Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is Reloading Worth Your Time?

Those of us who are "into" reloading (also known as handloading) consider reloading to be a hobby within the larger hobby of shooting. Likewise, bullet casters see casting as a hobby within the larger hobby of reloading. But how many times have you heard the claim (from non-reloaders) that reloading and bullet casting are just not worth it when you consider the initial equipment costs and the time spent reloading?

A common refrain on gun forums and in the comment section of reloading videos is, "you only save money if you place no value on your time." This statement is based on the assumption that the only enjoyable part of shooting sports is the actual act of pulling the trigger; everything else being mere drudgery. For those of us who enjoy reloading, that is akin to claiming that camping is only worth it if you have camp hosts who set up the tent, build the fire, cook the food and tell the scary campfire stories. Perish the thought!
But the statement might not add up even from a strictly mathematical standpoint, because the folks who make that claim aren't telling the whole story. We'll look at that in a moment. First though, let's consider the initial equipment outlay.

Here's what you will need to get started handloading. Click on the highlighted titles to see a representative selection of what is currently available.

This is the basic piece of reloading equipment that everything else revolves around. With this machine you can resize, deprime and reprime the fired cartridge case, then seat and crimp the new bullet over a fresh powder charge to complete the cartridge. As you can see, a basic C-frame press from Lee can be had for just over $30. If you want benchless portable reloading, Lee also sells a hand-held press for well under $50 that allows you to reload while sitting in front of the TV, computer or campfire; or at the shooting range. It's not cast iron btw, regardless of what one of the sellers claims. Even with a bench-mounted press you can bolt the press to a short section of 2 x 6 or 2 x 8 lumber and then use C-clamps to fasten it to any handy table.
Keep in mind that with the very cheapest presses you will have to buy something to seat the new primers, such as a hand priming tool or a ram-prime die that screws into the press. My preference in a press is the RCBS Rock Chucker. At about $150, it is a heavy duty cast iron press that will last a lifetime of hard use. It comes complete with a primer seater, too.

You will need a set of dies and a shellholder for each caliber you reload. These will cost anywhere from about $20 on up. Bottlenecked cartridges only need two dies (although there are accessory dies that may or may not be useful, depending on application), and straight-wall cases (including most pistol rounds) need three dies.
For bottlenecked cartridges and large straightwall rifle cartridges, the sizer die will be plain steel and you will need to use case lube. For straightwall pistol cartridges, pay a bit more for the carbide sizer die (which most pistol die sets use; it will be advertised as such) and you can skip the case lube. Even for pistol rounds though, if you buy plain steel (non-carbide) dies you will have to lube your cases.
So what do these dies do? Well, you screw them into your press to perform various operations on your cases. There will be minor differences between brands, especially in which die the decapping pin (for removing the spent primer) is located. But here is the basic setup.

Bottleneck cases: Two dies. The first die resizes the fired case back to SAAMI spec. It actually sizes the neck of the case to a smaller diameter than it needs to be, but retracting the case pulls it over an expander that opens the case neck back to the correct dimension. This is to compensate for differences in case thickness at the neck. This die also has the decapping pin; in a two-die set that is the only workable solution.
The second die seats and crimps the bullet. If you don't want a crimp, you can adjust the die so it doesn't crimp. Some rifle dies don't even have a crimping shoulder. Bad idea in my book, although single shots and bolt actions don't usually need a crimp.

Straight cases: Three dies. The first die is the sizer die. As mentioned, it may have a carbide sizer ring. If so, you can forego case lube. Never skip the case lube with a standard sizer though, because you will stick the case in the die! Second die is the neck expander die. The decapping pin can be in either this, or the sizer die. Third die is the bullet seater and crimp die, just as in two-die sets.

Additional dies: Lee sells some 4-die sets for straight wall rounds, and three-die for bottleneck rounds. In most cases the extra die is their proprietary "factory crimp" die, which is a collet die for adding a 4-point stab crimp. Personally I think these are fluff, to justify selling the dies for 40 percent more. But I suppose they might come in handy at times. I don't usually buy them.

