The art of collecting airguns: Part 8
by B.B. Pelletier
My Ballard is a factory-made special-order rifle made in 1886. It looks almost new and the bore is pristine.
Today, I’ll report on my progress in getting the Marlin Ballard to shoot. I’ll tie that back to airgunning, because the same principles that drive the accurate firearm rifle will work there, as well.
In fact, today’s something of a shocker and a screamer. The shock comes from how badly I prepared the ammunition, and the screaming came when I saw the last two targets for the first time.
To prepare to shoot the Ballard, two things must happen. First, the rifle was cleaned as soon as it returned from the range the last time it was shot. Because the barrel is so glass-smooth, it takes only a few minutes to clean. Then, it sits on display, proudly awaiting its next outing.
The second thing that must be done is the ammo must be prepared. I have not resized the cases before reloading them. Because they are always fired in the same rifle and in the same chamber, I have filed a notch in their base so each case is always oriented in the chamber the same way. They are loaded straight into the breech with the notch at 12 o’clock.
The cases were deprimed, the primer pockets were then cleaned and Federal large rifle primers were inserted into each case. Then, I ran a belling tool into the case to open the throat to receive the new bullet. Next, all 40 cases received a fresh charge of H4198 powder. I’m using an RCBS Uniflow powder measure, and it was easy to set it at the 17 grains of powder I determined last session would be the optimum charge.
I’m still using the original Winchester cases that I determined were slightly too short for the rifle’s chamber. But, they’re all I have and they’re on their third loading right now.
The key to today’s test was to see if I could detect a difference in accuracy between the sized bullet that measures 0.379″ and the as-cast bullet that measures 0.381 inches. With everything else being the same, I figured a 10-shot group would show the difference, if there is any.
Trouble, trouble, mega trouble!
Never have I had so many difficulties loading a few straight-wall rifle cartridges. The 20 sized and lubricated bullets went together with their cartridges pretty quick and without any problems; but, when it came time for the as-cast and finger-lubed bullets, it was like juggling flasks of nitroglycerin. Some of the finger-lubed bullets got stuck in the seating die from the excess lubricant around the bullet. I had to disassemble the dies several times and drive out the stuck bullet out. I assembled the die again, and that caused variations in the overall cartridge length.
Another problem I had was that the nose punch in the seating die has the incorrect taper for the bullet I’m using. It cut a ring on every one of the 40 lead bullets I loaded. This was the worst lot of ammo I’ve ever made, and it showed.
Each of these problems has to be addressed and fixed in the future. Right now, they’re causing me to make ammo that isn’t too pretty.
Those cartridges should all be the same overall length. Having to constantly disassemble the dies to remove stuck bullets caused this. This is sloppy ammo that shouldn’t shoot well. Notice the file marks in the base of each case that are used to index the case to the chamber.
The ring below the flat nose of the bullet shouldn’t be there. It was caused by an improperly shaped nose punch in the bullet-seating die. The fix is to send several bullets to RCBS, the die maker so they can cut a nose punch that’s matched to the shape of this bullet. This is one more problem that detracts from the accuracy of this reloaded round.
With all of these excuses, I’m sure you expect another mediocre report. Don’t! The gun did very well in spite of all I did to derail it. The day was perfect, without a breath of air, so 100-yard shooting was very easy.
As always, the rifle was rested on an MTM rifle rest on my MTM shooting bench. The bulls are 3-7/8 inches in diameter and perfect for these sights at 100 yards. My front sight element is an aperture, so the trick is to center the bull inside it and level the bubble in the spirit level to cancel any cant.
The sized bullets were in the first group of 10. They gave me an average target.
Well, at least they’re all in the black. Ten sized bullets made this mediocre group at 100 yards.
Then, I switched to the unsized bullets. I expected a thorough trouncing of the sized bullets, but it didn’t happen. In fact, the two targets look very similar. And, I threw one shot out of the black!
The unsized bullets were slightly worse than the sized bullets.
So, what gives?
I’m sitting there wondering what I could do to improve this rather mundane performance, when it hit me. I wasn’t close enough to the rear aperture! I would have to hold my eye up close so the most light possible comes through the tiny peep hole.
Also, I could pay more attention to the bubble in the spirit level with my eye closer to the peep hole, because I could now see the bubble better. You would be surprised to see how much cant you normally put on a rifle if you haven’t got a bubble to check yourself. I found that it felt like the rifle was tilted to the left when the bubble was actually leveled. My natural inclination to hold the rifle resulted in it being tilted far to the right.
Now that I sorted out how to shoot, it was time to shoot the second set of targets. This is where the surprise was.
Eight sized bullets went through the group in the bull. This is real progress!
Seven bullets went through the center of the bullseye! These are the unsized bullets.
