Reloading 101: Basic Process Outline
Being able to quickly and efficiently reload a batch of quality ammo is a top priority for me. Once my load development is done, I don’t want to spend a lot of time at the reloading bench; I’d rather be shooting. Here’s my process for getting that done.
If you ask a room full of experienced handloaders about their exact process for assembling quality ammo, you’ll likely get a variety of answers. There are a lot of ways to turn a fired case into a loaded round. This article will outline my reloading process, from the freshly ejected case to a loaded round ready to be fired again. My intention is to fill in the gaps between previous articles and videos, which will be linked to rather than repeated.
Any reloading process must take into consideration time constraints and performance expectations. Mine is tailored around being able to process and shoot up to 400 rounds a week, while maintaining the precision needed for long range hunting. I use the same process when reloading for a factory hunting rifle as I do my custom long range rigs.
The first step involves organization and documentation.
This is something I learned to do early in my reloading career. It didn’t take long to figure out that I couldn’t remember every detail about a load; time and components were wasted trying to duplicate loads I’d already developed.
There are a lot of ways to keep reloading notes. I’ve settled on a combination of sticky notes, spiral-bound notebooks, and composition books. The composition book serves as my master load book. The other two are for field notes and temporary data storage. They’re sprinkled all over my shop, gun room, and packs, and get used daily.
Every new barrel or rifle gets its own section in the load book. The title page includes things like date purchased, serial numbers, and component lot numbers. The fresh throat is measured with a modified case fired from that rifle’s chamber. New brass dimensions are recorded on this page as well. As I work through load development and into loading big batches, details about the load are noted. These details include:
- The number of times cases are fired, how much shoulder bump during sizing, and sized neck O.D. Were they annealed?
- Powder used, charge weight, and primer manufacturer. Were there any loose primer pockets?
- Bullet and seating depth.
- Note any new component lots if changed, especially bullets.
- Environmental conditions during testing.
- Accuracy results and muzzle velocity.
Once I start using a proven load, I’ll usually just enter the date of the next reloading session and note that I used the same data as the previous session. For example: “15 Mar 17. Loaded 50 rounds of 260 Terminator w/ 5x-fired brass to same specs as 5 Jan 17.” No need to write a book every time.
Start with clean cases and dies.
I deprime cases on a separate press with a RCBS Universal Decapping die. The primer pockets are cleaned with a uniforming tool or primer pocket brush. To clean the case necks, I use a bronze bore brush for the inside and a few turns with fine steel wool for the outside. Then the cases go into a vibratory tumbler with untreated corn cob media for two to three hours. They don’t have to be polished, but I want them as clean as I can get them.
Dies and neck bushings are cleaned with a slotted patch holder and a patch wet with Shooter’s Choice, followed by a dry patch. New dies should be cleaned well before the first use.
Now’s the time to anneal if you want to.
It seems logical to do this before sizing to reap the benefits of annealing. I use a Bench-Source machine, so it’s easy to anneal between each firing. For more on annealing with a Bench-Source, watch this VIDEO.
Stuck cases are no fun! Use a good lubricant for sizing them.
There are a lot of ways to lube cases before sizing. I’ve tried most of them. The only two lubricants I recommend for body sizing are Imperial Sizing Die Wax and Hornady One Shot Case Lube. For the last eight years or so, I’ve only used One Shot. It’s an aerosol spray that applies a thin film of lubricant to the case.
I line up cases on a clean non-stick baking pan, spaced about a case width apart and staggered between rows. Spray the case bodies and necks from four directions, then let them dry for a few minutes. The clean die gets a squirt, too. Be sure to do this where there’s plenty of air ventilation.
It’s hard to get too much lube on the cases, but I suppose you could get too little. You should be able to see a thin film of lube over the entire case body, right down to the case head. I’ve heard some derogatory comments about the use of One-Shot, but the stuff works. My 12-year-old can use it without sticking cases, so anyone should be able to!
Adjust the sizing die for minimal shoulder bump and check for easy chambering of the case.
I measure a handful of cases each time before sizing and record the measurement in my load book. The case length at the shoulder is used to set up the sizing die for shoulder bump. For detailed information on headspace and setting up dies for full-length sizing, see Full-Length Sizing for Reliable Precision.
I check for easy bolt closure after the first few cases are sized, and note the amount of shoulder setback in my load book. The neck bushing number and finished neck O.D. is recorded, too.
Remove all residual lubricant from the sized case.
There’s no need to wipe off each case if using Hornady One-Shot; I just stick them back into the tumbler for an hour or so.
Trim, deburr, and chamfer the case necks.
Trimming cases between each firing is something I’ve relaxed on over the past few years. I can’t say I’ve seen any effects on precision between cases that are trimmed exactly to the same length and cases that aren’t. I always trim after the first firing, but often don’t trim again for several cycles.
