an outright purchase of factory ammunition.
Secondly, if you are reloading rifle rounds, you can hand load them to match the ballistics you desire. If you use the same bullet weight, shape, powder, and powder charge, you can get very reproducible accuracies. This means you can dial in your scope or open sights to the range and ballistics you desire.
Factory ammo comes in various sizes, shapes, weights, and powder charges. For instance, a boat tail jacketed Remington 150 grain 30-06 round is not the same ballistically as a Winchester, soft nose, 174-grain version.
If you’re only working with one ballistically repeatable round, you can set up your rifle and never need to change your zero.
This is a significant advantage when shooting at longer ranges. However, at pistol distances, it doesn’t matter that much.
So let’s examine the economic advantage first.
Reloading Ammo To Save Money
Some ammunition is relatively inexpensive and often you can find deals by buying ammo online.
The 9 mm Luger is incredibly common, easy to find, and easy on the wallet. If you can find 22LR, it’s also cheap. Maybe not historically speaking, but it’s still relative pretty cheap.
However, most other cartridges can really dent the bank account. Ammo such as .45 ACP, .38 Special, .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum.
Even though the 38 Special and .380 Auto don’t pack the punch of a 9 mm Luger, they tend to cost more due to supply and demand. There are a lot more pistols firing 9 mm Luger, hence, manufacturers produce a lot more of that caliber.
The bottom line is that the more popular the caliber, the longer the production runs, the cheaper they can be produced.
I find it possible to reload fifty rounds of 38 Special for about $8-$10. The same fifty rounds will cost you between $18-$25 dollars at a big box store or even sporting goods stores.
Likewise, you can generally score a box of 9 mm Luger in the $10-$12 range. So the reloading savings is minimal to nonexistent with 9mm ammo. Still, that being said, I know many people who reload 9mm Luger.
Larger rifle rounds can likewise show significant savings. A typical box of .30-06 may run $20-$30. I can reload twenty rounds of .30-06 for about $10-12.
In general, more powder is used in rifle rounds versus pistol rounds in production. Also, the weight of the bullet tends to be significantly heavier. For both these reasons, it translates to increased costs for rifle bullets. Plus, shipping weight adds to the cost difference as well.
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Reloading For Accuracy
If you are into Russian and Warsaw Pact firearms (such as the Mosin Nagant, SKS or AK-47 variants) you generally can’t reload cheaper than you can buy factory ammo.
The 7.62 x 54R and 7.62×39 are common and abundant cartridges both as military surplus as well as new manufacture. Making them very cheap.
That being said, they are cheaply made cartridges so their quality varies. This means their repeatability comes into question due to inaccuracies in their factor loading.
The AK has a reputation for less than stellar accuracy beyond 200 yards. But often, this is due to the cheap ammunition.
I once fired twenty rounds of new manufacture Tulammo 7.62×39 against the far more expensive Winchester version. The Winchester standard deviation was about half that of the Tulammo.
Meaning each bullet from the Winchester landed inside a ring half as large as the Russian bullets but for three times the cost.
So even Russian ammo is a candidate for reloading if you desire accuracy improvements.
Basic Reloading Equipment and Supplies
So you think you want to reload ammunition, but you are unsure what equipment you need. Obviously, you need raw materials:
- Empty cartridges
But what about the equipment required for manufacture? You need a reloading press.
I have an RCBS Rock Crusher, which is a typical, high-quality, single-stage press.
A single-stage press means it can only perform one function at a time on one cartridge at a time. Some presses have multiple stages.
With these, each pull of the arm can work on several cartridges at once – for a hefty price.
A single-stage press kit can be had for $300-400 dollars. This will get you the press itself, a priming tool, a balance beam powder scale, and some hand tools.
The kits are good starters but they do not contain everything you need.
You will also need a die set for each caliber you wish to reload (for example this one for reloading 308).
Watch this video for a good overview of the RCBS Rock Chucker as well as a quick overview of what we will talk about next –
How To Reload Ammo
Basic Stages of Reloading Ammo
Let’s examine the various stages of the reloading operation:
- Decapping and Sizing (plus trimming & lubricating for rifles cartridges)
- Sizing a Second Time – Flaring (not normally necessary for rifle cartridges)
- Inserting a New Primer
- Adding the Powder
- Seating (plus crimping for handgun cartridges)
Note: If you’d rather watch the entire process in a 45-minute video – skip down to the bottom of this article.
