Which is Best: Factory Ammo or Reloads?

Help your customers understand the cost variables involved with reloading their own ammunition.

Which is Best: Factory Ammo or Reloads?

This Arisaka 99 rifle is what got the author into reloading. With hard-to-find ammunition costing more than $2 per round, the payback was a no-brainer. (Photo: Tom McHale)

You undoubtedly have customers who question whether reloading their own ammunition makes financial sense.

Reloading ammunition saves you a lot of money. Or, reloading will cost you the same as buying factory ammo, but you’ll shoot more.

So, which is it?

Both, actually. This admittedly vague answer depends on a lot of variables including the ammunition you intend to reload, the components you use, how you account for the cost of reloading equipment, and how you assign value to your time, if at all. Let’s consider a question customers might have for you. Does it make sense to reload? Does it make sense for you to supply reloading gear and components?

I originally got into reloading after buying a surplus Arisaka Type 99 rifle. Mine was an early or pre-war model so it was beautifully constructed, unlike the last-ditch models made from production scraps. It takes the 7.7x58mm cartridge, which (at the time) cost more than $2 a pop for anything you could find commercially. After shooting a couple of boxes, I decided the joys of shooting that rifle didn’t quite justify sending the equivalent of a bottle of Trader Joe’s table wine downrange with every shot. As a solution, I looked into reloading to feed that bolt-action antique.

I figured I could reload 7.7 all day long for about 35 cents per round, so my investment in equipment would be amortized post haste. As I recall, I spent about $250 on basic reloading gear including a single-stage press. Using some quick math, I figure I recouped that investment after about 150 rounds. Not bad.

Being a specialty cartridge with a “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” price tag, the 7.7 is an outlier of the reloading cost-benefit equation. More common calibers like 9mm and .223 Remington are manufactured in near-infinite quantities, so the prices for factory ammunition is far, far less per round. That raises the question of whether it makes sense to reload them at all. Let’s explore.


While mystical to newcomers, reloading is a straightforward process once you understand the concepts. It’s not that much different from refilling ink cartridges on your home printer, although printers rarely explode if you’re careless.

A complete cartridge has just four components, only one of which is reusable. Fortunately, the reusable part, the case, is often the most expensive of the lot. Depending on the caliber, you can reuse that original case anywhere from a couple of times to dozens.

When you hit the go switch, brass expands and stretches to seal against the chamber walls. As pressure falls after the shot, the case shrinks back some, but not to its original size. This expansion process is why we have to resize brass cases during the reloading process. The process is tame with most handgun-caliber cases, but most rifle cases will stretch when resized, so you must also trim them. Common sense tells us that this stretch and cut abuse will eventually render a case unusable. With most pistol-caliber cartridges, this stretching process is minimal. It’s often tough to measure a meaningful case length change after many firings.

Here’s the net-net on brass. Always inspect each and every case you reload, because you never know when damage will show. With that said, while you may only be able to reload some rifle cases a few times, pistol cases can last much longer. For the pistol cost-to-reload math we’ll discuss here, I generally plug in a figure of 10 reloads per case. For higher-pressure rifle calibers, I’ll use five as a rule of thumb.

Let’s consider a couple of examples. Quality 6.5mm Creedmoor brass will cost about 50 cents per case new. If we assume five uses before it’s ready to toss, that works out to a per-shot brass cost of 10 cents per case. Starline 9mm brass prices out around 17 cents per case, so assuming we get 10 uses from the pistol caliber, that equates to just 1.7 cents per shot for brass.

The remaining components are easier to cost estimate.

If you buy primers in boxes of 1,000, you’ll spend about $33, or a hair over 3 cents each. They’re disposable of course, so that represents a total per-shot cost.

Powder is trickier as any caliber can use a variety of specific powders. Also, there is a range of powder charges to cover the spectrum of minimum- to maximum-power loads, so your quantity of power per cartridge will vary. As an example, I’m currently reloading range-use 9mm rounds using Hodgdon CFE powder. My recipe calls for 5.6 grains to drive a 115-grain FMJ bullet at a projected 1,100 feet per second. Since there are 7,000 grains in a pound, I’m using 0.0008 pounds of CFE per shot. If I buy an 8-pound container, that costs me $163 give or take, so I figure I spend 1.6 cents per round on powder. Rifles use a lot more. For example, a 6.5mm Creedmoor load I use calls for 41.0 grains of IMR H4350 powder. Doing similar math forecasts a powder cost per cartridge of 14 cents per shot.

