Friday, March 28, 2008

Why Reload Your Own Ammo?

Ouch! I said as I picked up a box of bullets at the local gun store.

Good grief I thought, 'these critters are getting downright expensive.'"

After I got over the sticker shock I realized that anybody who does any amount of shooting realizes that the cost of buying bullets has gone up.

Along with brass, powder and primers you wonder if there is any light at the end of the tunnel.

But everything is going up and if you look at the price increases of bullets it’s not as bad as some other stuff that we consume.

One of the primary reasons is the cost of gas.

Within the last year alone gas has gone up almost a dollar a gallon with no relief in sight.

As long as we buy our oil from unstable countries we can look at further increases especially if something major disrupts our supply. With all the known oil within the U.S. and along the coast in some areas it puzzles me as to why we aren’t drilling for it.

Since gas and other related fuels factor in every aspect of manufacture one can easily see where prices would increase. The two main materials lead and copper have to be dug out of the ground then transported to the foundry.

There it takes more power to melt and purify the elements.

Then the raw materials have to be transported to the bullet maker where he processes the metals to bullets.

I was advised by a couple of the bullet makers that there is no shortage of copper or lead, just that the prices are going up.

International market forces dictate what we pay for oil, copper, lead and other products that are necessary in the manufacturing of bullets.

China is buying up a lot of raw materials as their economy is going from Communist to a capitalist society.

They are buying cars and oil in increasing amounts.

Naturally that increases the prices for raw materials that the bullet maker has to pay for. As in any manufacturing process the cost gets passed on to the end user, who is you and I.

How to beat those costs?

There are only two ways to help keep down the expense of buying handgun bullets.

You can buy them in bulk, which will make them cheaper by the unit and cut down on per diem shipping costs.

Perhaps you can get a couple of shooting buddies to go in with you.

I went into some catalogs to see how much the price of bullets has risen in the last few years.

First I got the Huntington catalog from 2001 and compared the prices to the 2006 edition.

I picked some samples of handgun bullets that may be used in hunting situations.

The first pick was the Speer 357 jacketed bullets.

2001 125 grain hollow point $12.95 2007 125 grain hollow point $18.95
2001 158 grain jacketed $13.95 2007 158 grain jacketed $16.95
2001 44 magnum 200 grain $17.95 2007 44 magnum 200 grain $22.95
2001 44 magnum 225 grain $17.95 2007 44 magnum 225 grain $22.95
2001 44 magnum 300 grain (50) $12.95 2007 44 magnum 300 grain (50) $16.95

Prices will vary from area to area and some stores will charge more or less depending on market demand.

The other manufacturers showed similar increases all across the line for their products.

These are suggested retail prices for 100 bullets unless marked as 50.

In 5 years the price has gone up by a fairly considerable margin.

Also shipping is not included and this catalog was printed before the last gas price increase. That means the price may have gone up some more. UPS and FED X are adding fuel surcharges to their shipping prices.

To add to this I looked up a couple of the Sierra single shot handgun bullets from 2001 to 2006.

Upon calling Sierra and speaking with Matt Reamis he advised that the Sierra line of bullets has indeed gone up.

He advised me that their copper has gone up 85 % since January of this year. Lead, tin and zinc have gone up but not as much as copper.

The cost of fuel also has been a factor in the price increases he advised.

I talked to Clair Reese public relations at Barnes Bullets. He advised me essentially the same and with Barnes going to all copper bullets in the future their prices will rise accordingly.

S. Clark Bronson the CFO from Barnes graciously provided me with some charts showing their price increases for their raw materials.

Copper has gone up from $2.28 to $3.76 per pound in the last 3 months. Lead increased from .4627 to .5025 cents a pound in the same period.

A look at the graphs clearly shows worldwide price hikes for these metals.

Kyle Hopp of Nosler and Coy Getman of Speer basically told me the same thing. Speer makes their boxes in house and since petroleum products are used to make plastic items that will hike the cost of bullets a little.

Also mentioned is shipping and storing as well as employee raises.

I would like to thank all the folks for their help in preparing this report.

Keep in mind that if you buy lead or copper jackets and gas checks the prices will show an increase for the same reasons.

These are prices in the Huntington catalog for a couple of Sierra handgun bullets.

2001 6mm 80 grain $14.30 2007 6mm 80 grain $19.70 100 bullets
2001 7mm 130 grain $17.10 2007 7mm 130 grain $23.30 100 bullets

Next I checked the bulk bullets, as this is the most economical way to obtain bullets.

The bullets are Remington brand in the Huntington catalog. Quite honestly these prices aren’t bad considering and the quality is good. They can be used for many hunting situations as long as you match the bullet to the game. Shipping would be extra on these.

2001 22 55 grain (2000) $115.30 2007 22 55 grain (2000) $174.70
2001 357 125 grain (2000) $118.05 2007 357 125 grain (2000) $181.40
2001 357 158 grain (2000) $135.05 2007 357 158 grain (2000) $213.05
2001 44 210 grain (1000) $94.45 2007 44 210 grain (1000) $153.70
2001 44 240 grain (1000) $103.75 2007 44 240 grain (1000) $164.00

The expensive handgun bullets really start when you get custom jobs such as the Swift A Frames or Nosler Partitions. In the Midway and other catalogs I found the following.

Nosler Partition 44 caliber 250 grain for 50 suggested retail runs about $40
Nosler Partition 45 caliber 260 grain for 50 suggested retail runs about $41
Nosler Partition 45 caliber 300 grain for 50 suggested retail runs about $42

These are 2007 prices very somewhat different from the 2005 retail.

The Swift A Frames are very similar in prices to the Nosler.

Hard cast bullets with gas checks meant for 44 magnums and high performance 45’s such as the 454 Casual generally run from $14 to $18 or so for 50 depending on where you buy them.

