Casting Lead Bullets, The Evolution of the Wheel Weight

With the cost of doing business at the range going up every time it rains I decided that casting lead bullets from scrap lead might be worth the endeavor. I spoke with Robert Bank (a member at m1911.org) initially about getting started. We exchanged many emails and spent several hours on the phone getting me prepped to turn lead wheel weights into lead semi wad cutters as fodder for my Government Models.

I decided to start with the Lyman Master Casting Kit because Lyman has been making casting equipment a while now and many swear by it. The initial kit was inexpensive, which was also a factor as starting a new hobby there is always the chance it won’t go as expected and casting would not be for me.

The Master Casting Kit includes a 10 pound electric pot, ladle, 4500 bullet sizer/lubercator, four cavity one pound ingot mold, and the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook. The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook should be read at least twice before any steps on casting or smelting begins.

I really enjoy reloading so I was optimistic on casting. A call to Cabelas one evening for the kit, then to Midway for some molds, and a little abuse to my Visa and I was on my way. I chose Lyman molds 452630 (a 200gr Lead semi-wad cutter for .45 Automatic) and 356402 (a truncated cone for Super .38).

There would be a few days before my equipment would arrive so I decided to scour the local tire stores for old wheel weights. After a few stops and some animated conversation I had liberated three five-gallon buckets full of wheel weights. This is a good time to mention that a five-gallon bucket full of wheel weights is heavy, so be careful loading your haul.

I should clarify why I am using wheel weights. Pure lead is too soft for use in front of smokeless powder, so a lead alloyed with a small amount of tin and antimony will add the hardness needed (more on that later) for clean shooting bullets. You can alloy pure lead with a lead/tin solder in ratios to get a desired hardness but for my casting purpose wheel weights (about 95.5% lead, .5% tin, and 4% antimony) work in my pistols. To further harden them, I water quench the bullets right from the mold. The step is not necessary for pistol but is a step that works for me. Water quenched bullets are harder than air cooled. Also as casted bullets age for the first three weeks or so they will harden a little. There are several kits that measure Brinnell hardness if you need to know bullet hardness closer than a guess (which I believe is a good tool to have on hand) I use the Lee kit, it measures harness by putting a dimple in a lead bullet using a reloading press by using a spring loaded punch and then measuring the dimple’s diameter and comparing that number to a supplied chart to get the hardness.

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The Lyman kit arrived the same day my molds did so it was off to the local store to get a burner and pot for smelting wheel weights into ingots.

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I came home with a natural gas burner, regulator, and hose for about $25. I also picked up a cast iron frying pan for smelting the wheel weights into ingots. The reason for smelting the wheel weights into ingots is to get the steel clips out of the lead, as well as to remove dirt and impurities.

Smelting wheel weights into ingots

I like to get the pot warm to be sure it is dry, and then add a handful of wheel weights at a time. Once I get the pot about half full it is time to let the wheel weights melt completely. I would also like to point out this can be a smelly task so position yourself upwind from the smelting pot and/or add a fan to blow the fumes away from you. I chose to wear as respirator for the process as well.

Be sure not to add any zinc wheel weights, as they will ruin the alloy. Luckily zinc wheel weights melt at a higher temperature than lead and are lighter than their lead counterparts, so should you get any in your pot they will float to the surface and should be immediately skimmed off. Zinc wheel weights are generally more squared off than lead weights are easily noticeable. Another way to pick out a zinc wheel weight is the clip will be riveted on instead of cast inside the weight.

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An example of zinc wheel weights

The lead has melted off the clips; they have floated to the top and are ready to be skimmed.

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Once the wheel weights have melted completely I use a soup ladle with holes in it to stir the mix and scoop out the steel clips. Have something sturdy to collect the steel clips in and remember they will be plenty hot.

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Once you have the steel clips out I use a solid soup ladle to skim the dross (molten lead) of the impurities.

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Once the steel clips and trash has been skimmed, it is time to flux the pot. I use wax seals for setting water closets (because I am a plumber and can get them real cheap) but any wax such as beeswax or paraffin will work (as will any other material high in carbon content). The reason for fluxing is to remove any impurities that have been left behind from smelting the lead.

I will add a spoon full of wax to the top of the dross; it will melt and spread a layer about an eighth of an inch thick across the top of the molten lead. It should remain in contact with the top of the dross until it has burned away (about forty five to sixty seconds). After much has burned away I will stir in the remainder and skim again. Be careful adding wax as it is flammable and will smoke and can catch fire as it floats across the dross.

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I have been told that fluxing the dross keeps the lead, tin, and antimony alloy mixed but from what I have read and been told the alloy will not separate at smelting temperatures.

It is time to make the ingots. I use the solid ladle to transfer the molten lead into the ingot mold.

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This where I use a trick Robert told me. Once I have the ingot mold full I sit it down on a damp rag. This cools the bottom of the mold as the top is cooling so you can extract the ingots a little quicker. You can use about any steel or cast iron mold to make ingots as long as they will fit in your production pot easily.

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Once you have the ingots out, let them sit as they stay hot a while and go on to making more. I keep two ingot molds handy so while one is cooling I can be filling another. This will speed up ingot making a great deal.

I will dip out lead until the pan is almost empty and then the whole process starts over. Keep this up until either you have a nice pile of ingots, run out of wheel weights, or just get tired of making ingots. This is not the task to do without paying close attention and being very careful. A lap full of molten lead would ruin your whole weekend.

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Once the ingots have cooled, stack them out of the way. You will know they are ready to be melted in your production pot for bullets.

Turning ingots into bullets

Find an area out of the way with plenty of room to organize your tools. This will be the time to plug in your pot and melt the ingots.

