Realizing that this subject will not be of interest to everyone, I apologize. There are many people out there in the world however that legally and responsibly own firearms and who can still respect these as implements of recreation – not as devices used just for killing. I personally am fortunate enough to live in a remote, unpopulated area of the American southwest. With ease I can move myself many miles from civilization, and shoot to my heart’s content without disturbing other people. Not having hunted in years, I don’t persecute nature’s critters, which is not to say that I would not if I became hungry. Collecting guns and target practice are hobbies that I intend to continue to enjoy until I lose interest or unless my society ordains to completely confiscate these privileges from responsible citizens. “Reloading” is a skill set that an overwhelmingly large percentage of the shooting public can neither do nor is willing to perform. With reloading equipment an enthusiast can save much money while replenishing his supply of ammunition and with expertise he can produce better and more accurate ammunition than he can buy in the marketplace. The subject of this post is to focus on a narrow set of rare, somewhat frivolous and purely recreational ammunition that simply cannot be purchased, but must be handmade.
Wax bullets are most suitable for indoor pistol target practice. These projectiles are made from melted paraffin, candle or bee’s wax and they are propelled only by a primer – no powder is used. These projectiles are not especially accurate, they have a short range and are hardly lethal but they should be used with caution. The primer alone provides enough propulsion to send the wax projectile through the side of a cardboard box or aluminum soda can at close range.
To begin, perhaps a dozen or so spent cartridge cases are “de-primed”. Next the wax or paraffin is melted and then poured into a pie plate or metal lid to the thickness of about 12mm (or ½”). It takes a while for the paraffin to solidify. Before the wax completely hardens – at a point where it is malleable and not sticky, the empty and de-primed shell cases are pressed down into the wax, cutting off plugs which seat flush with the top of the cases. After the wax has hardened the case can be primed with a new pistol primer and the cartridge is ready to go.
* Wax slugs can be used in shotguns also. Using wax in a lead ‘slug mold’ perhaps, these toy bullets are also driven only by propellant from a primer. Shotgun primers are much more energetic than pistol and rifle primers however. A shotgun primer combined with a wax shotgun slug (lots of mass) creates enough kinetic energy to easily penetrate sheet-rock walls. These should be used outside.
At least one company still makes plastic practice ammunition. Available in rimmed (revolver type) calibers .38 / 357 and .44, these projectiles are reusable. Designed to use the larger and more powerful Magnum pistol primers, these can reach a velocity of perhaps 300 ft/sec.
If one has a lead bullet mold he can make durable, reusable indoor practice bullets from hot glue.
There is a fair selection of reloading tools available, but these tools are not numerous because demand is not great. On the low end a simple kit like the one imaged above cost about $30. Such kits are available for almost any rifle or pistol caliber and although a bit slow they are perfectly adequate. The original once fired brass might need to be reshaped once in the resizing die for the cases to seat in the gun’s chamber comfortably. Thereafter for wax, plastic or hot glue bullet reloading only the primers need to be replaced.
Next is a foray into the lost art of making “ultralight” cartridges. The only kind of commercial ammunition available for high powered hunting rifles is maxim power / high velocity ammunition. Such ammunition can be hard on the rifle and in larger calibers can even become unpleasant to shoot. Because of the prohibitive cost of such ammunition but also sometimes because of the recoil, many hunters do not practice enough to make themselves good marksmen. Reloaders (using researched data tables from books) have direct control over velocities, chamber pressures, recoil and ballistics. In the past reloading publications contained more information dedicated to what are properly called “light” loads. Light loads are much more pleasant and economical to shoot in a high powered rifle. Light loads typically involved using cast lead bullets that are driven at lower velocities to prevent deforming the bullet or the smearing lead along the sides of the barrel. Typically the bullets were cast from hardened lead (alloyed with tin and antimony) and swaged (squeezed to size) with alox (waxy lubricant) and stamped with a brass or copper gas check on the base. Well, “ultralight” ammunition is lower in velocity still and you will not find its reloading information in any modern handbook. For just a trifling cost ultralight ammunition can turn a loud and imposing hunting rifle into a more recreational device that is pleasant to use and much less noisy.
