Tuesday, October 18, 2011


It probably goes without saying that no company actually makes silver bullets or rounds filled with holy water or garlic powder for those pesky vermin that come sniffing around some stories. Fortunately, it’s really not all that hard for a person to make their own conventional ammunition. This is not completely without risk, but it’s possible. Specialty stuff is a little harder.

How easy is it?

My dad would have me reloading rounds for shooting competitions when I was 9, and I can still count past that on my fingers without having to double up. In base 10. Nerd humor.

To review, there are four parts to a loaded round of ammunition. The Primer ignites the Powder, which pushes the Bullet out of the gun. The Casing holds that all together.

After the round has been fired, you are left with the casing which holds the spent primer and some residue from the now burnt powder. To reload that case and make it a functional cartridge again, you need to replace the primer, powder, and bullet. For this you will need a reloading press, or reloading dies and a mallet at the very least.

For this first run, we’ll assume a handing round and a bench mounted loading press.

It is enough to let you fake your way through the process in print, but if you really want to reload your own ammunition get a real book on it, and follow the instructions to the letter.

The very first thing that needs to be done is to resize the casing. When a gun is fired, the casing will stretch out to completely fill the chamber. This will make it hard to get the casing back in, as well as making it too loose to hold a new bullet securely.

Resizing means running the case into a die that will squish it back down to the right diameter. Normally, this step also includes the punch that knocks out the old primer, and incorporates the step where a new primer is put in. This is a big step, and there are a few things that can go wrong.

Ideally, it goes like this.

You place the shell in the press and run it up, into the die. The case is resized and deprimed.

Then you push the new primer seater arm into position and lower the case onto it. This seats the new primer. Lifting the shell back into the die releases the arm to pick up the next primer from the feed tube. Running it too far back in, knocks out the new primer.

The next step is flaring the mouth of the case. This is a new tool and the easiest of the three dies. Since we sized the case back down, a new bullet won’t fit into it. We need to flair the mouth of the case slightly to make a little funnel. Some people move the re-priming to this step.

The third step doesn’t use dies. It’s just the adding of the powder charge. Of all the steps, this is the most critical. Powder charges are measured in grains. Grains in this case is a unit of weight, not a count, like a grain of sand. A grain is equal to 1/7000 of a pound. A charge of 6 grains of powder might be all you need for a pistol Adding the 7th grain will make too much pressure. Doubling the charge to 12 may cause damage to the gun, including exploding the chamber. The case itself might hold 15 to 20 grains.

Double charging the powder is bad.

It’s also super critical to get the right kind of powder. There are a lot of different ones, and each has unique traits. Putting a slow burning powder in a pistol might not make the gun even cycle. Putting fast powder in a large rifle case will cause an overpressure. Those are bad.

Once the powder is in the case, it’s time to add the bullet. Here, you use a third die that is adjusted to make sure the bullet is at the right seating depth. That means that the bullet is as far into the case as it needs to be, and the proper depth can be critical to a number of different things, from accuracy, to feeding, to not exploding.

To place the bullet in the round, you put the case in the press and set the bullet on the flared mouth of the case. You need to keep it straight as it starts into the die, and it’s not uncommon to pinch your finger between the shell and the die. For a right handed person, the fingers involved would be the left thumb and index finger, and a blood blister is certainly possible if you’re not careful.

Once the round comes out of the press, it’s a fully reloaded round and can be inserted in a gun and fired.

Because of the die switching, most people just do one stage at a time for all rounds. Normally this is 50 or 100, but the primer tubes usually only hold 50.

Loading rifle cases is basically the same, but there is another step to the sizing process. Because rifle cases are larger and have a lot more surface area, they can get stuck in the sizing die. For this reason, each case has to be lubed up then wiped down. This is known as “smear and wipe” and the stuff that’s used as a lubricant is a little sticky to the touch, doesn’t smell at all like something you want to touch, and is applied by placing 5 or so rounds on a pad coated with it and rolling them back and forth. Each one is then wiped down with a rag when they come out of the press.

Those rags are usually made from old shirts and you will never use them for anything else again.

Some rifles with very tight chambers, normally only non-automatics, can be “neck sized.” That means the case itself is not done, only the narrower part after the case steps down. This must be done to hold the bullet securely.

Hand dies are also possible, but they take a lot longer to use. Some have an actual press consisting of a tool about the size of a pair of pliers, while others are just the dies and the cases are beaten in and out of them with a wooden mallet. These are often used by people that are working up loads and have five cases they use with different charges each time. Most casual shooters will never even see one of these sets.

For some, all of the above takes too long. For them, we have Progressive Loaders. A progressive loader uses all dies at once. There are several stations in either a straight line, or a circle around the center of the press. Each time the handle is pulled, all stations do something, and the casing is advanced to the next step. After five pulls of the handle, every cycle will produce a loaded round.

When these work, they are awesome. A person on a roll can kick out 500 rounds an hour. If something goes wrong, they are an incredible pain to fix.

Most shotgun presses are progressive and have a few more steps and will be covered in the entry on Reloading Shotguns.

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