Loading Lead

Learn This Simple Process And Keep Shooting!

As I write this there is a nationwide politically inspired panic concerning not only some types of firearms but virtually all types of ammunition, and even reloading components. The average shooting supply stores’ shelves are bare and likely to stay that way for some time. There’s no government conspiracy to limit production or nonsense like that. It’s simply supply and demand. Shooters are buying everything they can lay their hands on, and makers can’t keep up with the demand.

As for smokeless powders and primers there isn’t much that can be done. Jacketed handgun bullets of all types are also going to be hard to come by for a bit. Our bullet factories are capable of only turning out so many in a shift and rifle shooters’ needs are also a significant factor.

All that understood, handgunners do have a bullet alternative. We can shoot lead. Lead alloy bullets work perfectly well for all types of handgun (yeah, I know, some rifle loads too). A very few handgun makers recommend their products not be fired with lead alloy projectiles, and you can use your own discretion when it comes to that.

There are two routes to take here. Buy bullets from commercial bullet casters or make them yourself. I do both. Right now, in the midst of all this hoarding, I don’t have a single bullet worry. In my vault are several score handguns. For semi-autos I currently reload for nine cartridges and for revolvers there are a dozen on the list. They run from the .32 Auto to .45 Colt. On the shelves above my lead pot are bullet moulds suitable for every single one of those handgun cartridges. Also on hand are thousands of commercially cast bullets for the more common of those 21 cartridges. I have never lacked for handgun bullets since age 17.

Duke even uses lead alloy bullets predominately in his M1
Thompson submachine gun. It functions perfectly with them.

Fear Lead?

To become an avid reloader of lead bullets there is one hump you must overcome. There exists in some places a news media-inspired fear of lead. Lead is an inert metal. It does not give off dead rays nor is it lethal if touched. Lead is harmful only if actually ingested into the body though the mouth or eyes or from a bullet shot into you and left there. In my strongly held opinion, antigun activists encourage fear of lead as another form of control.

Bullet casting isn’t a black art. In fact when I started handloading, and in the out of the way place where I started, if you didn’t pour your own bullets you weren’t going to have any. Essentially, the act of casting bullets is simple. You put molten lead alloy into a mould with cavities cut to specific dimensions. After a few seconds when the alloy has solidified you open the mould and dump the bullets out. For those interested in starting bullet casting I recommend Lyman’s Cast Bullet Handbook, 4th Edition. As an aside, I wrote most of the informational chapters in it, for what that’s worth.

Now let’s get into some details. First off, I divide the bullets needed into two categories: those for autoloaders and those for revolvers. I want autoloader bullets hard so they can withstand the rigors of being shoved out of a magazine, up a feed ramp and into a chamber. Also because autoloader cartridges have always been developed as jacketed bullet rounds, rifling in most stock pistols is relatively shallow. Hard bullets grip shallow rifling. Soft bullets skid on it.

On the flip side revolver bullets need to obturate, which means swell up. They do that in revolver chamber mouths upon firing and keep doing it upon entering the barrel’s forcing cone. No obturation means gas will leak by the bullet’s base, melting particles off and plating them inside the barrel. Very hard bullets resist obturation and result in worse leading than milder-tempered ones unless fired at very high-pressure levels. Revolvers, as a rule, have deeper rifling so softer bullets don’t skid when fired.

Duke busy at work making bullets. Those shelves to his left contain bullet
moulds suitable to all 21 of the handgun cartridges he handloads.

Some Details

Lead alloy temper is rated by Brinell Hardness numbers. By my standards anything over 15 is good for autoloaders and any alloy between 10 and 12 BHN is good for revolvers — except for super-hot magnum loads. For those I then go back to the +15 BHN alloy. For the sake of comparison here are some common alloy BHNs. Pure lead is about five. A mix of one part tin to 20 parts lead rates about 10, and linotype alloy as used in the printing trade for decades is about 22. I use linotype for semi-auto handguns and my submachine guns because I have a large supply of it. For revolver bullets traveling under about 1,100 fps I stick with 1-to-20, again because I keep a large supply of it.

