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Thread: Buffalo Hunters casting bullets? Fact or fiction.

  1. #1
    Boolit Man
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    Buffalo Hunters casting bullets? Fact or fiction.

    Every now and then I come across an article in a book or magazine which states that the Buffalo (Bison) hunters of the 1880's used to sit around their campfire at night reloading their ammunition. Now that I can believe. BUT, when the article says they melted their lead in ladles in the campfire, I start to have my doubts.

    Lead, as all who have cast their own bullets knows all to well, takes quite a bit of heat to melt it. So today we use gas burners or electric melting pots which we feed with small ingots, sprue's or various bits of lead we have lying around. Fine, no problem there.

    However, I have to ask, how did the Buffalo Hunter do it? Well, not through using buffalo chips which I understand was just about the only fuel available on the open plains. Why? because I don't believe it could generate the necessary heat to melt the lead in sufficient volume to make casting a viable proposition..

    Using a small ladle which might hold enough lead to cast two or three bullets of 350 - 500 grains, it may just be possible to melt that amount of lead after some considerable time. However, even pre-heated moulds need a number of bullets cast in them before coming up to operating temperature. So even with several ladels in the fire they would soon run out of molten lead. By the time more had been melted, the chances are the mould had cooled down again. To be frank, I don't think that producing bullets in this way can be done.

    It is known that some hunters carried lead ingots with them. But I believe that these men would have gone into the nearest town, and had the lead melted and the bullets cast by using the local Blacksmiths forge. In a forge it would have been a simple process, as high temperatures could be obtained, and enough bullets could have been cast in a day to last them a month or more out on the plains.

    Now I would like to experiment with Buffalo chips, but there haven't been any around my neck of the English Woods for some 10,000 years. It would be a very interesting experiment to have someone in say Montana, where these animals still exist, to collect a pile of chips and experiment with them. I don't think they'll have much success.

    It is known that the Sharps Factory swaged such bullets by the thousand and they employed young women to paper patch them. So adept were these girls at their job, that some could patch upto 10,000 bullets a day.

    Making that number wasn't done for fun, there must have been a large and constant demand for them. This couldn't simply have come from target shooters and I believe that a considerable part of the production would have gone to the professional Buffalo Hunter.

    Sharps sold swaged and patched lead bullets for between $8.75 to $12.75 per thousand according to their 1874 catalogue, the price depending on calibre.

    If a man had to reload say 100 cartridges in an evening using the relatively poor reloading equipment available in those years, he would have had little time for casting as well. Remember there were other duties, fleshing and staking out the skins, cooking ,guard duty in case of indians, etc.

    In short, I genuinely believe that the casting of bullets around the campfire, using buffalo chips for fuel, is just another myth of the Old West.

    The number of Sharps bullet moulds that survive is very small in comparison with the survival rate of the Sharps rifles. Admittedly, some will have been lost or separated from the weapon over time. But the very low survival rate does also tend to indicate, that not a great number of moulds were produced.

    If someone can prove me wrong, by practical experiment using genuine Buffalo chips, I'll offer a full apology and I'll take my hat off to them.

    Harry.
    Last edited by Harry Eales; 11-27-2006 at 06:59 PM. Reason: Spelling error, there may be others. lol.

  2. #2
    Boolit Master

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    Harry, I accept your buffalo chip challenge, but it will take a few months to find some well-dried chips. No, not genuine buffalo, but there are plenty of Hereford and Aberdeen Angus chip producers in the neighborhood. Trouble is, it's the wrong time of the year to find good sun dried chips. Meanwhile, I'll start off with a campfire of wood in the unimproved area of my back yard. I remember the movie "The Patriot." Mel Gibson, as Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," was shown casting bullets over a campfire while plotting the demise of a thinly disguised Banastre Tarleton. Looks like a fun project, but if my wife sees what I'm doing, she'll say, "Oh, you're such a BOY."
    Eagles have talons, buzzards don't. The Second Amendment empowers us to be eagles. curmudgeon

  3. #3
    Boolit Master
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    Cow pies are close enough to buffalo chips to be a reasonable substitute if you feel minded to try the experiment. The needed temperature is less than 800 degrees F, and it should be no problem to reach that, especially with the use of a bellows. I'm quite certain that they did not just go into town since the nearest hamlet was likely to be two weeks travel.

    It is my understanding that the shooter was the star of the crew, and that unless he was also the boss of the crew, his sole duty was was the care and feeding of his rifle.
    Sometimes you gotta wonder if democracy is such a good idea.

  4. #4
    Cast Boolits Founder/B.O.B.

