Reloading: Casting the Spell!
- By Wheelwrite
- 2 Comments
- Last updated: 24/05/2019
For many of us, the days of high volume bullet casting and swaging have come and gone, ended by the ban on proper handguns in 1998. However, I’m part of a hardcore rump that refuses to let go. Not that things get any easier, as the use of ball cartridges, certain expanding designs and ALL non-CIP ammo is banned in Belgium - now the refuge for my expatriated handgun collection. However, we all struggle to keep our UK rifles and legal handgun remnants fed as well as possible and that almost inevitably includes a selection of lead-ware. Before you turn the page, I’m not doing a treatise on the mechanics of bullet making, rather taking a look at the remaining options for those of us already cooking or squeezing the stuff.
For me, the neediest calibres are those that are required to cut a clean, crisp hole in target paper, such as .32 S&W Long and .38 Spl or are low velocity designs that originated in the days of black powder loadings, with .45 Colt, .38-40 and .44-40 Winchester Centre Fire being typical of the breed.
For target precision with cookie cutter holes, my preference is for swaged, pure lead, hollow base wad cutter (HBWC) types. Brands have come and gone, with the much-lamented John Bingley swaged 148-grain HBWC being one of the best, and the one that I endeavour to replicate with my Kengil/Nalan homemade dies. H&N offer a similar, plain bearing surface model with a plastic coating. Knurled finish designs are listed by Speer and Hornady, amongst others. All of these limited to a safe, reduced barrel leading velocity of less than 900 fps. Copper-washed HBWC’s from Berrys, H&N and a number of other companies make for easier handling and loading, as well as slightly higher velocities. Cheaper, cast alloy HBWC bullets complete with traditional lubed grooves have always been around, but have never offered the same accuracy. As with all hollow base designs, they still need to operate at sub-sonic velocities to avoid stripping or even separation.
My priorities for veteran cartridges are slightly different. Yes, accuracy is still important, but feeding qualities and outright production costs are serious considerations. My inventory therefore contains everything from ancient swaged Alberts/Taurus and Trueflight production to Ace hard cast, together with a selection of copper-washed styles, many of which are now devoid of maker’s details! My own hard-cast efforts constituting the bulk of the stock.
For both swaging and casting, sourcing the ingredients has become the first challenge. Drawn, ¼” pure lead wire is getting harder to find, although prices have remained modest. Bulk buying a 40-metre coil can still cost up to £8 per metre, but with care will provide almost 1500 swaged 148-grain HBWC’s.
That’s expensive at just over £20 per hundred, if I adopt the ‘Wheeler Dealer’ principle of ignoring my labour costs! But the results are worth it. For casting purposes, ingots of Lyman #2 lead alloy and, from the USA, ingots of Linotype mix (used by printers for setting type) are offered on the interweb, but are not cheap and of necessity, attract considerable shipping costs. I’ve abandoned the recycling of recovered, fired lead bullets and wheel weights. The former because of the huge total effort required to produce reliably clean lead and the second because of the inconsistency of the alloy mixes. Checking the hardness of each batch is simple enough with the use of a Saeco tester but remixing all the resulting alloy batches to produce a consistent end product is a nightmare!
Importing ingots of genuine Linotype from a reliable supplier and mixing it 40:60 with home sourced pure lead to give a hard cast mix is my preferred method at present. That’s based upon a supplied Linotype alloy ratio (there is more than one) of 82% lead, 6% tin and 12% antimony. When remixed, that gives me just over 4.5% antimony, which suits my needs. A cautionary note regarding Monotype – it is NOT the same as Linotype’, having a much higher hardness and up to 10% tin and 16% antimony, with, no less than seven, commercially recognised alloy recipes for Monotype!). Remember, also, that you will lose a disproportionate amount of tin and antimony due to fluxing and oxidation every time you cook it.
Swaging the HBWCs starts with the use of a crude guillotine to chop the wire into slugs, for these eventual, .38” calibre pills they are just over 27mm. That may seem long but remember that the diameter has to be raised from a nominal 6.35mm to 9mm and the hollow base formed, thereby establishing the skirt and bearing length. The die forming is a two-stage operation but starts by treating the dies with a high-pressure lube – a copy of the Corbin recipe of Lanolin and Castor Oil. The first stage closed die creates the working blank, which is then inserted into the controlled depth bleed die for full forming. A tiny excess of lead bleeds off in the form of a pigtail sprue. Finishing the swaged bullets requires the addition of a lubricant, either Lee Liquid Alox or spraying with a dry Teflon chain lube (intended for mountain bike use).
Casting with multi-cavity moulds is the best option, as it is easier to maintain a suitable working temperature. I have a mix of iron and aluminium designs, mainly from Lee, Lyman and Saeco and they all require slightly different techniques and timings in order to optimise the bullet quality. You learn as you go. I prepare the cavities by scrubbing to clean the air bleed channels and then lightly soot them to stop the bullets from clinging. Always check that the sprue cutter is clean and moves freely but closely over the top of the mould blocks. I cast into a drum of water with a submerged foam block at the base in order to add a further chill harden to the bullet surface. It works for me. Always inspect your cast bullets before doing any further work. Any signs of inclusions, bubbles, wrinkles or base deformation should be cause for rejection. Make sure that your G, H, I die sets match the profile of the cast bullets, especially the ‘G’ top punch and for lubing, invest in a Lube Heater. Cold, old lube in a chilly workshop will never leave fully filled grooves!
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