August 27, 2020
By Dave Emary
If we go to the range with both types of firearms, many of us tend to shoot significantly more handgun ammunition than rifle ammunition. If this statement describes you, I can make a good case for reloading your handgun ammunition.
There are several advantages of handloading over purchasing factory ammunition. The first is cost. Most handgun cartridges use a fraction of the powder at an average of $22 per pound, while a rifle cartridge averages $26 per pound. A pound of powder will load a lot of handgun ammunition. This can save a substantial amount of money for practice or plinking.
Let’s say you shoot a lot of 9mm. A 50-count box of Federal American Eagle 9mm 124-grain full-metal jacket (FMJ) bullets will cost you between $12 and $14, or, let’s just say, 25 cents per round. By reloading the cases from this factory load with a hard-cast lead bullet, you’d have about 8 cents in the bullet, 2 cents in powder and 3 cents in a primer. This is shooting ammunition at half the cost.
If you don’t want to deal with the added time needed to clean barrels that have fired lead bullets, copper-plated bullets are available at 11 cents per bullet, and low-cost jacketed bullets are available near 14 cents per. Any way you cut it, you can save a significant amount on your handgun ammunition by reloading.
Most handguns produce modest velocities, which makes them suited for using cast lead bullets. Even fire-breathing magnums can be backed off a bit and loaded with lead projectiles for a more-comfortable-to-shoot and low-cost ammunition. Using hard-cast lead bullets will allow velocities up to about 1,600 feet per second (fps).
The other advantage of loading your own handgun ammunition is the ability to tailor your loads to best suit your shooting. Say you want a low recoiling plinking and target load. Most factory ammunition is loaded to industry standard velocities, and that’s the end of it. However, by reloading you have the option of deciding to load 100 fps below the factory spec. You can load a rather fast powder at a lower charge weight to noticeably reduce the recoil of your loads, and you can tune loads with different bullets, propellants and primers to find an optimum-accuracy load.
Except for some differences in reloading dies (as we’ll discuss soon), virtually all reloading equipment and accessories for reloading rifle cartridges are also used in reloading handgun cartridges.
Reloading dies for pistols are similar to rifle dies with a couple of exceptions. Most pistol-die sets are three-die sets that come with a size die, flare die and seater-crimp die. Many manufacturers offer separate taper or roll-crimp dies for crimping both pistol and revolver ammunition.
Many handgun cartridges have either straight-wall cases or nearly straight walls. The .357 Magnum, .44 Mag., and .45 ACP are all examples of straight-wall cases. Several manufacturers make sizing dies with titanium-nitride rings that resize straight-wall cases, which eliminates the need for lubricating cases. Some manufacturers also offer carbide sizing dies that eliminate the need for lubing cases in tapered cases, such as the 9mm Luger. Although carbide dies are more expensive than titanium-nitride dies, they are time- and mess-saving.
Unlike rifles, most pistol resizing dies do not have an expander ball. They simply have a spindle with a de-capping pin that presses out the spent primer. A pistol sizing die performs the same function as a rifle sizing die by returning the fired case to its original dimensions, allowing it to hold a bullet fit in the chamber.
One thing that must be watched closely when sizing a semiautomatic pistol cartridge case is the case length. Almost all semiautomatic-pistol cartridges headspace from the case mouth, and a cartridge’s headspace is determined by the case length. Case length should be monitored closely when sizing auto-pistol cases in order to avoid function problems that can happen when cases have grown too long. I generally trim my cases to the middle of the case-length specifications to help avoid trimming them too short. Rimmed revolver cases headspace off of the rim and are not as sensitive to case length.
A flare die contains a punch with a taper that is used to flare or “bell” the mouth of the case to aid bullet seating. However, inside chamfering of auto-pistol cartridge cases to aid seating should be avoided. Doing this will cause problems later when taper crimping to prevent bullet setback into the case on the feed ramp. Auto-pistol cases should not be inside chamfered any more than what is required to just barely remove any burr present after trimming. Revolver- and rimmed-handgun cartridge cases can be inside chamfered, as they are usually roll crimped into a cannelure.
Almost all pistol bullets are flat base. In the case of lead bullets, the back, or “heel”of the bullet can have a sharp edge. If the mouth of the case is not flared, it can be difficult to get a bullet seated in the case without shaving lead. A jacketed bullet seated in an unflared case can catch on the edge of the case mouth and wrinkle the case, in addition to seating it crookedly. When flaring pistol cases, less is better. Case mouths should be flared just enough to get a bullet started straight. Excessively flared cases will result in work-hardened mouths and premature mouth cracking.
