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!
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.
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.