How To, continued
This is not the complete knowledge base of bullet casting and there are a lot of excellent publications including Modern Reloading by Richard Lee, and the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook. I don't claim to be an expert and this article only explains how I cast my bullets and what has worked for me. It is a two-part article that should allow the reader to get past many fears of bullet casting.
The first thing I learned is that it doesn't have to be either expensive or difficult to cast bullets for cowboy shooting. I would say that it cost me no more than about $300 to prepare for casting my own bullets for six different calibers of guns.
I shoot .44, .38, .45 Colt, .45ACP, .375 round ball, and .454 round ball in cowboy shooting. I purchased the most expensive Lee melting pot with the bottom pour into the mould, the Lyman manual, two-gang moulds for each needed caliber (The .45s share the same .452 mould), and the appropriate dies for the final sizing.
Some items needed to get started are pictured in figure 1. They are a melting pot, an ingot mould as seen on the bottom of the photo, a ladle for stirring the lead, and a mould in the appropriate caliber.
Some other needed items are pictured in figure 2. They are a good brand of flux, a large pair of tweezers, a small mallet, a sizing die set, and some soft terrycloth towels.
The last thing needed is a good supply of lead. Some people almost try to turn the formulation of lead into a religion. A complete discussion of the formulation of the lead is beyond the scope of this article, but I believe we can cut a few corners for cowboy shooting, because our pressures and velocities are not very high.
The important thing is to understand that pure lead is nearly impossible to obtain. Most of the lead we use today that is called pure lead has some impurities.
Cap and ball shooters need relatively pure lead that is soft enough to allow a shaving to come off as the ball is pressed into the chamber. Hunters and those using heavy loads need a lead that is very hard and uniform to retain the proper shape under heavy loads. Cowboy shooters must keep their velocities under 1,000 fps so we can use relatively soft lead.
Before using the melting pot, you should read all of the maker's instructions and warnings. Lead is very hot and can put off toxic fumes under certain circumstances. Lead pots are dangerous if any water is allowed to come into contact with the lead. It only takes a fraction of a drop of water to cause a terrible explosion of hot lead. Read all directions and follow them. Wear cotton clothes that cover the skin from lead splatter and I wear leather gloves to protect hands.
So where do we get the lead to start casting those inexpensive bullets? I stopped at a tire shop and was able to buy a 5 gallon bucket full of old weights. This turned out to be around seventy-five pounds of lead, which is enough for a lot of bullets.
Wheel weights are about 95% lead, .5% tin, and about 5% antimony. The tin and antimony are added to the lead in wheel weights to help the lead flow and cast a good weight. I find this ratio of lead to be soft enough to make good cowboy bullets without alloying any additional metals to the mix. This makes casting pretty easy.
Once you have your wheel weights home, it is time to melt them down and cast your own ingots. This is done by turning on the melting pot, setting the rheostat to a setting of around 7, and putting a few wheel weights in the pot so they start melting.
It will take a few minutes and I strongly recommend this be done outside and with a gentle breeze blowing any fumes away from you. The pot will smoke quite a lot as the dirt, lead oxide, grease, and other contaminants burn off. These are not safe to breath. You will have to keep adding weights as the mixture melts.
Steel clips will float to the surface as the weights melt. I use large tweezers to remove the steel clips from the melt and drop them into an empty coffee can. Caution: the coffee can will get quite hot.
With the steel clips removed from the surface of the lead, you should occasionally stir the lead to help float particles of dirt to the surface. I usually scrape along the inside of the pot under the surface of the lead to release any contaminants that might be clinging to the pot.
This slag will form on the surface and can be carefully scooped off using the ladle. I usually deposit it in the coffee can along with the steel clips.
You should now have a hot pot of clean liquid lead and it is the time to cast a few ingots. Be sure to lay out an old terrycloth towel on the bench as a pad and put the ingot mould under the spout at the bottom of the pot.
Examine figure 3 and you can see the ingot mould under the pot, the bottom spout, and the wood release handle on the side of the pot.
There are two ingot sizes in the Lee mould and I prefer to only make the larger ingots. That's a personal preference to not make little ingots.
The lead will not stick to the aluminum so no preparation is needed other than making sure the mould is clean and dry. I find it helpful to preheat the mould by laying it over the top of the pot for a few minutes to eliminate any moisture that might be in the mould.
With the ingot mould centered under the spout, simply raise the handle to release lead into the mould. I find it helpful to offset the mould a bit so the first lead flows down onto the angled side of the mould. After one of sections of the ingot mould is nearly full, turn off the lead flow and move the mould over to make another ingot.
Turn off the lead flow when the moulds are full and let them set until they have cooled enough to drop the ingots onto the terrycloth to cool. The first ones you do will have more flow marks and will quickly harden as the mould is cool and drawing heat from the lead. Watching the lead skin over give a bit of a perspective to how our planet is formed.
Move the mould over to the towel and turn it over to drop the lead ingots over on to the towel. Only touch the mould by the wood handle as the metal portion is very hot. You will start building a pile of ingots similar to the one in figure 4.
