The world of handloading is very rewarding, and offers satisfaction and challenges to our shooting sports. Yes, you can load ammunition less expensively than purchasing loaded factory ammo, but most handloaders don't save any money, they just shoot more, and shoot ammunition that suits the individual needs of their purposes and unique firearms. Those not having yet delved into the pursuit are of the mistaken impression that it takes several hundreds of dollars to acquire the necessary equipment to handload, and then a separate room in the house, basement or shop to store all of the paraphernalia!
The whole purpose of this article is to demonstrate how easy it is to enter into handloading, and that even apartment dwellers with very limited space can enjoy this hobby with little more than a medium sized tackle-box full of gear!
I'm not going to get into a blow by blow procedural look at the processes and techniques of handloading here, simply the hardware requirements necessary to partake of the pastime, and perhaps the economizing both on space required and cash invested.
Gearing this towards those people who have severe space constraints, the equipment listed and described is not of a bulky nature, and therefore precludes inclusion of some of the more advanced and specifically progressive loading equipment available. This is aimed at getting the basics, plus a few niceties into the space of a tackle box, while still having the capacity to produce very fine quality ammunition and derive much pleasure and utility from the basic equipment that fits into the space requirements described.
First order of business when contemplating embarking upon a pursuit of handloading is the procurement of at least two good comprehensive loading manuals, preferably one with a good help section and procedural dissertation included. There are many manuals available and they are all good. For the complete novice, I would recommend that at least one of those manuals be the Lyman Reloading Manual, as it has a very thorough section on procedures, step-by-step instructions and information on pressures, and pitfalls to beware. The reason for two manuals is to cross reference to make absolutely certain that your loading data is correct and appropriate for your application before actually putting a load together. A couple of loading manuals will also give you a broader base of information, and two manuals do not constitute a storage issue. In addition to these comprehensive manuals, there are several free loading data booklets that are updated annually from the various powder manufacturers. These are excellent supplements to your resources, and at least three of them, the ones from Hodgdon, Accurate, and Alliant are available upon request from Beartooth Bullets on request with an order of three or more boxes of bullets.
Now that you are armed with some good solid information, the time has come to decide whether you plan on investing both the money and space on a loading press. Yes, you do have a choice, and Lee Precision has manufactured a tool for years called the Lee Loader, and it does not require a loading press of any kind, and is totally self contained as a unit.
This loader uses a mallet to exert the force necessary on the dies included with the kit to perform all the necessary operations to reload a fired case. It deprimes, sizes, reprimes, and seats the bullet in the prepared case. It comes with some rudimentary loading data for your cartridge of choice, as well as a powder dipper that is powder specific for that cartridge, relying on volumetric measure of the powder to arrive at correct charges. This little tool, although very basic, is capable of producing some outstandingly accurate ammunition. Yes, it is slow, but it does work very well. I personally have loaded several thousands of rounds of ammunition using one of these very simple tools. When I was 12 years old, I received one of these as a gift for my .30-30 Winchester. I used that tool to load volumes of .30-30 loads, most of them with cast bullets. I had, and have them for several calibers, and they do just as good a job today as they did when I first acquired them.
However, there is another drawback to consider if you are an apartment dweller. They require hitting the dies with a mallet, and it can get pretty noisy and tiresome listening to an incessant whack, whack, whack! Especially if you are wanting to load ammo after customary quiet hours.
On the market are some very compact, fairly light weight reloading presses. These units aren't the Herculean legends like the Rockchucker, Orange Crusher and the Boss which weigh in at sometimes 30 pounds or more and require a goodly amount of space. The presses I'm referring to here are either hand held, like the Lee Hand Press, or light weight, but sturdy and durable bench mounted types available from Lee Precision, RCBS and Lyman.
One unique press is the Lyman Accupress. It retails for about thirty dollars, weighs about five pounds, and is convertible from a strictly hand press, to a bench mounted press, simply by reversing the toggle link on the ram. Of the presses mentioned here, either the Lee Hand Press or the Lyman Accupress easily fit into a medium/large tackle box along with the rest of your loading gear. On larger tackle boxes the little Lee "C" frame bench press will also fit inside and be self contained in the box. These bench type loading presses do not require being permanently affixed to a bench or counter. Simply clamp them down to a bench or counter (kitchen) with "C" clamps. During college I loaded lots of ammunition with a little RCBS press "C" clamped to my desk in the dorm room! (Before it wasn't politically incorrect!)
A loading press makes you more versatile in your loading as well as more precise, especially when seating bullets and applying crimps to those cartridges that require them. Also, you can handload nearly silently in your apartment or condo with the addition of a loading press to your array of gear. I could go on and on with the merits of beginning with a small, lightweight modest press, as opposed to just the Lee Loader, but it also entails more cash outlay. It is a choice that you will have to make.
