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Modern handguanners are the heirs to a century of cast bullet design and development.

Have you ever wondered where the great cast bullet designs we have access to today came from? Lead bullets and bullet molds have been around as long as firearms themselves. The earliest bullets were of course simple round balls, and crude molds to cast them were made of stone and even wood. It would be until the middle of the 20th century before experimenters would modernize bullet designs for handguns. Over the past 70 years such men as Elmer Keith, Phil Sharpe, Ray Thompson, Gordon Boser, Jim Harvey, Veral Smith and J.D. Jones have brought the cast pistol bullet to perfection.

Elmer Keith: The Keith Bullet

It is difficult today, perhaps impossible, to find a dedicated sixgunner who does not know of Elmer Keith, and who does not understand what the term "Keith bullet" means. While this term has become generic for semi-wad-cutter bullets, the truth is that 99.9 percent of such bullets are in actuality not Keith bullets.

Keith was a rancher, guide, outfitter, outdoor photographer and a writer whose career spanned nearly 60 years. A tireless experimenter, Keith had a great influence on shooting. He was an early proponent of using a sixgun both for long-range shooting and for big-game hunting.

As early as 1925, Keith described his experiments directed towards improving the power and long-range accuracy of handguns. His methods were far from normal, involving heavy 300 gr. .45-70 bullets and fine grained black powder in the .45 Colt case. The destruction of a good Colt .45 SAA convinced him that the .44 Special would be a superior cartridge for his continuing experiments. Keith spent 30 years promoting his heavy .44 Special loads that would lead to the .44 Mag. in 1955.

Not being satisfied with bullet shapes available at the time, Keith began designing his own. His first efforts for the .44 Special were extremely blunt nosed 260 gr. and 280 gr. bullets. Although these bullets performed well at short range, they were definitely lacking in the long-range accuracy he wanted.

In search of a better solution Keith turned to the semi-wadcutter shape. The basic design was not original to Keith. His contribution was to take the basic idea and greatly improve it.

A true Keith bullet has three essential attributes: three equal, full-caliber driving bands; a deep crimping groove; and a large square-cornered grease groove. It is nearly impossible to find current molds that drop true Keith bullets. The reason is simple. Because of the three wide driving bands and the square corners of the grease groove, they are rather difficult to cast.

Keith always complained about the fact that the mold makers changed his designs, and by 1974 he wrote that Hensley & Gibbs was the only manufacturer still cutting molds to his original design. Today if one wants genuine Keith designs, the best bet is to find an old Ideal mold. Of current designs, Lyman's #358429 and #429421 are close; RCBS's #44-250KT and #45-255 SWC are good, as is NEI's #260.429.

Keith's four basic original designs from the 1920s and 1930s were cataloged and offered by Ideal, now Lyman, as #358429, 173 gr. for the 38 Special; #429421, 250 gr. for the .44 Special; #454424, 260 gr. for the .45 Colt; and the 240 gr. #452423 for use in the .45 Auto Rim. The only current source I know of for commercially cast true Keith bullets is Beartooth Bullets. They have both .44 and .45 caliber versions.

Phil Sharpe: The .357 Magnum Bullet

Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe collaborated on pioneering work with Smith & Wesson's .38/44 Heavy Duty revolver. They developed potent .38 Special loads that lead to the .357 Magnum. It is also obvious from reading the writings of both men that the whole experience caused some problems between them.

The .38/44 Heavy Duty arrived three years before the advent of #2400 powder from Hercules, and Keith's early experiments were with #80 powder in both .44 Special and .38 Special.

Keith had also designed hollow based versions of his .38 and .44 bullets, #358431 and #429422 respectively, and Sharpe said, "A certain hollow-base bullet, much praised by its designer and many writers, was tested in heavy loadings in the .38 Special and .44 Special. A sample batch (with #80 powder) was sent to the Peters Cartridge Company for these tests, and Cot. W.A. Tewes wrote the designer who submitted them, condemning the load in no uncertain terms. At the same time he sent me a carbon of his letter..." Those loads in .44 Special averaged 29,000 psi pressure, while the heavy .38 Specials averaged 42,000 psi.

Sharpe went on to say how he worked with Maj. Doug Wesson in developing the .357 Mag. using his own bullet design. As first offered, the .357 Mag. factory ammunition featured a 158 gr. bullet at 1,510 fps from an 8" barreled Smith & Wesson. "This bullet, in its present state, has been driven as high as 1,620 fps," said Sharpe.

