It’s no secret that I shoot some odd-ball stuff; cartridge conversions, antiques etc. These, naturally, come in some odd calibers- .380 Revolver, .32 Colt Long, .44 Colt, .38 S&W etc. None of these take ‘normal’ bullets; the first three I listed use Heel-Base bullets like a .22, and the third uses a .361 diameter bullet rather than the ubiquitous .357-.358 bullets used in .38 Special and .357 Magnum.
Heel-base bullets are not common or inexpensive when you do find them; they are a specialty item with a very tiny niche in the market so they tend to command a premium. The solution for most people is casting their own bullets, but that is a can of worms I just don’t want to open. One thing I have as a result of my day-job is a lot of scrap steel- it occurred to me that I could swage my own from my go-to .45 bullet, Aaadvark Enterprises 200gr. LRNFP bullet. I already used these in .45 Colt and .45 ACP, so why not?
I got a small chunk of steel, bored a hole in it, then reamed it to .429″, then ran a .451″ reamer partway down to make a swaging die. I turned a steel rod down to .450″ for a punch, dropped a bullet in, set it on the anvil and hammered the punch in. Then I flipped the die and used a 1/4″ punch to drive the bullet and punch out and- voila! – I had a heel-base bullet.
Loaded into .44 Colt cartridges this worked pretty well. I went through several iterations of this basic set-up, and eventually came up with a bullet that worked very well in both .44 Colt and my own .44-55 Walker cartridge.
It’s useful to have a drill press and metal lathe to make a simple swaging set-up like the one above, but in fact it could be made with a hand-drill, Dremel Tool and vice.
Over time it occurred to me that heel-base bullets were not the only use for swaging. My Webley Royal Irish Constabulary revolver in .450 Adams prefers hollow-base bullets when using smokeless loads, and it was relatively simple to construct a punch and die to create them.
More recently bullets for .38 S&W have been an issue; this caliber uses a .361 caliber bullet rather than the ubiquitous .357 caliber bullets of modern .38s. The simple fix is to use hollow-base wadcutters, and this actually works quite well. But I have to order these on the internet, and shipping boxes of lead gets expensive in a hurry. By happy chance for a time Pinto’s had a stock of .361 150gr. LSWCs from an estate purchase, but I ran through those in fairly short order. Fortunately I discovered that Aardvark Enterprises .357 158gr. LRNFP Cowboy bullets were soft enough to bump up a few thousandths to .361, and work quite well. I experimented with some .355 124gr. RNL made for 9mm, but the slightly smaller diameter combined with a harder alloy meant that they would not bump up and properly engage the rifling, resulting in low-powered shots that tended to key-hole. The solution was at hand, fortunately. I invested $8 in a .361″ reamer and with a bit of lathe-work I was in business!
It’s all a bit labor-intensive, but it’s not hard. In fact it’s sort of meditative to listen to the radio and swage out a supply of bullets one-by-one.
This sparked an idea- it was pretty easy to up-size .355- to .361… How far could I take that? I had some .240gr. .429 bullets for my .44 magnum, but I’m not shooting that much at the moment. Yep, they swage to .451 just fine. What about those 210gr. copper-washed .41 caliber bullets I bought by accident? Yep- 210-gr .451 bullets, perfect for .450 Adams loads.
This is a pretty good deal- I often come across ‘clearance’ bullets that aren’t a caliber I shoot, but this opens the door to repurposing some of those inexpensive bullets.
Another new (to me) swaging innovation appeared in Pinto’s clearance bins- a Herters bullet-swaging die for the paltry sun of $5.
This handy device screws right into my RCBS reloading press and produces semi-wadcutters. I had to make something to replace the shell-holder to use it, but that was not difficult. Put a bullet on the plate, center it and run it up into the die. Tap the top with soft hammer and a lovely, fresh-minted SWC pops out. Brilliant!
Since making that base I’ve discovered that what I need is a ram that actually enters the die with the bullet, so I’ll be making one of those shortly. I’ll also be making swaging dies for heel-base .32 Colt Long bullets, and I’ve recently completed a set for .380 Revolver; essentially a .38 S&W with a heel-base .375 caliber bullet. (In the 20th Century British .380 Revolver cartridges reverted to using .361″ inside-lubed bullets.)
If, like me, you insist on shooting oddball, obsolete cartridges, swaging could be a viable alternative to casting your own. Worth looking into- there’s significantly less investment than getting into casting, and less concern about toxic fumes, molten metal etc.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 29 June 2019