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Cast Bullets in the Lee Enfield Rifle

Received in 2001
Story by David Southall

Lee Enfield rifles are good candidates for cast bullet shooting. The .303 British cartridge is easy to reload and accurate loads can be assembled using lead bullets. In addition, several bullet mould makers offer designs that work well in the sometimes generous bore sizes found on wartime assembled SMLEs.

Much has been written about the down side of the Lee Enfield design. Its rear locking lugs, cock-on-closing action, and two-piece stock are blamed for its less than stellar accuracy and limited popularity among American shooters. Nonetheless, the Lee Enfield is capable of surprisingly good accuracy if in good condition and fed the right ammo. The low pressures generated with lead bullet reloads, put little stress or wear on these old rifles compared to factory or military ammunition.

Many military surplus Enfields arrived in the U.S. at the end of their useful life with seriously worn bores. Provided that the throat is not too severely eroded, most can be made to shoot correctly sized cast bullets quite accurately. Granted, starting with a tight, nearly new barrel would be preferred, but many of us purchased these firearms as war relics without benefit of micrometer measurements and are stuck with making do with what we have.

A throat-slug or cast should be made to determine the length and diameter of the area where the rifling begins and the chamber ends. Measurement of this area will determine the correct diameter of the bullet you'll need to use. It may also serve to qualify your particular gun as a wall hanger, rather than a shooter. Throat diameters over .316-.317 are probably too large for practical purposes but can still be used if you are willing to go to some extra trouble. Measurements of .312-.314 make bullet selection much easier as these diameters are commonly available. Rough, pitted, or corroded throats may need to be lapped with abrasives to smooth them out, further increasing their diameter.

Regardless of the throat diameter, if your chamber dimensions are such that you can seat a bullet the same size as the throat and still chamber the cartridge with at least .001 clearance at the neck, it will work great. Practically, bullets much over .315 usually mean trouble in most guns. Thinning or reaming the necks of cartridge cases can be one solution for using larger bullets. Shooting undersize cast bullets in a rifle with an oversize throat requires a really hard alloy and possibly the use of fillers, more about this later.

To get reasonable accuracy and minimal leading, lead bullets should be cast at or sized to at least .001 over groove diameter of the barrel (.002 might be better). If possible the bullets should also fit (or be no more than .001 under throat diameter) and fill the throat. The bullet should also make contact with the beginning of the rifling when the bolt is fully closed. In most cases, a hard alloy is better than soft. Linotype or heat-treated wheel weight alloy of Brinell hardness of 22 or more seems to work out best. The Lee Enfield is rifled with a fast twist of one turn in 10 inches. Because of this, longer bullets generally shoot better than short ones. In my experience 180 to 220 grain bullets generally are the most accurate. Long bullets need to be as hard as you can reasonably make them to prevent them from bending or deforming as they enter the rifling.

Bullet design is also important, and gas checks are a necessity. Many cast bullet shooters prefer a long nose bullet with a short bearing section. This works fine in the Lee Enfield's five groove rifling, provided the nose section is a tight fit on top of the lands. 2-groove barrels often show a preference for bullets like Lyman's #314299 which has a long "bore-ride" nose and short bearing area. Lee's .312-1752R is also a good design which will shoot well if it drops from the mould large enough for your individual rifle. Worn or oversize barrels often shoot best with bullets that have a long bearing surface and a very short nose.

Off the shelf bullet moulds will not work for you if your rifle has a groove diameter larger than .314. If you are handy you could lap a standard mould to cast larger bullets or may have a custom mould made up to fit your particular rifle. Regardless, there are some limits as to usable bullet diameters, and sizes larger than .315 may require the thinning of the cartridge case neck to chamber properly.

Paper patching .308 bullets with two wraps of 8 oz. "onionskin" paper will bring their diameter up to about .316 to .317, allowing these to be shot in the most generous .303 barrel. However, you need to seat the bullet without tearing the paper jacket in the process. I have used water-soluble white glue (Elmer's) to "wet" the paper patch and create a good tough paper jacket. It is also possible to run the paper-patched bullet through a bullet-sizing die and reduce its diameter to your exact needs. Case neck turning and careful case-mouth belling is usually required to properly load paper-jacketed slugs. Sometimes you can get lucky and find that the proper size bullet is a snug fit using an unsized fired case. As long as a cartridge so assembled can chamber easily (there is some spring-back with most brass cases after firing) there is no reason it has to be resized in order to reload it. Do not attempt to shoot cartridges that are tight at the neck when chambered, as very high pressures can result. If you have a chamber cast it is a simple task to measure the neck area and work accordingly.

