Is “Cheap” Factory Ammo Really A Good Deal?

Some things in the firearms world have gotten ridiculously inexpensive over the past couple of years.  Sure some products have experienced yo-yo pricing due to supply and demand driven pricing but others have dropped and seem to have, for the time being, stayed down.  The “modern sporting rifle” or AR15 is one such item and 9mm ammunition is another.  9mm ammunition is important when we discuss reloading because so many shooters are buying 9mm handguns and carbines for competition and self-defense.  One of the draws for new shooters is that they can grab off the shelf ammo in 9mm and go out to shoot for a very low cost.  Some factory offerings are showing up for 14 cents per round.  On the surface this looks like a great deal but once we really start to delve into the practicality of this approach the flaws in the plan begin to reveal themselves.

The various goals that drive a reloader to choose specific components are as numerous as the types of shooting sports and activities.  The point is that reloading allows you to build the perfect cartridge to help you achieve your shooting goals and it does so at an attractive price point.  Can factory ammo do that?  Sure, a lot of the time, but to get what you want you are very likely going to have to spend a lot more money and, in some circumstances, you’ll be sacrificing something just for the sake of convenience.

First up is the issue of quality.  Odds are that the 14 cent per round factory ammo isn’t built of high end components.  At this price point the ammo is frequently built around steel or aluminum cases, both of which have problems, and the projectiles are often bi-metal jackets or just plain, uncoated, lead.  Will these components work?  Sure and there are probably fans of some of these less costly factory offerings who will defend it with their last breath if you dare talk bad about their beloved cartridges.  The point here is that while it can work it may not perform up to your expectations.

You might think the next point is price but it isn’t.  The next point is actually versatility.  When you buy factory ammo, especially the lower priced offerings, you are giving up the control you would have had if you had either made or purchased cartridges that were produced to perform in a specific way.  For example if you buy good defensive ammo you can almost always guarantee that a low flash powder was used in order to reduce muzzle flash and preserve your night vision.  These same sorts of powders are also very popular with competitive shooters who find themselves in low light situations at indoor ranges or shooting night matches.  Conversely a shooter with a compensated pistol, like those used in USPSA’s Open Division, might want a powder that generates sufficient gas to make the comp work and keep that red dot sight on target throughout the recoil cycle.  These shooters can almost never get what they want out of factory ammo unless they go to specialty makers who cater to their needs.

Finally we get to the root of the problem; cost.  At the time of this writing there were several retailers offering factory loaded ammunition at 14 cents per round.  That’s a price point that is very attractive to a lot of shooters but is it the best price?  Well if we use good components and reload our own ammo we can beat that price with a cost of 10 cents per round.  How can we do that?  The big thing to keep in mind is that we are reusing our brass and brass is a big portion of the cost to produce a cartridge.  Factoring in brass as a reusable component that is subject to wear and loss isn’t too tough if we divide our brass cost by 10 when doing our cost calculations.  This allows for loss and wear while still respecting the fact that for most of us brass isn’t free.  If you scrounge the range for free brass you can reduce the cost to zero if you like but the 1/10th trick has worked really well for us.

Another way to look at brass cost begins with the fact that most reloaders started out buying factory ammo and then, at some point, became reloaders.  During that transition many people begin saving the brass from their factory ammo so they have a nice supply of it when they finally take that next step into reloading.  For these reloaders the brass isn’t really free but it sort of feels free and is still reusable many times over in most instances.

The other way we’re saving money is by buying components in bulk.  Buying in bulk can drop the price significantly on primers, projectiles and powder.  Bulk buying also guarantees that we’ll have the components we need on hand when we’re loading up our next batch of ammo.

So now we’re talking about 10 cents per round instead of 14 and we’ve got ammo that we setup to perform the way we like.  I can hear some of you saying “4 cents, that isn’t saving very much!”  Isn’t it?  Well if you don’t shoot much 4 cents isn’t a lot of money for sure.  If you do shoot even a modest amount that 4 cents adds up pretty quickly.  Let’s say you shoot one local USPSA match per week and that the match has 120 required hits.  Then we get into reshoots, makeup shots and all the rest of the ammo consuming fun that goes on at matches and, if we follow the rule of thumb to bring 50% more than we think we’ll need, we end up needing 180 rounds for each match.  Shooting that match every week means you’ll need 720 rounds in a typical month or 9360 rounds per year.  At 10 cents per round that match costs us $936 per year in ammunition.  If we use factory ammo that same match costs 40% more at $1310 per year.  That’s $374 more than we would have spent to reload and that’s just for one little weekly match with no allowance for actually getting out and practicing or any of the other shooting that you are bound to do in a years’ time.  We know a lot of you shoot a great deal more so the savings from reloading are even greater than this simple example provides.

There is one final issue to deal with in this conversation and that is the amount of time you’ll spend reloading.  With a Dillon Precision progressive reloader, like the XL 650 you can load around 800 rounds per hour.  That means your match ammo for the month is done in less than 1 hour.  At the end of that hour you’ve saved money and made better ammo as well.  Not too bad for an hour.

In the end it is important to note that no one is questioning your choices or judgement here.  We’re talking about your time and money and how you choose to spend them is 100% your decision; we respect that.  We just hope you’ll see our point that “cheap factory ammo” isn’t the bargain that it might appear to be on the surface.  If not, that’s fine too; we hope you enjoy your shooting as much as we enjoy ours.

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