Lead, a bullet caster’s gold. If you’re like me you view lead as a valuable resource for bullet casting. Without it, the cost of reloading would almost be prohibitive due to the ever-increasing price of ammunition; but with cast bullets made from scrap lead – reloading a box of cartridges can cost as little as a buck or two.
Why cast bullets? Casting bullets is almost a necessity if you are a milsurp owner, and its inexpensive to start casting, easy to learn and opens up a whole new level of interest in the military surplus firearm ownership. If you’re a milsurp owner you’re probably like me – cheap, frugal, and always looking for a way to do it yourself. Well, if you are – then bullet casting is right up your alley…and its fun.
For starters, despite the fact you will see things in this article that may appear to be a cost concern, it need not be. Casting can be as simple and as inexpensive as a $20 bullet mold, a spoon, a cast iron pan, and a campfire as our own fore-fathers used back in the day. As I progress through this first article on bullet casting I’ll attempt to list, and link to, more cost-efficient alternative materials than what I use for casting. So let’s get started.
First you’ll need to find a safe place to cast bullets as you’ll be dealing with molten lead with temperatures close to 800 degrees. Outside is fine provided the weather is fair (no rain), but ventilation is imperative. Its also wise to have on hand a fire extinguisher. Also, ensure you keep household pets and small children clear of the area. A sturdy bench or table is a must to prevent the lead from easily being knocked over onto yourself or other valuables. It’s an absolute must to ensure that absolutely no liquid gets into the molten lead or it’ll erupt like a volcano of molten lava. Next, you’ll need a heat source. Shown to the left is my casting table with a Lee Precision 4-20 lb Pro casting furnace available at MidwayUSA. However, you can purchase an inexpensive Harbor Freight cast iron frying pan set for under $12 and use your wife’s stove or open fire to cast with, or check out your local Goodwill stores. Consider online auction sites or Craigslist for a used furnace – I got one for $35 and use one for soft lead and the other for harder alloys such as wheel weights. I also cast indoors year-round, and to do so I have a sheet-metal covered counter and ventilate the fumes outside with a cheap bathroom ventilation fan to keep the wife somewhat happy.
While not mandatory, a lead thermometer is handy to monitor lead temperatures (shown is a Lyman Lead Thermometer). This will help ensure that your lead is at the proper and consistent temperature for casting.
Probably the most needed item is a bullet mold. There are several companies that make great bullet molds. I prefer Lee Precision bullet molds since they provide great results, are very inexpensive, and you’ll easily get a quick return on your investment. They can be purchased in single cavity, double cavity, and six cavity molds, and include the handles; unlike other mold manufacturers.
If you don’t have a bottom pouring melting pot then you’ll need to scoop your melted lead out of the melting pot. You can use a large spoon or a kitchen ladle (Goodwill item) or you can purchase a Lee Precision lead dipper. If you use a spoon or kitchen ladle ensure you get a one piece spoon or ladle as the spoon and handle may come separated at the weld when it gets hot – and don’t use your wife’s silverware without permission!
Despite the rising costs of lead (about $1.00 / lb at the time of this writing) it is still cost effective to purchase it. A pound of lead could yield 55 cast bullets; so for $2.00 you can have over 100 bullets weighing 125 grains each.
One thing to remember about lead and lead alloy is that they all have different hardness levels, measured by a hardness scale known as the Brinell Hardness Level (BHN). Since this is a “basic” tutorial on casting I’ll simply provide a link to one of the best websites to learn about bullet casting alloys, hardness levels, and their appropriate uses; The Los Angeles Silhouette Club. However, for 90% of my bullet casting I use either soft, pure lead for black powder firearms or water-quenched wheel weights for rifles and handguns.
Just a couple more items you probably already have at home that you’ll need are needle nose pliers to remove things from the lead like the clips from wheel weights, a small kitchen spoon to stir the lead periodically and remove dross (the impurities), a wooden hammer handle or one inch dowel to tap the sprue plate on the mold, a towel or old shirt to drop the bullets on and some gloves to protect your hands while casting. So let’s start casting bullets.
First, we need to melt our lead. Place your lead into your melting pot and raise the temperature to approximately 700 degrees. In about 20 minutes the lead will show signs of melting. In the photo left, I began with a melting pot with already melted lead in it. Its recommended that you leave about an inch of lead in the pot at the end of each casting session as it will allow the lead to melt faster and reduce wear on the heating coil the next time you start your casting session.
As the lead melts begin stirring the lead and scraping the sides of the melting pot in order to bring the impurities of the lead to the surface. Do this each time you add more lead to ensure all the impurities are out of the alloy.
Once the lead has completely liquified we need to add some flux to the melted lead. Fluxing your lead (or lead alloy) in your pot is necessary to separate out the impurities often found in scrap lead. The flux is used as a cleaning and purifying agent within the metal which separates the dross (aka slag) into a solid for removal at the surface. Household items that can be used as a flux are beeswax (shown left), tallow, and paraffin. I prefer a pea size of beeswax. Another commercial product that can be used for flux is Brownell’s Marvelux and works very well, reduces smoke during fluxing, but is a bit pricey.