With most cast bullet loads, medium to fast burning powders give the best results. At the pressure that will be generated with the reduced velocity loads, faster burning powders usually produce more consistent speed and accuracy. Powders like IMR 4759, 4198, and 4227 are good choices. So too are Reloder7, AA5744, AA1680 and Reliant 2400. While velocity in excess of 2000 feet per second is possible with cast bullets, success is more certain if you keep 1800 f.p.s. as a reasonable limit. A good beginning load might be from 15 to 23 grains of any of these powders.

To shoot accurately in any rifle a cast bullet must be sharp and well filled out, have no hidden air pockets, be nearly perfectly round, of the proper diameter and consistent hardness, and delivered into the rifling without deformation. This may appear to be a tall order. All but the last of these requirements are contingent upon your casting equipment, technique, and choice of alloy.

A good commercially manufactured bullet mould like Lyman, Lee, or RCBS, should be capable of casting quality, round slugs if you do your part. It does need to be up to temperature, clean and free of oil or other contaminants, and filled correctly. Careful sorting to eliminate all but the most perfectly formed bullets is essential. Many serious cast bullet shooters also weigh each bullet and separate them into lots, rejecting the lightest ones as they most probably have small hidden air pockets. Sharp, round bases are also important despite the fact that you will be fitting them with copper gas checks.

To get bullets of sufficient hardness without using expensive linotype alloy, I use hardened wheel weight alloy. Automobile wheel-weight alloy is cheap and easily available for bullet casting. It casts best when a small percentage of tin is added. Even 1/2% tin makes a big difference to mould fill out. Commercial 50/50 solder is a good source of tin. To get the hardness necessary for accurate rifle shooting, wheel weight alloy needs to be "hardened". Oven heat-treating is one method, requiring bullets be baked at approximately 450 degrees Fahrenheit then quenched in cold water. Another method is simply dropping hot bullets direct from the mould into a bucket of cold water. I use this method, floating a couple of small sponges on the water's surface to catch the hot bullets and reduce splashing and bullet denting. Water drop-quenched wheel-weight bullets end up with the same hardness as bullets cast from linotype, or approximately BHN 22.

Gas checks are crimped on the bullet base and the bullets lubricated in a sizing die or "lubrisizer." I try to use a sizing die that is the same size or .001 over the as-cast diameter of the bullet I am loading. This eliminates the working of the lead alloy and the possibility of eccentric sizing or bullet bending. Do not worry about sizing down a bullet that is a few thousandths larger than the bore diameter. Oversize is good, as long as the bullet will chamber in your rifle. I use LBT's "blue" lubricant, but the old standby NRA 50/50 Alox-beeswax is also good as is SPG lube so popular with the black powder folks.

Once you have a supply of the correct size and hardness bullets, you have to load them without damage. Case mouth chamfering and belling may be in order. The bullet must seat straight without shaving. Lyman's "M" die (2-step neck expanding die) assists in this operation. With most brands of dies, you may also need to polish out the top end of the bullet-seating die to allow you to work with larger diameter cast bullets.

I have found best accuracy occurs when the loaded cartridge is sufficiently long that the bullet snugly contacts the lands of the rifling's leade when the bolt is closed. This also allows the cartridge to be held back firmly against the bolt face, reducing case stretching upon firing. These may end up too long to feed properly through the magazine. With long seating, one or more lubricant grooves may be exposed running the risk of contamination with grit or debris. Careful storage and transportation of the finished cartridges is important to prevent this. Fired cases should be neck sized afterwards. I prefer Lee's "collet die" which squeezes the case on a mandrill while it drives out the fired primer. RCBC, Lyman, and Redding all make neck-sizing dies for the .303 British as well.

Oversize and worn throats need not prevent you from achieving reasonable accuracy with your battle-worn .303. For years, reloaders have used cereal fillers to compensate for undersize bullets and to fill up air space in reduced loads. A hard, granular material like Cream of Wheat packs tight upon ignition forming a "plug" behind the bullet, sealing the bore and protecting the base of the bullet at the same time. Compressed filler material may also scrub out minor bore leading at the same time.

Fillers can raise pressures dramatically, and must be used with caution. However, in reduced velocity cast bullet reloads, both Cream of Wheat and plastic shot buffer fillers appear to assist the entry of the bullet into the barrel without allowing gas cutting in the critical first few inches. (Gas escaping past the bullet in a worn throat results in leading and very poor accuracy) In addition, the filler creates conditions which favor consistent ignition and burning of the powder charge. Slightly higher velocity is sometimes a result of the addition of filler, as well. A load consisting of 20 grains of IMR4759 and 210 grain gas check bullet will achieve an average velocity of 1650 fps + or - 50 fps without filler. With the addition of Cream of wheat filler (27.5 grains in weight or about 60% of case volume) velocity was increased to 1685 fps, + or - 18 fps. The filler increased velocity and accuracy while it reduced shot to shot variation and bore leading. Several of my older SMLEs will shoot this fillered load very accurately. In these rifles, loads without Cream of wheat filler usually results in keyholes in the targets, poor accuracy, and severe bore leading.

