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Rifle Reloading Guide
Rifle Magazine
April - May 2003
Volume 38, Number 2
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 222
On the cover...
The Thompson/Center Encore .357 Maximum features a 15-inch Hi-Luster blue barrel with "Muzzle Tamer" and 2.5-7x T/C scope set in Duo-ring mounts. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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What if I were to tell you there was a kind of cast bullet, a lead alloy bullet, that was not only equal but also superior to any handgun and most any low-velocity rifle bullet on earth? Yes, superior to any ordinary jacketed bullet,   superior to the highest-tech bonded, partitioned or any other. They offer splendid accuracy, extreme expansion and penetration that can only be exceeded by the best solids. Many would answer that it sounds like the boy has been too close to the juniper smoke, but it is true.

The concept is extremely simple. We begin with almost any shape or design of cast bullet and make it with two different metal hardnesses. Cast softnose bullets reach perfection in handguns or in rifles with velocities below 2,000 fps. They can be used in high-velocity rifle cartridges, but they are subject to the limitations of any cast bullet in fast rifles. Further, while there are no perfect jacketed bullets for hunting handguns and slow big-bore rifles, there certainly are perfect jacketed bullets for high-velocity rifles. So, in general, when we use this technology, it will be in arms that run below 2,000 fps.

I remember well the first shot I “fired in anger” with one of these bullets. I was working in Zambia at the time, carrying a .45 Colt. LBT bullets were an unknown thing to me. I was still trying to get the most out of the Keith shape and looking for others that would be better. The loads at the time drove the 325-grain, Linotype (extremely hard) bullets about 1,500 fps. They were very effective. However, due to the relatively small flat on the noses (and because contrary to popular belief, the shoulder did no work), the bullets were just a bit short of “splash” on game weighing less than 500 pounds. This shot, using the very same mould now “softnosed,” was at a big boar warthog. He was moving at a fast trot, angling away at about 40 yards. He weighed about 250 pounds. With the “solids” the big bullet would smack him, and he would accelerate for about 50 yards and fold. But this shot had an entirely different effect. Piggy’s lights just went out, kerwhop to the ground, without a kick. Yes, dust flew as the bullet left his opposite front shoulder and plowed into the hard African clay, but otherwise absolutely nothing happened. It was a real eye-opener, for this bullet had delivered the first absolutely decisive blow I had ever seen from a handgun. That was almost 20 years ago, and the same technology continues to impress both this shooter and, more importantly, the targets.

Right about now most of you are getting discouraged. Surely something this high-tech, this spectacular, is either unreasonably expensive, impossibly difficult or another of those concepts that require a home machine shop to duplicate. Good news! They are cheap, easy and readily done by anyone who casts bullets.

There are several ways to create these wonder-bullets. The most basic, and the one I use most, requires only two “specialized” pieces of equipment. To begin, any conventional bullet mould is ready, willing and able to make softnose bullets. The shape and design is not particularly important. We normally would not choose a very pointed spitzer shape, but those are rarely used in low-velocity arms. The bullet nose can be flat or round, with perfect success. In fact, the concept really lends itself to improving the impact performance of roundnose and semipointed bullets that are marginal when made of a single, relatively hard metal. Beyond the mould, you will need a second pot to melt the soft (or less hard) lead. This can be a completely separate heat source and/or melting pot or can be a small, secondary insert pot that lives inside your regular melting pot. These inserts are easily made out of a piece of thin-walled, 2-inch pipe, a bit of angle iron and a setscrew. Any welding shop can make it for you. Perhaps the best plan is a second melting pot. Lyman has a MINI-MAG electric furnace. This is a small (10-pound) electric pot that costs about $50 and offers the convenience and control of a completely separate system for the soft metal. The only additional piece of equipment needed is a mini-ladle that will meter a small amount of soft lead into the nose portion of the mould. I make these out of two very “exotic and expensive” materials - empty handgun shells and wire.

