A Tutorial on Loading .38/.357

Reloading Rifles or Pistols with cast. Ask your questions here or tell of your successes.

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Outpost75
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Joined: Fri Sep 11, 2015 3:50 pm

A Tutorial on Loading .38/.357

Postby Outpost75 » Sun Sep 13, 2015 11:02 pm

Q- Can anyone recommend a progressive reloader package for 38/357 that will include casting equipment & mould? I would also much appreciate suggestions as to cheap sources for components. Thanks.

A.- If you want to cast your own bullets, get a propane-fired plumbers pot which will melt at least 50 pounds of alloy at a time, and at least six ingot molds. Use the plumbers pot to render scrap alloy outdoors into ingots. You can use wheelweight or range backstop scrap for bullet alloy. A thermometer is absolutely essential these days to avoid contamination of your lead scrap with the occasionally zinc wheelweight. Keep the melt temperature below 750 degrees to prevent oxidizing off any tin in the scrap and the zinc wheelweights will also float on top so that you can skim them off. Range scrap seems more troublesome to deal with, but the copper jacket material you skim off will sell for $1 a pound or more for a scrapper, if you use a "cow magnet" to remove any steel scrap, and will more than pay for the propane it takes to melt it. If you are lucky there will be a little extra credit to trade for roll ends of tin bearing solder, wheel weights, type metal etc.

To cast bullets get an RCBS 20-lb. bottom pour pot and a pair of moulds and handles, to alternate, letting one solidify while you open and fill the other, to maintain a consistent cadence to make sure the sprue cools enough to cut clean bases, avoid smearing lead on the blocks and also maintain a good production rate. Double-cavity molds are OK for the beginner, but if you want higher production get a pair of good quality aluminum blocks from Accurate or NOE. Quality is excellent and you have no rust problems. Pre-heat the blocks on an electric hotplate while the melt is heating and use a 350 degree Tempilstik crayon on the blocks to calibrate the hotplate temperature and you will get good bullets from the start. New molds should be cleaned in Ivory or Dawn dishwashing detergent and hot water before pre-heating. Smoking the cavities helps on a new mold, but won't be needed in subsequent sessions.

For .38 / .357 I would prefer a Cowboy style rounded flatnose, which feeds smoothly in lever-action rifles with a meplat not less than 1/2 of bullet diameter. A meplat 0.7 of bullet diameter works well for hunting purposes and does not require hollow-pointing for good game performance. If you prefer hollow-points for hunting, a cavity geometry which works well is to have a core pin 0.6 of meplat diameter with 15 degree draft angle, using a bullet of 12 BHN for supersonic velocities, 10 BHN above 900 fps and 8 BHN below 900 fps. If you buy a 4-cavity mold it is feasible to have Erik at www.hollowpointmold.com modify two cavities for HP and leave the others as-is. Or if you use a pair of double cavity molds modify both cavities of one mold for hunting bullets and leave the other alone. Either way you accumulate both hunting and practice bullets, which will feed well from your lever-action rifle. Keith style SWCs may not.

Best sources I have found for powder and primers have been either Wiedner's, Mid-South or Graf & Sons. We buy our primers by the case of 5000 at a time, and powder in 8-lb. kegs. An 8-lb. keg of Bullseye loads 16,000 rounds of .38 Special at 3.5 grains per pop. An 8-lb. keg of #2400 loads 4000 rounds of .357 Magnum at 14 grains per pop. Graf is the only seller I know which will let you combine powder and primers in the same shipment under one hazmat fee for up to a 50-lb. box, which gets get 20,000 small pistol primers, a keg of #2400 for magnum loads and a keg of Bullseye for .38 Special plinkers with nothing leftover.

In a revolver with barrel less than 4 inches don't count on hollowpoint cast bullets expanding unless you take heroic design measures, large core pin, proper geometry, SOFT 1:30 or 1:40 tin/lead, or 50-50 pure lead and wheelweight alloy. With wheelweights you need to drive them over 1000 fps, .38 Special +P in a rifle or .357 Magnum in a revolver. For general use you can do much worse than a double-end wadcutter such as the Saeco #348 for revolver use, and probably a Cowboy style rounded flatnose for rifle use. You want bullets to cast of correct diameter so they do not require sizing. Then you bulk lube with Lee Liquid Alox or LSStuff 45-45-10 and use the money you save not buying a bullet lubricator and sizer to buy powder and primers.