There are two types of furnaces commonly used, a ladle type or a bottom pour. The ladle pot uses a ladle to dip out the molten lead and pour into a mold. The bottom pour has a stopper in the bottom that can be raised with a lever to allow molten lead to flow. A mold is held under the stream until full and the lever is lowered to stop the flow.

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Whatever furnace you are using, the first steps are similar. Add a few ingots (depending on your pot size) and they will begin to melt. While I am waiting for the ingots to melt I will put the mold I will be using on the side of the pot so it will heat up. The mold will need to be hot when you begin to pour so the cavity in the mold will fill out.

Once the ingots are melted I like to flux again to be sure all the impurities are out. I will add a small amount of wax, let it melt and burn off, and skim once more just to be sure. If you were looking to add a little hardness to the alloy, now would be the time to add in some 50/50 solder. Just a piece about four to six inches long should suffice to add a little hardness and may also help fill out the mold cavity.

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Ladle casting

Since I cast more with a ladle I will talk about that first.

Be sure to ease your ladle in the lead to get it up to temperature. By now the mold should be hot. Once the lead will pour with a smooth stream get your mold ready. I will hold the ladle about a half inch from the sprue plate (the plate on the top of the mold that once the lead has cooled is struck with a soft mallet to cut the excess lead to make the bullet base uniform) and slowly fill the cavity with lead leaving a small pool of lead on the sprue plate.

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This is where you will determine if the mold is hot enough or too hot. Once the sprue has dried strike the sprue plate with a soft mallet (I use a rubber hammer) to cut off the excess lead.

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Once you open the mold, check out the bullet. If it has not flowed completely into the cavity the mold is not hot enough and the lead cooled before it could fill out. This mold is not hot enough as can be seen by the bullet cavity not filled out completely.

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If the bullet is frosty looking, the mold is too hot. Once I begin to get uniform bullets I will drop them from the mold into a small bucket of cold water. This cools the bullet quickly, keeping it from becoming disfigured, and also hardens it more than if it is allowed to air cool.

I will cast until the heating element in my Lyman pot is exposed and then add a few more ingots to melt

If you do not want to add hardness to the bullet then drop it to a soft cloth or some other cushion to protect its shape while it is hot.

Casting bullets takes preparation and time so it is best to plan on casting enough bullets to make it worth your time and effort. It is also a good idea to have plenty of ingots on hand, as once you start working it is not the time to go hunting for them.

Bottom pour pot

The principals are the same for the most part. Melt ingots, flux the lead, and heat the mold and pour the lead.

Once the ingots are melted and the mold is hot, hold the mold about a half inch from the spigot and slowly fill the mold by raising the handle. Leave a small amount of lead on the sprue and let cool. Open the sprue plate with a soft mallet and drop the bullets out.

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Bullet sizing and lubricating

Now we have a pile of cast bullets, but they are not ready to load them yet as they need to be swaged to a uniform size and lubricated to reduce friction and lead fouling. I use a Lyman 4500 lubersizer but there are many fine lubersizers on the market.

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Each bullet shape has a top punch and sizing die for that bullet. The top punch is ordered according to the bullet shape but the sizing die is up to you. Cast bullets generally shoot better swaged .001 larger than the groove so I start with that as a measurement for ordering the sizing die, after that you can experiment a little.

For example, take the barrel out of your Government Model chambered in .45 Automatic. It should have a .451″ groove, but it is best to slug the bore to be sure. If you want to know for sure, find a pure lead weight (such as a fishing weight) just oversized of the bore and drive it through the bore with a wooden dowel and mallet (breech to muzzle). Measure the slug a few times with a dial caliper and record the number. We will say the slug measures .451″ so we know our groove is .451″ and order a .452″ sizing die

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Top punch and sizing dies

Install the top punch for your bullet shape and the sizing die into the lubersizer.

Now is time to add the stick of lube. I like Lyman Alox or Moly lube

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Remove the reservoir cover and by spinning the handle the piston will come out of the reservoir. Drop in the stick of lube and reinstall the piston, compressing the lube, and then reinstall the cover.

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Run the handle down, applying pressure on the lube until you feel resistance. Set the bullet to be sized on the sizing die and press it into the die. Check to be sure lubricant has been pressed into the lube groove; if not, add a little pressure to the lube and reinsert the bullet until the lube groove is full.

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You will have to add pressure to the lube as you size bullets to keep lube flowing into the lube groove as it is depleted.

Some lubricants are harder than other and will need a heater to soften the lube allowing it to flow better. An element that is inserted into the base of the sizer and warms the reservoir.

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Thoughts

Working with lead can be hazardous if you are not careful. All the safety rules apply such as eye protection, being focused, and using common sense. Be sure to wash your hands after handling lead and do not eat or drink during smelting, casting, or reloading. The Lyman manual lists many safety rules that should be followed There is much more to casting bullets than I have set out above. I hope this article gives you some ideas of what is involved in casting bullets for your handgun. Casting for a rifle is somewhat different (especially in bullet hardness and adding gas checks. A gas check is a small copper disk that is crimped to the base of the bullet during sizing for higher pressure rounds in rifle and some pistol calibers, molds will be cut to cast a gas checked bullet

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If someone is interested in beginning casting, two books that offer great instruction are The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbookand also a few chapters in The ABCs of Reloading. If you decide to give casting a whirl, make some friends at the local tire stores to procure a few buckets of wheel weights and give it a go.

A few cast bullets

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120 grain 9mm truncated cone, 200grain .45 caliber LSWC , 150 grain .38 caliber LSWC, 160gr 30 caliber round nose fat point.

Acknowledgments

Robert Bank (member of m1911.org) for all his help in getting me started in casting. TonyW (member of m1911.org) for sending me the Lee bottom pour pot and other casting tools.

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