by Tom Gaylord
Copyright PyramydAir.com (c) 2009. All Rights Reserved.
This article originally appeared in Airgun Revue #2, published in 1998.
Accuracy--it's not a given! Part 1: The barrel
Accuracy--it's not a given! Part 3: The sights
We have already looked at the barrel in our quest for airgun accuracy; now, let's look at what comes out. Today's adult airguns shoot pellets almost exclusively, but that hasn't always been the case. Darts, slugs and round balls have all been used with good results over the centuries.
The first accurate airgun projectile was the dart. The lower-powered airguns of the 16th and 17th centuries used them because they were often the only projectiles those guns could launch at any velocity. According to authors like W.H.B. Smith, the early target airguns were accurate to about 50 feet, and shot placement was controlled by the removal of the hairs in the tail of the dart--one at a time. One dark strand of hair was put into the tail to serve as an alignment reference point.
Early darts were considerably longer than the ones sold today. They were fletched with animal hairs that measured an inch or longer, so they acted much like the feathers on an arrow, both guiding and slowing the projectile as it flew to the target. They were supposed to have been remarkably accurate at the proper range.
Darts have continued to this very day, but the design has changed. Today, they're much shorter and have a metal head with point for sticking into the target. The fletching appears to be a synthetic fiber instead of a natural one, and it's much shorter. Darts should be relegated to smoothbore guns, as the metal in the head can damage steel rifling, to say nothing of what it will do to brass! Also, the points are so penetrative that they should only be shot in lower-powered airguns, or the extraction effort will quickly ruin them. And, they're dangerous, if safety precautions are not taken. That sharp point can do great harm, even at very low velocities.
In 1876, the Quackenbush air rifle made quality adult airguns available to the American buyer for the first time (the German Bugelspanner had done the same thing for Europeans decades earlier). It was by no means an accurate gun, but it could shoot as well as gallery guns of that time at a fraction of the price. At best, a Quackenbush or Bugelspanner was an informal gun for fun and recreation.
I consider the first serious target airgun for general consumption to be the BSA underlever, which was first produced in 1906. Here, for the first time, was an affordable airgun with a precision rifled barrel and ammunition that was at least reasonable. Stories abound of one-inch groups being shot with BSAs at 20 yards and beyond. And at least a part of this was due to the pellet they used. It was a new type, described in R.B. Townshend's book, The Complete Air-Gunner, as two truncated cones with the bases away from each other. Today, we call it the diabolo design and acknowledge that it's done more for airgunning than any other single invention. Even in 1907, Townshend could see the remarkable improvement that the now-familiar wasp-waisted pellet has upon accuracy. From that time forward, advances were by degrees, rather than quantum leaps.
The early air rifle was quickly assigned a military training role in both the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. Many of these early air rifle designs showed strong military origins, but none more than the BSA Military Trainer. It was actively marketed as a direct training tool for the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, and government contracts were pursued.
By the start of World War II, airgun design had evolved to a very mature stage; but the pellets were, by that time, lagging behind. There was very little advance made in diabolo pellets from 1915 to the end of WWII. As a consequence, many of the period airguns that used those pellets got a new lease on life when better pellets became available some time in the 1970s. Suddenly, a Crosman pneumatic rifle from 1940 went from being an average shooter to a fly killer at long ranges. And this is all because the ammunition being fed into it was so superior that it tapped the latent accuracy the manufacturer had put in but which had never before been realized. Owing to the better pellets of today, the airguns of yesteryear are much more accurate than when they were new!
Just to give an example, the Crosman Corporation marketed a cylindrical pellet, called the Super Pell, during the '60s and '70s. It was actually a highly modified diabolo shape, but the head and skirt were so predominant compared to the slightly constricted waist that the overall appearance was that of a metal garbage can. These were made from pure lead and were as soft as pellets ever become--often to the detriment of performance in the repeating guns that Crosman made.
Today, any Super Pells you encounter will probably be white with oxidation, so a weight comparison for the purpose of determining uniformity is useless. Suffice to say that they were okay for their time, but no one would advocate using them now.
In the early half of the 1990s, Crosman brought another pellet to market--one that immediately earned it an enduring place in the airgun hall of fame. I refer, of course, to the world-famous Premier. In all calibers, these are the most uniform pellets the airgun community has ever experienced. Often, the bulk-packed Premiers will eclipse even the hand-selected Olympic pellets from other companies, as far as uniformity is concerned. Of course, since they're not wadcutters, they cannot be used for bullseye matches. Field target shooters, however, seldom win a match with anything else. In fact, the Premier is such an important pellet that some are just waiting for it to come out in .25 caliber before they embrace those guns. If it ever does, experienced airgunners expect to see an overnight change in that caliber.
The maturation of the diabolo pellet has had a tremendous impact on adult airgunning. Today's airguns have all but pushed .22 rimfire target rifles from the scene at distances out to 50 yards. Not that a shooter should convert from firearms to airguns. It's just that, nowadays, an airgun shooter can shoot many times more often because of the reduced cost and less stringent range limitations. And nothing is given away. A lever-action Career 707 is just as fast to shoot and more accurate than a Winchester 9422, at a fraction of the cost. And, when you consider that the gun is capable of dropping woodchucks at 75 yards and rabbits at 100 yards, what have you lost? [This article was originally written 11 years ago, and the Career 707 is no longer imported to the U.S. However, many accurate repeaters and single-shots have come along that are as good as the 707...and some have surpassed its accuracy.]
One third of the modern Olympic shooting events are for airguns. Curiously, the rules they use are a close adaptation of those used in the latter part of the 19th century for the zimmerstutzen, where all shooting was offhand at 15 meters with iron sights. Even the number of shots fired remains at 60. Only back then it was firearms, and today it's airguns.
So, accurate ammunition is inexpensive and available for the new airgunner, if he or she knows what to ask for and where to look. A few things should be kept in mind, though:
1. Pellets made in China are generally sub-standard. They are often sold at gun shows and flea markets or bundled with Chinese airguns. They are best left unfired.
2. Crosman pellets are among the finest in the world, but the user should know a few things before using them. Some Crosman pellets are smaller than other brands. They are made for repeating mechanisms and are made of a harder lead alloy so they feed more reliably. Use them in gas guns (CO2 and pneumatics) and repeaters, but don't use the small ones in powerful spring guns. They don't seal the bore well enough to cushion the piston from slamming into the front of the compression chamber. This advice does not extend to Crosman Premiers, which are the world standard for all accurate airguns except those used for paper punching (because they aren't wadcutters).
3. There are many private-branded pellets on the market. Try to learn who really makes the pellets you like, because often the reseller has little or no control over the specifications--they can change at any time!
4. The Spanish-made pellets sold under the Daisy label are about as good as German pellets. They cost less because of Daisy's marketing volume, but they're definitely worth a look.
5. Every airgun responds a little differently to every pellet. While some generalizations often work (like the one we've made about Crosman Premiers), they are not ALWAYS true. Test for yourself.
I shoot 25,000 to 35,000 pellets and BBs per year. Much of that can be credited to my work testing and writing about airguns, but about 5,000 shots or more are for my own recreation. I contrast that with the less than 2,000 shots of firearms ammunition that I've fired within the past 12 months. Airguns definitely have me shooting more often than I would otherwise. I believe I'm a better shot because of it.
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