Ammunition Reloading for Survival

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Ammunition storage is one of the survival planning trinity: ("Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids"). But what happens when you run out? You can’t plant a garden for 7.62mm NATO or cut up old sheets to make .45 ACP. In this case you need to at least consider the practice (some would say art) of ammunition reloading. Speaking from a perspective of more than 10 years experience, I can honestly say that reloading is no more difficult than repairing a leaking faucet and baking a loaf of bread. It is very similar to making up a recipe with a few mechanical interventions. It is also relatively safe, so long as you don’t try to smoke while measuring powder or try to seat a primer with a hammer. I will limit this discussion to center fire metallic handgun and rifle cartridges, but similar considerations would apply to shotshell reloading.

First, let me present an introduction on ammunition components. There are four basic ingredients to loaded ammunition: Primer, powder, brass case, and projectile. We will handle each in order. We need to be precise in our use of language (Thank you Jeff Cooper!) A cartridge or round is one unit of loaded ammunition. A bullet is the projectile of a cartridge (in the same sense that a clip is different from a magazine). Let me stress at this point that if you already have all the components, it is far better to put it together now rather than later. Reloading takes time, something that may be in extremely short supply in a
TEOTWAWKI situation. If your ammunition inventory is adequate, you should consider keeping some components for barter or future use, but the majority of your powder should be in loaded ammunition!

Primers and powder are the two things which cannot be reused and require an industrial capacity to produce. Making primers out of matchstick heads or smokeless powder out of nitric acid and cotton should be regarded a fantasy for individuals wanting to survive. While black powder can be made relatively safely, it will not function well in modern firearms. There is a reason the old-time black powder cartridges were as big as cigars, smokeless powder is far more efficient and safer to handle as well. In other words, if you are considering reloading sometime in the future, you should store some primers and powder now while they are available. (A political aside: In addition to banning guns and ammunition, there have been legislative attempts to ban reloading components.)
Primers come in two sizes each for both pistol and rifle for a total of four sizes: Small pistol, large pistol, small rifle and large rifle (Pistol in this sense includes revolver cartridges). The small version of each type is designed for smaller cartridges and vice versa. While small pistol and small rifle are essentially the same size (likewise for large pistol and large rifle), they are designed to ignite vastly different powder charges. Mixing them up can lead to disaster. An example of a small pistol primer cartridge would be the 9mm NATO (also known as 9x19, 9mm Parabellum and 9mm Luger). The .45 ACP uses a large pistol primer. The 5.56mm NATO (
aka .223 Remington and 5.56x45) uses the small rifle primer, and the 7.62mm NATO (aka .308 Winchester and 7.62x51) uses the large rifle primer. Due to the difference in size between small and large, confusion would be difficult and impossible to use incorrectly, but do not confuse pistol and rifle primers of the same size.

Besides the four basic sizes, there is a myriad of subtypes, including standard, magnum, match and military grade. Magnum primers are a niche market and not used in common caliber ammunition (Note .357 Remington Magnum does not use a magnum primer), so you can safely ignore them. Match grade primers are supposedly made with tighter specifications and better quality control. Military primers typically have a “harder” cup and require a strong firing pin impact to ignite, but are less likely to be punctured by a misshaped or pointed firing pin or suffer a slam fire in semi-autos with floating firing pins. The differences in my experience are minimal to nonexistent and you can safely ignore them and go with standard primers. Typical military style weapons (in good working condition) such as AR-15s FN/FALs and M1As work fine with standard primers. Likewise, the difference between the manufactures such as Federal, Winchester, Remington and CCI are also minimal.

Reloading powder (also called canister grade propellant) is available in a confusing array of types from multiple manufacturers. The most distinguishing characteristic is know as burning rate, with a huge spectrum between the slow and fast burning (arbitrary unit designation). The burning rate is controlled by several manufacturing techniques. First is composition. Powders can be either single or double base, with the double base including a proportion of nitroglycerin in addition to the nitrocellulose. The size and shape (spherical or rod shaped) of the powder granules also dramatically alters the burning rate as does various coatings applied in manufacture. The burning rate is tailored to the pressure limits of individual cartridges as well as the projectile weight and barrel length. The general rule is faster powders are used in handguns and slower powders in rifle ammunition. Smokeless powder is listed by weight (typically in grains, one pound is 7000 grains) for a given charge, but is usually measured volumetrically to obtain the desired weight. This is one reason I prefer spherical (also called ball) propellants. The spheres measure much more uniformly when metered by volume.

