When I first decided to get into handloading my own rifle cartridges I perused the various catalogs and store shelves searching for the necessary items. I asked a few questions around the local gun shops and read various points of view over the internet and in magazines. After collecting all of the information I could, and trying to make some sense of it all, I decided not to bother. The information was simply too overwhelming, and all too often contradictory in nature.
A year or so passed. I was in a local gun shop one day and a guy offered me a used "Lee Loader" kit for ten dollars. It was all contained in a small red box not much bigger than my wallet. I was told that all I needed would be primers, powder, and bullets and with the objects contained in that small red box I could reconstitute .308 Winchester cartridges.
I bought the Lee Loader, and I also purchased a box of 180 grain Sierra Gameking bullets, a pound of IMR 4831 powder (not a good choice, but it worked) and some CCI 200 primers. I toiled with the little Lee Loader one evening for about three hours, and had about 40 to 45 shells to show for my trouble. Once I got the routine down I found that I could turn out a loaded cartridge every ninety seconds or so. Some folks are much faster.
I took these shells to the range and used a healthy dose of beginner's luck to shoot more than a couple sub MOA groups from my then new Savage 10FP.
It was then that I was really bitten hard by the reloading bug. And it was also then that I realized that a full majority of the equipment regularly marketed to aspiring and experienced reloaders was overkill. If I could shoot sub 1" groups at 100 yards with crude loads put together with the lowly Lee Loader it seemed logical to conclude that much of what the market was offering by way of reloading equipment was unnecessary for my purposes.
I looked afresh at the reloading kits available for under 100 dollars. With one of these, I could turn out good ammo much faster than with the "one at a time" Lee Loader. Lee offered the "Anniversary" kit for under 75 dollars. RCBS offered their "Partner" kit for about 100 dollars. I ended up choosing the latter since it came with what appeared to be a better scale.
I began using the RCBS Partner press over six years ago, and ten to fifteen thousand rounds ago. It's warranted for life, but I've not needed any repairs. It continues to work just as it did when I first bought it, standing in stark defiance of the "buy bigger and better and buy only once" mantra. The Partner press works.
And so do the Lee dies. I bought a set of Lee "RGB" (stands for "really great buy" according to Lee) for every caliber I loaded for. I found that these dies did the job nicely, and I have had no trouble turning out sub 1/2 MOA ammo with these ten dollar a set dies. This is, I believe, worthy of note since there are actually die sets on the market which cost more than my entire loading apparatus did! I've shot along side the users of these dies, and found that they produce no better ammo than the cheaper dies do--at least insofar as the rifles we use. Perhaps if one had a dedicated benchrest rifle he could tell the difference, but for 1/2 MOA performance I'm convinced you'll never see the advantage of spending more than 15 to 20 dollars max on a set of loading dies.
One tool which does fill a useful niche is a concentricity gauge. RCBS calls theirs the "Case Master" and with it you can tell whether your loaded cartridges are straight. If the bullet seats into the case crooked (this is known as "runout") it might be inaccurate. Most tests have shown that .004" of runout is tolerable and even undetectable for 1/2 MOA rifles firing 30 caliber bullets. Much more than that usually does enlarge group sizes.
By sharing my own experience and philosophy I hope to convince even more folks out there to dive right into reloading without fear of being overwhelmed by the cost and the ever expanding number of "gotta have it" gadgets available to the reloader. For 99 percent of us, an unassuming 75 to 150 dollar "beginner's kit" may be all we'll ever really need to make years and years worth of very accurate ammo.
Below you'll find what I consider to be the "need it's" and the "need it not's" of reloading for the 1/2 minute practical rifle.
Good reloading manual. (This will be your most important and most valuable piece of reloading "equipment.") Most loading kits will come with a loading manual which includes instructional material as well as load data. Read and understand the instructional portions of the loading manual before proceeding to set up your equipment. If you have questions you can always contact the company which wrote the manual and they'll help you understand the text. Sierra, Speer, Nosler, Lee, Hornady and Lyman all publish excellent instructional and data manuals. The RCBS, Lyman, and Lee kits will often come with manuals.
