Casting Bullets – What You Need & How – Part 1

Casting Bullets

Similar to the reloading guide, this is the first part in a two-part series concerning casting your own bullet projectiles. Casting your own gives you unfettered customization access, hones a skill that not many people have and can also save you a LOT of money. On top of the aforementioned benefits, it can also allow you to shoot more and by consequence, better. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

Also, casting projectiles can be dangerous as you are dealing with melted metal and fumes from lead. It should go without saying but casting should absolutely NEVER be done indoors or around children. Children are vulnerable to lead so it is not a great idea to show this process to them until they are old enough. This website nor author takes any responsibility from any actions readers take via the articles written below for informational purposes only. You are responsible for what you do and how you do it.

Casting bullets (or “boolits” as lead cast ones are affectionately called) is not nearly as difficult as most expect and the startup costs can be much less than for reloading. That said, if you are already reloading then I wholeheartedly believe it makes sense to also cast your own. You have so much control over variations and you can shrink your groups so much that I will not dare make a claim; I’d rather you happily see it yourself. If you “slug your bore” (find the diameter of your barrel inside with the lands and grooves) and cast boolits .001 larger than it, you can have some “mighty fine” shootin’. When you think about commercially available ammo versus reloaded, home-casted, you have to take into account the fact that there are usually two separate and different goals for each. One has the desire to put out good ammunition as quickly, efficiently and cheaply as possible whereas the other does so for only a small set of arms and keeps the batches considerably lower (and does not sell them; that is a “no-no” without a license). Commercial ammo is great because it is readily available, jacketed and there is generally a consensus there is consistent quality whereas people loading at home could have variations because they took bad notes (or none at all) and forgot the “secret recipe” but the price difference is amazing and so is the potential accuracy. You can load for just your rifle or handgun whereas the “big boys” are loading for literally every Tom, Dick, Harry, etc. Think about that and the increase in accuracy starts to make a lot of sense, at least to me and others I know. Also, think about paying 26 cents per round for steel-cased 223 ammo versus around 10 to 15 cents per brass-cased load (or less depending on your lead and powder coat sources) per round.

Nonetheless, without further ado, here is what we will need to start casting our own bullets/boolits:

1st Item Required: Melting apparatus

Examples and cost:

Lee Precision Bottom Pour Melter – $80 to $90 for new or considerably less for used. You can also get a melter that holds about 4 lbs of lead from Lee for around $40 but you have to use a ladle (add $10) and it is not nearly as efficient for most people and it is tough to keep the mold hot; lending to defects while casting. You can pick up a Lyman melter for a pretty good price as well or you can build your own setup involving a cast iron pot or pan and propane. You can pick up a nice Lyman caster set (ladle type, not bottom pour) for around $50 and it comes with a good bit.

My Opinion:

Going with a bottom-pour model is the best option if you are going to cast your own. Like I indicated, this is my opinion and many people have outstanding success using a ladle but that was not me nor was it a lot of people I read about. There are some inherent issues with all bottom-pour models as they drip sometimes but I’ve used both and I love the quality I get from one versus utilizing a ladle. It is true, I am not the most patient person and that is probably why I feel this way but it is also due to the fact you have to get a good pace going and pour the hot lead quickly into the mold to avoid wrinkles, voids and other less-than-ideal results (especially with a heavier grain weight bullet).

Next Item Required: Lead & Flux

Examples and cost: 

Lead:

Lead

This is where you can get creative and find some old diving, fishing or even sailboat weights for free or very cheaply. Please be sure to not use some of the very old lead from some seafaring vessels as I have read they could be coated in some nasty stuff that gives off bad fumes (well, worse than lead as lead is not good for you in high doses). What I actually did when I first started was to go to Wally World and picked up some of the heaviest fishing weights they had because they were on clearance. I picked up like 4 pounds and went to work at home. It cost me about $15 or so but you can get lead cheaper than that or even free.

They say that a good price for lead nowadays is $1 per pound (not including shipping). eBay and some other places have it for sometimes around that cost in quantity but way more expensive if you just buy a pound (circa $15). I would recommend hitting some dive shops as they have some old weights for sale cheaply sometimes and you can ask friends and family as you may be surprised what they have for you for free. RotoMetals has some quality stuff that is not the cheapest but they do have very, very consistent products as well as a good selection.

The type of lead makes a difference in how hard the casted bullets are. Pure lead is the softest and is usually used for muzzle loaders and such whereas lead with antimony and tin is used for much harder bullets. Linotype is an old type of lead mixed with antimony and tin for the letters they used to print newspapers back in the day. This is scarcer but also sought after by a lot of casters.

The general rule is that tin helps with hardness but also helps the lead flow when melting it. Antimony adds hardness. If you have too much of both or either, it is not a great thing. Also, avoid mixing zinc in your melting pot because zinc can cause a LOT of issues if the percentage is too high. I did not mention wheel weights as a source because while it is a viable option, the sources are drying up and zinc and other materials are replacing lead at a faster and faster pace due to some environmental regulations.

