On Building a Better Bullet

One key ingredient to consistent competitive performance is the Minie Ball. Named after a French Ordnance Major, the evolution of the hollow cavity projectile in the 1850s increased the efficiency of rifled muskets to the horrific levels of our Civil War. The hollow cavity in the base of the bullet expands under ignition pressure to firmly grasp the barrels' rifling, which permits the Minie Ball to be undersized for quicker, easier loading under combat conditions. Modern musket and carbine shooters shooting Minie Balls need soft, pure lead projectiles to effectively employ the original principles of the Minie Ball.

Finding pure lead is not as easy as it used to be. Lead and lead handling are viewed somewhat harshly by some in todays world. Although I have never had to, I would purchase pure lead before using any uncertain material. In the past 10 years, I have been able to find just enough sources of used, pure lead to keep me in bullets. One excellent source of used lead is from radiology labs. Regulations require that rooms in which X-Ray equipment is located and operated be shielded by pure lead sheets. These sheets are glued to the walls and ceilings, and when labs are remodeled or relocated, the sheets are often scrapped. They are extremely heavy, and contractors are usually happy to have anyone willing to sweat to haul some pieces off. A 4 foot square piece I picked up in 1988 lasted me until this year, and weighed at least 90 pounds. Another source of good used pure lead is old telephone cable splices. When cable repairs are being made in your area, you may be able to talk the repair people into letting you have the lead, since they no longer use this material. An average cable splice cover weighs in the neighborhood of thirty pounds.

I do not advocate the use of "dug" bullets as a source of lead for many reasons. First, somebody has to dig 'em. Second, the bullets you recover are of many caliber sizes and of different composition. If you dig the hard bullets that many carbine shooters like to use, you will get a lot of tin. You basically have no idea what you'll be melting down when you use dug bullets. I tried using some dug bullets earlier this year, and I was unhappy with the results. I now use dug bullet lead for the bullets I give away at schools, etc., give it to carbine shooters, or use it for fishing weights. Pure lead is softer than any alloy, and skirts of pure lead bullets expand into rifling quicker than bullets made from alloys. I subscribe to the theory that the longer a bullet is engaged in the rifling, the more consistent your impact point will be. It has been my experience that pure lead bullets never tumble or "keyhole". When a minie ball does not completely engage the rifling early enough to stabilize before leaving the barrel, the projectile rolls on its horizontal axis. The resulting flight is erratic and obviously impossible to control. If your paper targets are showing these large rips instead of punches, chances are you need to change your bullet composition to a softer alloy or pure lead.

Crafting high quality pure lead bullets is another key ingredient in achieving consistent competitive success. Pure lead melts at about 700 degrees Fahrenheit, alloys require more heat. It has been my experience that metals for casting must be at least 120 percent of their melting point to cast accurately. Molten metal used below this point wrinkles and may have cavities. Many bullet casters I have talked to complain that the sprue hole in their molds (the little hole you pour the lead through) is so small that it inhibits the flow of the lead. In fact, it also allows the sprue cutter to serve as a heat sink, drawing heat away from the lead pouring into the mold. For years, I had a heck of a problem getting my Lyman 575213 Old Style mold to heat up enough to cast high quality bullets. Finally, this year I enlarged the hole in the sprue plate to 3/16", and now my second or third bullet is almost perfect, and by the seventh or eighth cast all the bullets I throw are excellent. The same mold I used to cuss at now throws more than twice as many bullets per hour then I was getting with the smaller sprue plate hole. If you decide to enlarge any sprue plate holes, make sure you do it with a cast bullet in the mold to back up your drill, and carefully polish the bottom of the plate and the top of the mold when finished.

Another tip to casting Mine Balls is to stir the pot while casting. Molten lead is like raw milk in that it separates into heavier and lighter liquids. The heavier lead will settle to the bottom if you don't continuously stir the pot. I stir with my ladle every 2 or 3 casts.

After casting your bullets, your work is only half complete. All cast bullets should be sized for safety and competitive reasons. The ugliest sight on the firing line is the shooter who is forcing bullets down the barrel with both hands on the ramrod and the gun between his or her knees. If your going to size the bullet (in this case in the barrel) anyway, you might as well do it in the comfort of your own home! Additionally, sized bullets shoot more consistent. Why should I size if I use the same mold for all my bullets you say? Aren't the bullets I cast all the same you ask? Absolutely not. As your mold heats during use, it expands minutely because it is made of metal. As the mold heats and constricts during use, the cast balls may vary by as much as .005", enough to warrant sizing. How much to size? I shoot a .580 custom barrel and currently size all my cast minie balls down to .577. These load so easily during a skirmish, that I am thinking about changing to a .578 sizer. As a general rule, I would suggest sizing your bullets from .002 to .003 smaller than your bore. If you have a rough spot in your barrel that still seems to grab the bullet while you load, step down another .001 when sizing.

I perform one more step before my bullets are ready to be fired. I know from experience that my cast bullets weigh from 502 grains to 481 grains, with 80% weighing between 495 and 485 grains. While this is only a 4.2 % difference in the extreme measurements, I divide my cast into 2 groups - bullets under 490 grains and bullets over 490 grains. In this way, I ensure a more consistent bullet weight within each group of loads. Also, on windy days or for long range work, I like to use the heavier bullets. And lastly, any bullet with a hidden defect or cavity will weigh out really light, and I can discard it.

Only you can control the composition of your cast Minie Ball. I have tried buying precast bullets, using wheel weights, dug bullets, etc. Nothing beats making your own high quality pure lead Mine Balls to tighten your group. The last variable in the scoring equation is the bullet. A good sight picture, well developed and measured powder charge, and good shooting habits can all be wasted by shoddy bullets. Improving your bullet just might improve your score.

Until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.

(c) 1992 by Tom Kelley
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