by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
Several years ago, a big bore airgun manufacturer was heard to say that his hunting rifles were accurate enough to hit an Oreo cookie at 30 yards. He argued that it would be very hard for a deer to hide behind an Oreo cookie. So, the question is: Were his rifles accurate? He obviously thought they were, but most of the public disagreed. He had to improve the accuracy until his rifles could hit that Oreo at 100 yards. He managed to do that, and the sales were very good from that point on. True story.
Was this an issue of perception, or was the manufacturer right — that no deer can hide behind an Oreo? Well, here’s the deal. If he doesn’t sell any guns, nothing else really matters because he goes out of business, making his opinion as a manufacturer moot! Today, I’d like to talk about what drives practical airgun accuracy.
You might think it’s the World Cup and the Olympics that drive accuracy for airguns, but that would be incorrect. The World Cup matches certainly have had a huge impact on the accuracy and ergonomics of target airguns at close range. They’ve gone from being capable of making very small groups in the late 1950s to almost being able to stack all their pellets on top of each other. But that took place back in the late 1960s and early 1970s timeframe. Since then, there hasn’t been much advancement in accuracy because there wasn’t much room to improve. So, the target airgun designers turned their attentions to improving the sights and the ergonomics of their airguns, and that’s still going on today.
In this same time period, the pellet makers have advanced their art, as well. There’s still room for some improvement of lead-free target ammunition, but things in the lead pellet realm are slowing down. Once again, we’ve gone about as far as it’s possible to go.
But all of this progress has been in the world of close-range target guns. Longer-range airguns had a lot more room for improvement, and that was accomplished by different means.
History of field target and accuracy
When the sport of field target began in the UK in the 1970s, the first targets were just silhouettes of animals. The were hinged at their base so a hit anywhere on the silhouette knocked the animal over. These were simple targets to build, but not that challenging. It was argued that hitting a squirrel in the tail was hardly tantamount to dispatching it. If this sport was going to grow, it had to become more interesting.
Field target was not created to be a hunting simulation; but once it began, the connection to hunting was too obvious to ignore. Something had to be done to make the targets more realistic. The kill zone was the answer.
The kill zone works is a hole in the “face” of the target, which is the silhouette of the animal. The pellet must pass through the hole and hit a trigger (called a paddle) behind the target face. When the paddle moves, depending on how the target is built, the face will either fall over flat or at least fall partway.
This field target was made by Ulysses Payne years ago. It has a kill zone that’s backed by a movable paddle. The paddle is sensitive and falls when hit square or locks when the pellet is split on the edge of the kill zone.
This side view of the target shows the link that connects the paddle to the face. When the paddle goes back, it pulls the face after it.
This target doesn’t fall completely flat because of the linkage connecting the paddle to the face of the target.
The kill zone changed the sport of field target, though it took some time to realize. What people discovered was that if you hit both the target face at the edge of the kill zone hole and a piece of your pellet splits off and goes through to hit the paddle (called a split in the sport), the face would be pushed backwards so hard that the paddle might not fall. At first, this was a chance discovery; but after a while, target makers started making their targets more sensitive to splits. The goal was that a split would not allow the target to fall, thus preventing a point from being awarded.
After that, the kill zones got smaller and smaller to challenge good shooters even more. By the end of the last century, it was obvious what this had done to the sport. Accuracy had taken on a new meaning. People were no longer satisfied with hitting tin cans. Now, they wanted to bust aspirins. And not at close distances! But that’s not all.
The evolution of scopes
Targets weren’t the only thing to improve because of field target. Scopes changed dramatically. Back in the early 1990s, you really had to search for a scope that would correct for parallax down to 10 yards. Today, that kind of adjustability is even showing up on firearms scopes! The tiny little sport of field target is what has driven this change.
But that’s just the beginning! Know those sidewheel parallax adjustment knobs on scopes? Where do you think they came from? Leupold didn’t wake up one morning and say, “We think the snipers of the world deserve a sidewheel parallax adjustment scope that sells for about $1,400.” No, sirree! The dozens of airgun scope manufacturers decided it for them — 10 years before Leupold got around to building their first one. And field target pushed them.
That little sport pushed the scope manufacturers until they were making scopes that could only have been dreamed of 2 decades earlier. When I got into the sport, the Leupold 6.5-20x Vari-X III was all the rage. Today, it would be considered a second-tier scope. Good…but no longer a championship scope.
And coming soon will be the bubble level inside a scope that Leapers is perfecting. Yes, other scopes with bubble levels already exist, but their optics aren’t suited to precision shooting. This one will be.
Pellets advanced at the same time. Back when I started in field target, a Diana Magnum was a good domed pellet. Then, Crosman Premiers hit the market and buried virtually all other brands. Next, JSB Exacts replaced Premiers as the best. Today, what would have been a world-class pellet in 1998 is now just considered average.
Pellet precision has evolved greatly in the last 20 years.
In short, this one sport of field target, in which only a handful of shooters actually compete, changed the face of airgunning forever. It defined accuracy for a generation and set the performance bar very high, indeed.
Big bores are staring to improve
The same thing has started to happen in big bore shooting. In the 1998 timeframe, a big bore that grouped inside 3 inches at 50 yards was seen as accurate. Now, that’s down to an inch. But there are even fewer big bore airgun shooters than field target competitors, so the advancements are going to take longer.
Nothing stands still. What we need today is a hunting pellet that’s also very accurate. There are already a couple of contenders like the Beeman Devastator and the Crosman Premier hollowpoint. But the market is far from saturated. There’s lots of room for accurate hunting pellets in all 4 smallbore calibers.
And the world of lead-free pellets is still in its infancy. The lead-free pellets of today are lightyears more advanced than they were even 5 years ago; but compared to target pellets and general purpose domed pellets, they’re still very crude.
To prove the truth of what I’m saying, look at the groups we celebrate on this blog. The only thing that we don’t yet do is shoot those tight 10-shot groups at 100 yards. But I’m convinced that day is coming.
So, if you compare where we are today with where we were even as recently as 1995, you’ll see how far airgun accuracy has come. The guns are better, the pellets are better and even the scopes are better. The future is bright, and I can hardly wait to see the new inventions that will take us to the next level.