The rise of the BB gun: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

Part 2

This report covers:

  • The first BB gun
  • Plymouth Iron Windmill Co.
  • The BB becomes air rifle shot
  • Quality control problems
  • You’ll shoot your eye out
  • World War II
  • After the war

The first BB gun

This is a comprehensive report of the early history of the BB gun. The first successful BB gun is thought to be the Markham. It was made in 1886 in Plymouth, Michigan by the Markham Air Rifle Company. The gun was mostly wood with just a few metal parts where they were absolutely needed — such as the mainspring, trigger, barrel, barrel hinge and other assorted small parts. It looked a little like a gun overall, but the shape was fatter all around because of the wooden parts.

Markham BB gun
Markham BB gun was made of wood with a few metal parts. This is a later 1888 model, but the early guns looked similar.

The gun was cocked by breaking the barrel down. A heavy wire connected to the barrel pushed the plunger ( a wire with a round airtight seal at the front — it was an early form of piston) back until it was caught by the trigger, whose end served as the sear. A coiled steel spring located below the piston was now stretched and ready to pull the piston forward violently when released by the sear. The plunger compressed the air in front of it as it went, but the air was blocked by a small lead ball that was loaded in the breech end of the barrel. When the pressure built high enough, the ball’s friction was overcome and it took off down the smooth metal barrel concealed inside a brown wood shroud.

Markham BB gun open
Markham BB gun broke open like this when cocked.

Markham BB gun hinge
A furniture hinge held the barrel to the rest of the gun.

The Markham used easy-to-find lead birdshot (shotgun shot) for projectiles. They standardized on the shot size BB — there was also a size B and a size BBB. BB shot measures 0.180-inches in diameter, nominally.

Plymouth Iron Windmill Co.

Across the street from Markham, The Plymouth Iron Windmill Company was making and selling iron windmills to farmers to run their water pumps. These windmills were expensive and difficult to sell, so the company looked for other products that might keep them going. One day a local firearm inventor named Clarence Hamilton, who is better known for the several youth .22 rimfire rifles he designed and produced, brought in a small gun to show to the Iron Windmill president, Lewis Cass Hough. He cocked it, then dropped a lead BB shot down the muzzle and shot it into a wastepaper basket. Hough was impressed and shot the gun several times himself. When he was finished he is reported to have said, “Clarence, that’s a Daisy!” In the vernacular of the day he was saying the gun was fantastic.

first Daisy
The first Daisy BB gun was all metal. This is a working replica Daisy produced in 2005.

The story has arisen that the windmill company made guns to give away as premiums with the purchase of iron windmills, but advanced BB gun collector Wes Powers thinks that’s a stretch. According to him, there is no proof that was ever done. The company was simply looking for additional products they could make to improve their business, and with the Markham BB gun doing so well across the street, this gun seemed like a good way to go. Whatever the case, they made their first gun is late 1887 and started selling in early 1888.

The name Daisy first appeared on the gun after a few were made with just the name Plymouth Iron Windmill Company cast into the top iron cocking handle. But the Daisy name stuck. In 1895 the company reorganized as the Daisy Manufacturing Company and they were off to the races.

As far as most people know, Daisy was the only game going, but in fact it was more of a race among dozens of startup companies to make and sell BB guns. Michigan was the epicenter, but guns were made in other regions and states as well. While the competition was very heated for several decades, Daisy advertised heavily and also pursued sales to stores through aggressive traveling salesmen. The others relied on word of mouth and eventually they went away — except for Markham. Daisy quietly took over control in 1916 and used Markham as a cheaper line they could sell through different distribution channels like Sears. They renamed the company the King Air Rifle Company in the 1920s and Daisy officials started to populate their executive staff and board of directors.

The BB becomes air rifle shot

Daisy was the major player in the BB gun world by the first decade of the 20th century. In that capacity, they were able to prevail on the makers of lead shot to produce a ball that measured 0.175-inches in diameter. There were several advantages to this smaller shot. First, it was lighter, so it went faster than the old BB shot. That meant BB guns could have weaker mainspring and still achieve the same velocity as before. Weaker springs meant the guns became easier to cock — a very significant advantage! The smaller shot also used less lead that saved money when millions of them were made. Daisy wasn’t making shot at the time, but they would begin in a few years.

They named this new ammunition air rifle shot to differentiate it from BB shot, and it occupied a unique place in the spectrum of shot. No equivalent shotgun shot was made in this size, so the BB gun — ironically no longer shooting BBs — separated itself from the world of birdshot at this juncture. It also lead to the serendipitous invention of the steel BB — or air rifle shot, as it should be called. I will continue to call this shot BBs, to avoid confusion.

Quality control problems

Before long, the new smaller shot tubes began to be returned to Daisy for repairs! The faulty shot tubes (that were actually the barrels) were split and had one or more steel balls stuck in them. Cass Hough, the grandson of the founder, traced these problem guns to Minneapolis, where he discovered that the American Ball Company — a maker of ball bearings — was packaging its scrap balls of the appropriate size into small tubes and selling them as the Bullseye brand of air rifle shot. The problem was these balls were steel, not lead. The shot tubes needed lead balls to function properly, because they depended on the lead squeezing through a constriction in the breech at the instant of firing. Steel balls didn’t deform, and eventually they removed the constriction altogether — ruining the shot tube. American Ball was also not controlling the size of the balls closely enough, which lead to the jams and split shot tubes.

Daisy tried telling its customers that only lead air rifle shot would work in their guns, but the steel shot was cheaper and it was a losing battle. So Daisy redesigned their shot tubes to accommodate steel shot and worked out an agreement with American Ball for the continuation of the Bullseye brand with Daisy participation. This happened in 1928 and lasted until 1939, when Daisy acquired American Ball and moved the shot making business in-house. The Bullseye brand name for air rifle shot continued into at least the early 1970s.

