Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Donaldson’

The importance of the artillery hold

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

While I was at the courthouse awaiting jury selection the other day, I was reading a favorite gun book, Yours Truly Harvey Donaldson, edited by David R. Wolfe and published in 1980 by Wolfe Publishing Company, Prescott, Arizona. In the book, Wolfe assembles letters and articles written by Harvey Donaldson, one of America’s top shooters, and cartridge developers. He is best-known for his .219 Donaldson Wasp cartridge, but he actually worked on dozens of different centerfire cartridges over the 89 years of his fruitful life. And he was a schuetzen shooter on top of all of that. Schuetzen rifles are single-shot rifles with incredibly accurate barrels that shoot lead bullets at low velocities. They typically shoot at 100 and 200 yards, either offhand or rested on a bench. The best of them have been known to put 10 bullets into a group that measures under one-half inch at 200 yards, which is a challenge that’s difficult to equal with modern arms today.

So, Donaldson knew how to shoot. And that’s the connection to today’s report. I read a paragraph that Donaldson wrote for an article that appeared in American Rifleman magazine in May 1936 – Rest Shooting and Schuetzen Loading:

“The secret of fine rest shooting is to hold the rifle so it will be free to recoil in the same way for each shot. I like to have my rifle come straight back, and when I see the crosshairs rise toward 12 o’clock in a straight line above the bull, I know that all is well and I can expect a good group. If the shooter will carefully perfect his holding so as to get this effect, the matter of making small groups will come much easier.”

That’s a good description of the goals of the artillery hold airgunners use, with one exception. Donaldson describes firearms that, while their bullets don’t travel very fast (never over 1,400 f.p.s.), still leave the muzzle before the major vibrations and movement of the gun begins. With a spring-piston airgun, the heavy steel piston has already jumped forward violently and then come to a sudden stop before the pellet begins to move. Vibrations in the gun have already started well before the pellet leaves the bore, which is why airgunners have to take this special hold even farther than Donaldson describes.

Important point — please read and understand!
Remember this — Donaldson was talking about firearms when he described his hold. So, the basic tenets of the artillery hold apply to firearms as well as to airguns. I have known that all along, but I haven’t harped on it because it really doesn’t matter to most shooters. A hold like this is only important to those who want the absolute last bit of accuracy potential from their firearms. Some of our blog readers who have competed with firearms, like Victor, understand the importance of hold consistency without my saying anything. They might call it something else, like follow-through perhaps, but we’re speaking about the same thing. For the rest of the shooters who are just plinking with a .22 rimfire or shooting anything offhand, it wasn’t important that I drill down to the absolute bottom bedrock fundamentals of shooting to explain my points. Either they understood it without me commenting or it wasn’t important.

But I’m going on record today and saying that an artillery-like hold, or at least a repeatable hold that allows the firearm to recoil in the same way every time, does have a positive influence on the accuracy of a firearm as well as a spring-piston airgun. And I’m also going to say that the artillery hold has a positive effect on other types of airgun powerplants — including the precharged pneumatic (PCP).

It’s still true that a PCP is much easier to shoot accurately than a spring-piston gun, but only with a proper hold will any PCP be capable of delivering its full accuracy potential. Because PCPs do not vibrate very much, nor do they recoil, the benefit of a consistent hold gets lost in the noise. Most good PCPs shoot very well regardless of how they’re held.

What is special about the artillery hold?
Okay, we know that the consistency of the hold is important to accuracy. But is the artillery hold different than what Donaldson describes in the passage above? Yes, it is. Donaldson rested his schuetzen rifles front and rear. The barrel of his rifle rested on the forward rest and the buttstock rested on the rear rest. There’s foam rubber between the barrel and the rest, but my point is that Donaldson does not rest the rifle on its forearm.

To be honest, there are photos showing benchrest rifles rested on their forearms, too, so it can be done either way, but the barrel rest was by far the more common in these older times.

Harvey Donaldson with rested rifle
Donaldson shown with a rested schuetzen rifle in the 1930s. The barrel is resting on foam rubber on the front rest. Photo from the book, Yours Truly, Harvey Donaldson, Wolfe Publishing, 1980.

What’s special about the artillery hold is that we don’t normally rest the rifle directly on sandbags or other rests. Instead, we rest it on our hands, which are placed on the rest. The flesh of the hand cushions the rifle in some unique way that even sand cannot. There are some gel-filled pads that seem to work as well as the hand; but when you examine them, you find that they feel quite a lot like the flesh of your hand. There’s something about the consistency that a spring-piston air rifle needs in order to have repeatable recoil and vibration patterns.

