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How To Reload Rifle Ammunition

The Somewhat Bumpy Road to Teaching Myself to Reload .308 Winchester and .223 Remington

What This Is

In this project, I'll be describing the reloading of ammunition. If you are a shooter, you are probably already something of a Do-It-Yourselfer, and if so then reloading is probably right up your alley -- but it can be hard to get started.

If you've ever considered reloading (or even if you haven't) this will tell you what you'll have to put into it, and what you can expect to get out of it. If you have never even shot a gun at all, give it a read anyway - you'll still learn something!

My bumpy road to self-teaching how to reload is below. The How-To and Equipment list is near the end.

DISCLAIMER: This is reloading from a new person's point of view, and only covers my particular angle on it with the equipment I researched, bought, and used. If I don't mention your favorite or best method or tool, it's just because that's not what I tried.

Firearms and the Do-It-Yourself Spirit

Target shooting is an extremely rewarding (and challenging) activity that can hold a lot of appeal for those who like to tinker, build, make, or fiddle. Every piece in a firearm has its place and purpose, and while they are relatively simple machines and all function in the same basic ways, the way everything works together and so well is really something to be appreciated.

For one thing, firearms are about as open of a technology as you can get - and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is highly prevalent among firearm enthusiasts. Every firearm's functions and inner workings are completely available to the owner, and it is frankly expected and encouraged that you be as familiar as possible with your firearms - everyone should feel completely comfortable in at least fully disassembling and reassembling any of their guns. Computer and technology types take the concept of open technology seriously, and so too do firearms owners - I can't even imagine the outcry that would result if a gun manufacturer were to try to release a firearm with (for example) its receiver entirely welded shut. The concept of "no user serviceable parts inside" just doesn't apply much in the firearms world.

Shooting is also a fun and challenging activity - the act of shooting accurately can be much harder than you would think, but anyone can learn! Not only does hitting what you aim at take work and practice, but those whose firearms familiarity mainly comes from TV or video games might be surprised at how many factors come into play when you shoot, especially at longer ranges. Did you know that being able to tell how much wind is blowing and in what direction can make the difference between hitting a target and missing completely -- even if your aim is technically rock-solid? The kind of ammo you use will also make a difference - this is why reloading is attractive even if someone is not moved by the cost savings: reloaded ammo is consistently of higher quality and more consistent performance when compared to regular factory ammo.

Why Reload?

Reloading your own ammunition is a relatively simple and well-understood process that in itself offers many possibilities and advantages. First of all, it's considerably cheaper to reload than it is to buy newly-manufactured ammunition. Secondly, reloaded ammunition can be of much higher quality than the average factory-made ammo with very little effort. Finally, there is the capability of tailoring the ammunition you make to perform optimally in your firearm. For those interested in optimizing all they can, nothing else will do. And the best part? It doesn't even have to be very expensive, and doesn't even require a stocked workshop. All you need is some patience and attention, and some quiet table space.

Reloading (and shooting) is safe if done correctly. I would not be making a web page on the subject if it were not.

Gunpowder and primers are less dangerous to handle than gasoline, but it would still be foolish to handle them carelessly. Follow the manufacturer's directions in all cases.

How I Taught Myself How to Reload

What follows is a play-by play of my teaching myself to reload. If you would prefer "just the facts" then skip down to the Final How-To and Equipment List section near the end. That will give you the entire shopping list as well as directions so you can replicate what I did and get started as quickly and easily as possible.

In the Beginning

I was determined to start reloading for .223 and .308, and I wanted to do so based on my own research and reading without any "help" from anyone. While I'm familiar with the concepts of reloading (and even operated an already set up progressive reloader a couple times as a teen) I had never actually done it myself from start to finish.

I did it, but the road was a little bumpy. If you're new to reloading or considering reloading, this guide should help you not only get started easier than I did, but also it will let you know what to expect and what you can get out of it.

Short version:

    2. It is considerably cheaper than factory ammo.

    3. It takes some time to do.

    4. Results were of considerably higher accuracy than factory ammo.

Is It Worth It?

Decide for yourself, but what made up my mind was the fact that the ammo I made in my basement at about half the price of the factory stuff was so clearly superior. I compared 3 rounds of surplus ammo with 3 rounds of my handloads at 40 yards. The surplus ammo was a rough triagle of holes - about 1 inch apart from each other. The handloads were one clover-shaped ragged hole -- the holes from the three bullets were overlapping each other. I was sold.

