Hard Times Hollowpoints


Drilling out a .45 ACP.

Every few years, world events, politics or general panic buying cause a run on ammunition. For months, and sometimes years, there’s little ammo to be found in the normal retail outlets. Those who attend gun shows know there really is ammo still available — for a price. That “price” is often … stunning.

Obscene Pricing

The Obama-era panic prices are back again, generously adjusted upward for inflation plus for even more anxiety this time around. How about 500 rounds of low-end .22s for $100–125? Normally 20 cent-per-round 9mm now runs about $1 per shot. Thirty to 40-cent .223/5.56 in reloadable brass goes for at least $1.25 per cartridge. Still, amazed and numb as I have become to yet another new reality of ammo prices, I about dropped my teeth while perusing the offerings on one vendor’s table: 50-round boxes of second-tier brand .380 JHPs for $140 — take it or leave it.

Dazed, I stumbled on down the aisle, Crystal Gayle singing in my head, “Here I go down that wrong road again …” Reloaders caught short are finding normally $35 cartons of 1,000 small-rifle primers to reload the .223/5.56 at $275. Other sizes are only $225, more than double the panic prices of the last time around. Common-size bullets are simply not available for mere money. Powders quadrupled in price before vanishing from gun-show tables.

Used bullet molds have really jumped in price, and the sharks willing to sell the old, discontinued hollowpoint versions online draw bidders who will unashamedly leave their credit cards bleeding profusely. I left the show with my own wallet, thin and limp. What does “need” have to do with anything when you finally find that old gun you really want, even at today’s prices? We simply don’t know how bad the future may become.


DIY Hollowpoints?

So, what’s a person to do if you want some hollowpoints without paying crack money? Assuming you can even find your caliber in the first place? Well, there is an answer. If you don’t already own a small lathe, you probably want one so badly you can taste the dark sulfur cutting oil deep down inside. Finally, here’s your rationalization for buying one. Refer back to the god awful prices for HP ammo in your area and the bullet molds online. Hollowpointing existing ammo and component bullets for reloading will quickly pay for your new shop tool.

Front row from left: two .32 revolver bullets, center, 115-grain .357 rifle bullet, two lightweight bullets for 9mm/.380. Second row from left: Home-drilled hollowbase and hollowpoint versions of Elmer Keith’s 358429, standard Lee TL358-158-SWC, hollowpoint and hollowbase versions. Third row from left: NOE 454-260-RF stock and hollowpointed and powder coated, Keith 454424 hollowpointed, Lee 452-252-SWC hollowpointed, 454-252-SWC from rare, discontinued factory Lee hollowpoint mold. Back row from left: 170-grain FP and 200-grain semi-pointed round nose. Drill ’em as mild or wild as you please.

Sherline’s Model 4000 tabletop lathe.

Sherline Tabletop Lathe

So here goes. I’m going to use the USA-made Sherline tabletop lathe for this article. On this setup, a three-jaw chuck works very well, but a self-centering four-jaw chuck is better because it grips the cartridges and bullets with four contact points instead of three, resulting in a better grasp.

You will also need a Jacobs chuck for the tailstock to hold the drill bits. Buy the bigger 3/8” size if you can. The inside secret is to use special machinists’ drill bits called center drills. Conventional drill bits drill straight-sided holes, which have a poor reputation for expansion unless aided with a Phillips screwdriver pressed into the mouth of the hole or notched with a utility knife. Or both. Besides, they tend to flex, and their points “walk” off center when you try to drill into a round nose FMJ bullet. Not good.

The Right Bit

Center drills are used mostly for drilling stock to be turned between centers on a lathe. They’re stiff and don’t walk. They start with a tapered nose followed by a short, stiff straight section, then followed by a 60-degree tapered section leading to their thick, stiff bodies. Expensive carbide center drills from Brownells are what your gunsmith uses to start scope-mounting holes in a hardened receiver. Bullets are much softer, so less expensive HSS (high speed steel) bits are all we need. They come in sets, and singly in sizes from #000 to #5. For our purposes, all we need are sizes #1 (small enough for .224 bullets) through #3, which does well on bullets from .30 caliber on up, and is still plenty big enough for .45s. The #4 bit for even bigger cavities in your .45s requires the 3/8” chuck. Two good sources are Sherline and MicroMark. A 60-degree conical hollowpoint mouth leading to a smaller, short, straight center hole with a 60-degree bottom is very impressive indeed.

The center drill bits (left) with their 60-degree nose taper make excellent hollowpoints. If you prefer a 3-degree tapered hole like some of the old Lyman HP molds, you can purchase taper point drill bits (right) singly or in a set from ICS Cutting Tools. Their 7/32" #12 bit is shown here. Start the hole with a center drill, then switch to the tapered bit. Ball-tip milling bits, rear, come in sizes that can match the ends of the old Lyman HB pins. Shown here are 1/4" and 3/8" sizes perfect for .38/.357- and .45-caliber bullets. You can bore perfect hollow bases far easier than you can pour them with a mold, as shown by the two clunkers in the front.

Make Your Own

Jacketed hollowpoints should always be notched for reliable expansion. Cast-bullet shooters have been notching theirs with a knife for generations. Cast bullets are easy to notch with a utility knife. Jacketed require a lot more pressure. You may prefer to use a 0.012" thin razor saw like this 42 t.p.i. blade from Excel. Knife-edge files, foreground, also work well and even more smoothly, but require frequent cleaning.

Left group: Cutting just 0.070" off the tip of bulk-packed .224" Winchester 55-grain FMJ-BTs reveals variations in the air space under the tip. Sometimes you get an useable HP as is (second from left), more often not. You can always finish those off like the FMJ (fifth from left) with a #1 center drill (foreground.) Bullets cast with a Lyman 225415 mold (right) can also be successfully drilled for hollowpoints.

However, if you want a bullet design they don’t offer, or have an old gun that needs hollowbase bullets, a lathe is the way to go. I’m sure others do better, but my own reject rate of misshapen hollowpoints and hollowbase bullets is so high  I’m pretty much better off just casting conventional nose shapes and using the lathe to make my hollowpoints. Hollowbase bullets are created by using the proper size ball-end milling bit. If you’re going to work on FMJ-BT bullets like the M193, you’ll need a cutoff tool to cut the tips off so you can drill them.

Life is much easier if you also upgrade to Adjustable Zero handwheels. Chuck up your bullet and center drill. Lathe off, slide the tailstock up until the drill bit just touches the bullet. Zero the handwheel. Turn the lathe on and feed the drill bit however deeply you want. Back out the drill bit, turn the lathe off, back off the tailstock, replace the bullet and start over. The Adjustable Zero handwheel enables you to get repeatable results without going nuts trying to remember where you started and how many graduations on the wheel to feed the drill bit. Just start from zero and count the same number of graduations each time. Write down how many tics you turned the wheel so you can remember when you return from that interruption you can’t simply ignore.

Cutting lube is always recommended for drilling and milling. Copper-jacketed bullets are soft enough that good ol’ all-purpose household light machine oil works just fine.

Straight-sided rimless cartridges are a piece of cake to chuck up. I have yet to figure out a way to hold rimmed or tapered cases securely and straight.

Sherline miniature tools are an especially good bargain in 2021. Since 2003, their prices have gone up a little less than 7%. A simple online inflation calculator shows prices on everything in general have gone up nearly 46%. A bargain indeed! Quit stalling and buy one. Now. And make yourself better prepared for the next ammo drought.

For more info: Sherline.com, MicroMark.com, HollowPointMold.com, MP-Molds.com, NOEBulletMolds.com, ExcelBlades.com, ICSCuttingTools.com, Brownells.com