Ammo is expensive; should I reload?

Everybody sees expensive ammo prices, and immediately goes “man, I should start reloading.” Should you reload?

The answer is complicated. I would like to give some things to consider before making that jump.

Do you actually want to spend the time reloading? Reloading isn’t that hard; there are plenty of braindead idiots on the Internet who make it work. But it does require substantial time investment, both in terms of spin-up and actual time doing reloading. Many people have other things they’d rather be doing – myself included. This goes double for the “beginner” single-stage presses most people start out with – your first 500 rounds of 9mm will fly by, and then you’ll realize it’s taking forever.

Are you being realistic about the money you’re going to save? People suck at math when it comes to reloading. Brass cost doesn’t count! Your time doesn’t count! All components are super cheap and easily available!

The biggest lie ever told is that brass is always free. Range pickups are not always available, and you are not always able to recover your own brass. Even if you can recover it, it will eventually require annealing or fail. You could also be selling the brass you pick up! Be realistic about your brass costs.

I can reload blaster 223 for about 26cpr, using the following math:

  • 27 gr CFE 223 @ $27 pp: 10cpr
  • Primer: 3.5cpr
  • Bullet: 10cpr
  • Brass: 3cpr

You might be able to get that down to like 23cpr if you buy in bulk and get good deals (and don’t pay tax and hazmat), which is helpful, but not earth-shattering most times of the year.

For 9mm, the math looks a little different:

  • 3.7gr TiteGroup @ $18 pp = 1cpr
  • Primer: 3cpr
  • 147gr coated bullet: 8cpr
  • Brass: 3cpr

As you can see, 9mm is considerably cheaper to load (15cpr), mostly due to the powder difference. You can get these prices down a little further by bulk buying, but you will need to buy huge amounts for this to really help.

The problem is the whole equipment amortization and time thing. I tend to think of this in “rounds per year”. I would guesstimate that I shoot a good 6k rounds of 9mm a year, and maybe 2k rounds of 223. (There’s some precision 308, too, but let’s ignore that for a minute.)

On a Dillon 650 without the bullet feeder (but with case feeder and primer filler), I can load about 500 9mm rounds an hour. Other people could probably go faster, but that is the REALISTIC times I’ve been getting without rushing things. You will sometimes hear outlandish tales of 1k an hour or something, but those typically involve significant prep work that is not being disclosed, or are only for part of an hour (eg, everything loaded up and then pulling the lever until something runs out).

You can now do the math on 9mm savings in these times of panic: if 9mm is 30cpr, and I can load it for 14cpr, I save 16cpr by reloading. If I load it 6k rounds per year, I save $960. That is real money, to be sure.

BUT – that Dillon 650 setup wasn’t free. In fact, it’s about $1500 of stuff (without even a bullet feeder!). So, assuming its lifetime is about 20 years, we need to subtract $75 off the total – maybe another $25 if we include miscellaneous yearly maintenance costs like lube. Now we’ve saved $860. Still respectable!

Let’s not forget time! Time is not free. Loading 6k rounds takes me at least 12 hours of just sitting there, pulling the lever, feeding the beast, and so on. $860/12 hours is about $72 an hour. Depending on your work situation, it may very well be the better idea to simply work more hours of overtime and buy your ammo anyways. If you get some measure of enjoyment out of reloading – and I don’t get much – maybe it’s worth something to you. I don’t know.

223 is a similar tale. If I can save 25cpr, that’s $250 per thousand rounds, which is pretty outstanding. But once equipment amortization costs kick in, and you consider your time, you may not find the savings as huge. I think if I were really moving, I could prep and reload about 100 rounds of 223 an hour on my Lee turret press and related reloading equipment. (Those of you claiming you could go faster, remember that brass prep takes time!) While it’s cheaper equipment, it also means I’m spending about 20 hours to reload only 2000 rounds… better hope my time is cheap (it’s not).

This is all math you can, and should do before you get into reloading. The numbers may work right now, but when ammo prices become normal again, they’re not going to look nearly as good.

Reloading thousands of rounds of bulk blaster on a single-stage or turret press is not feasible. There are so many people who make up fantastical stories of loading 500 of 9mm rounds an hour on their ancient Lee Classic Cast single-stage that it’s a wonder Dillon and Hornady can even sell progressives. You will be LUCKY to do a hundred 9mm rounds an hour on a single stage. Bushing systems are helpful. 150 per hour on a turret press is a decent sustained rate number. If you load more than 2k rounds of 9mm a year, you need something better than a turret press.

If you are going to reload 5k bulk blaster 223 per year, you basically need a Dillon 1050/1100 so you can swage and trim ammo on the press. Even a 750 is going to be too slow due to a lack of on-press swager. Every hand operation is going to slow you down tremendously.

Reloading precision rounds usually makes a lot of sense. When you can amp up your savings to 60cpr (or more!) ALL THE TIME, you’re only loading a thousand rounds of year, and the only expensive gear you need is some nice match dies and a good powder charger (RCBS CM Lite coming to mind), that’s when reloading on a budget makes sense. (But my sense is that the crew looking into reloading for the first time is generally not looking to make precision rounds, either.)

Reloading DOES let you stack deep cheaply for ammo panics. The only things that ever become genuinely unavailable during ammo panics are primers, and those are about $150-$160 per 5k in normal times. If you are willing to commit to buying primers and stacking them extremely deep – like 40k SRPs and 40k SPPs, and whatever else you shoot – you will survive any conceivable ammo panic just fine, and at a much lower cost than buying cases of ammo. Powder, brass, and bullets are almost always available (albeit FMJ 5.56/7.62 bullets tend to get scarce).

In conclusion, here’s my response:

  • If you’re only reloading because blaster ammo is currently expensive, don’t bother. Chances are better than not that it will get cheap again eventually, and the startup cost to load bulk blaster efficiently is quite substantial.
  • Reloading bulk blaster on a single stage is not viable. If you are not willing to go to a Dillon 750XL, don’t bother.
  • If you don’t already have primers, that is the first thing you’ll need to source. (Maybe even before your press.) Without those, don’t even bother buying anything else.
  • If you’re really committed to loading your own over the long-term, reloading makes sense, but you may need to invest heavily to make it worthwhile from a time perspective. Basically, reloading only saves you money over the long-term, and you’re going to be spending a bunch of money up front to do so.

Coincidentally, while I was finishing this post up as well, a good friend of mine at Justified Defensive Concepts put up a post on this topic, and I would encourage you to read it. He has a slightly different take than me, but I think it’s a really good one.

If you insist on ignoring me and getting into reloading anyways, I think there are three really fantastic options:

  1. Lee Classic Cast Turret. This press is a good all purpose player. It isn’t expensive, you can load almost any caliber on it, and it has an (optional) indexing feature. I don’t love the priming system, but you can use the reverse ejector mod to really push your production rates higher.
  2. Dillon 750XL: If you only need to load 9mm bulk blaster and/or are willing to swage 223 off press, this will do you just fine. Swaging is, unfortunately, a huge issue with once-fired 223, and dealing with it really slows down loading. The price of the 750XL may be misleading, though. It does not include a case feeder, and you NEED a case feeder for it. A bullet feeder and primer tube feeder are optional, but will dramatically speed up sustained production rates.
  3. Dillon 1100: This is the only real choice if you really want to mass produce 223, due to the on-press swager. Expect to spend another thousand bucks or more on the case prep toolhead with trimmer, a bullet feeder, and a primer tube filler.

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