November 21, 2022
By Richard Mann
After the 1986 shootout in Miami, where nine out of 10 of the participants were shot and two FBI agents were killed, bullets for defensive handguns began to change. Since then, we’ve seen tremendous advancements in handgun ammunition. However, one thing remains unchanged. If the absolute deepest penetration possible is the goal, nothing is better than hardcast bullets. Hardcast bullets have been around for more than a century, but many shooters do not know what they are or have a basic understanding of them. They think they’re just lead bullets. They’re not.
Part of the problem with this misunderstanding is that hardcast bullets look like lead bullets. Since lead is the primary ingredient of a hardcast bullet, this is understandable. You see, a hardcast bullet is made by melting pure lead and mixing in combinations of antimony, tin and silver. A pure lead bullet will have a Brinell hardness of about 4. The Brinell hardness of a hardcast bullet can range from around 11 up to 30. It’s hard to identify a hardcast bullet just by looking at it. However, with a pure lead bullet, you can slightly scratch the surface with your fingernail. With a hardcast bullet, you cannot.
Another difference is that a pure lead bullet will leave lead deposits in the barrel, and eventually these deposits can degrade accuracy. These lead deposits along the rifling can even create an unsafe situation. If the fouling is severe and you then fire a copper-jacketed bullet, pressures can increase dramatically and create a level of pressure the handgun cannot withstand. With a properly designed, sized, and lubed hardcast bullet, you will not have this level of fouling, and this is not a concern.
In some cases, with some handgun cartridges the hardcast bullet needs some help. This is because of velocity. Generally speaking, when velocities exceed 1,400 fps, the addition of a gas check molded at the base of the bullet prevents gas leaks and allows the hardcast bullet to properly grip the rifling in the barrel. Without a gas check, which is usually made of copper, zinc, aluminum, or other alloys, with a fast stepping hardcast bullet, accuracy can suffer. A good example is when a high velocity revolver cartridge loaded with a hardcast bullet is fired in a carbine. In these cases, velocities well exceed 1,400 fps, and the gas check is needed.
Hardcast vs. Lead Bullets
The other difference between a pure lead bullet and a hardcast bullet is how the bullets react to impact. Because of the softness of pure lead, it can deform. In some cases, this is not a bad thing, but if you’re looking for maximum penetration, it is unwanted. Hardcast bullets will typically not deform. If hard bone is hit, you may see some smearing at the nose of the bullet, but that’s about all. Because hardcast bullets do not deform, and because they retain all their weight, they penetrate very deeply. Not only that, the hardcast bullets with a flat nose tear a nasty hole as they go.
You’re probably thinking that if deep penetration from a hard bullet is what’s needed, why not just use a solid copper bullet? The reason is weight. If you compare a solid copper and a hardcast bullet of the same size — length and caliber — the hardcast bullet will be about 26-percent heavier. And size matters. You only have so much room in the cartridge case, magazine, and chamber of the gun, and the heavier hardcast bullet allows more weight without infringing on that space. And with non-deforming bullets, more weight almost always translates to deeper penetration.
There are some myths when it comes to shooting hardcast bullets in handguns with polygonal rifling like the Glock. As mentioned, pure lead bullets can foul barrels and cause problems. Glock advises against it. However, as previously explained, hardcast bullets are not pure lead bullets. It is perfectly safe to shoot properly sized hardcast bullets in any Glock handgun.
My introduction to hardcast bullets came via the .327 Federal Magnum. I’d owned a .32 H&R Magnum handgun since they were introduced in 1983. I was smitten by the ballistics it offered in Ruger’s Single Six and with the gun’s ability to also chamber and fire .32 Short, .32 Long, and .32 Auto ammunition. When the .327 Federal came out a quarter century later, it seemed like the perfect general-purpose revolver cartridge in the eastern hills where I live. However, what was missing from the equation was a load that would deliver enough penetration to make the cartridge big game or black bear capable. I found the answer at Buffalo Bore.
