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Getting up to the next step in reloading.

March 10, 2013

Hello, folks.

Well, some time back (in October, last year) I posted an article about the merits of reloading your own ammunition, or ‘hand loading’ in other words.

As we have all noticed, if you’ve been ammo shopping in the past few months, the supply of factory made ammo is still pretty much non-existent. I had boatloads of bullets from the Cowboy Action Shooting days that I’ve now loaded into live ammunition, but am running out of bullets for this hobby. And the last bullets I prefer for hand loading that I DID find online were up to $28 for a box of 100, PLUS shipping. Twenty eight cents per bullet is just too much. I can buy lead ingots off Ebay and cast my own, and a hand cast bullet equal to the store-bought, costs me FOUR cents. Free scrounged lead costs me only my time. All the other components, like gun powders and primers are also scarce, so they must be snatched up as soon as they appear. Don’t worry, I only take one of each, when my local store has some inventory of powder, bullets or primers. I’m not one of those greedy types that wants to buy every box of primers, live ammo or loose bullets that the store has on the shelf. NOBODY has empty brass casings any more, anywhere, so I’m using up my supply of casings pretty quickly.

At any rate, what I’m getting to here is in the hand loading game, one can go to the ultimate step and cast your own lead bullets. After the current market craziness, I’ve decided to pursue that idea. But, just like anything to do with self defense now days, finding everything you’re looking for in one place just ain’t happening. So, if you too decide to start casting your own lead bullets, just like everything else you’re trying to find that’s associated with firearms, you’re going to have to do a load of searching to find everything.

To begin with you’ll need some really basic stuff to get started. An old cast iron pot or skillet, a heavy duty single burner camp stove or similar, an ingot mold purchased from wherever you can find one or an old muffin pan. A cheap steel spoon or dipper and a steel sieve spoon will be necessary to work with the melted lead, removing the floating junk and so forth. This will get you into the ‘smelting’ business. The safety gear you’ll need includes a full face shield, WELDING gloves (the ‘mig’ gloves from Lowe’s are very nice and flexible), long sleeves, jeans and work shoes. I also wear a good respirator, because I refuse to breathe that smoke. You WILL splash lead droplets all over as you work, so protect yourself before you get a nasty burn from molten lead. Be advised that a 10 inch wide iron skillet full of molten lead is HEAVY and even mig gloves will NOT counter the heat you’ll have when you grab that iron handle! So, pouring molten lead from your skillet can be a problem, so plan ahead and figure a way to deal with it.

One last thing, NEVER allow water to enter molten lead, it will cause an instantaneous steam explosion, blowing molten lead all over the place. VERY nasty. Make sure any wheel weight or lead ingot you put into molten lead is DRY.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA You can find for free or sometimes just dirt cheap lead you can ‘recycle’ into useful bullets. A few days ago, I scored a six gallon bucket full of discarded wheel weights from a local tire dealer. They seemed glad to get rid of the stuff.

You will need to sort through the junk in the pile of future bullets. Removing the steel weights and the zinc weights is not that hard. The steel weights are magnetic, so will stick to your handy magnet and are frequently labeled with ‘Fe’, meaning iron. The zinc is usually labeled with Ze and although not magnetic, is very hard if you pinch the stuff with a set of large cutting pliers. You will find many ‘stick on’ type weights in your pile. They too come in lead, steel and sometimes zinc. When you pinch these with your big cutters, you’ll see this stuff is really soft. Sort the stickies into a container separate from the other wheel weights, it’s only good for making shotgun slugs or buckshot, unless you mix linotype into your pot when you melt the stickies. The lead, the stuff you’re after here, is mildly soft to very soft, depending on the content of the lead at casting. The lead, when melted will cause all this stuff to float on the surface, the steel and zinc, so it could be done without the effort of sorting, BUT the paint, grease and crap on all that stuff will burn off, just like on the melting lead, making even more toxic smoke to have to deal with. I sort the stuff, myself, just for that reason. After the lead has melted, all the steel clips and junk will float on top, so you can spoon it out and dump it into your steel scrap bucket. Use a METAL bucket, please, dumping steel clips that are at 600 degrees or so into a plastic bucket ain’t such a good idea.  If you’re careful about keeping your melted lead at less than 650 degrees or so, the zinc won’t melt into your lead batch and ruin it. So, I keep mine just barely above the ‘melted’ temperature, so cool in fact that dumping another handful of weights to be melted in the skillet causes the lead to congeal around the new stuff for a few minutes until it is also melted, so I’m quite confident I won’t be ruining my batch with melted zinc.