Seating pistol bullets is much the same as seating rifle bullets. Most pistol die sets come with two seating punches: An inside taper punch and a flat punch. A lot of pistol bullets have a rather blunt and rounded ogive shape, which can make them difficult to seat on a tapered seater punch. (They like to roll around when seating the bullet into the case.)
Many pistol bullets have a flat point. Using the flat seating punch makes it harder for the bullet to seat unevenly into the case. You can experiment with your own seating punches using the bullet you are loading to see what way gives you the best results. A good result means that you will notice a uniform bulge all the way around the case at the base of the seated bullet, or no bulge at all. If you see a bulge on one side of the case and not the other, your ammunition will not be very accurate.
There are two ways to crimp handgun ammunition. The first method is roll crimping. Most revolver ammunition uses a cannelured bullet, much like a lot of rifle bullets. Cannelured bullets for revolver ammunition are roll crimped and are crimped for two reasons. First, a lot of the revolver rounds in use today produce heavy recoil. The crimp will prevent bullets from working their way out of the case under recoil, and the cylinder from locking up due to a bullet that has jumped forward and out of the case.
The second reason for the roll crimp is for the increase in the pressure it provides for pushing the bullet from the case. This slightly delays the movement of the bullet out of the case and improves both powder ignition and ammunition performance uniformity.
Most semiautomatic pistol ammunition also use a taper crimp, and most pistol bullets do not have a cannelure. In order to prevent the bullets from pushing back into the case on the feed ramp, the case mouth is slightly taper crimped, or “pressed” into the bullet. Crimping increases the force required to push the bullet into the case, somewhat increasing the pressure required to push the bullet out of the case. This is the reason the inside of a pistol case should not be chamfered, as the process removes the sharp inside edge responsible for grabbing the bullet jacket to prevent it from being pushed into the case.
The sharper the inside edge of an auto-pistol case, the better. Die manufacturers offer seater dies with a crimping feature that is appropriate for the caliber, and some will even offer a separate roll or taper crimp die.
Pistol cases are very much a matter of personal preference. As with rifle cases, you can tell a lot about the quality of the cases by using calipers to measure the case wall thickness around the mouth. A wall thickness variation of .001 inch or less would be considered very good.
Pistol primers are available in small and large sizes. Do not try to use rifle primers in a pistol. The diameters are the same as rifle primers except that pistol primers are not as tall as rifle primers. The primer will likely seat above the base of the case and lead to an out-of-battery discharge.
Handguns are less forgiving of component substitutions than rifles are. They use much faster powders than rifles and have small case capacities. Even the smallest differences in powder charge, bullet seating depth, and bullet length can lead to substantial increases in pressure. However, you can substitute bullets of the same weight if their composition, shape and length are close to the same. I don’t recommend experimenting outside of this.
There is a variety of pistol bullets available to the reloader: lead, plated lead, jacketed hollow point (JHP), jacketed soft point (JSP), jacketed polymer tipped (JPT), full metal jacket (FMJ), solid copper, and bonded. For general target shooting and plinking, it would be hard to beat the cost of lead bullets. FMJ bullets are generally extremely reliable in feeding and functioning and make good target bullets. Hornady offers several polymer-tipped hunting bullets intended for use in pistol-caliber lever-action rifles to include the .357 Mag. and .44 Mag.
A number of hollowpoint designs are offered, which have an application as hunting and self-defense bullets. Speer Deep Curl and Hornady XTP bullets make excellent hunting bullets. Speer Gold Dot bullets are now available to reloaders and are a great personal-defense bullet. Barnes offers two lines of solid copper bullets called the TAC-XP and XPB. These are meant for self-defense and hunting, and I recommend them.
Sadly, most of today’s top self-defense pistol bullets are not available to the reloader. From a legal and liability standpoint, you should consider never loading your own self-defense ammunition. You could be opening yourself up to some uncomfortable questioning in court if you ever had to defend yourself for using your own loads rather than factory loads. Allow me to say it again: Guns & Ammo also does not recommend loading your own self-defense handgun ammunition. Stick to factory ammunition when loading for concealed carry or personal defense.
Summing It Up
There are many reasons for reloading for your handguns. If you currently reload for rifle cartridges, you have almost everything you need except for a die set to load your own handgun ammunition. If you fire significant amounts of plinking or target ammunition using a handgun, you could realize substantial savings by reloading your own ammunition. As with rifle cartridges, reloading for your handgun allows you to tune your loads to your gun, reduce recoil (if you want) and develop loads that feature the exact brand and type of bullet you want to shoot or hunt with.
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