How to Buy Good Reloading Brass

In times of ammunition shortage or famine, handloading and reloading your own ammunition can keep your guns firing when others fall quiet.

Reloading your own requires a modest investment in specialized equipment, and a commitment to keeping the necessary components to produce a cartridge on hand. Among those components; powder, bullet, primer and case, it is the case, or “brass” alone that is reusable. Finding a good supply of suitable cases to keep on hand will ensure your reloading operation stays viable long after factory ammunition has dried up.

But not just any cases will do: variations in case construction, brand, priming types and the condition of the brass will be crucial factors to consider when purchasing, bartering or scavenging it.

Below I’ll highlight some common issues and considerations about case selection that, if not accounted for, will throw a wrench into your reloading plans. This information will be useful for novice reloaders as well as non-reloaders that want to start collecting brass now for whatever reason, be it barter or to save money in the future.

Types of Brass

For your purposes, you will be considering two major categories of brass: once-fired and new, or virgin brass. Once-fired or used brass has, obviously, been fired and cycled through a gun’s action. Virgin brass is a brand-new factory casing, and purchased either as a handloading component or destined to go to a factory and be made into a cartridge.

If one is looking to buy premium quality cases for working up custom loads in a precision rifle, or create a defensive load with maximum reliability, virgin brass is probably appropriate for those objectives. However, it is drastically more expensive in most instances than once-fired brass, and so if obtaining brass in great quantity is your objective, or you are just looking to load a great quantity of general purpose ammo, you will realize the most cost savings with once-fired brass.

Your other major category will be the type of primer the case accepts. The two centerfire priming systems used today are Boxer and Berdan priming. I’ll spare you the detailed dissertation on the differences in the two, but the basic version is that Boxer priming has a single flash hole in the center of primer pocket and the anvil is contained within the primer itself. Berdan priming has two flash holes, one each offset for the center of the primer pocket, and the anvil is contained in the case itself.

Boxer priming is overwhelmingly the most popular and common system in use in the U.S., where Berdan priming is more common elsewhere in the world. This is a crucial element in selecting your brass because only the Boxer-primed cases are reloadable with any efficacy: Berdan-primed cases require additional laborious steps to make them reloadable, and furthermore their specialty components and tools are not widely available in the U.S.

It is important to know which is which, and more vitally which manufacturers employ which system, so when you are picking up cases you do not waste any time only to then get home to the bench, start processing cases and be greeted with nigh-useless Berdan priming! In short, if you are buying or picking up American manufactured brass, you will probably be ok. Also be wary of using military-surplus, especially foreign surplus, as it is more likely to use Berdan priming.

A quick note on steel cases: the common opinion is that steel cases cannot be reloaded. That is not intrinsically true concerning the material; steel is harder to form than brass, but it can be done, even if it will not be reloadable as many times a comparable brass case on average. The issue with steel cases is that so many of their manufacturers use Berdan priming, which is a no-go per the above paragraphs. If one is determined to reload Berdan-primed cases, steel or brass, seek out now the specialty tools and components required to do so.

Brass Quality and Defects

When buying fired brass, try to get as much consistency as possible in a batch: same cartridge, same manufacturer, from the same load and fired from the same type of gun. This will ensure you won’t have to go through nearly as much sorting as buying a mixed bag of whatever-you-get, and, assuming the brass is decent, you’ll produce a more uniform, consistent cartridge in the end.

If you are buying or picking up brass, start inspecting it before you toss it in your bag. Any serious corrosion, bulges or splits in the case body are disqualifiers, as are cracks in the case mouth, chips or chunks missing from the rim or pronounced smooth and shiny patches on the case head (that’s near the base or bottom of the case). Any of these defects are symptomatic of a damaged or possibly weakened case, and one you should not waste time with or treat with care lest it fail on the next firing.

The exception to the above is perhaps a mildly dented case body or mouth. Case mouths that are not badly creased or crushed can be reformed with little trouble and still serve well for several loadings. Denting is an issue in particular for cases that have been stepped on or ones that have been fired through certain guns with rough or violent actions.

Machine guns are typically hard on cases, as are a few rifles, the most notorious being H&K’s roller-delayed HK51/53, 91/93 and G3 series rifles. These guns are well known for mangling brass and then launching it into the stratosphere upon ejection. Lots of luck if you are trying to collect cases from one of these!

Brass

Grab Some Brass

Presently, you should have no trouble getting brass in a multitude of ways. Of course you can go online or search a shooter supply or reloading catalog and buy virgin or quality once-fired brass, but you’ll be sacrificing cost for convenience.

A time honored method to nabbing cases with no effort is to bribe one of your shooting buddies that does not reload to police up and keep his brass for you. Picking up cases is tedious work, especially on a public line, so make sure your reward is something they’ll appreciate.

If you range buddy is a reloader, you can still likely buy or barter some cases from them, but they’ll be much keener on the deal, considering that brass is a valuable resource to them.

If you have no shooter friends, you can ask your local gun club or range and see if they’ll let you pick through their sweepings at a given time, or you may be able to likewise convince their range personnel to supply you with brass. Take care with this approach, as many ranges keep and sell fired cases in bulk to 3rd parties for profit, and you would not want to put the employee at odds with his employer’s policies.

Also hit up forums and swap-meet boards on the internet to trade and barter among like-minded people. Someone out there has what you want, and you’ve got what they want. Get to clicking and make a deal.

