Life As A Lead Scrounger

One Man’s Scrap Is Another Man’s Ammo

When alloy is fluxed, it helps with smell to ignite the
smoke but beware of anything on the alloy that might
be harmful if melted in closed conditions.

A personal talent that goes hand in hand with bullet casting is being a first-class scrounger — of shootable lead alloys. I know because I’ve been a bullet caster for well over a half-century and I have gone through many tons of lead alloys. Freely, I admit in my early casting days to begging adult friends and relatives for anything even resembling lead or lead alloy they might have lying about. One cousin and I even made off with a large lead block his father used as his shop’s doorstop. We replaced it with a bucket of old rusty bolts and he never missed it.

One type of alloy will not suffice for all casting purposes. The ingot at
left is 1-20 tin/lead alloy useful for the revolver and BPCR bullets setting
atop it. The ingot at right is linotype and serves for auto pistols and high- power bullets.

The Math

Let’s look at some math. A pound is 7,000 grains. Let’s say a caster favors medium-size handgun cartridges. We will use 150-grain .38/.357s as examples. That figures out to 46.66 bullets to a pound, so we will round it off to 46. A pound of lead alloy doesn’t even cover a 50-round box of .38 Special reloads. How many rounds would you shoot away for an afternoon’s fun and practice — 100, 200 or more?

When in college, to maintain my sanity, I’d drive the 80 miles back to my hometown for weekends so I could practice handgun shooting. Many times, practice was with my S&W K38, but I also owned .44 and .45 revolvers. Weather permitting, I’d shoot both weekend days and fire a minimum of 200 rounds — often more. That figures out to 4.3 lbs. of lead minimum for .38s per weekend. What about big .44s and .45s? Let’s jump up to 250 grains, which were mostly what I used in big bores. That figures to 28 bullets per pound or slightly over 7 lbs. for a weekend

Ingredients Matter

In my younger days, I’d stick just about anything that resembled lead into my lead pots. Some of it made excellent bullets, and some not so great. Usually, the un-great ones had rounded bands or wrinkles. The mold cavities just wouldn’t fill up properly, no matter how hot it was. As I came to learn, that was usually caused by a dearth of tin in the alloy. Reading articles and books from the old-timers revealed they mostly relied on relatively pure tin to lead alloys in proportions ranging from 1-10 to 1-40. I remember the legendary Elmer Keith writing that he used a mix of 1-16 for non-magnum bullets but preferred 1-10 for his magnum strength loads. Actually, in the case of 1-10 tin to lead alloy, he was wasting tin as it is only marginally harder than 1-16. (Brinell Hardness Number of 11.5 for 1-10 and 11 for 1-16.)

These sample bullets show potential problems with lead alloys.
The two at left are a wheelweight alloy and likely would be fine
if the alloy contained a bit of tin. The two bullets at right have
some sort of contaminant in the alloy and will never make decent bullets.

Early Scrap Sources

Anyway, the small town where I lived in those years (southern West Virginia) had no place where I could buy pure tin or lead, even if I could have afforded it. By that time in the 1960s, however, wheel weights used for balancing automobile tires had become the “poor man’s” alloy for bullet casting — especially for non-magnum revolver bullets.

With one store owner, I made a deal. If he would save all his wheel weights for me, I, in turn, would buy all he saved for $6 per five-gallon bucket. That was about 100 lbs., give or take a few. The other tire shop owner would actually give me his old wheel weights, which I think had something to do with my father being a bill collector. In the 1970s, I made my permanent move to Montana and actually forgot my deal with the first tire store owner. On a Christmas visit in 1977, I met him walking down the street, and he said, “Say, I wish you would come get those wheel weights. I’m running out of storage room.” I drove back to Montana with over 1,000 lbs. of wheel weights in the bed of my pickup.

Paper To Lead

It is a well-known fact that wheel weights alone don’t cast into superlative bullets. Take note again of what I said above about rounded edges and voids. However, add a bit of tin to the mix and presto — beautifully filled-out bullets begin dropping from molds. I discovered solder was a mix of tin and lead in various percentages. After nabbing my father’s stock of solder, he made it clear I ought not do that again. About then, the local newspaper changed its printing system, so its stock of linotype was surplus. They were selling it at $20 per 100 lbs. I managed to afford some.

Also, it is a well-known fact linotype casts into beautiful bullets, but at 20 cents a pound, that was too expensive for me to use alone. (It has a BHN of 22.) However, I quickly discovered that a couple of pounds added in with 18 lbs. of wheel weights in my electric furnace made for perfect bullets. The linotype came in 20-lb. bars, and at first, I was perplexed as to how to melt one. I discovered if a bar of linotype was laid up and down across concrete steps and whacked in the middle with a sledgehammer, it would break right in two. In this manner, I was able to fit pieces into lead pots and then pour them into ingots.

Duke learned early on by means of testing thousands of rounds
with a machine rest that revolver accuracy could be had with
many different blends of alloy.