Ask if you really need a progressive loading machine.... If loading multiple thousands of rounds, get a Dillon RL550B. BUT, if your requirements are less than 500 rounds a month, you can use a single-station press, such as an RCBS Rockchucker with fine results. If you have not reloaded before, and do not have a mentor who owns and uses a Dillon within local telephone calling distance, stay with the single-station press.

If you have more questions fire away. This will give you something to think on.

Wow indeed! That is everything i could have hoped for in an answer, so thank you very much for taking the time. I especially liked your point about choosing a bullet style that will feed in a lever action and then i may as well have the HP adaption to all molds. I won't go for the WC, but will rather use these bullets, in my hunting practice .357 loads, as my self defense back-up stash. I forsee storing as much .357 training ammo as .38 Spl but doing most carrying and training with +P+ .38 factory and reloads, respectively. I will probably forego the +P .38s in favor of stocking and training more with .357 cast hunting reloads that duplicate the ballistics of Federal's P357HS1. That way all my brass will be Federal, loaded as +P+ .38 or .357, with the same cast HP bullets in both. Although i was once a dab hand with a Lee semi-auto loading press i may just settle on that Rockchucker. Your sources for components and suggestions on bullet molding methods and equipment are invaluable, no way i could have ever researched that wisdom.

I'm still of the opinion to get another of those .357 LCR, they are wonderful guns, to say the least. I could easily carry one in each front pocket by using the slimmer Uncle Mike's #4 holster and wearing the thicker cotton 511 shorts. Oh heck, those LCR carry nicely in large front pockets of tactical pants like the 511! With the Crimspon Trace laser grips they will draw even better. That is a made in heaven arrangement for carry, i can't wax more lyrical about the concept and it's implementation. Being able to get a carry permit for Cheryl, having a second gun that i can pass over to her that she is familiar with shooting and waist carry in the Remora, that is the way to go. For that reason i see carrying a second LCR in the Remora holster in my weak side front pocket. I just received my five Five Star speed loaders yesterday. They are very compact but to dump the load you have to turn the "button" and that turns the cylinder, grrr!, i never worked with speed loaders before and this is a challenge to overcome. I heard that the push "button" ones solve this but they are longer etc just when size is paramount. Now i must find the belt sunglass case that will carry these five when i have both pockets filled with LCRs. That would be 35 rounds of 158 grain +P+ .38 Hydra Shock in a low flash Personal Defence loading. Guns would have laser grips and night sights and be trained with regularly, using identical ballistics/bullet shape training ammo. I can't better this concept for urban carry and i must thank everyone who contributed their ideas to make it possible. I will report back as the implementation of project LCR and watching and training "Unknown Contacts" videos all bear fruit. I want to be able to enjoy my night walks at any time of the year and last night i did again, for umpteen hours. Thanks again

Mods to Saeco #358, standard, +P and +P+ data

On Saeco gang blocks Erik cannot convert all four cavities, because of the way the alignment pins and handle screws are placed. He can do an inset bar conversion on the center pair of cavities and leave the outboard pair as solids, which would give you a pair of solids and a pair of HPs at each pour. The way this is done it does not slow down production.

With RCBS, Accurate, NOE or Saeco double-cavity blocks you can do both cavities, and get two hollow-points at a time. RCBS 38-158 CM is similar to Saeco #358 which I have hollow-pointed to 147 grs.

You don't get expansion with the cast hollowpoint in a 2 inch snubby unless bullets are very soft, 8-10 BHN, such as 1:30 tin/lead alloy, or 50-50 wheel weights and plumber's lead, with no more than 2% tin added in in the form of bar solder, IF needed to get sharp fill out of the bullets. What you want is to cast bullets with hot blocks so they fill out sharply. It is OK if they are uniformly frosted, because this fuzzy surface of exhagerated dentrite arms look under SEM like flying over a pine forest in a helo, and holds the tumble-on film lubes better. DO NOT quench bullets to harden them, you don't need to. To enhance snubby expansion you can use up to 4.0 grs. of Bullseye, approximating +P , vs. a standard charge of 3.5 grains in the LCR or SP101.

