One of the errors that reloaders frequently make is using their brass either too little, or more commonly, too long before they toss it out. The latter mistake often leads to issues that can end an otherwise enjoyable day at the range. I often see people ask online, "how many loads are you getting on ______ caliber of rifle brass,” hoping that if the response is "x" number, then they can feel safe and expect about the same number of reloads on their own rifle brass. Of course the answer is never that straightforward. There are many variables that factor into determining the number of reloads you can get from a single piece of rifle brass, and I will get into those momentarily, but in short the number of times that “some guy on the internet" is able to reload his own rifle brass has little to no relationship to the number of times you can or should reload your own.
How do you know when it is no longer safe to reload a piece of rifle brass?
There are four parts of a cartridge that can indicate when a brass casing is has reached its safe lifespan; the rim, the walls, the primer pocket and the neck. One extremely important part of reloading is case inspection. You should always closely inspect your cases prior to each loading in order to catch any pieces that may be worn-out or damaged. Here are the things to look for, the simplest of which can be caught with a visual inspection:
1) Case necks - Are the necks in good condition? Are any split, possessing ragged edges or are otherwise damaged?
2) Case rims - Are any broken, chipped or otherwise damaged?
3) Primer pockets - Are all of the primers still in the fired brass? Are any of them loose and/or moving in the pocket? When you are seating a new primer does it go in too easily? Are there signs of escaping gas?
And last but not least...
4) Case walls - This one requires a bit more than a casual, visual inspection, but is often the one that bites people the hardest. After a certain number of firings the brass case stretches (and of course we then trim them to the proper length). Externally the piece of brass may look fine and no different than any other piece of brass, but internally a thin spot in the case wall could be developing which can lead to case head separation. This will likely result in a ruptured case lodged in your rifle chamber. The simplest way to detect this is with what is known as the "paperclip method." This involves running a bent paperclip along the inside of the case and feeling for a ridge. I do this with every piece of rifle brass, every time I load it.
Examples of partial case head separation.
What variables determine how long a piece of rifle brass may last?
There are many factors that play a part in determining the number of reloads you can obtain from a piece of rifle brass. These include the quality of brass, the caliber, how "hot" the rounds are loaded, the type of sizing dies used, primer pocket preparation (or lack thereof), whether or not the brass is annealed, and even chamber specs....basically anything that affects the pressure inside the cartridge.
Here is a brief review of these factors (for additional information feel free to leave questions in the comments section below):
In conclusion, the best procedure used to find out how many firings you can expect is to fire your brass in batches. A batch is a set of brass of the same, single headstamp, loaded to the same charge and fired the same number of times in the same gun. You should keep your once fired brass, five times fired brass and nine times fired brass, etc. separate. Take one batch of brass, reload and shoot it repeatedly, maintaining a record of the number of firings until you start to see evidence of thinning cases and/or other signs of weakened or suspect brass. That number of firings (less one) is the number of times you can expect to safely reload and shoot that brand of brass, with that particular load, in your particular rifle.
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