For years, many sutlers have had cast Minie Bullets available for purchase. Why would a skirmisher purchase bullets rather than mold his or her own? One reason is safety. Skirmishers with youngin's in the hut may be worried about exposure to lead fumes, particularly if they lack adequate space for a casting area away from food preparation or living areas. Or, they may be worried about exposing themselves to the lead fumes when casting. Purchasing pre-cast bullets eliminates the worry. Another reason to purchase is time. It takes time to cast bullets, as well as find a source of reliable lead that is pure enough for casting Minie Bullets. Skirmishers may feel they save considerable time when purchasing the pre-cast slugs.
What about the new skirmisher just entering the sport and faced with the expense of a uniform and firearm? Some staring skirmishers see an economy in purchasing Minie Balls to start off with. This is certainly less expensive than buying three or four molds and a melting pot before finding a bullet that works well in your barrel. Once a promising projectile is identified, then a similar mold and a pot may be procured, if the shooter wishes to cast his own bullets. Casting costs are not negligible. Molds start at $25 for a single cavity Lee mold, and a Rapine mold, or a Lyman mold and handles, will cost almost three times as much. An inexpensive electric melting pot, also from Lee runs $56, and an industrial strength models cost more than $100. A conservative estimate of the cost to start casting is $100 by the time you purchase mold, electric pot, lead, lube and sizer. A prudent skirmisher would plan to spend more to get started, up to twice that amount.
Another problem can be getting good lead. Because Minie Bullets have to expand their skirts into the rifling upon charge ignition, casters have to use lead that is more than 95% pure. Pure lead is hard to find in many locations. Recent federal regulations have made lead handling even more expensive and controlled, which has only added to the scarcity of lead. While wheel weights or other alloys of lead are more plentiful, they don't contain enough pure lead to cast good Minies, although they can be used for modern bullet casting in some applications.
Similarly, an established skirmisher wishing to change his projectile may first purchase some different styles of bullets before deciding on a new bullet type or weight for his skirmishing needs. You can buy a lot of cast Minie Balls for the expense of a new mold. Since most of the selection available in .58 caliber molds are from Lyman and Rapine, let's assume the cost of a new mold is $75, and you are not going to purchase new handles for the new mold at this time. A skirmisher could purchase up to 300 bullets for the same price. A box of 200 Thoroughly Modern Minies from Ball Accuracy is $27 per box.
Having established why there is a demand and need for pre-cast bullets, some skirmishers question the accuracy of the production of the commercial bullets. Large bullet producers, like Speer and Hornady, cold swage their bullets, which requires expensive machinery to slam the lead slugs into bullets or round balls. Because the available commercial Minie Balls are "handmade" by casting techniques, I have heard some concern expressed about how reliable the bullets could be.
To answer these concerns, I conducted a random sample of the Ball Modern Minies, which are advertised as weighing "450 grains." The bullets ranged in weight from 434.2 grains to 430.5 grains, an extreme spread of less than 1%. Expressed as a difference from the median weight, which was 432.4 grains, the extreme weights were +/- .04% from the median weight, a negligible difference at 50 and 100 yard ranges. Weighing my own cast bullets, from a Lyman Old Style Minie mold (575213), resulted in slightly greater variances. The surveyed bullets weighed an average of 96% of the posted weight. For our intents and purposes, the commercial bullet was as accurately produced as my homemade bullets, if not a tad better. And, many beginners are not as likely to cast as good as an experienced caster.
Having established that the average weight of my Ball Minie was 432.4 grains, I decided to start my load development with the 10:1 Ratio Rule. Allowing one grain of powder for every ten grains of payload, I computed a good starting charge would be 43.24 grains, or 43.2 grains for our use.
After sizing the bullets to .577, an easy task with the Ball Minie, I lubed the bullets with a hard lube of 50% Len's Lube and 50% paraffin. Over the years, my soft lube has run out on me in the summer heat of skirmishing, and I mean run out. Dang stuff got everywhere. For the last couple of years, I have used the 50/50 mix with good results in my Enfield and Harper Ferry Musket-Rifles. I may go to a 60-40 mix, heavy on the lube side, if I can get it to stay put in the heat. I should find out soon.
My test would include using the Ball Minie in both a Whitacre custom barrel and a Dixie Gun Works Springfield barrel. Starting with the 10:1 rule, I shot paper from the bench to identify the best group from each barrel. I used both FF and FFF graded blackpowder, but only changed the grade and size of blackpowder, being careful to use the same percussion caps, bullets and lube for each shot string. And we'll look at those results in Part II of this article next month. The 102nd National Skirmish will be October 4 - 8 near Winchester, VA. Plan now to attend. Until the next time, please promote responsible gun ownership, shoot safe, and have fun.
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