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Education / Training The art of collecting airguns – Part 6

The art of collecting airguns – Part 6

by B.B. Pelletier

Happy New Year!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

This report is being written to satisfy a promise to blog reader Kevin. Last Thursday, I took my new Ballard for its first shoot at the range. The experience parallels shooting a brand new pellet gun, so I think there’s something to be learned from my experience.

My Marlin Ballard turned out to be a special order factory-made rifle.

A very good friend gifted me the authoritative book on Ballard rifles by John Dutcher of Denver. Mr. Dutcher looked at the photos of my rifle and said that he thought it was a special order factory-made gun. I’d thought it was a Union Hill No. 9 rifle with some custom touches, but he knew that the rifle was more likely made purposely as a special order. John Lower of Denver had ordered many such rifles in the 1880s, because buying them in volume got him a better price.

I called Mr. Dutcher and had a long conversation with him. He convinced me to take the rifle apart to view all the serial numbers because he thought the buttstock would probably not be the same as the rest of the rifle. He thought that it was most likely a restock by Marlin, or at the very least a restock by a Marlin stockmaker. The job is just too good to be from an outside stockmaker.

TAKE THE GUN APART! I was scared — like an apprentice gem cutter about to cut his first valuable diamond. What if I slipped with the screwdriver and buggered a screw slot?

Well, according to Mr. Dutcher’s book, all the screws on a Ballard are both handmade and flame hardened. They don’t bugger easily. Let me tell you what handmade means. It means that even after 120 years on the gun, each screw comes out of its hole as if it has been oiled. There are no burrs on any of the threads. The gun came apart like opening a safe from the 1890s.

Under the forearm, the serial number is on the barrel.

The frame serial number is the only one that can be seen with the rifle assembled.

Ballard rifles even serial-numbered the wood. This is the forearm that rests against the receiver.

The Ballard is unique in that it has a two-piece breechblock — split vertically. Each block half is serial-numbered.

There are no numbers on the butt, where there should be. Dutcher was right! The rifle has been restocked.

It took guts to do this, but the rifle was easy to disassemble.

The buttstock was tight on the tailpiece of the receiver, even after the stock bolt was removed, it took several hundred pounds of force to ease the buttstock back off the tailpiece. That quality stock-fitting isn’t seen anymore! To get the butt back on, the stock bolt had to be helped by judicious tapping with the heel of the hand.

On to shooting: What’s the load?
Right off the bat, I discovered that Winchester had changed the specification of the .38-55 cartridge that Ballard invented. They shortened the case by over a tenth of an inch. I’m thinking the length of their 1894 rifle frame made that necessary. Until 1896 or so, Ballard was the only .38-55 on the market.

Unfortunately, all I was able to obtain were the shorter cartridges. They work just fine, but they’re not the perfect fit in the Ballard chamber. My good friend Mac cast some 255-grain Ballard bullets that came from the mold at 0.381 inches. I still don’t know the Ballard’s bore size, but these bullets are overbore for sure. I finger-lubed then with SPG, a well-known black powder bullet lubricant. By finger-lubing, I mean that I applied the grease to the bullet with my finger and made no attempt to get all the grease grooves perfect. The bullets were loaded and shot as-cast.

I searched for the lowest-pressure smokeless powder loads because I didn’t want to fight the mess of black powder or one of the modern equivalents. I settled on Hodgdon 4198, which has been a wonderful black powder substitute for me. The lowest load I could find was 18 grains, so I backed that off to 16 grains and loaded up 40 rounds. Standard Russian large rifle primers finished the load. They’re very reliable and cost half what American primers cost.

On the range
The day was blustery, with a 12 o’clock wind blowing from 25-35 mph. It wasn’t a day to shoot groups with anything. I shot off my MTM rifle bench and rested the rifle in an MTM Predator rifle rest.

Despite the wind and a new unproven load, the Ballard rifle showed its pedigree.

