Here’s a simple, step-by-step description of pistol reloading for IPSC. It is intended as an outline for newbies, not an in depth manual. Read all of your instruction manuals, get help from someone competent, check reloading manuals, and reload at your own risk. IPSC Australia, its officers and members accept no responsibility for any incidents resulting from the misuse of these descriptions.
Read about reloading safety at the ADI Handloaders Guide
The pictures here are for reloading 38 Super pistol ammunition on a Dillon 550B press for Open division, but the principles are very similar for other pistol calibres and press types and divisions.
For specific information on the power factors, bullet weights, etc. for IPSC, please see Appendices D1 to D5 in the official Handgun Rules
There are three main reasons that we reload our own pistol ammunition for IPSC. The first and probably the most important is that it makes it cheaper to shoot. You can produce high quality ammunition at a cheaper cost than buying factory ammo. When you are shooting several hundred rounds per week (and even if you aren’t), this can be the difference between being able to shoot or not. Secondly, you may have to reload to achieve the power factor you need – this is particularly true in Open division, where you need hotter loads than you can buy from a factory. Likewise, you may want to load up some rounds for minor that are softer than factory loads, but still above the minimum power factor floor of 125. Thirdly, reloading is fun – I actually still enjoy making my own rounds.
First, something about the units of measurement. Although in Australia we are blessed with the metric system, we still use old units for reloading and ballistics in general. Bullet weights and power charges are measured in ‘grains’. A grain is a weight measurement that is equivalent to 0.06479891 grams – it is NEVER an actually count of the number of powder fragments used in the case. Velocity is measured in Feet per Second (abbreviated to FPS). It is nominally a muzzle velocity (i.e. measured at the muzzle), but in reality is actually measured a few feet out from the muzzle, with an instrument called a chronograph (see pic below). Calibres and overall length (OAL) are generally measured in inches, but I measure OAL in millimetres.
There are four main consumable components in pistol reloading – cases, projectiles, powder and primers. If you want to be cool, you never call projectiles ‘bullets’, nor call cases or the completed unit a ‘cartridge’. We call them ‘rounds’. A ‘load’ describes your combination of calibre, projectile, and powder.
If you’re really new, the case is the brass or nickel coloured part that houses the powder, the primer ignites the powder, and the projectile is what goes down the barrel and into the target (hopefully).
Cases are the most expensive component, and that is why we reload – the cases can be reused many times over. How many times over is open to debate, but it generally depends how heavy your ‘load’ is. You should get several reloads from each case, after which they may start to split at the mouth and must be discarded. If your cases start to split after one or even two reloads you have done something very wrong – stop shooting and go and consult with someone competent immediately.
Powder, primers and projectiles can obviously only be used once, but some people collect and melt down the projectiles, but that is not a common practice. Buy your projectiles direct from a bullet manufacturer – you’ll pay top dollar at a gun shop. Buying components in bulk saves money too. Getting sponsored is even better – I’m still working on that one…
For full house Open gun loads, you may want to consider using small rifle primers, rather than the softer pistol primers. Most IPSC people use and support Australian ADI powders, but some use Winchester or Viht Vitori or others. Powders have different ‘bulk densities’ and ‘burn rates’ – make sure you choose a powder that suits your calibre – ask around and check reloading manuals.
Step 1 – Choose your Load
The three basic stages of reloading are 1) deprime and resize, 2) prime and charge with powder, and 3) seat and crimp projectile. However, before starting you need to know ‘load’ you are trying to work up – do you need to shoot major or minor power factor? What calibre are you reloading? What projectiles can you get at a good price? Remember, if you are shooting Open division or Revolver division, you can score higher on peripheral zones in scoring paper targets if you are competing with MAJOR ammunition. Also note, there is no upper limit, so if you shoot in a division that has you as minor, it doesn’t matter if your loads would count as major. Obviously though, shooting major loads is harder, with the exception of perhaps Open Division, where the increased gas volume from major loads work the compensator better, keeping the gun flatter.
The IPSC ‘power factor’ is defined as projectile weight (in grains) multiplied by velocity (in feet per second), divided by 1000. (Strictly speaking it’s actually a measure of momentum, rather than power, but that’s beside the point). The power factor floor for all divisions is 125 PF and the smallest projectile to qualify for use is 9 mm. Under 125 PF, your scores don’t count.
