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Monolog exploring the pros and cons of Lee Precision bullet casting products.



 

I have been turning up my nose at Lee equipment for more years than I care to admit. When I decided to build this web site, I realized that due to the enormous popularity of this equipment, I could not simply ignore it.

I have been casting mostly handgun bullets and a few rifle bullets since 1957 beginning with a Lyman 358446 single cavity mold. It took me months to be able to cast good bullets. I bet 90% of the first 1000 were bad. Most of that trouble was caused by inadequate and just pain wrong instructions and published information.

I set out to duplicate my original experience with bullet casting using only Lee equipment. That would be a .357 semi wad cutter and one rifle bullet. I wanted to try one of those silly looking tumble lube bullets and one conventional type bullet.

I chose TL358-158-SWC 38 Special. It looks like way too much bearing surface and way too little lube surface. With all those tiny groves, it looks like it would be really hard to cast good bullets.

For a conventional shape, I chose 358-148-WC 38 Special. It looks like a very good example of a wadcutter. It looks like a real bullet.

The only suitable cast bullet rifle I own at the time is a Winchester Highwall .38-55 so I chose the 379-250-RF 375 Winchester, 38-55 WCF. This caused a significant problem because Lee does not make a sizing die for this bullet. To fill in the void, I ordered a Lyman .377 sizing die. That proved to be too large so I ordered another - .375 diameter.

As to suitable cast bullet rifle, I will not enter that argument. I realize I can shoot cast bullets in a .224  BMG Improved Multi Maxi Magnum but why would I want to?

Equipment List Lee vs. Lyman.

I approached this the same way as when I started with Lyman bullet casting. A complete setup of everything needed to cast and load the three selected bullets. Except this time it was a single order. I have listed the equipment ordered along with the cost to duplicate the same productivity. This is an apples and oranges comparison. You don't really need three Lyman mold handles but you get them with the lee molds and they allow swapping out molds to keep them from getting too hot.

I know one thing about Lee equipment. It is very popular, very cheap, and typically only gets good reviews from users who had not used the "real" reloading equipment. It also typically only gets bad marks from people who upgrade their presses and rave about they didn't realize what they were missing. There is one notable exception to this and it is the Lee bullet molds. I am not sure that I have ever heard a bad review from an actual user.

Setup cost for two handgun bullets and one rifle bullet using all Lee vs. all Lyman equipment

Item Lee Lyman
Three two cavity molds 59.37 185.97
Three two cavity handles 0 101.97
Lee Production Pot 50.99 272.99
Ingot Mold 10.49 18.79
Sizer Lubricator 0 134.99
Three sizer dies 47.97 59.97
Three top punches 26.97 0
Tree lube sticks 0 9.58
Shipping 12 23
207.79 807.26

 

Initial impressions:

 

The pot.

When I opened the package the first thing that caught my eye was a small white box half the size of a loaf of bread. I picked it up and at first thought it was empty. I realized then that it was the production pot. When I pulled it out if the box, I thought it was a joke. It appears that the only design criteria was to make it as small, light weight, and cheap to manufacture as possible.

For the specific purpose of casting bullets, it seems to be very poorly designed.

The downspout has a dog leg in it. The path through it is  not straight. This makes it ( as far as I can tell ) impossible to clean out when crud accumulates in the spout. The valve rod, instead of being vertical at the front of the pot, slopes backwards from the valve at the bottom front to the top of the back of the pot. It completely blocks access to the already too small pot. It will barely accept two one pound ingots, one on each side of the valve. Even these cannot be full sized one pound ingots.

After the pot has melted the lead, the largest implement I can get into the pot to stir the melted lead is a very old very small long handled tea spoon.  Obviously it does not have an insulated handle so I have to use a pot holder to hold it. If you are careful - very careful - you can work the teaspoon behind and under the valve rod to stir and maybe if you are luck, scrape the dross off the back and sides of the valve rod. If the level of the melt is within two inches of the top of the pot, I can guarantee you will splash lead out of the pot. Forget about the retired kitchen spoon with the slits and the insulated handle. It is not going to happen.

