“One cannot legislate the maniacs off the street … these maniacs can only be shut down by an armed citizenry. Indeed bad things can happen in nations where the citizenry is armed, but not as bad as those which seem to be threatening our disarmed citizenry in this country at this time.” -Jeff Cooper
“Hear the sum of the whole matter in the compass of one brief word — every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus.” -Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
I am NOT AN EXPERT. Any information provided below should be considered inaccurate until verified by trusted resources. When it comes to working with firearms, and especially reloading, there is an inherent risk of death or serious injury. If you are interested in taking the next step; please educate yourself and consult manufacturer data, standards bodies (http://www.saami.org/), and qualified experts such NRA-certified instruction and/or various educational organizations.
This article consists of two parts.
- The first installment will cover background information to inform how to apply the mechanics of firearms and ammunition to successful handloading.
- The second installment will cover the process of handloading ammunition, as well as some common techniques used to create better ammunition.
I am going to try to make this information as generic as possible to cover most common firearms and firearm types. I have no practical experience in topics of handloading shotgun shells, casting bullets, and other subjects and so will avoid any specifics of things I don’t have direct knowledge of.
If you are an experienced shooter, you may find a lot of this remedial. Tough titty, you get what you pay for.
If any of this interests you, PLEASE do your own research. The best resources for me when I started out included a mix of dedicated books (such as reloading guides published by equipment manufacturers – Lee’s “Modern Reloading” is good), internet forums dedicated to the craft (https://thefiringline.com/forums/, https://calguns.net/, etc), and manufacturers’ published specifications.
- Handloading ammunition is the process of assembling working ammunition from constituent components FOR PERSONAL USE. Unless you are willing to be liable for killing someone else due to a mistake, the ammunition you make is yours and yours alone.
- Reloading is a more specific term that indicates that some of the components used in the handloading process have already been used.
Most of these terms are used interchangeably, and the process is largely the same. Depending on a number of factors including new/used components, some steps may be modified, eliminated, or added – there is no one single process that covers all types of handloading.
Why Load Your Own?
There are as many reasons people get into handloading, and there are just as many types of handloaders as there are shooters. Some of the major reasons why include:
- Mechanical Inclination/Fun. This is a big one for me. I like knowing how things work, and the science/mechanics/physics behind firearms and ammunition is interesting to me. As you’ll see, there is a lot of detailed mechanics and physics that go into sending a projectile out the proper end of the gun.
- Self-Sufficiency. Handloaders are less subject to the vagaries of law, policy, and availability. By being able to reuse, source, or manufacture constituent components, the handloader can more reliably produce ammunition for personal use. I originally got into handloading because I was living in California during the Obama gun panics. Factory-made ammunition became either prohibitively expensive or non-existent. However – components were somewhat more available and I was able to continue shooting pretty much as much as I wanted through the lean years.
- Improved Accuracy/Control. The handloader can control the assembly process to much greater detail as compared to factory-produced ammunition. Furthermore, every individual firearm behaves differently (much more on this later), and the handloader can “tune” a specific loading to a specific firearm for a specific purpose.
- Cost Savings. This is a very common reason people get into handloading. In many cases, there can be a significant cost saving but this is highly dependent on a number of variables. It’s easy to save a ton of money, but it’s easy to spend a shitload more than buying factory ammunition. I’ll get into some of these variables where appropriate.
You can get started handloading for a relatively small investment in equipment. However, in order to be a successful handloader, you need to possess some soft skills in addition to the proper tools:
- Patience. Handloading is a time-consuming activity. Even with the best, most automated equipment, you must spend time tuning, tweaking, testing, quality-controlling, etc.
- Attention to Detail. A small mistake can literally blow up in your face. Checking, double-checking, and rechecking the entire process over and over again will minimize (but never eliminate) risk.
- Mechanical Aptitude. If you can’t put together your Ikea end table, don’t handload. The equipment is about as mechanical as you can get; and you have to futz with things that have tolerances measured in the fifty-thousandth of a pound, thousandth of an inch, etc.
- Self-Discipline. Most resources don’t talk about this much. As I’ve said above; a mistake can and will be deadly. Are you sure you charged the last 100 rounds properly? Do you decide to guess you did, or do you spend the next two hours pulling them back down to make sure? Do you let your friend shoot your reloads? What happens if his shit blows up? It’s always easy to be lazy, cut corners, or push the envelope. Don’t.
On to the Good Stuff
So what’s next? It’s easy to go online and look up “best load for .45 ACP” and get dozens of results, usually written in an arcane shorthand. But what makes a good “load”? What factors go into making one better than the other? Better for whom? What can be changed to make it better for your shooting style, goal, or gun? The details below will help explain the fundamentals upon which one can begin to answer these questions.