Just as we simplified the primer issue down to four basic types, the more than 100 different powders available can be vastly simplified for personal reloading. For example, I typically store only four different powders and could go with two in a pinch, one moderately fast for handguns and one moderately slow for rifles. Now, let me discuss safety. While smokeless powder is very stable, it is flammable. Unless contained in a closed space (such as a cartridge) it will only burn, albeit vigorously. It will not explode if dropped or otherwise mistreated. Primers on the other hand are designed to explode if crushed. Treat them as you would treat loaded ammunition. Both components prefer a stable room temperature without excessive humidity and will survive almost indefinitely in such an environment. One thousand primers takes up about as much space as two decks of cards and an eight pound jug of powder is about the size of a gallon of milk.

Our next component is the brass cartridge case, hereafter simple called brass or case. Apart from factory new brass, most reloading is done with used cases. These can come from collecting your own to scavenging the local shooting range. I prefer to reuse my own brass since I know its’ history, but “when times get tough….” When scavenging brass, one needs to be extremely careful. Modern factory ammunition is made with several different metals besides brass. Steel and aluminum are the most common and are definitely not reloadable in a safe way. They need to be crushed and disposed of. In addition, some foreign ammunition is Berdan primed (discussion beyond the scope of this article) and also is not easily or safely reloaded. The problem is that externally, it is near impossible to tell the difference. For safety’s sake, discard everything which doesn’t have a recognizable domestic US factory stamp on the case head (Winchester, Federal, Remington, etc.). Another problem arises with surplus military brass. These frequently have crimped primer pockets, and while reloadable, require special care which will be discussed later. All collected brass should be cleaned and sorted by caliber. Be careful here since some shooting range ammunition (not necessarily “common caliber”) can be very similar. For example, a 9x21 is only slightly longer than the much more common 9mm NATO, but would be catastrophic if it functions at all in a common 9mm. Another common “competition cartridge” (not “common caliber”) is the.38 Super, which is also very similar to the 9mm NATO. Again, the safest bet is to discard (or otherwise sequester) any brass without a legible case stamp indicating caliber.

When scavenging brass, it is also important to discard those with cracks in the case mouth. This is typically due to the “work hardening” of the brass during repeated resizing operations. Cases with small dents induced during ejection in a semi-auto can usually be reused in my experience for routine plinking ammunition, but shouldn’t be used for loads pushing the pressure limit. In fact, I wouldn’t use scavenged brass for any “top end” load since internal volume can vary significantly.

The business end of loaded ammunition, the projectile (aka bullet), also comes in a withering array of sizes and weights. For simplicities’ sake, there are two main types, either lead or jacketed. Both types can come in several styles such as full metal jacket (FMJ), hollow-point, spitzer, round nose, truncated cone, semi-wadcutter, etc. The only safety caveat here is that “pointed” bullets, such as spitzers, must not be used in tubular magazine rifles (such as lever action .30-30’s) since the cartridges are “nose to tail” and recoil could fire the stacked cartridges. In this case the bullet point is acting like a firing pin to the cartridge in front of it.

Factory bullets are sold in a specific bore size, commonly measured in thousandths of an inch, and weight, commonly measured in grains. This is where a lot of confusion is introduced because of the “naming nomenclature” of our ammunition. For example, .38 caliber is actually 0.357” and is one reason why .38 Special can be safely fired in a .357 Magnum. To add to the confusion, our naming nomenclature is used for a marketing perspective, rather than precise use of language. For example, both .38 Super and .357 SIG use 9mm bullets (0.355”) instead of the logical .38 caliber (0.357”) bullets their names would indicate. Here is a table of common caliber ammunition bullet sizes and range of bullet weights:

Cartridge       Nominal Diameter (inches)       Nominal Weight Range (grains)  
5.56mm NATO
.223 Remington  .224    40-70 (55-62 most common)      
7.62mm NATO
.308 Winchester
.30-06  .308    110-180 (150-165 most common)  
9mm NATO
.38 Super
.357 SIG        .355    115-147 (124 most common)      
.357 Magnum     .357    110-180 (158 most common)      
.40 S&W
10mm    .400    135-200 (175 most common)      
.45 ACP .451    160-300 (230 most common)      

While it is possible, making jacketed bullets from scratch is difficult. Cast bullets, on the other hand, are relatively easy to make with appropriate tools and supplies. Safety note: Molten lead burns skin like almost nothing else, and lead fumes are dangerous, so adequate ventilation is absolutely critical. Tools needed include a melting pot with spout or ladle, bullet mold and water bath/bucket. Lead can be obtained from wheel weights (make sure they are lead, other metals are used) or by “mining” the berm at the shooting range. This “dirty” lead will need to be washed, melted, all non-lead metal (steel weight clips, bullet jacket material, etc.) removed and flux added to remove dirt. I prefer to obtain cleaned and fluxed lead from other sources (eBay, etc.) but it is more expensive and as always.