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    I have a small lead pot that I have set ww's in and set on my woodstove,the ww's melted completely without even being in the bed of coals. There is no doubt in my mind it's a plausible endeavor.
    NV,,,thats my favorite part of that movie............
    Boolits= as God laid it into the soil,,grand old Galena,the Silver Stream graciously hand poured into molds for our consumption.

    Bullets= Machine made utilizing Full Length Gas Checks as to provide projectiles for the masses.

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  5. #5
    Boolit Master wills's Avatar
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    This does not answer the question but is interesting.
    http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/reso...ve/buffalo.htm
    Have mercy.
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    A haw, haw, haw

  6. #6
    Boolit Master at Heavens Range

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    >In short, I genuinely believe that the casting of bullets around the campfire, using buffalo chips for fuel, is just another myth of the Old West.

    Wrong. See http://www.castbullet.com/hunting/bhunt.htm

    I used mostly pine cones, but buffalo chips would probably give more heat. It was actually easy to do on a small fire.

  7. #7
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    I was at a rondevoux where it was done in a small 4" cast iron pot. Ladle casting of round balls but it could just as easy of been conicals. There is also much more fuel on the prarie than chips. Gianni.
    [The Montana Gianni] Front sight and squeeze

  8. #8
    Boolit Master

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    Wrong, no myth.
    I have cast a literal ton of bullets around the camp fire, both in hunting camp and in demonstrations. I have a casting pot and lead ladle from the 1880's and have used both. Chips will get the job done, but are not prefered. A wood fire works nicely. Set your lead pot on a spider and rake the hottest coals around the pot. For this work you will use a ladle or dipper with a long handle and will be holding your mould over a folded wool blanket. The blanket catches the bullets and the sprues and you reuse any that are not up to your specs. When I first started casting for civil war muskets my Grandfather showed me how to cast on a wood stove with a pot ring and the same Ideal pot I use today. The ring and pot belonged to his father and Grampa said that they had to cast outside sometimes because his mother didn't like the smell of the burnt wax they cleaned the lead with. This is also where I got the spider and dipper. If yo read the lod books carefully you wil see that several of the guys who were there mentioned casting bullets. The bullets were mostly paper patch so lubing was not a problem, although pan lube was used on occasion.

  9. #9
    Boolit Master
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    No Myth

    Lead bullets are and can be moulded over a very small campfire.
    Every year there is a histrical presentation/program at Cumberland Gap in Southeastern Ky. One of the sites in the historical arena involves some buckskin clad hunters melting lead in a laddle and moulding lead balls for their rifles. Can assure you they have some interested observers, of all ages. Everything is primitive and loyal to the time period.
    FWIW
    DaveP kywoodwrkr

  10. #10
    Boolit Master

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    Smile Dang I wish I knew wood wouldn't do it

    All this time I have been smelting batches of lead, WWs or lino for ingots with limbs and scrap wood and now I find it won't get hot enough to melt lead and alloys.

    I usually smelt in 200-400 pound batches and wood fire works fine. My melter is not pretty but for the price of FREE, meets my cheap quotient just fine. I do cover the melt with 2-3 inch blanket of sawdust to protect the tin. Batches this big are NOT for the faint of heart and one has to plan it as an all day project, preferably in the dead of winter and NO hint of rain in the forecast. FULL face shield and lots of clothes are my minimum safety consideration when dealing with batches of molten metal this big.
    This also gives me a LOT of alloy of one type when I do cast ingots.

    Made the mistake of putting an aluminium pan in the coals once and when I came back to cast the lead I had in it, I found most of the pan melted. This is a heavy quality pan too, not some flimsy wear.

    If in doubt, plasce a piece of steel in coals and supply a bit of air flow (not a lot needed).
    Last edited by TCLouis; 11-28-2006 at 12:25 AM. Reason: error correction
    Nothing is impossible for the person that does not have to do it.

  11. #11
    Moderator Emeritus / Trusted loob groove dealer


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    Been there, done that. Not a problem to do the job. One of our club contests was to shoot into a block of wood, split the wood open, recover the bullet, start a fire with flint and steel, and when the bullet was remolded, fire at another chunk of wood. First one done, wins. I believe the winning time was around 23-25 minutes. And, it is hilarious watching someone trying to pick up and load a hot ball!

  12. #12
    Boolit Master
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    I have a "Modern Gunsmithing" book (circa 1900) that I was reading just the other night that was talking about if you're going to be hunting for a month or more and have no extra rifle, that you should put together a field kit for fixing rifles in the field. Including making new firearms parts from scrap iron found in the field. Heat treating and soldering were helped along by a 'field bellows' which was nothing more than a long brass tube with a length of rubber hose slipped over the end so you could blow the coals hot and such. Raised my eyebrows.