To best understand the utensils, we should fast-forward a moment to see exactly how we make the bullets. Essentially we will pour a chosen amount of soft pure lead (or something slightly stiffer with some tin) into the nose of the mould. That is to say, we will pour in the soft metal first and then fill the mould with some metal that has real backbone. This can be wheelweights that will be heat-treated or Linotype that is perfectly hard when it cools. The pot for the soft metal can be quite small because the soft portion of the bullet rarely exceeds one-third the total and may be much less. The mini-ladle is used to both measure and pour the soft metal into the mould before it is filled. Once the nose is poured in the mould, you simply fill and finish the bullet exactly as you would any other normal cast bullet.

Returning to the tools themselves, if you use a second melting system, it can be small. One of the smaller, inexpensive electric pots is fine, as is a second small pot on your gas hot plate. The one requirement for this system is above normal casting temperature, so be sure whatever system you use to melt both the soft and hard metal is capable of at least 700 degrees. The insert is made by smashing closed one end of a 2 to 3 inch long piece of tubing and sealing it by welding or brazing. A dogleg of angle iron attached to the top of the pipe and fitted with a 1/4 inch diameter setscrew is used to secure it in the big pot to keep it from floating around or tipping over.

Empty handgun cases make ideal ladles. I normally use .38/9mm and .45 caliber. The “handle” is wrapped around the head and then twisted for 4 or 5 inches and ends in a loop of some shape that gives your fingers control. The softnose concept thrives on the size of the ladle - on the idea that we can dictate just how much, or little, any given bullet expands, how much weight it retains and the sectional density of the solid that remains after expansion. Most of these magical qualities are controlled by how much soft metal we put in the nose. This can vary from a small tip that “wipes off” to create a flat point up to half the bullet’s length. To make the chosen degree of softnose, you simply cut-and-try, shortening the brass case with a grinder or file until it holds the amount of metal you want. To test this all you have to do is pour a dipperful of metal into the mould, wait a few seconds for it to harden and have a look. At first you will have more “bullet” in the mould than you want, so nip a little off the case and pour again. A tip that applies to these tests and the actual bullet casting is to hold the mould relatively level while you pour in the softnose, so the lead stays level in the mould itself. When you have a dipper of the correct size, it is time to make the real thing.

Beyond the small addition of tools, softnose bullets are cast at higher-than-normal casting temperature. There are two reasons for this. First the process of pouring a bullet in two parts takes more time than a normal pour. Thus, we must have both the mould and metal hot enough to tolerate what would be otherwise very poor bullet casting technique. With the heat the nose portion will not solidify as it hits the sides of the mould, but will flow neatly right to the bottom and stay molten for a second or two. Then, when we pour in the hard metal to fill the mould, it will fuse to the softnose and fill out the   cavity perfectly.

A casting thermometer is always handy, and it really helps with softnose bullets. Lyman has a fine one that measures from 200 to 1,000 degrees. Try 750 degrees, especially in the big pot of hard metal, with the soft at a similar, or slightly lower, temperature. Having a hot mould is also important. Heat the blocks in the molten metal, then, before adding the softnose, cast several “normal” bullets, working until your mould yields perfection. This reduces the “reject” rate of the special bullets. If you do not get good bullets, increase the metal temperature.

There are other ways to make the bullets. One is using a special softnose casting pot once marketed by LBT. This used a clever bounce-system that dumped a metered amount of lead out of a bottom pour pot. I actually doubt, unless you find a used one, we will have these again. They were expensive to make, and the demand is low. Another fine concept perfected by LBT was a two-part mould. The first cast the bullet nose, typically the portion of the bullet in front of the driving surface. Once made, the softnoses were placed in the matching mould, which in turn was filled with hard metal. This idea worked especially well with LBT’s ability to control diameters, making the nose just a few thousandths smaller than the final mould, so it fit easily. Lyman marketed a two-part mould that cast a base and a nose that were actually glued together cold. I have not used these, but believe they would work. With the anticipated return of LBT to the bullet mould business, I believe we should soon see these excellent moulds back on the market. Also, if you want to fully understand the metallurgy of lead alloys, softnoses and heat treating, the book Jacketed Performance with Cast Bullets by Veral Smith (HCR 62, Box 145, Moyie Springs ID 83845) is a marvelous resource. No one who shoots or makes cast bullets should be without it.