Above is an image of a .30 caliber cartridge loaded with a #1 Buck shot (7.62mm / .30 cal) lead ball. Just a tiny bit (1 to 3 grains) of fast pistol powder is used as propellant in the freshly primed case. The ball is seated into the case mouth by hand pressure alone, excess metal being easily sheared off by the brass case mouth. A little cotton or other fluff can be inserted over the top of the powder to keep it down close to the primer in such a large casing. Since repetitively measuring such a small amount of powder is impractical a home made powder scoop can be made from a spent .22 rim fire case. A .22 short powder scoop with a piece of wire or paper clip soldered on as a handle, will throw about 2.2 grains of “Bullseye” powder. A similar scoop made with a .22 long rifle case would throw about 3.0 grains of Bullseye. Slower burning pistol/shotgun combination powders like “Unique” and “Hi-Skor 700x” will also produce fine ultralight loads.
Ultralight loads can be produced for any pistol or rifle caliber. Their purpose is to act as pleasurable short range, low danger and low noise “plinking” ammunition. The whole point of ultralight loads is lost if too much propellant is applied, because accuracy will fail. Modern rifles have barrels with high rates of rifling twist, which is needed to stabilize jacketed bullets at very high velocities. The old flintlock rifles used two centuries ago had a very slow rate of rifling twist (something like 1 turn in 66 inches) which was needed to properly stabilize or impart spin to a patched round ball. Because a round ball makes so little surface contact with the rifling, the velocities of ultralight loads in modern rifles need to be kept very low. Ultralight cartridge loads are much less lethal than regular ammunition but they are not “toy” loads and should be treated with respect.
A scoped deer rifle can perform fairly accurately with ultralight ammunition at a distance between 50 feet and 80 yards. The line of sight from a gun site or scope is a very different path from the flight path or trajectory that a bullet takes. The bullet actually crosses the line of sight twice; once at a close distance and then again downrange depending upon the elevation of the sights. For a typical high-powered and scoped hunting rifle that is ‘dialed in’ for accuracy at 300 yards, a normal projectile might first cross the line of sight at 100 feet.
In the shot chart above one might notice that the buckshot size “BB” is actually larger than the Air Rifle shot – BB (normally .177 cal). Chilled bird shot is usually dropped from height in a shot tower, whereas larger buckshot pellets are cast from molds. The standardized sizes of round balls increase of course. Caliber is the inside dimension of a rifle barrel. For instance a 22 caliber rim fire cartridge has a bullet diameter of 0.22 inches (or 5.58 mm). Gauge is the number of lead balls – of a particular bore size needed to weigh a pound. For instance the nominal inside diameter of a 12 gauge shotgun is 0.73 inches (18.5mm), so twelve lead balls of this diameter weigh a pound. Bore, like caliber is a measure of barrel diameter. A 12 gauge shotgun could easily be called a 0.73 bore shotgun and a .410 shotgun has a bore diameter of 0.41 inch (it is not 410 gauge). Cannons firing round shot were usually designated or described by the weight in pounds of a cast iron ball that fit the barrel.
Getting back to the previous buckshot image, #1 buckshot is .30 caliber size and will produce ultralight rounds in .30 cal firearms, including: 30-30 Win, 30 M1 Carbine, 300 Savage, 308 Win, 308 Norma, 7.5 Swiss, 7.62 Russian, 30-40 Krag, 30-06, 300 H&H, 300 Win Mag and 300 Weatherby Mag, not to mention several antique pistols chambered in .30 cal. The British 303, Jap 7.7 and Russian 7.62 x 39 cartridges have a bit larger .311 bore diameter so if the # 1 buck does not satisfy then the #0 buckshot will accommodate a tighter fit. Size F, FF and #2 round lead ball moulds are rare or do not exist, so the only common rifle or pistol calibers not matched to a popular buckshot caliber are the “22’s” and the .270 Win and .270 Weatherby cartridges.
* In passing, “double ought buck” is or was famous in American vernacular. Because of this particular shot size, the balls stacked densely and efficiently within a 12 gauge shotgun hull. Nine heavy #00 Buckshot pellets are commonly placed in a 2 ¾” – 12g shell, and 12 or even 15 will fit in a 3” shell. This stacking is reminiscent of the way cannonballs were historically stacked in a pyramid, within easy reach of the cannons. The bottom cannonballs might sometimes have been held in place by a brass tray with dimples, which might have been called a “brass monkey”. The expression “freezing the balls off a brass monkey” might have originated as a vulgarity – rather than the popularized notion that in cold weather the brass tray contracted and released the cannonballs. There seems to be little or no reference to “brass monkeys” in the historical record.