Going back to leaded
An alternative to steel BBs and rifled barrels
By Dennis Adler
I know the oil refining industry has a rational explanation for this, but I spent a good portion of my life as an automotive journalist and back in the 1970s when unleaded gas was introduced I was always amused that it cost more at the pump than regular leaded gasoline; you see lead is an additive, not a natural property of gasoline, so they were charging more for not putting it in! How does this apply to air pistols? Today we use steel BBs and a variety of cast alloy pellets as an alternative to traditional lead pellets. Even in the world of cartridge firing handguns and rifles, there are a number of non-lead bullets available today. Lead is not a good thing for humans or animals, but it is an often necessary component of a bullet, a pellet (such as the pellets in shotgun shells, though there is steel shot as well), and yes even original type BBs and pistol and rifle pellets. Environmentally conscious airgun shooters often defer to steel BBs and alloy pellets, and that is commendable, but lead pellets still dominate, and proper shooting conditions (use of pellet traps, just as lead bullets are reclaimed at indoor shooting ranges) can keep lead from becoming an environmental issue. (I use a baffle box behind my targets to trap the pellets). But, there is this little question that has arisen of late with the HK P30, a rifled barrel semiautomatic that can fire either pellets from an 8-shot rotary magazine or BBs from a combination CO2 and BB magazine. The question is what happens to the rifling when you shoot steel BBs through it, instead of a lead pellet? The answer is that using steel BBs will unfortunately erode the rifling over time.
The Smart Shot and lead shot option
Smart Shot copper-plated lead BBs were developed to minimize ricochet that can occur with steel BBs, which were developed to replace lead BBs (not so much replace but supplement, since lead BBs are still made), but there has been some pushback from consumers who find that the copper-plated lead Smart Shot BBs do not function well in some semi-auto blowback models. I have experienced this with a couple of pistols including the Umarex Legends P.08. One reader experienced it with the Umarex HK P30, the very gun that also brought about the question of using steel BBs in a pistol with a rifled barrel. The Smart Shot seems to be the quick solution, but there is another option, Gamo still makes round 4.5mm (.177) lead BBs. Lead shot is heavier; Excite Smart Shot has a weight of 7.4 gr., the Gamo .177 round lead shot a weight of 8.2 gr. Average grain weight for a .177 caliber steel BB is 5.1 gr. The lead shot will cost you velocity, but save the rifling. This little factoid also includes the Umarex Colt Peacemaker pellet model (and other pellet and BB cartridge firing revolvers with rifled barrels), which can also fire BB cartridges.
Testing lead in the HK P30
The HK P30 is a non-blowback action design and costs almost twice as much as most blowback action semi-autos. This is because of the P30’s construction and pellet-firing mechanism, a long proven design that is just about faultless, and accurate. To test both Smart Shot and Gamo lead BBs, the Umarex Heckler & Koch P30 is being used for this evaluation. A velocity test of Umarex 1500 steel BBs, Excite Smart Shot and Gamo Round .177 caliber BBs returned averages of 367 fps, 342 fps and 349 fps, respectively. But alas, here’s the rub. Just as had been commented on after the HK P30’s test in Airgun Experience No. 116 and No. 117, the Umarex magazine follower jammed with the Smart Shot copper plated lead BBs. In this test it also jammed with the Smart Shot and Gamo Round lead BBs, yet functioned flawlessly with the Umarex steel BBs!
So what makes it jam? Not being a blowback action design, the force of the air is all directed to firing a 4.5mm lead pellet. With the BB adapter in place, there is enough force when the gun is fired to drive the rest of the BBs in the magazine downward in the loading channel and the lowest BB gets caught in the loading port; this locks the follower down. You have to remove the magazine, force the stuck BB back into the channel and allow the follower to move back up into position. This, however, never happens with steel BBs, which is curious since they are lighter than either the Smart Shot or Gamo lead rounds. So, even though you can save the rifling in the HK P30’s barrel by using lead BBs, the gun won’t function reliably with them, only with steel BBs, which will eventually erode the rifling. Catch 22.
My best suggestion, shoot the 8-shot rotary pellet magazine and don’t shoot BBs in the HK P30, or just figure that over time by shooting steel BBs you will ruin the gun’s accuracy. Is it worth it? Here are the differences in accuracy at 21 feet with lead BBs and steel BBs fired from the HK P30. The .177 caliber Umarex steel BBs delivered a best group of 10 shots measuring 1.81 inches with a best 5-shots at 0.875 inches and zero malfunctions. With the Excite Smart Shot copper plated lead rounds the best 10 shots measured 1.95 inches (and the gun jammed four times), the Gamo delivered 10 at 1.90 inches and jammed twice. Just as a recap of the original test with Meisterkugeln lead wadcutters fired from the HK P30’s 8-shot rotary pellet magazine, the pistol delivered a total of 16 shots (two rotary magazine loads) with 13 out of 16 rounds obliterating two sections of the 10 and X ring for a total spread of 1.74 inches and a best 5-shots all overlapping at 0.68 inches.
Bottom line, you have to accept using unleaded ammo if you’re shooting BBs out of the HK P30. This, however, would not apply to a rifled barrel pellet revolver that can also fire BB cartridges; here you could use lead BBs since there is no mechanism to jam. For the HK P30 it doesn’t make any more sense with BBs than it does with gasoline, just get the lead out.