Continue melting the wheel weights, cleaning out the clips and dirt, and making ingots until you have a large pile of ingots and an empty bucket of wheel weights. This should provide you with enough raw materials to make a whole lot of fine cowboy shooting bullets.
Don't be surprised if it takes a couple of evenings to melt those wheel weights and make those ingots. Feel free to take a break from your work and return a little later to make bullets from the ingots.
Now it is time to prepare the bullet mould. I usually fill the melting pot with ingots and turn the heat to about 6.5 on the scale. It will take about a half hour to melt that lead and heat it to a liquid state. I will prepare the mould during that time to have it ready when the lead is ready.
I start by taking the mould out of the box and inspecting it for possible damage. I then place the mould over the top of the melting pot to heat it a little. This can be seen in figure 1 above. Don't allow the wood handles to come in contact with the melting pot as it will burn them.
These instructions are for using an aluminum mould from Lee. The mould must be lubricated with a lube than can handle high temperatures. I use the alox and beeswax mix sold by Lee in the form of a stick. I place a very small sliver of the waxy mixture on the hinges of the handles and the sprue plate. I also let a small sliver of the lube melt onto the bars that allow the mould to line up when the mould is closed. Be very careful to not allow any of the lube to get into the mould cavity itself.
The mould cavity must be given a special treatment to make it work well. I recommend taking a butane cigarette lighter and playing a flame in the cavity for a few seconds to blacken the cavity. this little bit of soot helps to make the mould work better.
With the lead up to temperature and everything ready to go, it is time for the final preparation of the lead. I begin by stirring the lead again with the ladle, but I place the ladle over the hot lead to warm it before placing it into the hot lead. The reason is that deposits on the ladle may have picked up a little moisture and can cause some splattering when it hits the hot lead.
Stir the lead and use the ladle to bring contamination (dross) to the surface. Take a little Marvelux casting flux and sprinkle it onto the slag and stir it into the hot lead. This should raise more slag to the surface to be skimmed off with the ladle. Put the slag into a steel coffee can and be careful as it is hot. Repeat this process about every twenty minutes to keep the lead well mixed and flowing well.
It is now time to start casting some bullets, but expect the first bunch to be poorly formed. Wheel weights have very little tin so it does not flow as well as an alloy with a higher tin content. I like to keep my bullets a little on the soft side so I do not add any tin. This does require that I run my mould a little hotter than many and the bullets are frosted, which suggests being cast at too high a temperature. I have read that the frosted look does not affect the shooting at cowboy shooting distances, however.
With the pot ready, close the sprue plate and place the mould under the melting pot. Raise the wooden handle on the lead dispenser until you have a stream of hot lead falling down into the hole in the sprue plate. When the mould is full, you can release the wooden handle on the pot and move the second cavity into place and fill that one.
After the lead on the sprue plate has hardened a little, use the wooden mallet to knock the sprue plate to the side and shear off the sprue at the base of the bullet. This should knock off the excess lead that hardened on the sprue plate. Wait a few more seconds before opening the mould and shaking out the bullets.
Figure 5 illustrates the appearance of the bullets and the sprue plate as the bullets are to be shaken out. This was a staged photo with cool bullets. Tap the mould to dislodge the hot lead bullets onto the terrycloth towel to prevent damage to the soft lead bullet hitting anything solid.
The first bullets will look terrible because the hot lead will solidify while moving into the cool aluminum mould. This will change as the mould heats up to the proper temperature. Keep making bullets as fast as reasonable and the mould will heat up to the the proper temperature and the bullets will look much cleaner.
As you continue making bullets, you will see the bullets change from shiny to frosted in appearance as they cool. This indicates the mould has gotten too hot and needs to be cooled. This can be done by slowing down and letting the mould cool naturally, or the mould may be cooled by holding it on a damp rag to sizzle the water and pull some of the heat energy away from the mould.
Figure 6 shows four bullets that were cast in the same session. The two on the left were cast from a mould that was too hot and the two on the right are what I consider to be quite good. All four of the bullets above are usable in cowboy shooting.
Let the bullets cool and it is time to lubricate and size them. After lubricating the bullets, place the Lee sizing die in your reloading press and place one of the new bullets on the ram as shown in figure 7.
Pull the handle down on the reloading press and the ram will push the newly cast bullet up through the sizing die. You will see the sized lead bullets forced up through the die as you work and they will collect in the cup as illustrated in figure 8.
The lee sizing system seems to do a good job of properly sizing my freshly cast bullets. You can see in figure 8 that the sides of the lead bullet have been slightly compressed and cleaned as it passed through the die.
Bullets need to be lubricated before being used with most kinds of firearms. I use the simple, but effective, liquid alox in the plastic margarine tub method. I place about a hundred fresh bullets in the plastic tub and put a few drops of Lee liquid alox in the container. Agitate the bullets around for a few minutes and the alox will be distributed among the bullets. Let them sit on a piece of waxed paper and they will be ready for loading in a day or so.
Next month I will show some more advanced methods and touch on loading up some fresh bullets for shooting.