I can't stress enough, that reloading isn't just something you sit down and do with a few purchased supplies and no instruction or training. Handloading should be approached with the same degree of caution as that science experiment you did in college. Although the manuals are helpful, I'd really recommend you learn from an experienced handloader or a NRA Certified Reloading Instructor.
If you don't know someone who actively reloads, or have an instructor in the area, ask at your local gun club, store or fish and game range to see if there are people who would be willing to mentor you in the process.
Just like in shooting the ammo, reloading the ammo requires the handler to assume the responsibility of safe handling with good judgment. Just as I will say that this post is simply a guide for a beginner and not to be used as a sole source of information; learn as much as you can before you start. Learn from someone with a keen eye on safety and if there is any question between you, use as a reference, a reputable reloading manual. For an excellent overview of reloading safety tips and information, before you get started, check out http://www.three-peaks.net/reload.htm . One of the best all around reference sites I've found as a beginner. The picture above was my "basic starter kit". If you are ahem "mechanically" challenged, don't let reloading intimidate you. At its most basic, it's simply putting a new primer, bullet and powder into an existing brass case. You could probably even teach a Congressman to do that (though they'd probably try to stick some pork in the case). You don't have to be an engineer, you simply need some supplies, and a personality that has some patience and attention to detail.
Most people started off reloading to save money. When your favorite pistols are .45 auto,like myself, the cost of ammo adds up. So you think 'I'll reload to save money!". Well, that is a myth, but don't tell your non-shooting spouse (shhhh). For you will shoot MUCH more for the same money, getting twice the bang for your buck, as they say, which is what makes reloading so valuable, not even factoring in the availability aspect of ammo. You can stop thinking "well that's a Quarter" every time you hear a bang (ah the good old days) and concentrate on practicing. And practicing some more.
I can't give you a precise idea of starting costs. Though I could venture to say if you shoot less than a box a month, it might not pay to reload unless you are having a hard time finding a particular ammo. If you shoot that little, I'm not sure you'd want to reload, but in any event, save your brass, as I guarantee you have friends that would love to have it.
You can easily spend $500 and up for precision and high-speed reloading for both rifle and pistol, especially if you get into the progressive presses. With an investment of this type you can produce some fine ammo at several hundred rounds an hour. If you're mechanically oriented, and have the finances to add to your store of tools, you might well enjoy that. But you don't have to. Buy the basics, save the really expensive high quality extra equipment until you've decided it's really what you want to do long term. You can buy the reasonable starter kits or obtain or purchase used and well maintained pieces, ask friends if they have any old equipment they want to get rid of, and you can get all set up for less than the cost of a fancy steak dinner out with you and the family.
If your budget is a little more than "bare bones" and you don't have a want or a current need for a progressive press, Lyman, Hornady, RCBS, and other companies make fine quality reloading equipment that uses more steel than aluminum and plastic. They each have kits (like the easy on the budget LEE kit) that will provide you all that you need to get started and will last you as long as you wish to use them. These kits can be found from $150 to around $300 and do provide some savings over buying pieces individually. I've been told that these kits will work for rifle or pistol (caliber-specific dies are required, and add a little cost $20 - $40 each, I think.) With this basic reloading equipment, the process is simple.
For reloading straight wall pistol cartridges, the set needs a resizing/decapping die, a case mouth expanding die, and a bullet seating die. The starter equipment is not ideal for long term use in that regard, but it is a great, budget-minded way to get started. You can add those other items to it later. This will allow rifle or pistol reloading at roughly 50 rounds an hour (maybe 75 with plenty of practice). The sizing die installed on a hand press. To fully resize the case, the die body must be screwed in until it touches the face of the shell holder installed on the press ram. The mandrel rod in the die must have it's decapping pin clear the base of the cartridge to fully eject the spent primer from the primer pocket. I can make a perfect blue cheese souffle. How hard can this be? Here we have a shell casing mounted in the shell holder and ready to be pressed into the properly adjusted sizing die. Watch your fingers! Another view. A shell casing ready to be inserted into the case mouth expanding die. This die should be adjusted in small increments till it 'bells' the mouth of the case just enough to allow starting a bullet by hand. This will let the bullet be pressed into the case without crushing the walls of the case, and without shaving lead from the bullet (when loading lead bullets). Over-expanding the case mouth leads to cracked cases and short case life. A sized and decapped case ready to have a primer installed. The biggest problem I had in finding supplies was in finding primers. Here is the LEE 'Autoprime' hand priming tool already set up to install primers in this size case. This is an area of reloading where you have to be as careful with safety precautions as you are on the range.. Wear safety glasses, follow directions, pay attention, etc. The primer is the only thing in the whole process that is actually explosive. One is not a big deal, but the tool can comfortably hold 50. Pressing the primers in by hand allows the reloader to 'feel' it being seated, and a case with a stretched pocket can be caught and discarded. Voila'. A case with the new primer correctly seated. (and no, I am not going to tell you how many many times it took to get it right. :-) If you can, buy your powders and primers locally to avoid Hazardous Material shipping charges which can quickly add up on a mail order. Gun shows often are a good source of powder and primers. The powder companies produce written guides (free!) that will tell you how much powder to use with particular bullets in each caliber. If you can study the powder manuals ahead of time, you can minimize the different powders you need for different purposes and keep your costs in check. In the picture of my supplies, the powder is what was recommended in the kit. A case with a LEE powder scoop. There are several ways to measure the proper powder charge. The best way is a mechanical powder measure checked by a good quality scale. That said, the oldest method in the world is a simple measuring scoop no different than a chef might use. Make sure you use the powders listed in the directions, if you're not a professional, this is not a process to say "hey let's try this!" Practice using a steady and repeatable scooping method.