Typical lead weights

Typical lead weights

Typical zinc weights

Typical zinc weights

When you’re melting these old wheel weights down, you really want maximum ventilation, because the crap that’s burning off is really nasty and toxic.

After you’ve melted your scrap lead and cleaned off the floating junk, time to make ‘ingots’ using your old muffin pan or store bought ingot molds. The picture above shows both, next to the old skillet and camp stove I use as my ‘foundry’. Using great care, you simply spoon the molten lead into your mold or muffin pan and let the cooling process begin. You must NOT have your pan or mold on a wood surface, which will absolutely smolder and turn black from the heat of the molten lead. You can see in my picture I have a sheet of metal that the pan and mold sits on while the lead cools enough to hold together when being dumped out onto a cooling rack. If you dump it onto a concrete floor, you may find it stuck to the floor. Be aware that it will take up to an hour for a ‘muffin’ or ingot to become cool enough to handle with bare hands.

So, once we have a nice load of lead muffins and ingots,

Lead muffins & Lee ingots.

Lead muffins & Lee ingots.

we are at stage two of our bullet making factory. You’ll now need a melting pot with a bottom spout to melt and dispense your lead into your bullet molds. Lee Precision company makes everything one could want to deal with reloading, and the bullet casting process.  This picture is of a 20 pound capacity furnace.

Lee melting pot

Lee melting pot

The little black handle on the side controls the lead flow into your bullet mold, like the six cavity .357 magnum round nose bullet mold shown here. The magnum load is my preference, but this bullet also fits the .38 special revolver as well. Shooting .38’s for practicing costs one less money in powder (or ammo, IF you can find it).

Six cavity mold

Six cavity mold

When you’re pouring molten lead into your bullet mold, there’s a ‘sprue plate’ across the top. This guides the molten lead into the little pockets that become the bullets. The leftover lead on top is cut loose by the third handle, shown here.

Sprue plate

Sprue plate

As I mentioned, finding this equipment all in one store is probably going to be a long shot in today’s crazy market demand for all things related to shooting, and by default, self-defense from criminals within and without the government. Many of the Lee Precision items, and similar items from the far more expensive manufacturers, have waiting list times a month or two out from when you order the item.  Of the ingot mold, the melting pot, the six cavity mold, a hollow point mold, lead thermometer, the handles for the six mold, not ONE item was found without an extensive local and internet search to buy the items, and never more than a single item from a source. So, if you wish to start casting your own, you will have to just put up with the fact you’re in for an Easter egg hunt to find your equipment.

Lee brand bullet molds generally cast a bullet that is spot on for the size of weapon the bullets are intended for. They merely need to be lubricated and then they’re ready to be seated into a casing with powder and primer, and you’re ready to go shooting. Certain applications, however, the bullets will need to be run through a ‘sizer’ to make minor adjustments to the bullet diameter.

So, there you are, in the bullet making business for sure now. Just remember, this part of reloading is hazardous – – molten lead and toxic smoke are not to be trifled with so take care and wear your safety gear.

Our crazy buddy, ‘San Francisco Liberal with a Gun’ who is very fond of Lee brand products, as am I, has some very useful videos concerning all things reloading:

And his smelting and casting videos pertain to our subject of the day.

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