Choosing Bullets – Casting your own can save a LOT! The projectiles are always the most expensive component in reloading.
Category : Reloading
Components used in reloading:
- Brass cases – Cost = ZERO, presuming that you acquired them for free, and are reusing the cases
- Primers – Cost = $.03 each, presuming that you are shopping carefully, to keep cost low
- Powder – Cost = $.02 – $.04 each, presuming that, again, you are shopping carefully, to keep cost low
- BULLETS – Cost = $.08 – $.20 each (or more!), even when you are shopping carefully, to keep cost low.
So, even if you are buying primers, and powder in bulk, and avoiding as much impact of the HazMat fee on those components. . . And presuming that you are taking great care of your brass, especially the hard to get/find rifle brass. . . And, even though you are careful about purchasing larger boxes of bullets when they are on sale. . . You will still be experiencing the reality that the most expensive component in reloading is the projectile, the bullet. It’s the part that does it job in a matter of an instant, and if you have done everything correct, it leaves your muzzle, and hopefully lands where you hope it will.
Bench Rest Shooters and “F-Class” shooters rarely care much about cost. They are always looking for the best performance of the bullets, and spare no expense in making them fly the best they can. It’s not uncommon for those shooters to have a few DOLLARS invested in every time they pull the trigger of their very expensive rifles. And, that’s fine for the game that they play.
But, how about for the rest of us who are looking to really just reduce the cost of shooting, so that we can shoot more? Well, there are a few options. Especially for pistol shooters.
PISTOL SHOOTING OPTIONS
- Buy plated bullets instead of jacketed bullets. Great cost reduction for pistol training, vs very expensive carry ammo type jacketed hollow points.
- Buy powder coated or epoxy coated bullets instead of jacketed bullets. Slightly less expensive than the copper plated bullets. The epoxy coated bullets are much better than the powder coated bullets. The Hi-Tek coating is the best among them.
- Buy commercially cast bullets instead of jacketed, or plated, or coated bullets. The commercial cast are the least expensive of all of the purchased options.
- Buy a bullet casting mold, and cast your own cast bullets. This option is far and away the least expensive option for acquiring projectiles to support your reloading and shooting hobbies.
I’ll delve deeper into these areas in a bit, but first a brief discussion for the rifle shooters
RIFLE SHOOTING OPTIONS:
- Copper plated rifle bullets are generally NOT available. There is a suggested speed limit on copper plated bullets (1200 feet per second) that gets exceeded by nearly every every rifle load, even starting loads, for most rifle bullet weights and powder loads. So, this is not really an option.
- Powder Coated and Epoxy Coated bullets, when properly created, can be fired at rifle speeds successfully. However, the epoxy coated bullets seem to the the best solution for rifle shooting.
- Cast bullets can be purchased or cast at home for successful rifle shooting. Three things are generally required for success with cast lead bullets: Hardness of the alloy for the muzzle velocity (the faster the velocity, the harder the alloy needed), sizing of the bullet diameter to match the bullet to the bore of the gun (undersized leads to leading of the lands and the grooves due to “jetting”, and oversized leads to leading due to excess friction. Application of a “gas check” will alleviate some or most of the errors in any of those three. Rifle shooters successfully send cast lead bullets down range at speeds over 2500 feet per second with great accuracy. Commercial cast rifle bullets are limited in that the commercial casters strive to serve the broadest possible range of needs. Those casting their own rifle bullets stand the best chance of successful accurate shooting.
So, since this article is on the subject of casting bullets for pistol and rifle shooting, it should be presumed that the decision has been made to cast your own. I will therefore proceed to highlight some of the areas of interest in that pursuit.
