by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

I sort of backed into this report several weeks ago when I reported on shooting my .250 Savage with 10 “first” shots. Actually, I waited long enough between each shot that the barrel cooled down to the ambient temperature so the rifle “thought” it was shooting its first shot. The actual first of the 10 shots was a little wide of the rest of the group, probably because the bore had been cleaned and was just a bit oily — but also because it went off before I was ready. I’d forgotten how light the trigger was on that rifle. After that, though, the gun settled down and put the next 8 rounds into a very nice group that was centered on the bull. The last shot was a called pull to the right.

250 Savage group1
Eight tight first shots out of 10 at 100 yards from my .250 Savage.

That target and experience got me wondering whether an airgun could also put all of its first shots in the same place. So, I devised a test to see what would happen. Today, I’m reporting on the outcome.

Initially, I’d said that to be a true first shot a long time had to pass between each shot. I thought hours would be appropriate, and a full day would be even better. There’s no scientific reasoning behind those times — it’s just something that I came up with.

I initially put an entire day between each shot, but that proved to be too much of a burden. To shoot, I have to set up a light on the target, set up a shooting bench with sandbag and a chair, and I have to clear the furniture out of the intervening space. So, at shot No. 3, I resolved to shoot two shots per day and leave the shooing bench and light set up all day. There would be about 5 hours between each shot on any given day.

This is hard!
Right off the bat, I discovered that this is the hardest shooting test I’ve ever done. Because I wasn’t shooting but a single shot, I wasn’t giving myself time to warm up as a shooter — to heck with the rifle. It took from 2 to 5 minutes to settle in for the shot, and each shot was a first shot, so they were as scary as all first shots are. In that respect, I think this was a true test of both the gun and the shooter. If you’ve never tried something like this, you owe it to yourself to try it at least one time. I think you’ll see how difficult it is if you really try to shoot the very best you can.

My test rifle was my Beeman R8 that I’ve shown you several times in the past. It’s tuned to be very smooth and has always been able to shoot a small group on command, so I thought it might also be good for this kind of test.

The best pellet in this rifle has been the JSB Exact RS that weighs just 7.3 grains in .177 caliber. It’s extremely stable in this rifle and seems to forgive many faults on the shooter’s part — something I would need for certain.

Beeman R8 profile left
This Beeman R8 is tuned, so it shoots to the point of aim.

What are we testing?
With the .250 Savage, I was testing the ability of the rifle to put the first bullet where I wanted it to go. A centerfire rifle will often throw the first bullet wide of the mark, either because the barrel is cold or, more likely, because it has an oily film which lubricates the bullet differently than all the bullets that follow. An airgun acts differently, because different things are happening. First, since we don’t routinely clean our barrels, you don’t have the oily film problem. If it’s a springer you’re shooting, the grease is stiff on the first shot and looser afterwards. If it’s a PCP, the valve tends to stick on some guns with the first shot.

But we’re also testing the shooter. I usually need a couple shots to get into the groove every time I shoot — and I shoot almost every day of the week. A shooter who shoots less often than me will probably need more shots — just to warm up and remember all his shooting techniques. But you don’t get that with a first shot. It’s right then or never — no do-overs. And that was what affected the outcome of this test as much as anything, I think.

The results
What follows is a photo record of 10 shots. It starts with two shots and ends with 10. After that, I’ll shoot another 10-shot group, after settling in, so we can compare the difference.

Two shots from the R8 at 25 yards. So far, so good.

110 shot test target2
Shot three enlarged the group quite a bit.

After the third shot, I abandoned the need to wait a day between shots and shortened it to not less than 5 hours. I did that for the reasons already mentioned.

10 shot test target3
Shot four went on the other side of the aim point, which is the dot at the center of the target. I’m in danger of losing my aim point.

10 shot test target4
Shot 5 enlarged the right side of the group a little.

