Posts Tagged ‘Harry Pope’

B.B.’s bag of tricks for twitchy airguns

by B.B. Pelletier

Before we begin, I’d like to share my Christmas with you. I didn’t get any airguns or firearms this year, but I did get a wonderful reloading tool. It’s a Pope-style capper and decapper for priming and depriming cartridge cases while at the rifle range. You do that with the old-fashioned target rifles like my Ballard, and I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. But until I actually saw the tool and held it in my hands, I had no appreciation of how neat and handy it was!


This loading tool is a Pope-style capper/decapper. It’s cartridge-specific and very handy to use. This one is for .38-55.

This will help me shoot the Ballard in the style it was shot when the gun was new. It also eliminates a lot of extra clutter needed to load the rifle. I’m still waiting for a custom bullet mold that I’ll need before I start shooting the Ballard again (it’s on the way but didn’t arrive in time for Christmas).

Edith, however, did get a gun from Santa. It’s a full-sized Glock made of milk chocolate! It came in a pistol case and really looks the part. Edith calls it death by chocolate!


A chocolate Glock that came in a hard pistol case. Edith loves it! She also got a chocolate hand grenade. Death by chocolate takes on a whole new meaning.

I hope all of you will share your gun-related gifts with us in the comments. It’s like being invited to your homes for Christmas. Now, let’s get into today’s report.

As much testing as I do, I run into lots of airguns that are difficult to shoot. Spring-piston airguns are the hardest to shoot as a class of gun. The preponderance of them are breakbarrels; and of those, the more powerful ones are harder to shoot accurately than any other kind of rifle — firearm or air-powered. Naturally, I always begin by using the artillery hold, but often something more is needed to get the rifle shooting its best. Let me show you what I do when this happens.

Adjustments to the artillery hold
I’m assuming that ya’ll know about the artillery hold; for those who don’t, here’s a brief article and video that explain it.

Most of what I’m about to say is also in the video. If the normal artillery hold isn’t working, try resting the rifle on the backs of your fingers. This provides a narrower fulcrum and often removes some of the randomness you get from holding the rifle on the flat of your palm.

Whether the rifle is resting on my palm or the backs of my fingers, I usually start out with the rifle rested as far back toward the triggerguard as possible. If I can’t get accuracy there, I slide the fulcrum forward until the groups tighten. One word of warning about using the backs of the fingers: many rifles are heavy enough to hurt when rested this way. Though it may prove to be accurate, it may also be inconvenient.

Disregard the artillery hold
In very few cases over the years, I’ve found certain guns that needed to be held tight — like a deer rifle. These are extremely rare; but if all else fails, grab on for dear life and pull the stock tight into your shoulder.

Clean the barrel
This is an old standby that simulates breaking-in the barrel. And you only do it with steel barrels. Brass barrels should never be cleaned this way. Run the correct caliber brass or bronze bore brush loaded with J-B Non-Embedding Bore Cleaning Compound through the barrel 20 times in both directions. You need to use a solid or sectional cleaning rod for this, as a pull-through will take forever.

When cleaning rifles that have sliding breeches like the TX200 and the RWS Diana 48, you’ll want to use a pistol bore brush because they’re shorter. They will clear the breech of the gun when loaded from the muzzle, making the reverse cleaning stroke much easier. You really should use a brass pistol brush, because nylon pistol brush bristles aren’t stiff enough to properly clean rust deposits from a steel rifle barrel.

This works sometimes because barrels are either full of foreign material and dirt, or they’re actually rusted. Bluing solutions will cause a barrel to rust in storage and shipment. I used to clean all the Lothar Walther barrels at AirForce after they came back from the bluer, and you would be surprised at what came out! I always left them with a film of a commercial product called Rustlick that we bought by the gallon, yet sometimes even then they would continue to rust. You never can be sure without cleaning the barrel.

If you just shoot your gun when it’s new, eventually the pellets will clean the barrel for you. They’ll also remove any burrs that are standing proud of the rifling. But to speed up the process, nothing can beat J-B Bore Paste!

Tighten the stock screws
This ought to be your first step even before attempting to shoot the gun. But we forget or we grow complacent. Many of the newer guns are designed with stock screws that just don’t loosen as much as they used to, and some companies like Gamo apply Locktite to their stock screws. Still, give those screw heads a try.

This task goes much better if you use something like a professional screwdriver set. I owns several sets like this, and they’re in constant use at my house. You’ll find that one set will have that extra-narrow Phillips bit you need for certain jobs, while another will have the wide, fat slotted bit for those huge screw heads you sometimes encounter.