Once the impurities have risen to the top of the melted lead, scoop them off with your spoon. I’ve drilled three small holes in my spoon to help allow the melted lead to drain out while still capturing the dross. You can also drain the spoon of the good melted lead by tilting the spoon against the wall of the melting pot to capture the dross and letting the melted lead drain back into pot.
Before we start casting bullets lets discuss some bullet mold preparation. Mold preparation can make the difference between an enjoyable time of casting or a frustrating day of,…well, … um, frustration. A couple simple things we can do to alleviate some problems. First, we need to apply a release agent to the cavities of the bullet mold. A release agent helps reduce the tension between the mold and the lead – generally a good choice of release agent is a spray graphite. To left the shown are three variations of spray graphite in cans; definitely do some price shopping as they aren’t cheap. A no-cost release agent is smoke, a process known as smoking a mold, which can be accomplished by using household matches or a lighter. Shown left I can see in my 6 cavity mold shiny spots in the cavities. This indicates that some release agent should be applied. A light coat of spray graphite or smoke is all that is needed.
Next, to keep the mold opening and closing smoothly, heat the mold up by laying it on the edge of your pot. Then very lightly touch the sprue plate hinge and the mold handle hinge with wax (beeswax shown again – I love the stuff) – a tiny bit is all that is needed and makes a big difference in how the mold opens and shuts – and when everything is just right you can drop a lot of bullets very quickly – and this will help keeps things moving along.
Now to begin your casting session put your mold down. Yup, that’s right. Lay the mold along the edge of the melting pot to warm the bullet mold. Warming the bullet mold will help you get your mold up to a similar temperature as your alloy. As a result, when your lead is poured into the mold it will help prevent the lead in the mold cavity from cooling faster than the lead being poured which will help prevent wrinkly bullets.
Once the bullet mold is hot you can begin casting your first bullet. A good temperature range for casting that I have found is between 725 and 750 degrees. Now, slide your mold under the pot, or if your using a ladle then scoop the lead into the mold cavity, and fill the cavity completely.
Allow a sprue to form on top of the sprue plate. If you fail to allow the sprue to form on top of the sprue plate you’ll end up with mold cavities not completely filled or, under careful inspection, you’ll notice the bases of the bullets not being sharp; they’ll appear rounded which will affect accuracy.
Over a soft surface open the mold. With a six cavity mold (left) you’ll see there are 3 handles. Simple pull the sprue handle to open the mold and allow the bullets to drop onto a soft surface (or into cold water if you water-quenching the bullets to make a harder alloy). Let the bullets fall to the padded surface – and remember, they’re very hot at this time so let them cool before handling them.
If you are using a one or two cavity mold you don’t have the third handle. Therefore, to open the mold simply tap the sprue plate lever with a wooden dowel to open the sprue plate. Allow the bullets to gently fall to a soft surface.
If you find that your bullet(s) are sticking go ahead and tap the mold handle hinge (DO NOT TAPE THE ALUMINUM MOLD ITSELF, JUST THE HANDLE HINGE TO AVOID DAMAGING THE MOLD) until the bullet drops from the mold and then inspect the mold to see you need more mold release / graphite spray.
Here’s what I do to keep production flowing. After I fill my mold with melted lead, I let the lead cool for about ten seconds. While I’m waiting for the sprue to cool and solidify I pick up any sprues from previous castings and carefully place them back into the pot. I also take the this time to inspect the bullets I just dropped for deformities and place the bad ones back into the pot as well.
Here’s a couple of samples I made during this casting session. First is a 12 gauge one ounce cast slug made with a Lee Precision mold. Also shown is a 148 grain wad-cutter from a Lee Precision mold as well. Good results are easy to get.
Shown here is approximately 375 bullets I casted in about two hours. Now that’s purdy right there.
1. Bullet didn’t fill the cavity. Most likely I didn’t allow a good sprue to form on top of the sprue plate.
2. The base of the bullet is rounded, instead of sharp, likely caused by the same problem above, not allowing a sprue to form on top of the sprue plate.
3. Edges of the bullet (lube grooves) not sharp and distinct. Likely because the mold was not warmed up or the lead alloy was too cold. Warm the mold on the edge of the melting pot or turn the temperature up on the melting pot. Also, consider adding a little tin to the pot which will help in thinning the lead particularly if you are using pure, soft lead. Tin can be found in 50/50 solder wire (expensive) as well as pewter which can be found at second hand stores like Goodwill. When searching for pewter check the bottom of the item and it should say “Pewter”, if not – it’s unlikely pewter. Pewter should be very flexible if you try and bend it – unlike other look-alikes.
4. Wrinkly bullets are caused by either the mold or lead not hot enough. Same problem as item 3 above. Warm up the mold or turn up the melting pot temperature or consider adding tin to the mix.
5. A frosty looking bullet is due to the temperature of the alloy being to hot or too much graphite spray in the bullet mold. A frosty bullet is still shootable, so don’t toss it back in the pot unless you’re concerned about the looks. Turn down the melting pot temperature or allow the bullet mold to cool down a little bit.
This concludes part I of From Lead to Gold – Bullet Casting Basics.