Remember, like anything else, cartridge cases are not created equal. Any given brand of case will have varying internal volume and thicknesses of various parts. This means that when working up a load near maximum pressure, if you have not taken the time to sort your brass by brand and type you could experience case failure with one, but not  another. This is less of a concern with modestly-charged or general purpose loads, but it bears concern. Take the time to sort your brass for the best and most consistent results.

Storage and Case Prep

You can store your newly acquired brass in just about anything, but you want to consider two things: moisture control and cleaning. Moisture control, in the form of a dehumidifier or desiccant is essential to prevent moisture from corroding your cases, thereby weakening or destroying them over time.

Cleaning, while not essential, will help to prevent corrosion from starting in the first place and, if it does, minimize the damage it can do. Additionally, bright, shiny cases are more attractive to a potential buyer or as trade fodder.

You can clean your cases using any traditional method, be it vibratory media or liquid cleaner. Whichever you use, make sure that the cases are free of residue and particulate before sealing them up for storage. The added benefit of cleaning your brass prior to storage is that will remove that particular step from the assembly process when you sit down at your bench to brew up some cartridges.

Conclusion

Stashing a quantity of empty brass cases for your specific gun is a good hedge against ammo shortages, be they caused by catastrophe or just market pressures. Empty cases make a great resource to trade with, and are the most expensive and vital component of modern ammunition. Invest a little effort now and reap the benefits later.

Do you reload, or are you thinking of getting into it? Do you just keep a stash of brass handy to be ready for the unknown? Let us know in the comments section.

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About Chad Nabors

Chad Nabors
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.

4 comments

  1. HK type roller locked actions in semi-auto fire DO NOT mangle brass to any great degree. I cannot vouch for the select-fire or full-auto version having very little experience with them.

    What ‘mangling’ HKs and clones do is almost always simply a dinged case mouth. And the addition of a port buffer that costs only a few dollars, and is often already on used guns, eliminates the majority of the problem.

    The claim that the action creases the body of the case, at least in semi-auto versions is far blown if standard loads are being used. Again, I cannot vouch for extremely heavy load use. The forces could be different. What does often happen, especially with surplus military ammunition that does not always burn as clean as American manufactured .308/7.62×51 brass ammunition, is that the cases will often have dark markings on the cases, due to the residues of the powder, in the pattern of the fluted chamber, because that is where the residual gasses are first released as the action begins to open.

    But very seldom, on normal loads, is there any actual damage to the case, simply carbon marks in that fluted pattern. It might look bad, but check the cases for yourself by feel and see if you can find any deep flutes in the cases. Wipe the cases down and look again.

    And with American loaded ammunition, which was what I use, even the discoloration is minimal, if there is any at all.

    The reputation and rumor has run rampant for years about HK roller locked actions mangling brass. Please check it out yourself, noting the particulars of the weapon, any weapon modifications, and especially the ammunition in use. I think you will find, that with a port buffer there will only be a few, if any case mouth dings, and if both a port buffer and a good recoil buffer are in use, there will be even less damage.

    And remember, any brass case can land on a rock or something else hard enough to ding a case, even the lowly .22 Rim Fire.

    The biggest actual complaint that is real is that the actions do tend to eject the cases some distance. Depending on how you perceive this, it can be bad or it can be good. If a person is laying down the fire, you really do not want empty brass pilling up at your feet or in the fighting position.

    And usually, on a well-maintained gun firing quality ammunition (consistency being a key point here) at a range, most of the empties are going to be grouped very close together, making brass retrieval fairly easy. Unlike the rumors of the brass being thrown over a forty-acre field requiring a team of locators and hours of work to recover.

    Please, do you own due diligence research on this. Do not take my opinion as any sort of gospel. I just as that you check it out and do not automatically accept something that has had so much controversy surrounding it for so many years.

    You still might not want to pay for such brass, but I sure would not refuse to pick it up or accept some from a person that has it and does not want it, unless it is some from a particular situation that does damage it. And, as I said, hot European military brass might just have the problem. I simply do not know. But I do know that what I have used and encountered that were considered standard American loadings that it was not a problem.

    Just my opinion.

  2. I pickup any brass I find at the range. Old and damaged and Berdan cases go into my scrap brass can to be sold as scrap. I sort all the cases looking for the reloaded cases and once fired and separate them. Run them all through my case tumbler and store them away in coffee containers till I need them. Oh yes I have lots and lots of 9mm cases. But I keep all the usable cases. I do shoot will people that do not reload or pick any brass. The steel cases are just thrown in to the junk can. I also pickup any striper clips and plastic inserts from ammo boxes and plastic 22 boxes. And yes I have gotten striper’s form the ranges on many occasions.

  3. I found out the hard way to not trust dealers. I went to a gun show and a dealer was selling .44-40 brass. I bought a bag of 100. When I got them home I did a quick check and they seemed all right. Later on I started reloading them. Every now and then I had one that was a little harder to put through my press, but it wasn’t anything that took a lot of muscle. I just figured that perhaps I hadn’t gotten enough lube on them. I took them out target shooting with my 1860 Henry rifle and every thing was going great till one failed to chamber. I dug it out and looked it over and discovered it was a .44 Magnum brass. I went through all my bullets and found 6 that were magnum. So now I have 6 .44 Magnum loaded with black powder.

  4. well Mr. Zumbrennen you just failed the 1st rule of reloading – always check every thing before loading it. I always check every component that I am going to use to be sure that they are the correct item I need. cases, bullets, primers, powder and check and recheck the powder measure settings.

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