Tighten the scope screws
You would not believe how many times I’ve encountered loose scope screws! It happens on firearms as well as airguns. And it’s always a detriment to accuracy. To find out if the screws are loose, I do two things.

First, I grab the gun by the scope and shake it. If the mounts are loose, this will tell you immediately that something’s wrong. But to be absolutely certain, I do physically check every screw. I’ve had the embarrassing situation arise that after doing a big article that had an accuracy section, when I’m removing the scope I discover one or more loose screws. That always makes me wonder if the gun shot as well as it could have.

The place where this is especially evasive is on mounts that are adjustable. The adjustment screws that oppose each other (I’m thinking of the B-Square design now) are often not under tension. That can lead to a problem even when the mounts are tight on the gun and the scope is tight in the rings.

The breech
On a breakbarrel air rifle, the breech is the area of greatest concern as far as accuracy problems go. A pivot pin that’s too loose can cause groups to open up, and a breech seal that stands too high can cause inconsistent closing of the breech. In fact, this is such a sensitive area that I pay particular attention to it when setting up a rifle for accuracy testing. If the barrel wobbles on the pivot pin, as so many Chinese-made breakbarrels do today, there’s little that can be done (outside of major gunsmithing) to tighten the breech. A gun with a wobbly barrel is not going shoot accurately regardless of how tight it may feel.

Along that line, someone asked about the Whiscombe I shoot. It’s both a breakbarrel and an underlever. The underlever cocks the mainsprings, but the barrel breaks open for loading. John Whiscombe designed a very positive method of enclosing this breech so it cannot get loose while the gun is operated. That’s why this spring rifle shoots almost as accurately as a PCP.


Here you can see the Whiscombe breech broken open. There are two chisel detents holding the breech shut, and a bar welded to the underside of the barrel is clamped by them. Those chisels will be on top of the bar when the breech is closed. The barrel opens and closes independent of the rifle being cocked.

You also have to look at the breech seal. Not because the gun leaks air at the seal, because that’s relatively rare, but because the breech seal often stands so high that it doesn’t allow the breech to close the same every time. So, a flat breech seal is not as much of a problem as a tall seal might be. When this is the problem, and it’s relatively rare, then you need to reconfigure the breech seal, which can take some time. I don’t have a handy rule of thumb guide for this, but the height of the breech seal can affect accuracy when it gets too high.

Summary
These are the things I do when accuracy isn’t what it should be. As I said in the beginning, the problems happen mostly with spring-piston guns; and of those, the powerful breakbarrels are the worst of all. If a CO2 gun or a pneumatic is inaccurate I suspect the barrel before anything else; and if the gun is a cheap one, it may just not have a good barrel to begin with.

I used to oil my springers a lot more than I do today. I now think over-oiling the compression chamber leads to accuracy problems more than a dry gun.

There may be a few other tricks I know, but these are the ones that come to mind when I think about guns that are difficult.

The stuff we do!

by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Shao Lin is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week on their facebook page. He’ll receive a $50 Pyramyd Air gift card.

Shao Lin wins this week’s Big Shot of the Week.

The more I read the old books about shooting and guns written by men who were born in the 19th century, the more I realize how much alike we all are — and I don’t just mean shooters, now. I mean people, in general!

Let’s begin with nicknames or handles. We have some clever ones here on this blog. But are you aware that back in the late 1800s, shooters who posted letters in their favorite shooting publications — which at that time were mostly newspapers — did the same thing?

Names like Medicus and Iron Ramrod shout out from the late 19th century with their concerns that the younger shooters who are getting used to cartridge-loading breechloaders simply do not know the rudiments of shooting like the “real shooters” who grew up with black powder! The new crop of shooters (I’m speaking of late 19th-century shooters, now) have forgotten how to measure a group with string and they want to measure the distance to their targets in yards instead of rods like real shooters do.

Then, there are the experiments they performed. Dr. Mann was the great one for this, and he kept a very compliant Harry Pope busy fashioning the testbeds for his various forays into the arcane world of ballistics. Things like the cylindrical rifle action that allowed Dr. Mann to rotate the action by degrees in a complete revolution, all while the gun was safely snugged down in his 3,000-lb. “Shooting Gibralter” vise. Or the barrel he convinced Pope to rifle after drilling and tapping eight holes through the side of the barrel near the muzzle so Mann could test the effects of releasing gas to the side so it didn’t exit the muzzle with the bullet. Pope had to lay out that rifling job so those pre-drilled and threaded holes ended up in the grooves of his gain-twist rifling and did not cut through any of the eight lands!

