Have you been curious about getting into reloading or "handloading" for your hunting rifle, but been too confused or overwhelmed to get started? I've been there!
There is a lot of information out there about reloading. In fact, it often feels like there is too much information. As a beginning reloader, it is difficult to know what gear you truly need, what processes are worth following, and whose advice you should follow. I have discovered that once you get past the basics of being safe and a few other fundamentals, there is rarely one right answer to any reloading question, but there are a lot of opinions.
"I want half-MOA accuracy, but I don't want to spend all of my time or money reloading."
In reloading, as in hunting, it is helpful to begin with a specific goal, then work backward to identify the best ways to achieve your goal.
As discussed in Episode 274 of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast, my specific goal as a reloader is to make high-quality, consistent, and precise ammunition for both hunting and recreational shooting. And to do that with a reasonable investment of both money and time.
The information below will cover some high-level and very specific gear recommendations that I would suggest for anyone with goals similar to mine. Before we dive into those recommendations, let me throw out a few quick caveats...
- First, I realize I am recommending gear but not fully explaining the "how" or "why" behind specific gear choices. Some of that is covered in the podcast above, and I can share more about my reloading processes in future articles.
- Next, I realize that "budget" is relative. Going back to my goals for reloading, I want great results with minimal investment, so the gear I am recommending is with that very specific context in mind. For every item I list below, there are some cheaper and some insanely more expensive alternatives.
- Finally, I shared links for some specific gear items, but realize that availability and pricing will change and the link may not be up to date if you are reading this article after it is published.
Skip the Kit?
An all-in-one reloading kit is the simplest and often the cheapest way to get started. Something like the RCBS RockChucker Supreme Kit or Hornady Lock-N-Load Single Stage Kit, among several others, are usable options.
If you are on a tight budget or not sure if you'll stick with reloading, these kits may be the way to go. However, if you have a genuine interest in reloading and don't want to find yourself quickly outgrowing and upgrading components of a box kit, I would consider skipping the everything-in-a-box approach and piecing your gear together. The rest of the article will cover the gear I would purchase to build my own reloading setup from scratch.
Press & Dies
Begin with a solid single-stage press. This will often run your around $200-250, though cheaper options can be hand if you hit the right sale or shop used gear. I'd suggest something like the RCBS RockChucker or the more recent RCBS Rebel. Other suitable presses come from brands such as Hornady, Forster, and many more.
Next up, you'll need your reloading dies. I'd budget $75-150 per caliber/cartridge that you'll be loading for. You can get a basic set of dies for much cheaper, but the reason I suggest the $75-$150 budget is that will allow you to get a Full-Length Bushing Sizing Die and a Seating Die with Micrometer. I explained my reasoning for these specific die types in the podcast (above), so tune-in to that if you want more context. Good options in this price range are RCBS MatchMaster and Hornady Match Grade die sets. Again, these are just a couple of the MANY brands and options out there.
While we're talking about sizing dies, it worth noting that you'll want some type of case lube. There are many forms (oils, waxes, etc) and specific products on the market, or you can easily make your own.
Powder Dispensing & Measurement
A critical step in reloading is being able to consistently dispense and load powder charges that are accurate to a fraction of a grain. Many of the all-in-one kits that we talked about earlier come with a manual powder dispenser and powder scale. These setups can get the job done, but they aren't nearly as efficient as an all-in-one dispensing and measuring solution. I would highly suggest something like the RCBS Chargemaster Lite, which should cost you around $250 and will pay for itself in the time and frustration it saves you.
Once you have an accurate powder charged weighed-out, you'll need a funnel to get that powder charge into your case. There are many basic universal funnel kids out there for $15 or less, but my favorite funnels are the caliber-specific and affordable Satern Powder Funnels.
While we're talking about powder charges, I should mention that it is a good practice for every reloader to purchase a published reloading manual from a well-known source, so that they have tested and proven data to begin their load development with. I won't dive off into the process of load development in this article, but know that a published reloading manual is worth the investment.
This is an area where you can keep it simple and go with one of the many hand-held priming systems that cost $50-75. I use the RCBS Universal Hand Priming Tool. The process of priming is necessarily and far from enjoyable, but I have not found a solution (whether hand-held or bench-mounted) that doesn't have some level of tediousness involved.
There are many options for case cleaning. From a high-level, you have vibratory tumblers, wet tumblers, and ultrasonic cleaners. In the interest of keeping things simple and budget-friendly, I'd suggest a vibratory tumbler kit. I use the Hornady M-1 Case Tumbler, which should run about $75. While some reloaders skip case cleaning, I'd suggest investing the time and money in a simple setup to keep your dies and rifle from any potential debris or carbon-build up when working with cases that have not been cleaned.
