Traditionally, hunters and firearms enthusiasts take up the craft of handloading in order to mitigate the inherent costs of high volume shooting. Yet in recent years the price of cartridge components has risen drastically, making it debatable as to whether or not handloading is still a money saver. I say regardless of this diminishing ability to alleviate your shooting cost, assembling one’s own ammunition is still a rewarding and relaxing activity that offers a shooter the opportunity to craft custom ammunition tailored specifically to his or her own firearms.
The following is a photographic, beginner’s guide to handloading. While there will be some variation in the process depending on the make and model of the equipment you are using, the basics will remain the same. The guide covers loading metallic cartridges on a Lee single stage press using Lee dies. Manuals provided by manufacturers should be consulted prior to using any reloading tool.
Not covered in this how-to is shotshell loading or the use of turret presses or automated systems. The cartridge loaded in this guide is a .357 magnum with a 158 grain Hornady XTP bullet and charged with 17.0 grains of Hodgdon Lil’Gun.
Always remember, handloading is more of an art than a science. The method detailed below is what works for the author. As long as all safety protocols are employed, methods may be modified to suit personal tastes. Also, make sure you review the safety tips section at the bottom of the page.
Part I: Required equipment and components
Part II: Case prep
Step 1: Examine the cases
Before beginning the loading process, check all cases for such signs of wear as splits and cracks in the case wall. Even factory new brass should be examined for defects and damage. Discard any damaged or worn out cases.
Step 2: Resize and de-cap the case
Step 3: Trim the case
Step 4: De-burr the case mouth
Step 5: Clean the primer pocket
Part III: Re-prime and charge the case
Step 1: Load the priming tool
Step 2: Re-prime
Step 3: Bell the case mouth
Step 4: Make ready the powder and loading block
Step 5: Calibrate the Scale
Step 6: Weigh the charge
Step 7: Charge the case
Step 8: Conduct a visual powder level check
Part IV: Seating and crimping
Step 1: Seat the bullet
Screw the bullet seating die into the press and lock the case into the shell holder. There is an adjustment knob on the top of the die that controls seating depth. Loosen this knob until it wobbles slightly within the die. Next, place a bullet in the case mouth taking care to keep it as level as possible and raise the ram until the case enters the die. It may be necessary to hold the bullet in place with a free hand until it enters the die.
With the cartridge inside the die, tighten the adjustment knob until it is stopped by the bullet. Back the cartridge out slightly and tighten the adjustment knob slightly. Raise the ram into the die to seat the bullet deeper into the case. Using a set of calipers, check the length of the cartridge. Continue to gradually tighten the adjustment knob and seat the bullet deeper into the case until the overall cartridge length is within the specifications of the loading data. The die is now set to enable fast seating of subsequent cartridges.
Step 2: Crimp
Cartridges that will be loaded in firearms with tubular magazines must be crimped to ensure the bullets won’t push deeper into their cases while end-to-end in the magazine. Additionally, uncrimped rounds in heavy recoiling revolvers can creep out of their cases, tying up the gun.
There are a variety of methods of crimping the case mouth to the bullet, but the easiest is by using a die specifically designed to apply a crimp.
To crimp using the Lee crimp die, screw the die into the press and lock the cartridge into the shell holder and raise the cartridge all the way to the die. Tighten the adjustment knob until the cartridge prevents it from going any further. Back the cartridge out of the die and tighten the adjustment knob by an eight to a quarter of a turn. Raise the round into the die again, then back it off and examine the crimp. Continue to gradually tighten the adjustment knob and raise the cartridge into the die until the desired crimp is attained. The die is now set for crimping subsequent cartridges.
Part V: Safety tips
- Loading one’s own ammunition can be perfectly safe as long as some common sense precautions are taken.
- Work up to maximum charges incrementally, starting with charges that are 10% of the maximum.
- Adhere to manufacturer data. Substituting components not in accordance with manufacturer data can cause pressure spikes. Do so at your own risk.
- Do not load while distracted or impaired.
- When firing handloaded ammunition, be aware of signs of excessive pressure including sticky bolts, blown out primers, split cases, and unusually high recoil or report. If such signs manifest, discontinue firing rounds from that lot.
- Be aware of report and recoil that is unusually light. This could mean a squib, or underpowered load and a bullet could be lodged in the barrel. Firing more rounds could be disastrous.
- A dud may actually be a hang-fire. Keep the muzzle in a safe direction for several minutes before attempting to unload.
- Only use handloaded ammunition in the firearms for which they were developed.
- For liability reasons, do not give others your handloaded ammunition.
- The use of handloads will often void manufacturer warrantees on firearms.
- Always err on the side of caution.