I got a call the other day from Dennis Quackenbush, who follows my column in Shotgun News. He became interested in my comments on the rifling twist rate of airgun barrels as it relates to stabilizing those solid pellets that I call bullets. They don’t shoot very well in most airgun barrels because the twist rate of one turn in 16 inches of barrel isn’t fast enough to stabilize them once they exit the muzzle. So, he offered to make me two test barrels — one rifled 1 in 22″ and the other rifled 1 in 13″ — to test what effects the twist rate has on pellet stabilization. I’m going to accept his offer, and we’ll have yet another look at one of the big drivers of accuracy. I’ll also test velocity using the exact same power settings, so we will have a good look at how twist rates affect velocity.

Years ago, Dennis allowed me to cut off one of his smallbore CO2 rifle barrels an inch at a time so I could chronograph the pellets coming out of many different barrel lengths. I reported those results in The Airgun Letter after completing the test, which is why I now have some sense of how long a CO2 barrel needs to be to get maximum velocity.

Then, there’s the famous Cardew experiment from their book, The Airgun From Trigger to Target, where the authors fired a spring-piston rifle in an inert gas environment that didn’t support combustion — all so they could test the power level of a spring-piston rifle that was denied the possibility of dieseling. The fact that they did the experiment was good enough. We learned that all air rifles that shoot above a certain velocity diesel with every shot. But what was really cool was how they did it — by shooting inside plastic bags!

When I worked at AirForce, we had a customer who purchased a .22-caliber Condor, then proceeded to adapt the rifle’s reservoir to a large helium tank. He could then sit at a bench and fire the rifle on pure helium. He claimed to get over 1,500 f.p.s. from his modified rifle. It was useless for anything else, but he didn’t want to do anything other than see how fast it could shoot.

Even my semi-sane buddy Mac bought a 26-inch Weihrauch barrel in .177 just so he could adapt it to his son’s Condor. He was looking for a flat-shooting air rifle and I guess he got it, because his son is now supposed to be able to keep all his shots on the round end of a soda can at 80 yards.

Let us never forget the great pogostick repeating airgun! That one is now in Vince’s protective care, awaiting his verdict on whether or not it can be made operable.

Left-eye dominance
Here’s a problem many shooters have. Their dominant eye is on the other side of their body from the side that dominates the motor skills. The most common is a right-handed person whose has a dominant or master left eye. This can be overcome in a number of ways — including tinkering! Back when Edith was shooting BRV, she discovered that she is left-eye dominant; but Gary Barnes, who made the rifle she competed with, made her an outrigger scope mount that put the scope in line with her left eye. The mount had to be boresighted for just one range; because like the pellet drop, the gun also shot to the left from the shooter’s perspective. No problem in BRV, though, because it was all shot at one distance.


Edith’s outrigger scope mount helped her sight with her left eye while shooting right-handed.

But Edith is far from the first shooter to have this problem. Take a look at the lengths a shotgun maker will go to satisfy his client.


A friend owns this shotgun with a crossover stock. It was made to aid a right-handed shooter who is left-eye dominant.

A couple months ago, I bought an unusual Schmidt-Rubin Model 1911 rifle at a gun show. This one has been carefully transformed into a fine target rifle. I could spend a whole blog on just this one rifle, but here are some highlights. The military stock has been completely reshaped into a target style with a deeply curved pistol grip. The bolt handle that used to be two cones of red plastic (yes, I said plastic — though they may be almost any synthetic, since this is a 1911 rifle) now has a steel ball for a pull. It looks odd but it works. And the front sight is a thing of beauty. A man has taken the time to hand-make a target globe front sight with replaceable inserts. I got only the one insert that’s in the sight now, which is two brass wires arranged like scope reticles. They look crude up close; but last week at the range I put four cast lead bullets in one inch at 100 yards, and that was the first time I ever loaded for this rifle.


Someone converted this Swiss Schmidt-Rubin model 1911 rifle into a target rifle. The stock is fashioned from the original military stock.


He replaced the conventional red synthetic bolt knobs with a steel ball, which he welded to the bolt handle.


The amount of time and care that someone put into making this target sight is amazing! This is where enthusiasts will take the sport when they have the time, motivation and skills.

I remember attending an airgun breakfast sponsored by the NRA at the Annual Meetings in Kansas City. Dennis Quackenbush and I sat on either side of the man who was the CEO of Crosman Corporation at that time. We got onto the subject of all the people who modify Crosman airguns, and the executive said he was surprised that shooters would spend time and money on a $39 airgun. Dennis told him, “Oh, but they do. You sell them the gun for $39 and I sell them $125 worth of accessories. Your guns are keeping me in business!”

