Written by Bob Palermo, President of Penn Bullets
Let’s start with the bullet choices available out there. You basically have the choice of jacketed, plated, cast, or swaged bullets. Each has it own pluses and minuses. So lets review those first.
Jacketed bullets (available from many sources like Speer, Hornaday, WW, Remington, Nosler, Barnes and Sierra just to name just a few) are usually lead cores that have a copper jacket swaged around the lead core. Some exceptions to this are the all copper Barnes bullets and the Speer Gold Dots which are a lead core with a heavy electroplated jacket (not to be confused with regular plated bullets which I will cover later.)
Jacketed bullets have the ability to be driven to very high velocities and can be among some of the most accurate bullets available. They feature different types of nose profiles such as a full metal jacket or a soft point with exposed lead point at the nose or the most popular kind and for many years the design that the media loved to vilify, the dreaded Hollow Point. The performance of Hollow Points over the years varied considerably and the performance ranged from poor to outstanding and to everything in between. Hollow points were supposed to be the magic bullet that would expand to many times its original size and produce the most destruction ever wrought upon its intended target; or so go the stories that have been told. The fact of the matter is that the reliability of hollow points varied considerably over the years with many people doing all sorts of extensive testing under all sorts of conditions against all sorts of test mediums all in the attempt to duplicate “Real World” conditions on game animals or the two legged kind of predatory animal. If one is seeking such performance data then there are many noted writers that have published many results with various versions / calibers and loadings to guide you.
The are four main drawbacks to jacketed bullets. Firstly, of course, is their high cost as they are generally the most expensive type of bullets to shoot, and that is not good news if you happen to be a person who likes to shoot a lot. Secondly, they also cannot be used in some areas such as Cowboy Action shooting which mandates the use of lead bullets. There are also, of course some indoor ranges that prohibit their use as such bullets are hard on the backstops. Then conversely, there are some ranges that prohibit lead bullets and only allow fully encapsulated bullets such as jacketed or plated; go figure. Thirdly, another area that is a major drawback to jacketed bullets is the highly abrasive nature of gilding metal (the jacket which is on the bullet) to the bore of the firearm. If you have an expensive gun and like to shoot it a lot then I can guarantee that within as little as 10,000 rounds the barrel can have moderate to severe wear on it. I have actually seen a .44 S&W magnum with barrel erosion at the breech end so severe at 10,000 rounds that the barrel had to be replaced. Some guns can go longer with proper care but in the end jacketed bullets are very hard on a barrel's life expectancy. Fourthly and finally, copper fouling is the most difficult to remove requiring the use of some very strong chemical agents that actually eat away at the copper fouling. Some of the better ones like Sweets 7.62 (a favorite among the high-power crowd) contain high concentrations of ammonia. Any good copper remover takes time to break down the copper fouling, which of course is deleterious to good accuracy. Ever wonder why the benchrest crowd are cleaning their guns every few shots? Most people who clean their handguns and rifles never really seem to get all the copper fouling out of their guns. A jewelers loop is a good tool to have to give barrels a close inspection. True, its not as good as a bore scope but its better than the naked eye. Soaking and pushing enough patches thru till the barrel is really clean is a lot more work than most people realize which is why most people never really get it right.
Plated bullets as produced by Berrys or Ranier are lead bullets that have been cast or swaged (bullets formed by pressure into a die) then electroplated with a copper coating that is a few thousandths thick. Some of the bullets are then resized (or restruck) to give a consistent size to the diameter of the bullet. The problems associated with plated bullets are they are velocity limited to about 1200 fps because anything faster would cause the plating to strip away and cause severe fouling. The other problem with them is despite the best attempts by the makers to insure a consistent product the plated bullets seem to have more than their fair share of problems from consumers with regards to consistency relative to weight variations, plating, and dimensional issues. Performance of these has ranged from good to dismal without my really hearing about ANY producing really excellent consistent results. Some people preferred them over cast bullets as they offered less smoke than their cast counterparts and people felt they did not leave lead fouling to clean up. The truth is they left copper fouling behind which was more abrasive and harder to remove than lead fouling. Finally with copper prices being at an all time high the plated bullets are now equaling the cost of jacketed bullets. When they were first conceived they used to split the price point between jacketed bullets and cast but that doesn’t seem to be the case now.
