Cast Bullets

Match Grade M1 Garand in 30-06.

Match Grade M1 Garand in 30-06.

Well, we could go more into headspace control during the resize process, now, that’s exciting!  But not everybody needs to obsess quite that much, or we could go into reloading for pistol, but that’s really just a scaled down version of what we do with rifle anyway. Well Kinda, but also not really. Both articles will be upcoming.  But for now let’s go for a really HOT HOT Topic!

Bullet Casting, the perfect hobby for the cheapskate, the marginally obsessive, and the simply crazy.

Showing Some cast lead RCBS 170 Grain Gas Checked , sized and lubed bullets.

Some cast lead RCBS 170 Grain Gas Checked , sized and lubed bullets.

As I mentioned elsewhere, about two years ago, back when the component shortage first set in, I had ordered some heads from Sierra, 1000 168gr and 500 180gr Match King in .308.  Well the 168’s took about 9 months and the 180’s may have taken a little over a year to show up. (It’s better now, the last order took only about a month for .223 MK’s.)  But in the interim, I figured it would be a logical move to start making my own projectiles.

Figuring WTF, I choose to take the coward’s way out and order the basic bullet casting kit from Lyman, I mean how far wrong can I go? I chose the Lyman Big Dipper Casting Kit which goes for around $80.00 (the link takes you to the Lyman site which sells for list).  Included were their 10 lb Big Dipper Furnace, a 4 ingot mould, some lube and a Bullet Casting Guide. It MAY have also included the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, or I may have bought that separately. I have seen the kit published both ways. In EITHER CASE, get the book. You’ll definitely need it!  For the record, I use every part of the kit during most casting sessions, although for real production I am now using the bottom pour furnace, but more on that later.

Showing a used Big Dipper Kit

What a Lyman Big Dipper Kit looks like after 3 years of abuse. These days the Big Dipper Furnace is used mostly for recycling small batches such as blems and pulled heads.

So, I had this bright new little kit and this great book, which you really have to go out and buy. The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, which I read and re-read.  The front pages are quite simply a “how to” on not only how to cast lead objects (What could be so hard, heat the stuff ’til it melts and dump it into something and wait ’til it gets hard, right?), but also a primer on the metallurgy of bullet alloys and how the various metals combine.  It also covers safety and lead contamination (myths and legitimate concerns).  And lastly, the entire back 3/4 of the book lists loads and reloading data on various calibers and powder/projectile combinations. Lead bullets ARE NOT equivalent to jacketed bullets! They require different powders and different loads. You need this book!

Showing components of lead casting, range scrap, pure lead, 50/50 bar solder and SuperHard

L-R Processed range scrap, pure lead, 50/50 bar solder, SuperHard, and 2 batches of finished alloys marked for Brinell hardness.

If you have been part of the reloading community for any significant length of time, you’ve heard whisperings about, wheel weights, linotype metals, and secret recipes and handshakes associated with lead bullet casting.  Well this really used to be true, but, nowadays, wheel weights are no longer lead, linotype went out shortly after the Edsel, and with ebola and STD’s, nobody shakes hands anymore. So, think range scrap, pure lead, 50/50 bar solder, and a nifty thing called SuperHard.  With these four elements you can make practically any bullet for any caliber, all you need is some patience, time, and a decent place to work. Will your output be equal to some nice commercially made Sierra Match Kings, hell no! But that being said, you can win matches and have a pant load of fun and practice for a lot less money (after you amortize all the stuff you’re gonna buy to play this silly game).  if you’re loading for pistol, and casting your own lead, you’re gonna make stuff to a large part better than you can buy and cheaper! So you will eventually amortize your investment.

Showing home cast pistol bullets.

With only a tad of effort you can cast pistol lead very equal to purchased heads.

With all this in mind, let’s get started!

The Place

Chances are that if you reload already, which is likely, otherwise what exactly are you gonna do with these wonderful projectiles you’re about to make? You will already have a space dedicated to this art.  You will in all likelihood need to expand it a bit, or arrange to put away some stuff and take out other stuff every time you change modes (this is pretty much what I have to do). Now a word of caution here, and take this seriously!  The things you play with when stuffing bullets into cases DOES NOT MIX WELL WITH HOT LEAD!  Now this seems quite obvious to the casual observer, but I promise you, you will clean up what you thought was lead splatter, and you will toss it back into the pot to remelt and you will see flashes of spilled powder granules “pffitting” as they erupt from what you swept from a spot you thought was clean. You WILL accidentally scoop up spent primers, or dropped live primers that you never found and this is and can be catastrophic! Deheaded 22 rounds that you were certain were devoid of primer will explode, and god forbid your range scrap has a live round mixed in.  So, if you think you have to be really clean to reload, that’s nothing compared to how clean you will need to be to work with lead.  Lead is heavy so, don’t try to use a card table either, it’s also HOT so plastic is out! You want a seriously sturdy wooden or metal surface to work on, and wood is actually better as it will not transmit the heat to anything you don’t want getting hot.

Showing my cluttered and dilapidated space

Here’s my place. Most folks lie to you with these immaculate perfect spaces. My spot is cluttered, makeshift and well, manly. That being said, when I actually work the spot around where I am working is cleared and neat.

