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Shooting Heel-Base Bullets

by Harry O

When I started shooting the 41 Long Colt, there did not seem to be very many heel-base bullet reloaders/shooters around. I have since found out that there are others out there, but they are “under the radar”, so-to-speak. There are not very many articles written about these “obsolete” cartridges, so everyone has to learn on their own. Recently, I have seen others asking questions on the Internet about the 41LC and other heel-base bullets; the 32 Colt, 38 Colt, and the 44 Colt. I cannot give any specific details about any of the above, but I believe that what I have learned in shooting many thousands of 41LC rounds in both heel-base and hollow-base bullets would probably apply to all of them.

So what is the problem with heel-base bullets? Basically, you have to work hard to achieve accuracy. It doesn’t “just happen”. The front of the bullet is the same diameter as the cartridge case. The bottom of the bullet steps down at the heel so that it can fit inside the case. This is similar to shooting a gascheck bullet without a gascheck. Most reloading books warn against doing this because of poor accuracy. They are right. The lube on a heel-base bullet is outside of the case, which makes it messy and easy to melt, fall off, or wear off. That is not conducive to accuracy, either. Later versions of the cartridge (and most, if not all, of the ones mentioned above) reduced the diameter of the bullet so that it could fit entirely inside the case. However, the bore size stayed the same size. In the 41LC, the barrel groove diameter is from 0.401” to 0.406” (depending on its age), the same OD as the earlier heel-base bullets while the later hollow-base bullets have an OD of 0.386”. That is a big difference. You can literally drop a hollow-base bullet down the bore by gravity alone. This bullet depends on the pressure of the gunpowder to expand the base of the bullet enough to grip the rifling. It is not, and will never be, a target gun with either heel-base or hollow-base bullets, but it is surprising how well it can be made to work. It does take some effort on your part, though.

I believe that all of the above cartridges have both hollow-base and heel-base bullet moulds available. Hollow-base bullets are the easiest to learn on. They give acceptable accuracy (considering the mismatch in bore size) if you use the right powder. All of the above cartridges were originally black powder cartridges. At least part of the reason is that BP works best in them, even today. If you do not use BP, use a small amount of the fastest gunpowder you can find, but be very careful not to use too much. The guns that shoot these calibers are usually over 100 years old and the steel is not as strong as what is used now. 

I use Bullseye when I shoot smokeless (which is getting to be less and less). It is less accurate than BP, but more accurate than Unique. I have not tried any powder slower than Unique. Pyrodex is less accurate than BP, but cleaner. It is about as accurate as Bullseye, but dirtier. Since it has no specific advantages, I see no reason to use Pyrodex. I have not tried any of the other BP substitutes that have become available recently, so I cannot comment on them. It is pretty obvious from my tests that the faster a powder ignites and burns, the faster the skirt expands into the rifling, and the more accurate it is. The difference in accuracy vs powder speed is dramatic with hollow-base bullets and noticeable (but not nearly as dramatic) with heel-base bullets. 

Why use heel-base bullets? Because, you can get better accuracy with heel-base bullets UNDER CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES. There are a wide variety of heel-base bullet moulds if you look around hard enough. There are fewer hollow-base moulds. No, you probably won’t find either type in the local gunshop or small gunshows. You need to use the Internet to track them down. I have located and bought moulds for 8 different heel-base bullets for the 41LC (and three more for hollow-base bullets). Collecting them took about 5 years. And I extensively tested the bullets from every single one. From that I believe I have some idea about what works and what doesn’t work. Here is what I think.

The best heel-base bullet I have found is an “Old West” mould that looks almost like a wadcutter sticking out ahead of the case. The front of the bullet is slightly beveled to aid loading, but the bevel is small. I believe that the long straight section of the bullet (from the heel to the bevel) helps center the bullet in the bore. Interestingly, if you look at a .22LR (which is also a heel-base bullet) it also has a comparatively long, straight (full diameter) section along the side. The same Old West mould block has another version of the same bullet. The nose is the same, but it has a shorter heel and is a little lighter. It is not quite as accurate as the heavier, longer heel-base bullet, but it is close.

The worst bullet moulds I have are NEI #214 and #215 bullets. One (the #214) has a very short nose and a very long tail (heel). What happens is that the tail tilts in the bore (the head is too short to stabilize it) and the bullets leave the barrel going in different directions. I recovered a few fired bullets that had marks only on one small part of the tail. The NEI #213 mould looks pretty much the same, although I have not actually tried it. I doubt that it will work any better. The other one (the #215) is a much better looking mould, with a shorter tail and a long gently curving nose (it is almost a spitzer). There is very little of the bullet length that is full diameter. I believe that there is not enough to keep it centered (or keep it from tilting) in the bore and that is why it is inaccurate.