These are the super heavy weights for the caliber. So there you have it.

Most store bought bullets are reasonable in price in view of the rising prices of fuel and raw material.

Do you need the custom high price bullets?

Probably not unless you are going on the hunt of a lifetime as the regular offerings will do fine for many game animals. It would be foolish to spend thousands of hard earned bucks on a hunt and scrimp on the price of bullets. For practice you can use a regular bullet then switch over to the premium slug for that special hunt. Just check the sighting with the premium bullets.

Bear in mind that loaded ammo is going up also.

You can buy all sorts of ammo from the mundane to the super custom to meet your needs. These days factory ammo is a quality product that will shoot as good as most handloads.

The thing is that you will pay between 20 and 50% more for factory fodder than your loads depending on where you buy the components. You may also not get exactly what you want in the production ammo though that may put you in the picky category.

The only other way is to make your own.

Again there are two basic ways to accomplish this.

That is casting or swaging.

To be honest swaging jacketed bullets won’t save you much if anything in costs. Buying the jackets will kill any savings so the primary reason to swage jacketed bullets would be to make something that’s not commercially available.

Also swaging is time consuming unless you have a bullet-making machine, which would costs thousands of dollars.

You can swage lead bullets but they would have to be pure lead or nearly so or they will be difficult to make.

Of course pure lead bullets have their velocity limitations. You can place zinc or copper washers on the back to mitigate the leading but that adds to the cost.

Folks I have to be honest with you. When you look at the prices of commercial bullets fiscally it doesn’t make sense to swage your own. So if you decide to make your own, approach it with the knowledge that its time consuming and not economical

If you have the time and desire by all means go for it.

A good way to get started on an entry level is with dies from CH Tool and Die. They make dies in 30,357,40,41,44 and 45 calibers. They are a two-die set and sell for around $75 or so. Another good feature about them is they work in a standard loading press though you need a heavy duty unit for best results. You need jackets which can be bought from either CH or Corbin die. They cost around $45 to $75 per 500 depending on the caliber.

The other thing you need is a way of making the cores. Core molds and wire spools are the most common. The molds are adjustable for weight desired and the wire can be cut off to desired lengths with a core cutter.

I found that in a few cases a regular bullet mold will throw the desired weight of the core. It’s worth checking out.

The jackets come in various lengths depending on the weight desired for the finished slug. For instance a 357 jacket that’s .7” long is good for bullets in the 180 to 200 grain range. For the most part you want to use a softer alloy as it’s more malleable and easier to swage.

Once you obtain a satisfactory core making the bullet is fairly easy.

The first step entails expanding the core into the jacket with the first die. Then the second die finishes and shapes the bullet. After each step you need to tap the bullet out of the die with a plastic type of hammer. The dies are adjustable and you can play with it to meet your needs.

Once you get the hang of it and you have good cores it’s fairly fast to make a couple hundred of them.

The other thing you need is a cannelure tool. For a revolver you need a cannelure for the best results. Both Corbin and CH offer such a tool and they are not real expensive. It can be set for depth and location on the finished bullet. There are two stems, one for making hollow points and a flat point version. With a little playing around some can be made to fit in an auto loading pistol.

The bullets made this way perform much like the commercial offerings in the same weight and style. You are making cup and jacket bullets this way, which is fairly, low tech but they do work ok.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into more detail on how to make more complicated designs perhaps at a later date I can go into this subject.

Casting is by far the cheapest once you get the necessary tools.

You need a pot. Mold or molds flux material and of course bullet metal. Pots go from about $30 up to a few hundred dollars depending on your needs and budget. Molds cost from about $15 on up to a hundred dollars or so depending on material used and number of cavities.

The flux is a material that you put in the pot to help get the impurities out of the metal.

A sizing press and dies are needed to make a quality bullet. An apron, glasses and gloves helps round out the items that you need.

A well ventilated work area is essential for your health. Breathing lead fumes over a period of time will make you sick.

If you are ambitious and know a couple of people you can round up wheel weights and other scrap lead for next to nothing.

Maybe the local range will let you dig out lead in their backstop. While that lead is cheap or free it needs to be cleaned up before dropping into the pot.

I hose it down thoroughly to remove the dirt and other contaminants. If you do this you must let it dry completely before dropping into a hot pot.

Any water put into a pot of molten lead will cause it to explode showering hot metal all over the place. Besides getting burned you could start a fire.

For the most part those scrap metals will suffice at handgun velocities especially if properly lubed.

For the serious stuff there are bullet metals for sale that are pretty hard. For hunting big game you may want such an alloy to ensure maximum penetration.

If you drop them into a bucket of water out of the mold that will harden them a bit. Be sure your water bucket is far enough away from the pot to prevent water splashing into the molten metal.

For common bullets without gas checks cost per bullet would be around a couple of pennies or so once it’s lubed.

If you got your lead free it could be less but you have to factor in the electricity to run the pot and ventilation fan.

A gas check will add to the cost but at pedestrian velocities it’s not needed.

Well made cast bullets are good hunting bullets because they penetrate very deeply into almost any animal you care to tackle.

With the larger calibers expansion is not needed with a well placed shot. Many jacketed bullets will expand especially hollow points.

That may or may not be a good thing depending on what is being hunted.

Properly made cast bullets are as accurate as the jacketed kind and a lot less expensive. Cast bullets are good for practice which we all need to do plenty of to better our chances when we get a shot at that deer or bear.

In closing I don’t see the need to make your own unless you have a lot of time or you want to study and design your own bullets. Most cast and jacketed can be bought at reasonable prices if you shop around a bit. For the price the quality and selection is good.

Having said that I do make a lot of my own hunting bullets but they are of my designs and not necessarily better then what the commercial bullet and ammo makers are offering.