It took three rounds to sight in at 100 yards. Then, I shot the first group of five from this rifle. Five rounds sailed through a group measuring 1.947 inches center-to-center. That was with peep sights in a windstorm with an untried load! The bull I selected was far too large for 100-yard work. It was almost as large as my front aperture post. I put up a smaller bull, made a slight adjustment to the rear sight and shot a second group that measured 1.879 inches c-t-c. This rifle can shoot! By the way, I out-shot a .219 Donaldson Wasp and an 8mm Mauser, both of which were scoped! They were fighting the wind even more than I was. (Instead of shooting 10 shots per target, I did only 5 because it was my first time out with the rifle.)

The very first 100-yard group from the Ballard after 3 sighters. This rifle wants to shoot.

The second Ballard group was at a smaller, more well-defined target. It’s smaller than the first. Three rounds are in a tight hole in the center.

On to the pistol range
I also brought out some of my .45 Colt revolvers for a tryout on the range. I was on the 15-yard range and found that I couldn’t hold the gun one-handed the way I prefer. However, in a two-handed rested hold, the beautiful Colt SAA I was given by some blog readers last summer proved it can shoot.

Isn’t she a beauty?

She can shoot, too. I just need to get back into the swing of shooting handguns.

I had a wonderful time at the range. It was the first time in many months that I’d shot firearms. It was a lot like shooting a new pellet rifle and looking for that ideal pellet. But, with these guns, there were the added complexities of finding the right loads, too.

author avatar
Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier)
Tom Gaylord, also known as B.B. Pelletier, provides expert insights to airgunners all over the world on behalf of Pyramyd AIR. He has earned the title The Godfather of Airguns™ for his contributions to the industry, spending many years with AirForce Airguns and starting magazines dedicated to the sport such as Airgun Illustrated.

39 thoughts on “The art of collecting airguns – Part 6”

  1. Holy Smoke that’s some shooting for the first time with a gun and first run at reloads.

    Some very relevant information here to collecting and shooting airguns.

    Although we think we know what we bought or traded for additional subsequent research may delightfully surprise us. The Falke 90 was also a pleasant surprise. Finding the right ammo/pellet is a key for enjoyment of any gun I own.

    I’m amazed how close the first attempt at reloading for the Marlin Ballard came. Those groups, in that wind, shooting an unscoped gun for the first time are shocking! That’s some shooting!

    Based on that terrific photo of the Marlin Ballard on the MTM rest, it looks like someone has been rubbing the wood and metal on that fine gun. Looks great.

    I think the “new” winchester brass length is nominal 2.080″ which is SAAMI spec. StarStarline makes cases that are 2.125″ in length. Did Mac use 20-1 lead alloy for the castings?

    PS-Nice pistol too.


    • Kevin,

      Mac thought that he cast hard bullets, so 20-1 would be about correct. But my thumbnail says they are closer to 30-1.

      I still have to slug the bore, which I now believe to be smaller than .379″. That should tighten the groups a bit. And I plan to bump up the load to 18 grains of 4198. Based on no signs of pressure, I believe that will be closer to original velocity specs.

      I also bought a vintage steel bullet mold that I plan to cast from, to see if it may tip the balance towards a tighter group.

      This will be a thrill-ride for me, as I have only read about guns like this before now.


  2. B.B.

    You said the cases are not right for the chamber. Was this the length of the neck only?
    You have some ‘fire formed’ brass now. Wonder how they will shoot now.

    So far I have tried black, pyrodex, pyrodex select, 777, clear shot, and black canyon in muzzle loaders. They all scrunge up the barrel.


  3. isn’trning B.B.,

    I would have loved to been a fly on the wall watching you take your Marlin Ballard apart.”That quality stock-fitting isn’t seen anymore!” Is aunderstatementnt. I was looking at the border around where the stock is fitted into the action with a smile, wondering what what it would cost to have that type of work done today?

    Wonderful groups. I’m interested in what they’ll look like when She’s dialed in.

    PS Yes she’s a beauty–enjoy!


    • Bruce,

      What I didn’t mention in today’s report was that I asked a buddy to sit with me when I took the Ballard apart. He is a long-time aircraft powerplant mechanic and a very careful worker, and I wanted any advice he might offer before I blundered and screwed things up. He was the one who told me that if the screws were all made by Marlin and individually hardened, they would come out with no resistance.

