How A Hobby Can Turn Fun — Into 15 Cent Ammo!
By Jack Drake
Photos: Donna Drake
With each stroke of the reloading press, another live cartridge comes out, ready to take to the range — and cheaper, too, than you could buy the same at a retail outlet. Saves money and is fun to boot. Not many things can deliver that!
Reloading ammunition is a pleasant hobby, a way to while away enjoyable hours and at the same time it’s a money-saving hobby, amounting to savings of thousands of dollars. Especially so if you’re like me and enjoy shooting.
A step up from a Lee single-stage loader is a four-stage progressive press delivering a freshly loaded cartridge with each pull of the handle. The process is simple. Once the press has been properly adjusted for the particular caliber, powder charge, and bullet and the primer magazine is filled, the operation is underway. Put a cleaned cartridge in the first position and a bullet in the cartridge case (primed and powdered) in the third position, and pull the handle. That’s it — another cartridge ready to shoot.
Fresh cartridge in first stage, lower left. Cartridge in second stage, upper left,
ready for powder charge. Bullet positioned atop charged cartridge, third stage at
upper right, ready to be seated. Bullet at proper depth, fourth stage, ready for
case crimping. Rigid plastic glued to output chute, lower right, to keep loaded
rounds from flipping over the existing sidewall.
Well-equipped reloading bench with large surface area makes
ammo reloading and gun maintenance easy.
The Four Stages
In the first stage the old primer is ejected and the case is reshaped or “sized” (the case squeezed back down) to bring the spent cartridge back to factory specs. At the second stage, on the upstroke of the press handle, the primer is seated, and on the downstroke, the cartridge moves upward and powder is dropped into the cartridge and the mouth is slightly belled to allow bullet seating.
At the third stage, the bullet is placed in the cartridge and on the upstroke the bullet is seated to the proper depth. At the fourth stage, the upstroke crimps the cartridge around the bullet. The downstroke ejects the finished product. It takes less time than it does to read this paragraph!
That’s the nuts and bolts of the operation although the real meat of the story is the money to be saved. But how do you choose between the variety of single-stage presses, generally available in the $100 to $200 range, and the turret presses, which mean faster reloading but with prices that start at mid-$300 and go upward approaching $1,000 with all the bells and whistles?
A great deal depends on how much you will use it. I go to the range about once a week during the 10 or so months of the year when it isn’t freezing beyond enjoyment and shoot sometimes 50 or 100 rounds, sometimes 200 or 250 rounds, each trip.
If I had to stop at a gun store and buy ammunition for each outing, in the words generally attributed to Everett Dirksen, the late Illinois Senator, “Pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
Fifty store-bought cartridges, bottom center, cost as much as
the 303 hand-loaded cartridges in three surrounding trays.
Funnel and plastic tube directs spent primers into larger container
than original small plastic container which came with press.
Dillion’s Square Deal B
When I moved from a single-stage press (you need to change the “dies” several times to complete a loading cycle) in 1994 and bought a new Dillon Square Deal B progressive loading press, I decided to keep accurate records of my efforts and see if it really did pay to reload ammunition.
Since then, I’ve loaded more than 48,000 cartridges, and the cost per cartridge is 14.144 CENTS per round coming out of the press.
That means at less than 15 cents a cartridge, a box of 50 .45 ACP cartridges costs me about $7.07! Where can you find that price in today’s market? Or for that matter, where can you even find ammunition in today’s market? Incidentally, that per-cartridge cost has risen from about 11 cents some five or six years ago as component costs have risen with the shortages.
But back to the beginning. When I bought the Dillon press, I set up an Excel spreadsheet in my computer and have recorded every cent I spent since — the cost of the press, any brass, bullets, powder, primers, cartridge-cleaning solvent; in short, anything related to reloading. I don’t include targets, gun maintenance, or firearm cleaning supplies since that cost would be incurred whether I shot factory ammunition or self-loaded cartridges.
I haven’t recorded retail prices of ammunition in commercial outlets over the years, but through periodic observation I know the cost has been going up. A recent visit to a gun store showed boxes of cartridges in the calibers I load (.38, .357, 9 mm, 40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .45 Colt) ranged from $25 to $48 for a rough average of $36 per 50 cartridges.
I found prices slightly lower at several on-line suppliers, but many also had the ominous notation “Out of stock, no backorder.” Plus, shipping costs would bring the costs closer to in-store prices.
Jack loading .40 S&W cartridges on Dillon Square Deal B press.
Green RCBS Rock Chucker (Single stage press) to the right.
Dollars To Fun Quotient
Thus, the 48,340 cartridges I’ve loaded in the past 21 years would amount to 967 boxes of 50-cartridges and at the $36 average price would have set me back some $34,800 at the current average retail price estimate.
By comparison, the total $5,200 I have spent on my hobby means I have saved roughly $29,600. That certainly seems like a good deal — a very good deal, indeed — and makes the $300 cost of the press a handsome investment. That doesn’t take into consideration my labor. It’s a hobby I enjoy so it doesn’t seem like my toil cost should be included. And besides, it gives me a good opportunity to sequester myself in my gun room, out of range of my wife of 50 years — that’s gotta be worth something, ya’ think?
I smile each time I go to the gun safe and take out a couple of guns in different calibers, go to my ammo storage rack, grab 200 or 300 cartridges, and head for the range. I know I’m saving scads of money and have a more enjoyable afternoon ahead of me as a result.
I shoot all afternoon, gather up my brass, and head home — to sequester myself in my gun room and load up on some more money-saving fun.
And you should too!
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index