From the look on the man’s face, I don’t think he believed us. And from his perspective, maybe he was right. He might sell 50,000 SSP air pistols in a year and Dennis might sell the parts to modify 500 of them in various ways. So, each man had an entirely different perspective on the situation.

As a writer, though, my eye is always on what people are doing, or what they say they want to do. I can’t be interested in a buyer who responds to a point of sale promotion at a discount store, because he may lose interest tomorrow. It’s when he finds his way to this blog through the tanglefoot of the internet and asks that first question that tells me we’re about to gain another potential member in out growing ranks. It’s at that point that my mantra becomes one of flypaper.

Almost anything can be interesting if it’s presented in the right way. And with airguns, one of the right ways is to wow the audience. Make them say to themselves, “I didn’t know that!” If you can do that, we’ll gain a lot of new shooters who are interested in learning.

Another way to attract new people is to help them through the minefield of hype and hyperbolae. The marketing people are doing all they can to attract people to the hobby, but it’s us veterans who will make things inviting enough that they’ll want to stay. And that is what I want, more than anything.

The art of collecting airguns: Part 7

by B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


My Ballard is a factory-made special-order rifle made in 1886. It looks almost new and the bore is pristine.

Today, I’ll report on my progress in getting the Marlin Ballard to shoot. I’ll tie that back to airgunning, because the same principles that drive the accurate firearm rifle will work there, as well.

In fact, today’s something of a shocker and a screamer. The shock comes from how badly I prepared the ammunition, and the screaming came when I saw the last two targets for the first time.

Preparation
To prepare to shoot the Ballard, two things must happen. First, the rifle was cleaned as soon as it returned from the range the last time it was shot. Because the barrel is so glass-smooth, it takes only a few minutes to clean. Then, it sits on display, proudly awaiting its next outing.

The second thing that must be done is the ammo must be prepared. I have not resized the cases before reloading them. Because they are always fired in the same rifle and in the same chamber, I have filed a notch in their base so each case is always oriented in the chamber the same way. They are loaded straight into the breech with the notch at 12 o’clock.

The cases were deprimed, the primer pockets were then cleaned and Federal large rifle primers were inserted into each case. Then, I ran a belling tool into the case to open the throat to receive the new bullet. Next, all 40 cases received a fresh charge of H4198 powder. I’m using an RCBS Uniflow powder measure, and it was easy to set it at the 17 grains of powder I determined last session would be the optimum charge.

I’m still using the original Winchester cases that I determined were slightly too short for the rifle’s chamber. But, they’re all I have and they’re on their third loading right now.

The key to today’s test was to see if I could detect a difference in accuracy between the sized bullet that measures 0.379″ and the as-cast bullet that measures 0.381 inches. With everything else being the same, I figured a 10-shot group would show the difference, if there is any.

Trouble, trouble, mega trouble!
Never have I had so many difficulties loading a few straight-wall rifle cartridges. The 20 sized and lubricated bullets went together with their cartridges pretty quick and without any problems; but, when it came time for the as-cast and finger-lubed bullets, it was like juggling flasks of nitroglycerin. Some of the finger-lubed bullets got stuck in the seating die from the excess lubricant around the bullet. I had to disassemble the dies several times and drive out the stuck bullet out. I assembled the die again, and that caused variations in the overall cartridge length.

Another problem I had was that the nose punch in the seating die has the incorrect taper for the bullet I’m using. It cut a ring on every one of the 40 lead bullets I loaded. This was the worst lot of ammo I’ve ever made, and it showed.

Each of these problems has to be addressed and fixed in the future. Right now, they’re causing me to make ammo that isn’t too pretty.


Those cartridges should all be the same overall length. Having to constantly disassemble the dies to remove stuck bullets caused this. This is sloppy ammo that shouldn’t shoot well. Notice the file marks in the base of each case that are used to index the case to the chamber.


The ring below the flat nose of the bullet shouldn’t be there. It was caused by an improperly shaped nose punch in the bullet-seating die. The fix is to send several bullets to RCBS, the die maker so they can cut a nose punch that’s matched to the shape of this bullet. This is one more problem that detracts from the accuracy of this reloaded round.

Excuses, excuses!
With all of these excuses, I’m sure you expect another mediocre report. Don’t! The gun did very well in spite of all I did to derail it. The day was perfect, without a breath of air, so 100-yard shooting was very easy.

As always, the rifle was rested on an MTM rifle rest on my MTM shooting bench. The bulls are 3-7/8 inches in diameter and perfect for these sights at 100 yards. My front sight element is an aperture, so the trick is to center the bull inside it and level the bubble in the spirit level to cancel any cant.

