Let’s talk about fire. For doin’ it “primitive” and casting bullets, you certainly want a hot but small fire. After all, you’ll need to be able to get real close. A small cooking fire is just about right, so keep plenty of small pieces of wood handy because you’ll find yourself feeding this little fire, probably with every ladle-full of lead you melt.
A bed of coal is very nice but not hot enough; you want some flame from those small pieces of wood to renew the coals and to lick the bottom of the ladle just to keep it real hot.
It is best to have that fire circled with rocks, but there is something more that you’ll certainly want. That is either a good-sized stone or just a fairly large piece of wood to act as a heat shield.
While melting your lead, balance the ladle across this block so the ladle’s bowl is right over the fire but the handle is shielded from the heat so it can stay fairly cool. That handle must remain cool enough for you to hold it, usually with a bare hand.
Another point about the fire is to have it in an area of very good draft or ventilation. Even though we melt lead in very small quantities while casting round balls for our muzzle-loading guns, don’t forget that molten lead gives off fumes. Because of that, I very seldom cast bullets inside a tepee and always prefer to use a fire that is outside the lodge. Also, because of the possibility of fumes, I do not cook over the fire at the same time the lead is melting.
Maybe I’m being too careful but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a pot of good coffee being kept warm by the fire. The coffee in that pot is very well protected when compared to food in a wide-open pan being fried in the same fire. Believe me, no one appreciates good cooking more than me, but please keep your cooking separate from lead casting.
Actually, casting balls inside a tepee should be OK provided that your smoke flaps are set properly with the outside breeze in order to make for a good draft. If the fire’s smoke goes out of the tepee, any lead fumes should also go. Likewise, I do often cast round balls at the fireplace in my living room, allowing any lead fumes to go up the chimney along with the wood smoke.
THERE IS ANOTHER LITTLE THING to mention: you will want a stick, a piece of firewood, or just a tomahawk handle lying on the ground close to you while you do your casting. That is simply so you have something kind of sturdy to tap the mold against in order to get the new ball to drop from the mold.
And don’t roll the freshly cast round ball right out of the mold into your hand like we saw done in the movie The Patriot. That round ball might not be molten or in liquid form, but it is still more than hot enough to make picking one up a very memorable experience.
Tap the still-hot balls out of the mold by tapping on the stick, and let those new and very shiny balls drop into the grass.
For safety’s sake, I must mention that you simply cannot let any amount of water or moisture come in contact with your molten lead, regardless of how little lead you might have melted.
This is something that I repeat every time I talk about casting bullets, whether it is face-to-face or through the written word such as this, because I must give complete information for anyone who might be learning about casting their own bullets for the first time.
The point is that the expansion ratio from water to steam is almost 400 times. And because molten lead is just about four times hotter than the boiling point of water, any little drop of water that hits your molten lead will be instantly converted into steam and that will make your ladle of molten lead act like a little bomb.
It will happen so fast you won’t have time to blink your eyes. The only solution is to never allow even the tiniest drop of moisture, such as on a damp piece of lead, be introduced to your hot ladle.
WITH YOUR LADLE FULL OF hot lead, hold your mold down on a board or a flat piece of split firewood, then hold the pouring lip of the ladle right in the open hole on the mold’s top and slowly pour lead into the mold. If you’re gentle enough, the lead will simply stop flowing when the mold is full.
If you are more like me, you’ll overfill the mold and spill some lead onto the wood that the mold is resting on. There is nothing wrong with spilling some hot lead, as long as you are prepared for it, and I seem to spill a little every time I cast some balls. Just let that spilled drop of lead cool, then add it back to the ladle, perhaps along with the sprues you’ve cut from the good, freshly made balls.
Holding the mold down on that piece of wood, or even a flat rock, will increase your steadiness and that will help reduce any spilling.
One time another ‘skinner called me over to his campfire while he was
making some .390-inch-diameter balls for his .40-caliber light Leman flintlock.
He was having some trouble and I could see a lot of lead spilled on the ground. As I said, I’ve spilled lead too, so that wasn’t much to notice, but he began to say how there must be something wrong with his mold because he was only getting a good ball every six or seven tries.
The mold he was talking about was one from Larry Callahan, and it sure didn’t look bad. Then I noticed something about his casting technique; we might say he was trying to dump lead into the mold, rather than slowly pour it in.
When he began to melt the next ladle-full of lead, I asked if I could give his mold a try. He surrendered it quickly and after I had cast three or four good balls in a row, I offered this explanation.
When he tried to pour into the mold too fast, the lead would splash across the hole and simply seal it closed. Now he pours his lead more slowly and makes a good ball with almost every try.
That was some time ago and he became a regular “casting compadre” who makes most all of his round ball bullets over a campfire. He also has
gotten Callahan molds in other sizes to feed his .54-caliber TVM Leman rifle and his short 20-gauge canoe gun. We often visit each other’s camps just to see “what’s cooking,” whether it’s meat or just some hot lead.
When I needed to take some pictures for this story that showed some bullets actually being poured, he was quick to say, “C’mon over!” I certainly do thank him for his cooperation.
A RATHER GOOD PARTNER WHO should be mentioned here is Mike Moran, an hombre who has been doggin’ this child’s trail for a couple of years now. I watched Mike take his first shots with a muzzleloader and, believe me, he has come a long way since then.
The only bad thing about Mike is that he doesn’t heed any of this old-timer’s warnings. First I told him to never fire a flintlock simply because they are so addicting; he didn’t listen and now he shoots a flintlock all of the time. Next I advised him to always buy his round balls, mainly because making them is simply too much fun. Well, he didn’t listen to that either and now Mike and I find ourselves casting beside a campfire at every chance we get.
He’s a good partner and you’ll probably be seeing and hearing more about him. If you’d like more information about a bag mold for your muzzleloader, I will recommend contacting Larry Callahan at bagmolds.com.
The Callahan bag molds are the most modern-made, and most accurate, primitive molds available. Larry can also supply ladles and other “primitive fixin’s.”
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MIKE NESBITT