Written by Sierra Bullets Ballistic Technician Philip Mahin
There have been a lot of books written about reloading 101, but I still get phone calls on the subject, so I’m going to write this one for those who couldn’t get the information any other way. I would like to start out with a list of essential tools to work with and dive into how to use them after.
The first thing you’ll need to get is a press. There are a lot of different designs out there but the one style I would recommend to any new reloader is an ‘O’ style press. They are reliable and strong; quite possibly to last a shooter the rest of his or her life and then some.
The Pacific in the picture has a little more flex than I prefer in a press but it is still produces accurate ammo and that is what matters for an older ‘C’ style. It also has a handle that operates in the opposite direction as a newer version (in other words, pulling the handle down pulls the ram down also). This particular press has an upgraded ram because the original was cartridge specific as in it had the slot like a shell holder cut into the ram itself. If you decide to purchase an older press, be aware of stuff like that. The Redding Ultramag is still a ‘C’ style press but it is of a modern design and you can see how the linkage attaches to the top of the C to hold it down under pressure. Honestly, it is a much heavier duty press than needed for everyday chores but it forms cases easily. It will crush even big cases but it loads from the front and the linkage gets in the way of my hands making it unhandy to operate when I’m in a hurry.
Of the two O presses below, the straight handle is made by RCBS and works well for everyday chores but I prefer a ball on the handle to make those chores easier to accomplish.
The next thing to find is a scale. The two typical types are an electronic (pictured above) and the other is a beam version (pictured below). Both of them have good points and bad and it will be up to you to determine what is appropriate for you. The beam version could be easy to bump and throw off without noticing, but it will work even when the batteries are dead in an electronic version. Some jobs are easier using either so it may be worth your while to find one of each if finances will allow.
Depending on the cartridge, some will eventually need to be trimmed quicker than others so a case trimmer is another necessity. There are several different brands and styles that will vary a lot in price. The Lee brand indexes on the interior of the case and is of the least expensive. My Redding model 2400 is a lath style trimmer and indexes from the base of the case (see my September 2013 blog post). Electric motors with trimmers speed up the process but they normally index from the case shoulder and command a high price. Trimming a case is a must to ensure it will have enough room to grow in the chamber during the firing process regardless of how it is performed and how uniform that length turns out to be.
If you are reloading bottle neck cases or straight wall cases, the dies perform the same function but you’ll have three dies for a straight wall case and only two for a bottle neck. There are several different brands available with cost varying from not expensive to very expensive depending on the cartridge in question. The bottle neck case can be sized by three different types of dies; neck only, full length, and small base. A neck size die only sizes the neck portion of the case and the full length die sizes the neck portion as well as the body diameter and shoulder area. The small base die works just like full length but will size the case back down even more. This is handy to have if your brass collection consists of range pickup that could have come from a robust chamber and normally not fit in your firearm. Originally, the sizing dies would squeeze the case neck more than needed when it was pressed in. As it is pulled out, the neck area rode over an expander ball to make the interior diameter just under bullet diameter. This will allow the case to hold the bullet securely regardless of neck thickness. Modern designs using a replaceable bushing have eliminated the expander ball and the need for lubricating the inside of the neck. The bushings are replaceable because you may need two different sizes to accommodate two different case brands having different neck thicknesses. Any of these sets will also have a seating die that contains a way to crimp the case mouth if needed. A straight wall case set will contain three dies; one to size the case down, one to expand the case back out, and one to seat a bullet that also contains a way to crimp the bullet.
Another necessity is a caliper for measuring everything. A common length is a 6” version and can be found in two types; electronic and dial. The electronic is a great tool because it zeros easily and has an easy to read display. Also, every time I try to use mine it has a dead battery so I use a dial most of the time. In the photo, you’ll see attached to one jaw a comparator body and insert held in place by set screws on the back. Different diameter inserts can perform different functions from comparing bullet base to ogive lengths, base of case to bullet ogive lengths, as well as base of case to shoulder datum line lengths with a different insert. An RCBS Precision Mic™ will do the same thing but they are cartridge specific so if you reload a lot of cartridges, the cost will add up quickly.
A priming unit should be built into the press but there are other options available. The hand unit from Lee (pictured) will work as well as the other brands of the same design. I’ve actually started using the RCBS Ram Priming unit in the photo and it works as well as the other table top unit they offer. It offers adjustments that give a positive stop at the ram’s upward position and being on the top of the press will offer easy reach from any direction. So far, I’ve yet to be able to build an automatic feed for it though making it necessary to handle each primer. Everything I’ve loaded with it has went bang but it takes longer to use than the table top version.
One more item of interest is a brass tumbler to clean the carbon and sizing lube from the case and there are plenty of ways to build one if you are mechanically inclined.
Other items a new reloader may find useful are a powder funnel, a primer pocket cleaner, a deburring tool, and possibly a powder scooper. You’ll also notice in the photo is a primer pocket uniformer (one cutting tool is attached to a hex head that works in a drill chuck). This one comes with two different cutting bits, one for a small rifle and the other for a large rifle primer pocket. Please note that even though the small rifle and small pistol pockets are kept to the same depth tolerances, according to SAAMI, the large rifle and large pistol are different. You’ll find the rifle pockets deeper than the pistol pockets so using a rifle cutter on a pistol pocket may cut it too deep. You may never need one but there is at least one company that makes a large pistol primer uniformer and is sold by Sinclair.