These are a .38 caliber (.357) and a .45 caliber (.452) bullet made with Lee aluminum molds. As cast they are pretty close to what you will be shooting downrange, but you should test them to see how hard they are, and you may need to size them depending on your alloy.
This is the Lee Lead Hardness Test Kit. It consists of a spring loaded die, a bullet holder that fits in your shellholder slot, and a 20x microscope with a measuring scale on it.
The instructions say to file one side of the bullet, then press the steel ball into the flat side using the press.
The instructions say to use a vise and a file, but I found that a wood rasp and pliers worked fine, and the rasp doesn’t fill up with material like a file does. Hold the bullet in the pliers.
I used the Lee hand press instead of my bench reloading press. You hold the press so the plunger stem is flush with the top of the die. This is the exact measurement pressure, and you hold it for 30 seconds.
Quenching did not do what is claimed by the internet bullet casting mavens. The bottom one here is the original wheelweight alloy. It measured larger than the scale, and neither quenching nor heat treating made it any harder. The top two are a 92/6/2 percent mixture I purchased, and even that mixture only came up to a 14.3 from 12.5 unquenched on the Brinnell scale.
We will cover several alloys for the next article. This one is very popular as a “hard cast” alloy, but not as hard as classic Linotype.
If you are going to try quenching, make sure the water is far away from the lead pot. I used this towel with a hole in it to break the fall of the bullets so they wouldn’t dent each other.
The Lee sizing kit comes with “Liquid Alox” and you just squirt it on the bullets and coat them completely. If you look closely at the first picture above, the .452 bullet has shallow grooves, specifically for this treatment. I have had no problem with regular groove bullets using this stuff though. It works great.
The Lee lube and size kit comes with the sizing die, the pusher that goes in your shellholder slot, and the red case is a catcher for the bullets. You have to use lubed bullets.
Unless you are using a very hard alloy most handgun bullets don’t need to be sized at all. You can try sizing to different diameters to experiment with accuracy results.
I always use my hand press for this while watching TV. If you enlarge the photo you can see how it works. The bullet is on top of the pusher on its way up and through the die. The next one comes in behind it, pushing it up and into the red catcher.
This is the more classic sizing machine, called a “Lubrisizer.” That orange stuff is a stick of hard Alox lube being put into the press. The aluminum plate between the press and the bench is a Lyman heater, to make the lube more soft. We will cover this at length down the road. Don’t worry about it for now.
Lubrisizer dies are sold by diameter, like the Lee tools, and you need a top punch that matches the nose of your bullet.
Lee Lead Hardness Tester Kit (low stock)
Lee Lube & Size Kit
Once you understand the basics of bullet casting, which we covered in Part One of this series, you are well on your way to a finished bullet you can actually shoot. The next two steps are sizing and lubing the bullet, which we will cover here. I will also go over the basics of “hardness,” which will determine how much pressure and velocity your finished bullet can handle. If you are already a handloader/re-loader, you should be able to load up your bullets after this installment. This is not rocket science as you will soon see, and a lot of the mythology of bullet casting you can pretty much ignore for simple range rounds. Remember we started this series with the concept of “free bullets for life.” The more you complicate anything the more expensive it becomes, so at first, let’s just keep it simple.
After you have cast your bullets, especially if you are using a variety of scrap lead mixtures, you should determine of the resulting alloy you have created. The cheapest way to do this is with the Lee Lead Hardness Testing Kit. It measures the “Brinnell” hardness of the alloy, which is simply a hardness scale relative to itself, and people have figured over the years how much pressure this hardness scale can correlate to. The kit comes with a die that you can put in any reloading press, and a bullet holder that you slip into the shellholder slot. The die has a steel ball at the end that is connected to a measured spring system. Press the ball into your cast bullet using the press so that the back is flush, and the ball will make a measureable dent in your bullet. You measure this dent with an included 20 powder microscope that has a scale inside it.
The diameter of your dent matches up with the table that comes with the kit for the Brinnell hardness number. It also gives you the maximum PSI (pounds per square inch), or pressure, that matches up with the hardness. You then compare that to handloading data for the powder you plan to use. Take a look at the pictures, because it is easier to see than explain. This is not anywhere near as complicated as it sounds. I use the reloading data from the Hodgdon website, because it covers not only Hodgdon powders, but also IMR and Winchester, and it has pressure numbers. The Alliant Powder website, makers of Bullseye, Red Dot, etc., does not have pressure information so is not useful for these tests.
The only thing that can be slightly confusing using the Hodgdon data, is that the term CUP, or “copper units of pressure” is often found side by side with PSI, “pounds per square inch.” In reality the two terms have nothing to do with each other, but in practical terms they are often used interchangeably. Chamber pressure used to be measured in CUPs, which was measured by crushing copper, , but since the piezoelectric pressure meter was developed, which correctly measures actual PSI, this method is almost universally used to test chamber pressure. When you see CUP and PSI side by side, as it is on the Hodgdon website in the reloading data, I assume that to mean that these were the methods used when this example was last measured. In practical terms, PSI is correlated to CUPS, and you should be able to use your LEE Lead Hardness Testing Kit data with either number.
You may be surprised to find that your alloy is technically too soft for the caliber for which you hope to load. But have no fear. Unless you had planned to shoot in a magnum caliber, it won’t hurt to try to see if your bullets work in your gun. As long as you don’t go with maximum loads and stick to well under maximums, the worst that can happen is that your barrel with retain some lead in the grooves of the rifling. A few jacketed bullets through the gun will clean this right out, and we are going to cover alloys next, so you will learn how to make your alloy hard enough to use.