About at this point, I observed that this is a very difficult way to shoot targets! Every shot takes settling in, which a first shot doesn’t really afford; so you have to spend extra time getting set up. It was taking me 3 to 5 minutes to settle in for every shot, and that’s no exaggeration. And, even then, I always wondered if there was any tension left in me that might throw a shot wide of the mark. As you will see, that can happen all too easily.

10 shot test target5
Shot 6 joined the hole to the left with the group on the right, making it look better. It also removed the aim point. It was guesswork from this point on.

At this point in the test, I was feeling that the gun was going to perform as I knew it could. And that was all it took to make me relax my setup for the next shot.

10 shot test target6
And that is all it takes! By rushing the setup for the 7th shot, I left some sideways tension in my hold. I knew the tension was there, but I thought the rifle would compensate for me and still drill the center.

Let my 7th shot be a lesson to everyone. When shooting for the tightest group, you absolutely cannot leave anything to chance, nor can you take anything for granted! I know that very well, and you can see the results of it in the group at the top of this report. But I got careless this one time and look what it cost me.

10 shot test target7
Shot 8 is back in the main group — of course.

10 shot test target8
You can’t tell where shot 9 went, so it’s somewhere in the main group.

At this point you know how this is going to turn out. The rifle is accurate, even if I slip up occasionally. And shot 7 is staring me in the face, reminding me to not do that. One more shot to finish the group, and I probably was the most careful with this one.

10 shot test target9
And there you have it. Ten shots — all of them the first shot from a cold gun. Only one “flyer” that we all know is not a flier at all.

Shot 7 now appears to be a “flier” in this group. But we know differently. We know what caused it to go wide was technique — not a bad pellet, scope shift or any other lame excuse. I just shot bad that time.

We also suspect that the R8 is a first-shot rifle. In other words, there’s no need to warm it up to get the best results. But I still need to do one more thing to prove that it is. I need to shoot the best group I can — which will be shot all at the same time.

To get ready for the group I shot 5 pellets at another target to get myself into the groove. Once I knew I was there, I shot a final 10-shot group with the same gun and pellet at the same 25 yards.

10 shot test target10
This is what I can do under the same conditions, when I shoot all 10 shots at one time. The rifle isn’t more accurate — I just make fewer mistakes.

What have I learned?
For starters, I know that this R8 is a stable gun. It doesn’t have to be limbered up to shoot its best. That doesn’t translate to other air rifles, though. Each gun will be unique, and some of them will have to be warmed up to shoot where you aim.

I also learned how difficult it is to put the first shot where I want to. Actually, I sort of knew that already — this test just forced me to see it more clearly.

Does this apply to other powerplants, as well?
I think it applies to all guns — air-powered or firearm. But I suppose I need to test it to see for sure.

What’s coming
Just as a reminder, I’ve been writing a number of reports about the basics, or what I call the components of accuracy. Last December, I did one on velocity versus harmonics, and I’m still referring back to that 11-part test to see the lessons.

Dennis Quackenbush has long been intrigued by the same thing: What makes a gun accurate? One of the things he and I have discussed over the past decade is rifling twist rates. And I have learned a lot about twist rates in the past 5 years from my firearms shooting. Most of it was what not to do; but, still, it was stuff I didn’t know.

Dennis kindly offered to help me perform a little experiment with twist rates for pellets. We selected the AirForce Talon SS as a testbed because the barrels are so easy to change, and Dennis made two special .22-caliber barrels for the rifle. One has a 1:12 twist rate (that means the pellet rotates one time in 12 inches of barrel), and the other has a 1:22 twist. The standard barrel has a 1:16 twist rate; so by shooting groups with all three barrels, we’ll be able to compare the performance.

AirForce helped out by furnishing the exterior barrel dimensions, plus they supplied the barrel bushings for the barrels. I have these barrels now and am set to start testing very soon. Before I do, I’d like the blog readers to give me their thoughts on what I should do to perform this experiment.