Casting your lot: the basics (and the fun) of casting your own bullets.
In days of yesteryear, shooters cast their own bullets because of the lack of available reloading component bullets; because they could enhance performance by sizing to match gun-specific bore diameters and by varying the hardness of the alloy used; and because if you wanted to shoot a lot, casting made good economical sense.
These days, if you've got a job that provides well for you and your family, casting your own handgun bullets doesn't make good economical sense. Once you've purchased the initial equipment, set it all up, scrounged old wheelweights or scrap lead, and then put in the time to actually cast the bullets, you could have more easily just put in a few hours of overtime and purchased factory-cast projectiles of the same type or even jacketed component bullets.
However, casting your own still makes sense performance-wise, and many casters find making their own bullets to be therapeutic. If you discover you're one of them, you can support your shooting habit plus beat stress.
Aside from recreational shooting, what are cast bullets good for? For starters, assuming a correct alloy that doesn't leave deposits of lead in your handgun's rifling, lead bullets are extremely easy on barrels. In fact, many old-time shooters allege they actually smooth and polish a barrel. Maybe, but cast bullets can significantly increase the performance of old handguns with oversize bores because bullets sized in an oversize die provide a tight seal in the rifling.
For those who hunt with handguns, heavy semi-wad-cutter profile cast bullets offer outstanding performance on big game. Cast bullets can--with certain caveats--be appropriate for self-defense purposes. Since most cast handgun bullets don't expand on impact, I consider only the bigger diameter calibers such as .44 and .45 adequate for personal protection because their blunt noses and generous frontal areas enable them to impart energy efficiently. But be warned: Due to their general lack of expansion, over-penetration is going to be a big problem.
A few molds designed to cast hollowpoint bullets are available, and when bullets are cast soft, they can expand on impact and enhance terminal performance. Examples are Lyman's 9mm mold No. 356637, which drops bullets of 125 grains, and .45 caliber mold No. 452374, which produces bullets of 180 grains. The trouble with casting bullets of soft alloy, however, is they can't be pushed to high velocities without leading (more or less soldering trace amounts of lead into the rifling; accumulation destroys accuracy). In very mild loads, they do offer a bit of enhanced self-defense performance.
Regardless of why you want to cast your own bullets, getting started is simple. It can be accomplished with nothing more than a small cast iron pot on a gas burner, a bullet mold and a dipper for ladling the molten metal into the mold. Lyman leads today's equipment suppliers for casting, and the company's Big Dipper starter kit ($105) includes everything you need other than the bullet mold of your choice and handles. It includes the 4th Edition Cast Bullet Handbook, which I consider to be the critical reference for bullet casters, and in addition to in-depth how-to articles, it has extensive load data for a vast selection of cartridges.
Choosing a mold that will help you get the best out of your favorite handgun is a broad topic. The best way in the beginning is to get on the Internet, read the manufacturer's comments and order one that's touted as versatile and popular for your caliber. Note that I wrote "order" one. Few gun stores carry a wide selection of bullet casting products. So don't be in a hurry and just order what you need online or from catalogs.
Production molds such as those produced by Lyman and RCBS are fairly inexpensive, will provide years of good service and constitute perhaps 70 percent of the mold blocks I use. However, the finest molds are custom versions, produced one at a time by master makers. Custom molds function smoothly, create incredibly consistent, concentric bullets and drop those bullets out of the cavities without struggle. The best handgun molds I've used are by Heavy Metal Molds, made in Utah and sold through Discount Guns & Ammo (DiscountGunAndAmmo.com).
Handgun molds typically come in two-cavity and four-cavity versions. Once you get good at it, a higher number of cavities speeds up casting, but the larger molds are harder to cast with.
When setting up, do so on a sturdy surface, either outdoors or in a well-ventilated place. I cast in my garage, with the garage door and window both open. Lead is toxic, and without good ventilation, the vapors can be harmful. A small fan placed at the window can help push vapors out and create fresh air flow.