Moving on from case cleaning, you'll also need a way to trim cases, chamfer and deburr those trimmed cases, and potentially clean-up primer pockets. The ultra-cheap way to get the job done is with something like the Lee Case Conditioning Kit. However, I would suggest a more precise and user-friendly trimming solution, such as the RCBS Trim Pro 2. For chamfering, deburring, and primer pocket cleaning, you can stick with basic hand tools.
Case & Cartridge Measurement
As a new reloader, you'll soon discover that taking measurements is a frequent and significant part of the process. For precise measurement, you'll need a caliper, which can be purchased on Amazon for $10-15. To go along with that, I would highly suggest investing in Hornady's Headspace Gauge Kit, and also Hornady's Bullet Comparator Inserts for the caliber(s) you will be loading.
A common misconception that new handloaders have is that you have to use the "overall length" listed in reloading manuals for a specific cartridge. However, the overall length of the cartridge can be "tuned" to achieve the most precision out of your specific rifle's chamber. The Hornady kit(s) I mentioned will help you fine-tine your ammunition for your rifle.
The Need for (Capturing) Speed
So far I have covered the gear you need to build a rifle cartridge, but an important and sometimes overlooked tool for new reloaders is the need to capture data about the loads they are developing.
You want to be able to capture the speed of the ammunition you are developing so that you can fine-tune your powder charge and other variables to develop rounds that are consistent and accurate.
A great way to get started is to look for a friend that has a chronograph you can borrow, or even contact one of your local ranges to see if they rent chronographs.
When you're ready to buy, you essentially have three primary options...
- A shoot-through chronograph, such as those from Caldwell or Competition Electronics
- A bayonet-style chronography from MagentoSpeed
- A doppler chronograph from Labradar
I have those options listed in order, according to price — and in my opinion, also ordered according to performance.
The Cheapest Item That Will Make A Big Difference
I can't tell you how important it is to keep great records of everything you do with reloading. Write down every load you develop with as much detail as possible (brass, primer, powder type and charge, bullet, cartridge length, atmospherics, recorded velocity, etc, etc).
Being able to look back at components used and results achieved is very important. Don't think "I'll remember". Just write it down.
Alright, so we have covered the essentials while keeping budget and performance in mind. Let me conclude by adding a few items that I would highly suggest you add when budget and opportunity allow.
First, the gear from Inline Fabrication will make your life much easier as a reloader. When it comes to organization and making your reloading area as efficient and user-friendly as possible, I would highly suggest their quick change press mounting system (photo below) and accessories. Their gear has been a life-saver for my small reloading area.
Another helpful addition is a couple of what I call "utility dies". These dies aren't needed to build ammunition, but they are helpful for the reloader. The first die is the Lee Universal Decapping Die, which allows you to remove spent primers from fired brass cases, then clean those cases before you resize them. (I speak more about the benefits of this in the podcast.) The other die I'd suggest adding is the RCBS Collet Bullet Puller Die with the corresponding caliber-specific collets. Using this die allows you to deconstruct an unfired cartridge you built and re-use the components (bullet, powder, case).
Next, I would also consider including annealing in your reloading process. Not only will annealing help with the consistency of the ammunition you create, but it will also extend the life of your cases (saving money on brass in the long run). You can anneal cases dirt-cheap with a socket and drill, you can spend more than a grand on a fancy induction annealer, or you do what I did and spend $250-300 on something like the Annealeez or EP Integrations 2.0 Annealer. After a lot of research, I settled on the EP Integrations annealer and I am beyond satisfied with the purchase.
Finally, there are "little things" that can make a big difference after you have spent some time and determined where you want to invest some extra money in your setup. For example, instead of using a $5 universal reloading tray that traps powder kernels and other junk, I upgraded to an Aluminum Loading Block from Lyman and appreciate the difference it has made. Another example would be upgrading from a plastic universal funnel, which we talked about earlier, to a much nicer caliber-specific and static-free powder funnel like the Satern I mentioned.
Putting It All Together
Whew, that is a lot of information! And we didn't even talk about how to use any of this gear. Hopefully, these recommendations will help you sort through the seemingly endless options on reloading gear and get you set up to create ridiculously accurate rounds for your rifle with a modest investment in time and money. I know that is what this gear has done for me.
Mark Huelsing is the host of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast and works at Exo Mtn Gear — though he's never been able to figure out his job title. Connect with Mark by sending him an email (mark at exomtngear.com) or connecting on Instagram, @MarkTheFark.