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Physicist knows science of making bullets
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Physicist knows science of making bullets

  • Brian Davis loads an empty shell into the machine where it eventually will be charged and fitted with a warhead. Davis can make about 3,000 bullets per week.
    Alejandro Serrano/ASNSBrian Davis loads an empty shell into the machine where it eventually will be charged and fitted with a warhead. Davis can make about 3,000 bullets per week.
  • Brian Davis points out the differences between a regular warhead and a hollow point warhead.
    Alejandro Serrano/ASNSBrian Davis points out the differences between a regular warhead and a hollow point warhead.
  • Brian Davis shows one of his bullets. Davis has been making bullets for nearly 40 years.
    Alejandro Serrano/ASNSBrian Davis shows one of his bullets. Davis has been making bullets for nearly 40 years.

As a physicist and mathematician at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Brian Davis solves countless equations during his 10-hour days.

When he's at home in Tombstone, the 59-year-old scientist makes bullets, and, eventually, he wants to expand the business.

"I'll probably retire in a few years, and this will most likely be my source of income," he said.

Davis' bachelor's and master's degrees and his Ph.D. are in theoretical physics. He said he's also interested in astronomy and is "thinking about getting another doctorate."

For now, his goal is to make Tombstone the epicenter for custom-made bullets.

"I have to be careful that this doesn't get too big," he said, adding that he wants to expand the business beyond a one-person operation but worries because businesses fail when they can't meet the public's demand for their products.

Davis said he's looking to create as many as 10 jobs for Tombstone. In a town of about 1,200 people where only about 300 hold regular jobs, the addition of just a small number of positions is pretty "significant," he said.

On his own, Davis can make as many as 3,000 rounds per week. He uses a contraption that operates on a lever system, something like a casino slot machine. When the lever is pulled, the work happens on a round tray about the size of a large Petri dish.

There are holes along the edges of the disk that house the bullets while they rotate around to each "station."

As the lever is pulled down, the disk turns and rises into place. The bullet is secured into the disk and then charged with a nitroglycerin-based smokeless propellant, not gunpowder.

Gunpowder is highly explosive and requires a substantially different process, Davis said. The nitroglycerin propellant burns "extremely fast" when it's in a closed container, such as a bullet.

"Gunpowder is generally used for cowboy shooting and blanks," Davis said. "It's not used in regular firearms today."

The nitroglycerin has about five or six times the power of gunpowder but is "relatively stable," he added.

Once the bullet capsule is charged, Davis performs one of his many quality checks by weighing the amount of propellant that was loaded into the shell. He has to make sure that he didn't load too much of the explosive, because if there is too much, the bullet could blow up the firearm instead of shooting out the barrel.

"It's a deliberate process," he said. "You have to do a constant quality check."

Once the amount of propellant is just right, the bullet is re-secured by hand into the disk to continue the process. Another pull of the lever and the warhead is pushed down and secured into place.

Davis, who recently completed an order of 200 rounds that are to be used at a shooting competition, said his bullets don't require as much effort to make as performance-based, custom-made bullets, which are specially sized and weighed for performance and precision.

Still, the job took about "20 hours of steady labor," he said.

Davis said his most popular bullets are the 9mm and 357 magnum, which come in a standard box of 50 rounds. They're priced at $16 to $22, depending on the different types of points on the bullet.

It costs between $10 and $12 to make a box of 50 9mm bullets, again depending on the different types of warheads used, Davis said.

The Cochise Trading Post in Tombstone sells Davis' 9mm bullets for $14.95 to $17.23.

Davis said another popular bullet is the .45 long colt, an ammunition used back in the days of Wyatt Earp.

To sell bullets, Davis had to apply for a license through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The license is renewable every three years.

"You have to go through an extensive background check," he said. "It can take anywhere from one to six months to become licensed."

Once licensed, he was obligated to follow ATF rules.

"If I were to sell a gun to someone, who I knew was going to end up giving it to someone else, I could get in trouble for that," said Davis, who is applying for a gunsmithing license on top of his ammunition license.

ATF rules are aimed at cutting the smuggling of firearms across the border and gun crimes in general.

"There has been talk over the last couple of years of microstamping bullets in hopes of tracing it back to the buyer," said Doug MacKinley, owner of Diamondback Police Supply Co. in Tucson.

Microstamping means that each bullet, or the warhead, would be stamped with a serial number.

MacKinley called microstamping "a warm and fuzzy piece of legislation that has done nothing except burden law enforcement."

Davis said that if the ATF did start requiring that bullets be numbered, the cost of bullets would skyrocket.

He added that whatever happens in the bullet-making world, he plans to retire from one 40-hour job and begin another.

"You need something to keep the brain going," he said.

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