  13. #13
    Boolit Master

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    I've never cast bullets on a campfire, but have melted lead down for ingots on a small brazier with charcoal briquettes. Took a while for the first lead to liquefy, but after that the little puddle ate into the solid pretty quickly.

    Sharps molds may have not been as common as the rifles or some later bullet molds, but they are not really all that rare. They're quite pricey, for sure, but I've seen 20 for every Perfection or Maynard mold I've seen.

  14. #14
    Boolit Master and Generous Donator
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    Harry:

    Back in the '50's, when I first got into this racket, I cast hundreds of round balls and bullets in a regular fireplace, over ordinary wood (oak), using a tuna can with a spout bent in it and held with a pair of water pump pliers. I used a couple of the original all-metal two-cavity (round ball and stubby pointed bullet) moulds that came with the old Colt and Remington cap-and-ball revolavers (I had, and shot, both models - at that time you could get a really serviceable original for less than an "el cheapo" replica today). The plumber's pig lead chunks chopped off with an axe melted quite rapidly and cast just fine; the main problem was that those stubby little moulds got HOT, even with heavy gloves which I had to keep wet and swap out every ten or so casts. I am sure the old boys could - and did - cast lots of them over an open campfire. In fact, it was common in the fur trade era to sell Black Powder in sealed, waterproof lead casks that - when empty! - could then be melted down to make bullets or balls. (I would prefer, though, not to have had the job of soldering them shut!)

    floodgate
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  15. #15
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    Pull up a chair and set a spell and I'll tell ya a story. Way back in my timber beast days early each spring, bout march I used ta leave my lovely home in the Bitterroots and head for the big timber and money in the Tongas. North via the scenic rout through Banf and up to Prince George then over to the coast and Prince Rupert.
    From there a short ferry ride to Ketchikan, then one more hop to Prince of Whales Isl.
    Once there I would just camp till the woods opend up and there was always more work than hands for it.
    This one year there was a fella that wanted to go with and try his hand at cutting timber. He had some tools but no travel cash so I bankrolled him and held his Ron Paul built 69 cal ball gun. I didnt get it till we were headed out so the gun, ball mold, caps, and powder went with us.
    When we finaly got to POW isl. the snow was still way too deep so we had to camp for nearly a month. We found a spot on the edg of an old clear cut and set up a nice camp. There was a big blow down spruce that fell across a stump and broke but pulled grain so that each growth ring was a huge slab kinda like plywood. We framed a little cabin with poles and coverd it with slab. Built up a stone firplace at one end and we was stinkin in tall cotton.
    Then all we had to do was keep fed til work came. We ate a steady diet of fish and clams for about two weeks and I told Eric I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS, I GOTTA HAVE MEAT!!! There was plenty of black tails hangin arround the edges of the clear cut but we had no balls made up for the ball gun. We scouted a bit and foung some of them way big eqipment batteries in the brush so knocked the terminals off them. Then we found a rusty coffie can and that became our pot. I pinched one side of the can to a spout to pour from and we kindled up a little spruce fire. In just a short time the lead was ready to pour. Fished a pair if vice grips from my PU tool box and poured a double hand full of right perty 12 gauge round balls.
    I says to Eric tonight we eat meat and headed out. Popped a cap or two through the nipple and dumped in 200gn Goex FG, I was serious! Got it all ready and not more than 150 yards from camp I spot a deer. I got close as I could maybe 50 60 yards and it starts to get fidgity and try's to sneak of without lookin at me like if it dont see me I wont see it. Well it started slippin through the old stumps and pikin up the pace so I leveled on it and swung just to the fron edg and touched off. After the shot I thought I prolly didnt need 200gn powder, OUCH! That lil deer was slapped down like he was struck by lightnin. I went back to camp to stash the gun and told Eric to light a fire cuz we was gona have some heart shortly.
    Went back to the deer and found it was a buck so that was good. Gutted him out and all I found of the heart was about a double mouth full of just the bottom tip. That big ol round ball hit the heart dead center just when it musta been full with blood and just exploded it to nothingness.
    So anyway we at liver just shortly after. Hung the rest on a pole and lasted till we went to work. Did loose a little to some dang fish hawks (eagles) till we coverd it with some spruce limbs.
    So there ya go proof a couple dumd dumbs in the field with not too much for recources can dang sure get the job done if they is hungry enough.
    BIC/BS

  16. #16
    Boolit Master nelsonted1's Avatar
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    I smelt WW in a cut off propane tank fired with wood. Works well. I do it visiting my brother in MN.

