Some out-of-town visitors told me how much fun they had the day before shooting cowboy guns at a local dude ranch. Knowing the dude ranch was within the city limits of our city, I asked if they had a gun range. “Oh, no,” I was told. “We were shooting rubber bullets.”
“Yes,” one of the guys in the group explained. “Primers only. It’s not very loud, and they don’t go very far, but we were shooting tin cans and it was kind of fun.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what you call it.”
Immediately I thought of my grandchildren. I had never thought of plinking with primers and rubber bullets. I wondered if that was something we could do that in my yard. If so, it would be an opportunity to let my grandkids know some of what they’re missing by not growing up country! I determined to learn more about these rubber bullets and primer-only shooting.
Before investing time into a project designed for backyard shooting I figured I’d better check on the legality. Would the cops consider shooting primer-only rounds in my backyard within the city limits a violation of city ordnance? It turns out that in my city if I can insure a projectile fired on my property won’t cross property lines and won’t come within 150 feet of one of my neighbor’s buildings, I’m good to go. I’ve got a big back yard, so it works for me, but you may want to check the laws in your own location. I will tell you it’s not very loud and the rubber bullets don’t travel very far, so it may just depend on your neighbors.
In my search for rubber bullets, I discovered there are rubber bullets designed for defensive use as less-than-lethal ammunition, and there are lightweight rubber bullets designed for target practice. Meister Bullet and Ammunition Company of Ozark, Missouri, makes a line of X-Ring bullets that are lightweight, hollow rubber bullets in .38/9mm, .40, .44 and .45 caliber and these are the ones that work best for backyard shooting. I found these at MidwayUSA.com and at the manufacturer’s website. I’m also using some solid rubber bullets made by Concepts in Ammunition in Garden City, Michigan. These bullets also work with primers only. You just need to be careful when using them because they bounce off solid objects with a lot of momentum. Although the bullets are available in several calibers, I elected to experiment first with .45 Long Colt because that’s the caliber in which the bulk of my cowboy guns are chambered.
I wanted to have a complete setup that would allow us to keep shooting without multiple trips to the reloading bench. The bulk of preparation is with the brass. If you are using previously fired brass with primers still in it, the primers must be removed. And even if you start with new brass, you’re going to want to reuse it, so a method of quickly removing primers is handy. For de-priming brass, I ordered a Harvey De-priming Tool (harveydeprimer.com), an easy-to-use handheld device that works with all popular calibers—handgun and rifle.
To keep your revolver from locking up after each shot because of primer setback, you will need to enlarge the primer flash hole. Here’s a layman’s description of why this is necessary. When the primer is struck by the firing pin, it ignites immediately, creating a rapid pressure that pushes the rubber bullet out of the case and down the barrel. In a normal .45 Colt cartridge, the powder would ignite resulting in pressure on the entire case in all directions (outward, which seals the case against the cylinder wall, forward to send the bullet down the barrel and rearward against the recoil shield). With only the primer creating pressure, the rubber bullet moves forward and the primer moves back, but the brass hasn’t been subjected to enough pressure to either expand or move back. But the primer is subject to the equal and opposite pressure and it does want to move back. The result is a primer that is sticking out of the case far enough to keep your cylinder from rotating. This may not happen in every case, but drilling out the flash hole in your cases eliminate this almost surefire interruption in your shooting fun by providing a larger exit hole for the pressure.
An easy method to enlarge the flash holes in your empty brass is to take a 13mm socket from a regular metric socket set and put it on a scrap piece of lumber with the square hole down and the 13mm opening up. Put your brass in the socket with the head of the case down. You can then use an electric or hand drill with a 1/8-inch drill bit to enlarge the hole enough to let the escaping gases go by the primer without pushing it back. Make sure you keep any brass with the flash holes drilled out separate from any brass you may use for reloading standard rounds.
For loading new primers, I use a Hornady Hand Priming Tool which I also found at MidwayUSA. You’re going to need a caliber-specific shell holder for use with the Hand Primer. I wasn’t able to find a .45 Colt one made by Hornady, but MidwayUSA had an RCBS #20 shell holder for a .45 Long Colt which works perfectly with the Hornady Hand Priming Tool.
Once you’ve primed the brass, loading the rubber bullets is done by hand. With either type of bullet, hollow or solid, it is simply a matter of inserting the rubber bullet in the case far enough to secure it. The X-Ring bullets typically wind up with the head of the bullet even with the case. With the solid round-nose bullets from Concepts in Ammunition, I simply push them in until the edge of the brass aligns with the first of several rings that are in on the bullet.
The kids recover a large number of the bullets because of where we shoot and the backstop we have, and we are able to use them over and over. We take a fired shell casing, pop out the primer with the Harvey Deprimer, insert a new primer with the Hornady hand priming tool, push in a rubber bullet and we have a loaded cartridge ready to go again. You can reuse the brass, you can reuse the bullets, but the primers are one time and done. So to keep your shooters happy, be sure to have a bunch of primers on hand whenever you ask, “Who wants to shoot the cowboy guns?”
Hearing protection is not really necessary if you’re shooting outdoors, but you do want your shooters (and anyone near the firing line) to have eye protection. Depending upon your backstop, those rubber bullets can bounce back with a lot of momentum.
Take all the precautions you would with standard ammunition and have fun. The bullets will knock down tin cans and send them spinning with subsequent shots. They make a good mark on a Birchwood Case Shoot ’n’ See or similar target. They may or may not spin a steel target, depending on how far away you are, but in general they work quite well for just plinking. Accuracy is pretty decent at close range, but just remember, you’re not shooting a high-power round with expected accuracy within a certain range.
My grandkids, both boys and girls, enjoy this type of shooting, and we can pretty much do it on the spur of the moment. I packed my supplies into a plastic container with an easy carry handle so it’s easy to transport the reloading supplies to the shooting line.
Our favorite guns for this are a couple of Uberti 1873 Single Action Army clones—one a full-handled model and the other with a birdshead grip that the girls can wrap their hands around better. We also shoot a Beretta Stampede. Keeping those three guns in ammo keeps me pretty busy.
You’re probably asking yourself if this would work in your semi-automatics. It will, but you’ll have to cycle the slide after each shot. The primer does not generate enough gas pressure to cycle the slide on any .45 semi-automatics I have.
I have seen recommendations not to shoot primer-only rubber bullets in rifles. I have two .45 Long Colt rifles, one a lever-action with a 22” barrel and the other a slide-action with a 26” barrel. The bullets exit the barrel with either one of these and are pretty accurate up to about 20 feet. When shooting them, we’re always listening and watching for squib loads, but so far, all of our bullets, hollow or solid, have exited the rifle barrels.
With this type of shooting, you get smoke and you get fire, but no recoil. You also get very dirty guns, so be sure and clean them after each session of shooting. Teach the kids well and have fun!