by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • The first lead BB
  • Size matters
  • Advantages of air rifle shot
  • The dawn of steel shot
  • How lead shot tubes work
  • How steel shot tubes work
  • This information is worth millions

The first lead BB

When BB guns were new in the 1880s, they shot lead shotgun shot in the size BB. That’s where the name BB gun comes from. BBs were nominally 0.180-inches in diameter. Nominally means that they were supposed to be about that size and they were sorted by screens to ensure they were all close to that size, but let’s be honest — does it really matter whether a single piece of birdshot in actually 0.180-inches or 0.182-inches? Not to a shotgunner, it doesn’t. Maybe uniform shot gives a more uniform pattern, but there are other factors to consider, as well, and shot uniformity is only one of many things.

Size matters

For a BB gun, however, the size of the shot makes all the difference in the world! A single ball moves through a smooth bore that has to fit closely or power will be lost and accuracy will suffer. If the ball is too large it will stick in the bore. A size difference of just a few thousandths of an inch has a tremendous impact on the functioning of the airgun. So — while the lead BB shot was a good beginning, it was also a drawback that had to be overcome before the BB gun could evolve.

Most manufacturers were aware of the shot size problem, but Daisy soon became large enough to do something about it. Just after the turn of the 20th century they reduced the size of the shot to 0.175-inches and called it air rifle shot. That name was used by them for almost a century, though they are now calling their ammunition BBs like everyone else. They convinced shot makers to make the new air rifle shot that had no application for shotguns. Sure, it could be used, but there was no load data for the odd size and therefore no reason shot makers would make it for anything but air rifles. Making the shot smaller had several obvious advantages and one that was not so obvious.

Advantages of air rifle shot

Smaller shot used less lead, saving money. When the numbers produced run into the millions and billions, even a small difference mounts up! The smaller shot was also lighter, which boosted the velocity of the guns. But it also meant that the mainsprings could be weakened and still produce the same velocity that they got with the BB shot. That was what they did. They weren’t looking for greater velocity; they wanted easier cocking.

The hidden advantage was the fact that the new shot size was proprietary. As long as someone (Daisy) controlled quality (the size of the shot) through acceptance inspections, the problems of BBs getting jammed in the shot tube became a thing of the past. This new lead shot lasted from early in the century until sometime in the 1920s.

The dawn of steel shot

In the middle ’20s, Daisy started receiving returns of shot tubes that were split and filled with steel balls jammed inside. Cass Hough, grandson of Daisy’s founder and later president of the company himself, tracked the problem to Minneapolis, where he discovered the American Ball Company, a maker of ball bearings, was selling their scrap bearings of the appropriate size to local boys. There were three problems with this. First, these balls were not lead and did not work with the shot tubes in the air rifles that were then on the market. I will explain why in a moment The second problem is because they were steel, not only did they not work, they also ruined the breeches of the shot tubes in which they were used. And the third problem was the quality (shot size) standards of American Ball were too low, resulting in steel shot that was both oversized and undersized.

How lead shot tubes work

Shot tubes designed for lead shot have a constriction in their breech that stops the shot from passing through. Until the gun fires and the air tube on the front of the plunger pushes the shot through this constriction, the shot remains in the breech regardless of how the gun is held. As long as the ball is made of lead, this works well.

When the ball is made of steel, though, it doesn’t deform when pushed through the shot tube. So American Ball selected steel balls that were a little smaller than air rifle shot. While they did pass through the constriction most of the time (as long as the shot sizes were consistent), they also hammered the constriction out of the breech over the course of time. Maybe it took 30,000 shots, but kids did shoot their guns that much. Eventually the gun would start shooting two BBs at a time instead of just one. That’s a sure sign that the shot tube has been hammered by steel shot. Also, in some guns the shot would just roll out of the tube when the muzzle was held down. Another sure sign. The fix was simple enough — buy a replacement shot tube from Daisy. But not too many people knew to do that, so many older BB gun shot tubes were destroyed.

