Casting Verses Swaging Which one is the Best
There are two ways to make bullets that the hobbyist may peruse. They are casting and swaging. Another way is some are machined from solid brass or copper but they have a narrow window of use and are seldom used in conventional hunting or shooting. The exception is the Barnes copper bullets which are catching on partly because of environmental laws. Unless you have a sophisticated lathe set up you won’t be making those soon. What then are the differences between casting and swaging? Casting is essentially melting lead or a lead mixture and pouring it in a mold. To achieve this you need a source of heat and a mold. The tools need for casting is a pot preferably an electric as it is easier to regulate but a cast iron type on a stove will work. Next are the molds you intend to use and a sizing die. Some lube and odds & ends and you have a basic set up. When you cast be sure to have good ventilation to avoid possible lead poisoning. You should also have safety goggles and gloves in case of a splatter. As for metal there are various types depending on what type of bullets you are casting. Pure lead is desirable for muzzle loading projectiles both for accuracy and ease of seating. For most knock about bullets at moderate velocities wheel weights are fine. If you happen to know someone who owns a tire shop so much the better. They are messy to work with as you have to melt off the clips and flux it but if the price is right who cares. You can harden it with a little tin which can be bought from various suppliers but it might not be cheap or necessary. When I was younger I use to dig bullets out of the dirt backstop and use them. I washed them with a hose to get as much of the dirt as possible before melting it down. If you do this be absolutely sure there is no water left or you will risk an explosion. I would spread out the bullets and let dry for a few days prior to melting. Any water dropped into a lead pot of melted lead will result in a shower of hot mix going all over the place including you. It could also start a fire so be sure there is no liquid near the pot. You can also buy alloyed metal from various suppliers but again it’s expensive and for general plinking it’s not necessary. When I cast bullets I use at least three different molds and rotate them to avoid overheating. Badly overheated molds will produce a frost on the bullets and the bases might look odd especially if you don’t let them cool enough before knocking off the sprue. When you drop the bullets out of the mold have a cloth to catch them to avoid dents as they are a bit soft until they cool completely. You can drop them directly into water from the mold and that will harden them to an extent if that’s important to you. Casting might be better for the beginner as you can start fairly cheaply. You should read up on it and take all the safety precautions I have outlined. Lyman among others produces an excellent book on casting that you would do well to read. You are working with metal that is at least 600 degrees so keep that in mind. Casting is very safe if you follow the proper procedures. You can buy a small pot, mold, sizing die and lube for a few dollars if you shop around. Let’s say you are making bullets for a 38 special. For most uses a cast bullet is fine and when done properly is very accurate. If you can get wheel weights or something similar then the cost will go down. With the price of components going through the roof casting is a viable option for any shooter. You also get the satisfaction of making your own bullets and seeing them perform. As you progress you will pick up more molds and sophisticated equipment though you don’t need some of the stuff right away. You might want to start small to see if you like it and if so you can go from there. Casting low velocity rifle bullets will save you a lot of money and can be used for general target practice. I have also shot some small game with them and they are effective without destroying a lot of meat. Since you use less powder they are easier on the ears and pocketbook as powder cost more then the best steak Lb for Lb. Also since they operate at lower pressures you can use older cases and it easier on the gun. Cast bullets of larger calibers are very effective on large and dangerous game. If anyone doubts that I have a picture of a 1200 Lb grizzly that was taken down with one shot from a 444 Marlin. The bullet was a 325 grain LBT type that I loaded for this hunter. His buddy also shot a grizzly with a 45-70 loaded with a 400 grain LBT bullet and like the other bear one shot did it. A good friend of mine shot a bison weighing about a ton with one shot from a 45-120 with a 520 grain bullet launched at 1600 fps. Keep in mind that cast bullets and black powder guns just about killed all the bison by the 1880’s. Someone might wonder why large caliber cast bullets are so effective in spite of their pedestrian velocities. Since they are traveling relatively slow they don’t upset or come apart as a high velocity bullet might. The more resistance a bullet meets the more likely it will change shape in an animal. The other thing is they are large calibers so they put a big hole into something in spite of little or no expansion and they generally penetrate very deep which enables them to contact and destroy more tissue and organs. They also break bones quite readily. The military guns made from the 1860’s to the 1880’s use large caliber lead bullets and they work quite well. If you are unfortunate enough to step in front of one even today you are in for a world of hurt. They typically run from 40 to 50 caliber, weigh from 3 to 500 grains and are launched from about 12 to 1500 FPS. Cowboy shooters by their rules have to use cast bullets at black powder velocities and I don’t think that they feel handicapped in any way. Since they shoot against a clock they are loaded light for controllability. A cast bullet can be loaded to lower velocities then a jacketed one. You can load a cast bullet down to 600 fps or even a little less but doing that with a jacketed bullet is dicey at best.