      When it came time to remove the stock, I held the barreled action and he pulled on the stock. He actually had to “bump” the stock, to get it to start separating. I have never in my life witnessed such woodworking tolerances!


  4. Good morning all. I hope you write an article for Shot Gun news based on the Ballard Rifle. I get the feeling there is much more to tell than some of the airgun guys want to listen to. Let me know if or when the article comes out so I can pick it up.

    I would have also been very apprehensive to take the Ballard apart. Especially when it came to that sticking butt stock. I think at that point I might have chickened out. A couple of times when a pin or something just would not come out for me I have asked my brother (a machinist and a good mechanic) for help. It usually just took a bigger hammer and more force than I was willing to try.

    Happy New Year,

    David Enoch

    • David,

      I want to write a huge article for Shotgun News about the Ballard, but I want to have sorted out most of the details on loading by then. I hope to show groups at 200 yards that are sub-inch size. Maybe 10-shot, even!


  5. Beautiful gun, BB! The stock fitting…They don’t make ’em like they used to!

    On another topic, where can one get a longer barrel for a Crosman 1377? I’ve had no problem locating grips, various metal breeches, ect, but a barrel has eluded me.

    • Mr. Whicked

      You can purchase the barrel you seek directly from Crosman.

      You will have to call them: 1.800.7AIR.GUN

      You will also have to have the part number for everything you want. They will not sell you something based on its description, only its part number.

      You want part # 1760-001 which is a 24 inch barrel.

      You could also switch to .22 if you want, the only additional thing you will only need the .22 cal bolt.

      part # 1322-063 bolt for .22 cal
      part # 2250-019 which is 14.5″ barrel and .22 cal
      part # 2400-102 18″ barrel
      part # 2260-003 24″ barrel

      With the longer barrel, you will have to open up the hole in the barrel band, or you can buy one:

      part # 788B011

  6. BB: This is an interesting mystery. You could have a No 10 Ballard Schuetzen Jr Rifle with the medium wt barrel that was used on a No 8 Ballard. If your gun had set triggers it would definetly be a No 8 Ballard as those were standard on the No 8. The butt stocks of the No’s 8 &10 were the same.A high grade walnut with pistol grip,and cheeck piece. The No 9 Ballard had the nickle plated, hooked ,offhand butt plate, same barrel as the No 8 ,but no set triggers. Perhaps your gun may have been ordered for dual use as a hunting gun and for target shooting, with target shooting being the primary use of the original purchaser. Maybe he liked a shorter barrel than the 32″ one on the heavier (12lb wt) No 10. Or it is a No. 9 Ballard ( only the No 9 had a globe front sight as standard, not a wind gage , but that could have been also added ?) , that was sent back to Marlin to be re-stocked with a No 8 or 10 butt stock. The stock fitter may have not serial numbered the butt stock because it was a replacement. Does your gun have the cast iron or steel receiver? Since it is not nickled, I believe it is steel , as most cast iron receivers were nickle finished. You can tell by removing the breech block and looking inside, to see if there is a hollow space foward of the breech block. Steel receivers don’t have the hollow space. If only they could talk ,Robert.

    • Robert,

      Mine is a very late rifle, made in 1886, so it is definitely a steel receiver. It is also just a few numbers from a run of number 9 Union Hill target rifles.

      But the key to the butt is to look at where the cheekrest is located. It’s too far back for a standard design rifle. In fact, it looks like a rifle that has had an inch whacked off the butt, except that the pull is 14 inches, which is long for a Ballard. So someone very definitely wanted this rifle to be stocked in this way.


  7. Happy New Year B.B.

    It’s so wonderful to see you at the range again!

    And then to see YOU at the range with that incredibly special rifle…. a match made in heaven for sure!

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

    The 45-70 marlin has convinced me, I’ll have to start reloading myself… friends trading to reload is fine.. but one doesn’t have what they need when they need it.. so one really has to do it themselves.. I guess:-)

    I’d like to make more full power rounds for the .45lc marlin.. and lighter loads for the .45-70.. now where did I put those notes you gave me years ago????