Cases that are too long for the chamber can be a safety issue, so be sure to measure them. Reloading manuals list a max and a trim-to length. The max length is the SAMMI spec for that case and will closely match the dimension of the chamber. You’ll want to keep your cases shorter than max length. I measure a sample of once-fired cases and trim to the shortest length found, even if it’s shorter than the specified trim-to length. That ensures a consistent case length for the batch. It also gives me a baseline measurement to note in my load book. Any later trimming will be to that length, regardless of differences within the batch.
I use a Sinclair Ultimate Trimmer for case trimming. It’s a Wilson case trimmer with a micrometer adjuster that uses case body-specific holders to trim necks perfectly square to the case body. It does a beautiful job and is easily adjusted and repeatable. Probably a little slow for large batches, but it’s the most accurate trimmer I’ve used. It can also be used with a variety of attachments for other operations.
If I trim cases, I deburr the inside and outside of the case mouths. I use a standard RCBS deburring tool for the outside and a Sinclair VLD deburring tool for the inside. If I don’t trim cases, I still touch up the inside of the case mouth with the VLD tool.
Final inspection and cleaning of case necks, then seat primers.
I don’t lube bullets or case necks. I prefer them to be clean and dry. A slotted patch holder with an alcohol wipe on it works great for making sure there’s no residual lube inside the neck.
The RCBS Automatic Priming Tool is the best tool I’ve used for priming cases. As I lift each case from the bin to prime it, I look inside the case mouth and confirm the flash hole isn’t plugged with corn cob media. It rarely is, but a paper clip clears it out if needed.
I pay attention to the pressure needed to seat primers. If there isn’t any resistance, I tap the primed case head on the bench, looking for the primer to fall out. If it doesn’t protrude, it gets loaded. Cases with protruding primers get tossed. This is a step learned from loading high-pressure rounds with soft brass. The primer pockets loosen up over several firings and eventually fail to hold primers. If I find a bunch of them, I note that in my load book and start planning some new brass prep.
I use Sinclair loading blocks for powder charging.
I use a RCBS Chargemaster 1500 scale & dispenser for all powder charging.
Once I fill the hopper on the dispenser, the container the powder came from stays next to the machine. I fill out a sticky note or load label with the powder charge I’m using as soon as I start pouring. If I’m running multiple charge weights, I do them in rows on the loading block and draw a map on a sticky note. Before I seat bullets, everything gets written down in my load book.
I added a one-inch piece of a plastic McDonald’s straw to the powder discharge tube on the 1500. It helped quite a bit with overcharges, but occasionally it still happens. When it does, I dump the pan back in the hopper and run another charge. Overall, the 1500 has been a great investment. I’ve had no problems at all with it. I’m testing the RCBS Chargemaster Lite right now, so look for a review shortly.
There are a lot of powder funnels that will work. The nicest ones I’ve used are from Xtreme Hardcore Gear. They’re caliber-specific and weighted on the bottom to keep them in place. You won’t get spillage or clumping with these funnels.
I make it a habit to look down into every case before seating bullets. A squib with a rifle doesn’t sound like any fun!
Bullets are seated within .001” CBTO of each other.
For a detailed explanation of my thoughts on bullet seating depth and how to measure for it, see How to Measure Bullet Seating Depth.
It’s been my experience that if you want to see low velocity spreads in your handloads, bullets need to be seated a uniform distance from the lands. In my testing, I found I could have short-range precision with variations in seating depth, but never low velocity Extreme Spread (ES). I always start load development .010” off the lands and never seat bullets jammed into the lands.
I use Redding Competition seating dies for all the cartridges I reload except my 7WSM. That one is a Forster micrometer seater. Both dies work very well and are easy to adjust in .001” increments. I don’t coat bullets or case necks with anything before seating, nor do I check TIR on every round.
Keep detailed notes on the final load, velocity data, and target information.
I keep busy doing a lot of different things throughout the year. Rarely do I set aside a big block of time to do nothing but reload ammo. Because of that, I rely on being able to quickly replicate loads that have already been proven. It’s hard to say what tidbit of information might be important later, so I record everything I can think of about a load. I keep a few targets with zero proofs and load data on them, and record group sizes and velocity data in my load book. You can’t use it if you don’t have it.
I try to fire the whole batch of cases before the next sizing cycle. If a portion of them needs to be sized to have enough ammo on hand, I segregate the loaded rounds and mark them accordingly. I doubt one firing cycle will affect much, but it seems like a good practice to keep them all together. I also try to use a single lot of any component for the life of the barrel.
This reloading process has proven to be very efficient for me and how I shoot. There are some parts of it that I may modify to help speed it up, but the results on target have been proven again and again. In the end, that’s the most important thing!