Swaging Bullets

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.

.44 Colt with a swaged bullet. This on has the lubrication band outside of thje cartridge, which is problematic as it will collect dust and can even melt in extreme temperatures.

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.

My eventual bullet design replaced the lubricating ring with a lubricated felt patch loaded into the cartridge behind the bullet, which eliminated the issues of dust and melting lube.

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!

I’m not sure what the name is for this bullet shape… but they are .361 caliber and make lovely, clean holes in paper targets.
This is the swaging set-up for turning 124gr. .355 RNL into .361 caliber bullets. In front is the swaging die, with the punch that creates the bullet profile. In the middle of the block behind it is a punch for driving the bullet out of the die to remove the profiling punch, and a 1/4″ brass rod for pushing the swaged bullet out of the die.

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.

Former .41 caliber bullets, now .451!

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.

Herter’s swaging die.

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!

Home-made base-plate for use with the Herter’s die.
200gr LSWCs made from 200gr. LRNFP (right) punch cleaner holes in paper- useful for target shooting etc.
Swaged 240gr. LSWCs punch nice, clean holes in the target!

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

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