How steel shot tubes work

To hold a steel BB in place, Daisy and others relied on a thin wire spring instead of the constriction. The BB was held in the breech mechanically until pushed forward by the air tube. This worked great for the next 55-60 years.

shot tubes
The shot tube for lead balls (right) has a constriction at the breech. It’s inside the tube and doesn’t show up in a photo. The shot tube for steel BBs (left) has a wire spring to hold the BB in place. Either tube will fit all Daisy number 25 guns made since 1913.

Today they use rare earth magnets to hold BBs in place. These were not available back in the late 1920s when the switch was made from lead to steel, but they are very handy today. They work well and don’t wear out as the wire springs sometimes did.

modern shot tube
The rear of a modern Red Ryder shot tube looks like this. This tube fits inside the outer barrel jacket of the gun. An inclined slope feeds the BBs down to the breech, where a powerful magnet holds each one in place for the next shot.

This information is worth millions

I’m sure today’s report seems like a bit of trivia regurgitated by an old man. That’s what old men do. Well, about 16-18 years ago, this old man helped save the Daisy Manufacturing Company from a damaging and very costly lawsuit with some of the information you have read today. The Consumer Product Safety Commission contacted me to question me about what they claimed was an inherent design flaw in most Daisy BB guns. They used gravity to feed the BBs. That last picture of a modern shot tube is one that Daisy sent me to use in our discussions.

The thrust of their lawsuit was that gravity-fed systems were inherently unreliable for feeding ammunition. They wanted me to testify to that in court. If they won they planned to force Daisy to cease production of all their models that are gravity-fed (the Red Ryder?) and pay a large penalty.

I met the lawyer from the CPSC at the field target (DIFTA) range in Maryland and we discussed the Daisy design. He told me a young person had been shot by a BB gun that must have held a BB and then released it suddenly, because the youth shot another kid with what he thought was an empty gun!

He told me they had tried at the CPSC to replicate that type of fault with another Daisy BB gun, but were unsuccessful. But maybe someone like me with experience shooting BB guns would know how common a thing this was?

I told him I had never heard of it happening. I didn’t doubt that it could happen under certain circumstances, but it would be a one-in-a-million occurrence. I then informed him that I saw four serious flaws in the CPSC case.

1. Military firearms have used gravity-feed mechanisms for over a century, starting with the Gatling gun. Gravity feed works. He didn’t know that.

2. The boy who did the shooting should never have pointed a gun of any kind at another person. That is the first rule of safe gun handling and it would be brought out in court. Either the shooter was not trained to handle guns (very likely) or the parents were not supervising him (also likely) or the parents had not taken reasonable precautions to secure the gun when they were not able to supervise its use (also likely). Instead of a gun design flaw, this case was about a family flaw and a lack of training and supervision. Something similar could have happened with a knife, a bow and arrow or matches.

3. One never checks whether a BB gun is loaded by shaking the gun (which the CPSC lawyer told me the shooter had done, and which he also did with his sample BB gun to show me how it was done). That will not work when the gun’s  magazine is spring-loaded and force-fed. The defense attorney could use this information, maybe not with the shooter who was too young to testify, but with one of his parents. And you can forget rehearsing them for the trial. There are hundreds of small details like this that could be asked to demonstrate their lack of knowledge about how BB guns function.

4. The shooter had given the number one excuse why the “accident” happened. He was “sure” the gun was empty. Go back to point number two and read it again. There is no excuse for pointing a gun at someone, and certainly no excuse for firing at them! This excuse is the one that’s always given, “I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” It is such a cliche that a song was written by the same title.

Three months after meeting with the lawyer, I was informed of two things by Daisy’s legal department. First, I was told that lawyer I had spoken to had resigned from the CPSC. And second, the CPSC dropped their lawsuit in return for Daisy adding some safety information to each boxed gun they sold.

Boring or not — this information is valuable!