A Bullet Caster's Mentor

Glen

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A Bullet Caster’s Mentor

By Glen E. Fryxell

It was a warm evening in late August, about an hour before sunset. I was out at a local gravel pit, test-firing a new (to me) .22 Contender. I had recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, and this Contender was my present to myself to celebrate my new job. A silver Pontiac pulled in to the neighboring gravel pit below me, and I saw the driver get out and go around to the passenger side of the car and start rooting around for something. I continued to plink away with my new toy, and watch my neighbor out of the corner of my eye. After a couple of minutes, I heard the car door slam, and a blue streak of profanity. I looked down to the Pontiac, and saw a short, squat figure dressed in BDUs and a boonie cap trudging up the hill towards my truck. He fetched out a pack of smokes and a lighter from one of his many pockets, and lit a Marlboro about the time he got even with my truck. “I bought a new gun yesterday, and stayed up until 2am this morning loading ammo for it. The ammo is on the front seat of my car, but I left the goddamned gun at home!”. He thrust out his right hand to shake, “My name’s Reo. Whatcha shooting?”. Thus began one of the more colorful friendships of my life.

We spent a while plinking with various .22s, and chatting about guns, handloading, bullet casting, etc. After a while the sun was starting to set and we made our way to a local tavern and shared a pitcher of beer, with me continuing to grill him about handloading and bullet casting. I was just getting started handloading, and wanted to start casting my own bullets, and I had found somebody who could coach me. Somebody who had a wealth of shooting knowledge, and was willing to share it freely. Our student/mentor relationship gelled quickly.

I bought a few bullet moulds, and a Lee 10-lb bottom-pour pot, and we would get together at my place and cast bullets on the back porch. Sometimes those bullets were for my loading projects, and sometime they were for Reo’s loading projects. It didn’t matter who they were for, we were just having fun casting bullets, talking guns, and listening to good music. He would coach me when a mould would get cantankerous and act up, and teach me what to look for and how to fix it (mould temp, pot temp, head pressure, etc.). Reo really liked to flux the melt (too much, in my opinion, but it doesn’t hurt anything), and he loved to “smoke” his bullet moulds (I will, on rare occasion, smoke a bullet mould, but in the long run I believe that smoking moulds causes more problems than it fixes). He taught me how to inspect my cast bullets, and subtle defects that could potentially lead to poor accuracy.

Reo was a former Marine sniper, and had a special place in his heart for the .30-06 and the .45 ACP cartridges, especially in the M1 Garand and the Colt 1911 (respectively). Reo especially liked cast bullets in the .45 ACP, and had LOTS of the timeless Lyman/Ideal 452374 230 grain RN cast up, sized and lubed, and neatly stacked in cardboard boxes. He would generally load these over 6.0 grains of Unique for about 800 fps and absolute reliability. One time he was out at the gravel pit with a buddy, to test fire a new 1911 .45 ACP. A fresh target was placed at about 20 yards. Reo pulled the 1911 out of the case, inserted a fresh magazine, and dropped the slide. The very first 452374 RN out of that gun neatly removed the X from the X-ring, and Reo promptly unloaded the gun and put it away. “Well, this one shoots!” he proudly proclaimed. Yeah, Reo was a very funny guy.

One Saturday morning Reo showed up at my front door for a casting session. I opened the door and he said with a big grin “Today, you learn how to cast hollow points!” and he slapped an old Ideal 358439 mould into my palm and pushed past me to go get a cup of coffee. He taught me to turn the heat up a little hotter when casting HPs, and to cast quickly to keep the HP pin hot, and to not inspect bullet while I was casting as that would slow down the cadence and allow the HP pin to cool down (“A hot HP pin is a happy HP pin, and casts good bullets; a cool HP pin makes bad bullets.”). It was a fun morning, and I learned a lot. Those 358439s got me started on a decades-long romance with cast HPs.

And it wasn’t just handguns that he liked to shoot cast HPs in, he also loved the .45-70 (especially in the Trapdoor Springfield), and would load his pet Trapdoor Springfield with the Gould HP (Ideal 457122, the 330 grain HP John Barlow designed for A. C. Gould back in the 1880s). He would generally load these to about 1200-1300 fps with a mild charge of smokeless powder (usually 4198 or 3031), and would giggle quietly to himself as he smoked targets at all sorts of ranges. The curvaceous trajectory of the .45-70 was no problem for a rifleman of Reo’s caliber.

Reo loved gun shows. Here he was truly in his element – there were guns all around, there were piles of “stuff” to root around in, there were potential trades to explore, and there was always an opportunity to haggle over something (he loved to haggle). When I think of Reo, the mental image that comes to my mind is him holding a cup of coffee, dressed in his BDUs and boonie cap, walking down the aisles at a gun show, rooting around in piles of junk looking for that next “diamond in the rough”, whistling quietly to himself, and laughing and joking with the vendors. One time, at a gunshow, he came walking up to me and ordered, “Hold out your hand!”. I did as instructed, and he slapped down a 2-cavity Ideal 358477 bullet mould into my palm. “Here. Everybody needs a good .38 SWC mould.”, and he turned and walked off. I still have (and use) that old Ideal 358477 SWC mould. Yeah, Reo loved gun shows, and he was always happy when he was at one.