What you rest the rifle on is important, but so is where you rest it. I often have to try sliding my off hand back and forth under the stock, from the triggerguard to out as far as I can hold it — searching for a point where the rifle responds the same with every shot. Sometimes, I never do find the right place, and then I resort to resting the stock on the backs of my fingers and even directly on the sandbag. I don’t use the backs of the fingers unless absolutely necessary because it often hurts. And the number of airguns that can be rested directly on a sandbag and still shoot well is very small, although the TX 200 is one that can.

Today’s lesson
The point of this report is that the artillery hold is nothing new, and I didn’t invent it. It was already very old when I picked a quirky name for it, so airgunners would remember it and be able to talk about it. This hold is one of the fundamental tools in a good shooter’s kit. You can ignore it, but do so knowing what you’re giving up — because this is the “secret” to shooting a recoiling spring-piston air rifle well.

Things we can learn from shooting firearms

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

I’ve written about firearms in this blog from time to time. Even though it’s about airguns, there are so many lessons we can learn from firearms that it’s a shame to turn our backs on them — as if by using explosive gas instead of compressed air they’re somehow different. Once the projectile gets out of the barrel, it acts the same regardless of what starts it on its way.

Many of you understand why I do this. Blog readers Kevin and BG_Farmer, for example, know that a precharged gun acts the same as a black powder arm, in that they both require a long barrel for optimum performance. The longer the barrel, the greater the velocity you can expect — all other things remaining equal. That was demonstrated clearly in the test of the Talon SS, when I switched from a 12-inch barrel to a 24-inch barrel. Velocity increased dramatically and the shot count remained the same — proving that a longer barrel gives greater performance in a PCP.

Today, I want to discuss another similarity I’ve discovered. I didn’t really “discover” it. I more or less tripped over it, cursed a bit; then, as I was picking myself up and brushing myself off, I happened to reflect on what had happened and was enlightened.

The idea first crossed my path in the book Yours Truly, Harvey Donaldson, by the author of the same name. He noticed that some of the shells he reloaded grouped their bullets very well, while others that had the same headstamp and were purchased at the same time, threw their shots wide of the mark. That phenomenon is so common in my experience that I thought it was the way things always were, but old Harvey had a different idea. He started setting aside the cartridge cases that threw the wild shots, keeping only those that tended to group their shots together. In time he was left with a smaller batch of shells that all wanted to put their bullets into the same hole — as long as everything else (powder type and weight, bullet weight, seating depth, primer type, etc.) stayed the same.

In the end, Donaldson wound up with a batch of shells he could count on to group their shots together and others that couldn’t. He then shot groups with cartridges made from the good shells and from those that were not as good and demonstrated that the good shells grouped much better.

My shooting buddy, with whom I recently commiserated about the lack of success we were having with some firearms, pointed out that we were both shooting cartridges with mixed headstamps, and we weren’t paying attention to the things that were staring us in the face. That was a wakeup call for me!

So, I’ve just begun doing the same thing as Donaldson with a couple of my firearms — but I don’t have any real results to show, yet. However, the initial examination does look promising. I say that because within any group of 10 shots with certain rifles there’s usually a smaller group that hints that there may be a difference between the shells, since everything else is exactly the same.

Shot group within a group 250 Savage
Ten shots from a 250-3000 Savage at 100 yards. If you were sorting these shells for reloading, which three would you exclude from the good pile? The x-ring is 0.90 inches in diameter.

Shot group within a group 22 Hornet
Ten shots from a .22 Hornet at 50 yards. Can you tell which 6 cartridges are of interest?

But how can this information help me as an airgunner? Edith pointed out that once the trigger is pulled, the pellet goes downrange and there is nothing left to be sorted for the next time.

But what if I could sort BEFORE the shot? And, of course I can! If I weigh and visually inspect each pellet, I’ll have the most uniform group of pellets possible. I can then shoot them against a random selection of pellets straight from the tin and also against a group of pellets that were specifically rejected during the selection process. There should be a noticeable difference between those three groups — no?

Oh, I can hear the gears turning, now! In your analytical minds, you’re creating universes in which all pellets go in the same hole at a ridiculously long distance. Well, cut it out! It often doesn’t work as simply as that. It may sound good when you read it in print; but when you attempt to test it, the results may not be what you expected. There are many reasons for this.

The gun
If you’re doing this with an accurate airgun, there’s a chance you’ll succeed. But if you’re doing it with a gun that vibrates like a jackhammer and kicks like a mule, any difference in accuracy may be overwhelmed by the slop of the test instrument (the gun).

Your shooting technique
I was at the range last week and observed a man who couldn’t hit a 12-inch paper plate at 100 yards every time with an M1 Garand. Was that the rifle’s fault? No, it wasn’t. The guy closed his non-sighting eye by squinting and refused to try holding it open. So, the round peep hole his sighting eye looked through was scrunched up into a deformed hole that nobody could hope to sight through. He could not be convinced to try holding both eyes open, and I bet this is a person who blames “old eyes” on his inaccuracy when it is nothing more than technique. If you don’t have good shooting technique, you’ll never be able to see subtle differences in accuracy in a test like this.