Research - Lee Precision's Documentation

I perused Lee's web site, read their documentation, and made a shopping list. Here was my plan:

    * I decided I would use the (single stage) Lee hand press - I didn't want the kind that bolts to a board or table and I was OK with the idea of the extra hand and arm exercise operating it would require.

    * I was going to buy dies for .308 and .223. (Dies are the parts that attach to the press and do all the real work).

    * I was going to buy a Lee Auto-Prime tool for priming my cases.

    * I knew the die sets included a Lee powder dipper (a volumetric calibrated powder measuring cup), so I didn't need a separate powder dispenser tool.

    * I needed case lube.

    * I needed powder and primers and bullets, but since I didn't know what kinds until I consulted the documents in the die set (which provides data regarding types suitable for the dipper included) I figured I would get them later after deciding on bullet weight and picking a powder that could be used for both .223 and .308.

    * Since I was just trying this out to start with, I wasn't going to buy a case trimmer (yet). Cases should be good for a reload or two before needing trimming anyway, according to the stuff I read from Lee's web site. The documentation suggests case length gauges to check case lengths as well, but I figure I'll just measure with my calipers for now.

Shopping Trip #1

So I headed to the shop on the other side of town on the one day of the week I can get there before they close, armed with this shopping list:

    - Lee hand press

    - Lee die set for .308 Winchester (Lee die set includes shell holders)

    - Lee die set for .223 Remington (Lee die set includes shell holders)

    - Lee case lube

    - Lee Auto-Prime tool

    - Lee powder funnel

    - Reloading tray (I shopped for one that would hold .223 and .308. I settled on an RCBS one with 2 sizes of holes.)

I picked it all up and brought it home. I read all the documents (the press and the die sets contain all the real information you need), tried lubing and resizing and decapping (popping the spent primer out of) some cases according to the clear instructions, and made my next shopping list. (I hoped to pick this up at a more local gun shop, since the place I had to get the Lee stuff from is on the other side of the city.)

    - 168gr BTHP .308 bullets (these are similar to what's used in Federal Gold Match ammo which is what I like to use.)

    - 70gr .223 bullets, preferably with a crimp groove (my rifle has a 1:7 twist for which heavier ammo is better.) Also since this is for an autoloading rifle - according to documentation, the ammo should be crimped. Also according to Speer's website, bullets with a crimp groove perform better if the ammo is to be crimped.)

    - Powder (I selected one that was used for both the .223 and .308 powder dippers so I didn't need two different kinds of powder)

    - Small rifle primers (for .223)

    - Large rifle primers (for .308)

I hit my first snag. The Auto-prime requires shell holders - I knew this, but apparently it needs SPECIAL shell holders just for the Auto-Prime -- not the kind that are included in the die sets. After looking at it I can see why this is the way it is. Would have been nice to have that written on the box for the Auto-Prime or something so I knew when I picked it up and so I don't have to make another trip, but oh well.

So I added this to the shopping list.

- Lee Auto-Prime shell holder #2 (for .308)
- Lee Auto-Prime shell holder #4 (for .223)

Also, after examining the cases I resized and decapped as a test, I could see that the primer pockets were pretty dirty. After using a small screwdriver to clean them out, I decided to add another thing to my shopping list:

- Lee primer pocket cleaner (handles both small and large primer pockets)

Whew! Ok, looks like I'll be set. I already have plenty of saved brass cases, so I should be good to go after getting this stuff. At my next opportunity I headed out to do some shopping at a couple more favored and local gun shops. I even brought along the instructions and load data from the die sets in case the powder I wanted wasn't available so I could pick something else.

Shopping Trip #2

Unfortunately, a trip to a couple local gun shops was less than fruitful, as I ran into complications. But first let's cover what I picked up successfully.

    - Primers. No problem here. Large and small rifle primers were readily available.

    - .308 bullets. I picked up Sierra 168gr Boat-Tail Hollow-Point match bullets, just like I wanted.

Unfortunately that was far less than all the items on my list. Here were the snags:

    - .223 bullets: There was plenty of "22 CAL" boxes but I could not locate any .223 diameter bullets - let alone 70gr like I wanted. (More on this later)

    - Lee primer pocket cleaner and auto-prime shell holders: unfortunately both gun shops I went to carried only RCBS reloading equipment. Not only were there no Lee auto-prime shell holders to be found, but the RCBS primer pocket cleaner that was available was over three times the cost of the Lee one. Guess I have to go to the place across the city after all.

