Silver vs. Lead – Which Metal Makes a Better Bullet? Part 2

Our last blog post about silver bullets talked about the history behind the bullets’ reputation for effectiveness. In this post, we’ll talk about the properties of silver vs. lead when it comes to refining them into bullets.

Density is one of the most important factors in bullet design. An object’s energy is directly related to its mass (remember, E = mc2). To put it simply, heavy bullets work better than light bullets. This principle is one of the reasons why lead (renowned for its density) is used to make bullets. Silver is less dense than lead, but not irredeemably so. Silver is roughly 7.5% less dense than lead – so it can still make an effective bullet in that regard.

But that doesn’t mean silver bullets are just as easy to make. In order to refine the metal into bullets, it must be melted first. Here, silver presents a two-fold problem. Lead melts at 621.43 °F, which in refinery terms is rather cool – ordinary fire can do the trick. Silver, however, has a melting point almost three times higher than lead at 1763.2 °F. Additionally, the bullet mold needs to be heated to nearly the same temperature of the metal being poured into it. A mold that is too cold will crack or produce malformed bullets. It’s doubtful that Jean Chastel or The Lone Ranger had ready access to that kind heat.

In our next post, we’ll wrap up our discussion of metal properties and find out whether silver bullets can have any ballistic effectiveness.

Silver vs. Lead – Which Metal Makes a Better Bullet? Part 1

Silver bullets are legendary for their effectiveness. However, they exist firmly in the realm of metaphor. Obviously, the price of silver makes bullet production cost-prohibitive, but is that the only factor? In the next few blog entries, we’ll review both the refining and ballistic properties of silver bullets to see if they live up to the legend.

The concept of silver bullets gained traction after the events of the 1760s in Gévaudan, France. During that time, the Beast of Gévaudan attacked and killed multiple people living in or near the town. The deaths were recorded in detail, but historians still cannot say with 100% certainty what kind of creature the beast was. Records refer to the Beast of Gévaudan as a wolf-like creature; common theories are that it was either a wolf, wolf-mastiff hybrid, or possibly a now extinct species of Asian hyena that had been imported into the region. Whatever it was, it attacked people so frequently (neglecting cattle and other animals) that major efforts were made to hunt the beast down. The beast was finally killed by Jean Chastel. Hunters had shot the beast many times before, but the legend is that Chastel did the deed with a blessed silver bullet of his own manufacture. Why silver? Silver had long been believed to be supernatural in some way because its lustrous surface resisted corrosion unlike any other ancient ore and it had medicinal properties.

It’s possible that Chastel’s silver bullet may have existed, but it’s unlikely. While we melt and cast silver all the time, it’s because we have the technology and metallurgical know-how. When it comes to making bullets, silver and lead don’t have much in common. We’ll explore the properties of these metals in the next blog post.

Depletion Gilding: The Opposite of Electroplating

In gold refining, electroplating has become the technique of choice for gilding, or giving objects an outer layer of pure gold. Basically, an electrical current is used to dissolve gold ions and deposit them onto another surface. It’s a scientifically advanced technique that was not invented until the early 19th century. However, there are thousands of gilded artifacts that predate electroplating. How were they made?

Many such artifacts were created by depletion gilding, which in a mechanical sense, is the opposite of electroplating. Rather than depositing a layer of pure gold onto an object, depletion gilding removes non-gold elements from a surface, leaving behind a layer of pure gold.

One of gold’s most noteworthy properties is that it is extremely resistant to oxidation. The impurities it is alloyed with are not. By submerging a gold alloy in nitric acid (or another suitable chemical salt), the surface impurities will be depleted leaving a layer of pure gold. With the impurities gone, the gold is pocked with millions of microscopic cavities, which gives it a dull or matte appearance. Its luster can be restored by burnishing or polishing.

Although depletion gilding is an easy refining technique to master, it isn’t practical in industrial applications, so it’s no longer as widely practiced as it used to be. However, good examples of depletion gilding can still be found here and there among individual artisans and goldsmiths.