There are some military rifle matches that require cast bullets and military guns of the day. I have found that most military rifles such as the 30-40 Krag, 303 British and the 8 X 57 among others take to cast bullets like a duck to water. For the record I recently completed a test on the new Winchester model 70 in 7 mm-08 and it shot two types of cast bullets quite well. Years ago I use to shoot matches with a 38 special. I used a 10 cavity Hensley & Gibbs 125 grain SWC mold. With 4.5 X 231 I obtained accuracy that will equal any jacketed bullet on the market. For the type of shooting I was doing I gave a perfect combination between accuracy, velocity and controllability. I have a 10.4 Italian rifle that was converted to the 6.5 Carcano around WWl. Those conversions are not safe to shoot with full power loads but a 140 grain cast ahead of 5 grains of Red Dot is perfectly safe to shoot in this firearm. You can use a slightly oversize cast bullet to slug a bore but don’t even think of using a jacketed bullet for that task. If you try it you will quickly see the downside of that stunt. I know a guy that had a jacketed bullet stuck in his barrel due to a freak accident. He used a rod to pound it out but only got the core leaving the jacket in. Ah what to do? Nothing he tried would remove it. Finally I made a couple of blanks and they did the job. I don’t recommend that procedure but it worked without harming the barrel that time. A stuck cast bullet would have been much easier to remove. If you lube the bullet and barrel it will make it easier to push through. What are the advantages to using lead verses jacketed bullets? The most obvious advantage is price. With the cost of components going through the roof any dime you save is a good thing. For virtually all handgun practice cast bullets will more then suffice. At the velocities that they are launched leading shouldn’t be a problem. If it is there is either a rough bore or the bullet quality is suspect. Either its way too soft or improperly lubed. An undersize bullet will also perform poorly. I have shot tens of thousands of cast in many handguns and almost without exception obtain good to excellent accuracy and the bore doesn’t lead. Even in my 9 mm and 45 auto they perform well including feeding. If I am concerned about feeding in an auto I tumble the loaded ammo in a rotor type of tumbler with torn up newspaper. It polishes the bullets and they feed like greased lightning. They even work in my Broomhandle. In rifles they work as long as I don’t push the velocity too high. Depending on the individual rifle and bullet I have gone up to about 2200 with good accuracy but that isn’t true in all cases. I cast them a little harder then the handgun types as the velocity is somewhat higher. In calibers from the 30-30 to a 300 magnum accuracy at 50 to 100 yards can be excellent almost equaling jacketed bullets just slower. I usually keep them from 1100 to 1500 FPS for best results. I have shot them in everything from a 22 Hornet to a 45-120 with good results. The small calibers are a bit more finicky then the big stuff but a little patience can pay off. They are excellent small game and varmint loads as they don’t destroy much meat and are less noisy. Another advantage of casting bullets is you will always be able to make them as long as you have lead.
Jacketed bullets are sometimes hard to get as there is a heavy demand on them at this time. I sometimes have to wait a couple of months or more to get some of the bullets I need. In many of the old guns that I shoot a cast bullet is the only practical projectile as the steels are softer then newer barrels so jacketed bullet would quickly wear them out. One thing about cast bullets is whatever the mold shape is that will be your bullet. There’s no way you can change the shape though you can order a custom mold. You can also experiment with hardness and various lubes plus some sizing. Especially with the larger calibers I like the bullet to be .001-.002 larger then the bore as that tends to increase accuracy. I shoot many of the older military rifles and I am always gaining respect for them after observing the power and accuracy they can produce. After extolling the virtues of cast bullets, and there are many, in the interest of full disclosure I don’t cast all of my bullets anymore. Time is one of the reasons that I buy many from commercial casters especially the common bullets I use. They have a good quality product and the prices are reasonable and I buy several thousand at a time. Some of them are delivered to the shop which is a big plus for me. I still cast my muzzle loading slugs as I can’t find them in a good quality plus most of my rifle bullets and odd ball slugs. Casting is a messy and time consuming chore and it doesn’t fascinate me like it used to. It is however a worthwhile project to peruse and you can learn a lot about bullets and yourself perusing it. In fact there might be a business opportunity for you if you don’t mind the investment, work and the heavy lifting.
