February 15, 2022
By Layne Simpson
Rounding up jacketed rifle bullets for handloading today ranges from extremely difficult to impossible, and this especially holds true for many lever-action rifle cartridges. A recent visit to a favorite gunshop revealed three boxes of bullets for the .30-30 and one box that was not the best choice but could have been used in a pinch for the .444 Marlin.
That was it!
Even when there isn’t a buying frenzy, which our country has been experiencing for quite some time, locating a supply of bullets for some of those cartridges is not easy. Keeping lever-action rifles active has not been a problem for me for a very long time because I began casting bullets for my father’s Winchester Model 92 in .44-40 during the 1960s. From that point on, bullet molds made by Lyman, RCBS, Redding/SAECO, and Lee Precision, as well as many others no longer in business, were eventually added to my inventory.
Notes on Cast Bullets
Some who have not tried good cast bullets look down on them as second-class goods, yet they are often as accurate in most lever-action rifles as jacketed bullets. They can be even more accurate because actual barrel groove diameter can vary among rifles of the same caliber. Standard diameter for .375-caliber jacketed bullets is 0.375 inch, and most I have tried in my Marlin 336 in .38-55 Winchester with its 0.379-inch groove diameter left a bit to be desired in accuracy. A 246-grain bullet cast of scrap wheelweight metal in a Lyman #375248 mold measures 0.380 inch, and when shot lubed but not sized, it consistently shoots inside two inches at 100 yards from my rifle.
Through the decades I have mostly used scrap wheelweights for casting bullets. They are inexpensive while being capable of delivering acceptable accuracy in most lever-action rifles. My supply comes from a small family-owned tire store where the cost has long been 23 cents per pound. A few zinc weights have to be removed from each batch, and that along with skimming off the steel clips while melting down the others results in about a 15 percent loss in weight, so that increases my cost for usable alloy to 27 cents per pound.
The Lyman #319247 bullet I load in the .32-40 Winchester for my Marlin Model 93 weighs 165 grains, and since there are 42 of them in a pound, my cost per bullet ends up at a bit more than a half-cent each. Smaller bullets are even less expensive. Each penny spent on scrap wheelweights produces close to six of the 44-grain bullets I load in the .218 Bee for my Marlin 1894CL. As long as my friendly tire store stays in business, I will never run out of bullets.
Some bullets of the same caliber are available in both plainbased and gascheck styles. Made of gilding metal, gaschecks are available from Lyman and Hornady. The wheelweight alloy I use has a Brinell hardness of 10, and plainbased bullets cast of it are fine up to a maximum velocity of 1,600 to 1,700 fps. From there, a gascheck design should handle velocities ranging up to 2,100 to 2,200 fps, but more speed requires a harder alloy. Marlin rifles with Micro-Groove barrels are often more accurate with bullets wearing a gascheck and having a hardness of 15 BHN or higher.
A cast bullet with a flat nose delivers greater shock to deer, hogs, and other game than a roundnose bullet, and it is more likely to expand as well. Even if expansion does not occur, increasing meplat diameter increases wound channel diameter, and 60 percent of bullet diameter has long been considered by hunters to be a good minimum meplat size to strive for. Designers of bullet molds have done a good job of adhering to that. Respective meplat-to-bullet-diameter percentages for the RCBS 180-grain bullet for the .32 Winchester Special, the Lyman 249-grain bullet for the .38-55, the RCBS 200-grain bullet for the .35 Remington, the Rim Rock 305-grain bullet for the .444 Marlin, and the RCBS 400-grain bullet for the .50 B&M Alaskan in my data chart on page 46 are 65, 66, 60, 83, and 74. As to be expected, increasing bullet diameter increases effectiveness on game largely because meplat diameter is also usually increased. When in doubt about the performance of a particular cast bullet on game, aim to place it through the shoulders.
Cast bullets don’t always require sizing for best accuracy. Simply cast, lube, and shoot a few holes in paper. This assumes cartridge neck diameter remains smaller than chamber neck diameter of the rifle. If accuracy proves to be satisfactory, you’re good to go. If not, a chart in the Lyman catalog has recommended sizing die diameters for bullets of various calibers. Even better is to use a wooden dowel to push a soft lead slug through the barrel and measure actual bore dimensions. A light coat of Kroil applied to the bore makes it easier to push the slug through. A rifle usually shoots best when cast bullet diameter is 0.001 to 0.002 inch larger than the groove diameter of its barrel.