For approximating +P+ in .38 Special brass for use in .357 guns or the .38 Special SP101 only, you can use 10 grs. of #2400 with the Saeco or RCBS Cowboy slugs, seated and crimped in their normal crimp groove, in the Marlin rifle, but this is not very efficient in barrels ess than 4 inches. I say again use this in revolvers designed for .357 Magnum ammo only, such as the Rugers, N-frame S&Ws, etc.

For a .357 dual-purpose load for revolver or rifle you want alloy not softer than wheelweights, 12BHN, and you would load 10-12 grs. of #2400 in .357 brass with a 158-gr. cast bullet, the exact charge to be determined by whether you get unburned powder which could jam the gun, or leading which impairs accuracy. Because this bullet is plain-based, (no gascheck) you need to keep revolver velocity subsonic, not over about 1080 f.p.s., and limit rifle velocity loads to about 1400 f.p.s. in the Marlin to avoid excessive leading. I have found that 10 grs. of #2400 is the least you can load in .357 brass and get acceptable ballistic uniformity with minimal unburned powder. At 11-12- grs. in .357 brass, you will find a very satisfactory "medium velocity" load which is a bit lighter than factory, but heavier than .38 Spl. +P+.

Gaschecked bullets are mostly a waste of money in revolvers, because the GC diameter is insufficient to seal the cylinder throats. Gaschecks also cost about $40 per thousand and require that you buy an expensive bullet lubricating and sizing machine to put them on. Instead, save your money. Use plainbased bullets, of moderate hardness, from cheap scrap allloy, such as wheelweights, and keep velocities under 1100 f.p.s. in revolvers, and below 1400 f.p.s. in the Marlin.

For occasional hunting use when you need a magnum load approximating factory velocity, buy a few hundred 158-gr. jacketed softpoint bullets for rifle use and load 14 grs. of #2400, about 1/2 grain below maximum as published by Speer. This give about 1600 fps in the Marlin. The deer can't tell the difference and that load is instantly recognized from your others by its distinct appearance so there is no guessing.

Bullet alloy hardness

For plainbased revolver ammo there is no advantage to go any harder than about 13 BHN. Commercially cast bullets such as Meister, Lasercast, etc. are made from a 92Pb-6Sb-2Sn alloy, about 16 BHN, which is harder than necessary for non-magnum loads. They do so because this alloy is widely available in one-ton heat lots, casts well from the automated Magma Engineering machines they use, and makes pretty bullets for marketing purposes which are not damaged in shipping. The hard lube is used for the similar marketing purposes, because it is non-sticky, doesn't melt in summer heat and goes through the Dillon machines well. But hard lube is unable to flow to coat the bore to prevent leading at lower pressures and velocities, so you are more liable to get bore leading. Bullet lubes don't reduce leading by reducing bore friction, but function on the boundary layer principle, coating the bore to prevent adhesion of lead particles vaporized off the bullet by the powder gases.

Commercial cast bullets tend to lead more than home cast because the alloy and lube are too hard for the pressure levels obtained in non-magnum loads, and the bullets are also sized to fit the tightest minimum bore and chamber to prevent function problems. And most of the people who buy them don't know which size is correct. The old folklore in Lyman manuals of sizing bullets to groove diameter is incorrect. Bullets should be sized to fit the diameter of the ball seat in the revolver cylinder. If bullets are too hard, undersized, and inadequately lubricated with a hard lube which will not flow at standard pressure, they won't upset to seal the bore, powder gases will leak past the bullet and wash lead from their bearing surface, depositing it on the bore. A common misconception is that cast bullet loads lead because the alloy is too soft. The opposite is usually the case, that the bullets are too hard. Many people fall into this trap.

AND harder alloy than about 12-13 BHN is not going to expand when hollow-pointed. In full .357 loads fired in the rifle you may get some fragmenting, but not mushrooming. My advise is to use straight wheel weights or range backstop scrap if you can get them. Add about 1/2 pound of 50-50 bar solder per 20 lb. potful if needed to get good castings. Bullets of 12 BHN will not expand in standard pressure revolver loads, but will somewhat in +P and will do just fine in the rifle or in heavier +P+ revolver loads over 1000 fps.

