Reloading 101-Part I

As seen in our July issue, Gun World’s James E. House takes the readers through “Reloading 101”

Reloading 101

A Step-By-Step Beginners Guide to Rolling Your Own Ammo

RCBS Junior press

A press is necessary to resize cases when reloading. This RCBS Junior press has been in use for over 40 years.

RCBS Junior press

Although bench mounted presses are most popular, this Lee crusher press will perform all necessary chores.


Getting Started

In order produce a cartridge from components, you’ll need to follow some very precise steps, and each step in the process requires a specific tool. Loading a cartridge consists of resizing the case, removing the spent primer, replacing it with a new one, measuring the appropriate amount of powder, and seating the bullet in the case. There a few other minor things to consider, but those are the basic operations.

Cartridge cases have to withstand high pressure, and, because they are quite sturdy, it takes considerable force to squeeze a case back to its original dimensions. A press with sufficient leverage is necessary to force a case into a resizing die, and the cases must be lubricated.

After the case has been deprimed and sized, a new primer must be inserted. This requires a special tool that holds the case rigidly as a punch forces the primer into place. There are numerous types of priming tools, and some reloading presses have a movable arm that makes it possible to seat primers with the press.

Because the amount of powder placed in the case must be measured accurately, you will need a powder scale. Weighing individual charges is a rather slow process so a powder measure that can be adjusted to meter charges by volume speeds up the process.  However, a scale is necessary so the measure can be set to throw the desired amount of powder. A few incidentals such as a powder funnel, a tool for measuring case and cartridge lengths, and some case lubricant are also needed.

The Process

Before loading cartridges, inspect the cases carefully (see photo1).

Ammo Inspect Cases

Photo 1- Inspect cases carefully for cracks and other imperfections.


Cases that have been fired (and even some that haven’t) may contain cracks either in the neck or around the base. Discard any and all cracked cases (photo 2).

Ammo Cases

Photo 2- You might think that new cases could be used right out of the bag, but these seven cases came from the same bag of 50. The lesson? Never assume, and that applies to each step in the reloading process.


If the cases are dirty, they should be cleaned. Hot, soapy water will remove loose debris and a polishing cloth will clean the outside of the cases. If more cleaning is required, two types of commercial case cleaners are popular. The first is a tumbler or vibrator in which the cases are polished by the motion of a mild abrasive such as ground corncobs or walnut shells. The second is a bath that employs ultrasound to assist the action of a cleaning solution that usually contains citric acid. (photo 3)

cleaned ammo cases

Photo 3- Cases that are really dirty can be cleaned and polished. The cases on the right were cleaned first with an ultrasonic bath and then in a case tumbler or polisher.


Both types are effective, and I frequently use both. First, I remove deposits by ultrasound, and then polish the cases to a high luster with the tumbler. However, neither type of cleaner is absolutely necessary if you are willing to so some washing and polishing manually, and don’t forget to remove any residue from the primer pocket. (photo 4)

Photo 4- The residue should be removed from the primer pocket before a new primer is seated.

Photo 4- The residue should be removed from the primer pocket before a new primer is seated.

Next, the case must be resized so it will function smoothly through the action and enter the chamber easily. For bottle-necked center fire rifle cartridges, resizing a case also reduces the inside diameter of the neck. Before a bullet can be inserted, it is necessary to expand the neck to the diameter that matches that of the bullet. The decapping pin has a raised section or plug of the correct diameter that is pulled through the neck of the cartridge as it is withdrawn from the die. The resizing die serves three functions: it reduces the external dimensions of the case, punches out the spent primer, and expands the neck to the correct internal diameter. Therefore, a single die performs the resizing operations on a bottlenecked cartridge with a single complete movement of the press handle. When straight walled rifle or handgun cartridges are resized, it is not possible to size the section that holds the bullet to the correct internal diameter. Therefore, a third die is necessary to expand the case to the correct diameter and to flare the mouth of the case so a bullet can be started easily.

After a case has been sized and deprimed, it should be checked for length. Most auto-loading pistols position a cartridge correctly in the chamber by having the mouth of the case rest against a ridge at the forward end of the chamber. Therefore, it is essential that cases be of the correct length. If a bottlenecked rifle cartridge case is too long, it may extend slightly beyond the forward end of the chamber into the throat area. If this happens, the case cannot expand properly as the bullet leaves the case, which results in an increase in pressure. Fortunately, a very accurate digital caliper can be purchased for around $25. (photo 5)

safe and accurate ammunition

Photo 5- Case length is important in preparing safe and accurate ammunition.

Loading manuals give the maximum length of a case as well as a “trim to” length, which is usually 0.005-0.010 inches shorter than the maximum. Manufacturers of reloading equipment offer case trimmers (photo 6), but if it is done carefully, the length can be reduced by means of a good file.

case trimmer

Photo 6- A case can be shortened with a trimmer such as this model from Hornady.


I use this method when traveling, but you must keep the file perpendicular to the body of the case to make the case mouth square and uniform. As you reduce case length in this way, measure the case frequently to obtain the correct length. A dial caliper is the most convenient tool for this. After trimming, also ensure that the wire or bead inside the case mouth (photo 7) and all burrs (photo 8) are removed.

Ammo After trimming

Photo 7- After trimming, the wire or bead around the inside of the case mouth should be removed.

remove burrs

Photo 8- A tool such as that shown is used to remove burrs on the outside of the case mouth after trimming to length.

A new primer is seated by forcing it into the primer pocket. (photo 9) Although most presses come with a movable arm with a small recess at the top to hold a primer, small hand tools can be just as functional for this task, and many reloaders find them more convenient.

priming tool

Photo 9- A new primer is forced into the pocket using a priming tool such as this model from Lee Precision.

Having resized and primed the case, it is now necessary to measure an appropriate powder charge. If a scale is used, this is done by setting it to the desired weight and adding powder. Always start with a recommended beginning load from a reloading manual. If a measure is to be used, it is adjusted by trial and error until the charge dispensed gives the correct weight. Using a funnel, the powder is transferred to the case, and the case placed in a loading block. At this point, I always insert a bullet into the mouth of the case to make absolutely certain that I do not pick up that case and try to add more powder. For some cartridges, the correct powder charge does not occupy much volume in the case, making it possible to give the case a double charge, which leads to disastrous results!

After cases have been charged, the bullets must be seated (photo 10).

Seating a bullet

Photo 10- Seating a bullet is accomplished with a die that forces the bullet base first into the case.


A special die is used for this operation. This die contains a punch, the end of which matches the profile of the bullet. Seating depth of the bullet is regulated by how far this punch is screwed into the body of the die. (photo 11)


Seating the bullet requires a punch

Photo 11- Seating the bullet requires a punch that has a cavity that matches the profile of the bullet nose.

Loading manuals always specify the overall lengths of cartridges because if the bullet is seated too deeply, it reduces the free space in the case, which causes higher than normal pressure. In general, cartridge lengths should be approximately the same as factory rounds that contain bullets of the same weight.

If the cartridges are for use in a revolver or lever action rifle, the bullet is usually crimped in place so it does not move as the gun is fired. This is accomplished by a small ridge in the body of the die that makes contact with the case mouth as the cartridge is pushed upward inside the die. This means that the die and bullet seating punch must be correctly adjusted. This is best done by seating bullets to the correct length, withdrawing the seating screw, and moving the die body so that the crimping is done with the bullet already seated correctly.

What You Get

Reloading ammunition is a safe and enjoyable activity. If done correctly and uniformly, the result is ammunition that is less expensive than that from the factories and, with experience and experimentation, probably more accurate.

Read the  Part II of “Reloading 101”

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