(NOTE: this actually isnt a true ‘minimal’ amount. You could achieve everything listed here with some even smaller, older, long-discontinued tools [like the old Ideal series that had dies, bullet sizer and mould all built into the same set of handles] however, anyone who has a goodly number of years experience reloading will tell you that whats shown below is pretty minimal and using less than the stuff here would be an even bigger pain in the ass.)
Remember I said that you could get pretty much everything you need to reload ammo for a particular gun for less than a hundred bucks and it would all fit into an ammo can? Well, I was perusing the Kalispell gun show and thought I’d put my money where my blog was and see how it went. As always, it was an eye-opening (and, sadly, wallet-opening) experience.
First up, the classic Lee Loader. This little collection of tools will reload .38 Special cartridges. The kit comes with a powder scoop that will hold a predetermined amount of powder. This works fine as long as you stay within the range of bullet weights and powders supported by this particular measure. You could increase the versatility by buying a reloading scale but that’s more expense and space than this experiment calls for. You could, however, pick up a few extra different size scoops out of a Lee Powder Measure Kit and check them against a reloading manual to see if they’d work with your particular bullet/powder combination. These Lee Loaders are slow and tedious to use. They also, generally, will not full length resize a case. However, they are cheap with an MSRP of around $24. Used they run a lot less because, quite simply, no one uses them. This one was $15 but the guy took $10 for it. Cost thus far: $10 (Alternatives: Lyman 310 tool with dies)
Next up, a Lee bullet mould. Single cavity with integral handles. Its an aluminum mould so it’ll cast well but you gotta be careful not to damage it. Design is the ever popular 150~ gr. SWC. MSRP $20. This one was used but never used. Pulled it out of someones junk box. Very few people cast for .38’s because you can usually buy bullets cheaply. Additionally, when they do cast they use a 2-,4-,6- or 8-cavity mould. Hence, the lack of popularity of a single-cavity mould. Price used: $10. Total costs so far: $20
So you have a mould, now what? Well, you need a small pot to melt lead in. Any small metal pot will do. Lee used to make one but I don’t see it in the current catalog. You can scrounge a small heavy metal pot from almost anywhere. I found this one from Lee, along with a Lee Lead Ladle, for $10. Even came with a bunch of lead already in it. You’ll have to provide your own heat source though. Lead? Well, a pair of vice grips and a parking lot will provide plenty of wheelweights to melt down. (Make sure they aren’t zinc.) Spent so far: $30
So you’ve got your lead pot sitting on a fire. You take your ladle and pour some molten lead into your mould, let it cool, and crack it open. Out drops your bullet. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once you have a pile of bullets made you’ll need to size and lube them. A nice luber sizer as made by Lyman or RCBS will set you back over $150. As always, Lee has a tedious, but cheap, way of doing it. This is an older version of their ‘pan lube’ method. You stand the bullets upright in the provided metal pan and pour melted bullet lube into the pan until it covers the grooves of the bullets. Once the wax hardens you remove the bullets with a ‘cookie cutter’ device. The lubed bullet is then pushed through the provided sizing die..in this case .358. This older style of lubing has been replaced by Lee’s new Lube and Sizing Kit which is designed to be used on a press but can be used handheld as needed. MSRP is $16.98. Got the older style kit for $10 used, but new old stock. Spent $40 up to this point.
So you have bullets to reload and you have your little loading kit. What next? Primers and powder. There are no discounts on this stuff these days so youre looking at around $25 per 1000 primers and $20 per pound of powder. We’ll get over 1000 reloads from the pound of powder. You have been saving your fired brass for reloading, right? We’ll chalk that up as zero cost. Powder and primer is $45 bringing our total so far to $85.
Throw in 2 50-round ammo boxes to give you 100 pieces of brass to reload, and you’re pretty much good to go. Personally, I’d prefer closer to 250 pieces of brass, but I could only fit 100 in the regular size .50 can. Bummer. Tose 100 cases, by the way, should last a pretty long time. .38 isnt exactly a high pressure cartridge and lead bullet loads tend to be pretty easy on your brass. Getting ten reloads out of each piece shouldnt be a problem.
Will it all fit into a .50 caliber can? Lets find out.
Fits in the .50 can with no real room to spare. Oh, sure, you could throw in some loose brass to fill the nooks and crannys…but thats splitting hairs. However, that can on the left is what we in the biz call a ‘tall .50′. Its just like the other .50 but..well…it’s taller. Enough room for a BoreSnake cleaning kit and a K-frame pistol in a holster. Seal this baby up and you are good to go. Tucked away someplace safe, cool and dry this stuff will get your gun up and running for at least 1000 rounds and last pretty much forever.
Some of you may think this was an interesting experiment and will rush out to put such a package of your own together. Don’t do it. Here’s why – this was to show you the cheapest way to put together the minimum you would need to keep your gun fed during lean times. It’s the cheapest but it isn’t the best. If youre that concerned about your future and your ability to feed your favorite pistol (or rifle since these will work nicely out of my .357 lever action) then don’t buy cheapest, buy best. Theres much better gear that will increase versatility and quality of your ammo, to say nothing of being easier to use. I can guarantee you that it will cost more than the $85 we spent here and it’ll take up more space, but it will be far easier to use, provide better ammo, and reload a more diverse collection of cartridges.
I’d also like to take a moment to discuss the overwhelming amount of Lee products in this experiment. Lee manufactures brilliantly designed products using second-rate materials. They are great for making innovative and affordable products but its usually at the expense of quality. Theres an old saying that “Quantity has a quality all its own”..that means that while I may only get 3000 rounds of bullets out of a Lee mould before it needs replacing, it doesn’t matter since the moulds are so cheap to start with. When it comes to spending the least amount of money, you go to Lee. Lee does make a few products that are hard to beat, like their carbide dies, but for durability and longevity (which is paramount if youre planning for that uncertain future) I recommend RCBS. All the reloading equipment manufacturers offer lifetime warranties on their products, but that’s cold comfort when youre miles from the nearest post office or gun shop and don’t want to tip your hand about what youre doing. RCBS isn’t the best either (that title, in my opinion, goes to Redding) but you’ll be able to find RCBS parts and accessories in any gun shop that sells reloading gear. If youre going to put together a package of reloading gear and plan on spending what it takes, get the RCBS gear and reloading packages.RCBS quality is excellent and their customer support is unbeatable in the industry.
So, there you have it. You can put together a total reloading package for less than a hundred bucks and have it all be very portable. Use a slightly larger ammo can and store some extra powder and primers and a package like this might be very valuable someday. Realistically, though, this is more of a ‘just in case’ package for someone who wants to have the option of reloading someday but just doesn’t have the money to spend right now for the top of the line gear. The gear shown above will keep you in ammo when everyone else is scratching their head wondering where their next box of HydraShocks is coming from.