BULLET CASTING GUIDELINES
Equipment needed for bullet casting:
- Mold – typically an iron, brass, or aluminum block, with single or multiple cavities, and facility for attaching a set of handles. These molds get very hot, and use of handles is advised! There are commercial manufacturers of molds, including Lee Precision and Lyman Precision Products. Lee has the reputation of being the low price, and lesser quality of those two. Lee molds are available in two cavity and four cavity configurations, and with tumble lube micro grooves (for use with their Alox lube product) or regular lube grooves (for use with a beeswax based lube). Lyman molds are generally single, 2 or four cavity configurations, in iron, a very durable mold material. Lee handles do NOT fit Lyman molds, so plan accordingly.
Other places to acquire high quality molds are “group buys” hosted at places such as castboolits.gunloads.com. MP-Molds and NOE Molds are two of the group buy vendors, and both make molds that use more standard Lee style handles. Also, there are custom mold makers out there who can create a single (one up) mold to your specification, and also modify or tweak an existing mold to be more to your liking.
- Eye protection – Lead melts at temperatures higher than 500 degrees F. Any splashes can and will cause burns. Damage to your eyes is irreversible, so always wear eye protection while casting.
- Gloves – Leather or other heat resistant gloves are strongly suggested when handling hot molds, and even hotter molten lead. In fact, be sure to wear clothing that will protect the other surfaces of your body while casting.
- Casting Pot – Two types are available. Bottom pour, where a small spout on the bottom allows molten lead to flow out into the mold. These are the easiest to use. The other type of pot is referred to as a “dipper pot”. These have no lower spout, and reply on the caster using a dipper to scoop up lead from the top of the pot, and hand pouring it into the mold. Both types come in to sizes, generally speaking. A 10 pound pot is less expensive, and is good as a starter. However, the 20 pound pot will service your needs better, and provide for more cast bullets between refilling with alloy. Among my largest bullets are some 500 S&W Magnum bullets that weigh in at 700 grains each. There are 7,000 grains to the pound, so ten bullets is a pound of alloy. My twenty pound bottom pour (RCBS Pro-Melt) pot provides 200 bullets before it’s empty. Or, when casting 38 special bullets, it’s 160 grains per bullet. That’s a whopping 875 bullets between refilling. Some of the manufacturers are now adding digital programmable controllers to their casting pots.
- Alloy – You’ll need a range of alloy types for your general casting needs, presuming that you are casting a variety of pistol and rifle bullets over time. Generally speaking, these fall into three categories. . .
- Soft Alloys: Pure Lead or “range lead”. Pure lead includes dead soft lead alloys with virtually none of the two common alloying metals included, tin and antimony. Plumbers lead and roof flashing are examples of pure lead. Pure lead is usually only usable directly for muzzle loading castings where it is specifically called for. It can also be used to “soften” harder alloys when needed. Range lead is fired bullets gleaned from shooting ranges. They are generally a mix of jacketed bullets and cast bullets. They equate to a soft alloy, often closer to pure lead than anything else.
- Medium Alloys: Often, these alloys need to be either purchased or created. They are referred to as being in the range of “Lyman #2 Alloy”. This alloy is great for pistol bullets.
- Harder Alloys: Wheel weights and Linotype alloy are much harder than the previous two types. They have additional tin and antimony added to provide stiffness and hardness for their original intended use. A few years ago, the Federal Government eliminated the use of lead alloy wheel eights in cars and trucks in the US. Most modern wheel weights are steel and zinc. So, finding tire shops willing to supply you with lead alloy wheel weights is getting more and more difficult. You should expect to be willing to PAY for raw wheel weights, a price under fifty cents a pound is reasonable. Scrap Metal Dealers can also be a good source for wheel weights. However, you’ll get a mix of lead alloy, steel and zinc, which much be sorted before use. Linotype, or printers lead, is an excellent source for hard alloy. But, because the digital printing age has completely replaced this 50+ year old technology, this alloy is also becoming harder and harder to find. Wheel weights and Linotype are wonderful alloys for rifle bullets.
