With the cost of doing business at the range going up every time it rains, I decided that casting lead bullets from scrap might be worth the endeavor. I spoke with a friend about getting started. We exchanged many emails and spent several hours on the phone getting me prepped to turn lead wheel weights into semi-wadcutters as fodder for my Government Models.
Lyman has been making casting equipment for some time and many swear by it. So, I decided to start with the Lyman Master Casting Kit. The initial kit was inexpensive, which was also a factor. When starting any new hobby, there is always the chance it won’t go as expected. I did not want a huge cash layout only to find out that casting would not be for me.
The Master Casting Kit includes a 10-pound electric pot, ladle, 4500 bullet sizer/lubricator, four cavity one-pound ingot mold, and the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook. The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook should be read at least twice before any steps on casting or smelting begins.
I really enjoy reloading, so I was optimistic on casting. I chose Lyman molds 452630 (a 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter for .45 Auto) and 356402 (a truncated cone for Super .38) to start with.
I had a few days before my equipment was expected to arrive, so I decided to scour the local tire stores for old wheel weights. After a few stops and some animated conversation, I had liberated three 5-gallon buckets full of wheel weights. This is a good time to mention —in case you haven’t guessed — that a five-gallon bucket full of wheel weights is heavy, so be careful loading your haul.
I should clarify why I am using wheel weights. Pure lead is too soft for use in front of smokeless powder, so a lead alloyed with a small amount of tin and antimony will add the hardness needed (more on that later) for clean shooting bullets. You can alloy pure lead with a lead/tin solder in ratios to get the desired hardness. However, for my casting purposes, wheel weights (about 95.5% lead, .5% tin, and 4% antimony) work in my pistols.
To further harden them, I water quench the bullets right from the mold. The step is not necessary for pistol bullets, but it is a step that works for me. Water-quenched bullets are harder than air-cooled. Also, as cast bullets age — for the first three weeks or so — they will harden a little.
There are several kits that measure Brinell hardness. If you need to know the bullet’s hardness closer than a guess (which I believe is a good tool to have on hand) I use the Lee kit. The Lee kit measures harness by putting a dimple in a lead bullet. The process uses a reloading press and a spring-loaded punch. It then measures the dimple’s diameter and compares that number to a supplied chart to get the hardness.
Smelting Wheel Weights Into Ingots
I procured a natural gas burner, regulator, and a cast iron frying pan for smelting the wheel weights into ingots. The reason for smelting the wheel weights into ingots is to get the steel clips out of the lead and remove any dirt or impurities.
I like to start by getting the pot warm to ensure it is dry. Next, I add wheel weights. I like to load about a handful of wheel weights at a time. Once I get the pot about half full, it is time to let the wheel weights melt completely. This can be a smelly task, so position yourself upwind from the smelting pot and/or add a fan to blow the fumes away from you. I chose to wear a respirator for the process as well.
Be sure not to add any zinc wheel weights, as they will ruin the alloy. Luckily zinc wheel weights melt at a higher temperature than lead and are lighter than their lead counterparts. Therefore, should you get any in your pot, they will float to the surface and should be immediately skimmed off. Zinc wheel weights are generally more squared off than lead weights and are easily distinguished. Another way to pick out a zinc wheel weight is the clip. It will be riveted on instead of cast inside the weight.
Once the wheel weights have melted completely, I use a soup ladle with holes in it to stir the mix and scoop out the steel clips. Have something sturdy to collect the steel clips, and remember, they will be plenty hot.
Once the steel clips and trash have been skimmed, it is time to flux the pot. I use wax seals for setting water closets (toilets), but any wax such as beeswax or paraffin will work (as will any other material high in carbon content). The reason for fluxing is to remove any impurities that have been left behind from smelting the lead.
I add a spoonful of wax to the top of the dross. The wax melts and spreads a layer about an eighth-inch thick across the top of the molten lead. It should remain in contact with the top of the dross until it has burned away (about 45–60 seconds). After most of it has burned away, I stir in the remainder and skim again. Be careful when adding the wax. Wax is flammable. It will smoke and can catch fire as it floats across the dross.
I have been told that fluxing the dross keeps the lead, tin, and antimony alloy mixed, but from what I have read, the alloy will not separate at smelting temperatures.
It is time to make the ingots. I use the solid ladle to transfer the molten lead into the ingot mold.
Once the ingot mold is full, I set it on a damp rag. This cools the bottom of the mold as the top is cooling. This way, I can extract the ingots a little quicker. You can use about any steel or cast iron mold to make ingots, so long as they will fit in your production pot easily.
Once the ingots are out, let them sit as they stay hot a while. Continue making more ingots. I keep two ingot molds handy. That way, while one is cooling, I can be filling the other. This speeds up the ingot-making process a great deal.
I scoop out lead until the pan is almost empty, and then, the whole process starts over. Keep this up until either you have a nice pile of ingots, run out of wheel weights, or just get tired of making ingots. This is not a task to do without paying close attention and being very careful. A lap full of molten lead will ruin your whole weekend.
Once the ingots have cooled, stack them out of the way. That way, you will know they are ready to be melted in your production pot for bullets.
Turning Ingots Into Bullets
Find an area out of the way with plenty of room to organize your tools. This will be the time to plug in your pot and start melting the ingots.