Lee also sells what they call the collet die, which is similar to the factory crimp die except instead of crimping, the collet fingers resize the neck of a bottleneck case against a mandrel. In contrast to the factory crimp die, I think the collet sizing die is wonderful. It's only good for bottleneck rifle rounds, and generally only for manually operated actions; especially bolt actions. It is also only good for reloading cases for a rifle it was previously fired in. Try this with range pickups, and you stand a good chance of sticking a case in your chamber.
To offset these disadvantages though, the collet die has the advantages of requiring no case lube, better accuracy compared to a full length sized case, and greatly increased case life. Get one of these in addition to, not instead of, a full length sizer die. In my opinion Lee should offer this die, not the "factory crimp" die, in a three-die set for bottleneck cartridges.
Lyman sells what they call the "M" die, and it is a great one for those of us who shoot cast bullets in bottleneck rifle cartridges. It is basically the same thing as the second, expander die in a die set for straight-wall cases. It expands the neck after sizing, and also flares the case mouth a bit to accept a cast bullet. It also helps when loading very short bullets, such as .30 carbine or .32 ACP bullets in a .30-06 case; or .357 Magnum bullets in a .35 Whelen case.    

and scale
To reload safely and successfully, you need some way to measure your powder charge. Actually you need both a way to measure it and a way to dispense the same charge repeatedly. If you are on an extreme budget you can get by for awhile with nothing more than a set of Lee dippers. In fact if you are on an even bigger budget you don't necessarily have to buy anything in this category just yet if you buy Lee dies; because most Lee die sets include both a sheet of load data and one powder dipper in the most useful size for that specific cartridge.

I do recommend that you buy a set of dippers and a scale as soon as possible though, and then add a real powder measure when you feel the need. The dipper set is only $11 as I write this. Be careful with your choice of scale, though. Some of the less expensive digital scales aren't accurate enough (both resolution and accuracy should be a tenth of a grain or less), and some of them even shut down after as little as 30 seconds of inactivity. It is possible to use a scale that goes to sleep that quickly, but I guarantee you will grow to hate that feature after awhile. My recommendation is that you spend a minimum of $30 on a scale. And even then, I also recommend that you eventually (if not immediately) back that up with a good quality mechanical balance beam scale, such as the RCBS 505. It really is as RCBS claims, "the legendary standard in mechanical scales." I have one, and have had it for over 25 years. They are actually made by Ohaus, who used to sell the exact same scale (albeit with a tan paint job) under their own name.

Back to the Lee dippers. The set comes with a slide rule showing the weights of various powders thrown by each size dipper. Until you have this set, you will never understand just how handy it is. I have several powder measures, and yet I use these dippers more than all my other powder measures combined. You can use them with an adjustable measure too, to help you get your measure adjusted close to your desired charge; after which you can fine tune the measure. They're a real time saver.
You can use them without a scale too, in some cases. But be sure to follow Lee's instruction of not using them for maximum loads, especially if you are not using a scale.

So what are we up to now?
Let's have a tally. Bare minimum, we're looking at (current prices as of this writing) about $33 for a press, maybe another $33 for dies, shellholder and a single powder dipper (included with the dies; check the listing to make sure). 
An RCBS ram priming set is about $25. That's $91. The only other thing you need are bullets, powder and primers. Let's assume we are starting with 9mm Parabellum, since that is the cheapest loaded centerfire ammo in the world and the subject of the discussion that prompted me to write this.

The Lee 9mm dies come with a .5cc dipper. One of the recommended loads for a 115 grain bullet in 9mm is 4.2 grains of 700-X, for which .5cc is the proper dipper. 700-X also happens to be one of the least expensive and most readily available powders, so let's go with that. You can get it for a little over $15 per pound by the 8 lb jug. Do that if you can afford it; you can reload just about any round (including reduced loads in full size rifle cartridges) with 700-X. But if you can't afford to buy that much at once, go ahead and get a single pound. In that format and buying locally it will probably set you back close to $25. Also get a box of 1,000 primers (about $30), and I would recommend going ahead and getting a sizeable (at least 250, preferably 500 or 1,000) box of copper-plated bullets. Or FMJ, if you find them on a super sale. In this case you might want to go ahead and buy them online; you probably won't find them cheaper locally. Doing a quick search, I just found 115 grain plated 9mm bullets for $83 for 1,000, with free shipping. The price is even lower for larger quantities: $149 for 2,000 and $289 for 4,000. Also with free shipping. That's 7.3 cents per bullet; but we will go with the 1,000 count price: 8.3 cents per bullet. 

If we bought a pound of powder for $25 and we will use 4.2 grains, that makes it exactly $15 worth of powder for 1,000 rounds (1,000 x 4.2 grains is 4,200 grains, which is .6 lb). Add $30 for the primers and $83 for the bullets and we are at $128 per thousand rounds. I'm not counting the cases because I have never had to buy a 9mm case yet, in my entire life. Most non-reloaders don't bother to pick up their fired brass at the local shooting area, especially for something as cheap as 9mm.

