The art of collecting airguns – Part 6
by B.B. Pelletier
Happy New Year!
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.