Friday, July 15, 2011

5 years later - the economics of handloading

I've been handloading and reloading since 1996 or so, but I took a break around late 2000 when I moved to Ireland, and didn't start back up again until 2005, and didn't get really back into it until 2006.

When I did, I wrote a number of posts about getting back into reloading, the costs of it, the gear required etc... And I've been writing fairly regularly on the subject ever since.

I've written a bunch of posts on the subject under my ammo and reloading categories:

Also some posts specific to the costs, general economics, gear, and processes of reloading (theres more, these are just off the top of my head):

And the cost of commercial ammo:

Over the past 5 years, my posts on reloading have proven to be among my most popular; and there isn't a week that goes by that I don't get reloading questions. My posts also get linked up a lot at other sites and forums.

It's those two factors that are prompting this post actually. My older posts on costs and gear are out of date at this point; and instead of just referring some of the basic questions to the older posts, I find myself having to research new numbers etc...

Plus I just don't like having out of date stuff as my last word on the subject.

I got a bunch of questions from a guy new to reloading a few weeks back, and then today somebody linked a couple of my posts up on another forum; so I decided I was going to revisit the basic questions on reloading. First the base economics, then the basic gear, and then the advanced gear.

At any rate, this was the question someone asked (from the grammar and vocabulary of his other posts I presume the poster was scandanavian of some kind):
"I am having trouble now locating expert articles on the issue, but I heard that some Americans allegedly save money by refilling ammo after shooting at the gun range. That makes me wonder, if ammo is made in vast quantities using optimally productive technology, how come an assembled cartridge ends up costing so much more than its constituent parts (except for the shell that gets reused) that it makes sense to do manual refill?"
There were a number of answers in the thread about target ammo, and about it being as much a hobby as a money saving venture...

And I agree in large part with the ideas presented.

Most of us are in this as a hobby, as well as to save money. I find handloading and reloading an enjoyable pursuit in and of itself.  I enjoy the experimentation and control over my ammo that handloading gives me.

But the money isn't anything to sneeze at, at least for most chamberings.

You can save money loading almost every chambering, except steel cased bulk import ammunition, like most 7.62x39, and some russian 5.56/.223 for example.

The margins are pretty small on bulk 9mm,  bulk grade 5.56/.223 and 7.62x54r as well. In the case of 9mm, it's just really cheap to get surplus foreign ammo and white box commercial, because it's the most common pistol ammo in the world (being the NATO standard). With .223 and 7.62x54r it's because surplus and bulk commercial ammo are quite cheap (comparatively speaking), and that the brass is quite expensive compared to the cheapest commercial ammo. Your best bet is to buy reloadable brass cased commercial, then shoot it and reuse the brass.

Yay, the brass is now "free".

The economics of reloading bulk grade 9mm aren't particularly great for example, saving only a few cents a round; however when you shoot 5000 rounds of it a year it does add up.

And that's only the FIRST time you shoot the brass.

Even with practice grade ammunition (as opposed to defensive, hunting, or match grade), it is possible to have pretty big per round/per box savings; even on the second most common centerfire chambering in the U.S, .45acp.

Why? because .45 has a lot of metal in it, and therefore a lot of overhead.

In a good year I might shoot 25,000 rounds of .45acp, in a bad year 10,000... and that's based on the time I have, the number of events I can go to, and the amount of spare cash I have that year. The more I shoot, the better I shoot (up to a point anyway... and of course, the less the worse).

Note: The last couple years have been very bad years; between the economy and my health issues, I've probably only shot around 2,500-5,000 rounds per year total of all chamberings; but I'm hoping to bounce back in the next couple years.

These days, a 50rd box of US made commercial practice ammo in .45 JHP costs around $30 (which is down from a $50 peak two years ago, when copper and lead shortages combined with Obamas election to drive ammo prices through the roof; but brass and bullets are down a similar amount so scaling applies).

Including the cost of fresh unfired brass, I can load that exact same ammo (including the same case and bullets from the same manufacturer) for about $19. Plus, the next 9 times I shoot it (actually for .45acp it's more like 20 times), the brass is free, so the it only costs me $11 each box.

If I want to use cheaper bullets I can do it for more like $14 a box (less expensive foreign commercial FMJ round nose runs about $20 a box). If I want to cast my own bullets using salvaged wheel weights, is more like $11 a box (no commercial vendor uses low cost cast bullets for .45acp).

The cost of the brass in all cases (no pun intended) is fixed, at about $8 per box or about $0.16 per case; and again, the next 9 times the brass is free, so it's more like $6 a box, and $3 a box.

For those not wanting to do the math by the way, that's a cost of around $0.60 per round of commercial JHP, about $0.38 a round for handloaded jhp, about $0.28 for handloaded plated round nose, and $0.22 for handloaded hand cast.

The non brass portion of cartridge cost runs from about $0.06 per for the hand cast with salvaged lead, up to about $0.22 per for the handloaded commercial JHP.

That could save me between $2500 and $9,500 a year assuming I shot the brass just once. If I reloaded each brass case 9 times, it's more like a savings of $6,500 to $13,500... and it can turn what would be a bad shooting year, into a good one.

The economics on reloading and handloading precision ammunition, or defensive or hunting ammunition are even better.

Every round of match grade 300 winchester magnum I handload rather than buy, saves me more than $1; and that's just the first time I use the brass. The next five times I use the brass (some chamberings are good for dozens of reloadings, some less than ten) I save more like $1.70. Given I can go through 500 rounds in a single shooting event weekend, that's a huge savings.

Over the course of five events per year (buying once batch of brass per year and reloading it that whole year... which is approximately what I do actually), and assuming I practice as much as I shoot in events... that's about an $8,000 a year savings.

Again, it turns a bad shooting year into a good one.

Also, I can make a higher quality piece of ammunition, specifically tailored to my individual rifle; fine tuned to the ten thousandth of an inch and 1/10th grain of powder (about 0.006 grams or 0.0002 ounces). Factory ammunition has production tolerances approximately five to ten times that; and even match grade ammunition tolerances are two to five times that.

With the best quality commercial match grade ammunition (which costs as much as $8 a shot depending on the chambering; but more like $3 for my .300wm), my 1000 yard competition rifles shoot to about .75moa at 600 yards (about a 4" group). With my hand loaded ammunition, it's about .5 moa (about a 3" group).

... Well... presuming the weather co-operates, and from a stable rest.

And by the way, I am not anywhere near "competitive" in events

The real serious competitors shoot two to five times as much as I do, and their group sizes are half mine... but with commercial ammo, their groups would be almost as bad as mine... and they'd all be broke (that's assuming you could even get commercial ammo for their guns. Many are in custom chamberings that can only be handloaded).

So really, it's a bit of everything.

It's fun, I shoot more, I'm more involved in the process, I have more control, I get better results, and I save money (that I use to shoot even more).