Buffalo Bore offers 130-grain .32 H&R Magnum and 130-grain .327 Federal hardcast loads. Out of my 4.5-inch Single Six, the .32 H&R Buffalo Bore load had a muzzle velocity of about 1,150 fps, and the .327 Federal load was about 300 fps faster. At the time, I also owned a 5.5-inch Ruger Blackhawk in .327 Federal. About a decade ago on the opening day of deer season, I poked a whitetail buck through the heart with one of Buffalo Bore’s 130-grain .327 Federal hardcast loads. He ran about 40 yards and fell over dead. Since then, I’ve used that load on several more deer and javelina.
A few years later, Ruger introduced the Single Seven in .327 Federal Magnum, and I picked up one of the 4.5-inch barreled versions and sold my Blackhawk. Later that year, I was in Texas participating in a whitetail deer cull hunt. We were using .308, but a doe wandered close, and I shot her with the Single Seven. However, I thought I was shooting her with the .327 Federal Magnum load. Instead, I’d inadvertently loaded the 130-grain Buffalo Bore hardcast .32 H&R Magnum load. The deer didn’t know the difference; she ran about 30 yards and piled up.
If you’re interested in hardcast handgun loads, Buffalo Bore is unquestionably the best source. Tim Sundles, who I’d best describe as a modern-day Jeremiah Johnson, started Buffalo Bore in 1993. Originally, he offered big bore, bad ass, hardcast revolver ammunition for cartridges like the .475 and .500 Linebaugh, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. Because of the effectiveness of these loads and demand, Buffalo Bore began offering hardcast loads for other revolver and even semiauto cartridges. Today, Buffalo Bore’s 180-grain hardcast load for the .357 Magnum is one of their best sellers.
Sundles told me all of his hardcast loads are tuned to the cartridge they’re loaded for. This not only applies to powder, primers, and bullet weight, it also applies to the hardness of the hardcast bullet. He has also found that a Brinell hardness of about 21 or 22 is about ideal. Buffalo Bore gets their hardcast bullets from Rimrock bullets, but most of them are designed by Sundles, and he prefers hardcast bullets with the flat nose. I asked why, and he said he learned at an early age the effectiveness of a flat-nose bullet while shooting squirrels with a .38 Special. When he shot a squirrel with a roundnose bullet, it would just lie on the limb and die. When hit with a flat-nose wadcutter, it would knock the squirrel out of the tree.
Historical Hardcast Ammo
A little history is in order. Former gun writer and outdoorsman Elmer Keith gets the credit for designing the shape and style of what today is known as the Keith-style semiwadcutter bullet. It was what Keith considered the ideal target shooting, hunting, and self-defense bullet for a revolver. Buffalo Bore uses a lot of Keith-style hardcast bullets in most of their revolver loads. To ensure optimum reliability in their semiauto loads, Buffalo Bore uses a bullet with a slightly rounded ogive and a flat nose.
Over the years, Sundles’ Buffalo Bore loads have saved lives. A grizzly guide stopped and killed a charging bear with Buffalo Bore’s 9mm +P Outdoorsman load with a 147-grain hardcast bullet. An off-duty Montana highway patrolman shot a charging black bear with the 180-grain .357 Outdoorsman load. The bullet broke the bear’s shoulder, shattered the hip, and exited. Just as impressive, a Marine clearing buildings in Iraq became engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with an insurgent. Ultimately, he stopped the bad guy with a 100-grain hardcast bullet from a .380 Auto. The bullet went in just above the hip, traveled through the torso, pierced the scapula, and stopped under the skin. Alaska State Tropers even keep a magazine for their 10mm handguns loaded with Buffalo Bore hardcast ammunition when off-duty.
Here’s the thing: when it comes to hunting or stopping a four-legged predator with conventional pistol or revolver cartridges, you need penetration. Self-defense loads are designed to deliver penetration between 10 and 18 inches. In some cases, that can work on big-game animals, but for bad critters headed your way, you need serious, nose-to-ass penetration, and a bullet capable of busting through — not glancing off — the skull. That’s what you’ll get with a hardcast bullet.
How deep will they penetrate? I fired some 180-grain .357 Magnum Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman loads into blocks of 10% gelatin, and they penetrated — on a straight line — more than three feet. After exiting the gel blocks, they kept going. Hell, for all I know, they might still be going.