1. We’ll start with decapping and sizing.
In this initial operation you accomplish two tasks at the same time:
- Remove the old spent primer from a fired cartridge
- Resize the brass to accept the new bullet
This requires just a single pull of the press. It forces your spent cartridge up into a sizing/decapping die.
The die is screwed into the top of the press and the cartridge sits on a steel cylinder. It’s held in place by a shell-holder sized for that cartridge. Once everything is in place, push the press arm down.
The cylinder will rise and force the spent cartridge upwards and into the die. The precise die dimensions exert pressure on the brass. It squeezes the cartridge back to its factory dimensions. Because brass is a malleable metal.
At the same time, the die is squeezing the cartridge a pin knocks out the spent primer from the base of the cartridge. This is the basic operation for a pistol cartridge.
Rifle cartridges require two more steps.
Rifle cartridges must be trimmed first to the correct length or the cartridge will not chamber in the rifle. Why is this?
Remember as I said before, brass is malleable. It swells slightly during firing and the overall length of the casing grows. Hence the need to trim first.
A nice set of calipers is essential, as well as a trimming tool. This allows you to cut a little off the neck and return the case to its original length.
Note: After several firings, the metal of the neck will become too thin and crack. Discard the casing at this point.
Also, rifle shells are much longer than pistol shells. This means they penetrate far deeper into the die for sizing.
It also means if a lubricant is not applied to the shell, it can easily become stuck in the die. And usually, the only way to fix this is to send the die back to the manufacturer for removal. Not fun, so get some lubricant.
At this point, it’s essential to understand what happens when a cartridge is fired.
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Understanding the Firing Process
When a firearm’s hammer, striker, or firing pin hits the cartridge primer, the primer directs a jet of flame inside the casing.
This jet of flame ignites the powder charge. Ignited powder charge creates an explosion. Explosions are basically just rapidly expanding gasses. The pressure of these expanding gasses grows rapidly. A typical pistol can reach anywhere from 12,000-35,000 PSI in milliseconds.
This intense pressure forces the bullet out of its casing and into the gun barrel. Something to consider here is that the bullet is slightly larger in diameter than the barrel. This means for a brief moment the bullet acts as a plug. This causes the internal pressures to rise very rapidly.
Since bullets are made out of lead the base of the cartridge deforms as it is squeezed into the barrel. The base of the bullet digs into the rifling of the barrel. As it’s forced down the barrel under high pressure, it begins to spin. The spin helps the bullet to gain stability.
The bullet then exits the barrel at high velocities. Speeds typically in the 800-1200 feet per second range. However, rifle cartridges, with much heavier bullets and larger powder loads can see pressures as high as 62,000 PSI. These incredibly high pressures turn into bullet velocities of 2100-3000 feet per second.
Once a cartridge is fired, and the bullet is gone, the remaining empty casing has swelled in diameter. The new bullet won’t fit snugly into the casing. It may even just fall in.
So a decapping and sizing die knocks out the primer and squeezes the casing back into shape.
2. Sizing A Second Time – Flaring
Now that the casing is back to near-original dimensions, the pistol casing must be sized again so the bullet can be seated. This involves a second die that flares the mouth of the casing outward to accept a fresh bullet.
However, this flare is not very deep. Since you still need a smaller diameter to keep the bullet from just falling into the casing.
Note: Rifle rounds typically do not require this step.
3. Inserting a New Primer
Now is a good time to insert the new primer. This little tab of explosives is seated into a recess in the cartridge case head.
There are adapters you can buy for your press that seat the primer. Or this task can be accomplished by a special hand tool. But the results are the same, the primer is pressed into the primer well.
This is a good time to mention the two types of primers you are likely to see: Boxer and Berdan.
The Boxer primer is the most common for new factory ammo. The real difference is not so much the primer as the case head. A boxer cartridge will have one central hole the jet of flame travels through. It is located dead center in the case head and means a regular de-capping pin will simply pass through this hole to knock out the old primer.
Berdan primers, common in Eastern Bloc ammunition and older military surplus ammunition, actually have two side-by-side holes. This allows the flame from the primer to penetrate the casing. So a standard de-capping die with a single pin will not work—in fact, it will most likely break off.
Berdan primed ammo tends to be cheap Russian stuff, anyway. So buy it, shoot it and forget about it. Most of that type of ammo has steel casings, anyway. Steel casings are no good for reloading. So the only brass you need to think about reloading should have boxer primers.
