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Casting bullets the old school way

Today’s little treasure I picked up is an old bullet mold carved from soapstone. These were fairly common in the US in the 1700’s as many people living in more remote backwoods areas simply could not afford brass or iron bullet molds. Many are considerably more complex than the crude mold I got today, having wooden alignment pins and multiple cavities. This crude mold has no alignment pins and was barely milled on only a few surfaces.It measures roughly 3 1/2″ X 1 1/2″ X 1 1/2″.

bullet mold8

So I set up my bottom pour lead pot on my bench. I placed it on top of a small board and a cloth to protect the carpeted work surface and the cloth will prevent too much deformation of the cast bullets.

bullet mold1

I tied the two mold halves together with a linen string to help me hold it together while I was casting the first few bullets. There is no sprue cutter, so I’ll have to deal with this later. I researched soapstone and found it has pretty good heat insulating properties. I found that during casting I could comfortably hold the mold with a leather glove on my hand and no other insulation was needed.

bullet mold2

Eventually I found it awkward to tie then untie the mold as I was casting with it, so I decided to simply hold the two halves together while pouring the lead. This is a pure lead with no alloys, so the melting temperature was average and the pours were consistent.

bullet mold4

Here you can see the two halves separated and a small pile of bullets dropped from the mold. I didn’t have to smoke the mold as I do with modern aluminum or iron molds to prevent the lead from sticking. Apparently soapstone has a natural property to it that keeps lead from adhering to it. It wasn’t necessary to tap the mold to drop the bullets either. I simply flicked them loose with a gloved finger. Ironically the hotter the mold became, the more wrinkles the bullets had in them. This is usually the reverse on modern molds. A cold mold usually wrinkles the bullets until it heats up.

bullet mold9

Now I get to deal with the sprues. A sprue is the lead left at the top of the bullet when the lead is poured into the mold. This needs to be removed in order to load the bullet into the gun and get it to fly reasonably straight. Modern molds have a cutter built into the top of the mold. Striking the cutter at an angle with a wooden mallet will chop this off. In the case of a crude handmade mold such as this, I resorted to what our ancestors would’ve probably used…. a small hatchet. The edge would’ve been placed at the joint where the sprue connects to the ball and would be struck along the spine with a stick to cut off the sprue. Notice there is some thin lead strands along the bottom of the cast ball ? This is called flashing. I trimmed off the flashing with a pocketknife and then rolled the bullets around between two baords to make them somewhat smoother and to help eliminate the flashing.

bullet mold7

All bullet molds have a way to vent air from the cavity as the lead is poured in and fills the mold up. Modern molds have tiny lines cut along the facing surfaces allowing air to escape. If the air has nowhere to go, the mold will not fill properly and the resulting bullet has voids and pockets in it. I was curious to see how the air would escape from the mold so it could fill out completely. I carefully looked over the entire facing surfaces of both halves of the mold and discovered that the bottom of one side had a tiny scrape just under the cavity. Holding the mold up over head, I could just make out a bit of light shining into the mold from the bottom. As the mold fills with molten lead, it pushes the trapped air out the bottom and then fills with just enough lead to become the flashing you see in the earlier photos.

As crudely as this mold was cut and considering there is only one cavity and no type of alignment pins, I’d almost venture a guess this was made and used by a local militia member in the backwoods – OR – possibly by a Native American who had obtained a trade musket. British muskets at that time were of .75 caliber while Americans who opposed the Crown were issued French muskets of .69 caliber. Interestingly enough the bullets dropped from this mold are of approximately .660″ diameter making them ideal for the French issued Charleville muskets in use during that time period. French traders would have also had .69 caliber smoothbores to trade with the Indians around the area too. ALSO interesting is the fact that British records showed that .69 caliber round balls were issued wrapped in paper catridges. The entire cartridge and paper were dumped down the bore with the paper acting as a wad to seal the bullet against escaping gasses. Barrel making being somewhat crude in those days, the exact diameter of the bore would also vary somewhat depending on the maker. So this mold could very well have been used with a Short Land Pattern Brown Bess of the late 1700’s as well as a Charleville musket. I intend to load some of these bullets into my Bess and fire them to give them a try. I’ll also send a few to a friend of mine in Texas who shoots his original .69 caliber musket. I’ll ask him how they did in his gun too.

All in all I’d say this was an a pretty neat little experiment, but I seriously doubt I’ll be switching away from using my modern iron molds any time in the future. And it sort of puts things in perspective for me and gives me a minor glimpse into the ways our ancestors had to produce ammo for their guns back 200 plus years ago. We certainly have come a long way since then….

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Bill Canada May 6, 2014, 6:46 AM

    Now that is cool.

  • Cille Shaner May 7, 2014, 8:47 AM

    That was indeed an interesting experiment. I have some soapstone here if you wanted to make some different calibers just for giggles.

  • Mike in Oregon June 6, 2014, 4:06 AM

    Extremely interesting. Wonderful to see the ingenious down-home engineering of our forefathers. Great job! Thanks for the living history.

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