    A customer drove in looking for an auto body estimate and saw me behind a cut off propane tank cooking and smoking up a storm. He was extremely nervous hiding behind the door of his car. He later told me: "Fire and smoke under a cutoff propane tank in the middle of the driveway equals METHLAB." I sure had a laugh at that one!

  17. #17
    Boolit Man
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    Gentlemen,

    Many thanks for your various replies and the URL's, many of which made very interesting reading.

    But if I discard those which mentioned the use of wood, stoves, pine cones, charcoal, there is little evidence of the succesfull of using Buffalo chips.

    I would grant, that in an emergency, it may be possible to make the odd bullet in this way, but these Buffalo hunters needed an accurate bullet for long range shooting and that means consistancy in casting. It doesn't matter how good your rifle is, if your ammo is poor.

    As to ammo costs being as expensive as the old Buffalo Hunter said, well, the Sharps Factory sold loaded ammo with bullets either patched or plain for between $35.00 and 50.00 a thousand. Thats 3.5 to 5 cents per round, shipping must have been awfully expensive.

    Ref, The Patriot and Quigley, come on folks. That's Hollywood Hokum, it looks good on the silver screen or boob tube, but its far fetched. Tom Sellick for instance had to be shown how to use his Sharps rifle by Mike Venturino, as for the three consecutive shots taken offhand and hitting a bucket at several hundred yards, without sighting shots or consulting sight setting records and with a .45/120/550 cartridge, words fail me. That's Hollywood Hokum at its best. Even from crossed sticks or shooting from the prone position it's nigh on impossible.

    It would be fantastic if a single painted lead soldier could be melted down and cast into a cold mould to produce a perfect unwrinkled bullet, did you notice Mel Gibson wasn't wearing gloves either when he used an iron mould with no wooden handles? Entertainment? Yes, factual? No.

    To the gentleman who offered to actually try and melt lead on a Buffalo Chip fire. I wish you the very best of luck. I will be the first to applaud, if you can just make half a dozen 400-500 grain lead bullets by this method. It would also be interesting if you noted just how long it took you. I've never heard of bellows being carried by Buffalo hunters to blow air into their fires, but by all means try using them.

    If nothing else this thread got a fair few replies. lol. I'm not yet convinced that bullets could be made this way. Surely it would have been much easier and convenient, to cast them in town before setting out to hunt?

    My regards to you all.

    Harry

  18. #18
    Boolit Master


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    Harry

    As others have pointed out, bullets can and are still being moulded using a campfire. For historical reference read the journals of Lewis and Clark (copies of the real journal, not Ambrose's story). There you will find they took extra powder in sheet lead containers to mould for bullets. There is also a couple references to actually doing it. No mention at all of taking the Lyman or RCBS furnace and plugging into a current bush though. Just kidding on the current bush but buffalo hunters did in fact mould bullets over campfires, there's a few references to it in their writings also.

    Larry Gibson

  19. #19
    Boolit Master

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    All right I will dig out my photo's of campfire casting. I have cast and written an article for the Shootist about casting 45-110 Sharps loads over a campfire. The bullets so cast and loaded with original style tools shot groups just 1/2" larger than the best loads made on a modern press. It just takes more time and different techniques. As to using buffalo chips, there really would be no need as even in the most desolate prarie you can come up with enough wood to melt a pot of lead. I am sure if they could get them pre cast bullets were prefered, but some prefered to or had to cast their own, and did it quite nicely.

  20. #20
    Boolit Master
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    There is a Museum everyone here should stop and look at if you get anywhere near it. It is in Chadron, Nebraska (the northwestern part of the state). It is called the Museum of the Fur Trade This is not a little roadside tourist trap. It was put together by a former State of Nebraska Museum curator.

    I know that the fur traders were a little bit before the buffalo hunters, but the time period between them was so small, I would doubt there would be that much change in procedures. There is plenty of original BP cans, flints, caps, repair tools, moulds, melting pans, and LEAD BARS displayed there. There was some cartridge rifles and equipment towards the end of the fur period, but most was muzzleloading. It is pretty obvious that the fur traders were making their own. With the soft lead they used (both ball and slug), I doubt that they would have retained their shape if purchased in advance and lugged around for months.

    Anyway, in addition to what I mentioned above they also have a couple of hundred fur trader and trade rifles -- all of them very well documented. It is quite a learning experience. My guess is that the buffalo hunters started out loading their own, but probably eventually started using more and more "store bought" ammo (at least until the price of buffalo robes dropped towards the end). Entirely a guess, though.

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BR Bench Rest M Magnum RN Round Nose
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