Analyzing the targets
I’ll cut to the chase. I don’t think I can really tell whether the unsized bullet is more accurate or not. Seven out of the 10 bullets made a group that measures 0.835 inches between centers. However, the actual group size of that target is 2.609 inches.
The best sized bullet group measures 1.437 inches for 8 shots and 2.55 inches for all 10 shots. That’s too close to call. But since the unsized group is not that much larger than the sized group, and because my sloppy reloading can easily explain the difference, I think the larger bullet is the better one. My lubrication process has to change, because I can’t keep disassembling the bullet-seating die all the time. I need to find a way to lube the bullets so it leaves the grease in the grooves instead of all over the side of the bullet. I guess I’ll break down and try the classic “cake cutter” method, where the bullets are stood in a flat pan and melted grease is poured in the pan until it reaches the top groove. The grease is allowed to re-harden, then an old cartridge with the end cut off is used to cut each bullet out of the hardened lubricant.
Also, I need to remember to begin my sighting procedure the right way next time, with my eye close to the rear aperture. I have to remember to level the bubble for every shot.
Mac suggested that leaving the powder loose in the case might have been a contributor to fliers. The next time I reload, every case will get a Dacron wad over the powder. I use one in my .43 Spanish, and it works well.
I’d forgotten to take a spotting scope to the range on this day, so I was unaware of what the final two groups looked like until I walked up on them. Seeing a large hole in the center of the bull on a 100-yard target is thrilling, to say the least. I refer to good shots as “screamers,” and I’m darned if I didn’t do a lot of screaming when I saw those two targets.
All my life, I’ve read articles about the great marksmen of the late 19th century, and I’ve looked at the targets that accompanied their articles. To put my shooting into perspective, Harry Pope, the great barrelmaker and world champion rifle shot, once put 10 rounds into a 0.20-inch group at 200 yards. Talk about a screamer!
This group is a representation because the original was lost. This was scanned from the book, The Story of Pope’s Barrels, by Ray M. Smith, copyrighted 1960 and published by The Stackpole Company. Revised edition 1993 printed by R&R Books.
Pope shot this group with his .33-47 rifle, which was a breechloader that was also a muzzleloader. The loaded cartridge was first loaded into the breech in the normal way, then a bullet was loaded from the muzzle and rammed down to the top of the cartridge. That way the “fins” of lead resulting from the rifling were not on the base of the bullet when it exited the muzzle, and that has proven to increase accuracy. Should we be muzzle-loading pellets? I think not.
Pope shot the famous group and walked down to the 200-yard target to retrieve it. He set it on the ground and measured it with the calipers he always carried; but, since the wind had picked up, he held the target down with his knee. After measuring it, he stood up, but before he could grab the target, the wind caught it and dropped it in the nearby river.
Unlike Elmer Keith’s famous 400-yard elk kill with a .44 Magnum revolver, nobody doubts the truth of this story. Harry Pope had the reputation of being scrupulously honest in all his dealings; and, if anyone was ever going to shoot a group like that, he was the one most likely to do it.
I never expect to come close to this kind of accuracy, but it would be pleasing some day to shoot 10 shots into an inch at 200 yards. I know benchrest shooters do it all the time, but I would feel more fulfilled doing it with this 125-year-old rifle. It was good enough for target shooters in 1886, and that makes it good enough for me today.
How does this relate to airguns?
I think that’s a good question that deserves an answer. In airgunning, there are certain air rifles with a reputation for extreme accuracy. Some, like the underlever TX200, require technique to shoot this well, while others are more forgiving.
Some of these accurate airguns are even vintage and no longer made. The FWB 124 would fall into that category, as would an Air Arms Shamal PCP. We’ve discussed subjects like extreme accuracy, and many of us seem to be in pursuit of the smallest groups possible. It’s my hope that by sharing what I’ve had to go through to obtain good accuracy from my old Ballard, that you’ll be able to apply some of these same things to your airguns.
I haven’t even mentioned sorting my bullets by weight to this point, but that’s coming. Now that I have a good load (equate that to finding a good pellet and the right power setting) and have learned the importance of good shooting technique like sighting and cant reduction (equate that to the artillery hold and also using a bubble level on your airgun), I’m ready to take this quest to a whole new level.
I admit that I do enjoy shooting this firearm a lot, which is the main reason I do it. Kevin has just shown that my rifle might be worth over $12,000, but I’m darned if that will make me get rid of it. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at, but seeing those tight 10-shot groups at 100 yards is more beautiful to me. Townsend Whelen said it all when he said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” Well, this one fascinates me. But it is just as easy to be fascinated by a Weihrauch HW50S that cannot seem to shoot multiple pellets anywhere but to the same place.