Making Good Lead

One key ingredient to consistent competitive performance is the projectile, which for a musket 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. Carbine shooters that don't shoot front stuffers usually shoot a flat based bullet, and rely on the higher pressure of FFF powder to expand the base of the bullet into the rifling. Additionally, most breechloading shooters shoot bullets which are a tad oversized, because they don't have to shove 'em down the barrel. The oversized projectile and power under the bullet guarantee a good grab of the rifling.

Casters accumulate a lot of equipment as you can tell from Photo A. Molds can be double cavity, single cavity, round ball, hollow- based, and/or solid based. There are, in 1998, not less than 20 different styles of Minie Ball alone. The best choice for a beginner is to find someone who shoots the same barrel as you and ask them what they shoot, and start with that mould. Pure lead is the composition of choice for Minie Ball shooters, while breech loaders seem split on the choice. Personally, I shoot what works best in that weapon. I shoot hard lead, which is about 92% lead and 8% wheel-weights, in my Maynard and Burnside because they give the best groups.

Finding pure lead is not as easy as it used to be. Lead and lead handling are viewed somewhat harshly by some in today's world. I would purchase pure lead before using any uncertain material. In the past 10 years, I have been able to find a lot of 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 1992, 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 just recovered a cable splice for a team mate, so they are available.

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 some years ago, and I was unhappy with the results. I now use dug bullet lead for the bullets I give away at schools, etc., or 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 that look like bullet profiles 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 620 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. Using alloys, even my 92/8 mix, means using more heat. 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, in 1992, I enlarged the hole in the sprue plate to 3/16", and since then 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.

When casting, a good hard strike on the sprueplate is all that is needed to finish the production process. As the photo shows, I use an old hammer handle for my striker, but a crab mallet or any hardwood stick two inches in diameter should suffice.

The temperature of the mold is also important. The mold should be as hot as the lead, and won't throw good bullets until it is. Some casters advocate putting the mold in the top of the electric pot while it warms up. I just set mine right up against the lead pot while the lead melts, which gets it plenty hot. This is not new information, pards. The Sharps Rifle Company 1879 Catalog, on page 31, recommends "(i)n casting bullets, heat the moulds nearly as hot as the molten lead, having first cleaned them of all oil."

I use a heavy one-quart saucepan for my lead melting. I've tried bottom pour pots, but because I use so much recycled lead, I find that some of the slag precipitates to the bottom during melting and casting. That's where bottom pour pots pick up the lead from, so you can see my predicament. One tip for casting Mine Balls is to stir the pot while casting. It gets the slag to the sides and keeps an homogenous mix to your lead, so bullet weights will be more consistent. 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 that are going to be loaded from the muzzle 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 you're 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 .003", enough to warrant sizing. How much to size? I shoot a .580 custom barrel and currently size all my cast minie balls down to .578. I used to size to .577, but haven't had any problem stepping up a click to .578. 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 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.

Use care when casting lead bullets. Use in an adequately ventilated area, and protect yourself. Notice in the photo that the caster is wearing leather gloves. Molten lead can splatter up to a foot away from the pot. Always wear shoes and long pants when casting, too. 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) 1998 Tom Kelley

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