First of all, let me just say, I am no expert at casting lead bullets and this article is only a basic guide to get started and to show you that this is do-able for the lay person. Please visit forums like cast boolits and read manuals like Lee’s Modern Reloading, and the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook before you get too involved in this hobby.
Realize that man has been casting lead for thousands of years. Our forefathers one several wars casting their bullets over a fire using nothing but lead, a spoon, and a mold. Understand that this is something almost everyone can do.
Factor in the dangers inherent to molten metal, the toxicity of lead, and the engineering problems of casting for modern firearms with their higher tolerances and pressures. Understand that there are steps you should take to ensure a safe experience and a good finished product.
First thing after doing your research is to find some lead. It is getting harder to find. In my experience when I find some its free (or cheap) and there is usually at least 100 pounds.
The way I get my lead is either through asking on sites like craigslist, or driving around to tire shops. Some smaller tire shops will give you a bucket full (bring your own bucket) or sell it to you for $20. I know many people that just buy their lead at a reloading store or for about a buck a pound on eBay.
Wheel weights are about 95% lead, .5% tin, and about 5% antimony. The tin and antimony are added to the lead in wheel weights to help the lead flow and cast a good weight. I find this ratio of lead to be soft enough to make good pistol bullets without alloying any additional metals to the mix. The problem with lead wheel weights is that they are not always lead.
A lot of modern weights are made of zinc. Zinc makes casting a nightmare as it makes the lead not flow as easily which makes your bullet mold not fill out properly.
You can do an internet search on this problem, and castboolits has lots of posts on this but:
You can ID zinc weights by hardness, sound, label, or melting point.
- If you drop zinc on the ground it makes a ringing noise and lead makes a thud.
- Most zinc weights are actually labeled as “Zn”.
- I have also noticed that the zinc weights look cleaner than lead, but that may not happen all the time.
- Zinc has a higher melting point than lead. If any make it past the sorting process you have a second chance to pull them out before they melt.
- Zinc melts at 787º F, Lead melts at 621ºF so it helps to keep your pot just hot enough to melt the lead but not enough to melt the zinc.
The way I do it is in steps.
Some years I go on a binge and drive around to every mom and pop tire shop I can find until I get 5 or 6 buckets of wheel weights. Each bucket is about 75 pounds. I then take a Saturday and dig out my turkey fryer and a cast iron pot. I only use that pot for lead. Additionally, I always keep some solid lead in it to make sure its ONLY used for this purpose. Next I sort and melt all the wheel weights.
Wear gloves as you would not believe all the extra junk that gets thrown in here. You will find tobacco spit, razor blades, and all types little bits and pieces of all sorts of nastiness…
Do this melt outside (melt all lead outside). Don’t breathe the smoke and vapor as lead is toxic to your body. Once the pot is full of nice molten lead, I will break off a piece of candle to flux off the oxides that form as scum on the top of the pot. I let that burn off. Next I ladle the molten metal into my ingot molds.
You don’t have to have special molds. I use an old muffin pan. Just ensure that you never use it for anything else besides lead.
I have more than one ingot mold so I can ladle one as the other cools.
When I cast lead I keep a metal bucket nearby. This is to collect all the steel wheel clips and other junk that comes off the lead. The scrap dealer gets this bucket.
By law it is not hazmat until it’s at the end of its life. Consequently, as long as its being recycled it is not hazardous waste. If you get caught throwing this junk away you can get hit with HUGE fines. To learn more check out the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act also known as the superfund law.
Once I have a couple hundred ingots I have enough to cast bullets for the year.
Personally I use Lee molds. I recommend Lee equipment (as long as its metal) as its cheaper and of good quality. Some of their stuff (like the Shotshell loaders) take some handiness to get to work perfectly. However, I have nothing but good things to say about their molds.
Since their bullet molds are aluminum, you don’t have to coat them in oil after use to keep them from rusting. This means they are really easy to work with.
However, since they are aluminum they aren’t durable enough to use professionally. This means dont use them to cast thousands of rounds a month. I cast several thousand rounds a year and have done so for several years though and have not had any problems.
The Process is Simple.
Melt your ingots. I use an electric bottom pour pot, but you can use almost anything as a heat source if you have a ladle.
Preheat your mold. I keep mine on the edge of the pot so it gets warm with the lead. If the mold is not hot enough, the lead will solidify as it enters the mold and will not fully form the bullet.
Lube your mold at the pins and moving surfaces, Don’t lube the mating surfaces. Ensure you use lube not alox.
This next part takes practice, and is best done than read about.
Fill the mold with melted lead. I find my first couple attempts each time never seem to fill completely. However, as the molds heat up I quickly get back into the game. I find that if I tilt the mold SLIGHTLY and start at the far end of a 6 mold block and pour the lead at the chamfer at the top of the sprue plate rather than directly into the hole it tends to fill better. As I fill each bullet mold I make sure to leave a little puddle of lead at the top of the sprue. This is because the lead will shrink as it cools. The puddle gives the bullet some additional lead to pull from as this happens.
As the lead cools and solidifies, but before it becomes totally solid I take a hardwood stick (wood never metal) and give a good sharp wack to the sprue plate. This cuts off the sprue of metal and gives a flat base to the bullet.
If I am casting blackpowder bullets that need to be really soft. I then open the mold and dump them out onto a slightly damp towel folded up nice and thick.
If your casting bullets for centerfire pistols and especially rifles (that will also require gas checks) the bullets need to be harder. In that case, I drop them into a 5 gallon bucket of water and the sudden cooling helps harden them.
Here is a word of warning.
If we ever meet you can see the scar on my hand and the little shiny bits on my boots. Never, ever, EVER allow anything wet or moist near your lead pot. If you do it WILL explode. Steam is created in the pot faster than it can be released. A single raindrop will cause a huge bubble of molten lead to coat what ever is closest to the pot. (I know this as I gilded my hand once… luckily only the thickest glob of lead burned me sever enough to scar.)
If you drop a bad bullet into the bucket, or damp towel then pull it out and save it to melt the next time. You can and should re-melt your sprue plates in your pot as they are hot and will melt quickly.
Like I said before, I use Lee’s molds, and mine don’t require sizing, so I am not going to get into that in this article, but depending on the mold you may need to lubricate and size your bullet with a special die for your reloading press. I will do an article on that later if needed.
Casting bullets is not hard, its kinda fun, but you need to be cautious and pay attention to detail. If you are reloading to save money, then this is a nice skill to pick up, but if your reloading in preparation for a time you cannot buy commercial ammunition, then this is an essential skill to put in your tool box.