by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

This is the second report in this series on swaged bullets. My initial purpose for testing these bullets was to see if I could make a swaged bullet that would shoot more accurately than patched round balls in the rifle barrel of my Nelson Lewis combination gun. While testing that gun, I blew out the nipple and had to repair the gun before it would shoot again. Thankfully, that’s all done now; but I decided, instead, to use a Thompson Center muzzleloader in .32 caliber as the testbed for this idea.

When I first tested the swaged bullets at 50 yards, I couldn’t get a shot on the paper; so this past Monday, I shortened the shooting distance to 25 yards, in hopes I would be on paper. Since I’m reporting this now, you know that I was successful.

One thing I thought might be causing a problem was using too much black powder for the swaged bullets, so I selected a 9mm Luger case as the new powder measure. But there were ignition problems, so that wasn’t the right thing to do. I then adjusted the powder measure back to its smallest measure and shot some patched balls as a control group. The first one was a hangfire that was delayed about 100-200 miliseconds. It sounded like I’d shot a flintlock with a slow lock time. But the second shot with the same load went off perfectly, so I put 4 more downrange after it. This gave a nice group that measured 1.504binches between centers. That’s not great for only 25 yards, but at least the group seemed to be centered on the bull, if a little low.

swaged bullet test 25 yards patched ball
Five patched balls went into 1.504 inches at 25 yards. The 6th shot that landed low was a bad hangfire.

I was exhausting a supply of 3F Goex powder that was at least 30 years old. I’d received it as a gift about 12 years ago, and I think the giver said it was about 20 years old then. So, black powder does hold up over time when properly stored.

One thing I did with the patched bullets was quit cleaning the bore between shots. I used a patch lubricated with saliva, which is recognized as the most accurate round ball lubricant. To do that, I put the patch into my mouth as I began the loading process; then it was wet when I laid it across the muzzle about 30 seconds later. You can only use spit patches if you’re shooting right away; because if the saliva dries, it won’t do anything. Plus, you can rust the bore where it sat. But after 6 rounds had been fired, the bore was still clean enough that I could seat the ball flush with the muzzle with thumb pressure. That told me the bore was not getting any dirtier as the shot count increased. With real black powder, the bore gets dirty on the first shot.

Then it was time for the swaged bullets. The bullets I swaged from .310 lead balls proved too small for success. They missed the target altogether. Then I switched to bullets swaged from .350 lead balls. These seemed perfect and went to the same point of aim as the patched balls. After 4 shots, I thought I had a winner; but shot 5 went almost 6 inches higher, opening the group to 6.25 inches. The first 4 shots measured 1.816 inches between centers — not that much bigger than the patched ball group.

swaged bullet test 25 small bullets with larger bullets
The larger bullet on the left was swaged from a .350 ball. The smaller one came from a .310 ball and didn’t shoot very well.

swaged bullet test 25 yards swaged bullet target1
The swaged bullets did okay until the last shot (upper right). The bore was getting too dirty to shoot well. Notice that at least 2 bullets hit the paper sideways.

This target held a clue to what was happening. Two of the 5 shots appear to have struck the paper sideways, indicating they’re tumbling in flight. Because the bullets are swaged into cylinders rather than spheres, this is very easy to see. Instead of round holes, you get rectangles. Obviously, these bullets aren’t stable in flight, which means they probably aren’t engaging the rifling. Either that or the rifle’s twist rate, which I believe is 1:48″, is too slow.

Some of the holes are perfectly round, however. This either means they were either tumbling and happened to strike the paper point-on, or they were actually stable and for some reason the other bullets weren’t. More work has to be done to sort this out. But let’s now look at the next discovery.

I told you I wasn’t cleaning the bore between shots this time. Well, that came back to bite me. The swaged bullet that had previously slid down the barrel easily was now just entering the bore and staying put. That’s the unmistakable evidence that powder residue is building up on the walls of the bore.

And the next 5 shots on a different target tell the story. Only 4 landed on the target paper and 2 of those went through sideways. The 5th shot landed below the target paper on the paper backer I was using for just this reason.

swaged bullet test 25 yards swaged bullet target2
On the final target, only 4 or 5 bullets hit the target paper. Two of them hit sideways. The 5th shot landed low, off the paper.

That target marked the end of this day at the range. In all, I shot about 25 rounds in about 45 minutes, which is moving right along for a muzzleloader. I tested two weights of swaged bullets with 2 different powder charges and determined that the heavier charge and heavier bullet were both needed. In fact, the next time I test this bullet, I’ll use an even heavier powder charge and try a heavier swaged bullet, to boot.

For the record, I weighed the powder from the measure and discovered it weighed 19.4 grains. This is a light load for a .32-caliber muzzleloader.

I figure the heavier powder charge will help swell the base of the bullet better to grab the rifling, and maybe the heavier bullet will add a little more resistance to help that along. I also plan to clean the bore after each shot, as I now know these swaged bullets require it.

There’s a whole lot more to explore with swaged bullets, but I’ll keep working with this swage set until I know what I’m doing.