Should a bullet need sizing, an inexpensive way to do it is with a 7/8-14 die from Lee Precision. It works in a standard single-stage reloading press. A steel punch installed on the ram of the press pushes a bullet lubed with Lee Liquid Alox through the die, and as it emerges from the top, it falls into a collection box attached to the top of the die.
The Lee kit works fine for small numbers, but for higher production you will need a sizer/lubricator from Lyman, Redding/SAECO, or RCBS. Operation is fast; a downstroke on the handle sizes a bullet and fills its grooves with lube from a manually pressurized reservoir, and an upstroke ejects the finished bullet. Standard sizing die diameters range from 0.224 inch to 0.460 inch (some in increments of 0.001 inch), and since I cast bullets for cartridges of many different diameters, a shelf behind my loading bench has accumulated a very large collection of dies. Sizing dies made by Lyman and RCBS for their sizer/lubricators are interchangeable, but those made by Redding for the SAECO machine are different. Top punches made by Lyman and RCBS are also interchangeable. Top punches for the Redding/SAECO sizer/lubricator are a different design, but the company offers “LR” punches for the Lyman and RCBS machines shaped to fit the nose profiles of bullets cast in SAECO molds.
I cast a lot of bullets each year and use a Lyman Mag 25 bottom-pour electric furnace for melting alloy and dispensing it into a mold. It’s a wonderful machine, and I have become spoiled by its speed and convenience. Moving way down in price, the smaller Lyman Big Dipper is an electric pot designed for use with a wood-handled dipper to pour melted alloy into a mold. I use mine for the first melt-down of scrap wheelweights. Like the Mag 25, it has a number of thermostatically controlled heat settings, and its $80 price makes it ideal for those who do not need the higher capacity and production rate of the Mag 25. Regardless of which of the Lyman furnaces is chosen, bullet quality can be the same.
When used in a tubular magazine, a cast bullet should be lightly roll-crimped in the case. Starting loads published by various sources for jacketed bullets can be used for cast bullets of the same caliber and weight, although doing so is eliminated by purchasing a copy of the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook. It has an abundance of data for bullets cast in Lyman, RCBS, and SAECO molds for rifle cartridges ranging from .22 Hornet to .50-70 Government, as well as pistol and revolver cartridges from .30 Luger to .500 S&W Magnum.
For those who have neither the time nor the inclination to make their own, I highly recommend bullets cast by family-owned Rim Rock Bullets Inc. of Polson, Montana. Alloy with the specified lead/tin/antimony mix arrives at the factory in 6,000-pound batches. Owner Frank Brown’s unusual production strategy pays off in quality. Several casting machines are devoted to producing one particular bullet until a million of that bullet is in the warehouse. Those machines are then switched to producing a million of another style of bullet. Casting in this manner results in huge batches of bullets that are quite consistent in weight, hardness, and diameter. Maintaining such large inventories also ensures timely delivery to the customer. More than 100 different rifle and handgun bullets in calibers ranging from .25 to .50 are offered. Specialty sizing for rifles with odd bore dimensions are also available. Hardness options range from 4 BHN (pure lead) to 22 BHN, which duplicates the hardness of linotype.
Notes About the Chart
All loads in my chart are straightforward, but those for the .444 Marlin warrant further explanation. In order for a cartridge to successfully turn the corner and enter the magazine of the Marlin 444 as it is being pushed through the loading gate, cast bullets with long noses have to be seated to a specific overall cartridge length.
With the Rim Rock 305-grain bullet loaded to a length of 2.540 inches, it won’t make the turn, but seat it 0.020 inch deeper in the case, and it slips right into the Marlin magazine. Slight differences in nose length and meplat diameter also matter. The 335-grain Rim Rock with its smaller nose flat feeds smoothly at 2.540 inches. Shortening cases to 2.120 inches for the 305-grain bullet and 2.085 inches for the 335-grain bullet aligns the mouths of the cases with the crimp groove of the bullet when seated to those required cartridge lengths. Shortening cases decreases capacity, and they should be kept separate from full-length cases.
Finally, the .25-35 Winchester, .32-40 Winchester, and .32 Winchester Special cases were formed by running Starline .30-30 Winchester cases through their respective full-length resizing dies. The .22 Savage Hi-Power case was formed by using its full-length resizing die to squeeze the .25-35 Winchester case on down. Redding case-sizing wax was used.
As you have read, using cast bullets can lead to some fine performance. And building your handloads with cast bullets can also provide a real sense of accomplishment. If you haven’t done it, you should give it a try.