Be sure to wear eye protection, gloves, a long-sleeve shirt and pants, and closed-top shoes. Hot lead fragments--and in drastic cases, splashes--aren't what you want adhering to your unprotected skin.
Fold an old towel and place it beside your melting pot or furnace to drop bullets on. When fresh out of the mold, they're slightly soft, and the towel will cushion their landing and prevent deformation. Plus, you don't want to burn the surface of your bench.
Heat your pot, laying ingots of lead alloy, scrap lead, wheelweights or whatever material you're using (see sidebar) against the sides of the pot, and let it heat slowly, adding material as the chunks melt and pool in the bottom of the pot. Once melted, lift out any steel wheelweight brackets or other non-lead bits that have floated to the top and set them to cool somewhere prior to disposal.
Sneak into the pantry and chop the bottom end off of one of your wife's beeswax candles (What? You don't have beeswax candles? Beeswax is widely available in other forms.) Back at your casting site, trim off a pea-size chunk and drop it into the molten lead. Pungent beeswax-and-lead smoke will erupt. Touch a match to it to convert the smoke to vapor.
Stir the melted, burning wax into the lead, a process called "fluxing," which mixes the alloy and helps dross to separate and float to the top. With the alloy well mixed and the wax burned off, scrape any dross off with an old spoon. You're ready to begin casting.
Before pouring the first bullets, I "smoke" the mold cavity with a match. This deposits a thin layer of soot and, according to old-timers, assists bullets in dropping freely out of the mold. If your mold is new, or if it's been oiled for long-term storage, first degrease it with rubbing alcohol or, better yet, an aerosol-powered degreaser.
Pouring from a ladle or using a spigot at the bottom of a pot are similar but require different techniques. With a ladle, give the molten alloy a quick stir and lift from the bottom of the pot, which keeps the alloy mixed and fills the ladle with hot, clean lead rather than slightly cooled surface material with dross floating in it. Tilt the mold sideways, press the ladle's spout against the top of the mold, and rotate them in tandem, enabling the molten lead to flow out of the ladle and into the mold.
When it's full and hot lead begins to squeeze out around the spout, keep the mold level and rotate the ladle away from it. Lead will spill over the top of the mold; don't worry about it.
Put the ladle back in the lead pot and hold the mold steady while the puddle atop the sprue cutter cools and solidifies. (The sprue is the puddle atop the mold; the sprue cutter is the plate atop the mold that rotates and cuts the sprue from the bullet).
The puddle is critical to filling the mold at the bullets' base. Lead shrinks as it cools, and without a molten reservoir topside to pull from, the base will be left with a small hole in its center.
When filling the mold from a spigot at the bottom of an electric lead furnace, position the mold below the spigot, lift the handle that allows lead to pour, and lower it when molten lead begins to pool atop the mold. Sometimes, such as when casting from straight wheelweights, it helps to hold the tapered hole in the sprue cutter firmly against the bottom of the spigot and allow the pressure of the molten metal in the pot above to force the cavity full. As traces of hot lead begin to leak around the spigot, lower it slightly and allow a puddle to form atop the sprue cutter. As the puddle hardens (which it will do almost immediately until the mold comes up to appropriate temperature), it will change from a mirror-bright silver color to a frosty pewter color.
Using a section cut from a one-inch oak dowel, an old hammer handle or similar tool, rap the end of the sprue cutter smartly to cut the sprue. Hit it straight to avoid bending or otherwise distorting the sprue cutter and the screw it hinges on. One or two good raps should suffice to cut the sprue.
The first several bullets you cast from a cold mold will look awful, with massive wrinkles and rounded edges. Fear not. As the mold heats up, the cavities will fill more completely, and as it reaches sufficient temperature that the lead doesn't cool prematurely as it flows, bullets will come out with smooth, shiny surfaces and nice sharp edges and bases.
As the lead begins to fill the mold more completely, bullets will become more difficult to shake out of the mold blocks. Tap lightly on the hinge of your mold handles to knock the bullets free. Don't ever hit the mold blocks themselves.
