December 05, 2012
I started casting bullets soon after buying my first Smith & Wesson Model 29. In those days the price of scrap lead ranged from free to not very much at all, so in addition to reloading dies for the .44 Magnum, I bought a Lyman mold for the No. 429248 bullet. I melted lead in a cast iron pot heated by a single-burner Coleman stove. At the time a couple of shooting pals who went by the aliases of Jimmy Davis and Charles Murphree also owned revolvers in .44 Magnum, but theirs were Ruger Super Blackhawks. A popular full-power handload at the time was 22.0 grains of 2400 behind the 429248 bullet, and we shot hundreds of rounds at every type of target you could think of. A lighter load would have been easier on us and our guns, but the way we saw it during those days of innocence, who wanted a .44 Mag. if it did not roar and kick like one?
As years passed I eventually got away from bulletcasting, not because I no longer enjoyed it, but because it seemed to take more time than I could spare. I continued casting a few whenever a particular rifle or handgun required it, but for the most part I stuck with commercial bullets, some lead, but mostly jacketed. Then came an assignment to write up the Lyman Ideal Model Sharps in .38-55 Winchester, and since the groove diameter of its barrel slugged .3784 inch, it was obvious that the .375- and .377-inch jacketed bullets sitting on the shelf were a bit undersized. Casting my own proved to be the answer for that rifle; with the Lyman bullet it averaged 1.50 inches for five shots at 100 yards when pushed along at 1,230 fps by 40.0 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder. That same bullet averages 1.70 inches from my Marlin 336 Cowboy in .38-55, not only at blackpowder velocity, but when moving out at 1,500 fps as well.
Short on bulletcasting alloy, I kicked off the Sharps rifle project by visiting a local tire store where I bought a supply of used wheelweights for 23 cents per pound. A few zinc weights in the bucket were rejected, and that along with
skimming off the steel clips while melting down the others resulted in about a 15 percent loss in weight. That increased my cost to 27 cents per pound. The Lyman No. 375248 bullet I have long used in the .38-55 Winchester weighs 246 grains, and since there are 28 of them in a pound, my cost per bullet was a bit less than one cent each.
Anyone who has bought bullets lately knows they cost more than a penny each. Cast bullets for the .38-55 were not available locally, and a mail-order supply would have cost 37 cents each, not including shipping. Using a commercial mix rather than scrounging up scrap material shrinks the price gap between casting bullets and buying them, but the cost of those I needed for the .38-55 would still have been about 11 cents each. Jacketed bullets at a local gun store were priced at 34.5 cents each for one brand and 89 cents for another.
In addition to often being more accurate in a rifle barrel with a groove diameter larger than that of jacketed bullets, cast bullets are a great option for reduced-recoil practice loads in rifles of larger calibers. For my custom Marlin 1895 in .500 B&M Alaskan, I have been loading the 400-grain RCBS No. 82099 and the 440-grain Lee No. 90991 bullets to about 1,200 fps, and they are much more fun to shoot than a full-power load with a 500-grain jacketed bullet at 1,950 fps.
A cast bullet of matching diameter is also just the ticket for revolvers with oversized chamber throats, as is often the case for those in .45 Colt. Most jacketed bullets measure either .451 or .452 inch. My Freedom Arms revolver in that caliber measures precisely .452 inch and is quite accurate with jacketed bullets of that diameter. Same goes for an extra cylinder I have for converting the Ruger Old Army percussion revolver to .45 Colt. On the other hand, Colt revolvers in that caliber are famous for having not only oversized throats, but wide variations in throat diameters from one gun to the next as well. My New Frontier model Colt measures .456 inch, and some guns I have measured were even larger. I am still searching for a jacketed bullet capable of delivering decent accuracy from that gun, but it will cut a five-shot cloverleaf at 25 yards with bullets cast in RCBS No. 82050 and No. 82092 molds and sized to .457 inch.
Casting requires equipment not found on every shooter's loading bench, and prices for each item vary. You could get started with, say, a Lee double-cavity mold ($25.98) and handles ($17.98), a Lyman dipper ($22.50), and an RCBS lead pot ($21.95), the latter requiring a source of heat. If the as-cast diameter of the bullet happens to be close enough for the gun, a bottle of Lee Liquid Alox lube ($5.98) would get you going. If not, the Lee Sizing Kit (replete with a bottle of lube) at $21.98 would do it. Safety glasses and a pair of leather gloves complete the list.
Once bitten by the bug, you may eventually decide to upgrade to more efficient equipment, but even then the cost remains affordable. Buying a Lyman Big Dipper electric pot ($39.95) rather than the standard lead pot would add an additional $18 to the tab. Springing for an RCBS Lube-A-Matic 2 sizer/lubricator ($203.95) instead of the Lee bullet sizer would add an additional $182. Those two upgrades would bring the retail price of the items to just under $300. Buying a bottom-pour Lee Production Pot IV ($76.98) in lieu of the standard electric pot and the dipper, along with adding an ingot mold ($13.98) and an RCBS lead thermometer ($57.95) would bring the retail price of our super-deluxe bulletcasting package to less than $400. Some companies also offer kits containing the basic items needed, and the price is usually lower than if the various items are purchased individually. At a price of $235, the Master Casting Kit from Lyman includes a 4500 Sizer/Lubricator and contains everything except a mold. Once the equipment is on hand, the only additional expenditures would be for bullet lube, casting alloy, and any additional molds needed. With that said, let's take a bit closer look at the various types of equipment.