The keys to making good cast bullets are a properly heated and smoked mold. Nonetheless, the first few casts will likely be misshapen, and need to be thrown back into the melting pot. I prefer the micro banded or “tumble lube” bullet molds by Lee Precision since they typically don’t require resizing and are easily lubed with their Liquid Alox bullet lube.

There are several caveats with regard to using cast bullets. First is that lead bullets leave a residue in the barrel (commonly called leading), particularly when fired at higher velocities (greater than 1200-feet per second) and become significantly worse the higher you go. Second, barrels designed to “swage” the bullet (most typically Glock with their hexagonal rifling) will cause excessive pressure when fired with lead bullets. A simple solution is a drop in replacement barrel with conventional rifling like the Lone Wolf brand.

The velocity limitation imposed with using cast bullets can effectively preclude their use in semi-auto rifles since effective operation is severely limited at the lower velocities. Thus, if you are planning to reload rifle ammunition, I would suggest a supply of jacketed bullets of appropriate size and weight for your particular firearm.

So, now you have your supply of primers and powder, bullets (either cast or store bought jacketed) and a fresh supply of brass from the recent firefight with the Mutant Zombie Hordes, where do you star?. Reloading consists of eight steps: Cleaning the brass case, decapping the spent primer, resizing the brass case, re-priming the brass case, belling the case mouth to accept the bullet, charging the case with powder, seating the new bullet and reshaping or crimping the case mouth. Several of these steps can be accomplished at the same time, such as decapping/resizing the brass case, case mouth belling/powder charging and bullet seating/crimping but I will discuss each separately.

Cleaning is usually done with a vibratory cleaner with a mild abrasive such as ground corn cob. I prefer the Dillon products, but others are equally useful. Depending on the state of your brass, all that may be needed is a quick wipe with a paper towel. It is critical to handle each case to examine for damage and discard suspect ones.

Decapping the brass case consists of running a punch down the case mouth to push out the old primer. This is where care must be exercised in cases with crimped-in primers. After decapping crimped-in primers, the primer pocket must be reformed to accept a new primer. This can be accomplished by reaming the pocket with a primer pocket reaming tool or re-swaging the pocket.

Resizing the brass case is mechanically complex, but is easily accomplished with an appropriate resizing die and reloading press. It is necessary at this point to bring up the concept of headspace. Headspace is simply the distance from the bolt face of the firearm to the point where further advancement of the cartridge into the chamber is stopped. Rimmed cartridges headspace on the rim, since that is what prevents the cartridge from going further into the chamber. Rimless cartridges either headspace on a belt (in “belted” magnum cartridges, serves same function as a rim but leads to easier feeding), on the shoulder of bottleneck cartridges or the case mouth in straight-walled ammunition. This is an important concept since if the cartridge is too long for the chamber; the bolt will not close correctly. If it is too short, the firing pin may not strike the primer, or worse, it may push the cartridge further into the chamber before ignition, where pressure locks the case in position and pushes back on an unsupported case head. Brass is weak compared to steel and the pressure pushing the case head back to the bolt face may stretch the brass to where it separates from the body of the cartridge. This is known as case head separation, and puts extremely hot gas under tremendous pressure venting right next to your face. Beside the risk of injury or damage to the firearm, you now have the task of removing a now headless cartridge out of the chamber before the firearm can be reused.

Resizing the brass case consists of squeezing down the now slightly expanded fired case back to nominal size. Because of the stresses imparted, lubrication is usually necessary (except in straight-walled ammunition using carbide dies) and is easily accomplished with a simple spray of case lube prior to resizing. This reforming of the brass makes the metal hard and brittle and limits the number of times it can be done without cracking (most commonly seen as cracks in the case mouth which undergoes the most change in size). The only dimension which is not squeezed back to nominal size is the overall length (OAL) and each subsequent resizing operation tends to lengthen the case neck. After resizing a couple of times, the neck may need to be trimmed in order to get the OAL back into specification. I usually discard such brass, since it is removing brass which has come from somewhere else in the case, thus weakening it to some extent. This is not so much a concern for low pressure cartridges such as .45 ACP but can be significant in higher pressure cartridges. In a TEOTWAWKI situation, re-annealing the brass (heating up and quenching) and case trimming may be necessary to get the most life out of a given case.

Re-priming is simply the act of inserting a new appropriate size primer into the brass case. This can be done either on the press, or with a handheld re-priming tool. If I am using a single stage press (where each step is done on a batch of brass before moving on to the next step), I prefer to use the handheld tool. If I am using the progressive press, I leave it up to the press in its sequence of events.

Case mouth belling is the process of slightly enlarging the case mouth to provide ease of bullet insertion. This step is typically not necessary with boat-tailed jacketed bullets, but is critical with cast lead bullets to prevent shaving of the soft lead.

