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Handloading 14

Handloading 14

A few months back we explored the subject of lead bullets and discussed the pro’s and cons of their use. We also took an overview of the various production processes involved. This month we make a start on setting up our own little foundry. As I warned before, we must remember that lead is a toxic metal and accidents with molten lead are potentially fatal. (I knew two regular bullet casters who lost fingers as a result of accidents that could have been avoided). Personal protection, good ventilation, safe working areas and freedom from distractions are paramount.

PPE

Personal protection equipment must include industrial grade goggles or better, a wrap round full face visor of an appropriate material. Filter your breathing air with a top quality fume/particle mask that will handle lead oxides… 3M have several offerings. A really good pair of leather welder’s gloves should be augmented with a few pairs of washable cotton gloves or a box of nitrile examination gloves. A leather blacksmiths or farriers apron is a worthy addition to the wardrobe. When working with your molten lead make sure that you’re wearing sturdy jeans and leather boots, or other footwear that would not ignite if steeped in molten lead.

Location, location. The kitchen is strictly off limits, as is any area that has food around. The big outdoors seems an obvious place but is fraught with risk. Bugs, rain or bird droppings landing in molten lead will cause an explosion. Outdoors under a lean-to or large golf brolly, that’s worth considering. The garage, the best place if you leave the door open, the car outside and work well away from anything flammable such as fuel and solvents.

Tooling Up For Your First Bullet

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If you have the choice then a square base round nose pistol calibre would be best, as large heavy bullets tend to be more tolerant of inconsistent technique. You’re going to need a mould, lead pot, ladle, ingot mould, flux, candle, small mallet or box wood hammer handle, suitable lead alloy, lube sizer press and dies, bullet lube and ideally a pyrometer. Household items that you’ll also adopt will include a galvanised iron bucket, an old saucepan and a fine but stiff bristle brush.

Select either a single or double cavity mould in favour of more demanding multi-cavity versions. Mould bodies are made from either aluminium or steel. Steel costs more, is more resistant to damage and holds heat better, making it easier to produce consistent bullet forms. On the other side of the coin, many experienced casters like aluminium moulds as the productivity rate is higher. I’ve got steel models from RCBS and Lyman and aluminium examples from Lee. Remember to buy some handles, they’re often sold separately! The choice of 240v lead pots is limited; I’d go for Lee or Lyman. Dippers (ladles) are used to scoop the fluxed dross (scum) from the top of the melt and to pour the molten lead alloy into the top of the mould. They’re made from cast iron and in my experience, are only made for right handers! An ingot mould is not really essential but then, you really need somewhere to empty the unused lead from the pot. Flux is the magic additive that separates impurities from the lead and brings it to the surface of the melt for easy removal… But take care; the use of too much flux can separate out the valuable tin and antimony alloying metals.

Finishing Touches

A candle? Yup, smoking the finely serrated mating faces of the mould will make them less likely to stick together during the casting process and make any soiling easier to brush away. The mallet or hammer handle will be needed to tap the sprue cutter on the top of the mould, removing the excess lead and freeing the cast bullets inside the mould. The choice of lead alloy depends upon your application but the popular default is called Lyman #2, an alloy of 90% pure lead with 5% tin and 5% antimony. The waste from the printing industry known as linotype was the original source of this material but changes in technology have seen the sources more or less disappear.

One possible alternative is the use of wheel weights, although they are quite low in tin content. Some casters re-brew the alloy from wheel weights with around 4% by weight of plumbers tin. NEVER use lead from batteries, the consequences can be fatal. The choice of lube sizers is limited, mine is from RCBS with my dies sourced from most of the makers. Components in the die set are known as the G, H and I elements. They refer to the actual body, the base pin (which is often flat) and the nose punch. To avoid damage the nose punch should be matched to the cast profile. For the experienced caster/hand loader non-standard or oversize/under size die sets are available in number of calibres. Bullet lube mostly comes in the form of hollow sticks that can be inserted into the body of the press. Many recipes are offered, some including moly and other additives – my favourite is the old standard, Alox from Lyman.

The Odd Stuff

A pyrometer is really a posh thermometer. It is especially useful if you’re going to make larger batches of bullets that require the pot to be regularly topped up – the cooling effect of adding fresh material making the mix unfit for use until the temperature recovers. The use of the pyrometer simply saves the production of lots of duds. ‘Quench’ casting your still hot bullets into a large volume of cold water (in a non-plastic bucket!) will change the molecular structure, especially near the surface, making it harder. The saucepan and brush will be used to clean the moulds from time to time. Remove the handles and boil them in weak detergent… then scrub thoroughly and rinse. Never re-use the saucepan in contact with food. Next month we’ll cook some lead and look at the tricks of successful casting.

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