Ammunition > Handgun

Bullet Casting: Bullets on the Cheap

Before you start casting bullets you’ll need a supply of lead alloy.

3/21/2012

We all want to shoot more, but the cost of ammunition is as much a limiting factor, as is finding the extra time to shoot. With the cost of factory ammo averaging nearly a buck a shot, it doesn’t take long to drain the bank account of an active shooter. Many take up handloading as a cost-cutting tool. Still, the cost of jacketed bullets is often 50 cents or more each.

Truth is that for most of our shooting practice, cast bullets are perfectly satisfactory and a whole lot cheaper. Commercial cast bullets are pretty cost effective, but if you really want cheap bullets you cast your own. In this first of three articles on casting bullets we’ll look at accumulating a stash of suitable bullet-casting alloy. Then we’ll go through the casting process and finish up with sizing, hardening and loading.

Pure lead
Elemental or pure lead is difficult to find for those of us who scrounge our bullet metal. With a Brinell hardness (Bhn) of just 5, its only use as a bullet-making material is for round balls in traditional muzzleloaders or cap-and-ball revolvers. In those relatively low-pressure, low-velocity arms, the malleability of pure lead is needed for the bullets to upset and help seal the bore during the shot. Velocities are usually low enough to keep the bullets from leading the barrel (scraping lead off the bullet and leaving it in the barrel).

Short of buying pure lead from a foundry, the only way I know of garnering a supply is to melt alloy lead and scrape the alloying metals off without fluxing. Even then, there will be trace amounts of alloying metals, but for those really on the cheap it is an alternative.

Even if you don’t load muzzleloaders and cap-and-ball revolvers, a supply of pure-lead round balls in a variety of sizes is handy for slugging the bore. Hornady and Speer make pure-lead round balls in several calibers, so a box in each caliber category you load shouldn’t break the bank.

Lead alloys
There are several lead alloys used in bullet casting. They utilize varying amounts of tin and antimony, as well as trace amounts of other metals, in order to harden the bullet and to make it cast better. High ratios of antimony will harden lead considerably, but at the expense of brittleness. When bullets are cast from alloys containing 15 percent or more antimony they can actually split or shatter if dropped on the floor. Tin helps attenuate the undesirable characteristics of antimony. Trace amounts of manganese can help the alloy fill out the mould better, but most casters do not add it.

Lead-acid batteries, like those used in automobiles, often have arsenic in the plate alloy, as well as calcium. When arsenic and calcium come into contact with the hydrogen generated in the normal chemical reaction in the battery they form the ammonia analogues arsine and stibine. These are heavy gases, once used in chemical warfare nearly a century ago. Very small amounts of either of these gases can kill you, so the recycling of car batteries for bullets isn’t worth the risk.

One of the most popular and oldest alloys is Lyman No. 2. Made from 90-percent lead, five-percent tin and five-percent antimony, Lyman No. 2 comes out to a Bhn of 15. Lyman No. 2 alloy is great for most non-magnum handguns and rifle loads with a velocity of less than 2,000 fps.

Hardball is a modern version of Lyman No. 2 alloy with a Bhn of about 16. Its alloy is 92-percent lead, two-percent tin and six-percent antimony. Because of the lower ratio of tin Hardball alloy is slightly less expensive than the original Lyman No. 2. These alloys can be used interchangeably.

Magnum handguns and rifle loads with velocities greater than 2,000 fps, but less than 3,000 fps, benefit from a linotype alloy. Once available from newspapers, which used the alloy for the printing plates of their offset printing presses as early as 1886, linotype is made from 84-prercent lead, four-percent tin and 12-percent antimony and has a Bhn of approximately 22. The 46-percent increase in hardness combined with a proper lube and bullet design reduces leading in the bore significantly and promotes accuracy at the higher velocities. Sadly, linotype is no longer used in the offset printing process, so your options are to purchase it or make it from scratch.

Wheel weights have long been a popular source of bullet-making material. Three decades ago wheel weights contained as much as nine-percent antimony making them a good choice for a base metal for those wanting harder bullets for magnum revolvers and some rifles. Modern wheel weights have approximately 3-percent antimony—still useable but not nearly as hard or tough as it once was. Some modern wheel weights have been made from zinc. Typically, lead-based wheel weights melt at 600 degrees; zinc melts at 787 degrees. Zinc causes multiple problems when melted with lead, so if you melt some wheel weights and find chunks of metal floating on your melt, scrape the zinc off and discard it.

Cast bullet aficionados have other esoteric alloys that they espouse as perfect for one application or another, but these are the most popular. For those who want to delve deeply into it, the Cast Boolits website can lead you down that Yellow Brick Road.

Assimilating your alloy
If, like me, you scrounge your lead, you’ll need to melt it down into a homogenous alloy and pour it into 1-pound ingots to be melted later when you actually cast your bullets. There are a few things to keep in mind when melting lead.

First, go through your pile of material and make sure that there are no live rounds or spent brass in it. Hand remove anything that doesn’t look like lead. Also, ensure that the donor bucket or pile is absolutely dry. Any moisture or combustible materials in that pile will have a profoundly negative influence on your project and possibly your life.

Whereever you melt lead—either for assimilating an alloy supply or casting bullets—it must be well-ventilated. Vapors will come off the pot, and breathing them will have adverse health effects. At a bare minimum, if you choose to melt lead indoors—like your shop or garage—you should set up a fan pointed toward an open window or door.

