By Michael Hill
Let’s try to imagine a very near and foreseeable future where store bought ammunition is far less easy to come by, than ten cent a pound 24 karat gold bullion. For the sake of argument, and the steam to help keep this discussion going beyond a couple of paragraphs, let’s further imagine that commercially made bullets (the actual projectiles) for ammunition loading / reloading become equally as hard to come by.
What’s a well rounded prepper to do? Especially those who are newer to prepping and haven’t had the opportunity to lay in a goodly supply of ready-made ammunition that might help see them through the dreaded TEOTWAWKI; the beginning of which may also be in a very near and foreseeable future.
If current trends are any harbinger of what’s to come, it appears we have already crossed the threshold into a new “here and now” point in time where commercially made ammunition and many ammunition loading / reloading components are back-ordered into some other, perhaps unforeseeable, future. Some industry projections are speculating it will be about two and a half years before consumers will see store shelves and resupply return to the previous levels of normalcy. Who knows what unforeseen catastrophic factors might happen between now and then to either prolong the backlog or close down the industry altogether?
Other than strongly suggest to my readers they hasten their efforts, through every reasonable means necessary, to procure loading / reloading components (powder, primers, cases, hulls and wads: see my previous articles “Reloading 101” and “Reloading for the Shotgun”), I can offer you a less expensive means of stocking up on bullets for both rifles and pistols and, slugs and shot for shotguns through the semi simple process of making your own.
A Brief History
In the beginning, man created the firearm. Then, over a period of time which I’m sure far exceeded seven days, man had to endure many trials and errors before coming up with the most optimum projectile to fire forth from said firearm. He eventually settled upon a projectile made of lead.That was pretty brief!!!
Lead is really a fairly lack-luster type of metal. It is too soft to use in load bearing construction work. It is too heavy and lacks the qualities better suited in gold or silver for ornate jewelry. Get it in your eyes, nose, mouth, or on your skin and you risk a life without kids or other serious (as in terminal) health issues. So why use lead in the making of bullets?
Bullets are generally over-sized as compared to the inner diameter of the firearm barrels they are fired out of. In slow motion videos, you can actually see a small lump moving along the outside of the barrel as the bullet moves along its length. The metals used in making firearm barrels do have some “elasticity” which allows this to occur. If the bullet were made of a harder metal, the lands and groves within the barrel could not make a deep enough physical impression on the bullet to impart spin. Additionally, not being able to make those impressions on a harder, over-sized metal, the barrel may very well spit from the stresses of over-expansion.
Being a softer metal; as a lead bullet is fired through a barrel, it is slightly compressed so as to fill any voids between its outer diameter and the barrel’s inner diameter plus, the hot gases that are propelling the bullet along the barrel are exerting forces on the tail end of the bullet, causing it to remain swelled, insuring the gases cannot escape from between the bullet and the barrel wall and thereby decreasing the bullet’s velocity (Speed).
Another fact about using lead in bullet making is; when a lead bullet strikes an animal or human beings, the bullet begins to stretch skin inward, but before the bullet over-stresses and breaks through the skin, the bullet begins to deform, flattening out and often times expanding up to one and a half times its original diameter. Without going into more gruesome detail; suffice it to say, this expansion effect increases lethal tissue damage exponentially. To get some idea behind what I have just explained, push one extended finger into your stomach and apply increasing pressure. You can see how far your skin is stretched inward, and the amount of resistance the skin presents, before pain forces you to stop. This resistance is quite sufficient to cause the aforementioned bullet deformation.
How to Make a Lead Bullet
Bullets can be made in two ways. One way is through a machining method called “extrusion.” The other method is by “casting.” The machinery required for extruding lead bullets is far more expensive than casting and therefore impractical for the purposes of this discussion.
Casting, on the other hand, is a process wherein lead is heated to its molten state and then poured into a bullet shaped mold. Once the molten lead begins to solidify, the mold is opened to release the bullet, allowing it to completely cool.
I am reminded of the Mel Gibson / Heath Ledger film, “The Patriot.” In a particular scene, Gibson’s character takes a toy lead soldier that had belonged to his dead son, places it in a dipper ladle then holds it into a campfire. Once the lead goes molten, he pours it into a musket ball mold to be cast then used in the next day’s battle against the Red Coats. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
Of course, the process required to get up to the point where you can pour molten lead into a mold is a bit more complex. Well, actually, quite a bit more complex. So, let’s begin this journey.
