by B.B.Pelletier

Reader Mike posed this question last Friday:

I’m going to pose a question to everyone for the weekend. What is your favorite small bore air gun caliber and why? I’m very interested to see what people prefer.

I’m currently trying to decide between .22 and .25  for my next rifle, so advice there would also be appreciated.

Mike’s question inspired me to write this blog. I felt so passionate about my answer to Mike that I thought it was worth a lengthy explanation to every reader. Before I begin, I’d like to tell everyone that I do not dislike .25 caliber airguns. I’m simply stating what I believe to be facts that support the .22 as the better airgun caliber. By “better,” I mean more accurate, more usable and more practical.

Years ago, Dr. Beeman favored the .177 caliber over .22 for airguns and I challenged his opinion in a Balderdash column in The Airgun Letter. I won’t get into that here, but I’m telling you this because it started me thinking about whether he was right. Can one airgun caliber really be better than another, and what does better mean? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this question for the past 15 years, which is why I feel there’s a definite answer to the .22/.25 caliber question.

While studying the .177 pellet, it became clear to me that a few of the top pellet manufacturers were taking greater pains to produce some of their .177 pellets than they were taking with pellets of any other caliber. I’m referring to target pellets made for target airguns. From many past blog reports, you’ve learned that in the world of formal airgun target shooting, only .177 caliber is permitted. There are no real Olympic or world-class target airguns in any caliber other than .177.

You will find true target pellets only in .177 caliber, and even then not all .177 pellets with “target” in their names are actually qualified to be called target pellets. But there are special pellets like RWS R-10, H&N Match, Vogel and some others that go through extremely careful steps to ensure uniformity and precision. Head diameter, for example, is held to the hundredth of a millimeter for target pellets. But be careful. Just because there’s a sticker on the outside of the tin that gives the pellet head diameter to the hundredth of a millimeter doesn’t mean that all the pellets inside actually measure that width. Paper stickers are cheap; manufacturing controls that actually give you that level of precision are not.

JSB, for instance, hand-sorts many of their pellets for uniformity. I think they sort pellets just for weight, but that still adds a level of control and cost that mass-produced pellets do not have. I used to compete in 10-meter pistol matches shooting a Chinese target pellet that was hand-sorted for weight the same way, and in my target pistol that pellet out-shot everything else.

Many people think that all manufactured items are identical, but anyone who has worked in production knows different. Almost nothing that rolls off the production line is the same as anything else, unless the manufacturer takes extra steps to ensure that it is. These steps can include inspection, like the sorted JSB pellets, or higher-tolerance tools that produce to tighter specifications or any of a number of other things. They can also include attention given after the item is made, to bring it to a certain specification. That would be like lathe-turning a rifle barrel after it’s rifled, to align the outside of the barrel with the axis of the bore.

Well, target .177 pellets receive such attention and as a result, they are more accurate than other pellets in any caliber. Since .177 is the only caliber permitted in airgun target shooting, only that caliber warrants such extra attention. Dr. Beeman was right in a way. However, that doesn’t apply to the rest of the .177 pellets that are not made specifically for target shooting. JSB does weight-sort many of their non-target pellet styles, so there are a few other non-target pellets (such as Exacts) that have an extra margin of excellence, but this is the exception to the general practice.

If you understand what I just said, then know that good .22 caliber pellets are made just as well as the bulk of .177 pellets, so they’re just as accurate. But there are no .22 caliber target pellets to compete with those special .177 target pellets I just discussed. [Yes, there are .22 caliber pellets that have the word “target” in their name or plastered on their tin, but they are not actual target pellets like I am describing here.] However, that fact doesn’t eliminate .22 caliber as the sometimes-dominant pellet.

In long-range shooting, for example, where the pellet’s weight matters almost as much as how well it is made, the heavier .22 is superior to the .177 of the same design. Once again, JSB weight-sorts their domed Exact pellets in .22 caliber. So, the .22 pellet is made just as well as the .177, and the extra weight of the larger-caliber pellet puts it in the leadership position for long-range shooting. For long-range accuracy, which means everything beyond about 50 yards, the .22 pellet is better than .177 if all other things are equal.

The same cannot be said for .25 caliber pellets, however, which is the crux of today’s report. Twenty-five caliber, or 6.35 mm as it is known throughout most of the airgunning world, has never been as popular as .22 caliber. For every 100 .22 airguns made, there is not even one .25-caliber gun produced. In fact, I would bet the ratio isn’t even one-thousand to one! I may be wrong, but I don’t think by much.

Because the guns are fewer, the demand for pellets is equally low. Even lower, actually, because there is another factor that limits the number of .25 pellets made. Cost!  The .25-caliber pellet is expensive because of how much costly lead is used for each one. Airgunners, being a cost-conscious group to begin with, are very unlikely to plink with a .25. In fact, the popularity of the .177 over the .22 has more to do with the cost than with anything else.

This cost relationship doesn’t always play out the way I’m describing it. At any one moment in time, you could find some .25 caliber pellets that are cheaper than .22 pellets. The reason for that anomaly could be because the slower-selling .25s were purchased at a time when the Euro was lower against the dollar than faster-selling .22 pellets purchased more recently. But over time, .25 caliber pellets do cost more than .22 caliber pellets.

However, cost isn’t the major reason I say the .22 is superior to the .25. I’m more interested in performance. As a result of the lower market demand, pellet manufacturers are less inclined to put as much effort into the quality control of their .25 caliber pellets. They produce adequate pellets, but where are the weight-sorted .25s? They don’t exist! There is no such thing as a JSB Exact dome in .25 caliber. The .25-caliber Beeman Kodiak made by H&N is perhaps the best all-around .25-caliber pellet, and it earns that title more by default than anything else. There are no challengers. There’s no .25 caliber Crosman Premier. [This statement is true as of July 14, 2009. If yo’re reading this report on a later date, things may have changed.]

Which leads me to the real reason I rate the .22 much higher than the .25–because there aren’t any world-class pellets in .25 caliber! Now that I’ve said that, I’m prepared to defend my position. However, you’ll have to wait until Part 2.