The sized bullets were in the first group of 10. They gave me an average target.


Well, at least they’re all in the black. Ten sized bullets made this mediocre group at 100 yards.

Then, I switched to the unsized bullets. I expected a thorough trouncing of the sized bullets, but it didn’t happen. In fact, the two targets look very similar. And, I threw one shot out of the black!


The unsized bullets were slightly worse than the sized bullets.

So, what gives?
I’m sitting there wondering what I could do to improve this rather mundane performance, when it hit me. I wasn’t close enough to the rear aperture! I would have to hold my eye up close so the most light possible comes through the tiny peep hole.

Also, I could pay more attention to the bubble in the spirit level with my eye closer to the peep hole, because I could now see the bubble better. You would be surprised to see how much cant you normally put on a rifle if you haven’t got a bubble to check yourself. I found that it felt like the rifle was tilted to the left when the bubble was actually leveled. My natural inclination to hold the rifle resulted in it being tilted far to the right.

Second targets
Now that I sorted out how to shoot, it was time to shoot the second set of targets. This is where the surprise was.


Eight sized bullets went through the group in the bull. This is real progress!


Seven bullets went through the center of the bullseye! These are the unsized bullets.

Analyzing the targets
I’ll cut to the chase. I don’t think I can really tell whether the unsized bullet is more accurate or not. Seven out of the 10 bullets made a group that measures 0.835 inches between centers. However, the actual group size of that target is 2.609 inches.

The best sized bullet group measures 1.437 inches for 8 shots and 2.55 inches for all 10 shots. That’s too close to call. But since the unsized group is not that much larger than the sized group, and because my sloppy reloading can easily explain the difference, I think the larger bullet is the better one. My lubrication process has to change, because I can’t keep disassembling the bullet-seating die all the time. I need to find a way to lube the bullets so it leaves the grease in the grooves instead of all over the side of the bullet. I guess I’ll break down and try the classic “cake cutter” method, where the bullets are stood in a flat pan and melted grease is poured in the pan until it reaches the top groove. The grease is allowed to re-harden, then an old cartridge with the end cut off is used to cut each bullet out of the hardened lubricant.

Also, I need to remember to begin my sighting procedure the right way next time, with my eye close to the rear aperture. I have to remember to level the bubble for every shot.

Mac suggested that leaving the powder loose in the case might have been a contributor to fliers. The next time I reload, every case will get a Dacron wad over the powder. I use one in my .43 Spanish, and it works well.

Lasting impressions
I’d forgotten to take a spotting scope to the range on this day, so I was unaware of what the final two groups looked like until I walked up on them. Seeing a large hole in the center of the bull on a 100-yard target is thrilling, to say the least. I refer to good shots as “screamers,” and I’m darned if I didn’t do a lot of screaming when I saw those two targets.

All my life, I’ve read articles about the great marksmen of the late 19th century, and I’ve looked at the targets that accompanied their articles. To put my shooting into perspective, Harry Pope, the great barrelmaker and world champion rifle shot, once put 10 rounds into a 0.20-inch group at 200 yards. Talk about a screamer!


This group is a representation because the original was lost. This was scanned from the book, The Story of Pope’s Barrels, by Ray M. Smith, copyrighted 1960 and published by The Stackpole Company. Revised edition 1993 printed by R&R Books.

Pope shot this group with his .33-47 rifle, which was a breechloader that was also a muzzleloader. The loaded cartridge was first loaded into the breech in the normal way, then a bullet was loaded from the muzzle and rammed down to the top of the cartridge. That way the “fins” of lead resulting from the rifling were not on the base of the bullet when it exited the muzzle, and that has proven to increase accuracy. Should we be muzzle-loading pellets? I think not.

Pope shot the famous group and walked down to the 200-yard target to retrieve it. He set it on the ground and measured it with the calipers he always carried; but, since the wind had picked up, he held the target down with his knee. After measuring it, he stood up, but before he could grab the target, the wind caught it and dropped it in the nearby river.

Unlike Elmer Keith’s famous 400-yard elk kill with a .44 Magnum revolver, nobody doubts the truth of this story. Harry Pope had the reputation of being scrupulously honest in all his dealings; and, if anyone was ever going to shoot a group like that, he was the one most likely to do it.

I never expect to come close to this kind of accuracy, but it would be pleasing some day to shoot 10 shots into an inch at 200 yards. I know benchrest shooters do it all the time, but I would feel more fulfilled doing it with this 125-year-old rifle. It was good enough for target shooters in 1886, and that makes it good enough for me today.