Swaging a bullet is forming it under pressure as opposed to heat used in casting. You can take a lump of lead and form it into a bullet by putting it in a die and pressure forming it. That is a very basic way of swaging but it’s still done. You can buy swaged bullets from a couple of the bullet makers such as Speer and Hornady. They work at lower velocities but push them too hard and you will be spending some time getting the lead out of your bore. Hornady www.hornady.com makes one of my favorites. It is a 45 caliber 250 grain sized to 454 which works very well in a black powder Colt. They make various 32 and 38 caliber bullets the work ok in a verity of applications. I like the Hornady 32 caliber wad cutter in the 7.62 Nagant revolver. At the velocities I use it is accurate for that gun. I take the Speer 148 grain HB WC and swage it up to a 44 or 45 with a zinc washer attached to the rear which is supposed to help cut down on the leading. In all honesty it has limited effectiveness unless you keep the velocities down. They are however accurate in those parameters. You can use a heavier piece of lead but it will require more effort to form. Also do not use hard lead as it will be very difficult to swage the washer on as the lead has to extrude through the hole in the center to hold it on to the bullet.
There are various types of swaging involving everything from a simple one step die to investing over a thousand dollars for a one caliber set up. If you want to try and make your own bullets by all means give it a try. I would start with basic equipment so if you decide it isn’t for you then you won’t be out a lot of cash. If you want to make your own jacketed bullets CH tool & die is a good place to start. They have dies for a basic 30 caliber plinker and handgun dies from 38 to 45 http://www.ch4d.com/ is their website for further info. The prices are reasonable and you can use a standard heavy duty press. They sometimes have jackets but Corbin www.corbins.com is usually a better source. Surprisingly Sierra bullets carry a few jackets also. All you need then is a way to make or get cores. The cores need to be consistent in weight in order to have a quality product. They can be a couple of grain over as the excess will bleed out during the swaging process. The CH dies are a two die set and can make either a hollow point or a flat/round nose depending on how you set the die. Keep in mind that the jackets are usually 3 to 4 thousands undersize so when you set the first die it has to be set down enough to seat the core and expand the jacket. After you make one mike it and adjust accordingly. Do not over do it as it might be difficult to extract from the die. To finish just set the die as to the shape you want and you are done. With a little practice you can make a quality bullet that will shoot well.
You can make some that are not available such as a shot filled bullet where you compress the shot and form the jacket. It makes one hell of a varmint load as they are lighter then standard and can be driven to some heady velocities. That is just one area you can experiment. You can make bullets similar to the ones made by the commercial manufactures but to me that’s a waste of time. The idea at in my view is to come up with something novel that will work at what it was designed to do. One example that I make is a 170 grain 44 caliber hollow point. For the core I use a 148 grain wad cutter that is pure lead and a half jacket. I form the ogive so no lead touches the bore. That way I can use it in my 44 Bulldog at 7 or 800 feet per second and get expansion or in my 444 Marlin at 2700 FPS. It works well either way and is easy to make. If you make revolver bullets then you need a cannelure for best results especially with heavy loads. Either the CH or Corbin cannelure tool works fine and has a reasonable price tag. Is it worth it? It does take time to make your own bullets so you have to factor that in also. That is something you will have to decide but you will learn a lot about bullets by making your own so that is a thought.
If you decide to make you own serious rifle bullet so be prepared to plunk down some big bucks. Rifle bullets frequently require more pressure to form so a special press and dies are required. I would guess that you would need about 1-K to get a basic set up that would give you about everything needed to start. I strongly suggest that you read up on it before trying it out. Improper procedures and settings will cause a lot of headaches and broken parts. Corbin supplies a lot of info on how to design and make your own bullets and you would do well to obtain some prior to any attempts to make bullets. If you buy more sophisticated equipment then the tariff is going to go up considerably. A basic two die set will run you over two hundred but if you buy a 5 die set that can put a boat tail on a bullet then it going to be much higher. A heavy duty press will cost several hundred dollars but for the larger rifle bullets it’s a necessity. Another factor is you really need to be detail orientated and have a lot of time to make this work for you. Can you make good bullets this way? Absolutely! I have made quite a few 30 caliber hunting bullets and they work well and are accurate. Can you make a better bullet then the commercial makers? In all honesty probably not as there are a lot of good bullets out there so making a better one would be difficult. However you might come up with an original design or find a niche in the market in case you want to make back some of your investment. If you really want to go all the way you can buy jacket making machinery. That way you can make your jackets as thick, thin or as long as you want them. Here again money is an issue as well as a place to set up the equipment. If you want equipment that will make many bullets an hour Corbin also has that but you will need a second mortgage on your house. They have dies to make jackets out of fired 22 rimfire shells plus all the gizmos and gadgets that you will need and some that you won’t. They have all the fluids and software and you should visit their website to get all the info before making a commitment. Another type of swaging is reducing a bullets diameter to something that you can use. Normally it is used to make a bullet that isn’t readily available. A one die set is normal plus a heavy duty press. You can do this with either lead or jacketed bullets. Dies can be obtained from CH, Corbin or Lee. If you know a machinist he can also make custom sizes. Since I shoot a lot of odd ball guns I use this method a lot. For instance I have a 9.4 Dutch revolver. The bullet diameter is .380 which isn’t available anywhere as far as I know. I could have ordered a custom mold at big bucks plus a long weight which I wasn’t willing to do. I eventually figured out that I could reduce 40 caliber bullets down to 380 with just a reducing die. It sounds like a lot by reducing .02 but they shoot and work well. Accuracy for this gun at 7 yards is about 2 to 3” which isn’t bad for such a little gun with a crummy trigger and sights. Without this method of making bullets I couldn’t shoot it which would be sacrilege in my view. I have done that with the 8 mm Lebel revolver by reducing a 9 mm bullet down to 330. Sounds like a lot of reducing but they produce very good accuracy.