Projectiles depend on what you want to accomplish. If you’re loading for match use, hunting, or to duplicate self-defense ammo, you’ll pay much more per bullet. Bulk practice 9mm bullets might run 10 cents each, but premium hollow-points will raise the cost to about 20 cents per round, give or take. Rifle bullets for our example 6.5mm Creedmoor run about 40 cents each. That’s because I generally use something like Sierra Matchkings for long-range accuracy in that caliber. Premium bullets carry premium cost.


The component cost is just one part of the equation. To be fair, it’s also important to run the math on equipment cost and account for that. While you can clean dirty brass with nothing more than soap, a bucket, a beach towel and a dose of sunshine, you’ll need some basic necessities to reload that brass. At a minimum, you’ll need a single-stage reloading press, a powder scale, calipers, a hand-priming tool and a set of caliber-specific dies.

Single-Stage Press: $200 (Prices differ, this represents middle range.)

Dies: one caliber: $40

Scale: $40

Calipers: $35

Hand-priming tool: $50

That adds up to $365. Of course, each item in this most basic list varies widely in price, so you can spend less or more depending on the quality level you prefer. If you end up saving 10 cents per cartridge by reloading, it’ll take you 3,650 cartridges to break even. If you reload rifle calibers, you have the opportunity to save a lot more per case, but you’ll also have to invest in a case trimmer. That adds $100, give or take.


Time is the dirty little secret behind claims of saving money by reloading. If you don’t assign an hourly value to your time at the bench, you can save money by rolling your own. Once you start to add a “time cost” of $10, $25 or $50 per hour, things sway back in favor of factory-loaded ammunition pretty quickly.

Net Cost

How does cost work out for our two example calibers of 9mm and 6.5mm Creedmoor?

For 9mm, I’m spending about 18 cents for decent range ammo. That includes brass (1.7 cents), primer (3.3 cents), bullet (11 cents) and powder (1.6 cents). Considering I can buy bulk range ammo for the same price, it’s not making me money. Maybe the next time we have a buying panic resulting from a political scare I’ll be sitting pretty.

As for 6.5mm Creedmoor, I spend just under 70 cents per round on brass (11 cents per use), primer (3.3 cents), powder (14 cents) and projectile (40 cents). Equivalent factory ammunition to what I’m reloading works out to about $1.30 per round, so I’m getting a per-round savings of about $.60.

Why Do It?

There are lots of reasons to reload, and raw cost savings is just one.

If you’re a weekend competitor, you’ll burn through thousands and thousands of rounds of common calibers like 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP or maybe .223 Remington. With the right investment in equipment, you can save money per round even though the factory costs of common calibers is fairly low.

Specialty competition is another reloading niche. While competing in a recent long-range shooting competition at my club, I couldn’t help but notice that every competitor on the line grew their own ammo. When you have a premium rifle and will be shooting in the same configuration over and over in search of accuracy, you can optimize your load to your firearm and get optimal results.

One oft-overlooked reason for reloading is realistic training with a load that approximates one’s self-defense ammo. Few of us can afford to launch thousands of Speer Gold Dots or Sig Sauer V-Crowns during practice, but we may be able to afford practice with home-grown loads using similar components.

Last but not least is across-the-board cost savings. Here’s where the value of your time becomes important. For many calibers, your cost of ingredients, when purchased in reasonable bulk, allows you to make your own rounds for less money than it costs to buy them. If you have more free time than free cash, reloading even commonly available calibers can make sense.

If you followed the math, it’s clear that cost savings may be a benefit depending on the caliber and market pricing for factory ammo. While some may embark on the reloading crusade to save a few pennies per round, there are plenty of other reasons to reload.

In my case, it’s a hobby. I just enjoy doing it. I don’t spend hours creating vast quantities of range 9mm ammo, but I do get satisfaction from optimizing rifle and pistol loads for specific uses. And I no longer complain about feeding my Arisaka. Even now, ammo is more than $2 a round, if you can find it.

When your customers ask about reloading, you should be able to outline and discuss these points to help them make the best decision for their own personal needs. If it doesn’t make sense for them, guide them to your factory ammo and recommend the best loads for their intended use.


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