My Journey Into Bullet Swaging
About a year after starting to reload, I learned that people like me were making their own bullets – at home. I started to read up on both casting and swaging – I ruled swaging out on cost alone, and focused instead on casting.
As a new bullet caster, I spent quite a bit of time on the CastBoolits forum, and soon realized they have an active swaging group. I kept my eyes on the topics there and learned that a member, ‘BT Sniper’ (Brian Thurner) was making swaging dies that were more affordable that any I’d seen before. I also realized that swaging wasn’t quite the combination of voodoo & mechanical engineering that it seemed like from the Corbin Swaging site (where I found my first information).
Brian was making one-step swaging dies in pistol calibers. Pushing an empty 9mm piece of brass with a lead core in it produced a jacketed 40 S&W bullet. Pretty cool! But frankly, I was pretty satisfied with my cast bullets for all of my pistol rounds…
When Brian started to talk about dies that turn empty .22LR brass into jacketed .224 bullets for .223/5.56 I really started paying attention. As he perfected these dies, he garnered quite a following. Still, they weren’t cheap, but he was using standard reloading presses to swage these bullets. I did the math and realized it would (at then-current prices) be around 12,000 bullets before the cost of the dies were amortized. That sounds like a lot, but honestly it’s not.
Then, two things happened – the 2012 election and Sandy Hook. The day after the election, I bought 6000 55gr FMJBT Hornady projectiles, predicting that they would become scarce. They did – and it got worse when Sandy Hook happened. Between then and now, it’s been close to impossible to find most bullets at reasonable prices. And, some states have implemented dramatic new anti-gun laws; some have begun attacking ammunition itself.
It became clear that self sufficiency was a bigger part of the equation than I’d realized before. If the supply chain can be decimated as quickly as it had between the election and Sandy Hook (for many, many reasons… including a huge amount of profiteering), I’d better rethink the cost equation. I ordered a set of BT Sniper .224 swaging does in January, 2013.
Many people were having the same thoughts I’d had – BT Sniper’s backlog soared. He is a one-person shop, and his output is predictably slow. This is precision machine work, so there is no way he’ll be able to mass-produce these dies. And, there are only a few other options out there (some more expensive; some cheaper).
In August, 2013 I received half of my shipment, which consisted of:
- Core mold: With this mold, molten lead is poured into the cavities and it produces 11 rough cores at a time.
- Core swaging die: The core swaging die takes the rough cores made in the mold and swages them down to a specific weight.
- Derim die: With the derim die, you take empty .22LR brass and push it through to produce jackets for .224 projectiles.
- Ejection system: The ejection system uses a pin the protrudes into the top of the core swaging die and the point forming die. Both of those processes leaves the item pressed into the die; the ejection pin taps the top of the piece so that it falls free from the die. The ejection system is specific to the type of press; in my case, I bought a Lee Classic Cast press that I’m dedicating to bullet swaging.
Between August and now, I’ve derimmed a couple thousand .22LR empties into jackets, and have molded and swaged several thousand cores. I’ve learned a lot about the processes involved, and feel very confident in this part of production. But, I’m still waiting on the core seating die and the point forming die – I hope to have them “soon”. I’ve also seen that to increase efficiency and productivity, a couple of other things are needed… which brought me to the point where I bought a 3D printer :).
When I tell people about swaging, they seem to have a common series of questions. Here we go:
Q. Is swaging cost effective?
A. Cost effectiveness is more than just money; it’s also about availability. When you can’t find bullets at any cost, how much are they worth? I’ll leave you to decide the answer to that.
Q. .22LR brass is – um – brass. Won’t that hurt my barrel when I’m shooting them at 3000+ feet per second?
A. No. Many, many bullets have been made out of materials other than traditional copper jackets. The brass jackets are annealed, so they’re softer in their new state than they were when they ejected out onto the ground.
Q. What about accuracy?
A. Based on what others have found, I expect the average .22LR-based projectiles to shoot about 1.5 – 2.5 MOA. For my needs, that’s acceptable accuracy. WIth a heightened level of quality control, I think the accuracy can be better – perhaps 1 – 1.5 MOA.
Q. How many bullets can be produced in an hour?
A. My estimate right now is approximately 100 per hour. Realize, though, that the bullets are made in a series of batched steps – and I don’t have the final two dies. At this point, the steps through core swaging (including all of the other things that have to be done, like cleaning & annealing), it’s taking me 39 minutes to produce components for 100 bullets.
Q. How is the penetration of these bullets?
A. Obviously, I haven’t shot any of my own yet, so you’re hearing me repeat what I’ve read. Everyone seems to agree, though, that they’re not going to penetrate deep, and they self-destruct on impact. That may make them ideal varmit bullets.
Q. What’s the maximum velocity?
A. Again, I’m repeating what I’ve read at this point. Initially, people were very cautious with pushing these bullets fast. Some testing has occurred and they’re holding up great over 3000 FPS (satisfying use in .223 / 5.56). Additional testing has occurred in 22-250, and several people report pushing them past 4000 FPS. WOW! Now, there are reports of them failing below 3000 FPS. Parsing through the information, the answer seems to be with quality control. Imperfections in the bullet will lead to failure at lower velocities (they will fly apart in-flight). Velocity is one of the things I’ll certainly be testing when I’m at that point.
Q. What raw materials are needed for swaging?
A. Two things – lead (for cores) and jackets (either .22LR brass, that will be turned into jackets, or purpose built copper jackets). While it is possible to draw your own copper jackets (from flat sheets, for example), that is beyond the scope of my experience.
- In my case, lead from wheel weights and range scrap is used for swaging. While most wheel weight lead is too hard, the ‘stick-on’ weights are almost pure. This material is soft enough for swaging, so I have always segregated it from the harder clip-on weights, knowing that I’d someday use it (and range scrap lead) for this purpose.
- For now, this series will focus on using .22LR brass, since it represents the most economical way to make completed bullets. So, the jackets, quite simply, are available by the thousands for anyone willing to pick them up. Visiting any range or shooting spot, one will find all the .22LR brass they can pick up. Each one of these (unless there is a physical defect) will become a jacket for a finished .223/5.56 bullet.
The specifics of actually swaging bullets are covered in segments, each accessible as sub-menus from this page.