Swaged bullets were offered initially as a lower cost alternative to the expensive jacketed bullets. Several makers like Speer, Hornaday, Zero and of course the now defunct Starr Bullet Works used cold swaging to make lead bullets. The material was for the most part pure lead although Hornaday added some antimony to theirs to try to increase the strength of the bullet but in the end they all pretty much performed the same way. The bullets excelled at being very accurate due to certain designs (like the hollow base wadcutters) and the way the weight within the bullet was distributed and the extremely low weight deviations. They became the standard for Bullseye shooters almost everywhere. The .38 caliber 148 grain hollow base wadcutter is legendary for its performance in Bullseye style competition especially in wadcutter type guns like the S&W model 52. The cost for swaged bullets wasn’t bad being on par with cast bullets for the most part. The main drawbacks to swaged bullets was that were very soft and prone to being easily damaged if one was not careful in the reloading of them and finally they were very velocity limited to very light loads only. And the accuracy was limited to short ranges. Which, while perfect for the low recoil Bullseye crowd the bullets were unsuitable for the wider range of various types of shooting disciplines and the vast majority of shooters.
Finally we come to the bullet that is my personal favorite and is without a doubt the most versatile and the most used of ALL the bullet types available, the cast bullet. Cast bullets have been around for a very, very long time. Melting lead and pouring it into molds to produce projectiles of various shapes and sizes and weights has long been the preferred method to produce large quantities of shooting projectiles easily and inexpensively. With the advent of the modern day casting machines and their resultant economical price the availability of cast bullets has become widespread around the world. Most shooters at one time or another have delved into the practice of using cast bullets in one form or another to see what these bullets could do. When cast bullets were initially being introduced there were a lot of issues with the performance of these projectiles ranging from good to dismal performance. Today so much is known about how to get cast bullets to perform well that anybody wishing to do a lot of shooting can do so very easily with a little guidance.
After many years of trial and error with various alloys and lubricants I worked out what seemed to be the best all around mixture for my bullets. I basically ran three alloys that covered the gamut of the velocity range that most people were dealing with. Long before the advent of cowboy action shooting, I.P.S.C. shooting was the dominate type of shooting event and most of that was done with .45 caliber 1911 style pistols. Since this type of shooting was fast and consumed great quantities of ammunition, cast bullets became a natural marriage with this sport. Since there was a power factor that had to be met the bullets had to be driven to the upper velocity range of the .45 ACP and the bullets had to be hard enough to avoid deforming under the extreme cycling of the heavily modified 1911 pistols being used. Automatic casting machines were beginning to flourish and the alloy that would work reliably in these machines was the standard 2/6 mix as developed and originally called the Taracorp magnum alloy. The 2/6 designation simply meant that the alloy consisted of 2% tin and 6% Antimony and the balance lead. This gave a reasonably hard mixture (16 BHN) that would flow well through the autocasting machines and fill the mold cavities out well with good detail. It’s interesting to note that this mix is exactly one half of the mix that makes up linotype which is a 4/12 mix that is very hard (22 BHN). This 2/6 mix became the standard for cast bullets across the country. The alloy did reasonably well in magnum handgun loads up to about 1200 fps and for most people this was great.
The problem though at the time was that the cast bullet industry (if you want to call it that) became for many years a very cutthroat business (if you could call it a business). It seemed like there were hundreds of people getting in on the act, as it were, because it seemed like a good way to make money fairly easily and for not a lot of money in initial equipment investment. One was forever competing against the next newcomer on the block that jumped into the business willing to sell his bullets for just a couple bucks less than the next guy. Bullet casters came and bullet casters went almost as often as you could change your socks. The competition got so fierce that the only way one could make any money was by trying to hold on while the other guys drove themselves broke while competing against each other. One of the ways a lot of bullet casters cut corners was to buy finished bullet casting lead from a foundry and then go buy scrap lead to blend off with the foundry lead to save money. I called this the 'Hamburger Helper' method of bullet casting. Let’s face it, .45 ACPs didn’t need bullets capable of running to 1200 fps when the hottest loads were at 850-875 fps. So the casters started cutting the mix with cheaper scrap lead. Problem was if they got the mix too far out of kilter then the casting machine couldn’t pour the material. On the other hand mixing in just enough to keep the machine from messing up resulted in another problem, high weight deviations among the bullets. If they would have just blended all the alloy together and just made one mix then it would be fine but the problem was that most of these guys were doing this out of their garages and had no means to mix a couple of thousand pounds of materials together. So they just added it in while the machine was running, hoping for the best. I was seeing weight deviations from 5 or 6 grains between bullets to as much as 12 grains between the bullets from my competition. Now this was fine for some shooters, even a lot of shooters who could care less about accuracy as long as they could load it and make it go bang and hit a 3 foot target 15 feet away. (Today this practice of inconsistent mix is becoming rampant once again as some bullet casters are struggling to stay in business due to the high metal prices being charged by the metal foundries.)