Basic Ammunition Components
Modern ammunition typically consists of four major components. The assembled components are called a cartridge (or shell in the case of assembled shotgun ammunition). A cartridge consists of:
- Projectile. Generically, the thing that comes out of a barrel. Specifically, the projectile can be a bullet (a single projectile), a slug (a single projectile fired from a shotgun), or shot (multiple projectiles fired from a shotgun), or even more esoteric items like flares, harpoons, etc.
- Charge. This is the stuff that makes the oomph that makes the thing fly.
- Case or Hull. The case refers to a metallic container that holds the components together. A hull is simply a case for a shotgun shell – typically made out of plastic or paper.
- Primer. The primer is the explosive bit that serves to ignite the charge.
Basic Firearm Components
Modern firearms consist of three major components. Handguns, shotguns, long guns, pappy’s huntin’ rifle, all have the following in common:
Barrel. This is the tube the projectile travels down on its way to where it’s going. Firearms can have one or more barrels. Think rifle, double-barrel shotgun, Gatling gun. Barrels can be smooth on the inside or have spiral grooves (cuts) and lands (metal between the grooves). Rifling imparts stabilizing spin on the projectile. Typically, shotguns are smooth, rifles and pistols are rifled.Barrel rifling is said to have a “twist” or a “speed” – meaning the tightness of the spiral will impart faster or slower spin on a projectile. Twist is usually designated as the number of inches in a single revolution (e.g., 1 in 7, 1 in 14, etc.).
Action. The part of the firearm responsible for loading, firing, and removing spent ammunition. There are many different types of action (bolt, lever, falling block, gas-operated semi-automatic, etc.).
Stock. The thing that is held onto when the firearm is fired. Can be in one or more pieces, designed to be shoulder-mounted, held in the hand, or mounted to another platform.
The basic process of sending a projectile in the proper direction.
All of the following steps are common to the “firing” of a firearm, and all of them are important to the handloader.
- The action secures a cartridge (or shell) into the chamber. The chamber is the void that surrounds the cartridge and is responsible for containing the products of combustion and directing those products down the proper end of the barrel.
- The chamber is located at the rear (breech) end of the barrel, or in the case of a revolver, in the cylinder.
- A firing pin strikes the primer, and the primer ignites. This strike may be the result of a trigger pull or an automated action.
- Products of primer ignition (hot gases and flame) ignite the Charge.
- The charge burns (does NOT explode). At this point, the case expands up against the chamber walls, making a tight seal, further directing the hot gases and combustion products down the barrel.
- The projectile is pushed down the barrel, while the charge continues to burn, further accelerating the projectile.
- The barrel may impart a spin on the projectile if the barrel is rifled.
- The projectile leaves the barrel, along with combustion products (possibly including still-burning, or unburnt charge).
The Art and the Science
Handloading is an equal part art as it is science. As long as you work within established, safe boundaries, the loading options are virtually limitless.
There is a huge array of combinations of ammunition components that make up a complete, functional cartridge. Even inside the published minimum and maximum safe loads, there is a massive amount of leeway. Why is this important to the handloader? Let’s go back to the original goals:
- Saving Money. Finding inexpensive components goes a long way towards controlling costs. If you get a deal on X powder or Y projectiles, you need to be able to create a safe load based on less expensive components.
- Self-Sufficiency. The ability to be flexible means you have a greater chance of creating viable ammunition based on what’s available instead of the one recipe you know.
- Accuracy/Control. Construct ammunition for the specific need. For example, some states require non-toxic projectiles for hunting and that shit is expensive off the shelf. Some folks load “wadcutters” for competition so they get nice, neat holes in paper. Every gun behaves slightly differently. If you want to make the most accurate ammunition, you need to “tune” your load to your gun. I will spend some time with this in Part 2.
- Because it’s fun. Trying out and building up different loads is cool, dammit.
Safe firearm and ammunition specifications are set by SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc. http://www.saami.org/). These specifications are the de facto standard under which all firearm and ammunition manufacturers must abide.
The various component and handloading equipment manufacturers publish “load data” for various combinations of components. For example, Barnes is a bullet manufacturer. They provide complete cartridge load data for their specific bullets (http://www.barnesbullets.com/load-data/). Typically, this load data will contain cross-references of different component brands, types, and min/max loading limits.
- The Minimum is the minimum safe loading to get the bullet out the muzzle of the barrel. Going under this can cause the bullet to lodge inside the barrel; setting you up for a catastrophic failure.
- The Maximum is the max safe chamber pressure/velocity. Exceeding this can cause fatal pressures, setting you up for a catastrophic failure.
Don’t worry about the details in these charts, more will be explained below.
Handloading vs. Reloading Revisited.
Let’s talk a bit again about the sub-genre of handloading; our old friend reloading. Reloading is basically recycling already-used ammunition components.