I wanted to make some some 38-40 ammo for a test. Specifically requested something other then sissy cowboy ammo. I took a 41 mag 180 grain and swaged it down to 401 for him and loaded them up to about 900 FPS which was about all I wanted to go in the old Colt he was using. They worked out well I make a lot of my 351 WSL bullets this way. I can make them from 115 to 200 grains and expect good results. I even swage 416 – 400 grain bullets to shoot in my 405. It is a heavy duty job but they work well and put the 405 into a serious big game rifle with that heavy slug. Honesty compels me to state that shooting them at 2000 FPS in my TC Encore isn’t much fun. Off weight bullets for the 348 such as a 180 or 250 grain can be made from 35 caliber rifle bullets. I suppose you could make some from 38 bullets for plinking or small game. Anytime you swage jacketed bullets down be sure to use a good lube or you will have a problem. I use the Hornady wax lube which works well for me but there are others. I have made bullets for the 8 X 56R, 9.3 X 72 and the 333 OKH by this method among many others. In many instances it is the difference in shooting and not shooting a gun. Not shooting an old gun is an option that I am not the least bit interested in. In some cases you can over do it especially with the smaller calibers from 30 on down. You can make 7.35 Carcano out of 30 caliber bullets but it is difficult depending on the bullet you use. Some of then require so much effort that the base is deformed and/or some of the lead might be extruded out the point. Either problem can destroy accuracy and make the bullet look funny. If you do that operation you will have to experiment with various bullets to see which one works for you. Good lube is a must! Smaller calibers then the 30 aren’t worth the effort and seldom turn out ok. Like any other ammo or bullet making operation some refinement of your technique may be required. However due to less effort 30 caliber cast bullets work fine in the Carcano via swaging to .300.
Good heavy duty cast hunting bullets
There are other types of swaging one of which is putting a zinc or copper base on a bullet to cut down on the leading. There was a company, Sportflite, that used to offer dies and washers for that task but I don’t think that they are still around. I have some of their dies and washers and they work fairly well but not so good at high velocities. The bullet has to be soft so the lead will extrude through the hole and hold the washer in place. Corbin offers a similar set up but they use copper washers. To be honest I don’t think that either is worth the trouble. However at lower velocities they are accurate. Occasionally you might need to bump up a bullet in diameter. The one that I am doing now is I take a 40 caliber 180 grain and bump it to a 41. It is very easy by putting in the CH 41 finishing die and setting it properly. It makes a nice 41 HP which can be used in the 41 A & E or the 41 magnum. If I put in the flat base stem in makes a nice target bullet in the 41 magnum. I also bump up a 38 wadcutter to 44 to make a nifty 148 grain bullet for the 44 British Bulldog. There are a few instances where you can use an empty case as a bullet jacket. One example is a 40 S & W or 10 mm case can be used to make a jacket for a 44 magnum bullet. If you do this be sure to thoroughly anneal the case so you can work it. Don’t mix them up with your shooting brass to do so would be courting disaster. There are a few others and the jacket would be pretty tough and I doubt that you will get a lot of expansion under most circumstances. I have made some 44’s which weigh 305 grains. Although they look funny they work fine for what they are meant to do. If you want a heavier bullet you can use a 10 mm case but it will require more muscle to make it. I make a neat 35 caliber bullet weighing 235 grains using a 30 carbine case as a jacket. There are other bullets that can be made from spent cases just use one that is as close as possible to the finished diameter of the finished bullet. A possibility is a 45 auto case used to make a 475 diameter bullet for the 475 Wildey or Linebaugh. I would avoid rimmed cases unless you want to remove the rim first which is another step.
These bullets are designed to be shot either forward or backwords