Sharpe's design was basically a shortened Keith bullet which was necessary to use the crimping groove in the new longer .357 Mag. brass. Today molds very close to Sharpe's original designs are Lyman's #358477 and RCBS's #38-150 KT. Both are good bullets for the .357 Mag.

Ray Thompson: Gas Check Genius

Every sixguaner who has ever shot cast bullets knows that leading can be a serious problem. One of the best solutions to this problem is the gas check bullet. We don't know who first conceived the idea of a gas check - a small copper or brass cup that fits on the base of a cast bullet - but we do know who brought it to perfection.

Keith was not the only proponent of heavily loaded .44 Specials from the 1920s through the 1950s. The .44 Associates was an organization of several hundred members who freely exchanged .44 loading information. One of these Associates who carried experiments with the .44 Special even farther than Keith was noted writer John LaChuk.

LaChuk started with the .44 Special but soon made custom cylinders for his Colt Single Action Armies that would accept his wildcat .44 brass made from .405 Winchester and .30-40 Krag rifle cases. In 1949, LaChuk was using his wildcat .44 with brass and loads that were virtually identical to what appeared as the .44 Mag. in 1955!

LaChuk says of Ray Thompson, "One person who helped fuel the renaissance of the .44 Special was Ray C. Thompson of Grand Marais, Minn. Ray was an avid handgun hunter, bagging beasts from wolves to moose. To overcome the bore leading problems that we all shared when shooting high-velocity pistol loads, Ray designed two .44 caliber pistol bullets with gas check rebates at the base. The Thompson #431244 weighed 254 gr. in solid point, 225 gr. with a hollow point. The Thompson #43 1215 weighed 214 gr. solid and 200 gr. hollow pointed. I found Thompson bullets to be extremely accurate and free from the lead fouling."

Thompson was a full-time forest ranger which gave him plenty of opportunity to test his bullet designs. In 1952, four of Thompson's SWC bullets were added to the Lyman catalog. Besides the .44 designs, the others were #358 156 for the .38 and .357 Magnum, and #452490 for the .45 Colt and .45 Auto Rim. Thompson's .38 bullet has two crimping grooves, the top one for use in .357 Mag. brass and the lower one for .38 Special brass.

The late Skeeter Skelton did much to popularize the #358156 bullet. His favored load was this bullet, crimped in the lower groove to increase case capacity, over 13.5 gr. of #2400 in .38 Special brass. It was and is a fine general purpose load for use in .357 revolvers.

Gordon Boser: Wildcatter

While men such as Keith, Thompson, and LaChuk spent most of their sixgunning experimentation with the .44 Special and .44 Mag., Gordon Boser took a different path. Like LaChuk, Boser used the Colt Single Action Army fitted with a new cylinder and wildcat brass made from rifle cases.

Boser went with the Colt Single Action Army in .38-40 or .41 Long Colt and fitted them with new cylinders to accept .401 Winchester brass cut to 1.2". In the 1930s Boser had designed the wildcat that would later become the .401 PowerMag in the 1960s.

To obtain the performance he desired with his .401 Special, the New York gunsmith designed a bullet for Ideal in 1940 that worked fine in the .401 Special and still works very well in both the .401 PowerMag and the .38-40. It is, in fact, the only truly "modern" bullet made for the .38-40.

Boser's bullet is much like Keith's design, with one major exception. While the body of the nose of Keith's bullet is somewhat rounded, Boser's is straight and sharp. Until recently Lyman carried Boser's .38-40 bullet as #401452.

Boser's experiments were not confined to his .401 Special. He also spent a lot of time with the .44 Special. In fact, Boser had identical Colt Single Action Armies, both with 5" barrels, one chambered in .44 Special and the other in .401 Special.

To complement his #401452.401 Special bullet, Boser came up with a companion .44 bullet, #429360. This bullet was cataloged until recently by Lyman. Cast from hard alloy it weighs 232 gr. and can be driven a little faster using the same amount of powder than Keith's 250 gr. bullet. It is also quite temperamental and requires some experimenting to find a truly accurate load.

Jim Harvey: In Search Of Maximum Performance

Jim Harvey of Lakeville Arms in Connecticut was a well known sixgun experimenter in the 1950s. Harvey was also a cast bullet shooter in search of ultimate performance. Remember, this was long before handloaders had a vast array of jacketed bullets to choose from.