If you are going to process your own range scrap, you will want to do this outdoors.  Most bullets are coated with some form of lube, all smallbore bullets are lubed, all lead pistol and rifle bullets are lubed. Jacketed bullets may or may not be (molly coated). But range scrap will smoke like the bejeezus when you heat it up in any case, so melt it outside on the propane grill or deep fryer burner.

So we need a clean sturdy wooden surface with about 3×4 feet of free space and good ventilation, this actually means a decent fan and openings to the outside for air exchange. Melting, and pouring lead releases lead vapor into the air. You will want a decent breeze blowing from you to the pot and away from you and the pot.  You will want to have a fresh air intake on the fan side (read this as open window maybe 2-3 ” in the colder months) and somewhere for the air to leak out on the far side (another window or possibly a slightly raised garage door).  During the warm months, just keep everything wide open!

Your Getup

Your skin will not react well with molten lead! So, best practices dictate, at minimum a long sleeve flannel shirt (no synthetics which will melt and stick to you), long pants, jeans or work pants, shoes or boots, leather work gloves, eye protection (Face shield if you’re melting range scrap), and if you wanna be really safe, a nice leather or canvas apron to be really safe. There are any number of items which can cause lead to splatter and burn you. One of which is particularly sneaky.  Lead and lead oxide residue are hydroscopic (absorb water vapor form the air). Your dipper, and other tools with which you remove dross, and/or stir or dip and pour can literally explode molten lead from your pot if you insert them too quickly while cold, so keep covered especially in the beginning sessions while you are learning.

Your Tools

Obviously you’ll need some method of melting your material. Yes you can use a cast iron pot on the stove top, your BBQ grille, or possibly even a hot plate, but you will find a purpose built lead “furnace” the best bet for casting. A 10 lb. pot will be plenty as you will be tired at the end of that 10 lbs.  It’s enough!  Bottom pour or top dipping pot, it’s up to you. We’ll discuss the difference in the article on process.

Showing two types of lead furnace or pot, the dipper and the bottom pour

Dipper or bottom pour, it’s your choice but I have found use for both. If I were to only buy one at this point it would be the bottom pour.

You will want some tools for stirring the mix and scooping off dross. You will want some method of adding measured amounts of flux, A section of broom handle, or other dowel, or a a purpose built mallet for opening sprue plates. Last but not least you will require some mould or moulds in the caliber you will be making.

Showing many bullet moulds

The number of moulds continues to grow. Personally I think there may be some hanky lanky going on when the lights are out!

Optional stuff will include a thermometer, and a sizing press with sizing dies and top punch, a scale of some sort to measure out the weight of stuff you’re gonna dump into your alloy,  a good note pad and writing implement, and a computer to keep track of all the stuff you;re doing with lead, bulets, and powder etc.  You might also want a clean spackle bucket with water for quenching.  A nice clean white terry towel for a landing place for your bullets if you’re not quenching.

Supplies

We talked briefly about the lead and other metals you’ll be needing.  The range scrap you can get from your local shooting range. Indoor ranges are probably best as you don’t have to dig to get it.  If you have your choice of ranges, one that does not allow jacketed bullets is preferred, but if you can only use range scrap with jacketed bullets, it’s perfectly OK as the lead will melt out and the jacket material will float on top.  Most ranges don’t particularly mind your taking the scrap, but clearly ask first! Some sell the stuff off, but for most it’s just a pain in the butt.

Pure lead, 50/50 bar solder, and SuperHard are all available from Roto Metals. They’re a California based operation, but don;t let that scare you.  IF you buy a hundred bucks of stuff they ship it free.  Go figure, you buy toothpicks from Amazon or whomever and they cost you 14.95 shipping and handling.  But if you buy 80 lbs of lead, shipped cross country from California, you get it packed up, and transported to your doorstep for nothing. If you want a truly good candid moment, hang around for the delivery.  It comes USPS “if it fits it ships” and it is a root seeing the poor mailman (or woman) walking up to the house with the box! I recommend this outfit highly.  I’ve been dealing with them for years and never been disappointed.

You will also need some kind of flux. This can be virtually anything from sawdust and candle wax to specially prepared Frankford Arsenal CleanCast Fluxing Compound. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of many of these later.  My suggestion for you starting out is buy the Frankford.

Lube is very necessary. When we talk about the lube process and alternative we’ll go into depth about the various decisions you have to make and why lube is critical, but for now, lube serves 2 and a half purposes. First it protects the bore from leading by helping the projectile slide along the bore, it also provides a seal to help reduce what is in effect blow by of powder gasses which also contributes to leading. Lastly it also helps seal the metal of the bore itself against abrasion and lead fouling.  And in a pinch, some lubes can also be used as flux!

The last supply you may need are the appropriate gas checks if you are going for higher velocity rifle and some pistol loads.

Moving Forward

We will proceed with these posts in much the same manner in which I began exploring bullet casting. We’ll start with the basics, taking you from a batch of raw lead to finished projectiles that will shoot. We will then explore the various nuances that contribute to better performance and as we do so we will explain in more depth the considerations and impacts of these aspects in distinct articles.  I will also make extensive reference to other sites which I used to expand my knowledge of this topic.

So, for now,  go on out and buy the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook and read the introductory pages while I write the next article in the series…

The Basic Process – Melt It Pour It and Wait for it to Get Hard

 

 

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