If you want to get some expansion in standard pressure loads cut the wheelweights 50-50 with plumbers lead which is nearly pure, adding the same 1/2 pound of 50-50 solder to a 20-lb. potful , if needed to get good castings. This alloy will go about 8-10 BHN and does OK in the rifle below 1000 fps or 4 grs. of Bullseye in .38 cases, but you may get some leading in the +P loads. Accuracy is quite OK for a dozen to 18 shots for hunting purposes. Brush the bore when done shooting and leave wet with bore cleaner, then just wipe the bore and chambers with a dry patch before shooting.

Brass cases, Crimps, Brands, Plated or not matters

If you are reduced to using free, mixed headstamp, range pickup brass, tumble clean in untreated corncob to remove dirt and grit before sizing. After sizing do the best you can to sort it into batches of like headstamp sharing the same type face, identifying knurls, etc. Separate plated brass from plain. Above all, learn to identify and keep separate any cases originating from factory loaded wadcutter match ammo. Treat these cases as if they were solid gold! I will explain.

Wadcutter brass is identified by either one, or sometimes two knurls or cannelures at the midpoint of the case's length. Their purpose is to prevent a wadcutter bullet being dropped into a loose-mouthed, powder charged case, from falling below flush with the case mouth. This maintains proper position until the bulleted, charged case reaches the crimping station. The loading machine used by the ammunition factories full-length profiles the case sidewall to fit gently, but tightly against the shank of the soft-swaged, hollow-based wadcutter bullet. It uniformly, but lightly crimps the case mouth to remove any flare, imparting only a slight radius at the case mouth to ease loading into the chambers. Its design intent is to avoid at all cost any damage to the fragile, soft- lead bullet, which would impair accuracy. THIS is the principle of the Lee Factory Crimp Die and is why you should buy the Lee carbide die set to the exclusion of all others.

The Lee Factory Crimp die does not depend upon case length to determine strength of crimp. It doesn't care whether case mouths are thin or heavy. Individual rounds are profiled full-length so that none will exceed maximum cartridge dimensions. This prevents tolerance stacking of oversized bullets in thick wall cases, which could cause a bulge that will jam your gun. Cast bullets may be loaded unsized, simply tumbled in Lee Liquid Alox. If bullet sizing is necessary, this is done by compression inside the die, rather than by shear in an expensive, unnecessary lubricating and sizing machine.

Because wadcutter brass has a thinner case wall, intended to gently handle a soft lead bullet, it is work hardened less in assembly, so it will last longer!

Brass used for +P service loads often has a heavy knurl or cannelure closer to the case mouth, which is used to hold the bullet against the primer blast and maintain heavy bullet pull of a thicker case which provides a tight fits necessary for acceptable ballisic uniformity of slower powders. Such brass has a harder final anneal and is more heavily work hardened in assembly, so it may crack after only a few reloads, especially if it has been nickel plated. When obtained as once-fired brass, use this for your "shoot and let fly" combat practice ammo.

If you intend to buy new brass, get plain, unplated, uncannelured cases, from Starline, Winchester or Remington.

Plated brass was used to reduce corrosion of rounds carried in leather looped cartridge belts. Today it is done mostly for marketing appearance, so that old stock does not take on a patina and "look old." Plated cases will not last long in repeated reloads as plain brass, but some brands fare bettter than others. Winchester uncannelured, plated cases last longer than similar Remington. Federal +P and +P+ plated brass also seems OK. Sellier & Bellot seems the worst. Reload only once, use it for shoot & let fly, or save for trade to the scrap dealer.

Using a pair of RCBS 20-lb. bottom pour pots, pouring from one while I refill the other and let it come up to heat, and also alternating between a pair of 4-cavity Saeco molds, I can cast 100 pounds of handgun bullets for .38, .44 or .45 in an 8-hour day. By bulk liquid lubing and letting bullets air dry on cookie sheets or pizza pans, I can bulk lube 5000 bullets an hour, which will take 2-3 days to dry, before they are ready to load. Lubed bullets are stored in .30 cal. metal ammo cans which hold about 50 pounds each, or about 2400 .38 Specials, a days output for an RL550B by an experienced operator.

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