Two other moulds are in between the Old West and the NEI moulds when it comes to accuracy. One is an original Lyman 386177. The other is a Ballisti-Cast #721 (which is identical to the old H&G #121 mould). Both are very similar in shape. They have full diameter driving bands ahead and behind a lube groove, a blunt, but rounded nose, and a moderately sized tail (heel). The length (from front to rear) of the full diameter portion is less than that on the Old West and more than that on both of the NEI moulds. The Lyman is slightly more accurate than the Ballisti-Cast. I believe that this is because the front driving band on the Lyman is slightly wider (longer, front to rear) than the front driving band on the Ballisti-Cast.

Obviously, I believe that a heel-base bullet should have as long a full diameter section as possible ahead of the heel. It should also have a fairly short heel (say 1/4 to 1/3 of the overall length of the bullet). It is possible to have either too long or too short a heel. If too long, the bullet will tip in the bore rather than expand evenly. If too short, the heel cannot expand enough to reach the rifling. It does expand under pressure. The heel on a .22LR is VERY short, even shorter than my recommendation. However, it also has a hollow (like a large cup) in the heel-base to help it expand easily when fired.

If you buy bullets (there are some small casters out there who do cast odd calibers), make sure that they are cast from soft lead (40:1 lead/tin) with a Bhn of 8 or less. It does not matter if you use heel-base or hollow-base. They MUST be soft. Some casters use conventional hard lead (Bhn 15 or more). They are a waste of time and money. You will not get any accuracy from them. Others do not run the melt temperature hot enough. Hot lead means slow casting, which means less money for the caster. However, cooler casting often means voids. This is a particular problem with hollow-base bullets. Check to see if you can see any black spots near the point of the hollow. If you do, it is a void. Also weigh several of them. If any are especially light, there is a void even if you cannot see it on the surface.

Whether you cast the bullets or buy them, they must be cast with very soft lead. The base of both hollow-base AND heel-base bullets must deform in order to achieve any accuracy at all. The difficulty is getting them to deform enough, but not too much and not unevenly. The reason soft lead is needed is obvious with hollow-base bullets. They just drop through the bore. If they did not deform, they would not touch the rifling. Done right, they expand not only at the rear, but full length. I have recovered fired hollow-base bullets and found that there is equal-depth rifling from rear to front. It does NOT just expand in the skirt area. 

The reason for soft lead is not as obvious with heel-base bullets, but from my experiments, it is just as important. The rear part of the heel in the heel-base bullet also expands to fit the bore (I have recovered some that show rifling marks all around the enlarged portion). I believe that this is also important in keeping the bullet centered in the bore. In the case of the Old West bullet, both the front and rear of the bullet help center it in the bore. That is probably why it is my most accurate bullet. This theory is also supported by the combination heel-hollow-base bullet in the.22LR, the rear of which is made to expand.

Like a conventional bullet, the heel-base bullet should be sized to 0.001” to 0.002” over the barrel groove size, although I have shot some as much as 0.005” oversized without much loss in accuracy. The soft lead allows that. Ignore the “throat” of the chamber near the front of the cylinder. In every case I have seen (with these cartridges), there is no throat. The chamber is bored straight through from front to rear. You cannot size the bullet to throat size like is recommended for conventional revolver cartridges. The “throat” is WAY oversized, which we all know is also not conducive to accuracy.

You have to expand the mouth of the case in order to seat the bullet. Expand it as little as possible while still being able to seat the bullet without shaving. Most of the time, I can seat the bullet and press it into place with my thumb (which is also why crimping is needed). A conventional seating die also works for seating the bullet, but you must set it up so that the crimping section does not touch the bullet. If it is set to crimp the case, it will also wipe off the entire side of the bullet above the crimp. Obviously, you won’t get any accuracy with a mangled bullet.

You cannot crimp a heel-base bullet with ordinary reloading dies. I have a Lee Loader, a Lyman 310, Redding, and conventional Lyman A-A dies for the 41LC. The best of the bunch is the Redding dies. However, none of them can crimp a heel-base bullet. They only crimp hollow-base bullets. This is a problem for accuracy. A crimp is needed in order to get even ignition, low velocity standard deviations, and accuracy. The slower the powder, the more a crimp is needed. This is another reason that BP powder is recommended for heel-base bullets. So how do you crimp it? Originally, I drilled a hole the size of the bullet through an electrical crimping/stripping tool. After smoothing the edges with a grinder, I crimped the cases with it. It did increase the accuracy slightly. Later, I ordered a collet-type Lee Factory Crimp die. It works better and is easier to use. It was well worth the money. Unfortunately, if the case is too short, Lee cannot make the die. You can find out by sending them a dummy case with a bullet seated.