Next is the question of bullet shape. That one is easy. My autoloading bullets are mostly roundnose. Roundnoses have fed perfectly in every semi-auto pistol I’ve ever owned and usually give more than adequate accuracy. But it is not a rule carved in stone that roundnoses are the only pistol bullets that feed. My Kimber 1911 .40 S&W works just fine with semi-wadcutters. My military Model 1911s feed roundnose/flatpoints such as RCBS #45-230CM meant for .45 S&W and .45 Colt revolvers like they were meant for them. Talk of versatility, that particular RCBS mould serves me for .455 Webley, .45 ACP, .45 Auto-Rim, .45 S&W Schofield and .45 Colt.

Revolvers are also usually exceedingly accurate with roundnose bullets, but all revolvers will function perfectly with sharp cornered bullets. Wadcutters, semi-wadcutters and roundnose/flatpoints are all great revolver bullets. Actually late in life, I now prefer the latter shape most because several of the handgun calibers I prefer can also be used in lever guns. RN/FPs were designed in the beginning for lever guns. They’re still perfect for them.

Lead alloy bullet diameters are factors that sometimes get newcomers flummoxed. With jacketed handgun bullets the question of diameter is moot because the handloader has no control over the matter. You take what the factories make. For instance, 9mm bullets are universally .355″. For .38 Special/.357 Magnum they’re .35″. The .45s differ just a bit, with those for .45 ACP being .451″ but some .45 Colt bullets are .452″.

These are some bullets Duke bought. At left is the 9mm Parabellum and the middle
is .45 ACP. Those bullet tempers are hard. At right is the .38 Special, and
Duke bought those bullets cast of a softer alloy.

Bigger In Lead

Lead alloy handgun bullets need be a mite larger — in general .001″ to .002″ over the size of jacketed bullets for the same caliber. When I buy 9mm lead alloy bullets, only ones .356″ are considered, but when I cast my own from Lyman mould #356242 they are run through a .357″ sizing die. In some tight-chambered 9mm pistols of modern manufacture .357″ bullets may make cartridges too fat for chambers. Then .356″ is the fallback size.

Most of my 9mms are vintage military with generous chambers so I can get away with .357″ sized 9mm bullets. I didn’t get away with overly large .45 ACP bullets in one situation recently. On hand are a couple of Remington’s new 1911s. Following my bigger is better in regards to lead bullets I tried feeding them .452″ .45 ACP bullets. One of the Remingtons digested them fine but with the second one its slide wouldn’t close completely. It worked fine with .451″ bullets.

Of course revolvers have one other dimension to consider — the cylinder’s chamber mouths. Accuracy benefits if bullets fit chamber mouths within about .001″. Sometimes that’s just not possible. My 1990s vintage Colt Single Action .44-40 has .432″ chamber mouths, yet its chambers do not accept rounds loaded with bullets larger than .428″. With the exact same handloads that particular revolver never groups as well as another Colt .44-40 with .429″ chamber mouths.

Revolver or semi-auto, both types shoot just fine with lead alloy bullets.

Special Techniques

Okay, once you have either bought or made lead alloy bullets of the proper hardness, shape and size for your handgun what special reloading techniques are required? — very few, actually. Cases are resized normally, and when bullets are seated they should be crimped just as jacketed ones, i.e. taper crimp for autoloaders and roll crimp for revolvers. That’s generally speaking, but a subject for the future.

Where handloaders need to give lead alloy bullets special attention is keeping them from being damaged when entering the case. First off, case mouths should be de-burred. Case mouths left with sharp edges will peel slivers of lead from the bullets’ sides. That step need be done only once unless the case is trimmed somewhere along the line.

Also some attention should be given to the size of the expander plug in case mouth belling dies. Those sent with die sets the manufacturer assumes will most likely be used with jacketed bullets are a mite smaller than those die sets most likely used with lead alloy ones. My RCBS 9mm Parabellum and .380 Auto dies have .351″ expander plugs meant for .355″ jacketed bullets, but my RCBS .44 Russian/Special “Cowboy” dies expressly meant for lead alloy bullets have .428″ expander plugs because they will likely be used with .430″ bullets.

There you have it. Buy them or make them, but don’t shun lead alloy handgun bullets — or you may wind up with no bullets at all.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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