For Production division, you need to have a minimum of 125 Power Factor (PF), so that’s 1000 Feet per Second (FPS) for a 125 grain projectile. For Standard Division and Classic Division, you need 125 PF for minor(1000 FPS) and 170 PF for major (1360 FPS). For Open Division you need a minimum of 125 PF for minor (again, 1000 FPS for a 125 grain projectile) and at least 160 PF (1280 FPS for a 125 grain projectile).
For Revolver Division, you need at least 125 PF (1000 FPS with a 125 grain projectile) and 170 PF and over (1360 FPS and above if you used a 125 grain projectile).
As mentioned above, the formula for power factor is:
Power Factor (PF) = Projectile Weight (grains) X Velocity (FPS) divided by 1000.
So, the formula for Velocity for a given projectile weight and power factor is:
Velocity (FPS) = PF X 1000 divided by Projectile Weight (grains)
So, if using a 125 grain projectile:
Let’s use the example of my 38 Super load, which is with a 125 grain projectile. I want to score as major, which I can in Open Division, so I need to have a velocity above 1280 Feet per Second. I am using ADI AP100 powder, as that is a good burn rate and gas volume producer, which is why it is so popular with 38 Super Open Division shooters with compensators on their guns. Getting a velocity right on 1280 gives me a chance of failing “make major” and shoot as minor, so I aim for over 1300 FPS instead to give me a safety margin if the chronograph measures slow, or if the temperature conditions mean my ammo is shooting slow.
Refer to reloading manuals from ADI, Winchester, etc for loads – don’t follow someone else’s load without double checking against reloading manuals. It is important to match your projectile weight and type (lead cast or jacketed) against the manuals to get the powder charge you need. They suggest starting 10% under the load you need and working up – checking loads with a chronograph. Follow the minimum and maximum loads in manuals and don’t exceed unless 1) you have a good quality gun and 2) you are checking velocities and watching for pressure signs or cracking and primer flow and 3) you’re experienced and willing to be responsible for your own actions.
Link to reloading manuals:
Over all length (OAL) is another factor in your ‘load’ and can affect pressure and thus safety – they are listed in manuals also. OAL reflects how deeply the projectile is seated into the case – it is measured from the base of the case to the tip of the projectile (hence the term ‘overall’). Projectile length will affect OAL, so you will need a different OAL for different length projectiles, even if they will be seated at the same depth in the case.
You will get variations in accuracy, internal pressure and velocity if you change any of these factors, so make note of all of them when reloading:
1. Projectile weight
2. Projectile shape
3. Projectile type (jacketed, coated, lead cast, lubricated)
4. Case volume
5. Powder type
6. Powder weight
7. Primer type
8. Overall length
9. Degree of crimp
10. Firearm used with the resultant ammunition
So, here’s the final description of what I need for my 38 Super Open load:
1. Projectile weight – 125 grains
2. Projectile shape – Conical, beveled base with single gas band
3. Projectile type – lead cast, moly-coated.
4. Case volume – Starline, Winchester and Lapua 38 super and 38 super comp.
5. Powder type – ADI AP100
6. Powder weight – 8.0 grains (** Don’t copy blindly – check manuals **)
7. Primer type – Winchester Small Rifle Primer
8. Overall length – 31.9 mm
9. Degree of crimp – as per Dillon 550 B 38 Super final die.
10. Chamber/Barrel used with the resultant ammunition – KKM Precision Bull barrel with 3 port compensator.
The combination of all of these factors gives me a measured velocity of 1348 and thus a power factor of 168.5. *** Don’t blindly repeat this load without your own research of reloading manuals and testing of lesser loads – this is a hot load. ***
Step 2 – Prepare your cases
If you have brand new cases you can skip the cleaning process, but most likely they have been picked up from the ground after a stage, or practice. You need to run them through a tumbler to remove dust, sand, corrosion and grit, so that they don’t carve up your reloading press or *shock horror*, your pistol. Put them in a tumbler with some media (crushed corn cob, crushed walnut shells, or rice) for an hour or so. Some people use polish or other additives at this stage, but I don’t. Use a broad sieve to shake the media out of the cases – don’t worry about removing it all or clearing out primer pockets – the depriming pin will take care of that.
Next, I spray some lube into a zip-lock bag a put in enough cases that I can still move them around. Zip it up and turn it over several times to spread the lube around. Dump them into a plastic tub and then repeat until you have all the cases you want for that reloading session. Don’t lube them if you don’t want to reload them at this stage – just put them into a plastic container with the lid on to cut down on corrosion. You don’t have to lube, but it does speed things up and makes it easier, especially during depriming/resizing.