Bullet molds are commonly made of either steel or aluminum, and while each type of metal has its advantages and disadvantages for this application, molds made from either material are capable of casting good bullets. RCBS, Lyman, Lee, and Redding are the biggest sources of molds for casting dozens of styles and weights of rifle and pistol bullets ranging in caliber from .22 to .50. They also offer specialty molds for turning out balls and various styles of conicals for muzzleloaders ranging from .375 to .690 caliber. Mini Balls, Maxi Balls, R.E.A.L. bullets, Micro Band bullets, plainbased bullets, gaschecked bullets, shotgun slugs, all are there. If by chance you need a particular design or diameter not offered by those companies, you will likely find it at a dozen or so smaller shops like Hoch, NEI, Accurate Moulds, LBT, and Doughty Enterprises.
Down through the centuries, simple metal pots like those now available from RCBS and Lyman have been used to turn out tons of bullets. Low price is the big advantage, but only for those who already have a suitable source of heat. From there we step up to an electric pot, which can actually cost less than the combined prices of a regular pot and something for heating it. Excellent examples are the Lee Precision Melter and the Lyman Big Dipper. All require a long-handled dipper for moving molten lead from pot to mold.
At the top of the ladder in speed and convenience are bottom-pour electric pots, such as the RCBS Pro-Melt Furnace, Lyman Mag 20, and the Lee Pro 4-20. All have a 20-pound capacity. Operation is simple: Lift the handle and a stream of molten metal fills the mold. In addition to being considerably faster than using a dipper, this type of furnace is less tiring since during pouring, the weight of the mold rests on a guide located just below the dispenser spout. This feature becomes quite important when turning out hundreds of bullets using a heavy multiple-cavity mold or even when using a single-cavity mold to cast heavy bullets of large calibers.
Sizing & Lubricating
Depending on the alloy used, some molds will drop bullets of the correct diameter for a particular handgun or rifle, thus eliminating the need for squeezing them through a sizer die. One of the molds I started with a few decades ago dropped bullets of the ideal size for my father's Winchester 92 in .44-40, so all I had to do was pan-lube them and then seat them in cases. That's a messy and time-consuming way to apply lube, and today I simply put them and a dollop of Lee Liquid Alox in a small plastic container and gently tumble by hand until each bullet has a uniform coating. Spreading them out on waxed paper and allowing to dry overnight completes the operation.
Some bullets will require sizing, and the handiest way to accomplish that is with the Lyman 4500 Sizer-Lubricator, the RCBS Lube-A-Matic 2, and the Lee Sizing Kit. The Lee kit contains a sizing die and a bullet punch that fits into the top of the ram of a standard reloading press. As sized bullets emerge from the die, they are collected by a plastic container. Since it does not apply lube to the bullets, they must be tumbled in Lee Liquid Alox after sizing. I actually prefer to apply lube to the bullets twice, once before and once after they are sized. A kit is needed for each diameter desired. For example, if you wish to try bullets sized to .429 and .430 inch in the .44 Mag., two kits will be required.
The RCBS and Lyman sizers cost more because they are considerably more expensive to manufacture. The basics of the design they share originated with the old Ideal Reloading Products Co., which was purchased by Lyman in 1925. The bodies of both are heavy steel castings, and they utilize removable punches and dies for sizing bullets. The dies come in numerous diameters, and different top punches are required for the various calibers and styles of bullets. After a bullet is placed base down on the mouth of the sizing die, a pull on the handle forces it into the die. Twisting a small lever at the back ever so slightly forces lube from a reservoir through vents in the side of the sizing die and into the grooves of the bullet. Bringing the handle back up ejects the sized and lubricated bullet from the die. It is an extremely quick way to size and lube bullets in a single operation. If the base of the bullet requires a gascheck, it is pressed on by the machine during the sizing stage.
Other units are available. The Star has been around for many years and is presently made by Magma Engineering. Another is the Mark VI from Ballisti-Cast; quite expensive, it is said to be capable of sizing and lubing as many as 2,500 bullets per hour.
Bullets cast from used wheelweights and other scrap materials are all most of us need for general shooting, but at some point in the velocity range, antimony and tin may need to be added for additional hardness. If I were to get into a serious accuracy game, such as Cast Bullet Association benchrest competition where 10-shot groups measuring less than minute of angle are common, I would use an alloy of known composition from a commercial source like Rotometals. For those who prefer to mix their own, the company offers ingots of tin and antimony in addition to pure lead. Also available are a variety of popular alloys, including Lyman's famous all-around No. 2 mix consisting of 90 percent lead and 5 percent each of tin and antimony.
An old friend of mine once said that shooters who do not cast their own bullets are not complete handloaders, and he may have been more right than wrong. As he put it, there are those who assemble a cartridge with the components totally made by someone, and there are those who make the most important part of a cartridge at home.