Lead bullets are the original bullet. Cast bullets come from molten lead that is poured into a mold and then allowed to cool. This soft metal has always been a desirable material for projectiles, being dense, abundant, and easy to work with. Even in modern times, cast lead bullets have certain advantages.
A cast bullet is a pure lead bullet with no copper jacket which is made from molten lead and “cast” in a mold. While some cast bullets are available commercially, most cast bullets today are made by individuals for use in their pistol handloads. Cast bullets can be hard cast (dipped in water to cool), or soft cast (air-cooled).
Cast lead bullets excel in certain roles, such as for making affordable target practice ammo and dangerous game protection. While jacketed bullets dominate both rifle and pistol ammunition, cast lead still carves out its niche quite well.
Perhaps you are thinking about shooting cast lead bullets, or are just curious about them. Keep reading to find what advantages they hold over their modern alternatives.
Cast Lead Bullets 101
Lead is a dense metal that has a melting point of 621.5 degrees Fahrenheit, or 327.5 degrees Celsius. While not the lowest melting point for a common metal, it’s still fairly low and this makes it easy to melt.
I have watched many space documentaries that point out the temperature on the surface of Venus will melt lead. Do you know what else will melt lead? A simple propane camping stove or a purpose-built lead furnace (AKA lead pot). I use one made by Lee Precision that set me back about $60 and holds 20 lbs of molten lead.
Once the lead is melted, it will be poured into a steel or aluminum mold and allowed to cool for several seconds. After this, the mold will be opened and the bullets can be tapped out with a wooden rod. Cast bullets can either air cool as “soft-cast” bullets or are plunged into water and become “hard-cast” bullets.
Pure lead is very soft and not suitable for modern ammunition using smokeless powder. These bullets are more suitable for muzzle-loading black powder firearms. Lead bullets for modern firearms are made from a lead alloy containing tin and antimony, though they are generally still referred to as just lead bullets.
These other metals add hardness to the bullet and help them stand up to the velocity of modern handgun cartridges. Cast lead bullets meant for rifles generally need additional help in the form of a copper cap on the base called a “gas check”.
Why People Still Use Cast Bullets
The biggest advantage of lead bullets is cost savings. Because lead and lead alloy can be bought as scrap and turned into a bullet with a minimal amount of equipment, they are cheaper than plated or jacketed bullets.
Cast bullets are best suited for handgun ammunition, where much of the cost of the completed cartridge is tied up in the bullet. For handgun reloading, almost all of the cost is the bullet. This means, whether you are buying the cast bullets or making them yourself, saving money is easily done.
When I started shooting USPSA and IDPA competitions, I was able to shoot my 1911 chambered in .45acp as much as I wanted. Time to shoot, not ammunition costs, were the limiting factor. Did I mention I was only making $17 an hour and had zero overtime opportunities?
Shooting several thousand rounds of .45acp a year seems like quite an accomplishment on this budget, but it wasn’t. Not when I could go to tire shops and buy 5-gallon buckets of wheel weights for $50 each and turn those into thousands of bullets.
Another advantage of cast lead bullets when compared to jacketed or plated bullets is they, on average, deliver better velocities with a given powder charge. This advantage can be used to increase maximum velocity, assuming the bullet can withstand it, or use a little less powder for a similar velocity.
Why Jacketed Bullets are More Popular
Cast lead bullets have a serious drawback though, they are not a good fit for every gun. Lead bullets, both cast and swaged, depend on fitting tightly in the barrel for good performance. If a barrel is oversize, like a 9mm barrel with a .358 bore instead of a .355 bore, lead bullets will give the gun problems.
As hot gasses travel past the sides of the bullet, they will strip molten lead off and deposit it ahead in the barrel. Before too many shots, the barrel is coated in lead and the rifling no longer spins the bullet. Accuracy will tank and key-holed bullets will appear on the target.
As such, jacketed bullets are a better choice for large manufacturers of ammunition.
What Makes Cast Lead Bullets Powerful?
Before the industrial revolution and precision machining, a very deadly aspect of soft lead bullets was their ability to be shot accurately. In early muzzle-loading rifles, an undersized bullet with a hollow base, known as a Minie ball, could be quickly loaded down the barrel.
When the firearm fired, the expanding gasses from the black powder would expand the bullet slightly to help it engage the rifling and shoot more accurately. This large, soft projectile was also capable of deforming when striking bone, making it very deadly.
In modern times, lead bullets are loaded into powerful handgun cartridges. These bullets are hard-cast though, not soft and easy to deform. Because lead bullets can be shot at slightly higher velocities when compared to jacketed, these loads can propel and very heavy bullet at a very good speed for a given cartridge.
The most common application of this ammunition is dangerous game protection. Boutique manufacturers like Buffalo Bore and Double Tap have a cast bullet load for the common woodsman calibers like .357 Magnum, 10mm Auto, and .44 Magnum.
They will also come in less-powerful cartridges like 9mm Luger and .40 S&W, and in lever-action rifle cartridges like the 30-30 Winchester and 45-70 Government.
Also, because minimal equipment is needed to make cast lead bullets, it gives these smaller manufacturers more options in bullet choice when compared to buying bullets from larger companies. These bullets feature a large “meplat”, the flat section at the nose of the bullet, to enhance their crushing effect in living tissue.
In recent years though, these cast bullets meant for dangerous game protection are receiving competition from machined copper projectiles. Copper is a material much harder than lead, though far less dense. These copper penetrators, when compared to cast lead, are the classic fast and light vs. slow and heavy argument.
What is the Future for Cast Lead Bullets?
Cast lead bullets are quite popular today and figure to be so in the coming years. Their uses include target practice, black powder shooting, and dangerous game protection. As long as shooters have access to scrap lead from tires shops, bullet traps, and shotgun ranges, cast bullets will remain popular.