The BB Conundrum Part 1

The BB Conundrum Part 1 Part 2

Smart Shot, lead, steel and dust

By Dennis Adler

BB cartridge loading revolvers have it easy, semi-auto designs not so much when it comes to .177 caliber steel BB alternatives. There are plenty of options like Smart Shot (far left) copper plated lead BBs and traditional 4.5mm round lead pellets like Gamo Round. You have steel BBs like the Umarex Precision, which have proven to be among the best for blowback action pistols, even with rifled barrels, and then there is the innovative frangible Air Venturi Dust Devils (shown in a non-factory tin at far right). Dust Devils are designed for use on metal or hard surfaced targets and virtually disintegrate on impact to prevent ricochets, but they have another advantage.

Every so often we shoot ourselves in the foot (metaphorically speaking), and the ammunition of late seems to be Smart Shot. It is a great idea, a lead ball with a copper coating designed to minimize ricochets off hard surfaces, like reactive steel targets and pellet traps. Obviously no one should ever shoot a steel BB at a steel, metal or other hard surfaced target unless they’re willing to reap the ricochet whirlwind. Smart Shot was designed to make that less likely. For action shooting with an Umarex Colt Peacemaker or any BB cartridge firing revolver, Smart Shot is worth its weight in, well, copper and lead with reactive targets (more on this later in the year when the weather decides what season it is!) The question of late is how well it works in semi-auto designs with vertical magazines (stick magazines and self-contained CO2 BB magazines) and as I discovered it doesn’t have to be a blowback action pistol for Smart Shot to jam up the works. This has prompted me to look at other alternatives, especially when the air pistol is designed to shoot 4.5mm lead or alloy pellets, as well as BBs through a rifled steel barrel. Steel BBs work perfectly in these guns according to the manufacturers but as I have said before, over time the hard steel rounds traveling down a rifled barrel will begin to erode the lands and grooves. How much time? I don’t know; I tend to like shooting pellets in pellet pistols and have never quite settled into the idea that some can shoot BBs, too. If I wanted to shoot BBs I’d have purchased a BB pistol. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at some of the options available for dual ammo firing rifled barreled pistols.

It has been established that the Umarex HK P30 cannot shoot Smart Shot in the CO2 BB magazine because it pops out of the large loading port and jams the follower. The questions are why, and does this happen with Smart Shot in all vertical stack magazines?

The Umarex HK P30 is a good starting point since I had originally stated (and have since retracted) that you could probably use Smart Shot if you were concerned with damaging the rifling in the barrel. Well you can’t, it does what it has done in a number of blowback action CO2 pistols; the Smart Shot gets pushed down into the magazine channel when the gun fires and can, and often does, press one round back into the loading port and jam the magazine feeding system. And the P30 doesn’t even have a blowback action. So what works?

Build a Custom Airgun

Testing magazine designs

Let’s just put self-contained CO2 BB magazines on the shelf for a moment and begin with stick magazines to see if Smart Shot works. We’ll get back to the self-contained mags in a bit. Smart Shot is a back to basics concept: the original lead BB of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only copper plated and sized to present day BBs. [Tom Gaylord has discussed actual .177 caliber BB diameters at length.] So, going back to basics, let’s begin with the very first blowback action CO2 pistol, the Umarex Walther PPK/S. While the latest version of this now almost 20 year-old design has an internal CO2 seating screw (the original design had an external key), it still uses a stick magazine. The PPK/S is a smoothbore pistol, so fundamentally there is no reason to shoot Smart Shot through it, unless, of course, you want to shoot at a reactive steel target! “This way Mr. Bond…”

For the initial Smart Shot test in a blowback action semi-auto, I am using the very first blowback action semi-auto design, the Umarex Walther PPK/S. This is the latest version with an integral seating screw and separate hex head tool. This gives the gun a more authentic appearance. The holster is a reproduction of the blue and tan chamois holster worn by Sean Connery in the early Bond films From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. (Known as the MI6DA, the holster is made by Legends in Leather)
Stick it to me again; one of the PPK/S stick mags is loaded with Umarex Precision steel BBs, the other with copper plated lead Smart Shot. The average velocity for the PPK/S is not that good to begin with and the steel BBs clocked in at 290 fps. The heavier Smart Shot slowed to 228 fps. Not exactly what you want to use with an already underperforming CO2 pistol. But the important point is that Smart Shot worked in the blowback action pistol without a hitch.

For the first Smart Shot test I’ll be chronographing the 7.4 gr. copper plated lead rounds against Umarex Precision 5.1 gr. steel BBs. The PPK/S has never been known for its velocity and with Umarex steel BBs velocity averaged 290 fps. The heavier copper and lead Smart Shot cleared the ProChrono screens at a leisurely average of 228 fps. But, here’s the thing, they functioned perfectly in the stick magazine! While Smart Shot may be better for shooting at hard surfaced targets, with the PPK/S the loss of velocity is fairly significant. But there is a third option.

Undaunted by slow velocity and still looking for a way to shoot the PPK/S with metal targets, I opted for Air Venturi’s new Dust Devil frangible BBs. These were a pleasant surprise, like they were made just for the Bond pistol to perform at its best.

The last test with the PPK/S was with the new frangible Air Venturi Dust Devils, which have a lighter weight of 4.35 gr. These disintegrating composite cast spheres got down range in the PPK/S at a snappy 315 fps making the Dust Devils the preferred ammo of choice for the PPK/S henceforth. Goof for paper and good for reactive metal targets.

The composite Dust Devils have ferrous metal (magnetic) properties and a lighter weight of just 4.35 grains. They delivered the highest average velocity and safest level of shooting against reactive metal targets with the PPK/S. With an average of 315 fps, the Dust Devils put the little Walther back in the game against other blowback action CO2 pistols. (Also note the color casehardened finish on the new PPK/S trigger and triggerguard).