    - Powder: Neither of the two powders I identified as being candidates were available at the two places I visited.

Apparently these gun shops tend to carry only their own pet brands of powder as well as reloading equipment. There were no "Accurate" brand or "Hodgden" brand powders at all. (Although as a side note, one of them got the stuff I wanted in stock a few days later. But I digress.) No Lee brand reloading equipment either.

After researching more at home (and checking out Speer's website, I discovered that to reload .223 you need .224 diameter bullets.) OK, got it.

I called the place across the city and discovered they had the powder I wanted in stock. Great. Well, looks like I'm headed there next week after all.

My outstanding shopping list was (updated):

- .224 diameter bullets (70gr, preferably with a crimp groove)
- Powder (one that works for both .223 and .308 with the Lee powder dippers so I don't have to use different powders.)
- Lee Auto-Prime shell holders (#2 and #4 size)
- Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner

And since then I'd measured some cases and discovered they're pretty borderline as far as case length goes. So I figure I'll add a Lee case length gauge for .308 and .223 to the list. The instructions say this is used to measure and also to trim cases if needed. Great.

So added is:

- Lee case length gauges (for .223 and .308)

Finally! That should be it.

I get to the place across the city and get everything on my list at the counter (the small reloading bits are locked up, so you tell them what you want and they bring it all out.) The only snag is that there are no 70gr .224 bullets - just 69gr. I check the documentation and 69gr is also acceptable for my purposes, so I get those.

While I'm there, I eye the Lee Zip Trim on the shelf. I remember seeing it in the instructions and it sounds useful. Like most Lee equipment, it's really fairly inexpensive. But I decide I'll try reloading first, and if it looks like something I want to do more of I'll consider the Zip Trim.

However, once I get home I reload my first batch of 20 .308 rounds and 20 .223 rounds. But I also discover that I'm not quite out of the woods yet.

See, when the documentation says "Lee Case Length Gauge", they really mean to say "Lee Case Length Gauge plus Lee Case Trimmer and Lock Stud (which are sold separately)."

Gaaaaahhhhhhhh. I should have seen this coming by now. Also, had I looked at the case length gauge packaging I would have noticed that the other parts are also needed, but I was working from a list and I was in a hurry at the time - so it's really also my own damn fault. But I don't need it yet, so I'm able to reload my first rounds and try them out. (See further down for the How-To.)

After Reloading My First Rounds

The only thing left was to try them! So try them I did, and here is what happened:

Like I said, I was sold on this reloading thing!

After shooting and measuring the previously-borderline cases into my caliper, it becomes quickly apparent that I do in fact need to start trimming cases. Also, I like to clean and polish the brass with some steel wool but it's hard on the hands to do it so repetitively. After about 20 rounds my hand was cramping up a little. So I think I'll get the Lee Zip Trim too.

So I make my final reload equipment shopping trip, and pick up:

- Lee Case Trimmer and Lock Stud
- Lee chamfer tool (the directions say trimmed cases need chamfering, and this tool is inexpensive)
- Lee Zip Trim (and triple check that nothing ELSE is needed for it!)

Finally I'm done the shopping!

Final, Consolidated How-To and Equipment List

Now that I've gotten a handle on things, I can share what my shopping list should have been from the start. Everything below can be laid out on a table and efficiently used, and when done it can be put away. No need for a permanent "reloading table" setup.

For simplicity and clarity I will assume you are only reloading .308. (for .223 you need only add the appropriate case length gauge, lee auto-prime shell holder, and die set.)

Equipment List

- Lee Hand Press
- Lee die set for .308 Winchester, including shell holder and powder dipper
- Lee case lube
- Lee powder funnel
- Lee case trimmer and lock stud
- Lee case length gauge for .308
- Lee chamfer tool
- Lee zip trim (completely optional, but I like it)
- Lee primer pocket cleaner
- Lee Auto-prime
- Lee Auto-prime shell holder for .308 (#2)
- Reloading tray to hold cases during reloading process (I used an RCBS tray. Any that will fit .308 will work)
- Sierra .308 168gr BTHP Match bullets
- Large rifle primers (regular, not magnum - as per directions)
- Hogden Varget powder (chosen from powder and bullet load data in the Lee die set)

This information is accurate to the best of my knowledge, but I may have screwed up, or the equipment you have may be different for some reason. So do not take only my word for any of this. Follow the manufacturer's directions in all cases. Double check with the manufacturer's instructions before doing anything, especially the bullet and powder selection.