When we make softnose cast bullets, it is important to be just a little more forgiving about the appearance of our bullets. This is about performance and results, not beauty contests. It is not uncommon to see a small wrinkle or line between the soft and hard parts. It is possible to make a bullet that looks perfect, but asking them all to be so is unreasonable. For the purposes of accuracy and terminal results, the small flaws have absolutely no effect on the bullets. In spite of what we imagine, the hard and soft metal fuse together, making a very strong bond. I think the only kind of failure, of the bond between the soft and hard metal, that would matter is one so severe the bullet would come apart in flight. When the bullets hit, there is plenty of force causing the nose to glue itself to the base, until we want it to come off.

With the mention of the attachment of the softnose to the base, we begin to touch some very important concepts of expanding bullets, all expanding bullets and especially those designed for big bores and low velocity. Let’s get right to the point: Large frontal diameters and retained weight are greatly overrated - they are often bad things! We cannot go farther without referring to the magnificent Nosler Partition as used in high-velocity rifles. They do two things that make them extraordinary. First they expand easily and rapidly, but far more importantly, the frontal area gets big and then goes back to just over bore diameter very quickly. The end result is nothing less than a solid bullet with a flat nose that penetrates deeply at relatively high velocity. These bullets are a type of those that can be described with the word “perfection” - when they have relatively high sectional densities. The very same design can go quite wrong if misused, misused in big bores at low velocity with short, light bullets.

I witnessed a very sad failure of just such a bullet this fall. The young man made a perfect shot, hit the big cow elk perfectly on the shoulder about one-fourth the way up from the bottom of her chest. The bullet smacked the big shoulder knuckle and broke the bone. The hit should have been fatal in a few steps, but we watched her move on, trailing the big herd. We left her quietly until the rest of the elk stopped to graze and bed again, but our stalk was unsuccessful for she climbed and mingled with the rest somewhere in the trees. When at last I forced them to move again, we saw her once more, in the middle of the herd now, far below in the open meadow. There was no hope, no chance for another shot, for the many-hundred elk kept us at 500 yards or more. The bullet, a 300-grain Partition, fired from a .45-70 had clearly been stopped by the big bone and had not entered the chest. It is a very simple case of too short, too big, too little sectional density and much, much too little penetration. It is a mistake I will not make again.

But to return to the moral of the story, this bullet’s design tries to mimic a smallbore, by expanding a big-bore bullet to excessive diameter. After this expansion we have a very short shank with a large frontal area. Said another way, we have something that is likely to be wider than it is long, with not enough horsepower to push it deeply enough to be reliable. When we choose the softnose cast concept, we have control over two factors: the final length of the bullet and its diameter. We can avoid the huge mistake of asking something that resembles a quarter to penetrate, flat-side on!

The length is controlled by the amount of soft metal. By making only the nose or part of the nose soft, we can guarantee the bullet will retain significant sectional density after it expands. Even more important than the length is the ability to keep the final diameter small. The softnose concept is an absolute master of this very difficult task. Returning to the unfortunate incident with the elk, a softnose, hopefully a heavier than 300-grain softnose, for the big .45 caliber would have managed perfectly. Why? Because when it hit the bone, instead of growing larger in diameter, it would have instantly shed its big expanded nose and returned to its original .45 caliber. The remaining shank, made of rock-hard metal would now be a solid, capable of penetrating not only the 4 inch thick bone, but also the muscles, ribs, heart and probably all the shoulder on the far side.

How? Essentially the softnose bullets have a safety valve. Whenever the frontal resistance becomes too great, from bone, gristle or heavy muscle, the solid rear portion is able to actually shoot right through its own expanded nose. The nose may fragment or even become a donut. It has done its destruction and will now set the shank free to continue on its path through the vitals. If only soft lung tissue it hit, it will keep some of its mushroom shape and create damage in the conventional way.

 In addition to the balance the softnose bullets give to the relatively short, low-momentum handgun and light big-bore rifle bullets, they can add a tremendous blow and large exit hole to otherwise inefficient, pointy but heavy rifle bullets. By making the front part of, say, a .45-70, 500-grain bullet of pure lead, we now have the ability to almost instantly create a mushroom, followed by a flatnose solid, instead of a bullet that may just slip through soft tissue.