So, why does the Smart Shot work in the blowback action PPK/S? Short answer, the loading port and the firing port are one in the same, no chance for the Smart Shot to jam the follower. If this is true across the board, we need to go back to the Umarex HK USP, which also uses the firing port as the loading port, only this is a self-contained CO2 BB magazine design. The included HK speed loader makes short work of dropping the Smart Shot down the tube. But will it work?

Revisiting the Umarex Heckler & Koch USP, I loaded it with Smart Shot to see if the self-contained CO2 BB magazine would function smoothly with the copper plated lead rounds. The magazine has a speed loader that holds the follower down and allows BBs to be poured directly into the firing port. This design eliminates the need for a loading port lower down in the channel like traditional CO2 BB magazines…

The answer is yes and the non-blowback action Heckler & Koch sends the 7.4 gr. copper plated lead rounds downrange at 352 fps average making this very affordable and feature laden model a perfect choice for shooting with reactive metal targets and Smart Shot. Loaded with Dust Devils the HK USP slammed the lightweight rounds into the target board at 443 fps but the molded composite BBs (which have a ring around their circumference) may not feed as smoothly; remember this is a DAO non-blowback pistol and the trigger does all the work. Of the two non-steel BB options, the Smart Shot is the clear choice with the HK. Interestingly, loaded with 5.1 gr. Umarex Precision steel BBs the USP averaged 416 fps, so depending upon the target you can go for higher velocity with steel on paper, low ricochet with copper plated lead on metal reactive targets, or the best of both with Dust Devils which can occasionally jam. This is quickly corrected by removing the magazine, lowering the follow, slowly releasing it, and reinserting the magazine. (We’ll call it the BB version of stove piping with a centerfire semi-auto.)

…it is also the reason the Smart Shot functions flawlessly in this pistol while it fails in the P30’s CO2 BB magazine, which had a conventional loading port, and a large one at that.

We already know that Smart Shot will work with plastic 8-shot rotary magazines but we’ll run one quick test with the Umarex Walther PPQ, which has a rifled barrel and is designed to shoot either pellets or steel BBs. For the benefit of saving wear on the rifling Smart Shot is a viable option, along with 4.5mm round pellets, which have already proven to work in 8-shot rotary magazines. The PPQ uses a cast alloy rotary magazine for pellets and an injection molded one for BBs. The Smart Shot has to be carefully seated into the magazine chambers; it can occasionally fall through, unlike steel BBs. And remember with the PPQ BB rotary mag, the BBs load from the front (the side without the ratchet), just the opposite of the pellet magazine.

Smart Shot worked well in the plastic (injection molded) 8-shot rotary BB magazine that comes with Umarex Walther PPQ. During my comparison test the heavier copper plated lead BBs gave up 50 fps compared to steel BBs, but still averaged 320 fps with the rifled barrel PPQ model.

Smart Shot clocked an average velocity of 320 fps with the PPQ, 50 fps slower on average than the lighter grain weight Umarex Precision .177 caliber steel BBs. Like steel BBs Smart Shot is clean to handle, but unlike steel, will do no harm to the rifling of the barrel. Smart Shot scores another win.

The issue with Smart Shot is when it’s used in CO2 pistols with self-contained CO2 BB magazines that have a large loading port. Firing the gun can cause one of the rounds to be pushed back into the port, that jams the follower and the gun won’t load. The HK P30 proved to suffer from this very problem, but is this endemic of all self-contained CO2 BB magazines with loading ports in the magazine channel? In Part 2 we will run the test with three popular blowback action models to find out.

6 thoughts on “The BB Conundrum Part 1”

  1. My feeling is that if the dust devil proves to be accurate and reliable, it will replace the Excite. It is lighter and faster than the Excite, if it works in magnetized mags like the MP40, it will be the standard for shooting on reactive targets . It would be interesting to see how the Devils go in a high velocity pistol like the Umarex P38. I would expect around 415-420 fps. The last issue is cost the Devils are $9.99 for1500 , and only 500 Excites for the same price

  2. Can the heavier load of the smart shot be of any potential harm to a blowback air gun? Being 2.3 grains heavier in a pistol designed for 5.1 bb’s, can this have any other detriment other than shooting with lower fps? The reason I ask is that I had tried these in a non blowback p08 and they shot slow, but fine. I then tried them in the umarex mp5 (my fun gun) and the blowback has never been the same since. Now, I believe this to be purely coincidence but the timing has still left me a little uncertain about using them.

    For clarity, the blowback issue was the valve thingy that launches back started to tumble in the chamber. I fixed it by making it slightly wider with plastic lids from markers fitted over the end and lots of grease. It still jams a little when the c02 has been shot out a bit but it no longer gets stuck. I can’t see how a heavier B.B. can cause this but is started right after using them. I attached a couple pics for reference.

    Informative article, I might try the dust devils out.

    • I have to say that I have never heard of that as a consiquence of using a heavier BB. Im not a big fan of coincidence but this seems highly unlikely. All of the test pistols I have used to evaluate the Smart Shot suffered no ill effects other than jamming and that was easily corrected by removing the magazine. I have also used heavier grain weight BBs in other pistols with no adverse effects.

  3. I gather that the UK importer of Venturi dust devils is Highland Outdoors ltd who expect to take their first shipment in late October. They say they are available to order from your local RFD.
    My own local range are a bit iffy over the use of BBS because of the bounce back .
    Personally I do not like pellets in CO2 air guns having had no end of trouble unblocking my Walther lever action and indeed a Colt 45.
    Hopefully dust devils would enable we CO2 Replica enthuisiasts to bin pellet guns for ever!!!

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