Cast bullets had to be sufficiently hard to prevent leading, and at the same time be soft enough to expand. Both of these attributes were rarely achieved in the same bullet.

Harvey's better idea was bullets cast of pure lead with a zinc base. Pure lead would expand tremendously upon impact but would also result in disastrous leading of the barrel. The zinc base acts as a buffer against the hot gases of the powder and also scrapes the bore clean with each shot.

Harvey's Prot-X-Bore bullets were cast from Lyman molds and fitted with a zinc base. Bullets were shot as cast with no sizing and no lube.

Using #2400 powder with his bullets, Harvey had some nearly unbelievable results. Using a 6" barreled Smith & Wesson, he reported 158 gr. bullets at 1,915 fps, 170 gr. at 1,855, and 220 gr. at 1,665 fps in .44 Mag. brass. For the .357 Mag., Harvey went with a 106 gr. HP at 1,650 fps, a 125 gr. HP at 1,600 fps, and a 135 grain SP at 1,550 fps. Although his bullet designs are obsolete now, this was true jacketed bullet performance from cast bullets in the 1950s.

Veral Smith: LBT Bullets

Take a good look at any of the modern, high-performance, cast bullet sixgun cartridges offered today and you will see the influence of Veral Smith and Lead Bullet Technology. The Keith bullet and its copies use the semi-wadcutter shape with most of the weight of the bullet inside the case. LBT bullets are quite different. Most of the weight of the bullet is outside the case with only enough inside to allow for solid crimping and lubrication. This results in much greater powder capacity and, for sixguns that can handle extra pressure such as Freedom Arms and Ruger, increased muzzle velocity and power.

The second attribute of the LBT bullet design is nose shape. LBT bullets are either LFN (Long Flat Nose) or WFN (Wide Flat Nose). There is no semi-wadcutter shape, nor a sharp shoulder. Until recently it was believed that the sharp cutting full-caliber shoulder of the semi-wadcutter Keith bullet delivered the shocking power. In truth it is not the shoulder but the nose, or meplat, that delivers both the initial and ultimate shock.

LBT bullets are full-caliber at the mouth of the brass case and then taper ever so slightly to provide either the LFN or WFN shape. The WFN is for up close and personal use while the LFN design gives better accuracy at longer ranges. With the weight in the nose, penetration is superb, and heavier bullets can be driven at the same velocities as standard weight bullets without excessive pressure levels. LBT bullets have been used in .357, .41, and .44 Magnums; .45 Colt and .454 Casull; .475 and .500 Linebaugh cartridges, and now in the .480 Ruger. They are available in all calibers, already cast, with or without gas checks, from Cast Performance Bullet Co.

J.D. Jones: Bullets For The Hunt

In the 1970s, J.D. Jones, founder of SSK Industries and Handgun Hunters International, was looking for a better bullet. At this time the Keith bullet was still king but Jones wanted better performance, and his answer was the JDJ line of heavyweight bullets in .38, .41, .44, and .45 calibers.

Using the basic truncated cone design, Jones' bullets all have the weight forward in the nose with a wide flat point, a crimping groove, and grease grooves numbering two or more depending upon the weight of the bullet.

Both the .357 and .44 bullets have been used for silhouette competition, and the .44 and .45 bullets for hunting. For hunting, Jones has used his .44 caliber design extensively, and has reported astounding penetration with the 310 gr. bullets in critters as tough as Cape buffalo. For many years our favorite big bore hunting load was the 310 gr. JDJ over 23.5 gr. of WW680 for 1,350 fps from a 10" Ruger Super Blackhawk. When Winchester dropped WW680 we went to 21.5 gr. of WW296 or H110 for the same results.

For use in the longer cylinders of the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk .44 Magnums, Jones designed a heavyweight bullet with two crimp grooves. Using the bottom crimp groove and WW296, or H110, it is possible to safely attain 1500 fps or more with a 300 gr. bullet in a 7" Redhawk. NEI can still supply molds that drop the JDJ bullets.

Twenty years ago it was very difficult to find jacketed bullets suitable for hunting. If one was serious about hunting, he had to go with cast bullets. All that has changed and we now have an excellent line up of big-bore jacketed bullets in both standard and heavyweight form. However, cast bullets are still a viable way to go, and in some instances still the best way for serious handgun hunters to take their game.
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Author:Taffin, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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