How does this relate to airguns?
I think that’s a good question that deserves an answer. In airgunning, there are certain air rifles with a reputation for extreme accuracy. Some, like the underlever TX200, require technique to shoot this well, while others are more forgiving.

Some of these accurate airguns are even vintage and no longer made. The FWB 124 would fall into that category, as would an Air Arms Shamal PCP. We’ve discussed subjects like extreme accuracy, and many of us seem to be in pursuit of the smallest groups possible. It’s my hope that by sharing what I’ve had to go through to obtain good accuracy from my old Ballard, that you’ll be able to apply some of these same things to your airguns.

I haven’t even mentioned sorting my bullets by weight to this point, but that’s coming. Now that I have a good load (equate that to finding a good pellet and the right power setting) and have learned the importance of good shooting technique like sighting and cant reduction (equate that to the artillery hold and also using a bubble level on your airgun), I’m ready to take this quest to a whole new level.

I admit that I do enjoy shooting this firearm a lot, which is the main reason I do it. Kevin has just shown that my rifle might be worth over $12,000, but I’m darned if that will make me get rid of it. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at, but seeing those tight 10-shot groups at 100 yards is more beautiful to me. Townsend Whelen said it all when he said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” Well, this one fascinates me. But it is just as easy to be fascinated by a Weihrauch HW50S that cannot seem to shoot multiple pellets anywhere but to the same place.

The art of collecting airguns – Part 2

by B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

Today, I’ll fulfill my promise to tell you about the greatest gun deal I’ve ever made. Although the title says airguns, today’s article is about firearms. But the process by which I did what seemed to me to be impossible is the same one I described in Part 1 of this report series.

I’m going to have to give you some background information, which involves other gun deals, because without them I would never have been able to swing this deal. But first, let me tell you what I was up against. You are about to read the longest and most detailed single blog report I have ever made, so you’d better put on a whole pot of coffee and get comfy.

There’s a gun store in Ft. Worth called the Winchester Gallery, and it’s right out of the 1950s. Besides modern guns, they have a wide selection of fine vintage guns for sale. You all liked the looks of my Winder Musket when I showed it to you. The Winchester Gallery has two of them available!


The Winder Musket is a target rifle chambered for .22 Short and was sanctioned for NRA matches in the early part of the 20th century.

They also have a great number of other fine collectible antique firearms. About five years ago, my buddy Mac was telling me how interested he was in a single-shot rifle in caliber .38-55 Winchester. Well, imagine my surprise to find such a rifle on the wall at the Winchester Gallery. It was a Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle with tang sight and spirit level front sight with wind gauge (that means the front sight adjusts to either side for windage corrections). Don’t worry about all that terminology. I’ll show you everything and explain it today.

The only problem with this fine rifle was its price. They wanted $3,500 for it! I don’t look seriously at guns in that price range because, frankly, I don’t have that kind of money to spend. Life went on, I returned home and the beautiful Ballard remained on the wall at the Winchester gallery, where it had already been for many years.

I would return to the Winchester Gallery several times each year that followed and every time I would visit that rifle. I was drawn to it, even though I would never have considered it had Mac not been interested in the caliber. The wood was so beautiful that it looked edible and the color case-hardened receiver looked new! But at $3,500, it was all looky and no touchy!

Fast-forward to two years ago, when I acquired an unbelievable Winchester M1 Carbine in a deal that was the best firearms deal I ever made to that point. What I thought I was buying was a clean M1 Carbine that I could shoot. What I actually got was a highly collectible and rare first model spring-tube Winchester sitting in a presentation walnut stock.


This 100 percent spring-tube Winchester carbine was made in 1943, during the third month of production. It saw no service and was as new as the day it was proofed.

This Winchester was all that I wanted and more. Unfortunately, it was the “more” that broke my heart. You see, this was a rare collectible gun that was also prone to break early in its life. The spring tube that Winchester had used because they didn’t have the tooling to drill deep holes straight in the receivers was prone to crack the receiver at several weak points. I wanted something to shoot, but shooting is the last thing you should do with this particular model. What I really had was the famed Biblical pearl of great price — something so valuable that it could not serve its intended purpose.

After getting out of the hospital in June of this year, I engaged in a complex trade with a local M1 Carbine collector who took my Winchester and left me with a very shootable S’G’ carbine plus a rare 1862 Peabody rifle. The Peabody I have written about already. It’s a fine rifle but it had one fatal flaw, from my perspective. It was too valuable to modify in any way! Once again, I had a gun I could shoot, but not one I could put a scope on without destroying about a thousand dollars of collector value.


