The Time Cost of Reloading

There are various reasons to take up handloading ammunition, including:

  1. Producing ammunition that shoots with greater accuracy in a particular gun than non-customized loads.
  2. Producing ammunition that is not available on the commercial market.
  3. Saving money.

But the last benefit depends in large part on how one values one’s time.

Since I was recently able to stock up on .308 Federal Gold Medal Match for under $1/round, these days I only bulk reload two calibers:

  • Subsonic .300BLK, because out of my guns I can produce better accuracy and use lighter powder charges than any commercial ammo.
  • .338 Lapua Magnum, because factory ammo in that caliber still costs $3-5/round, but the components are only about $1.25/round.

A friend who was running the math on investing upwards of $1,500 in premium equipment to start reloading asked how long it takes me to crank out a round. I actually have two different processes, so I described each.

Maximum Precision Process

Suppose I am given 100 pieces of dirty .338 and asked to load them. Keeping in mind that I already have all of the equipment calibrated, accessible, and I have a working process, and assuming that I have all the ingredients on hand, here are some rough estimates of each step:

  1. Deprime brass: 7 minutes
  2. Get brass running with soap in rotary tumbler: 7 minutes
  3. Come back at least 6 hours later and drain, rinse, separate, rinse, return media to tumbler, cleanup, and put brass in dryer: 20 minutes
  4. Turn off dryer and once brass is cool line it up for spray lube: 5 minutes
  5. (If this is the first time the brass is being processed, run each piece through primer pocket uniforming cutter before lining it up: 5 minutes)
  6. Lube brass and run through sizing die, seating primer on the reverse stroke. Wipe lube from each piece and line up for next step. 15 minutes
  7. For each case: Throw base powder charge, then weigh and fine-tune, then dump in case and seat bullet: 30 minutes

The only batch constraint is that the tumbler can only take up to 100 pieces of .338, and it’s essentially the same work per batch for any fraction of that. None of the other steps have a significant batch component to them: I.e., if I leave everything out I can just keep on going at roughly the same production rate. So without trying to set any speed records, the marginal time to reload using this process approaches 1 minute per round.

Maximum Speed Process

If I instead use my progressive process (using volumetric powder charges only), skip the depriming before cleaning, and clean the brass using a vibratory tumbler:

  1. Get brass running with media in vibratory tumbler: 5 minutes
  2. Dump brass, run through separator, toss through towel to remove fine dust, the transfer to feed bin for press: 5 minutes
  3. Run progressive press. Initial setup of a load (i.e., powder charge and seating depth) can take 10-20 minutes. Then, assuming nothing gets jammed, this can crank out a round roughly every 10 seconds, which I then spend perhaps another 5 seconds wiping lube from and checking before putting in a box.

The trick here is keeping an eye on all of the input batches and making sure nothing slips out of adjustment. For example, if the powder feeder gauge slips and I don’t notice it right away, I have to go back and pull every round until I find one that has the intended weight. Every box of primers has to be loaded into feed strips using a separate tool (unless buying CCI primers that come in the strips already). The dies are all set with lock rings, but if a die gets dirty and I’m not checking then, for example, seating depth can change a little. For larger rifle cases there’s a lube die that I have to keep charged with enough lube. If I try to full-length size an unlubed case and don’t realize it before I’ve applied too much pressure it can take half an hour or an hour to get a stuck case out of a die. Primer jams, which seem to happen every few hundred rounds, can take up to 20 minutes to correct. Any other stoppage not dealt with correctly can result in a case dumping powder all over everything, which is a tedious 10-minute cleanup.

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