A BP drop tube does not work with the short 41LC cases. I need a case that is at least twice as long (rifle cases) in order to get any compression with a drop tube. I compress the BP slightly with the base of the bullet. All BP seems to benefit from some compression. Swiss needs only a little compression (1/16” to 1/8”). GOEX seems to need a little more compression (1/8” to 3/16”). If you compress it too much, the base of the soft lead bullet will be damaged. 

People who shoot BP often use a cardboard or fiber disc between the BP and the bullet in order to protect the base of the bullet. That does not work with a heel-base bullet. The rear of the heel needs to expand to reach the rifling. It cannot do that properly with the protective disc. There is a similar problem with a lube wad under the bullet. This cushions the blow to the base of both hollow-base and heel-base bullets, so that the base will not expand fully nor quickly enough. Both cases mean poor accuracy. Do not put anything between the BP and the bullet. If you are using smokeless powder, it does not fill the case, so this is moot.

It is difficult to lube heel-base bullets. Conventional sizers will cover the heel with lube. It makes it messy, hard to slip into the case, and the bullet is easy to move unless you can crimp it hard. I cover the entire bullet in thinned Lee Liquid Alox to start with. That keeps any barrel leading from occurring. Unfortunately, it does nothing for BP fouling. After inserting the bullet and crimping it, I rub a stick of SPG lube on the outside of the bullet and then use my finger to force it into the lube groove. This is messy and time consuming, but it keeps the BP fouling soft. Depending on the bullet (actually, depending on the size of the lube groove in the bullet), there is enough lube there to shoot anywhere from a dozen to about 40 rounds before cleaning the bore. BTW, do not put any lube (either on purpose or accidentally) into the hollow in hollow-base bullets. This will cause dramatically worse accuracy.

One of the other bullets I mentioned that has other problems is a custom Lee heel-hollow-base combination. This would seem to be the best of all possible worlds, since it is the same thing that works so well in the .22LR. The problem with the Lee mould is that it was made with their small “tumble-lube” notches instead of wider, deeper lube grooves. It works the best of any of the bullets I have with Bullseye, but does not work well at all with BP. The Alox lube stops leading, but does nothing to soften the BP fouling. Hard fouling damages subsequent bullets, which gives poor accuracy. Hard lube does not work at all with BP or work well with smokeless powder at the velocities these cartridges are capable of (less than 850fps). I use SPG lube for both BP and smokeless. It works well for both.

To sum things up, this is what I recommend to get the most from your heel-base cartridges. Choose a mould that has a long, straight, full-diameter section on the front of the bullet and has a tail (heel) that is 1/4 to 1/3 the overall length of the bullet. Heavier bullets are usually more accurate than lighter bullets of similar shapes. Cast the bullet from soft (40:1) lead. Check to see that there are no voids. Lightly lube the bullets with Lee Liquid Alox. Use black powder. Use a magnum primer with BP; a standard primer with smokeless. Slightly compress the BP whey you seat the bullet. DO NOT put anything between the powder and the base of the bullet (fiber disc or lube wad). Crimp the bullet with at least a medium crimp. Rub SPG lube into the lube grooves on the outside of the bullet after it is loaded and crimped. Keep the bullets cool before shooting so that the SPG lube does not melt off. Usually, this only means keeping the box out of direct sunlight. In really hot weather though (or when being stored in a car during the summer), you may need to keep them in an insulated cooler with a little ice until needed. Find out how long you can shoot before the fouling in the bore gets hard. It will eventually. Back off from that number slightly and when you reach it, clean the bore with soapy water and a patch before shooting any more.

This is what works for me. The improvements in accuracy come from many small details that don’t do much individually, but cumulatively make a big difference. When I started shooting this caliber, I could not keep all the shots on an 8-1/2” by 11” target at 15 yards (actually, I don’t think I kept most of the shots on the paper). Doing it this way, I can achieve accuracy almost equal to ordinary revolvers out to 15 yards. For me, that means keeping most shots in 2” to 2-1/2” groups, offhand. Yes, I know that others can shoot better than that, but I cannot do very much better even with a K-38 Masterpiece and target wadcutters (just wait until old age gets to you). To put this in another perspective, this old gun with its mismatched bullets is equal to or better than any of the stock 9mm service semiautomatics I own.

Beyond 15 yards, the accuracy declines rapidly. The deformed bases start making themselves known by then, no matter what you do. The hollow-base bullets are worse than heel-base bullets beyond 15 yards, but neither is suitable for long range shooting. Remember that the 41LC was originally used for short range self defense. Elmer Keith thought well of the 41LC. In his book, “Sixguns”, he said that it was a much better manstopper than the cartridges’ specs would indicate and the heavy, soft lead bullet was better at ending a fight than any .38 Special load. Long range shooting and target shooting was still in the future when these cartridges were invented. It did what it was supposed to.

Anyway, that is what works for me. If you find something different that works for you, great. Just make sure you share it with the rest of us heel-base shooters, too.

Harry O







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