- Cases. For most reloaders, the only readily reusable component is the (brass) case or plastic hull. Since the chamber protects these from catastrophic destruction, they can be safely reused until wear makes them unsafe. There will be a whole section in the next installment about how to prepare this brass. Good thing though, as the case can be the most expensive component. AND, these can be scrounged for free at the local range. NOTE – only brass cases or plastic hulls can be reloaded. Cheap steel or aluminum cannot be reused.
- Other Components. The second most common recycled component is lead for bullets. Bullet Casting is (in my opinion) a whole other topic and it represents a whole category which I know nothing about. I’ve also seen people recycle non-reusable cases for bullet jackets, but other than these two things, most everything else is single-use.
There is very little consistency in cartridge naming conventions. I’m sure you’ve seen things like “30-06 Springfield”, or “5.56 NATO”, or “38 Special”. The most I can say is that somewhere in the name is a mention of caliber – loosely meaning the diameter of the bullet that comes out the end of the barrel. So, without research, you typically know that a .45 ACP has a fatter bullet than a 7mm Remington Ultra Magnum. Which one will fuck you up more can’t be known without looking at all the other specifications of the cartridge.
The one golden rule is that a specific firearm is built for a specific cartridge. There are exceptions to even this (9mm Luger is the same nowadays as a 9mm Parabellum, as a 9×19 NATO, but is NOT a 9mm Makarov). This cartridge name can represent a combination of the shape of the case, the weight/shape/length of the projectile, maximum chamber pressure, velocity, and any set of a number of other factors.
Only load ammunition for the specific cartridge your gun is designed for. A .223 Remington cartridge will fit and fire in a firearm designed for 5.56 NATO, but you could blow yourself up because the maximum allowed chamber pressure for 5.56 NATO is LESS than for a .223 Remington even though there can be no dimensional difference in the cartridge. Know your gun and know your cartridge.
If you look at the bottom of a cartridge case, you’ll see the cartridge name stamped on the metal. If you can’t read it or there is any question as to what it is, throw it away.
Diameters – Projectile and Barrel.
In order for a successful and safe operation to occur, the projectile must fit tightly enough in the barrel to be propelled by combustion, but not so tight that it plugs up the barrel and causes an explosion. Unfortunately, there are many inconsistencies when it comes to standard measurements, the rule is as above – KNOW YOUR CARTRIDGE. It does help to know some generalities:
- Caliber. This can be the measurement of bullet diameter OR barrel diameter.
- American barrel diameter is measured in thousandths of an inch, measured from groove to groove. (e.g. .308)
- European barrel diameter is measured in hundredths of a millimeter, measured from land to land. (e.g. 7.62mm)
- Bullets are measured at their widest point, and bullet caliber may not match barrel caliber. For example, a .223 Remington barrel takes a .224 inch bullet. KNOW YOUR CARTRIDGE.
- Gauge. Typically used to measure shotgun bore, gauge has an interesting background and comes from a time before we could measure things well. The gauge number represents the number of spherical lead balls that make up a pound. For example – if you made a lead ball the width of a 12 Gauge shotgun barrel, it would take 12 of them to make a pound. (The weird exception is a .410 shotgun; which is called “.410 bore” and NOT “.410 caliber” or 67.5 Gauge.)
For any given Cartridge, there are a varying number of projectiles that can be used. As always, manufacturer and SAAMI specifications set the acceptable limits on what can be loaded and how, but that still leaves a very wide range of projectiles for different uses. Some of the variables include:
- Weight. A heavier bullet can be less resistant to the effects of wind, can be more stable in flight depending on barrel configuration:
- Twist. The faster the twist, the better at stabilizing heavier bullets
- Length. The longer the barrel, the more impulse over time can be applied to the bullet. (However, a heavier projectile can be larger, requiring more energy to propel it down the barrel.)
- Material. Bullets are made with a wide range of material depending on use and cost. The material affects the weight and shape of the bullet, and may or may not cause different behavior for a given loading. For example, an all-copper bullet of the same weight as a lead one is much longer, and may not be loadable in a particular Cartridge. Most typically, a bullet will have:
- A Core. This core is the bulk of the mass of the bullet – usually lead, but can be steel wrapped in lead, or other metals such as all-copper, bismuth, etc.
- Optional Jacket. You will see many projectiles will have full or partial coverings of copper, brass, or other ductile metal. Jackets can be used to improve aerodynamics, lethality, or safety.
- Shape. Too many to list here – round nose, hollow point, flat base, boat tail, ballistic tip, wad cutter, etc. Different shapes are better for different uses (hollow points spread out on impact, making a wider wound cavity. Boat tail bullets are more aerodynamic, so are more accurate over distance). Researching manufacturers will provide more information on the types of bullets available.
Projectiles and Overall Length.