Many shooters have experimented with granulated plastic shot-buffer used as filler in reduced loads with excellent results. I have used both Precision Reloading's "PSB" and "Super Grex" plastic buffers as filler and found them to duplicate the effects of Cream of Wheat. Plastic buffers may have a small advantage over cereal fillers if they are carefully measured. However, they are not as compressible, a bit more expensive (volume to volume comparison), and smell a lot worse (my opinion) upon firing.

The small advantages of granulated plastic filler may be a little better uniformity and accuracy and slightly less pressure as compared to cereal fillers, in the same loads. To see this small improvement one must exactly measure the amount of plastic filler during loading. As I have already said, plastic buffer is not compressible. Pour in a little too much and you will have trouble seating the bullet properly. A bit to little and you may have some mixing of powder and filler if the cartridges are subject to any vibration. For optimum results, and uniform velocity there should be just enough filler to come into firm contact with the bullet's base when it is seated to the proper depth.

Given proper attention when loading (I use a separate powder measure to dispense plastic filler) plastic shot buffers have given my best loads a small boost in accuracy. This improvement is more dramatic in my well-used rifles with worn, oversize bores and throats. There is also a small increase in velocity when compared to similar loads buffered with cereal fillers. With all loads that utilize fillers, the reloader needs to work up his load carefully, beginning on the conservative side. Do not add filler to a near maximum or high-pressure load!

Shooting cast bullets in a high power rifle can be particularly enjoyable when they shoot accurately. The reduced recoil and report are welcome side effects as well. Some preparation of your rifle is required, however if you are to expect good results. Cast bullets will not shoot accurately in a carbon or copper-fouled bore. You will need to remove every last trace of fouling, down to bare metal. Smooth, worn bores usually shoot cast bullets just fine. Rough, pitted bores may need a bit of lapping before they will shoot well.

Oily bores and chambers will need to be cleaned and de-greased. The design of the Lee Enfield rifle and the tapered .303 British cartridge exacerbate the problem of bolt thrust when fed greasy cartridges. Dry, oil-free chamber and ammo is required for best accuracy otherwise your best reloads will string out vertically on the target. Bullet lube and sizing die lubricant, along with greasy fingerprints are all culprits!

Rarely does one load up cast-bullet loads and then achieve stellar performance, on their first trip to the range. Generally, I assemble a series of loads with one bullet but varying the powder charge in one-grain increments. Starting on the low end, I load five cartridges with each charge. I shoot these for group, from a bench rest, allowing the barrel to cool completely before going to the next series. I also inspect the bore for leading at the end of each series and scrub it out using a plastic bore brush wrapped with bronze wool, if needed. I pay attention to signs of high pressure, and keep good notes. I also repeat my best loads with minor variations in powder charge or seating depth to further refine them.

Some success stories! My Long Branch #4 Mk1* made in 1943 with a 2 groove barrel could barely keep factory-loaded ammo on paper at 100 yards. It has a bore diameter of .304 and a throat and groove diameter of .318, after I removed all the copper fouling. These wartime barrels were rifled with 2 narrow grooves about .006 to .007 deep with the idea that the .311 diameter bullet would upset enough to fill the grooves upon firing. Every cast bullet I tried ended up tumbling in flight until I added Cream of Wheat as a filler.

My best load for this rifle is 18 grains of IMR 4759 and enough Cream of Wheat to loosely fill the case to within 1/8 inch of the case mouth. I seat a hard cast (BHN 22) 180 grain, .313 diameter gas check bullet to just contact the rifling when the bolt is closed. This results in slight compression of the filler (about 3/16"). 5 shot groups of 2" or less are easy to achieve at 100 yards, from the bench, with this load as long as I don't let the rifle get too hot. (I do have this gun mounted with a Parker Hale micrometer peep sight) Leading is not a problem either. I did have to try several different styles of bullet to find one that shot accurately in this rifle. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the "nose-ride" designs recommended for 2-groove barrels shot the worst. What worked best is a one-diameter flat nose bullet from Lead Bullet Technology designated ".313-180 LFN" (Long Flat Nose).

