Building A Budget Reloading Bench

Gun News

How to set up a reloading bench on the cheap.

So, you’ve decided that enough is enough with the ammunition crunch, and you’re ready to take the plunge into reloading your own ammunition. Yes, it’s absolutely true that reloading components are as rare as ammunition itself right now, but this too shall pass.

Reloading gear is like any other gear-intensive hobby; you can go right down the rabbit hole and get into a five-figure sum quicker than you’d imagine, or you can go minimalistic and set yourself up on the cheap. I’ve done both ways, and while I can say that the best tools will certainly make life easier, you can make fantastic ammo with inexpensive gear if you’re diligent about technique and pay attention to detail.

reloading-bench-trimming
The Lee primer pocket cleaner is an effective tool, which scrapes burnt residue out of both large and small primer pockets. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Shortening The Purse Strings

Let’s assume your budget is tight—whose isn’t?—and you want to set up your reloading bench in the most cost-effective manner possible.

Now, as we go through the list of necessary gear, I didn’t necessarily recommended the least costly item in the category, but instead leaned toward the best value to maximize the reloading dollar. If you already reload, then I’m preaching to the choir; you understand the processes and the tools involved. If you’re new to the game, I cover the steps so you can best understand the tools needed.

The act of reloading centerfire metallic cartridges involves reworking a spent cartridge case, bringing it back into proper specifications, then installing a new primer and powder charge and finally seating a new bullet to complete the process.

Sounds easy, right?

It isn’t a difficult procedure … so long as you pay strict attention and give the act the respect it deserves.

Get a Single-Stage Press

Reloadable cases are made of brass or nickel-plated brass and are malleable, yet strong enough to resist deformation in day-to-day handling—this is the primary reason brass was chosen as a case material. When the case is fired, it’ll expand to the (slightly larger) dimensions of the chamber. To reuse it, it needs to be returned to SAAMI specs.

High-quality ammunition can be made with simple tools and a strong attention to detail. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

A reloading press will generate the needed pressures to shrink that brass case back down to spec, and specially made reloading dies are used for each cartridge you wish to reload. A single-stage press is what you’re after. It’ll handle all the needed chores—though it only holds a single die at a time and performs one function at a time.

For this, I like either the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme (about $214 street price) or the Redding Big Boss (about $195 street price). Both are wonderfully strong and rigid. Both could re-prime your cases, and both will last a lifetime. There are some cheaper models, but I don’t feel they provide the same level of performance as either of these two choices.

Look to Lee Dies

Reloading dies are pretty much universal, so long as they have the standard 7/8-14 die body. The brand of die need not match the brand of press, and for our project, I’d recommend Lee dies. They’re reliable, affordable and, for the beginning reloader, will certainly get the job done.

lees-dies-budget-reloading-bench
Lee reloading dies are affordable, and the plastic powder scoop and shell holder are included in each set.

The Lee die set includes the proper shell holder for the cartridge—almost all others require the shell holder be purchased separately. And while other dies might have fancier features, I’ve used Lee dies to make some great ammunition. Depending on the conformation of your case, you may need a two-die set (usually reserved for bottleneck cartridges) or a three-die set (for straight-walled cartridges). Pistol cartridges die sets start at about $39, and prices go up from there.

I also like the Lee dies for the fact that they provide a plastic scoop of appropriate size for the case to be reloaded. Some powders require a bit more than a scoop, and some less, but it’s a handy means of weighing out powder charges in conjunction with a balance beam scale.

A Balance-Beam Scale And A Dial Calipers

You’ll need to measure things in a couple of ways—the weight of powder charges, bullets and sometimes even cases, and the length of things … such as cases and assembled cartridges.

For measuring weight, a balance beam scale is what you’re after, as I feel it’s the most reliable. It needs no power to operate and, with proper care, will last a lifetime. The cheaper models, while they have an attractive price point, tend to drift from true readings easier than the higher-quality models. The Redding Model No. 2 balance beam scale (about $103) is built rock-solid, wonderfully accurate and odds are you’ll leave it to your children to use.

reloading-bench-scale
Powder, and sometimes bullets and cases, must be weighed, and the Redding Model No. 2 is a good value. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Once those powder charges are properly weighed out, a powder funnel like the RCBS (about $6) will keep powder in the case and not all over your reloading bench. To measure the length of cases and cartridges, a set of dial calipers is needed. The Frankford Arsenal dial calipers (about $40) will get the job done without emptying the wallet.

