I’m devoting this week’s column to conversation with folks who already reload their ammunition. It’s more about tricks and strategies for saving money and improving load quality than about trying to convince anyone to start reloading.
Of course any non-reloaders are welcome to look over our shoulders, and in the process just might convince themselves that it’s high time they started.
The price of factory ammunition has skyrocketed, which is reason enough to reload your own. But the cost of reloading components has hitched a ride on the same skyrocket. You can still save money by reloading rather than buying factory loads, but the components are by no means cheap.
If you want to hold down costs in any way but shooting less, you need to figure out ways to stretch your components.
One area you can dramatically cut costs is by taking better care of your brass cases. If you render them useless after a few shots, your loads will cost lots more than if you can double or triple the useful life of brass.
Right off the bat I’ll tell you I’m not particularly a fan of semi-autos, whether handguns or rifles. Oh, I love to shoot them. I just hate to lose so much brass when I do my shooting outdoors. I save a fair bit on brass because when using revolvers and bold actions I usually get home carrying all I left with.
If you prefer semis, by all means try to do it someplace where you can recover your brass. If the location allows, I’ll even spread a tarp in the landing zone of my empty brass. I’ll also go back at night with a flashlight. A bright light in the darkness makes brass gleam, and I can usually recover all I lost earlier in the day.
Whether you return home with all of it or not, how do you make an individual case last longer? Obviously you have to treat it better.
Each time you manipulate the brass, you change its structure, and I’m not just talking about case stretching. I’m also talking about hardening or loss of flexibility, especially in the neck or mouth of a case.
When you fire it and resize it, that’s one thing. But within your sizing die, rifle case necks get squeezed too small, then enlarged again as you pull the lever up on the reloader and the expander ball comes up through the neck. That actually adds up to three expansions and contractions every time you fire a case and reload it.
I’m amazed more reloaders don’t do it, but simply lubing the inside of case necks along with the outside of the case will dramatically extend case life, because it cuts friction as the expander ball moves through the neck.
In handgun dies there’s a two-stage expander ball that passes down into the sized case as you decap. The bottom end of it expands the case to just the right diameter to allow the bullet to enter the case while still providing some tension to help hold the bullet in place. Above that is the second step, which bells or enlarges the case mouth to ease bullet starting and seating.
I’m not worried about brass hardening as that first stage passes into the case, but it’s a sincere concern when the second stage enters the case and bells the case mouth.
You can dramatically extend pistol case life by adjusting the decapping stem high enough that the case mouth is barely belled, just enough to allow you to start to bullet. A big, deep bell will lead to case neck cracks in very short order, while you almost never see it with a slight bell.
Crimping handgun bullets into the case is another source of case hardening. A light roll crimp goes a long way toward keeping the bullet in place, especially when the expander is correct for the exact bullet diameter. You can buy replacement expander balls in various diameters, and I’m more inclined to change that than to apply heavy crimps if my bullets are shifting with lighter crimps.
You can also use a different crimp die, whether a taper crimp die or one of the Lee Factory crimp dies.
The long and short of it is that changes in the way you use your dies can have a dramatic effect on case life. But I’m not through yet.
If you haven’t tried it yet, neck-sizing rifle cases rather than full-length sizing is another good way to extend case life. I usually full-length size my hunting loads for surety in chambering, but especially for practice loads I’m more inclined to back the sizing die off a turn so the die only engages the case neck, rather than the full body of the case.
Depending on the rifle and it’s chamber, you may be able to continue loading with that die adjustment for many cycles. Others will still require full-length sizing after every two or three cycles. You can virtually double case life by neck-sizing your practice loads.
It’s obvious that eventually you’ll need to trim the length of your cases in order to keep loading due to their tendency to get a little longer with each firing and reloading. When you switch to neck-sizing you’ll notice right away that you don’t have to trim as often. And along with that your cases won’t be as prone to thinning down at the base, leading to eventual case head separation.
But there’s more to it than case trimming, if you really want to prolong case life.
As the brass hardens with each firing and sizing, it is prone to splitting. You will see it as a faint little crack right at the lip, but on the next firing the crack will extend the length of the neck. It happens on handgun cases too, but the splits usually only go back about 10 percent of the case length.
As you cases age, inspect them carefully for those tiny little cracks at the lip. The moment you see it, discard that case and anneal the case mouths to resoften the brass. That’s one of the principal keys to extending case life in rifles and handguns.
Whole books have been written about annealing, so I’m not going to tell you how to do it here. But I strongly urge you to read a good reloading manual and follow their procedures.
Another thing to do is to keep an accurate log book. I’m not talking about simply keeping track of what component combos you’re using. You also need to keep track of each individual batch of cases and how often it has been reloaded. That will help you forecast when problems are likely to start happening, both preventing problems and letting you keep on firing the cases a lot longer than you think you can. More on that in a moment.
Now let’s look at exactly what you stuff into that expensive case. Do you really need to fire maximum loads every single time you pull the trigger? Of course not. You’ll learn just as much or more practicing with the lighter loads.
Along with my heavy hunting loads I also work up much lighter loads for practice. If you find an accurate practice load that uses half or a quarter of the powder weight as your heavy hunting loads, you’ve immediately cut your powder costs by half or three quarters.
And not only that, cases will last much longer with the lighter loads.
This is where that accurate reloading log comes into play.
I use only once-fired cases for my hunting loads in rifles or handguns, and after four firings with full-power loads. I relegate cases to use with mild practice loads. The mild loads can be fired a dozen or so times before retiring cases.
How’s that for savings? And I haven’t even talked about the savings and other benefits of cast bullets, whether you buy them or cast your own!