Another rifle that presented a challenge was my Fazakerly #5 Mk1 "Jungle Carbine". Its' 5-groove bore was a bit less generous, measuring .3035 across the lands and .313 in the grooves. It has a slightly worn throat of .314 diameter, and a tiny amount of pitting at the muzzle. My initial experiments with Lyman's #314299 bullet, designed for the Lee Enfield produced lack-luster accuracy. After all, these #5s are supposed to be famous for their "wondering zero", right? Still, repeatable 3" groups at 100 yards are pretty good for a military rifle with iron sights. I mounted a scope on it to see if I could improve accuracy with better sighting, but this made no real difference. I tried Lyman bullets #311299, 311463, and 311284, all of which dropped from the mould at .314 when cast of wheel weight alloy with 2% tin added. None of these provided any significant improvement. LBT's .313-180 Long Flat Nose bullet and a load of 18.5 grains of AA1680 proved to be the ticket, shrinking groups by an inch or more, but only when loaded with the addition of plastic filler. Cream of Wheat wouldn't do for this rifle. Who can say why? Every rifle is a rule on to itself!

No exception to this has been my Fazakerly No.4 Mk2 rifle. It arrived as nearly new as one can get. Its' bore is a tight .3025 (lands) and .3120 (grooves), with no perceptible wear in its .313 diameter throat. It shot nearly everything I fed it into neat 3" groups, nothing better. Fillers actually shot worse with nearly every load with this gun. Then I tried an "off the wall" experiment using a nearly full case (47 grains) of WC860 (a super slow burning surplus .50 caliber machine gun powder) under the Lyman #314299 bullet. Bingo! 5-shot groups that hovered right around that magical "one minute of arc" we so often read about but seldom experience. To do this using the original sights, I resorted to taping over the aperture and putting a pin hole through it to reduce its' size. Now with this load, it is my most accurate Lee Enfield rifle, hands down.

A BSA No1MkIII made in 1918 benefited from my earlier experiments with fillers. A good load was quickly found using the Lyman's 200 grain #314299 gas checked bullet and 18 grains of WC680 (military surplus powder nearly identical toAA1680, used in the 7.62X39 cartridge) along with plastic shot buffer for filler. This World War I relic has a smooth, worn bore of .304/.314 diameter and a .315 diameter throat. After I scrubbed out decades of copper fouling from the bore, this old "smellie" will shoot nice round groups of 2" at 100 yards in the hands of a good shooter with this load.

A post-war Long Branch No.4Mk1* with a new, 5-groove "FTR" barrel also showed a preference to this load. However, vertical stringing was apparent despite careful degreasing of chamber and cartridge cases until I replaced its #1 marked bolt-head with a slightly (.003") longer #2 bolt-head. Headspace was within proper tolerances before, just a bit generous, allowing the action to flex slightly on firing. Unfired brass will still chamber fine, but reducing its headspace by .003 resulted in nice round groups. Groups tightened up even more when the powder charge was reduced to 17 grains of WC 680 and the case filled with plastic buffer.

What does this all prove? Even old well-worn Lee Enfield rifles are capable of fine accuracy with cast bullets, but a great deal of experimenting may be necessary to achieve it. Fillers can make a badly worn bore shoot fairly well, but may do nothing but boost pressure in a good tight barrel. Lee Enfield rifles and the .303 British cartridge have a well deserved reputation for being quirky, cranky, and down right cantankerous, making it all the more satisfying when you can make yours shoot accurately. Maybe this was what the late Col. Townsend Whelen had in mind when he said; "only accurate rifles are interesting."

ACCURACY TIPS FOR THE #4 RIFLE

Forearm bedding is important! The action needs to make firm contact with the wood under the Knox form and front action screw. Sometimes the front action screw-sleeve is a bit over-length, and it prevents good wood-metal contact when the screw is tightened. It is a simple matter to shorten this sufficiently to get the desired effect. The front action screw needs to be tight, but do not use lock-tight on it. If it works loose with firing, replace it with a new one.

The No.4 rifle is designed to have about 5-7 pounds of upward pressure at the muzzle end of the forestock. This is difficult to gauge, but if the barrel seems a bit loose, I simply insert one or two thickness of business card under it to provide upward pressure. Often this results in a significant improvement in accuracy.