Menial Cleaning, Trimming and Lubing

Dirty cases need to be cleaned and polished to maintain smooth feeding. The Lyman Turbo 1200 Pro Sifter case tumbler (about $65) and some crushed walnut shells or corn cob abrasive media (about $12 to $18) will handle that.

The brass cases will need to be trimmed sooner or later, and for that chore, the Lee Case Length Gauge (about $7 to $12) and Cutter and Lock Stud (about $7) will keep your brass nice and uniform, even if it runs on elbow grease. A locking stud holds the case by the base, while a flash hole-piloted length gauge is attached to a cutting tool. A few twists of the wrist (or the unit is adaptable to a cordless drill), and the case mouth is cut down to the SAAMI-specified length.

lee-case-length-gauge

Once trimmed, you’ll want to clean the sharp edges off the case mouth. For that, I like the Lee chamfer/de-burring tool (about $5); it’s as simple as it gets and gets the job done. The primer pockets can be scraped clean with the Lee Primer Pocket cleaner (about $4); this dual-sided tool will handle both large and small primer pockets.

Cases will need to be lubricated before the resizing process, unless we’re talking carbide pistol dies, lest you stick the case in the resizing die. Remember, a reloading press generates all sorts of pressure. There are many types of case lubricant. I prefer the simple, small tin of Imperial Sizing Die Wax (about $10); it works perfectly and a little bit goes a long way. Simply rub a small amount between your forefinger and thumb, rub it on the case—concentrating on the base—and you’re good to go.

sizing-die-wax
Imperial’s Sizing Wax is applied with your thumb and forefinger, and a little goes an awful long way when it comes to lubricating cases. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Erasing Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes—including reloaders—and there are tools to erase those mistakes. Cartridges can be disassembled via an inertia hammer that pulls the bullet out of the case.

The Frankford Arsenal impact bullet puller (about $17) uses three different collet sizes to pull bullets from cartridges ranging from the .22 Hornet to the .45-70 Government, whether rimmed, rimless or belted.

stuck-case-remover

Should you stick a case in your resizing die—and it’ll inevitably happen (even to the best of us)—a kit like the Hornady Stuck Case Remover (about $20) will sort you out. The concept is pretty simple: A case is stuck in the resizing die with the rim ripped off, so you use the provided drill bit to punch a hole through the primer pocket. Next, tap that hole with the provided tap. Then, the Allen-head bolt is pushed through the small steel cup and screwed into the threaded hole. It takes a bit of effort, but you’ll work the stuck case out of the resizing die. Just be sure to clean the inside of the die really well, as small brass bits will get in there from the drilling and tapping process.

Scrap-Built Organization

There are all sorts of case blocks available for purchase, ranging from simple molded plastic affairs to precisely cut anodized aluminum models. However, if you’re pinching pennies, you can easily make your own. Simply measure the case head diameter of your chosen cartridge and pick a drill bit slightly larger. A scrap piece of 2×4 can serve as a case block once you drill a series of properly sized holes in it.

Get Good Data

Good, reliable reloading data is imperative for any reloader, and each reloader will invariably end up with a small library of good data. If your budget is tight, there are a number of excellent sources of online data of which the reloader can take full advantage.

Hodgdon Powder (which includes Winchester and IMR powders), Alliant Powder and Nosler bullets all publish their reloading manuals and/or data online, so you can print whatever data you need or simply consult your laptop or smartphone for load data. If the reloading bug bites you (and I’ll wager it will), you’ll end up with several reloading manuals.

And, lastly, I’ll recommend you keep a notebook of your reloading endeavors, and this can take the form of a simple spiral-bound notebook, just like you had in high school. I refer to my own quite often.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 Buyer’s Guide special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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