Shooting Cast Bullets

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Until the late 1800's, almost all projectiles shot from hand held firearms were made from lead. The reasons were simple. Lead was quite common and, in its pure form or alloyed with small amounts of tin or antimony, it is both heavy and (due to lead's low melting point) is readily cast into almost any shape.

Since the metal is also relatively soft, firing lead bullets repeatedly in those early firearms would not harm the barrel. Because it is heavy, lead was — and still is — the ideal material for projectiles shot in the relatively low pressure, low velocity, blackpowder-fueled firearms.

As you may know, blackpowder is a mixture of specific portions of sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal formed with water to make "cakes." When the cakes are completely dry, they are carefully broken up and separated into various granulations that are easy to ignite; in fact, often it was ignited accidentally to the dismay of the shooter. Blackpowder is also hygroscopic, i.e., it attracts water. So when the arm is charged — and especially after it's fired — the nitric compounds present will absorb moisture and form nitric acid. Left unattended, the acid will quickly corrode and damage the gun. Of course, blackpowder arms spew out clouds of smoke each time they're shot. Despite these drawbacks, however, blackpowder was used exclusively in firearms for more than 500 years.

However, in the mid-1800's, experiments with acids, cellulose, ether and alcohol produced an altogether new compound eventually called "smokeless" powder. The new propellant was also made in wet batches and then extruded into strings that varied in length and diameter. Because of its chemical composition, smokeless powder burns hotter and releases significantly more energy when consumed. More energy equates to higher pressures which, in turn, means higher bullet velocity.

Increased velocity and higher flame temperatures often cause lead bullets to foul the barrel with material that either strips or melts away from the projectile. This situation led to the development of jacketed bullets that prevents the bullet's lead core from contacting the bore. Over the years, materials and processes have continued to improve resulting in new and better bullets and propellants. However, with all of the progress made, the simple lead or lead alloy bullet is still the best choice in many ammunition applications. Lyman's Cast Bullet Handbook is an excellent source for those of you interested in learning more about the history of cast bullet shooting.

Because muzzle velocity is limited when using blackpowder, historically the bigger and more dangerous the game, the greater the size and weight of the bullet. The early European weapons employed in Africa and India graphically illustrate this fact. Even in America, the ever-changing frontier was quickly tamed by settlers armed with blackpowder firearms shooting lead bullets.

Handloaders often initially try cast bullets strictly because of the lower cost. Most of us start out by buying a few bullets from a local dealer or acquiring free samples from a generous friend. If the results are satisfactory, we may eventually become even more independent and just decide to "make our own." I think it's quite natural for us to be this way. Many of our potential ancestors were simply weeded out because they weren't independent enough to survive the rigors and hardships of frontier life. While it may not be politically popular today, the armed American citizen who also loads his or her ammunition is simply manifesting a heritage that we should be proud of.

Accurate Arms continues to respond to our customers' requests for more and better cast bullet loading data as time and component suitability allow. Our entire line of handgun propel-lants give excellent results with cast bullets and, in most instances, overall performance is comparable to that obtained with more expensive jacketed bullets.

However, as I noted earlier, using cast bullets with modern smokeless powders in rifle ammunition is a bit more complicated. Achieving good performance while minimizing excessive bore fouling are compatible objectives if hard cast and/or gas-checked bullets are fired at somewhat restricted muzzle velocities.

Our current loading manual includes cast bullet data for those cartridges that you have requested most often. Older, typically blackpowder cartridges have received special emphasis due to renewed interest in these firearms.

When you review our cast bullet reloading data for rifles, you will note quite a few loads listed using our "slow" burning rate propel-lants. We have found that these powders, especially the ball propellants, perform better at higher load densities (i.e., when the powder charge fills most or all of the case), especially in large capacity or low pressure cartridges. Our slow-burning 8700 propellant is most commonly recommended because it usually allows us to achieve an acceptable velocity level and excellent accuracy.

We have found three things are necessary to help assure the best results using 8700. First, always use a magnum primer to ensure better ignition. Second, slug your barrel to determine the actual bore diameter and then use cast bullets sized to nominally fit the rifle's bore or, better yet, about 0.001-inch over groove diameter. Finally, seat the bullet out as far as possible so that the bullet is lightly engraved by the rifling when each round is chambered.

Our test data indicates consistent one to two minutes of angle accuracy when used in this manner. In addition, one of the best things we noted about loads using 8700 is its repeatable performance. A minute-of-angle load you work up today will likely be a minute-of-angle load next week, next month or next year.

The great bulk ofbullets used by handloaders are produced in Lyman, Lee, SAECO, H&G and RCBS moulds. In addition, there are several smaller manufacturers who make custom moulds for casting bullets of their design or yours. The selection and quality of casting equipment available today is unprecedented. Handloaders, especially those of us who cast our own bullets, have never had it so good!

There are numerous books and publications (in addition to Lyman's Handbook) that relate proper techniques for casting and loading lead bullets. These include ones available from the various equipment manufacturers, the National Rifleman Association (which every shooter should be a member of) and Wolfe Publishing. Shooters who are seriously interested in this fascinating activity are urged to join the Cast Bullet Association. Members of this organization are on the leading edge of cast bullet technology and experimentation and share new and exciting developments with other members in their publication.

Whether your interest in shooting cast bullets includes casual plinking, formal target shooting or hunting, we have attempted to provide useful and demonstrated data for the handloader. However, as you can appreciate, we could not anticipate everyone's needs and time didn't allow us to complete all of the load development we wished before we reached our publishing deadline. If your favorite Accurate Arms propellant is not recommended for a particular application or if you just have a question about the loading data given, please contact our technical staff.

Remember, safely developing an accurate load in your own firearm is always a satisfying experience. It is doubly so when you do it using a bullet you made yourself. Try it — you'll like it!

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  • vanessa gordon
    What is the best smokeless powder for heavy cast bullets?
    7 years ago
  • Valentin
    Can all smokeless gun powder be used on cast lead bullet?
    7 years ago

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