Powder charging is another critical step, similar to resizing. First, you need a recipe. Good sources for a recipe are the powder manufacturers’ and bullet manufacturers’ loading data books. The powder charge must be matched to the cartridge, the weapon and the particular bullet. Load data will typically list a starting load and a maximum load. You need to stay within these limits. Variations within these limits looking for optimum accuracy is know as “working up a load”, and is the source of a lot of enjoyment in these times prior to TEOTWAWKI. Powder dispensing is usually done by adjusting the volume of powder to give a specific weight charge. The ultimate in precision is accomplished by hand weighing each charge, but volume dispensers are much more convenient for routine reloading. Periodic checking of the weight of a “thrown” charge is warranted to make sure your settings haven’t changed.

Bullet seating is simply the process of seating the bullet on the case mouth and pushing it down into the neck (or the body in straight-walled ammunition) so the cartridge OAL is within specification. Once the die is adjusted for the correct depth, subsequent members of the batch will have the same length.

Following bullet seating, reforming the case mouth or crimping the bullet to prevent movement under recoil may be necessary. There are two types of crimps. Taper crimping simply smoothes out any belling and snug’s up the case mouth like a turtle neck sweater. This is used in straight-walled ammunition like pistol cartridges where you need the “step off” from brass to bullet in order to headspace correctly. Roll crimping actually cinches up the case mouth, much like a clothes belt, to provide purchase and prevent movement. Bottleneck cartridges and rimmed revolver cartridges are usually roll crimped.

So what kind of supplies do I need to “roll my own” now or when times get bad? Basic equipment would consist of:

Reloading manual.
Single stage press (Lee makes a nice, inexpensive one).
Die set for your caliber (available from several manufactures).
Powder/bullet weight scale.
Dial caliper/micrometer.
Hand priming tool.
Powder funnel

For the consumable supplies, I consider the amount needed for 1,000 rounds of loaded ammunition. I choose this not only because it is a nice round (and comforting) number, but because our weights are measured in grains and there are 7000 grains in a pound. If you know the charge (or lead bullet) weight, you simply divide the number by 7 to tell you how many pounds are needed to make 1,000 rounds of ammunition. For example, if the charge weight of powder is 35 grains, 35 divided by 7 equals 5, so I will need 5 pounds of powder to make 1,000 rounds with that powder. If my bullet mold makes 230 grain bullets, 230 divided by 7 is slightly less than 33, so I will need 33 pounds of lead to make 1,000 bullets.

For my logistics, I limit myself to “common caliber” ammunition. For handguns, this means 9mm NATO and .45 ACP. For rifles, this means 5.56mm NATO and 7.62mm NATO. For handgun reloading, I mostly use two moderately fast powders both of which work fine for 9mm NATO and .45 ACP. These are Hodgdon HP38 and Accurate #5 powders. These have similar burning rates, but the HP38 uses a significantly lighter charge which makes it more economical.

For rifle reloading, I choose two moderately slow powders both of which work fine for 5.56mm NATO and 7.62mm NATO. These are Hodgdon H335 and Accurate 2230. Likewise, the burning rates are close and charge weights nearly identical. Since cast lead bullets are not appropriate for these rounds, you will obviously need 1,000 jacketed bullets for either.

Supplies Needed for 1,000 Rounds by Caliber:
Component       .45 ACP 9mm NATO        7.62mm NATO     5.56mm NATO    
Casting Lead or Jacketed Bullets        230 grains = 33 Pounds of Lead  124 grains = 18 Pounds of Lead  Need 1,000 FMJ Bullets  Need 1,000 FMJ Bullets 
Primers 1,000 Large Pistol      1,000 Small Pistol      1,000 Large Rifle       1,000 Small Rifle      
Hodgdon Powder  5.3 grains = 0.76 Pounds of HP38        4.4 grains = 0.63 Pounds of HP38        44 grains = 6.3 Pounds of H335  25 grains = 3.6 Pounds of H335 
Accurate Powder 8.5 grains = 1.22 Pounds of AA #5       6.2 grains = 0.89 Pounds of AA #5       44 grains = 6.3 Pounds of AA 2230       25 grains = 3.6 Pounds of AA 2230      

Like baking bread, reloading can be enjoyable and a real valuable skill in bad times. The costs associated need not be excessive. - NC Bluedog

JWR Adds: While 5..56mm NATO and .223 Remington have quite similar case dimensions and loading specifications, they are not completely interchangeable. For example, it is not considered safe to shoot commercial soft nose .223 loads in a semi--auto rifle chambered for 5.56mm NATO. The same warning applies to 7.62mm NATO and.308 Winchester. Use caution and use the appropriate safety equipment when storing powder and primers, when reloading ammunition, and when melting lead/bullet casting. Study the standard safety warnings before you begin!