A great source of information on lead alloys, their use and purpose, along with tons of great casting information and details can be found in a free reference book, available for downloading, ” From Ingot to Target: A Cast Bullet Guide for Handgunners” That’s a web based version of Glenn’s book. A PDF file version is also available HERE. It’s very much the BIBLE or standard reference I refer all my reloading students to. Here is a link for some additional safety thoughts from Glenn.
Pure Lead, Range Lead, Wheel Weights, and Linotype must commonly be transformed from their original shape and condition, into “INGOTS” prior to use in your casting pot. The raw materials are commonly contaminated with sand, dirt and other grit, as well as oils which won’t work well when traveling through your gun bore. Normally, unless you are buying ingots which have already gone through the cleaning process, you’ll need to melt down the raw materials, and clean them of the impurities. Sort wheel weights with a set of wire cutters. The cutter set will easily cut into lead wheel weights. While any zinc and steel wheel weights will solidly resist the cutters blades. DO NOT just throw all your wheel weights into a melting pot, hoping that the zinc and steel will float to the top. The bottom layer of zinc weights will melt (zinc melts at about 783 degrees F), and will forever contaminate the batch of alloy and your melting pot. Any future alloy, thereby contaminated with ZINC will look and act much like oatmeal, rendering it completely useless for the casting process. Typically, you will run those cleaning and ingot making sessions in a way as to keep the various alloys separate for later use. Alternatively, you can “alloy” the lead to become what you will need later in the casting pot. The addition of softer lead will reduce the hardness of hard alloys. And, the addition of linotype or wheel eights will make soft alloys harder. I like to mark my ingots, when they cool, with some designation so that I can later quickly identify them as to their composition. A Sharpie serves well for that purpose. If you don’t have good access to raw materials for making ingots, stay with purchasing alloy from a reliable source. Both ROTO METALS and “The Captain” at CastBoolits are reasonably priced sources for alloy ingots.
A word about lead safety
Lead ingestion can be very dangerous. Fortunately, careful handling, and good sanitary methods can prevent virtually 100% of lead dangers. Do not eat or drink while handling lead alloys. Don’t expose any cuts to lead. No wiping your eyes while casting. Lead doesn’t vaporize until it reaches over 3,164 F. Normal casting temperatures are well below that, typically in the 650 F to 850 F range. Therefore it’s unlikely that any exposure to lead “vapors” while casting will exist. Any smoke arising from your casting pot is more likely to be from bullet lube, or other flammables. Good ventilation will exhaust those fumes, which you are better off not breathing also. But, it’s no worse than any ordinary campfire smoke. Bottom line: Do your castuing with good ventilation, avoid direct lead contact with any cuts or your eyes, and wash your hands carefully after every casting session, and before handling any foods or drinks.
- Sizing and Lubricating Equipment: After casting your bullets, they will need to be properly sized for your gun, and proper lubrication installed. Lyman and RCBS make “lubricizers” expressly for that purpose. With interchangeable nose punches, and sizing die inserts, and a chamber for the lube, with each stroke of the handle, the bullets are sized and lube is installed in the lube groove of the bullets. Production rates are fast.
A note about powder coating and epoxy coating bullets at home: I would refer you to the many on-line references for how to process both powder coated bullets and epoxy coated bullets. As previously mentioned, the epoxy coated (from all field reports I have gleaned) is the better option, and of those which are available, the Hi-Tek Coating System is the best. Both powder coating (spray fine plastic powder onto cast bullets) and epoxy coating (dip cast bullets into the coating liquid) require baking, typically done in a dedicated toaster oven with specially made racks. These bullets are typically not sized or lubed after the fact, creating issues with some of the concepts indicated in Fryxells book.
Casting lead bullets is a hobby unto itself. I find it as relaxing as the reloading hobby that I already have to support my shooting needs. Once an initial investment in equipment is made, the casting experience will last you more than a lifetime. It’s easy and fun to do. And, most importantly, it removes most or all of the cost for the projectile, which otherwise is THE MOST EXPENSIVE component in reloading.