Now, regardless of whether you choose to use the simple Lee Loader, or a loading press of some type, it is absolutely essential that you invest in a good quality powder scale! There is no substitute for an accurate powder scale. It is necessary not only for weighing powder, but bullets and cartridge cases as well. Even with the Lee Loader that has the powder dipper for measuring your powder volumetrically, weighing your powder charges is the only real way of having the flexibility to fine tune a load you are developing, or to use a powder not listed on your included chart. A powder scale is not optional equipment!
Another mandatory item in the loading box is a good quality set of dial calipers. These are necessary for measuring everything from brass length, bullet length, cartridge overall length, to bullet diameter. Along with the calipers I would highly suggest a good micrometer, either vernier or digital types will suffice, but a micrometer is necessary if for no other reason than case head expansion measurement to determine pressures of your loaded ammo. A dial caliper measurement is not precise enough to determine case head/web expansion. The micrometer can come later, but a dial caliper is mandatory equipment!
We now come to the issue of case trimming. Case trimming is necessary to not only true up the mouths of fired cases before reloading them, but to trim back the excess case length that occurs from repeated firing of the brass, the brass flows forward, thus elongating the case. If this is not trimmed back not only will accuracy suffer, but dangerous pressures can spike due to brass being crimped at the end of the chamber when a round is chambered in the gun.
Consequently we need a means of trimming cases. Here again, Lee Precision has an ingenious, inexpensive tool that consists of four parts which interact together to make up a case trimming tool that is both fast and efficient. However, it is tedious to use, and does not allow you the flexibility to choose the length to which you trim the brass, you simply trim it to the recommended SAAMI suggested length because the mandrel assembly on the Lee tool is pre-set and immovable by virtue of the design of the tool. The cost is modest, being under ten dollars for the whole setup, and is very space efficient being comfortably stowed in a medium sized prescription pill bottle.
Using a traditional type of case trimmer, it too functions quite nicely when "C" clamped to a bench or counter edge. There are several manufacturers of case trimmers, and none is necessarily better than the other, but some are more convenient than others. If using the Forster case trimmer (pictured), they require a couple different collets to hold the brass shells, whereas the Hornady and RCBS trimmers both use standard loading press shell holders. The cost factor is about the same for all of them. The Forster Case trimmer is the most compact, and the one I have has been in constant service for over twenty years now... and still going strong! A dedicated traditional case trimmer will up your production speed, and give the flexibility to trim to any length you want, especially nice if you get into case forming for wildcat or obsolete cartridges. Some type of case trimming tool is mandatory!
Now, after having trimmed that brass to correct length, you will need a deburring/champhering tool. It will take the sharp edge off of the outside and the inside of the newly trimmed case mouth. This is vey important to keep from shaving either lead or copper off of your bullets, and to make sure that burrs on the outside of the case are removed before loading. A deburring and champhering tool is mandatory!
Priming the cases requires some method of inserting new primers into the resized case. With the Lee Loader, there is a dedicated priming station that comes with the kit, so purchase of priming tools is not mandatory. (but it sure is nice). If using one of the compact presses mentioned above, you will need some means of priming the cases, as these small presses do not include priming arms. Either a ram prime system which fits into your press like a reloading die, using the press to exert the pressure necessary to reprime the case, or an external dedicated priming tool is necessary.
The ram prime units work just fine, but I personally prefer a dedicated priming tool, with a built in primer tray and primer feed. These units utilize a hand actuated lever that applies the pressure necessary to seat new primers. In this way you can better "feel" the primer to the bottom of the primer pocket. Another nice feature of the various autopriming hand tools is that you never have to touch a primer with your hands and risk contaminating it. The primer trays on the tool serve as a primer flipper as well, orienting all the primers the same side up, just by agitating the tray slightly with a side to side motion. These tools are available from RCBS, Lee and Hornady. All are very nice, serviceable, durable tools, which will serve many long years of service. The RCBS and Hornady tools utilize the same shell holder that fits on your loading press to hold the brass.
The Lee Autoprime requires a special shell holder specific to this tool. I personally have a Lee Autoprime that I've used continuously for over 15 years! It was available long before the new Hornady or RCBS tools. I have never broken it, or worn out any parts on it, and I couldn't imagine how many thousands and thousands of primers I've seated with it over the years. One of the hand actuated, primer feeding units is a good sound investment in your loading outfit!
Along with handloading also comes the inevitable loaded round that will have to be pulled apart for some reason, or another. It just happens! You will need a bullet puller. There are two basic ways to go about the pulling of bullets, either with collet type puller that screws into your loading press, and uses a tightening collet to firmly grip the bullet, then pull the brass free from the bullet using the leverage of your press, or to use a kinetic type bullet puller.