Depending on the amount of lead you are melting you may use your casting furnace, or you may choose a larger outdoor stove. Several of my shooting buddies and I get together once or twice a year to work up a supply. One guy has a couple of dilapidated Dutch ovens which we put on top of a heavy-duty propane outdoor stove. A half dozen 1-pound ingot moulds are kept pretty busy as we put up 200 to 500 pounds of alloy.

Once the pot is fully melted, flux the melt with beeswax or Marvelux (available from Brownells). This ensures that the tin and antimony remains in the melt. Scrape off the dross (the debris that floats on top), pour the alloy into the ingot mould and place it on a mineral-type surface. Once it cools, dump the ingots on a heat resistant surface.

Now you have a supply of alloy for casting. In the next installment we’ll get into the actual bullet-casting process.

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13 Responses to Bullet Casting: Bullets on the Cheap

Dave Campbell wrote:
October 22, 2013

NRA Life Member Mark Prince e-mailed us that lead scroungers need to be particularly careful when scrounging bullets. He related an experience from years ago when a tracer bullet found its way into the melt. The results were about as expected. Fortunately he was not injured. Be very careful, especially with military surplus bullets. I know that some tracers have a red tip, but I am also sure that we have readers who are more up to date than I am regarding military designations. The best rule is: If there is the slightest doubt, scrap the bullet.

Hugh wrote:
June 21, 2013

Do major bullet maker use softer lead in jacketed bullets than they do in non jacketet?

Hugh wrote:
June 19, 2013

Do major bullet maker use softer lead in jacketed bullets than they do in non jacketet?

Gene S. wrote:
April 29, 2013

Just as a point of clarity, Linotype was used with the letterpress process, not the offset printing process. I apprenticed on both types of presses. I wish I had taken all the old ingots of linotype that were just lying around. They would have been happy to give them to me.

Mike C wrote:
March 28, 2012

To Alan Young: There are two outstanding publications that are compendiums of articles published during the "glory days" of bullet casting that can get you started. The first is "Cast Bullets" by Col. E. H. Harrison. This was an NRA publication circa 1979. An outstanding work. A search of the NRA online-store for this book yielded no results. The second work is "The Art Of Bullet Casting from Handloader & Rifle Magazines". This work is available on the Wolfe Publishing website as "The Art of Bullet Casting Collection on DVD" . There is also a "Bullet Casting 101 DVD" on the same site that will take you through the process "step-by-step". Enjoy.

7x57 wrote:
March 28, 2012

To prevent lead smear under the sprue plate wet a rag and turn the mold upside down and press the sprue plate against the wet rage before opening the mold. When the mold does over heat here is how to cool it down. Cut off the top of a 1 gallon plastic milk jug. Fill it with hot tap water and dip the mold quickly in and out of the water. Do not get any water into the hot lead that's in the melting pot or it will explode. I have never in 40 years ever warped a mold when using this method.

Dave Campbell wrote:
March 28, 2012

Penny Hater, Pennies would not work for bullets for several reasons. First, modern pennies are zinc clad with a thin amount of copper. Both elements are an anathema to cast lead bullets. Too, I believe that defacing or destroying U.S. currency is severely frowned upon by the government. Take those hated pennies and use them to buy your chosen alloy.

Penny Hater wrote:
March 28, 2012

When I think waste metal, I think pennies. Would that work?

Dave Campbell wrote:
March 28, 2012

OK, let me see if I can address the concerns: Hey Miffed, Scrounging lead has been a challenge for decades! Yep, it's getting more difficult every day, and, yes, I, too, pick up range bullets occasionally. Alan, I know of no formal courses. Your best option is to find an experienced caster. There are some books on the subject available. 7x57, I never meant to insinuate that lino will prevent leading completely. You are right, casting your bullets a bit oversized and using a good lube will REDUCE the tendency to lead the barrel significantly. Don, I use two alloys. One comes via a shooting buddy who works at a hospital and collects the lead containers used to ship nuclear meds.That alloy is very close to Lyman No. 2, and I use it for my BP cartridges. In fact, my shooting buddies and I will be putting together a few hundred pounds of ingots this weekend. The other alloy is somewhere between pure lino and old-style wheelweights from a hoard that I have been accumulating and adding to for some 35 years. I do not have a lead hardness tester yet, but I plan on getting one.

Don W wrote:
March 27, 2012

When you're melting your scrounged lead into homogeneous ingots, do you test it for hardness to determine it's best use? What do you use? If it isn't hard enough, do you adjust the mix and if so, what are your sources for tin and antimony? A paragraph or two addressing this would be useful. I've cast bullets before (round balls for muzzleloaders and SWC for a 45 ACP using wheelweights (30 years ago)) and had fun with it. Planning to get back into it in the future.

7x57 wrote:
March 27, 2012

First off, Linotype metal does not prevent leading even when used in 100 per cent form. I found this out through experimentation with the .44 magnum years ago. What does prevent leading is sizing your bullets at least 1,000th to 3,000th oversize. The base of the bullet does not lead the bore to a significant degree but gas escaping around the sides of the bullet cause this. No rifle bore is completely uniform that is why you must size over size. And casting oversize does not hurt accuracy one bit.

Alan Young wrote:
March 26, 2012

Is there a way I could be taught and gain experience with bullet casting? Who do I talk with to gain experience. Thanks, Alan Young

Miffed wrote:
March 26, 2012

It is difficult to over estimate the degree of difficulty, danger, frustration, and expense it requires to get to the point to where this is actually rewarding. Even before you turn on the heat required to actually melt the stuff! Particularly as the competition for lead continues to increase...... Next thing you know people will be scrounging through the dirt bank down at the range (when range is cold, for obvious reasons) so they can recycle what they shot. Wait- I already do that! (Thanks a LOT, Campbell!)