Flux:

flux

This is something that can be free (completely dry sawdust or candle wax) or you can buy something such as Frankford Arsenal CleanCast Lead Fluxing Compound for around $15. Flux helps keep the impurities out of your castings and I believe it to be necessary.

My Opinion:

This is extremely important as you want to get consistent results and to be able to repeat the process. If you change types of lead frequently, you might find your accuracy differ from your notes and such. Also, bullets don’t drop from the mold at the size listed all the time. Sometimes they are larger or a bit smaller. I have noticed there is usually a big variance in the weight as well. Sometimes companies estimate this based off using pure lead so you need to make sure to weigh your castings and sort them for ultimate groupings. We will get to more on that later but something to keep in mind.

Next Item Required: Bullet Mold

Examples and cost:

Here is where you will see a large difference in price and also something we have seen before continue to perpetuate itself; Lee is way less expensive than a Lyman or other molds but there is a difference in quality. Lee makes all their molds from aluminum. Aluminum heats up and cools FAST compared to brass, cast iron or bronze but it is also considerably softer. That lends itself to scratches, dings and other types of issues you’d like to avoid. I’ve heard a saying that essentially indicates that if you buy a Lee mold, you will most likely have to replace it one day whereas if you buy a Lyman or another expensive brand, you will have it for life and beyond (IE: Passing it down through generations). That makes sense as Lyman uses harder materials and their quality is without question, outstanding. Lee, Lyman and other more expensive brands all do “drop” a good projectile but only Lee comes with mold handles included in the price. Being that as it may and combined with the fact I have a lot of calibers I cast for, I usually go with Lee.

Example:

Lee Precision CTL312-160-2R (.30 Caliber/7.62/300 Blackout, etc) – Current Price: $27.91 including shipping with Amazon Prime (Lee 7.62 Mold). Remember, this price includes handles for the double-cavity mold.

Lyman Mold #311291DC (.30 Caliber/7.62/300 Blackout, etc) – Current Price $75 (Lyman 2 Cavity 311291 DC). Since you need handles as well, you would have to buy these or some Lee ones:

Lyman mold handles – Double Cavity – Current Price: $38.49 (Lyman Mold Handles – Double Cavity)

Please do not get me wrong, Lyman makes some very high quality items and even their mold handles are way nicer than Lee but they are also three times the price. The total cost to get started casting for a 30 caliber rifle mold would be about $30 or less for a Lee and about $100 for a Lyman.

Something very important that you should know is how to read what the mold is from the mold name. Lee has “CTL312-160-2R”…kind of like a tire size, eh? Well, the first two letters have to do with what kind of lube the mold is setup for and also if the projectile will require a gas check (more on that later). The first numbers are the size that the mold should “drop”…IE: When you cast them, they should be 0.312 inches in diameter. You will notice this varies some depending on whether you use 100% lead or lead with tin and antimony (more on this later as well). The next number is the weight of the bullet. In this case, it drops a 160 grain; which also depends on lead type used. The last portion refers to the bullet tip/point shape. More specifically and technically, it is how many “Ogives” there are. An Ogive is a curve/radius. This is not usually as important as making sure to check reviews, guides, instructions and looking at the actual mold to see the shape of it. IE: If you want to cast for a single action 45 Colt revolver, you would want a “SWC” for “Semi Wad Cutter” instead of pointed. This is what this info tells us.

Here is a guide via Lee:

MOLD NUMBER CODE
C309180R
Gas CheckDiameterWeight in GrainsPoint Shape
TL
Micro Bands for
Tumble Lubing
with Lee Liquid Alox
WC = Wad Cutter
SWC = SemiWad Cutter
RF= Round with Flat
R= 1 0give Radius
2R= 2 0give Radius
TC= Truncated Cone

My Opinion:

If you want to see your accuracy go up, you will need to pay particularly close attention to the molds and sizing kits available (we will get to sizing soon). Also, as you will notice, one mold can be good for multiple rifles. IE: The molds above will work for your AK, AR in 300 Blackout and probably 30-06…potentially more as there are a lot of differences in different round types and a lot has to do with the size of the case and capacity, etc. This was the most eye-opening thing for me and made me happy to invest in some molds. As far as my recommendation, I would say get a Lee one to start (so if you break it, it isn’t too costly of a lesson) and then move onto a Lyman or other brand. Note, you might see some 6 cavity molds out there but I would test the waters with the single or dual molds first.

Next Items Required: Safety Equipment, Calipers & Thermometer

Examples and cost:

As mentioned before, lead is toxic to children and everyone if too much is inhaled or ingested. That being said, you need to make sure you are safe and that does end up being a small cost (unless you have some items on hand; which most people do).

Something you will absolutely need is a pair of leather or silicone gloves with places for your fingers (no oven mitts!) as you need to be able to control everything well.

