Lead Is Not Dead
January 04, 2011
Cast bullets can be the ticket to cheaper or more accurate shooting and can give new life to old guns.
Casting allows shooters to tailor bullet to cartridge. The .40-65 Winchester (l.) is shown with a 260-grain bullet from an original mold. The .40-70 Straight (r.) is paired here with a modern-mold 330-grain slug.
Cast bullets--bullets molded from molten lead and lead alloys--have been around as long as we have had firearms. After five-plus centuries, you would think there would be little more to learn or to write about cast bullets. But you would be wrong.
Cast bullets have a multitude of personalities--and more so today than ever in history. They are produced by the hundreds of thousands and sold cheap to target shooters; they are lovingly cast one perfect bullet at a time by long-range blackpowder competitors who demand absolute perfection; they are created in esoteric shapes to keep ancient muskets shooting; and they are formed into weird configurations to create especially deadly projectiles.
But despite the fact that they have so many uses and have been around for so long, a lot of modern riflemen are not aware of all that cast bullets have to offer. It doesn't matter what kind of rifles you shoot or what your target is: Lead bullets can expand your universe.
Let's start with economy, since cost has been the driving force behind the popularity of cast bullets for almost a century.
In theory, a man could start with a gas fire, an iron pot, a bullet mold and a supply of old lead pipe and a couple of hours later have a few months' supply of slugs for his old .44. That was true a century ago, and it is true now. The more demanding you are of your rifle and your ammunition, however, the less simple it becomes.
Companies such as RCBS, Redding (SAECO casting products) and Lyman offer everything a bullet caster needs, regardless of his level of production. You can spend a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that it is almost impossible for the back-shed bullet caster to compete in either price or quality with the lead bullets available today from any number of commercial casting operations.
When you can buy a box of 500 beautifully uniform bullets of proper alloy for your .38 Special for $35 or $40, you need either an endless supply of free lead, or entirely too much free time, to make it worth your while trying to cast your own bullets for less.
The hitch here is that these fine, inexpensive bullets depend on volume for their economic feasibility. This means they are made only for the most popular calibers, and in the most popular weights. If you are looking for a 1900-era target bullet for a .33-40, you are unlikely to find any on your gun-shop shelf.
Cowboy-action shooting has brought back many old cartridges, and these have been followed by a wider variety of cast bullets, but for the man with a seriously obscure rifle, for a long-forgotten cartridge, casting your own is still almost the only option.
One advantage of having good lead bullets in common configurations, available in bulk at low prices, is that it frees up your casting time to concentrate on making smaller numbers of esoteric calibers and weights.
As for absolute cost, it is impossible to put a figure on it. If a man is determined to produce usable bullets for almost nothing, it can be done; if another wants to produce absolutely perfect target bullets and is willing to spend thousands to do so, that can be done, too. Your choice.
Today it's possible to find sources for lead ingots on internet auction sites. Home casters can use these in combination with tin to make the perfect bullet.
The first and most important consideration for any bullet caster is the mold. All the other equipment revolves around one point: Pouring molten lead into the proper mold and dropping a perfect bullet from it a few seconds later.
There are several top-quality mold manufacturers that can supply a wide variety of molds for almost any purpose. Or you can order a custom mold to a standard design or for a bullet of your own creation. There are many small custom-mold makers, for example, that cater particularly to long-range target shooters.
If you are of an historical bent, you can also buy old, used molds. These are sold in antique and gun shops, at gun shows or over internet auction sites. Many are purchased by collectors, so the most desirable old molds (such as the Pope or Pope-Ideal) will sell for collector prices--normally considerably higher than the average bullet caster wants to pay.
But if you own a century-old Winchester 1892 in .38-40, and you want to find an original Winchester mold that throws a .403 diameter bullet specifically for that cartridge and rifle, it can be done relatively easily.
Incidentally, internet auction sites are also useful for obtaining your raw material. Many entrepreneurs around the country have started businesses melting down and purifying lead, and selling it in ingots.
On auction sites, 20-pound lots of lead or lead alloy often sell for considerably less than you would pay at a casting supply house, and for most purposes it is perfectly good. Some is certified virtually pure lead, which you can then use to create your own lead-tin alloy.
There are no rules for buying used molds except "buyer beware." With a little experience, you will know what flaws to look for. Many sellers of bullet molds know very little about them; they come from estates or out of someone's garage, and all the seller knows is that granddad set great store by them, and he or she figures they must be worth something.
I have bought excellent molds for very little and paid too much for ramshackle molds that made only decent paper weights. I think it has evened out in the end.
The very highest end of the bullet-casting universe is the realm of the long-range, blackpowder target shooter, flinging 500-grain projectiles 1,000 yards and measuring groups in inches.
These lads work with newly made rifles and equipment that duplicate the technology of a century ago. Their bullet molds and casting techniques are as precise and arcane as the practices of the most dedicated modern benchrest shooter. Whol
e books have been written (notably a fine series by Paul Matthews) about every aspect of their casting, from bullet nose designs to appropriate alloys and the best material from which to have a mold made.
Such competitors think nothing of spending an entire afternoon casting 50 perfect bullets for use in a match. In time spent, at least, their costs are high--but so are their standards.
Most of us will never move into that realm of bullet casting. But between that level and the back-shed fire with an iron pot of molten lead lies a vast area of opportunity to do a lot of shooting with lead bullets and pay relatively little for the pleasure.
One of the most popular uses for cast bullets is for grand old cartridges such as the .45-70. They work great and are much cheaper than jacketed styles.
I have a .22 K-Hornet built on a BSA Martini action, and my favorite loads for it use .224 flat-nosed cast bullets fired at moderate velocities with powders like Unique and Herco. Try finding .224-diameter cast bullets. It ain't easy. But in the old days, Lyman made quite a variety of molds in that diameter, and a pound of lead goes a long, long way when your bullet weighs only 40 grains. (Since you ask, a pound will give you 175 bullets.)
My modest collection of old Winchester lever guns presents its own demands when it comes to bullets. The .38-55 is blessed with a tight chamber and a large bore; standard .375 cast bullets keyhole mercilessly, so the answer is pure lead bullets ahead of a charge of Unique to duplicate the "bumping up" action of blackpowder. Works like a charm, but it demands specially cast bullets.
The Model 1886 .40-65 does much the same thing, and since modern commercial bullets for the .40-65 are generally very heavy and intended for single-shot rifles with faster rif-ling twists, I am once again thrown back on my own resources to keep it shooting.
My greatest use of cast bullets, however, is in my really big rifles--the .416 Rigby, .458 Lott, .450 Ackley, a couple of .505 Gibbs and a .500 Nitro Express.
Bullets and molds for the .458s and .500 (.512 inch) are relatively easy to find, since these are the diameters employed in the ever-popular .45-70 and the big .50s of the American West. The .416 Rigby and the .505 Gibbs are another matter. Even molds for the .416 Rigby are not a standard item, so it took some searching to find a usable 400-grain cast roundnosed bullet.
The Gibbs can be handled by getting a standard .510 mold and a .506- diameter sizing die to swage the bullets down. This is best done in stages. But, believe me, with a .505 Gibbs, anything is worth the effort to avoid paying the cost of practicing with expensive jacketed bullets.
Generally speaking, there is no firearm ever made that cannot be made to shoot once again (always assuming it is sound, of course) by the use of cast bullets. Really, all you need is a mold, and molds can always be made to order.
What it all boils down to is, how badly do you want to shoot that big-bore double or antique lever gun? For most of us, if we own a rifle, we want to shoot it. Regardless.