When loading your own ammo there are a few options in bullet type. Since we're not going to talk antique firearms let's concentrate on the modern goodies. There are tons of different bullet types out there. Bullets that punch clean holes in paper, bullets that expand on impact, shatter against backdrops, punch through bone and meat, blast through armor, explode, set stuff on fire, heck some bullets that blast through armor, explode, and set on fire (awesome). Coated bullets are the best. I just needed to get that out there. But let's cover all the options first, explain how they are made and how they work, do a little cost benefit analysis, and then you can make up your own mind.
- Jacketed bullets
- Plated bullets
- Lathe turned bullets
- Cast bullets
- Coated bullets
These bad boys have the market share. They are make (generally in an industrial setting) by stamping copper sheet into jackets and inserting lead cores made from extruded lead wire or cast from soft lead. They are then swaged into the final bullet shape and weight. Jacketed bullets are a great choice for loads like 5.56mm/.223 as the copper jacket adds strength to an otherwise small bullet. They're not particularly special when it comes to pistol caliber bullets unless you're looking for a hollow point that will hold together well in terms of expansion. These bullets have a diameter of the bore they are intended to shoot through. In terms of price, they are moderately priced.
Swaged or cast from soft lead (normally cast) and then run through a cyanide bath in a rotating drum until they have the desired thickness of the plating material, which is almost always copper. You'll often see that they are "struck" or "double struck," which really means they are pushed through a sizing die to get final diameter. Plated bullets protect you from lead exposure and the plating lubricates the bore or the firearm. They tend to have a diameter of that or slightly over that of the intended bore and work well for low velocity plinking. This all sounds good but the issue is that the plating is not a good substitute for a jacket. And without using hard lead or a jacket the projectile simply can't handle the high RPMs for a bullet being fired, limiting their use to slower handgun calibers only. Plated bullets are cheaper than jacketed bullets but more expensive that cast or coated bullets.
Lathe Turned Bullets
These. Bullets. Are. Awesome. If you feel like paying more per projectile than you'd normally pay for a loaded round of factory match grade ammo. But honestly, no factory match grade ammo is worth its weight in scrap metal. Lathe turned bullets are -- believe it or not -- turned on a lathe. This means great designs are available from ease of rapid prototyping and also there are different material options available. These are the best option for very long range shooting that needs a projectile with an exceptional BC. Amazing stuff for your .338 Lapua, Cheytac, or custom long range rifle. There are even a few good subsonic options out there and neat expanding pistol rounds. But they are God awful expensive. And worth every penny in the right applications. Price wise lathe turned bullets are an 11 on the 1-10 scale.
The oldest type of projectile. Lead is easily pulled from the earth, easily recovered due to its low melting point, and has the density you need to make it pew pew properly. However, cast bullets can be -- and often are -- dirty, dirty, and did I mention dirty. Cast bullets are cast (duh) into molds by hand or by an automated casting machine. The are then put through a sizing die that injects a wax lubricant into the lube grooves which lubricate the bore in anticipation of the next bullet in battery. Unless you have sizing .001" over the bore of the firearm (and bore sizes can vary enough to cause an issue) you will end up dealing with leading. Basically hot gasses from ignition speed around the bullet and gas cut micro molten lead all over your bore. This can increase pressure and is just plain a PITA to clean. No one wants to spend hours after a range trip scrubbing their bore. That being said, a properly cast and sized bullet can be the most accurate projectiles out there. They require an extra step in loading where you need to bell/flare the casing so it won't scrape the bullet when loading. This needs to be crimped after seating. Cast lead is a great option for a hobbyist, the survival type, or if you have custom/antiquated firearms. Not so great for the masses. Cast bullets are by far the cheapest option, but with the downfall of lead exposure and time spent cleaning dirty bores.
IMHO the best option. Coated bullets give you the benefits of jacketed and he benefits of lead without the negatives of either. They are manufactured just as lead or plated bullets are in terms of casting. What happens next is where they differ. The cast projectiles are coated in a thermoset polymer that totally encapsulates the bullet then heated to the required temperature and duration for the polymer to cure. Depending on the coating this may need to be done multiple times. For all intents and purposes one coat is generally enough to make it work, two coats to make it perfrom well, and three to make it look good. After they have been coated to satisfaction they are sized and then are ready to load. The coating prevents lead exposure just like jacketed or plating can but can be cast of a harder lead and can therefore hold up to higher velocities. They can also size up or down to match the bore on firing which gives you better accuracy. Coated bullets need to be treated the same as lead bullets when being loaded (bell/flare the case, crimp after seating). When it comes to cleaning coated bullets leave the least mess in your barrel. Each time you fire the bullet wipes a clean path for the next bullet and leading is ta thing of the past. Coated bullets cost a little bit more in cost than cast lead but are cheaper than the other options. These are the future of cheap reloading.
Ranked by price and weighing in ease of use:
- Coated bullets. No leading, accurate to shoot, inexpensive.
- Lead bullets. Inexpensive but dirty. Risk of lead exposure when loading and shooting.
- Plated bullets. No leading, limited to lower speeds, more expensive to purchase, poor quality in terms of manufacturing.
- Jacketed bullets. Great option for hollow points in handguns or high velocity in rifles. Fairly expensive.
- Lathe turned bullets. Extremely expensive but they absolutely have their place on the reloading bench.
So there are a lot of options out there but your selection needs to be based off of your shooting needs. For most reloaders, coated bullets are the best option.