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The well-dressed bullet: how to keep lead off your bore and out of the air.

OKAY, WE ALL KNOW THAT LEAD IS BEST for bullets. In terms of density, ability to shape, ballistic durability and malleability, it is hard to beat. Gold is perhaps better, being non-reactive and thus not bad for your health, but it's more than a bit pricey. Depleted uranium is even denser, but it's so hard it would strip the rifling out of your barrel in a few shots. And there is that radioactive problem.

But lead, despite its good attributes, does have its drawbacks. Left bare, even the hardest lead alloys will coat your handgun's bore. Once that lead buildup reaches a certain point, it distorts the subsequent bullets, and accuracy goes away. Two, pure lead bullets generate airborne particles when fired, and while indoor range exhaust systems keep things at a safe level, if you don't follow safe practices such as washing your hands after shooting, you're needlessly exposing yourself to lead hazards.

So we coat or lubricate the lead to protect the bore and cut down on airborne lead particles. The earliest approach for a high-velocity coating was simple copper, copper-nickel or copper-tin alloys. Rifle shooters found those alloys to have severe drawbacks--basically that jacket fouling built up so quickly, and so unevenly, that accuracy suffered.

The next was gilding metal, which is a copper-zinc alloy. This works superbly, and we have been using it for over a century since. It is, however, quite strong, making the development of expanding handgun bullets a long and painful process. It is also a bit expensive.

A variant is copper plating. Here, instead of cupping and drawing a jacket, the lead core has a copper jacket electrochemically plated onto it. Good for all sane handgun velocities, it offers leading protection.

The strength of copper alloys led Winchester to try another metal, aluminum. Used in the Silvertip line of bullets, the idea was simple: Encase a soft lead bullet inside an aluminum jacket. The sole function of the jacket is to keep lead from contacting the bore. The bullet is intended to perform as if it were simply a soft lead slug--in this instance a hollowpoint bullet--on impact. It worked well enough for the time, but that time came to an abrupt end in Miami in 1986 in an infamous shoot-out involving the FBI that resulted in the death of two agents and the wounding of five more.

One detail of the Miami FBI shootout was the "failure" of the 9mm Silvertip bullet; it stopped an inch short of one assailant's heart, prompting the FBI to enter the new age of bullet testing and development.

I've recently read of an Italian ammunition company beginning production of bullets using aluminum jackets, but instead of simply being a thin covering to keep lead from steel, its jackets will be sturdy and simply a lower-cost replacement for gilding metal.

Mild steel has been used, usually when the cost or availability of copper precluded its use and almost always in a military/warfooting context. While still seen in European calibers and dangerous game hunting, steel has several drawbacks: one being rust, the other being severe wear on bores.

And then there is the miracle of plastics. After all, if the plan is to encase a bullet in order to protect the bore from the soft, sticky lead of the bullet's core, then why not something plastic? Something inexpensive and easy to apply? How about plastic?

The original was the Nyclad by Smith & Wesson. Basically a swaged lead bullet, which in the .38 Special was a semi-wadcutter hollowpoint, it kept lead off the bore and out of the air. And as a snubby load during the late 1970s and early 1980s, it performed well enough to gain a good reputation.

S&W was not loading its own ammo, and when the agreement with the ammo company ran its course, Federal bought the rights to Nyclad and now loads it. The coating does everything it is supposed to do. It keeps lead off the bore and out of the air in firing ranges. But as defensive ammo goes, it is still pretty much a swaged hol-lowpoint or semi-wadcutter--good, but not as good as the latest generation of expanding ammunition.

Now, when it comes to keeping lead off the bore, you can always apply a lubricant. Just like it does on the bearings on your car, lube reduces metal-to-metal friction and thus keeps the lead on the bullet.

A good lube can do a lot to keep lead off your bore. The original is a waxy substance pressed into recesses in the load-bearing portion of the bullet. Another approach is liquid. You immerse a basket of bullets in the lubricant mixture and then let the carrier liquid evaporate and the bullets dry. Used on swaged bullets, it works well enough--but not as well as a harder alloy bullet and waxy lube.

But lubed lead bullets have a problem of their own: smoke. I've been at competitions where some stages faced the morning sun, and the poor sods who were using lubed lead bullets produced clouds of smoke so bright from the backlit conditions they could not see their targets.

So some makers use a polymer coating--not to protect a soft bullet but to reduce or eliminate smoke. The "jacket" is little more than the same kind of application as a liquid lube application but done to a hard-cast bullet it reduces smoke to an amazing degree. One such source is from Black Bullets International, using a proprietary coating it calls Poly-M. It produces a semi-gloss black bullet.

What can you make? There are swaging machines that allow you to produce swaged lead and swage lead cores into copper jackets. You can also lube your own cast bullets with a lubrisizer or dip-lube swaged bullets.

But for the most part, the protection for your bore and preventing airborne lead depends on a commercial bullet maker. Oh, and I almost forgot one approach used to keep lead from rifle bores: paper. It was common for target rifles in the late 19th century to use paper-wrapped bullets. It was effective but labor-intensive.

If I find at some future date that I have to use paper-wrapped bullets in order to shoot practical handgun competitions, I'll take up model trains or something instead.
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Title Annotation:AMMO SHELF
Author:Sweeney, Patrick
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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