The Peabody rifle was a single-shot cartridge rifle that was purchased by three state militias and several foreign governments. This one is from Connecticut, the only state to rebarrel their rifles in .45-70 caliber with Henry rifling.


The Peabody has an outside hammer. When Martini of Switzerland modified it, he lost the hammer and went to an internal striker. The Peabody-Martini rifle design is known much better than the Peabody that preceded it.


Very few Peabody rifles are marked this clearly.


The Henry rifling in this rifle bore is close to pristine, despite use with black powder and corrosive primers.

You guys know that I ended up putting a scope on my Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish. And that rifle has met all my hopes for what it could be and do. Mac got to shoot it about a month ago and his first three bullets at 50 yards could be covered by a quarter!


This Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish caliber (the same as .44-77 Sharps) is now a real tackdriver.

So, I owned this nice Peabody in .45-70 caliber, but I already own a vintage Trapdoor Springfield rifle in the same caliber that serves me very well. I don’t need two rifles in the same caliber. Plus, I had to modify the sights on the Trapdoor to be able to see the front blade and also to be on target at 50 yards. The Peabody has sights that hit 14 inches high at 50 yards, and I can’t see its front sight blade anyway. Despite being a way-cool historical firearm, it wasn’t giving me a warm fuzzy as a shooter.

A second blue-chip trade
Now you need to know something else. A few weeks ago, I had a brief opportunity to purchase a Winchester model 55 takedown rifle for about half what it’s actually worth. The rifle is in very good condition, but I was able to acquire it for just $600, because the seller needed the cash to make his own incredible buy. I had about an hour to decide, but I knew I could always sell the rifle for a handsome profit. Even though it tapped me out of cash at the time, I bought it.


The Winchester 55 is a little-known cousin of the famed model 1894. Where about ten million 94s were made, Winchester made only about 35,000 model 55s. It’s three times rarer than the model 64, which is also considered to be a scarce cousin to the 94. This one is in caliber .32 Winchester Special.


The bluing has flaked off the receiver because Winchester used nickel steel for the receiver, which did not hold the blue. They even lose blue when left untouched. Later, they changed the alloy and the bluing stuck better. Oddly, the barrel retains about 98 percent of the blue, even though it’s also made of nickel steel. Apparently, the barrel alloy is different.


This rifle is a take-down design that worked flawlessly. They seldom, if ever, become loose.

This 55 is a takedown rifle, which is usually rare, but in a 55 it is the most common form. The solid frame rifle is the one you don’t see that often. This rifle is in .32 Winchester Special, which is ballistically slightly better than the .30-30.

The plot thickens!
Now, all the pieces of the puzzle have come together. I have two prime collectible firearms that I don’t really want, and I acquired them in either great trades or buys after June of this year. Together they’re worth — wait for it — between $3,000 and $3,800, though I didn’t pay anywhere near that much. Still, I didn’t put everything together until I wrote that airgun collectible piece for this blog. Then it dawned on me that I could take my own advice and get the gun I really wanted by trading the two I didn’t care about.

Or at least that is how the story would have gone in a well-written novel or movie.

In my case, the idea of trading had to be suggested to me by a gun buddy, because I was too obtuse to envision it. However, once he mentioned it, I saw the possibilities. Mac, this other guy and I had just visited the Winchester Gallery, and I finally got to show both of them the Ballard rifle I’d been drooling over for the past five years. And that was when my other gun buddy suggested the trade. Only he told me to offer my Peabody and my Winder Musket. But I didn’t want to get rid of the Winder. I really like it. Then Mac said I should substitute the Winchester 55 for the Winder and suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun shown strong and warm!

They already had two Winder Muskets on their walls, but no model 55s. In fact, the guy who handled the trade for the gun store said it had been many years since he had seen a 55. So, from a desirability standpoint, this was the rifle they wanted and needed more than a third Winder.

Long story short, I made the trade and came home with a drop-dead gorgeous Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 target rifle. Ballard began making their rifles in 1861, and Marlin bought them out in 1875. Ballard rifling was considered to be among the best in its day — the Lothar Walther of the 19th century — and custom barrelmakers like Harry Pope liked the actions above all others.

Marlin made the Ballard single-shot rifle from 1875 until 1890, and they made just less than 36,000 of all models. The Union Hill No. 9 was introduced in 1884. From the serial number of this rifle, it seems it was made around 1886, but it looks almost brand new. It has walnut that would be called grade four today. The bore is bright, smooth and fresh despite may decades of black powder cartridges. Whoever owned this rifle, in fact all of the former owners, took painstaking care of it.


Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 offhand target rifle in .38-55 caliber. This single-shot rifle was probably made around 1886. Distinctive features are the pistol-grip stock, the cheekpiece and the half-round/half-octagon 30-inch barrel. The rifle weighs about 9.5 lbs.


Although the lever makes the rifle look like a repeater, it’s actually a single-shot. Just look at those bright case colors on the receiver!


When the lever goes forward, the breechblock and hammer drop down for loading.


When the breechblock drops down, the breech can be accessed for loading.

The rifle is in .caliber .38-55. Today, with smokeless power dominating all our loads, we think of that caliber as a good deer and black bear round, but in the black-powder days of the late 19th century when bullets flew at much slower velocities, this same cartridge was viewed as a good offhand round for 200-yard target work.


Not familiar with the .38-55 cartridge? In the middle, flanked by the .30-30 Winchester (left) and the .30-06 (right). The .38-55 is a blackpowder cartridge that spawned the .30-30, but also continues to live its own life today. It’s a little more powerful than the .30-30, but in the 19th century was considered to be a great offhand target cartridge.

After some internet research, I’m 95 percent convinced that what I have is a Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle. All the specifications, save one, fit perfectly. What doesn’t line up is that my rifle has a black flat gutta-percha buttplate, where the No. 9 usually had a nickel-plated butt hook. But customers could make changes to the base models, and in all other ways, my rifle aligns with the No. 9 Union Hill.

What thrills me to no end is the presence of both a tang-mounted diopter rear sight and a rare wind-gauge front sight with spirit level. Marlin made both of these sights, so there’s no maker’s name on them. The rear sight is graduated to 900 yards, but careful examination shows that only 800 yards of adjustment is possible, and that was what defined the No. 9 rifle. The wind-gauge front sight is unusual because it adjusts for windage. While we have plenty of these sights today, they were not that common in the 19th century, but a target rifle like this one needed to have one. The spirit level refers to a bubble level in front of the front sight, so when you take aim you are careful to also center the bubble before firing. That way, all tendency to cant is eliminated.


This Marlin flip-up rear aperture sight mounts on the tang and adjusts out to 800 yards. Actual sight settings should be found through shooting at the ranges you want and recording the actual Vernier readings from the sight post in a shooter’s notebook for the rifle.


The rear of the front sight (top) is facing the shooter, so he levels the bubble before shooting. The front (bottom) has a Vernier scale for recording windage changes. Notice the complete absence of any crowning at the muzzle. This was common in the 19th century and was considered the most accurate way to finish a muzzle. Just keep it safe from bumps!


This set of marks was applied to Marlin Ballards made in 1881 and later. The patent date is Nov. 5, 1861.

What attracted me to this rifle the first time I saw it on the wall at the Winchester Galley was the beautiful wood buttstock and forearm. The figure in the wood is so gorgeous that it appears to be chocolate! Both the pistol grip and forearm are checkered well, but not with fine lines. This checkering is meant to grip sweaty palms in the heat of competition.


This is what I mean by “edible” wood!


A fine gutta-percha buttplate is held to the butt with two engraved screws. Notice the screw slots are aligned with the bore — a sign of quality gun-making!

If you just have to know how much I am into this rifle, the total is $1,850, or a little more than half the asking price. But wait a moment — I said this rifle had been on the wall at the Winchester Gallery for many, many years. In all that time, the price tag had remained the same as the day it was put on. So, the gun’s price never appreciated through the years as it should have.

You can go on Gun Broker and find Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifles for $3,500 from time to time. But look at them closely, because none of them will have this grade of wood and their case colors will not be as bright and vibrant as those on this gun. Some may even have double-set triggers or Swiss butt hooks, but they’ll lack the spirit level wind gauge front sight. Get all the attributes the same as my gun and the starting price will be closer to $5,000.

The moral
This story has a point. Besides my sharing the tremendous find with you, I also hope to encourage you to think bigger than you have been. If you want a certain airgun, make up your mind to get it. A year ago, I would have said there was no way I could have ever acquired this rifle. But by putting into practice several of the tips I have shared with you in this blog regarding acquiring fine airguns, I was able to swing the impossible deal through a series of other deals within the past five months of this year.

Not only have I told you a great story about a fantastic deal. I now find that my vision of what is possible has been expanded to larger than its former size. It will never again snap back to where it was before. Having done this, I know I can do other things equally large, so now I want to do more. Not spend more money, but take some of the things I don’t care about and turn them into things I can treasure. This means I have to be open to great buys when they pass my way, even if I don’t want them. Someone wise once said the deal of a lifetime comes by about every 18 months — more often if you are actively looking.

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