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This article originally appeard in Airgun Revue #1, published in 1997.
There are no right or wrong pellets for your airgun. Correct pellet selection is a matter of finding the very best pellet for your airgun. Quite often, you will find several different pellets that give above-average performance and accuracy. The modern lead pellet that we now shoot in our airguns is most often taken for granted. They don’t cost much when compared with other projectiles, they're plentiful and widely available, and are amazingly efficient for their size. This was not always the case. The first air rifles were made with a smooth bore and used lead shot or BBs. Today, most pellets are manufactured in Japan and Germany, with few being made here in the U.S. Thanks to Dr. Robert Beeman, American airgun shooters now have available to them a large variety of pellet shapes for specific applications in a wide selection of different weights and calibers.
What you need to remember is to always buy high-quality pellets from established manufacturers. If you're at a local gun show and see some low-priced bargain pellets for sale, be strong and resist the temptation to snatch up that so-called bargain. They won't be a bargain if they stick in the bore or damage your airgun. I had a friend who bought some off-brand pellets that were swaged from mixed lead and were too hard. The skirts didn't expand and seal the chamber. It was just like shooting his airgun without a pellet in the chamber--or dry firing. Before he finished shooting the tin, he had broken his mainspring and piston. It was an expensive lesson.
You need to match the pellet to the bore size of your airgun; but after that, it's strictly a matter of which pellet works best. Finding out which pellet works best takes some trial and error. I always suggest that you try a number of different pellets and shoot each one from a benchrest to determine its potential accuracy in your airgun. You'll be amazed at the results. Having and using a chronograph when you're testing is a great help in determining potential accuracy. A chronograph takes a lot of the guess work out of pellet selection.
Generally speaking, air rifles can shoot heavier pellets than air pistols. That's because air rifles have larger air chambers that create the increased amounts of energy required to effectively propel the heavier pellets down the bore and strike their intended target. Magnum air rifles are capable of pushing the heaviest pellets available but may not do so with any increase in accuracy over their low-powered counterparts. Many match-quality rifles produce only enough energy to move an eight-grain wadcutter pellet at 650 f.p.s.; but they do so with extreme consistency, so they're very accurate. Air pistols are also capable of outstanding accuracy, but they're limited to lighter pellet selection.
The majority of the pellets used today are made in the diabolo shape. That is, they're larger on both ends and have a thin waist area in the center. That waist area separates the head from the skirt. Pellets used in the past were simply round shot or they were cylindrical in shape. Neither design was very efficient, but they did shoot. The diabolo shape is extremely efficient in the chamber and bore, as well as in flight because of its self-stabilizing design.
The head of the diabolo pellet is always inserted into the chamber first so the thinner skirt area can expand upon firing and form a seal around the outside edge of the chamber. Airgun pellets are further divided into four different categories, designated by head design: wadcutter, pointed, round nose and hollowpoint. The head design is what determines the primary usage of the pellet. I’ll list each of the head designs, how they differ and what usage is considered best for that particular design.
A selection of .177 wadcutters: Hobby, H&N Match, RWS Meisterkugeln and RWS SuperMag.
The wadcutter head is flat with a slight bevel on the edge. It has long been thought of as the most accurate design available; and for many years, they were used exclusively in target competition. But recent advances in the pointed designs may challenge this notion. They are lightweight, provide maximum velocities and usually cost less than other designs; so they're very economical to shoot. Most airguns are test-fired at the factory using wadcutter pellets. The wadcutter design really excels at 10-meter, target shooting or informal/indoor plinking. The flat face cuts a sharp-edged hole in paper targets, so they’re easier and more accurate to score. If there's one design that exhibits uniformly accurate results at short range in most all airguns, then the wadcutter is it.
Wadcutter pellets are often recommended for small game. They cut larger wound channels and are as efficient as hollowpoints at close range. As long as the range at which they are used is held to about 25 yards or less, they're fine for hunting. At longer distances, they lose their stability and accuracy, being designed for 10-meter shooting at their best.
A selection of .22 pointed pellets: RWS Superpoint, Beeman Silver Sting, Beeman Silver Arrow and ARS Cobra.