One thing I do suggest, before you start casting, is to plan to drop your bullets from the hot mold into a bucket of water. It is called “quenching” and it can make them harder. Generally wheel weights are very soft, and any hardness boost will help. To do this you simply set up a bucket with water, and as you can see from the pictures, I cut a hole in a towel so I can break their fall as they drop from the mold. The only thing you have to understand about quenching is, you HAVE TO KEEP THE WATER WELL AWAY FROM THE LEAD POT. We didn’t put this tip in the first article exactly for this reason. Water, if it hits your melted lead, will instantly turn into a steam and create lead explosion, and it is about the most dangerous worst thing you can do while casting bullets. Nonetheless, millions of bullet casters have safely used this quenching technique to make their bullets harder for generations, perfectly safely, so just be careful.
“Geezer science” being what it is, we will probably get comments on this article that quenching always works, and that it never works. The problem with a lot of information about casting is that it is anecdotal, and written by individual writers who did one or two tests of what they had on hand. The best article I have found on this subject is on the LASC website, but I have not had anywhere near the results claimed in the article. I have had many alloys where it had no effect at all, including this wheelweight alloy with which we started this series. According to this and other articles I have read, you can also “heat treat” an alloy in the oven, then quench, but my results with this method have been a complete joke. I have never measured an increase in hardness, and I have melted a lot of bullets in the oven while experimenting, and had to make up for stinking up the house with poisonous lead fumes on more than one occasion.
I am quite sure that there is a basis in actual metalurgy for this quasi-science of both quenching and heat treating, but I have found no consistent formula in several attempts. Adding tin and antimony to free sources of lead is how you generally make alloys harder, and we will get to this in the next installment of this series, as well as some basic handloading information for cast bullets. If you want to get a jump on it, Rotometals seems to be a good source for inexpensive antimony and tin. They advertise on many of the cast bullet websites.
Lubrication and Sizing
Bullet lube is another one of those quasi-science areas of handloading. For our purposes we are going to stick to one family of lubes, called “Alox.” The Lee Lube & Size Kit, which we’ll get to, comes with a “Liquid Alox.” To give you an idea of how deeply into geezer science we are here, there is no Wikipedia on Alox, but the basic chemical is a petroleum product, and the bullet lube version is mixed with beeswax usually. The nice thing about the liquid stuff is that you just squirt it on and tumble it around with your bullets, coating them, and that’s it. You let them dry and they are ready for sizing or loading.
To size or not to size depends on what diameter your bullets shrink to when they cool. You probably already know that a .38 Special doesn’t have a diameter of .38. It is .357 inches, the same as a .357 Magnum. A .45 ACP is .452 inches. A .44 Special or Magnum is .429, and a 9mm is .355. The easiest sizing system I have found for handgun bullets is the Lee Sizer, as you’ll see in the pictures here. Like the hardness test kit, it comes with a die for any reloading press and a pusher that fits in your shellholder slot. You first lube your bullets then push them, one behind the other, through the sizing die.
The thing is, in most cases, you won’t need to size your bullets at all. When your bullets cool, they make shrink to exactly the size you need. In my experience with Lee molds, both the two cavity and six cavity, this is almost always the case. The only exception was when I was casting an alloy called Linotype, which you will hear in the casting world a lot. Linotype used to be available free everywhere, because it was used in printing presses to make newspapers. They lined up lead alloy letters to print the papers, then generally threw them away, or sold them for scrap. Linotype is very hard, and when you cast it into bullets it tends to cast big once it cools. Measure your own bullets to see, but 9 times out of 10, your bullets won’t need to be sized. Just lube them, load them, and shoot them.
For rifle bullets, like that big .45-70 bullet you see here in the pictures, sometimes you do need to size, and that is sometimes done with a “Lubrisizer.” The machine you see in the pictures here is an RCBS Lubrisizer called the Lube-a-Matic. You mount it on your bench and load it with a hard stick of lube, then squeeze the lube into the grooves of your bullet while you force it through a sizing die for the diameter you want. Besides the purchase of the Lubrisizer itself, you need to buy a tie for each diameter you wish to size to, and a top punch that matches the nose of your bullet. When you look up most rifle bullet molds they will tell you which number top punch to use when sizing.
Again, not even all rifle bullets have to be sized. There are conflicting opinions all over the web and throughout the history of printed bullet casting literature as to what the best diameter is in relation to the diameter of your bore. You can read opinions that say one or two thousandths over bore diameter is best, and that actual bore diameter is best, and that even three of four thousandths over bore diameter is best. You can even get a special chamber casting alloy called “Cerrosafe” that you can use to measure your actual chamber and barrel dimensions.
How deep you want to go with bullet casting is up to you. There are so many factors, between alloys and lube and diameter and pressure, you can drive yourself nuts trying to come up with the best formula for your particular firearm. The bottom line on bullet casting is that it can save you real money, and the better you get at it, the more closely your inexpensive cast bullets will perform to jacketed rounds. People hunt with cast bullets, and with a little copper cup called a gas check, cast bullets can be pushed to pressures close to jacketed rounds as well. Shooting is a rich hobby, and casting your own bullets not only saves you money, it adds another layer of richness to our interesting and engaging pastime. By now you should have enough to get shooting, with handgun bullets anyway, and we’ll be back with alloys and handloading tips next.