As we look at all this potential, we see that beyond the amount of the different metals used, their hardness will certainly enter the equation. I favor a combination of very softnoses, pure lead or not much harder than 1:40 tin/lead, and bases of the toughest possible metals. Tough is an active word here. They must be as hard as possible, without being brittle, so big bones do not shatter them. Heat-treated wheelweights are ideal, followed by Linotype. Treating the wheelweights is easy. You simply drop the bullets, hot from the mould, into a 5-gallon bucket of cold water. Linotype comes out of the mould perfectly, without further attention, at or very close to the target hardness of Brinell hardness number 22.

After you cast the bullets, sizing them needs a bit of consideration. First, if you are using pure lead, the softnose is really soft. It will deform if you use anything but a perfectly fitting nose punch. There is another, better way to size all cast bullets, and that is to push them into the die nose first. This eliminates the nose deformation problem and may result in a better bullet overall. Also, if you are heat-treating wheelweights, be sure to size them within an hour of casting, before they harden. After they set up, it can be really tough to shove them through the die. If they are belligerent, or if you have some already hardened bullets or Linotype, lube the bullets with case-sizing lubricant before sizing. Then, wipe this lube off and add your normal lubricant. With any except a Star lubricator-sizer, you will have to run your softnose bullets through twice. Once, nose first, to size them and again base first to fill the grooves with lube. Because of the small numbers involved, you can also hand-lube the special ones.

There are two other concepts that go with the softnose idea. The first is, well, backwards. It is an unusual use, but now instead of making a softnose we make a soft base. The purpose is to make bullets that will bump up to fill the rifling and still be rock hard solids when they hit. There are few places that demand the technology; original .461 Gibbs rifles are one. The other is in muzzleloaders that use long bullets. These must be about bore size to load and then have to expand to fill the grooves on ignition. Normally these must be quite soft to work. If you happen to want Cape-buffalo-style penetration, make the back one-fourth to one-third of the bullet relatively soft, 1:40 to 1:20 (lead/tin) and heat-treated wheelweights for the rest. Now the base will remain malleable and expand, while the rest will ride the bore and only dent a little on railroad iron.

Another really beneficial application is to use good, heavy cast bullets in sabots for muzzleloaders. Generally, these are plagued with frangible, over-expanding pistol bullets. When you put a 325- to 360-grain cast softnose in front of 100 grains of black powder, in a muzzleloader, you have a truly spectacular killer. They will slap little whitetail as hard as anything you have ever fired and will be perfectly compatible with elk, big bears or moose. Yes, one size does indeed fit all.

When we start to push a rifle or handgun to or beyond its potential, the bullets demonstrate their full reward. An example is a friend who wanted to use his little Purdey .450x3 1/4-inch express rifle on bison. A big bullet for these rifles weighs 360 grains and, by most standards, is very marginal against a ton or more of big bull buffalo. It was this very same rifle that “broke” a 1:20 alloy bullet on an elk knuckle, so we were a bit apprehensive about tackling the big bull with normal bullets. Enter the cast softnose. We made the 360-grain Gould shape out of pure lead back to the front driving band, while the rest was heat-treated wheelweights. The short story is the bullets, driven by 110 grains of black powder, penetrated completely through the huge shoulders to the hide on the far side and essentially hammered the huge bull to the ground. Not bad, not bad!

As we look at the aggravation of making these two-part bullets, it is useful to remember we will only need a few of them. They are pure hunting tools. Regular bullets, made in the same mould, will shoot exactly the same as the softnose. So, all zeroing and practice is with the simple bullets. Of course, you will want to conduct some expansion and penetration tests in wet paper before your hunt. Keeping the labor-bill in perspective, we can all hope, with our highest hopes, to be able to use up 40 softnose hunting bullets in the next many years! There is one small hazard. When your hunting buddies figure out you make these jewels, they will become exceedingly friendly. Think ahead - they must have something you want.

So often, in the land of firearms, I am forced to tell you there is no magic, no real edge, no advantage that can be demonstrated. Here we can shed those restrictions and say the humble lead bullet, made of two kinds of metal, is something wonderful to behold. It is more than a match for critters large and small. It expands violently, yet penetrates through almost any obstacle. They are inexpensive, relatively easy to make, accurate and powerful. Maybe there is a tooth fairy.

Starline brass
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