The head of a pointed pellet is just that. It ends in a very sharp point that provides maximum penetration on small game. Pointed pellets were designed specifically for hunting and field use. The waist area of pointed pellets is larger in diameter for increased weight without unbalancing the front-to-rear weight distribution, which would destroy accuracy. The skirt area is shorter than a wadcutter skirt. Some pointed designs feature forward-driving bands. These are flat bands around the head, in front of the waist, that increase the surface area that engages the rifling. Increased rifling engagement area provides better accuracy and longer range, but also increases pellet-to-bore friction that must be overcome--or velocity will suffer. For this reason, pellets with forward-driving bands work best in magnum air rifles. If you want a standard-velocity rifle or air pistol for hunting, choose a pointed pellet without forward-driving bands--or one of the hollowpoint designs..
The pointed pellet really is the best choice for hunting. I’ve spoken to many airgun hunters who rely on pointed pellets for humane, one-shot kills on small game. Their other advantage is that they're very accurate. In fact, I've shot some air rifles that grouped pointed pellets better than they did wadcutters. But they do cost more, and their pointed design is very destructive on indoor targets. So, for informal plinking and target work, the wadcutter is still your best bet; but if you're in the field and looking for game, the pointed pellet can't be beat.
A selection of .177 round nose pellets: Eley Wasp, Crosman 7.9-grain Premier, RWS Superdome and Beeman Ram Jet.
Round nose pellets have a protruding area ahead of the driving band that increases the pellet's overall weight and provides increased knock-down power. The round shape also helps decrease wind resistance. As airguns became more powerful and provided faster velocities, round nose bullets were developed because a heavier projectile will have greater retained kinetic energy and greater resistance to wind deflection at all ranges than a lighter projectile. Round nose pellets are used for hunting at maximum ranges and really shine when you're knocking down airgun-sized steel silhouettes at 50 meters (55 yards). If you've never tried shooting steel silhouettes with an airgun, it's a real challenge. Round nose pellets work best in magnum-powered air rifles. I've done some testing with heavy round nose pellets in air pistols, and I can tell you that the results are less than gratifying.
A selection of .22 hollowpoints: Beeman Silver Bear, RWS Super-H-Point, Beeman Crow Magnum and Vortek Lamprey.
The hollowpoint design is somewhat of a combination or extension of the wadcutter shape. The theory behind their development is the need for a reliable expanding pellet that assures one-shot kills at shorter ranges and at lower velocities. The shape also provides the efficient flight characteristics of the wadcutter and combines with that the increased mass and knock-down power of the round nose. I've used hollowpoint pellets to get rid of blackbirds that nest in my overhangs; and they provide reliable, one-shot kills without over-penetration. They can be used with outstanding results in air pistols and air rifles that have lower velocities. Many shooters consider the hollowpoint to be somewhat of a compromise, but I think it's a pellet that really fills the need if you own one airgun and want to employ it as both a plinker and a sporter. Hollowpoints can be used in magnum-powered air rifles; and accuracy is very good, especially at increased ranges, because of the medium-length driving band found on most hollowpoints. Again, if you want to use a hollowpoint pellet in a pistol, try to select one with a shorter driving band for best results.
The basic rule of thumb in matching a pellet to your particular airgun is that lower-powered airguns need a lighter pellet, and the higher-powered airguns or magnums can use a heavier pellet. Please notice the difference between "needs" and "can use." For example, you can load your .177 Benjamin HB17 with 11.5-grain Silver Arrows, but that air pistol simply lacks the piston volume to efficiently push that heavy pellet effectively. Pellet velocity will drop, and the pellet trajectory will look more like a shining rainbow over an open meadow. A lower-powered pistol or rifle will perform much better and needs to be shot with pellets ranging between 6.5 grains and 8 grains in weight.
The opposite example of this is a .177 RWS 48 that would push that same 6.5-grain pellet faster than 1,100 f.p.s. The skirt on that pellet would most likely deform the instant you pulled the trigger and never stabilize in flight; and even though it flew with a very flat trajectory, accuracy would be very dismal, indeed. Most .177-caliber magnum-powered airguns will perform better with pellets heavier than 7.5 grains in weight. Even though the weight will be increased for the .20-caliber and .22-caliber airguns, the theory of pellet selection is still the same.
The cost of 5,000 rounds of ammunition for the airgun shooter is about $110-$120. For a conventional firearm enthusiast with a rifle chambered in .223 Remington, 5,000 rounds of ammunition would cost about $2,750-$3,500. So, don't short-change your airgun or its performance by being afraid to try several different kinds of pellets. The pellet is the least expensive aspect of our sport. Don't be afraid to experiment a little. Actually, experiment a lot; it's fun.
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