Range conditions
I’ve seen shooters complain because their rifles were not giving them one-inch groups at 100 yards. But they were shooting on a windy day and disregarding the wind entirely. As if a bullet isn’t affected by wind! Granted, bullets shot from firearms buck the wind much better than pellets — but, even so, there are limits. And a 15-mile-per-hour crosswind is not the time to be expecting one-hole groups. On a day like that, you either wait out the wind and shoot during the quiet times, or you do something else. But don’t expect to set records.

You need to shoot at a distance at which the groups start to open. I like small groups like everyone, but you don’t learn anything from them in a test like this. So, the 22-foot range in your basement is out. You need to get some distance between you and the target. For me, that distance is 50 yards. That’s where I have to do all of the things mentioned above correctly on every shot, and any mistake I make gets magnified greatly, to my embarrassment.

And why do you need open groups? What you really need is to clearly see the smallest deviations your pellets are making. The farther you shoot, the more visible they become.

So, Grasshopper, before you can benefit from today’s lesson, you must first prove that you can shoot tight groups to begin with. This is the reason I push so hard for new shooters to acquire certain models of airguns — because I know those models will give them a modicum of accuracy. What kind of Formula One racer would you be if all your driving experience was on a tractor?

I have done this test — once
I actually did do this test one time — twice if you count once with target sights and once with a scope. Some of you may remember that I was goaded into shooting groups at 50 yards with an FWB 300S target rifle. I did get better results from weight-sorted pellets than from random pellets taken straight from a tin. None of the groups were especially small, but those shot with weight-sorted pellets were the smallest in both the test with open sights and again with a scope.

But I haven’t done a test specifically to evaluate the benefits of sorting the pellets. That would be new.

I’m going to do it, so please give me your thoughts.

What kind of airgunner are you?

by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Andy Huggins 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.

Here’s what Andy says about his submission: Found this in the garage, it’s my dad’s old BB gun he got when he was 9. It needed a little work; but within an hour, I had it shooting good as new! It’s a Daisy model 30-30 Buffalo Bill Scout.

One of our blog readers mentioned the excellent book Yours Truly, Harvey Donaldson, and I purchased it. It’s a compendium of articles that Donaldson wrote for Handloader magazine, a few special articles he wrote for American Rifleman back in the 1930s and some correspondence he had with various notable shooting magazine editors. I found the book so interesting that I’ve already given two copies as presents to other shooters.

For those not familiar with the name, Harvey Donaldson is well known as a shooter, writer and developer of many wildcat cartridges — including his best-known .219 Donaldson Wasp. He was able to get 12,000+ rounds from a .220 Swift with each delivering in excess of 4,000 f.p.s. –and still group five shots inside a nickel at 100 yards. Today’s handloaders don’t have a clue or have forgotten about the knowledge men like this have given us.

Among the hundreds of treasures in this book, Donaldson makes the casual comment in one of his letters that Dr. F.W. Mann, who authored The Bullet’s Flight From Powder to Target, wasn’t a very good shooter. He also wasn’t a very good reloader. That’s why (according to Donaldson) Mann had to resort to his Shooting Gibralter concrete pier gun rest that weighed in excess of 3,000 lbs. and was sunk permanently in the ground. Donaldson says any good benchrest shooter could outshoot the groups Mann got using his rest.

That got me thinking. I have always thought of Dr. Mann as the penultimate shooter, and here is Harvey Donaldson, whose shooting credentials are impeccable, saying Mann wasn’t a shooter at all. He was a scientist.

Then it dawned on me. Some people like to shoot to see how well they can do, while others, like me, like to shoot to see how well the gun can do. Mann was obsessed with the quest to discover why all bullets do not fly to the exact same point of impact. He never discovered the reason, but along the way he did discover many things that we now take for granted:

1. Uniformity of the bullet’s base is extremely important to accuracy.

2. A bullet’s nose can be grossly deformed without affecting accuracy one bit.

3. The orientation of the rifle’s action must be consistent from shot to shot for the best accuracy.

4. A bullet can stray from the boreline in any direction on its way to the target and still hit the target exactly in the center.

Mann was an experimenter whose focus was on the gun and ammunition, rather than his own abilities. Not all shooters are like that.

Olympic and world-class target shooters tend to focus on their own abilities, to the point that they seem to assume the rifle or pistol they use is capable of perfect accuracy. Of course, they do test ammunition; but once they find what works, they buy it in quantity and concentrate on their own skills.

On the other hand, I tend to shoot from a bench more often than not. I want to see what the gun can do, and I’m not overly concerned about my own shooting skills.