Fluxing is difficult due to the difficulty in stirring the melt. Scraping the dross after fluxing is also a nightmare and is very prone to splashing out lead because at this point the lead is even more fluid than when first melted. The pot must not be more than three fourths full when you flux. If it is, you are sure to splash lead out of the pot. If you don't, you are not stirring vigorously.

The molds.

Again I thought these are not going to make it. They are much too soft and delicate to stand up to casting thousands of bullets. Other than that, they seemed to be useable in much the same manner as the Lyman molds.

It is impossible to keep the sprue cutoff plate tight since there is no set screw to hold the cutoff plate screw in place. Actually, the scheme to keep the blocks in alignment would be significantly superior to the conventional system IF it was made of steel instead of aluminum. The "V" blocks ding very easily. dinging them causes small fins that prevent the blocks from closing. Sure it is easy to repair but I guess I am unreasonably expecting too much from a mold that cost only 1/3 as much.

The handles are significantly less durable than the older Lyman handles, somewhat less durable than the new newer Lyman design.  Functionally they are 100% as good as either and I am confident they will outlast the owner.

The sizing dies:

This is where the Lee system really shines. These are every bit as accurate and durable as the traditional system and significantly easier and faster to use. Much more later.

The sizing and lubricating theory and application requires lots of comments and will be covered later.

Casting Bullets

I started with the two .358 molds. Unlike the first time around, the instructions and other written material were easily available and relatively accurate. I spend a couple hours reading the blogs and reviews before I started.

The first thing I did was carefully and thoroughly degrease the molds with Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber. This is really good stuff.

As advertised I had six one pound ingots of wheel weight metal melted in 20 minutes. I fluxed and attempted casting but the bottom spout was freezing up. It took another five minutes to get the thing hot enough to flow properly. The rheostat was set to 6.5.

As expected, the first two bullets came out shiny and very wrinkled. The second two were also shiny and somewhat wrinkled. Completely to my surprise, the third two came out perfect. They were shiny, no frosting, no wrinkles, perfectly formed bands, perfectly flat and centered sprue cuts. Wow. Even with well used steel molds, with no preheating, it takes 10 to 15 fillings to get the mold hot enough to cast good bullets.

After about 200 bullets, I decided something was inhibiting the mold from filling out perfectly. I didn't think it was oil or grease but it was something. I let the mold cool then washed it aggressively inside and outside of the cavity with a tooth brush, 409, and hot water.

After that, I cast over 1200 bullets with less than 50 rejects. I weighed every one of them. I came out with 300 at 159 grains, 700 at 160 grains, and 200 outside that range.

Size and Lube Philosophy

When I first read that most bullets did not need to be sized unless they would not chamber in your gun when loaded. I thought WOW. I really want this to be true.

Well, The first problem I encountered was that the first three examples I tried, one single shot rifle, one Smith and Wesson revolver and one Kimber 9mm, chambering was difficult to impossible.

I did manage to create several .38 special loads that could be fired with unsized Lee bullets in the Smith and Wesson. The as cast bullets were .358 to .359 in diameter.  They were lubed by placing them in a zip-lock bag and dribbling a little Lee Liquid Alox mixed with 90% alcohol and tumbling them in the bag in the palms of both hands for about two minutes. The ice cream container method is nothing but an invitation to making a huge mess.

This lube will dry to the touch in about 48 hours. 24 hours with a fan blowing on them. Overnight - forget it. It is not going to happen.  This is in Texas, August, 103 degrees, 30% humidity. That said, they do not have to be dry to load them.

These loads proved to be decidedly less accurate than traditionally constructed loads. Groups were 50% to 100% larger than the same load with the same bullet sized to .356 or .357 and lubed in the same manner.

The Lee Liquid Alox lube is very good. It may be the best lube I have ever used. Even though the unsized bullets were not acceptably accurate they did not lead. In fact, they leaded less than the same loads with sized bullets and Alox/beeswax lube.

The bullet was the Lee TL358-158-SWC. This bullet is specifically designed for this lube without sizing system.

In short, the fantasy of skipping the sizing operation is just that, a fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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