So now that you have the cartridge sized, flared (if pistol), and primed, it’s time to add the powder.
4. Adding the Powder
Powders burn at different rates and it is critical to use the right powder for the right cartridge. Rifle powder tends to burn much slower than pistol powder. Using pistol powder in a rifle can destroy the weapon and seriously injure the shooter.
Always consult approved reloading tables. These tables provide the powder type and the recommended charge and resulting pressures for each type of cartridge. And with several choices of bullet weights and configurations.
Now’s a good time to discuss some very critical factors in reloading: bullet weight, bullet seat depth, and crimp. So what are these?
Bullet weight is just that—weight in grains. One thing to consider is inertia. This is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest. The heavier the bullet, the more inertia it has.
For example, a heavy bowling ball takes more energy to get moving than a light golf ball. So a bowling ball has more inertia than a golf ball.
So when the powder fires off inside the casing, all bullets resist movement to some degree. However, the heavier the bullet the more delayed initial movement. Remember with a rifle, the expanding gasses are basically trapped behind the bullet all the way to the exit of the barrel.
If you use a fast burning powder in a rifle, like a pistol powder, the pressure behind the bullet will rise faster than the firearm can handle. Which could cause the chamber or barrel to burst under pressure.
Even when using the correct rifle powder, heavier bullets require a lighter powder charge. This is essential to prevent over-pressurization.
The time it takes to overcome the inertia of the heavy bullet is in milliseconds or less. But too much powder can lead to too fast a pressure rise in that small space of time.
This can mean pressure can rise to explosion levels before the bullet has time to get out of the way. This is why rifle powder is much slower burning and bullet weight is important.
5. Seating (plus crimping for handgun cartridges)
Once the casing has the powder charge weighed on a scale and inserted, the seating die is used to push the bullet down to the correct depth.
Another factor is bullet seating. This is the depth at which the bullet is inserted into the casing.
The deeper the seating, the more that delay in the bullet leaving the case and the higher the pressure can rise.
One sign of this is a split casing. If, after the shot, the brass casing is cracked you may have a bad powder load or have seated your bullet too deep.
However, if you seat the bullet too shallow, not enough pressure builds before the bullet leaves the casing. This leads to reduced velocity and bad ballistics.
A word of warning: many cartridges are slack-filled. This means the powder charge may only take up a portion of the available casing volume, sometimes as low as 25% or so. This can also be dangerous.
If you’re not paying close attention you could accidentally drop two loads into the same cartridge and not notice it. A double charge of fast-burning pistol powder will turn your beautiful revolver to scrap steel and your right hand into a bloody mess. Hopefully, you were also wearing safety glasses when that bomb went off.
Now, handguns cartridges generally require a crimp. This is a symmetric squeezing of the end of the basing to compress up against the sidewall of the bullet itself.
In fact, it may look like it digs in slightly. A good crimp means you can’t feel the lip of the casing against the bullet. It feels smooth as you run your finger over it. If you don’t crimp, the bullet may leave the casing too soon and not all the powder will have been burned.
This is indicated by reduced velocity, reduced accuracy, and heavy soot on the casing exterior. The crimp assists inertia and holds the bullet in place a fraction of a millisecond longer. This allows pressure to build and the powder to completely burn.
Rifle bullets often don’t need a crimp. The seating die is adjusted to seat the bullet at the correct depth. And at the end of its travel, compress the sidewalls at the tip to squeeze the bullet.
And that’s the basics of reloading. Here’s a video showing all of this in action:
Every Serious Survivalist Should Learn How To Reload Ammo
Anyone contemplating reloading should purchase a good reloading manual from a reputable company. It will include the approved powders, charges, bullet sizes, and weights for popular cartridges.
Only a fool reloads ammo without a manual.
One last bit of advice.
If you are reloading ammo to build post-apocalyptic inventory (a.k.a preparing) don’t just buy the raw ingredients with the idea you’ll reload after TSHTF. You won’t have time. Buy the materials and load the rounds while you have time.
If you have no time now, forget reloading ammo and stockpile your ammunition.
And ALWAYS store your ammunition in quality ammo cans.
This article was not intended to replace hands-on training on how to reload ammo, but to make one aware of the dangers of the task.
Reloading is not for everyone—and yes people do screw up and injure themselves. This is one task not to be taken lightly.
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“Just In Case” Jack
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