There are two types of furnaces commonly used — ladle type and bottom pour. The ladle pot uses a ladle to scoop out the molten lead and pour it into a mold. The bottom pour has a stopper in the bottom that can be raised with a lever to allow molten lead to flow. A mold is held under the stream until full, and the lever is lowered to stop the flow.
Whatever furnace you are using, the first steps are similar. Add a few ingots (depending on your pot size) and allow them to begin to melt. While I am waiting for the ingots to melt, I put the mold I will be using on the side of the pot, so it will heat up. The mold will need to be hot when you begin the pour, so the cavity in the mold will fill out.
Once the ingots are melted, I like to flux again to ensure all the impurities are out. I will add a small amount of wax, let it melt and burn off, and skim once more just to be safe. If you were looking to add a little hardness to the alloy, now would be the time to add in some 50/50 solder. Just a piece about four to six inches long should suffice to add a little hardness and may help fill out the mold cavity.
Since I cast with a ladle most often, I will talk about that first.
Be sure to ease your ladle into the lead to get it up to temperature. By now the mold should be hot. Once the lead will pour with a smooth stream, get your mold ready. I hold the ladle about a half-inch from the sprue plate (the plate on the top of the mold that once the lead has cooled is struck with a soft mallet to cut the excess lead to make the bullet base uniform) and slowly fill the cavity with lead, leaving a small pool of lead on the sprue plate.
This is where you will determine whether the mold is hot enough or too hot. Once the sprue has dried, strike the sprue plate with a soft mallet (I use a rubber hammer) to cut off the excess lead.
If the bullet is frosty looking, the mold is too hot. Once I begin to get uniform bullets, I drop them from the mold into a small bucket of cold water. This cools the bullet quickly, keeping it from becoming disfigured, and hardens it more than if it was allowed to air cool.
I cast until the heating element in my Lyman pot is exposed. At that point, I add a few more ingots to be melted.
If you do not want to add hardness to the bullet, drop it on a soft cloth, or some other cushion, to protect its shape while it is hot.
Casting bullets takes preparation and time, so it is best to plan to cast enough bullets to make it worth your time and effort. It is also a good idea to have plenty of ingots on hand. Once you start working, is not the time to go hunting for ingots.
Bottom Pour Pot
The principles are the same for the most part. Melt ingots, flux the lead, heat the mold, and then pour the lead.
Once the ingots are melted and the mold is hot, hold the mold about a half-inch from the spigot and slowly fill the mold by raising the handle. Leave a small amount of lead on the sprue and let it cool. Open the sprue plate with a soft mallet and drop the bullets out.
Bullet Sizing and Lubrication
Now we have a pile of cast bullets, but they are not yet ready to be loaded. The bullets first need to be swaged to a uniform size and lubricated to reduce friction and lead fouling. I use a Lyman 4500 Lube Sizer, but there are many fine lubersizers on the market.
Each bullet shape has a top punch and sizing die for that bullet. The top punch is ordered according to the bullet shape, but the sizing die is up to you. Cast bullets generally shoot better swaged .001 larger than the groove, so I start with that as a measurement when ordering the sizing die. After that, you can experiment a little.
For example, take the barrel out of your Government Model chambered in .45 Auto. It should have a .451″ groove, but it is best to slug the bore to be sure. If you want to know for sure, find a pure lead weight (such as a fishing weight) just oversized of the bore and drive it through the bore with a wooden dowel and mallet (breech to muzzle). Measure the slug a few times with a dial caliper and record the number. We will say the slug measures .451″, so we know our groove is .451″, and therefore we would order a .452″ sizing die.
Install the top punch — for your bullet shape — and the sizing die into the lube sizer.
Now is time to add the stick of lube. I prefer Lyman Alox or Moly lube.
Remove the reservoir cover. Spinning the handle, the piston will come out of the reservoir. Drop in the stick of lube and reinstall the piston, compress the lube, and then reinstall the cover.
Run the handle down, applying pressure on the lube until you feel resistance. Set the bullet to be sized on the sizing die and press it into the die. Check to ensure lubricant has been pressed into the lube groove. If not, add a little pressure to the lube and reinsert the bullet until the lube groove is full.
You will have to add pressure to the lube as you size bullets to keep lube flowing into the lube groove as it is depleted.
Some lubricants are harder than others and will need a heater to soften the lube allowing it to flow better. When needed, you can insert an element into the base of the sizer to warm the reservoir.
Working with lead can be hazardous if you are not careful. All the safety rules apply such as eye protection, being focused, and using common sense. Be sure to wash your hands (with cold water so as to not open the pores) after handling lead and do not eat or drink during smelting, casting, or reloading. The Lyman manual lists many safety rules that should be followed.
Casting for a rifle is somewhat different, especially in bullet hardness and adding gas checks.
A gas check is a small copper disk that is crimped to the base of the bullet during sizing for higher pressure rounds in rifle and some pistol calibers, molds will be cut to cast a gas-checked bullet.
There is much more to casting bullets than I have set out above. I hope this article gives you some ideas of what is involved in casting bullets for your handgun and prompts you get started.
Are you interested in casting your own bullets? Do you have a tip or trick to share about making your own hard-cast lead bullets? Share your answers in the comment section.