If your cast bullets take on a frosty appearance, the lead or mold is too hot. Back off the heat and cast a bit more slowly. Also watch for lead smears on the sliding surfaces of the mold block face and the sprue cutter. Smears indicate you're cutting the sprue too early, before the lead has had time to cool adequately. That buildup is difficult to remove, so avoid it if possible.
If needed, you can adjust the tension of the sprue cutter via the screw it hinges on. The cutter should rotate smoothly, with a minimum of effort, but not freely. Once set, be sure to tighten the small Allen-head lock screw in the side of the mold to secure the hinge screw.
As bullets begin dropping clean and perfect from the mold, you'll get in a rhythm, scooping up scrap sprues and adding them back into the pot while you allow the most recent pour to cool slightly before knocking the sprue cutter around and shaking the bullets out onto the folded towel.
Flux every now and then to be sure the alloy stays well mixed and to burn any dross out of it. I flux every 30 to 50 bullets, depending on how the casting is going.
When finished, quickly sort your bullets and return any with flaws to the pot, add any cut sprues and pour the remaining molten material into an ingot mold. After the ingots cool, scratch the alloy type into each somewhere--as in "No. 2" or "WW" for wheelweights.
Cast bullets need to be lubed in order to avoid leading up the bore of your handgun and sized--swaged to perfect diameter--to enable best performance. Lubing and sizing cast bullets is a topic in itself, but in short, two methods are commonly used: You can tumble them in lube and shoot without sizing, or you can lube and size in a purpose-built press, such as Lyman's 4500 Lube Sizer or RCBS's Lube-A-Matic bullet sizer/lubricator.
Sizer/lubricators must be fit with a die that swages cast bullets to perfect roundness and diameter--whatever you choose--and lubes them via holes into which bullet lube is injected under pressure. Properly set, the lube fills the grease groove or grooves in the cast bullet without mess or fuss. It's simpler than it sounds. Place a bullet into the sizer die, pull the handle, raise the handle, and remove the sized and lubricated bullet.
You've cast, sorted, sized, and lubed your bullets. Clean up around the bench, unplug your melting pot or turn off the gas under it, and go load those lovely, shiny projectiles into your favorite cartridge cases.
LEAD ALLOYS FOR HANDGUN ROUNDS
Wheelweights--the small weights that tire shops use to balance the tires on your car--are a cheap source of lead in an alloy that works great in handgun cartridges. It's a mix of 95.5 percent lead, 4.0 percent antimony--which hardens the lead enough that it grips the rifling well and withstands reasonably high velocities without leading up the bore of your firearm--and 0.50 percent tin. Wheelweights rate about a nine on the Brinell Hardness Number scale.
Some modern wheelweights are made of steel or aluminum, so you'll have to sort them, which is a dirty job. You can eliminate the steel ones by scratching them with a screwdriver--lead will gouge, steel will skate--or with a magnet. Aluminum wheelweights are harder to sort, but the good news is that you can just throw the lot into your melting pot. The aluminum and steel--including the steel brackets that hold the weights to the wheels--will float to the top and can be lifted off with an old spoon, leaving nothing but wheelweight lead alloy in your pot.
Pure wheelweight alloy doesn't cast particularly well, so add a bit of lead/tin solder--enough to bring the alloy to five percent tin, which makes it flow and fill the edges and hollows in your mold much more easily. The formula, according to the Lyman book, is nine pounds of wheelweights and one pound of 50/50 lead/ tin solder.
Now you've created an alloy known as Lyman No. 2, a long-standing staple in the cast-bullet community. With a Brinell of about 15, it works well for most handgun and rifle bullets and casts beautifully. No. 2 alloy can also be purchased online in one-pound ingots. It'll cost you a bit more, but eliminates a lot of hassle.
There are other sources, but these are the two main ones suitable for modern handgun use.
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|Author:||Von Benedikt, Joseph|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2016|
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