Lead Casting Equipment
Those of you who are frequent fliers to my articles know what my absolute first recommendation is going to be. You need to get yourself a book on the subject and there is none better than the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, 4th Edition.
I am one of those people who believe that reading about a subject will provide enough information to help you decide if the topic is personally doable or going to be too far above your abilities. Over the years, I’ve discovered a book is cheaper than buying a bunch of equipment and supplies, only to end up piled in a corner unused.
If you make the decision to proceed, you will need a cast iron smelting pot.
Next, you will need a high pressure (red knob) propane burner.
Then you’ll a good lead dipper.
You will need a bullet, slug, or shot mold.
I highly recommend a smelting thermometer.
A lead hardness tester is also a must have.
And an ingot mold.
Though not necessarily required, I have a second smelting pot that runs off of electricity and pours molten lead through a small nozzle in its bottom.
To round out the supply list, a few boxes of paraffin to be used as a lead fluxing agent and asmall lead ladle for mixing in the flux and skimming off contaminants from the top of the molten lead.
Finally, I most strongly suggest eye protection, protective clothing, long gauntlet high temperature welding or fireplace leather gloves, and heavy leather work boots. Lead goes molten at 621 degrees Fahrenheit. Trust me when I tell ya… it may not be hot enough to spontaneously ignite clothing, but it is hot enough to cause very serious injury and even death. The slightest drop of moisture, even a bead of sweat, falling into molten lead will produce a violent reaction capable of ejecting a large portion of the lead out of the pot almost like an explosion.
Once, when shoveling range lead into a large smelting pot, an unfired .22 caliber round that had inadvertently been swept up into the range lead cooked off. The brunt of the lead that was ejected from the pot was stopped by the denim jeans I was wearing. I wasn’t so lucky in the small gap between the bottom of the jeans leg and the top of my left shoe. Thirty some years later I still sport the scar from that burn. The jeans leg was only heavily scorched.
It takes about twenty minutes for lead to go from ambient temperature to molten. Due to its density, It maintains its heat for quite awhile, and it tends to stick to most everything it comes into contact with that isn’t already at 621 degrees or greater… Including skin.
Scrounging For Lead
In the days before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared lead a hazardous material, lead could be easily purchased at nearly any auto parts store and hardware stores. Now, lead is much harder to acquire as many items that were commonly made of lead have been replaced by those made from zinc.
One of the better sources of lead is auto tire centers, as lead is still used in the making of wheel weights, used to balance tires. Of course, these too are slowly being replaced by zinc wheel weights. Another source is metal recyclers, though not all will deal in lead. Many plumping supply stores still sell lead and pre-poured lead ingots can be purchased online through sellers on eBay.
Under no circumstance should lead from lead / acid batteries be considered for any project. When melted down, the acid that was combined with the lead to create the electrical charge will produce a gas that will kill you by way of eyes, nose, mouth, and skin.
Generally, scrap lead is selling for around $1.50 per pound. Prices can run higher, $2.00 to $3.00 per pound, as in the case of pre-poured ingots being offered by sellers on eBay, with the price reflecting the labor the seller has put into smelting the lead and pouring it into ingots. Additionally, when dealing via the internet, you have to consider added shipping charges.
As previously stated, lead is an extremely soft metal. Unlike iron or steel, pure lead does not make a ringing sound when struck with a hammer. For certain uses, including bullet making, lead requires that other metals be added to it in order to make it harder, in a process called alloying. The alloying metals used to increase the hardness of lead are Antimony and Tin. While antimony imparts more hardness than tin, the tin allows the lead to flow easier when molten.
Regardless of where you obtain your scrap lead, and the stated alloy mixture claimed, you will need a means of testing the lead hardness to determine where it falls within the “three bears” guidelines (i.e. Too soft, too hard, or just right). A good alloy mix is made up of 90% lead / 5% antimony / 5% tin and should give a hardness test result of between 10 and 30 Brinell Hardness (BHN) depending upon the muzzle velocities for your particular ammunition round. The Lyman Manual provides a chart to determine the appropriate hardness for the various velocities. More on hardness and how to adjust it will be explained a little later.
Smelting Your Scrap Lead
Let’s say you stumbled across a stash of scrap lead. So now what do you do now?