I spent five years and thousands of dollars experimenting with bullet lubes to see what would work on a commercial level and still provide good lubrication. The first lubes used were the traditional Alox 2138F and beeswax, the old NRA 50/50 formula. Alox was a wire pulling lubricant (a calcium based soap) that had good lubrication qualities. The main drawbacks to the lube was that it was very messy and soft. It wasn’t effective for high velocity use and it would over lube in low velocity use and it smoked like crazy. People who fired a lot of cast bullets with this lube and smoky powders looked like they were shooting blackpowder for all of the smoke they generated. The problem was actually so severe that the smoke could obscure the targets being shot at in competition, definitely not a good thing. Hard lubes became available and eliminated the mess but didn’t have much lubrication value to them. And, they still smoked but not as bad as the Alox mix. My research led me to synthetics which at that time were not widely used except by the aerospace and aviation industries. I finally settled on a mix that was a semi hard lube that was a little harder to apply than the regular commercial lubes available. But my lube had the advantage of actually providing lubrication, especially at the higher velocity end. Also, it smoked less, especially a lot less with the newer powders that became available and its melting point was a lot higher than the beeswax based lubes available including the hard commercial lubes. It was the best all around lube that you could get without resorting to a softer messier lube.
Now some bullet manufactures started offering moly coating (molebedenum disulfide) on the bullets to eliminate the conventional lube in the grove. Some called it polymoly referring to the fact that there was type of polymer based epoxy carrier to bond the moly to the surface of the bullet. Moly by itself would not bond to the surface of a lead bullet so it was put into a carrier with a epoxy to bond it to the surface and that is where the trouble started with the moly coatings. The epoxy transferred to the barrel of the firearm along with some moly and the result was in many cases a mess. Some people swore by the benefit of moly coated bullets while others swore at it, claiming the inability to completely remove the moly and epoxy now bonded under heat and pressure to the barrel. The next problem became one of moisture as the moly was hygroscopic and absorbed moisture and caused rusting in regular steel firearm barrels. Stainless was impervious but the moly seemed to be even harder to clean out of stainless barrels than regular steel. Now while some people have managed to get moly coated bullets to work in their guns (or so they say) powder selection seems to be more of a factor. The Benchrest crowd initially gave moly its blessing in the beginning only to do an about face 180 degrees from their endorsement. At present, to the best of my knowledge, NO precision barrel maker endorses the use of moly in their barrels having found that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Moly coating of bullets by the way is not new as it was being experimented with twenty-five years ago when I first got into the business. I still have a can of the original Bullet Master Lube that was being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread for shooting cast bullets. The product didn’t succeed for many of the same reasons it doesn’t work that well today. Now in some cases with the impact coating of moly on rifle bullets there were some guns that actually benefited from the moly bullets as the coatings filled in imperfections in the barrels and the guns actually for a while would shoot better with the coating than without it. However, some guns saw no change and others showed worse accuracy with the bullets. The differences were startling. Rick Jameson of Shooting Times did an exhaustive report with moly coated bullets in rifles and used a Hawkeye borescope to evaluate the results. I defer to his wide ranging conclusions about the use of moly in rifles with jacketed bullets.
The other factor that raises its head is our old friend COST as in the moly process adds to the cost of the projectiles by a significant factor. Some justify the added expenses as they like the advantages of no smoke and easier handling of the bullets during reloading. I have examined moly at length and I cannot justify the expense in offering it at this time. In addition there are other coatings that do better job than moly can without the drawbacks except that they are even more expensive. If you think moly is something you want to try then I can offer you a spray on moly with a built in polymer binder that will bond to the bullets quite well and is easy to apply. The same thing holds true for this as before as I have had people who loved it and others who did not. As with all things it becomes a trial and error series of experiments and that road can be a long one with diverse results.
There have been others still that have tried different all over coatings such as the Lee liquid alox that was developed originally for the Lee R. E. A. L. bullets with their small multiple lube grooves to hold the alox coating in place while it dried. There was also an all over wax coating developed by Rooster Labs that essentially did the same thing. All of these were attempts (some successful and some not) to minimize lead fouling within the firearm. Some of these attempts were in fact band aid attempts to resolve problems due to improper diagnosis of the real cause of the problem. Today much more is known on how to extract great performance from lead bullets and make the clean up fairly easy and minimal.
(Above article is copied from: http://www.pennbullets.com/ReloadingTips/ReloadingTips.htm)