Counting equipment, that means we have about $220 in that first 1,000 rounds. That's not a terrible price for 1,000 rounds of 9mm. It is 22 cents per round, which equates to $11 for a box of 50. That compares quite favorably to just picking up a box.
But someone pointed out a place that currently has 1,000 rounds of steel-case Russian 9mm for $160 shipped. Ok, I'll play. Never mind the fact that it is a short-term sale, limited to stock on hand after which the price will be back to its normal level of $200-$225. Also never mind the fact that I wouldn't want to fire a thousand (or really, any) rounds of that steel-cased, steel-jacketed stuff through any gun I cared very much about, and that I consider doing so to be the very definition of false economy. So let's take it a bit further.

In fact, let's not take the entire price of the equipment out of the first thousand rounds (which would make further loading look even cheaper); and let's not use the 2,000 or 4,000 bulk price on the bullets. We won't even buy any bulk powder or primers; instead paying exorbitant local prices for primers and powder and repeatedly buying bullets by the 1,000 pack. So amortizing the price of the equipment, we will be paying about $175 per thousand by the time we load our second thousand. $158.33 per thousand by the third thousand. At this point we are below the super, limited quantity sale price on the Russian ammo. So there's your answer: 3 thousand rounds. I could shoot that in a weekend, if I put my mind to it.

Now we'll call the equipment fully amortized. And believe me, by this point you will consider reloading to be a major part of the hobby. Now you can easily justify buying more equipment, too. Things that will speed up your reloading, for example. Or you can buy a jug of powder and 5,000 primers for the best price available online, and buy the bullets in bulk to get the best price. Now you will be loading the same 9mm ammo for less than $110 per thousand!

"Ok, fine. But here's the problem: I don't have any 9mm brass. And I'm not finding it scattered where I shoot either; or if I do find any it's that steel-case Russian stuff."
Not to worry. Here's 1,000 rounds of once-fired, reloadable 9mm brass for less than $35 shipped. That wouldn't break the budget even if you only loaded it once. But in fact, with this load it will probably last for over 10 reloads. You will probably lose some though, so let's just call the total price tag $115 per thousand rounds. You could stop right there and never even bother with casting your own, and you will still come out ahead.

But let's pretend for a moment that it's not an enjoyable pastime, and that you can't perform some of the operations while you watch TV and the rest while listening to the radio, or music, or an audiobook, or a Morse code practice app on your smartphone. Let's "place a value on our time," as in the common charge that reloading is only worth doing if you don't place any value on your time. One wonders if those folks place a value on the time they spend on Youtube and forums. But that's beside the point.

Ok, so how much are you going to pay yourself to reload all that ammo? Keep in mind that you don't have to get dressed for the world and drive anywhere to do it. Driving time is something you have to consider, although some people apparently don't. Fuel expenditure, too. Also outside meals, which cost more out in the world than they do at home. Remember, we're not talking about the time you already spend at work. If we're being fair about it, we're talking about driving somewhere to work an additional day or partial day, instead of spending some time in the home reloading shop.
Also, you don't have to pay any taxes on what you are paying yourself, because it is money you are keeping instead of paying out. So how much? How about $20 per hour, tax free? It's no big deal to produce a couple hundred rounds per hour, so $20 an hour would put your total expenditure at $215 per thousand rounds of ammo that is better than the Russian stuff. Far more sustainable, too.


But you don't have to stop there. Granted, if you're paying yourself $20 per hour and buying your lead at the market price, casting is probably not gonna pan out. But if you're ready to consider it at least partially a hobby or maybe a means of prepping, it makes sense. Especially if you can scrounge at least part of your lead.

Let's look at the numbers. You can get good, clean lead ingots for $2 per pound. It takes about 16.5 pounds to make 1,000 115 grain 9mm bullets. That's $33. If you have two, six-cavity bullet molds and keep both in play, alternating between the two, you might cast 1,000 bullets in a couple hours. At $20 per hour, you're at $73 for the bullets. Add a couple bucks worth of liquid alox bullet lube and the (very little) time necessary to tumble lube them, and you are at if not over budget on the bullets. It just depends on how you look at it. If you decide it might be worthwhile to cast your own bullets, you will need a lead melter and bullet mold.

Want to know more? Check out my "Guns and Reloading" playlist on Youtube. 

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