Heat Resistant Gloves: As mentioned before, these should be made of leather or silicone/some other heat resistant material. They should also give you control of your hands so you can do what you need to with movement of your fingers. These cost between $10 and $30 usually (Buy Here).

Heat Resistant Gloves

Safety Glasses (odds are you have these if you reload): These can be had for $10 or less. (Buy Here)

Mask for Lead Fumes: This is not 100% required or used by everyone but if you find yourself casting more than once a week or want to be extra careful, as I am, I would definitely invest in a mask for lead fumes to be confident you do not ingest/inhale too much lead.

Mask for Lead Fumes

Lead Thermometer: This is not required, per se, but it is recommended by a lot of expert casters. I personally do not use one but they will help you get a consistent flow of lead without “frosting” on your casts. The Lyman Casting Thermometer runs around $40.

Lead Thermometer

Calipers: You need calipers (be it digital or analog) that are accurate. You will need to measure your castings when they drop to make sure they are correct and to figure out if sizing might need to occur.

My Opinion:

Melting metal is…well, it’s hot! It also is not a fun experience to get molten lead on bare skin (ask me how I know). That said, odds are you will get a small burn or two but if you follow the steps in the next article, you should give yourself the best chance to avoid that. The point of the materials above is to be safe and please make sure that the loved ones (and pets) are not around outside where you are casting. Make sure you have the melting pot on a safe, steady and strong foundation as a spill would not be fun. Avoiding water, moisture and too much flux is also bad for various reasons we will explore in the instructional portion of the next article. 

Next Item Required: Cooling Method

Examples and cost:

This is where you can get a bit creative…You will need something to hold the casted projectiles while they cool. Also, you have to determine whether or not you are going to air cool or “quench” them. Note, quenching them in water does make a satisfying “sssssss” sound but also cools the boolits quickly and there is also the supposed benefit of extra hardening compared to air cooling. When you drop the projectile in the water to cool, it does so in exceptionally quick fashion and the theory is that it increases the hardness rating of the lead. Air cooling takes a while and being that I am impatient, I go with quenching.

My Opinion:

Since quenching your casted boolits hardens them (in theory; I’ve read articles suggesting it does and does not), I suggest getting something like a 5 gallon bucket from somewhere like Home Depot or Lowes for less than $10 and an old washcloth or t-shirt. You are going to need the cloth or t-shirt because when you drop the projectiles into the water, you don’t want them to hit the bottom and deform but rather hit the cloth and cool enough to not take any impact.

This is the least expensive part of your “kit” but a very important one!

Summary:

It seems like there is a LOT to learn about casting projectiles and that is true. It does seem a bit intimidating at first (or it did to me) but I assure you, if you can reload, you can absolutely do this with a bit of practice, patience and safety. I am also sure you will get a great deal of satisfaction from casting and you’ll be able to shrink both groups and costs per round. This list above is basic and definitely does not cover every single item you might require at times and I did not include bullet lube or a sizer but I will get into that in the next article.

Again, this is a basic article for informational purposes only. You are responsible for your actions, castings, safety, etc.

Look soon for part 2!

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  • rev_dave

    A question please – does ‘double cavity’ indicate the mold only makes two bullets at a time, or that there would be two rows of bullets produced? If the answer is two rows – how many to a row?

    • Jim

      Two bullets. There are molds with 4 and 6. It speed up the process.

    • Nonetheless, without further ado, here is what we will need to start casting our own bullets/boolits:

  • Jim L

    The author should have put up a detailed list of costs. Since it’s just part 1, I look forward to the follow up. Maybe he’ll cover powder coating the bullets too. I’ve read that baking or annealing them in an oven later will harden them. I don’t have much experience with casting, as it was easier just to by cast or swaged bullets, but with shipping costs getting crazy, it may make more sense. I wonder if anyone casts with materials other than lead? Following some You Tube gun gurus, some think that lead will eventually be verboten for such purposes and to get on the bandwagon of using something else. We’ll see.

  • Laramie Wolverton

    There is a lot of info on heat treating lead/antimony alloys. Old wheel weights were about 3% antimony. The heat treated boolits are much harder than air cooled boolits from wheel weights. Its all about the dispersion and size of the antimony crystals. Antimony crystals migrate together in the lead, heat disperses the crystals making the bullet harder. The faster the alloy is cooled the better the dispersion. The alloy does not need to be molten, boolits can be heated in an oven for approx. one hour to a temp. just below where sample boolits began to slump, then dumped into a bucket of water. Dumping your boolits that are still hot out of the mold into water works also just not as consistent. At this point I should say that the antimony crystals continue to migrate together making the boolits softer. But it takes some time. The boolits should still be significantly harder after about a year. I’ve read that storing them in the freezer makes them keep there hardness longer. I believe I got this info from the NRA/American Rifleman in about the 1980’s.

  • G50AE

    Can’t use lead bullets in a polygonal riffled barrel.

    • Jim L

      Not my problem.

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