Gear Guide: Essential Reloading Tools for Beginners
December 17, 2013
Reloading tools are a lot like kitchen appliances; there are a lot that make life easier, but only a few that are absolutely necessary.
My father got me started handloading when I was 13 years old, because he couldn't afford to feed my shooting habit. Ever since then, I've been reloading to support my practice, hunting and competitive shooting needs. In fact, though I hunted from the time I could keep both ends of a rifle aloft, I never shot a big game animal with a factory load until I was 29 years old.
Even with the increasing prices of copper, lead and gunpowder on today's market, it's possible to produce handloads for about a third the price of good factory ammo. Better yet, for 30 to 60 cents per shot, you can equal the performance of premium factory loads with top-shelf projectiles, rather than paying three dollars per cartridge. You can also tailor the loads to fit your particular rifle's sweet spot, potentially achieving better accuracy than other ammunition on the market.
For the first several years of my reloading career, I produced some top-notch ammo with a very basic setup. Doing so was slow, methodical and deliberate, but resulted in very consistent reloads and a good understanding of the process.
One thing I did right — or rather, my father did right — was to start with quality gear. It doesn't have to be expensive gear, but it shouldn't be cheap gear. Buying quality up front avoids frustration with sub-par tools and the eventual expense of buying again for better quality. You don't need every shiny gadget in the display case — get started with a minimum setup of solid tools, and then add to your setup as need and desire dictates.
Check out this list of very basic components needed to start reloading. With this setup, you'll be prepared to lube, size and prime fired cases, charge them with gunpowder and top them off with bullets — creating quality home-brewed cartridges.
Reloading dies are where the magic happens. You'll need a set of dies for each separate caliber that you want to handload. Most sets run 25 to 50 dollars, although match-grade rifle dies and carbide handgun dies — which eliminate the need to lube cases before sizing — can cost a bit more.
Excellent dies are available from RCBS
, Dillon Precision
(pictured here). RCBS also offers a list of dies for obsolete or very obscure cartridges, with makes life easy for vintage gun nuts like me.
Handheld Priming Tool
Many single-stage reloading presses come with a case-priming assembly, but in my experience they tend to be finicky and seat primers a little crooked. A good hand-held priming tool is well worth the expense, and will pay for itself in time saved.
Many single-stage reloading presses come with a case-priming assembly, but in my experience they tend to be finicky and seat primers a little crooked. A good hand-held priming tool is well worth the expense, and will pay for itself in time saved. Hornady
makes one I personally use the most, but other manufacturers of reloading equipment offer quality tools as well. makes one I personally use the most, but other manufacturers of reloading equipment offer quality tools as well.
While you can find a lot of the information online, there's no substitute for a good reloading manual. It will have detailed instructions and vast amounts of data, helping you master the finer points of handloading. Very importantly, a good manual is your guide to safety procedures, and will help you keep your eyeballs intact and all the digits on your hands.
Most bullet manufacturers offer a loading manual, but they are typically specific to that manufacturer's projectiles. My favorite all-around manual is Lyman's 49th (current) Reloading Manual
. It offers extensive data for a broad variety of projectiles and propellant types in a very easy-to-access format.
Powder scales are used to measure and charge prepped cases with volumetric scoops. Some folks will tell you to start with an assortment of powder scoops, but I personally believe that's an antiquated and potentially dangerous method.
A good scale typically costs 70 to 120 dollars, enabling you to precisely measure gunpowder. Charging your empty cases by mass, is much more accurate than by volume. After you've referenced your loading manual and chosen a charge weight, simply trickle powder into the scale's pan until it reads as desired, then transfer the charge into an empty case. This process is safe and precise, while also producing super-consistent loads.
(pictured here), Hornady
, Dillon Precision
make excellent-quality units.
If reloading dies are where the magic happens, the reloading press is the cauldron in which it is brewed. The dies are screwed into the top of the press, and the shell holder attaches to the top of the ram. As you cycle the handle, the ram travels up and down, sliding the cartridge case in and out of the dies; where it will be resized, flared if needed and the bullet seated.
Single-stage presses are the most common type, and are most applicable to this discussion. They hold only one die at a time, and thus will perform only one action at a time. Available models vary from compact, handheld versions, up to massive high-torque presses — some designed specifically to handle the extra-large demands of cartridges such as the .50 BMG. Prices range from 60 dollars up to several hundred.
(pictured here), Lyman
make my favorite single-stage presses. Any of their various models will serve well, but bigger presses offer more torque and are easier to cycle, especially when loading big magnum cases.
While I trickled gunpowder into the pan of my scale with a teaspoon for years, using a good trickler is far easier and much less trying on your patience. After dumping a charge just short of complete into the pan of your scale with a volumetric scoop or a spoon, just twist the knob on the powder trickler and drop a few grains of powder into the scale to complete the charge.
If you have the extra dollars, get Hornady's Lock-N-Load Quick Trickle
, which has a good-size powder reservoir and dual-speed knob — enabling complete, fast trickling straight from the trickler.
Case Die Lube
Before sizing-down expanded cartridge cases, you'll need to lube them so the cases don't stick in the sizing die. You can apply lube by hand; or by rolling cases on a pad impregnated with lube, or by spraying them down with lube suspended in a carrier of alcohol. I use them all, and some application methods are better for some cartridges than others. If I had to pick just one, I'd use a spray lube.
Just line up the cases on a cookie sheet or a sheet of cardboard, and spray them lightly. Then roll the cases a half-turn and spray again. As soon as the carrier has evaporated, the cases are ready to size.
Who makes the best case lube? Right now, I use Royal Case Die Lube
most frequently. It's not available at most gunshops; you'll likely have to order it online
Easily the most overlooked, yet absolutely necessary bit of reloading equipment, the shell holder is a small, 5-dollar tool that fits into the top of your reloading press's ram and holds the base of the cartridge as it runs in and out of the various dies.
Like reloading dies, shell holders are cartridge specific — to an extent. However, many cartridges share the same parent case, so in several instances one shell holder will work for numerous calibers. For example, the shell holder for .30-06 cases works for .25-06 Rem., .270 Win., .308 Rem., .243 Win. and a whole slew of others — even including the .45 Auto.
Reloading die manufacturers list and sell appropriate shell holders for the various calibers. If possible, I like to use shell holders made by the same company that made my dies, but that's not critical — shell holders are machined to exacting tolerances shared by all manufacturers.