I like to pour the powder into a small dish and drag the scoop through it. Is a scoop high tech? No. . . but it serves well as part of a beginner's cheap and portable kit. Later, when the reloader either obtains or cleans off their "dedicated bench", then a mechanical measure can be acquired and bolted to the bench. Till then, remember, most spouses would be cranky about having holes drilled in the dining room table to mount the measure. Speaking of workbenches. You will need a place to work. It will need enough weight to stay put while you're applying pressure to the handloading press and should be stable. The height should be right about your belt line. Can't find your belt line? Stand about a foot and a half from the wall with your arm at your side. Bend your arm at the elbow, keeping your elbow tucked into your side, and pivoting the arm 90 degrees to point at the wall. The spot where your fingertips touch the wall should be an ideal benchtop height for you. My start up benches were different heights as they were originally old doors made into tables which were beefed up with spare lumber and repainted. Total cost. $4.00. Give yourself enough space to lay out your tools and components. Add some shelves and storage area (secure from young children or grandchildren if you have them in your house) and make sure you have good lighting. An overhead lamp can really augment your garage or basement lighting. Ventilation is nice. I've got a big screened door into the backyard from here for a nice cross breeze. Remember though, if you are CASTING bullets, not reloading, ventilation is a basic necessity, not a nice option.I've got an old sink with hot and cold water next to the bench which makes cleaning of casings and general hand clean up easier. Here we have a case, bullet, and a bullet seating die. In a pistol round this die has two functions. It will press the bullet into the case, and it will apply a 'roll' crimp to hold the bullet snugly in the case. The person that taught me the basics stressed that crimps can only be (and should be) used on lead bullets or jacketed bullets with a cannelure. Jacketed bullets without a cannelure should have a taper crimp applied. Autoloaders generally work best with taper crimped cartridges, but soft lead bullets do not work well with taper crimps usually. The primed shell casing with powder charged, ready to have the bullet seated. Follow the die set up directions to properly set the seating die. If you want some more detailed instruction beyond reading about it, the LEE website has Video instructions on setting up the dies.You'll find them in the "single stage press' section. A loaded cartridge, displayed with a taper crimp die. This die squeezes the side walls of the case into the bullet, holding it in place without rolling the end of the case over. This is important in an autoloader, as most will headspace the cartridge on the mouth of the case rather than the rim. Now for clean up. You don't want to be reloading with cases that have grit or fouling on them. That can wear out your nice dies VERY quickly (including scratching them internally). Many folks have a small vibrating tumbler to clean the cases, equipment similar to what we rock hounders have, the cases vibrating with ground up walnut shells or corn cobs. One of my favorites group of folks, Midway (http://www.midwayusa.com/) has tumbler kits at a good price. But you don't have to have one to clean up. You can simply put the cases in hot water, and then rinse, and rinse again. To dry them out, put the cases on a clean pan in a warm oven for an hour or two to dry them out. Be careful that you use the lowest possible heat setting, less than 175 degrees. Any more than that is a really BAD idea. If you have a teenager in the house let them know, as they've been known to eat about anything found coming out of an oven. In the end you'll find more advantages to reloading than simply saving money on the cost of each bullet (you know, so you can shoot twice as much). You'll be able to tailor your ammo to a particular firearm and you can have ammo for obsolete guns. With practice and experimentation within the prescribed limits of the manufacturers, you can improve your accuracy by developing loads that work best in a specific gun. You can reload ammo that by either market conditions or manufacturing rate isn't readily available. You can also match your ammunition to the type of game you are hunting or the type of sport shooting you are doing.
It's GREEN. (everyone's favorite buzz word). By picking up all those brass casings on the ground and re-using them you are stopping global warming (OK, NOT, but Al Gore would try and use that line). But it IS fun if you are technical/mechanical minded. But mostly, it's a way to work with your hands, using new tools to enhance another sport you already enjoy, there quietly in your own garage, shop or basement. I can't think of a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon while gaining something truly useful with only a little time, effort and patience.