Decent loading press. Some of the less expensive models can serve really well for loading non-magnum standard rifle cartridges. This said, the RCBS Partner will handle most of the big magnum rifle cartridges.
Loading dies. I use RCBS and Lee for the most part. I've found that the Hornady "New Dimension" dies are worth a look as well. If you spend more than twenty five dollars for your loading dies and you're not a top level benchrest competitor you've probably wasted your money.
Case lube. The brass cases must be lubed prior to inserting them into the sizing dies. There are various types of lube on the market. I've always used the RCBS case lube, but others will certainly work as well or better.
Decent scale. I would avoid the electronic types unless you plan on buying a 200 dollar or better one. A good beam scale can be had for well under 50 dollars. The small (mostly plastic) scale which comes in the Lee kits will work, but a better choice would be one of the Ohaus made RCBS models.
Calipers. A decent set of measuring calipers will cost about 25 to 30 dollars. You can spend much more for calipers which are guaranteed to be more precise. You don't need "ten thousandth of an inch" precision. The main function of the calipers will be to ensure that the brass cases are of a safe length. So long as you trim the cases to the recommended "trim to" length in the loading manual, any minor amount of error in the 25 dollar calipers won't affect the safety of the loaded cartridge. It might be successfully argued that with the use of the Lee case length gauge and cutter, you won't need the calipers to measure your cases, as this system trims the brass to spec automatically. See the Lee website at link below...
This said, a caliper will be necessary to determine the actual overall length of the loaded cartridge. (The seating depth of the bullet). If you adjust your bullet seating die to seat the bullet approximately a caliber's depth into the case that'll get you started without a caliper--but be sure to seat the bullet at least deep enough that it is not jammed into the lands.
This all said, you'll find that a decent dial caliper will have many uses to the reloader.
Loading block. If you're in a pinch, you can use an empty cartridge (MTM type, where the cartridges set up vertically) box. Better yet you can take a piece of 2 by 6 or 2 by 8 and drill it with forty to fifty holes large enough to use as a loading block. You need straight, even rows. A loading block helps you keep up with the individual stages of preparation during loading. Working without a loading block of some sort is a dangerous practice (because of the possibility of double charging some cases).
Case mouth chamfering tool. I like to put a light chamfer on new brass before loading it. Slightly smoothing the outside and inside edge of the brass case with an inexpensive chamfering tool will allow the bullets to seat more easily, and the cartridges to feed more smoothly (in the case of a sharp outside neck angle). If you don't have this tool, a pocket knife can be used. I've not done this, but the folks at Lee mention as much in their literature, so take that for what it's worth. Use a wad of steel wool to smooth the case mouth after chamfering. (This will also clean the gunk from case necks being reloaded).
Primer pocket cleaner. It is normally a good idea to clean the primer fouling out of the primer pocket prior to seating a fresh primer. If this build up is allowed to get out of hand, eventually the primer won't seat flush with the case head--a potentially dangerous situation. Lee sells a three dollar primer pocket cleaner which is actually a double ended scraper. One end cleans large primer pockets, the other end cleans small pockets. The RCBS kits will come with a primer pocket steel brush. I like the Lee "scraper" better since it doesn't seem to attack the brass. A small pocket screwdriver can also do a nice job of cleaning the primer pocket. You can make a really nice primer pocket cleaner by grinding an old flat screwdriver blade to fit the primer pocket perfectly. Just be sure that it isn't so sharp that it cuts into the brass. All you want to do is to remove the fouling.
Primer seating tool. RCBS, Hornady, and Lee among others make these inexpensive devices. These devices do allow for faster priming of the prepped brass. Most can be had for under twenty dollars. If your loading press has a priming arm on it, move this item to the next category...
(click on "Tools, page 2" at menu left...)