Sager: Throwin' lead

These are a few of the molds used by the author to make handgun bullets.

Shooters, hunters, and especially reloaders, have more choices today than ever when they shop for bullets. Rifle and handgun projectiles are available in commercial ammo or as reloading components in a bewildering number of configurations these days.

Whether you’re looking for a bullet for a specific use, say for the long-range vaporizing of small varmints, or clobbering a large beast at 20 yards, or something that might work adequately for most all occasions, there are plenty of choices.

Not so long ago, it seems we had just a few basic bullet designs, in spite of the claims of some manufacturers and catchy brand names. Now a quick glance at a catalog or web page gives an indication of all the technology now available. You’ll see descriptions such as: monolithic copper, flex tip, tapered copper jacket, bonded core, partition, heat shield tip, controlled fracturing and many more.

I shoot a lot of different bullet designs and I can appreciate the efficiency and technology involved in our modern ammunition, but I often feel that something is missing. It’s worth remembering that for about 300 years (1500-1800) the only meaningful projectiles were simply round balls, made mostly of lead. These bullets provided the means to supply our families with meat, protection for home and property and defense against large, nasty animals. Don’t forget a few historical events such as the Revolutionary War and other unpleasant times of peril. Although still in some use by the end of the Civil War, the round ball was mostly replaced in 1847 by the newly invented Minie ball, which caused many of the horrible injuries to soldiers in that conflict.

It wasn’t until about 1882 that someone thought of a way to wrap a lead bullet with a thin copper jacket, which really started the development of the modern bullets that are now capable of high velocities, accuracy and performance on our targets, whether inanimate or living. It’s interesting that through all these years of development and all the recent technology, there’s still a demand for simple lead bullets, often cast at home by avid handloaders.

My own interest in making lead bullets started early in my shooting career, fueled by the need for inexpensive handgun bullets to keep up with the volume of ammo I was burning up at a price I could afford. A lot of the old-timers I knew cast their own bullets, for some rifles as well as handgun cartridges. There was a time when lead, in different forms, was available cheap or just for the asking.

Used wheel weights made a favorite alloy, as they seemed to be just the right hardness for casting good bullets for most purposes. Linotype, used in printing presses, was good, although pretty hard and made good rifle bullets, which traveled at higher velocity than handgun ammo. Pure lead is not used except in shooting some muzzle loading, black powder weapons. If a quantity of pure lead was available, possibly in the form of lead pipe, it could be hardened by adding a proper amount of tin or antimony to the molten metal.

This is not meant to be a complete description of the bullet casting process, and it can’t be a “how to” piece because of space constraints. My hope here is to provide a bit of information for folks who are curious about bullets and maybe considering adding another dimension to their reloading experience. There are good manuals and instructions available if you’re interested in finding out more. Casting bullets is a good, money saving hobby, but it requires some specialized equipment and demands some simple safety precautions. There can be real benefits to the reloader, especially (like most shooters) if you enjoy shooting large quantities of handgun ammunition.

The undeniable popularity of this do-it-yourself activity is reflected in the fact that after much earlier models, William Lyman started producing his famous bullet molds in 1925 and by the 1960s there were about 500 different bullet molds available in various calibers, designs and weights.

Because of the soft nature of the lead bullet, velocities must usually be kept at less than 2,000 feet per second. Thus, the application for rifle shooters is limited, but perfect for most handgun shooting. After the initial investment in some casting equipment, the cost of making your own bullets is limited to the gas or electric used to melt the alloy and some bullet lube, neither of which amount to much in the scheme of things. If you have a source for suitable lead, you can cut the cost of bullets for handgun cartridges to next to nothing. Some quick research shows that copper jacketed bullets for a .45 auto cost from 18 to 25 cents each. Commercially made lead bullets are available at 13 to 15 cents each, in lots of 500, but don’t forget significant shipping charges for those heavy little packages if you have them shipped.

If you are already reloading your own ammo and this sounds interesting, I would encourage you to look into casting; maybe find a mentor to help you get started. Just keep in mind there are some definite safety considerations when working with molten metals at around 700 degrees or so. You will need a dedicated work space and some ventilation. And by the way, using the kitchen stove for the purpose will not be appreciated by other family members.

(Roger Sager, an Era outdoor columnist, can be reached at