    Now that your done with the Ballard.. I’ll trade you a couple of real fine 499s.. heck I’ll even toss in my ever so precious 1377!

    Don’t bother thanking me.. you deserve the great deal..

    Wacky Wayne,
    Match Director
    Ashland Air Rifle Range

    • Wayne,

      Hurrah! We got you reloading.

      Okay, here is a light load for your Marlin.

      25 grains of 4198 behind a 405-grain cast bullet. If you want to reduce recoil even more, cut the bullet weight back to 350, or even 300. The range goes down with the lighter bullets, but it’s still a 200-yard cartridge.


      • Thanks B.B.,

        YOU knew it was going to happen someday:-)

        But, unlike my usual “jumping in before I check the depth of the pond”.. I’m gonna get just the right stuff at the right time with reloading.. I did find your list.. it was in a safe “for the future place”..

        This gun stuff is far too much serious fun for an old fart like me.. “KidAgain”… nice handle:-)

        Wacky Wayne,
        Match Director,
        Ashland “Air” Rifle Range???

        • Yeah, changed handle to how I felt when I discovered the correct thumb position for the artillery hold!! Made a HUGE difference!

          Going today to purchase reloading press. Found new ammo shop 1 mile from house!! Can’t wait to start reloading. Just thinking about it makes me feel like a


  8. B.B. (Ballistol Boy),

    I really like todays article. Since there are so many former, current and future reloaders here I think the progression of your load experimentation for the Marlin Ballard would not only be fascinating but could be a catalyst for future reloaders.

    I’ve recently learned that historically the .38-55 Marlin-Ballard was the darling of the 19th Century target shooting crowd. Easily the most accurate black powder cartridge ever developed inside of 250 yds. You have a keen eye for gun acquisition.

    Re-creating the right load for your amazing .38-55 Marlin-Ballard in this day and age is a thrill ride for me too.

    Hopefully the length of the starline cases will allow for your cast bullets to be seated to lightly engrave the rifling when fully chambered.

    Sub inch groups at 200 yards is a very lofty goal. I like your willingness to increase velocity closer to spec with 18 grains of 4198. Consider 17.0 grs of 4227 since this has worked well for others. When the sub inch 200 yard groups are accomplished it’s time for an American Rifleman article. Shotgun News can wait.

    Hope you continue to take pictures along this journey. I’m confident that this is a memory in the making that you will want to cherish for a long time.


    • Kevin,

      Yeah, before this Marlin, I never gave .38-55 a second glance. Now I find out what a turn-of-the-century rock star it was.

      The funny thing is, it was Mac who started talking about .38-55, about five years ago. He is convinced that it is the best of all calibers for shooting in single shot guns. So he goes and buggers the H&R people until they coughed up a leftover barrel for a Handi Rifle, which is what he has chambered in that caliber today. When I initially found the Ballard in the gun store I tried to convince him to buy it.

      Wouldn’t one of the Little Sharps in .38-55 be great? They make it in that caliber. Or even a full-sized Shiloh with a 30-inch barrel!


      • B.B.,

        You’re incorrigible but now I know your shameless enabling ways aren’t entirely your fault. Mac needs to share some blame.

        Yes, I’m positioning myself for a large gun purchase. I’ve recently sold 3 guns that haven’t been shot in years including my 1874 Sharps Shiloh .45-70. I’m excited to try something new just didn’t know what it should be until recently.


        • Kevin,

          You had a Shiloh Sharps in .45/70! Edith can verify that I have wanted one of those for the past 10 years. Ever since I first saw Quigley.

          But the Remington Rolling Block cured me of that need, and now this .38-55 is the bomb! I guess I had to live 63 years to become smart enough to know what is really good.

          Jump in, the water is fine. 😉


          • The sharps shiloh was the one I had the leatherwood scope mounted on. Went through pure agony with that gun. When it was all sorted out it was a good combination. In later years it was my elk gun. Hope the guy that bought it will enjoy it.