The aperture on the "micrometer" sight is still a bit large for precision work. I tape over the hole in the slider with black plastic tape and put a pinhole in it. I also "smoke" my front sight with a butane lighter before shooting to eliminate the glare and give a better sight picture. These two tips will tighten up your groups by about half!
Nearly all as issued No.4 or 5 Lee Enfield rifles will benefit from replacing their bolt heads with the next size larger. They are set up for combat specifications to accommodate dirty ammo. If you have a "0" bolt-head, you probably have at least .004"-.005" headspace between case head and bolt. The next size "1" bolt-head will reduce this headspace to .001"-.002" as it is .003" longer. As long as your new bolt-head will close on a new, unfired case, it is not too tight. You can accurately measure the headspace using Automobile "Plasti-gauge", a thin plastic wire which is placed on the case head and then the action closed. The Plasti-gauge flattens out and is measured with a provided scale to determine the clearance. Tighter headspace extends case life and improves accuracy by limiting the flexing of the action.

Keep your ammo and chamber grease-free. I carry a spray can of automobile "brake-cleaner" to clean cartridge cases and chamber while shooting. I remove the bolt, point the muzzle at the ground and spray the cleaner into the chamber, followed by a clean cloth patch on the end of my cleaning rod. If your bore is beginning to show signs of leading, use a nylon bore brush wrapped with a generous pinch of medium size bronze wool to scrub the bore first, then de-grease and wipe.

GENERAL CAST BULLET RELOADING TIPS

Once cases are fire-formed in your gun's chamber, do not full length resize unless it is absolutely necessary. Cartridge cases, which fit your chamber make more accurate ammunition, and last longer as well. Neck sized cases are not interchangeable between rifles. So if you have several .303s you need to keep each rifle's brass separate. I prefer to run my fired cases through the Lee "Collet-die" which compresses case necks against a fixed mandrill while punching out the spent primer. Chamfer the inside of case mouths lightly to prevent shaving bullets in seating.

Many reloaders trim their brass to minimum dimensions according to SAAMI specs. A better method is to make a chamber cast and accurately determine the maximum case length for your particular rifle. I have two Lee Enfield No.4s that have chambers of 2.26" in length. That's a full .05" longer than the standard trim to length for the .303 British of 2.21". For these I select over length brass and trim cases to a uniform 2.25. On way to get longer than average .303 British cases is to reform .30-40 Krag brass. The Krag cartridge is nearly identical except about .2" longer than the .303 case, and can be run through a .303 sizing die, then fire formed in your chamber. I often fire form untrimmed Krag brass using a light charge of pistol powder such as Unique and then fill the case with an inert filler like Cream O Wheat. Cases formed in this way will show the actual length of chamber (impressed into the expanded case neck) of your rifle and can then be trimmed to fit it precisely. The longer cases are more accurate with lead slugs because they support the bullet better as it enters the rifling's leade. (Krag brass is slightly larger at the head, and reformed as .303 British will also eliminate the unsightly bulge that .303 cases often show in large-chambered rifles) Cast bullet loads do not usually cause much case stretching, (especially if you have tightened up your headspace) but I check my extra-long cases every time I reload them, just to be sure.

No crimp is required or desired when loading cast bullets as crimping often results in reduced accuracy. I seat my most accurate target loads so that the bullet contacts the rifling when chambered. However, I seat cast-bullet hunting loads a bit shorter. One disadvantage of seating bullets out to touch the rifling is that the bullet will often stick in the bore if the unfired cartridge is extracted from the gun, spilling powder inside the action. Hunting loads should be of proper length to allow for unloading in the field.

Getting the last bit of copper fouling from a well-used rifle is often a real problem. Copper in the bore results in poor cast bullet accuracy. It takes a mountain of patches and a lot of patience to get all of the copper out of a rifle barrel which has had 50 or more jacketed bullets shot through it with out cleaning. I have found that simply cleaning the bore with a good "nitro-solvent" to get the powder residue out then de-greasing it with automobile brake cleaner will prepare it for an easy copper removal using household ammonia cleaner. I plug the muzzle with a rubber cap, stand the gun on end with the action up (bolt removed) and fill the bore with ammonia solution using an old "turkey-baster ' syringe. I let the gun stand overnight and pull the plug in the morning. That blue liquid which pours out is the copper dissolved by the ammonia solution. Really badly copper fouled barrels sometimes need two or more overnight soakings.

A badly neglected bore may need to alternate ammonia treatments with a powder solvent to get at the layers of crud ironed into the rifling. Ammonia will not remove carbon or powder fouling which may act to keep the copper from dissolving. I have alternated powder solvent cleaning and overnight soakings with household ammonia cleaner every night for a full week to get all of the fouling out of the bore of several older military rifles with excellent results.

CONCLUSION

Getting good results with cast bullets is rarely an "off the shelf" process. However, if you are willing to spend the effort to take the proper measurements then choose your components carefully, as well as master the different loading technique, you will be successful. In addition, you will have multiple reasons to spend more time shooting your .303 rifles. What could be better?