Like most inveterate gun cranks, Reo did a lot of gun trading, and not just at gun shows. He and I did a number of gun trades over the years – some of those guns have moved on (like a beautiful custom .240 Weatherby Magnum made by Tom Sharon of Montana that I used to take an antelope at 250 yards outside of Gillette, Wyoming back in ‘97), and one or two of them I still have (like the H&R Reising .22 Leatherneck that I got from him back about 1994). Some of the trading stories are even kind of funny, like the “Frankenstein monster” .22 single action revolver that he built out of a gemisch of leftover parts in the parts box in the back of Wheeler’s Gun Shop, that eventually turned into a Mossberg semi-auto .22 – and amazingly, everybody came out happy in that deal.

When we were on the road for an out of town gun show we would stop and get breakfast. Reo always ordered the same thing for breakfast -- a side of bacon, a side of sausage, and a cup of black coffee. No eggs, no toast, no pancakes, no hashbrowns, no oatmeal, no fruit -- just bacon, sausage and coffee. We would tease him about ordering the heart health special, and he would laugh right along with us, all the while munching on his extra crispy bacon. I suspect that he would have lived a little longer if he had taken better care of himself, but there is no doubt, Reo lived life his own way.

One road trip we took was to Zortman, Montana back in the early 1990s to go shoot prairie dogs. We had enough guns and ammunition to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima (and brought much of it back with us), but the three of us had a good week – we shot a lot of prairie dogs, shot a lot of pool in the Zortman bar and grill (when it was raining), enjoyed one another’s company immensely, and just generally had a good time. Reo had a number of guns along on that trip, but the one that stands out in my memory was his Remington Hepburn chambered in .219 Donaldson Wasp. His ammunition was loaded with some old Sisk cupro-nickel jacketed 52 or 53 grain HPs (with a gaping HP cavity). I forget the load, but it was 3031 powder, and it was very accurate, based on the number of prairie dogs I saw him unzip through the spotting scope at 300 yards or more. It was a very classy old-school varmint rifle, being shot by a man who knew how to handle a rifle, and read the wind, from long experience.

He learned these skills by shooting the M1 Garand in hi-power matches with the United States Marine Corps, dating back into the 1950s. I remember one time Reo came in and sat down at the Round Table, looked me square in the eye and very seriously said, “46.0 grains of 4895 with the Sierra 168 MatchKing seated to 3.30” is all you need to know about loading for the M1 Garand.” To this day, this load remains my go to load to shoot in the Garand. Reo qualified Lifetime Master in hi-power rifle in 1961, and that raggedly old worn-out card in his wallet was probably his most valued possession. Like any good Marine, he was very proud of his riflemanship skills. I was happy to listen to his loading advice.

And it wasn’t just the M1 Garand that “wound his watch” – he also had a warm-spot in his heart for other military rifles from the first half of the 20th century, especially the SMLEs (Short Magazine Lee-Enfields). There were many “flavors” of the SMLEs, and he loved them all (especially the “Jungle Carbines”), and he shot them regularly, with both cast and jacketed bullets. I regret that I never wrote down any of his loading data for these guns.

Because of his background as a Marine sniper, he was particularly enamored with sniper rifles from WWI and WWII – the 1903 Springfields, K98 Mausers, SMLEs, M1 Garands, the semi-automatic German G43, etc. By the time he died, he had managed to collect most of these sniper rifles, including most of the original optics (some of which were quite rare and valuable). While the early optics systems didn’t necessarily work all that well, he was very proud to own examples of them because of the role they played in the evolution of firearms technology in general, and sniping technology in particular. And yes, they were ALL properly zeroed.

Reo loved music, and in particular he loved jazz of all flavors. He especially loved a band called The Rippingtons, and would tap his fingers on the table top while we were casting bullets on my back porch. After we were done, we would commonly head down to a favorite watering hole, where he would invariably have a Cuba Libre (rum and coke, with a lime twist), with a cup of black coffee on the side. I never ever saw Reo drink whisky, Scotch, gin, vodka, tequila, or wine, and only on a couple of rare occasions did I see him drink beer. Reo drank black coffee, Coke (never diet!), and rum and Coke, and that was pretty much it.

I’m not much of a rum drinker, but with the recent death of Fidel Castro, I believe I will mix myself a Cuba Libre (“Free Cuba”) and toast Reo, and pray that Cuba eventually finds freedom.

Good teachers are a blessing indeed, and Reo was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He taught me much about guns, about bullet casting, about handloading, about music, and about Life in general. It’s important that we keep the value of such mentoring in mind, and to make of a point mentoring the next generation so that they can learn the joys of bullet casting, and the joys of shooting classic, vintage firearms, just like Reo did for me.