  9. BB,

    I love this kind of article. Two years ago I couldn’t have given a rats, well, you know, about vintage guns. Reading this kind of stuff and seeing guns picked like you did this one has my attention. Great shooter and what a beautiful gun!
    Keep sharing.


  10. BB,
    I can’t resist — if you can shoot groups like that without a scope at 100 yards, you need to stop insisting you need one for 20 yards! Also, it shoots good for something with a short barrel :). Is that 1/2MOA @ 200 yards going to be offhand? Then I’ll know you’ve fully recovered.

    As long as you are satisfied with safety of smokeless, its probably better to maintain condition. Black often adds more “patina” than people like. I’ve been using 777 3Fg for months now and it is probably the best general substitute, much cleaner than the real stuff or Pyrodex (RS or esp. P), although it might not be great for cartridge use; I just don’t know. The real stuff probably works better, despite the crud.

    • BG_Farmer,

      When I disassembled the rifle I found tiny bits of black powder crud lurking in the recesses. Since they might be a century old, I left them where they are.

      4198 cleans up beautifully after shooting. No leading and no crud left after a quick wipedown with Ballistol.


    • Look at the top photo of the Ballard. Notice that the cheekrest is pretty far to the rear, especially for a rifle with a peep vernier sight. So Dutcher knew that Ballard never made a stock like this as a standard stock. That was the clue.


  11. Well, seems like there might be another potential blog article on grinding hollow ground screwdriver bits to fit unusual sized/handmade screws on guns like ballards LOL!

    Just wanted to comment on the wonderful composition in the photograph of the Colt SAA. That’s suitable for framing.


  12. Ah… so much to say, no time to read others comments.

    First…back atcha BB…now you know again how us newbies feel about merely removing the action from our guns. Remember that feeling and the next time one of us says, “I’d like to replace the seals but I’m afraid I’ll break something.” I expect more empathy in the future. 🙂

    Second…what a beautiful gun in the opening picture. Can I assume that’s actually yours and not a stock picture from somewhere? I believe it is. Is this the first time you’ve displayed this picture? Or has the resolution of my monitor changed for the better?

    Third…what a gorgeous revlover (spell checker caught this but I think it’s more appropriate the way it is)! Is this the first time you’ve shown this angle? Or, again, is my monitor resolution improved.

    Fourth…how can one guy be so lucky?!

    Fifth…I can’t think of anyone else who could give these beauties a better home.


    • Let me clarify.. I mean I believe the picture IS of your gun. You’re getting so good at photography it’s hard to tell anymore but in this case the gun stocks look the same in both pictures.
      Oh, yeah, excellent shooting.

    • Chuck,

      If you follow the links at the top of the report back to Part 2, you will read the whole story of the acquisition of that rifle. Yes, it is mine. It was made in 1886 and is in new condition. That was why I was so afraid of injuring it in the stripdown. Believe me, I empathize with anyone replacing seals in an airgun. I still make a lot of mistakes.

      The other gun (the relover) was first pictured when I came home from the hospital the first time last June. And though this is a good picture, I still haven’t shown you the real beauty of the fire-blued finish. That is what really sets this revolver apart.

      As far as why I am so lucky, I haven’t a clue. It’s certainly nothing I have done, nor is it deserved. But for some reason, at this point in my life the road has leveled out and good things have come my way in abundance. This job being the chief among them.

      But the best thing that has happened is the readers of this blog. Back when I had THe Airgun Letter I tried to get this kind of participation, but it just didn’t work out. This blog is a blessing that I thank God for every day of my life.


      • BB,
        I did read the Part 2 when it came out but for some reason the Part 6 picture jumped out at me. I compared the part 2 and part 6 pics side by side and, duh, by golly, they are the same, however, the part 6 does look a hair darker, therefore richer than the part2 one on my monitor for some reason and both have a greenish tint to them. Looking at the pic of it on the MTM Predator rest, the stock looks browner and golssier but I compared the grain to the opening pic and that’s why I was so sure it was yours.

        And yes, I’m familiar with your post hospital revolver. I’m so glad you like it. The only other pic I could find of it whlie searching was you shooting from a bag and most of it was hidden. However, I usually don’t remember things very long anyway.

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