I find that the kinetic bullet puller is my favorite, when I have to use one. It doesn't damage your bullet, and you can recover the powder as well without a big mess. They are inexpensive, and compact. Most loading equipment manufacturers offer their version of a kinetic type bullet puller. A bullet puller is a mandatory item as well!
You will need case lubricant for loading your ammo as well, there are again more than one way to here, and the easiest and least messy is with the new aerosol spray case lubricants. These are excellent products that do an outstanding job, and well worth the investment. I highly recommend them over the old case lube pad that you smeared a sticky case lubricant on, then rolled the cases across the pad to lightly lubricate them. If you are stuck on the old ways, go ahead, but for my time and money, go get a can of the new spray type case lubes, follow the directions on the packaging and never look back!
During the loading procedure you will need a way to hold your brass cases, keep them organized and oriented upright. There is no substitute here for a good loading block. It can be as simple as a board with appropriate sized holes drilled to accommodate the shells you are loading, or one of the nice injected plastic models available from many manufacturers. The new plastic loading blocks only cost two or three bucks each, are very compact, and hold absolutely every configuration of brass conceivable, as they are reversible, using either side of the block depending upon the size of your brass case head. A loading block is mandatory!
There are a whole host of different manufacturers of Reloading Dies! They all are good tools, and will serve the handloader well. Each has their own attributes, and unique features, as well as price points. Some are designed for bench rest, micrometer precision, others are just average dies. Only your needs, your tastes and your budget will determine the need for what dies to purchase. All take up about the same amount of space, and the same weight in the end. One point I would like to make however, is this, if you are loading for a straight walled handgun cartridge, by all means spend the extra money and buy die sets that contain either carbide or titanium nitride sizing dies. This will eliminate having to lubricate the handgun cases. As of yet, these dies aren't available for bottlenecked cartridges, or the straight walled rifle cartridges. Do yourself a favor though, if they are available, and spend the extra dollars to get these carbide or titanium nitride dies. Pay attention to the features of each die brand, some offer inline bullet seating, others interchangeable expander balls, others have unbreakable decapping pins, so pick the features that suit your needs and budget the best.
Finally there are some other specialized case preparation tools that will help with your loading. They are not mandatory, but they do make things easier, and enhance the uniformity of your loads, yet don't take up that much space either. These would include primer pocket crimp reaming tools (taking the crimp off of primer pockets on GI brass), primer pocket uniforming tools, flash hole deburring and uniforming tools, case neck brushes, neck turning appliances, and other such add-ins to your array of equipment. Below is a photo of Lyman's case preparation kit, a rather complete assortment of these types of tools that should have you well set up.
Not a necessity, but certainly a nice addition to your layout would be some of the plastic ammo boxes with the hinged lids for storing not only loaded ammo, but your brass as well. These are inexpensive, and take up very little space. A great investment for under two dollars each!--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Of course you will need powder, primers, bullets and cases, the makes, types and selection of each will be dictated by your needs, your diversity of loading, and your space constraints. But, as you will see in the photos below, even a modest selection of components can be stowed in your large tackle box along with all your other gear!
Now, how much space will all this stuff take up! It will ALL fit inside a medium to large plastic tackle box!
Everything, including one of the hand presses will fit into a large sized plastic tackle box with just a very little care and organization. If you have one of the small bench mounted presses it will rest easily on top of your tackle box and take up very little room.
In this tackle box and trays are:
Two pounds of gunpowder
50 rounds of brass
Forster Case Trimmer & Pilots
Two Sets of reloading dies
Full set of Lee Autoprime shell holders
Primer pocket uniforming tools
Flash hole deburring and uniforming tools
Hornady One Shot case lube
Two 8" "C" clamps
Micrometer in wooden protective box
Stainless Steel Dial Caliper in protective box
RCBS 505 powder scale
One MTM plastic reloading block
Full set of Lee shell holders for reloading press
Kinetic bullet puller
Room remaining for Lyman Accupress reloading press
Virtually everything you could need for a very satisfying and efficient loading setup for someone with serious space constraints. This kit is small enough to stow away in a motor home or camp trailer! Now, no more excuses due to a place to store your reloading gear if you had it! Why not get started?
Calculating the cost of the absolutely essential elements of the loading outfit listed above (not the extras), and economizing as much as possible, you can get set up to handload for about the price of two boxes of good quality .44 Magnum ammo, or three boxes of premium rifle ammo! Money you will spend anyway! You might as well have something to show for it, and a new extension of your shooting hobby as well in the bargain!
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