Best done out of doors, you set up your propane burner and smelting pot and get your flames going. Of course if it’s all you have, you can hang the pot over a camp type fire. Using a steel chain to suspend the pot from a steel tripod over the flames, you can adjust the pot higher or lower to maintain the pot temperature. This is where a smelting thermometer is essential, as you don’t want the molten lead to reach temperatures above 650 degrees for an extended length of time. If left at higher temperatures for too long, the molecular structure of the lead will breakdown.
Once the pot has begun heating, you can begin adding in the lead. As mentioned earlier, it takes lead about twenty minutes to start turning molten. Once it has reached its molten state, you will see impurities and non-lead material up on the surface. This crud or “dross” will include, for example, the metal clips used to secure wheel weights to the tire’s rim and, if you might have tossed a zinc wheel weight or two in with the lead, you’ll see the entire zinc weight come to the surface. It’s important to scoop the zinc weight out of the melt quickly before it begins to go molten and add way too much hardness to your lead.
To help the dross and other impurities separate from the lead and move to the surface, add a very small piece of paraffin in and gently stir it around. Leave it for a few moments and as the paraffin moves to the surface it will begin to smoke heavily. After a few more moments, the smoke will ignite, or you can help it along with a match, and slowly burn off. However, avoid breathing in the smoke. Once it has burnt off, there will be a brownish coloring on top of the melt. Skim this off the top and you are ready to pour your clean lead into an ingot mold.
Once the ingots have cooled, you can test the hardness of that particular batch. You have to realize that smelting a “mixed bag” of scrap lead will produce a wide range of hardness readings. Also, you will want to segregate your batches, marking each with its hardness test number.
Adjusting the Hardness of Your Lead
If your newly poured ingots test too soft, you can adjust the hardness level by re-smelting the ingot and adding in the needed percentage of antimony and tin to make it harder.
If your ingots are too hard, you smelt it and add in more soft (pure) lead to soften it up.
It’s important to be mindful of the fact that every time you smelt lead, add more lead to the melt or add antimony and tin, you need to go through the paraffin fluxing procedure again.
Of course, the Lyman Manual will make all of this a lot more clear than I can in the space allotted.
Casting Your Lead into Bullets
After all the smelting, fluxing, testing, adjusting and pouring of your clean lead into ingots, you have finally arrived at the point where you can cast that lead into bullets. Cue the dramatic music and the bright sunrise over a beautiful new day!!! Now drag out your smelting equipment and get ready to melt, flux, and pour some more.
For Mel Gibson in “The Patriot,” a one step “melt and pour” from a toy soldier to a musket ball wasn’t a problem. Even modern day black powder firearms shooters prefer soft lead bullets.
There is a wide variety of bullet molds available, so you should be able to find several of any calibers you own, with a variety of bullet weights and designs. Some molds are single cavity only and some are double cavity. I own a mold that produces 18 four ought buckshot pellets in a single pour. Unfortunately, different size molds require different size handles and handles are generally sold separately. Be sure to purchase the correct pair.
Bullet molds may be made of aluminum or they may be steel. Aluminum molds are cheaper but, they can wear out faster and are prone to warping if subjected to high temperatures for too long. The key here is; if you go with aluminum molds, give them a regular break to allow them to cool down some. This is especially true when casting the large diameter shotgun slugs.
A bullet mold must be properly prepared prior to casting. It needs to be cleaned of all oils and moisture. The cavity itself needs to be lightly blackened (smoked) using a match. This allows the hot bullet to more easily release from the mold. No candles though, as candle smoke carries oils from the wax. You then need to lubricate the pivot points and alignment pins with a very small amount of casting lube so the mold halves can open and close without binding, after they have heated and expanded.
Heat your lead up to a molten state, add a little paraffin flux, stir it and skim it then bring it up to around 650 degrees. While you are waiting for the lead to come up to temperature, lay the mold haves over the top of the smelt pot so that they too can heat up to working temps. If everything has been prepped properly, you should be able to start pouring the lead into the mold and begin producing perfect, shiny lead bullets.
Even after doing all of the beforehand prep work, you may produce some bad looking or deformed bullets. Understand that you may have to pour and cast several bullets before the mold heats up sufficiently for the lead to flow completely and fill the mold cavity. Seeing serious wrinkles in your bullets is an indication that there is oil contaminating the mold cavity. Cool it down and re-clean the mold haves. Cleaning with Naphtha will help remove all oils.
And there you have it; scrounging, smelting and casting for lead bullets. If the idea appeals to you, add a few molds from fishing supply purveyors and you can cast weights and sinkers too.