Two low-fronted plastic tubs either side of the press makes it easier grab your cases and projectiles during reloading. Use another to dump the loaded rounds into, as the final hopper fills up fast.
Step 3 – Load your Primer Tubes (for Dillon presses)
Making sure you have your safety glasses on, put your primers onto the bumpy side of a flip tray (I do 200 or 300 at a time) and wiggle the tray to get the primers to flip upside down (i.e. with the dished anvils facing you). Place the cover tray over and flip the whole lot over. Remove the now-upturned base, and you should now have a whole lot of shiny primers facing you.
Using the primer pickup part of your primer magazine tube, pick up the primers one after another. Make sure you watch closely (with your safety glasses on) to make sure they don’t flip over the wrong way. If you are reloading several hundred rounds in one go, it does pay to get extra primer tubes and fill them all before starting. The primer magazine tube is then placed over the primer tube on the press, and a pin pulled out to allow the primers to slide down and enter the tube.
Step 4 – Depriming and Resizing
Keeping those safety glasses on, we now start in earnest at the press. I am assuming the press is already setup with the correct shell holder for your calibre, and the powder charge is selected and set, and all dies are adjusted – refer to your manual and/or ask someone to show you.
Make sure you’ve got good lighting and everything you want at arms reach. Put your projectiles in a tub to the left of the press, and your clean and lubed cases to the right. With your right hand, place your first case into the shell holder at the first station and pull down the lever. This lifts the shell holder so that the case move up onto the resizing die. It is resized and at the same time a pin down the middle pushes the spent primer (if there is one) out and drops it into a catcher underneath. You then lift the lever back to the starting position, which primes the case with a new primer from the primer feed tube, on the upstroke. If you have a 550B, you now turn the shell plate with your left thumb.
Step 5 – Belling and Charging with Powder
Our first case is now at station two, but because this a progressive press, it can do each of it’s actions at the same level pull, so use your right hand to add another case at station one. Back at station two, our now-primed case is ready for charging with powder. Pull the lever again and the case moves up and is ‘belled’ slightly at the mouth to allow the projectile to be easily seated at the new station. This action also activates the powder thrower to charge the case based of a volume you have already determined and set. If no case was at this station, powder does not come out. I still visually check for the powder charge in each case as it passes this station – you need to look there anyway, because the next thing you do it take a projectile with your left hand – place it on the top of the now-belled case, and turn the shell holder, as before, with your left thumb.
Another word on powder weights – make sure you buy or borrow scales to test it – don’t guess or you’ll hurt yourself or others.
Step 6 – Seating the Projectile
You’ve just added the projectile before turning the shell holder – this helps stop the powder jumping out the case, and you might need to keep holding the projectile as it goes around, if it’s not firmly seated by hand. Beveled base projectiles make this easier – flat based ones are a little harder to get started. Station three will seat the projectile into the case and push it down.
You will have already tried a few goes on this to make sure that you have the correct over all length (OAL) for your load. Too long or too short and it may not feed from magazine to chamber correctly. Too short can also cause higher pressures – which can be dangerous. Don’t be so cheap that you’re dangerous – the OAL is an important part of reloading – buy calipers to measure it accurately.
Step 7 – Final Crimping
The 550B press has a final stage (far right side of image) that runs a die down over the outside to lightly crimp the case mouth onto the projectile and ensure that the case is the correct size for the chamber. The completed round falls from this station down a short chute into a plastic tub.
Step 8 – Packing and Storing
It is best to use hard plastic cases, such as CaseGuard, to protect your ammo. You need to use something like this if you are traveling with your ammunition, especially on planes. Putting the rounds into cases take a little time, but it is also another chance to visually check for poorly seated or reversed primers. You can also use a Nikko marker to put a line across your bases, so that you can tell your cases from someone else’s at a competition.
Step 9 – Testing and Refining your Load
Once you have made your load, you must test it with a chrono to ensure it meets the power factor you require and that it is safe. I suggest not loading too many loads of any variation until you have tested them – 20 of each should do. In working up loads for my 40 S&W a few years ago, I tested over 300 variations of 10 factors above to arrive at the load that most suited me and my gun, but that’s because I was trying to get a 40SW to work best with a compensator, which is unusual. Generally once you have settled on a projectile you like and an OAL that functions well with your pistol, you will only be varying powder charge weight up and down.
Also check if you are getting a large variation (over 50 FPS) in velocity after about 10 test shots – if so, something is inconsistent in your reloading components and/or technique.