Outdoor Hobby

Another fact quickly learned was do not melt wheelweights in your folks’ basement. They are dirty, sometimes having oil and grease coatings and produce stink and smoke, something awful when heated. That was a chore best reserved for the backyard. Wheel weights were melted, the steel clips spooned out, the pot fluxed well, and any scum was also spooned off. Then, that alloy was also poured into ingots, but with the ingot molds being of different brands. That way, I kept linotype and wheel weight alloys easily separated. Do not try washing wheel weights! It’s a good way to introduce moisture into the molten alloy, which may result in it flying all over the place. Very dangerous …

Modern Wheel Weights

Now, here’s a caveat for the 21st-century wheel weights. I’ve heard but not experienced some modern ones from abroad are made of mystery metals and will not cast decent bullets no matter how alloyed. I’d recommend checking newer ones by melting them alone and trying casting to see if they will pour into usable bullets. There’s no sense in mixing them with other ingredients lest they contaminate them, too.

These are the basics to search for when lead scrounging.
Top is 50/50 bar solder. Under it is a handful of wheel weights.
Then an ingot of 1-20 tin/lead foundry-certified alloy. A block of
pure lead, and finally, a bar of linotype. At left is a folded piece
of roofing lead, which, for practical purposes, is pure.

Junkyard Dog: Beware!

In 1967, another facet of shooting caught my interest — cap and ball revolvers. This was before Speer and Hornady began offering their pure lead round projectiles, and some reading revealed that pure lead was needed for casting .36 caliber round balls. For some reason, up to that time, I’d never perused junk yards for alloy. There I hit a treasure trove and came away with enough sheet lead (used for roofing) to last a near lifetime if only used for 80-grain, .36 caliber round balls. It only cost a few cents per pound, and I still had enough to bring with me when I moved to Montana permanently. A kindly gent at that junkyard warned me not to try breaking car batteries apart or to use old water or sewage pipes if I wanted to stay in good health.

One time here in Montana, someone gave me a small bucket of linotype pieces. They were covered in some sort of solution. I tossed some in my lead pot, and soon thereafter, a friend found me on the porch on my hands and knees, gagging and gasping for breath.

Duke keeps different lead pots for different alloys so he
doesn’t inadvertently get them mixed and waste time and alloy.
He learned to do this from experience.

Scavenging Expansion

After becoming a Montana resident in the now-famous Yellowstone Paradise Valley, I found it more difficult to keep a wheel weight supply. The town I lived in housed only 800 people. Only minor amounts of wheel weights came from the two or three gas stations there, so I had to branch out for scavenging. On some days off work, I traveled up to 100 miles distant, begging and buying wheel weights. Also, I visited salvage yards where I found and bought lead sheeting.

At one yard, the proprietor told me he had a “bunch” of lead that had been used in a hospital X-ray room, and it was pure lead. It was cheap, so I bought quite a bit, although I knew immediately it wasn’t pure lead. Back in those days, I’d never heard of lead hardness testers, but I knew if it was “pure” lead, I could nearly cut my name in it with my thumbnail. This fellow’s X-ray room alloy could barely be scratched. No matter it shot away as well as much else I’d put into my growing assortment of lead furnaces.

One new Montana friend gave me a couple of hundred pounds of lead alloy his father had used for weight in the back of his pickup. That’s common here to help with traction on slick roads. My friend didn’t know what its composition might be. I melted some and cast a few .44 bullets with it that nominally were meant to weigh 200 grains. They came out beautifully filled out and shiny but, when weighed, were only 166 grains. From that, I knew the alloy was tin-rich, so it was also used to sweeten wheelweight alloy by adding a pound to about 18 lbs. of the latter alloy. I think there is still a small chunk of that mystery alloy around here somewhere.

This bullet in Duke’s fingers is a .58 Minie Ball cast
of pure lead. Note how easily it scratches with his fingernail.

More Tinkering

To this point, I had not worried about consistency in my alloys. After acquiring a pistol machine rest and beginning my gun’riter career, I fired several thousand rounds at paper targets at 25 and 50 yards. Never did I discern a major difference in scrounged alloys in handguns, but there was some in the higher velocity rifle cartridges.

This group was fired with a Colt Frontier Six Shooter
(CFSS) .44-40 using bullets cast of 1-20 tin to lead alloy.

Going Commercial

As always, things change, and lead foundries in this country began shutting down, but help appeared. A BPCR competitor friend began bringing alloy to the national championships in New Mexico every summer. You could order any blend of tin to lead, or you could just buy pure tin and lead and blend your own. His name is John Walters ([email protected]). Over a period of several years, I’d place my order of from 200 to 400 lbs. of 1-20 alloy, and John would have it there for me.

Other companies specialized in shooter’s goods, such as Buffalo Arms of Idaho, Graf & Sons of Missouri and Midway USA, also in Missouri. It’s a little-known fact that lead alloy can be shipped in those USPS Priority Boxes up to certain limits. That helps considerably with shipping costs.

I’m old now. My alloy needs are not great; probably I have enough on hand to last my remaining years. On hand, there are still about a hundred pounds of wheel weights, a 5-lb. bucket of linotype, at least 250 lbs. of John Walter’s 1-20 blend and a couple hundred pounds of sheet roofing with about 45 lbs. of 50/50 bar solder. If you’re scrounging alloy in south central Montana, you won’t have to worry about me as a competitor.

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Purchase A PDF Download Of The American Handgunner March/April 2024 Issue Now!