Detailed How-To

As for the actual reloading, it really is quite a simple process. Here is how it all works together:

We'll be reloading 20 rounds of .308 Winchester. Here is the empty brass and the reloading tray.

1. Lubricate and inspect cases as per manufacturer's directions (included with hand press and die set). The images show dispensing some lube, lubricating the case with your fingers, and lubricating the inside of the mouth with a Q-tip. If the cases are not lubricated, they will stick inside the resizing die in the next step.

2. Install the resizing and decapping die into the press according to the manufacturer's directions, and decap/resize all the cases we lubricated earlier.

3. Assemble the case length gauge and cutter, and assemble the lock stud and shell holder (or just the shell holder onto the Zip Trim if you have it). I installed the shell holder and lock stud into an electric screwdriver. Together these will trim the resized cases if they need it (if they don't need it it will trim nothing).

4. Use the primer pocket cleaner to clean any residue from the primer pocket. Then use the case length gauge/case trimmer on each case as per the directions. If the cutter does not cut anything, the case length is good to go. If it does cut something, continue until it stops cutting.

5. If the trimmer did cut any material from the case, use the chamfer tool on the case mouth (inside and out) as per the directions. This will smooth the cut edges.

6. Finally, give the case a final spin while applying a scouring pad or fine steel wool in order to clean and polish it.

7. Remove the case from the shell holder.

8. Repeat steps 4-6 for each case. Here is a video demo of these steps.

9. Assemble the Auto-Prime tool as per the directions. Make sure you're using the Large primer tray for .308, and install the correct auto-prime shell holder.

10. Fill the auto-prime tool with primers according to the directions. You'll use large rifle primers for .308.

11. Prime each case (that we worked so hard to prep and clean) according to the tool's instructions.

12. Charge each case with powder. Use the Lee powder dipper from the die set and the powder funnel. Double- and triple-check that the powder and dipper you're using is appropriate for your cartridge (.308) and the bullet weight you have selected.

This is a critical step! The wrong powder, too much powder (double charging the case for example), or no powder (accidentally not charging the case) can all be disastrous.

This information is accurate to the best of my knowledge, but I may have screwed up, or the equipment you have may be different for some reason. So do not take only my word for any of this. Follow the manufacturer's directions in all cases. Double check with the manufacturer's instructions before doing anything, especially the bullet and powder selection.

It is also a good idea to visually check the cases to ensure they are charged properly with powder before moving to the next step (bullet seating).

13. Install the bullet seater from the die set according to the directions, and seat a bullet in each case. You'll need to adjust a few times (follow the directions to do so) for the first bullet but once the first is done just leave it at the same setting for the rest of the bullets. Consult the documentation included in the dies for an appropriate OAL or COL (Overall length or Cartridge Overall Length) of the entire cartridge complete with bullet. The depth to which the bullet is seated will determine the COL or OAL.

14. Verify that the overall case length is appropriate. The further down the bullet is seated, the shorter the overall case length will be. Refer to the load data included with the die set for a proper OAL or COL. For my loads (.308 with Varget Powder and 168gr BTHP bullets) the maximum OAL was 2.80 inches, and I'm a little under which is fine.

You're done! Enjoy shooting your new, quality ammo! (It's useful to keep the box and carriers from commercial ammo so you have something to store your reloads in.)

Some Observations

  1. Time from start to finish, including cleanup, for 20 rounds came out to almost exactly 60 minutes. The most time is spent on case preparation (cleaning, lubrication, trimming, etc) so if time is precious to you, case preparation is where to start if looking to make things faster.

  2. From what I figure, reloading with match bullets (which are expensive but worth it) costs about 46 or 47 cents per round (assuming the brass is "free"). Remember I'm using Canadian money.

    Commercial ammo -- listed in order of quality from high-to-low -- is about $36 per 20 rounds for Federal Gold Match ammunition, about 16-18$ per 20 rounds for regular off-the-shelf factory ammo, and surplus (if you can find it) can be as low as 9$ per 20 rounds but tends to be worst quality and not always easy to find.

    So the cost of reloading compares pretty favorably to commercial ammo - which is (very roughly) about $1.80 each for match, $0.80 for generic, and $0.45 for surplus. (Again, that's Canadian dollars.)

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