In fact, I am just an average shot. If you were to plink with me, you’d soon discover that I can’t shoot any better than you and perhaps a lot worse than many of you. When I test an airgun for this blog, you don’t care how well I shoot. You want to know how well you can expect that gun to shoot. The benchrest takes as much of me out of the equation as possible and gives you a more objective picture of the gun’s performance.

Of course, you have to know how to shoot from a bench, and I have had lots of practice at that. Maybe I might seem like a good shooter to some people, but that’s only when I am as far removed from the shooting as possible. In truth, I am really a lot more like Dr. Mann, in that I’m more interested in the performance of the airguns than in my own ability to shoot.

But there are many shooters who are the opposite. They want to know how well they can shoot, and the rifle is just what they use to measure it. Of course, they’re aware that all guns are not perfectly accurate; and, yes, they do go through the same sort of search to find one that suits them best. Once they find it, all focus shifts back to their ability to shoot rather than whether or not that rifle can be made to shoot any better.

These shooters are not all shooting offhand, either. Some shoot from the prone position, others from the sitting position and many will take a rest wherever they can find it. Some of them even use crossed sticks as a portable steady rest in the field.

Let’s compare these people to our American 2x Gold Medalist Olympic champion rifle shooter — Gary Anderson. They first want a gun and ammunition they can trust; and after that, it’s all up to them and their skills with the gun.

Let me give you a couple variations on this theme to better illustrate what I’m saying. There’s the guy who receives his airgun and plops down in front of a chrongraph with a tin of pellets, first thing. For him, life is complete. He’ll sit there shooting thousands of rounds across the skyscreens as he inputs the results into endless spreadsheets of data to discuss on his favorite forum. He’s like Dr. Mann. He’s interested in one aspect of performance to the near-exclusion of all others.

The next guy buys the very same airgun and starts shooting it at targets immediately. He’s the guy who puts 80,000 shots on a gun and can talk about longevity issues that the rest of us will never live long enough to see. Where some of us live in the hopes of a good tuneup on our airguns, this guy has already performed four on his and has the parts on hand for the next two. To him, a tuneup is unavoidable downtime when he would rather be out shooting. He’s like Gary Anderson. He’s a shooter.

Another guy buys the same airgun and never shoots the first shot out of it. He tears it down and modifies it in ways that have either been recommended to him on the internet or that seem like the best way to go. Some of these guys have the rifle shipped to a certain airgun tuner and let him apply his magic before they ever set eyes upon their gun for the first time.

Then, there’s the guy why buys the same gun, sights it in with a good pellet and immediately starts hunting everything within sight. His gun is a tool, like his game caller and his rangefinder. He, too, is a shooter, but he doesn’t collect his shooting experiences as scores on targets, pictures of groups or numbers on a graph. Rather, he has an endless supply of memories of this hunt and that, what went right and what went wrong.

Does that explain it?
Does that, perhaps, explain why one shooter can be delighted with a rifle that shoots a certain pellet at 1,050 f.p.s. into a one-inch group at 30 yards and another cannot be satisfied until the same model rifle is tuned down to 850 f.p.s. and can put them all into a dime at 50 yards? Does it explain why a twangy firing cycle is so disturbing to one shooter, yet another can brush it off because the rifle puts them all where he wants them to go?

We’re complex
I am not saying that any of this is all one way and none of the other. But people do exhibit certain tendencies. Lloyd Sykes worked for years on the dynamics of an electronically controlled air valve, and now the world enjoys the Benjamin Rogue. Lloyd is a definite Dr. Mann. On the other hand, blog reader CowboyStar Dad tells us how many tens of thousands of shots he has on each of his guns. He wears out the mainspring in his IZH 61. He is a Gary Anderson-type shooter.

Knowing that these types of people exist may help us understand where someone is coming from when they ask a “simple” question…

Hi. I’m new to airgunning, and I would like to try out one of these new air rifles I keep reading about. I don’t want to spend too much money until I know that airgunning is for me, so can you make some recommendations of guns that cost under $300?

Yes, I can recommend some guns, but what do you want to do with one?

Person 1. I want to shoot tin cans and other targets around the manure pile. I have been shooting a .22; but there are some houses going in down the road, and I want to throttle back for safety.

Person 2. I’m fascinated by the thought of plain old air pushing a pellet to 1,400 f.p.s. I want to see what’s possible.

Person 3. My yard is infested with tree rats that I want to eradicate. After that, I plan on taking my show on the road and cleaning out the whole woods.

Person 4. I used to shoot target rifle on the ROTC team, and I’d like to get back into it but still be able to shoot at home because I don’t have a rifle range.

Leigh Wilcox, the founder of Airgun Express, used to say that airgun targets had to bleed, break or fall. Maybe they did for him, but I’m not ready to shoot at targets just yet. I’m still concerned why there is a twang upon firing and why my velocity is only 761 f.p.s. when others report over 840 f.p.s. from the same gun shooting the same pellet.

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