Look up any cartridge recipe and you’ll see something labeled “COAL” (Combined Overall Length) for any given bullet. This is the MINIMUM length the entire cartridge should measure. This minimum prevents the bullet from being seated too deeply inside the case; potentially causing dangerous pressure spikes/detonation due to charge compression, too much tension on the bullet, etc.
Note Maximum length is not given. When determining a maximum overall length, three rules need to be followed – 1) the bullet must be set deeply enough into the case to hold it there, 2) the cartridge should fit in the magazine or feeding device, and 3) the bullet should not touch the lands in the barrel (extend beyond the chamber. All three of these can be established while configuring your loading equipment – techniques will be provided in part 2.
As an example, take a look at the Barnes (a bullet manufacturer) load data for one type of cartridge – the venerable “30-06 Springfield”. You can see there are 18 different projectiles they make that will fit inside a 30-06 Springfield. Note all the variables in shape, weight, material, length – and how the constituent load recommendations change.
Controlling the Burn.
Assuming you’ve picked the proper bullet and case for your Cartridge, the two other components now come into play – the Charge and the Primer. Understanding both is important in controlling the behavior of the ammunition in the gun.
The Charge – Smokeless Powder.
The component that provides the largest impetus for the projectile to travel down the barrel is the Charge. Nowadays, the charge consists of smokeless powder. They key to smokeless powder is that it BURNS, it does not EXPLODE.
There are a ton of different powder manufacturers, and each manufacturer has broad product lines. These individual powders are typically designed for a narrow range of cartridge configurations. Powder manufacturers also publish safe and recommended load data for various configurations. Some of the differences in powder include:
- Burn Rate. This is HUGE. The quickest way to kill yourself is to load pistol powder into a rifle cartridge. Powder designed for pistols burns much more quickly since it needs a fast burn to exit a short barrel. However – the amount of powder loaded is drastically less. Powder designed for rifles burns slower so it applies a long, building pressure wave as the bullet travels down the barrel. Even inside the two categories, there is a wide spectrum of burn rates available. What’s more, other variables such as the choice of ignition source (Primer), if the load is compressed or not, etc. can affect the powder burn rate.
- Shape. Manufacturers also extrude powder in different shapes. Some of these shapes include little sticks, spheres, or flakes. Depending on how you measure the powder into the case, some shapes work better than others.
- Measurement. Smokeless Powder is measured in Grains. Load specifications are given to the tenth of a grain. There are 7000 Grains in a Pound. (There’s a silly thing called a “Dram Equivalent” listed on Shotgun Shells. It used to be that shotguns were loaded with Black Powder (which does explode), so a convention developed that equates the smokeless load to the combustive force of the defined number of drams of Black Powder.)
As mentioned above, this is the component that converts kinetic energy (firing pin) into chemical energy (combustion). As such, primers are PRESSURE SENSITIVE and shouldn’t be fucked with. Primer compounds can be found in:
- Rimfire cartridges. This is where the primer chemicals are deposited into the rim of the base of the case. Most common in .22 rimfire cartridges. These cannot be reloaded!
- Centerfire cartridges. The primer compound is self-contained in a small metallic cup that is seated at the base of the Case.
- Berdan vs Boxer Priming. There are two types of centerfire primers – Berdan and Boxer. Boxer Primed cases are the most common in the US and the easiest to reload. Berdan Primed cases can be found in European surplus ammunition, and are a PIA to reload. If you plan on reloading ammunition, be careful that the cheap Czech surplus ammunition is Boxer Primed.
Types of Primers. There are several different types of primers designed for different cartridges and uses.
- Small/Large Primers. This is the size primer that will fit into the cup at the base of the case. You don’t have a choice as to what size primer to use here – small fits small holed cases, large fits large holed cases. It used to be that larger calibers (diameter bullets) used larger primers, but nowadays it’s all over the place.
- Pistol/Rifle Primers. Pistol Primers burn shorter and cooler so as not to cause a pressure spike given the small chamber and “fast” powders. Rifle Primers burn longer and hotter to ignite slower powders.
- Magnum Primers. Means even hotter and even longer burn. Can be Pistol or Rifle. Magnum primers are recommended in some powder combinations, or even colder weather applications when you’ll need more heat and time to ignite cold powder, and don’t have the risk of an overpressured load.
- Hard/Soft Primers. Hard primers are usually referred to by the manufacturer as “military primers”. The metallic cup that shields the primer compound can be made with varying hardness. Some rifle actions have a “floating” firing pin which can come in contact with the primer during non-firing conditions (military patterns such as the AR-15 action has a floating firing pin).
Conclusion – Part 1
That’s pretty much it at a high level. As mentioned above, there is worlds more detail to be had on this and other subjects; but I’m sure you’re all bored to tears at this point.
Part 2 will cover “practical” handloading – equipment, process, and some techniques – basically using this knowledge to put together a safe, working piece of ammunition. Happy to take questions in the comments.
Barnes Bullets: http://www.barnesbullets.com/