You’ll shoot your eye out

When the switch was made from lead shot to steel there was a hidden disadvantage that didn’t surface for several years. When lead shot hits something hard like a rock or a tree at high velocity, it deforms and loses much of its energy. Steel shot doesn’t deform. Steel will rebound from hard surfaces with almost the same velocity that it impacts, and a lot of kids were finding that out the hard way. I have been hit in the face by a steel BB rebounding from a hard surface 33 feet away and my lip was split by the impact. I always wear safety classes whenever I shoot modern BB guns at anything! You should, too.

World War II

Daisy suspended BB gun manufacture during the war and switched over to defense projects like the rest of American industry. Cass Hough, who would later lead the company, joined the Army Air Force and became a rather famous fighter pilot. Among other things, he acted as a test pilot and is believed by many to have been the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1943 in a power dive in a P38 Lightning fighter over England. Supposedly a sonic boom was heard. You don’t hear much about that achievement because propeller planes are not supposed to go that fast and because Chuck Yeager was the first person to do it in level flight in 1947, which is where the record is assigned.

After the war

After the war Daisy scrambled to get back to peacetime operations, but shortages of key materials like steel hindered them. Steel BBs were not made for some time after the war, so experiments were made with aluminum BBs. They did not fly straight and were quickly abandoned — making them a rare collectible today.

By the late 1940s Daisy was back in full production and positioned to advance the BB gun for many more decades. This report will end here, but I will return and finish the story of the BB gun at some time in the future.

31 thoughts on “The rise of the BB gun: Part 1

  1. BB
    I believe you showed pictures of the Markham in the past but didn’t do a article about them.

    And glad you did today’s blog about BB guns. I never thought I would like history lessons so much. Very interesting.


  2. Greetings BB and Friends
    Although I’m not much of a fan of the BB gun, I found this article most informative. I agree with Gunfun1 when he mentions you have displayed a picture or two of the Markham but with no article describing it in such detail. Although these BB guns seem crude, and rather simple in design and construction by today’s standards, it is interesting to note the many teething issues that had to be overcome along the way.. After all, being the first of it’s kind there was no previous model they could study or reproduce. The history of our airgun hobby today is the result of these many first and second attempt mishaps as well as the occasional successful first try.
    Ciao
    Titus


    • Titus,

      If you have the opportunity to get your hands on a Daisy 99 or one of it’s descendants, I recommend that you do so. You just may change your mind. I have a 1959 Daisy 99 that is awesome! The peep sights great and the trigger, which is probably quite worn, breaks crisply with a light pull. Even my wife enjoyed shooting it some the other day.


  3. I picked up a Daisy Red Ryder, and a Daisy Model 25 pump action bb shooter. I shoot them mostly in my house from a chair at about 17 feet. The RR has a terrible hard trigger pull, but both guns are giving me some nice groups. Talk about easy to set up and get shooting! A good 3-5 shot group is about 5/16″.


  4. Great article and very well written. Lot’s of fascinating facts. I did not know BB was a shot size. What a journey! The Daisy name origin was a cool tid bit as well. Fine job.

    Since this is a bb gun report, I will say that I picked up a Red Ryder 75th and Avanti Champion 499 awhile back. I agree with “Birdmove” above on the Red Ryder. The 499 is just plain awesome in all regards. Smooth cocking, smooth single stage trigger and very accurate. The peep/globe sights are simply addicting. The rear peep dials in smooth, despite being plastic. I sighted it in with just 7 shots at 24′. 2,2,2,got it.

    I will say this, if you have a serious young shooter on your hands, I would spend the extra $ and get the 499. Hands down, no question.

    And, since “Birdmove” just had to post his groups,….here is mine at 24′ with the 499 with Avanti shot….all 10 shot groups, rested, indoors. (25,20,30,19,28,28,25,31,27,19,20,21 millimeters) That is an 8 1/2″ x 11″ piece of paper with 12 bulls on it. The Red Ryder on the other hand will put down groups twice that size.

    Again, fine article and looking forwards to the follow up reports.

    B.B., question,….why would “youth rifles” such as the Red Ryder and the 499 not have an automatic safety? If any thing, you would figure it would be the other way around. Youth=automatic, Adult=optional use. Personaly, I like the 499 not having it. It’s just something I have been wondering about.



      • RR,

        Yea, go figure. I asked BB to see if he could dig up anything on it. We’ll see. Even if mine did have an auto safety, I would leave ’em alone. I bought them just for fun and any collectability. The first I got,… the second,…I’m sure I will never live long enough to see it…….. 😉


        • LOL! Probably not. At least you are not “collecting” the 499.

          I kept seeing a 99 BNIB at the airgun shows for $175. I bought mine for $35 and take it out and enjoy it all of the time. My experience with Red Ryders are that because the sights have no windage adjustment, it is a crap shoot. I had one for a short period of time that I picked up at a yard sale. It shot a pretty decent 2″ group about 3″ to the right at 5 yards. I sold it at a yard sale a couple of weeks later.



      • B.B.,
        With your contacts, I would ask that you make an inquiry about the safety question. I just checked both manuals and both said “do not rely on mechanical safety’s” and to “always engage them”. Really it makes no sense that a air rifle aimed at youth would have an optional safety and an adult rifle has one that must be removed for each shot. In this day of “lawyer-ed up products and manuals”, this does not stand up. There must be an explanation.

        If,…you do find an answer,…it would be a real good addition to your upcoming reports. Maybe an FPS issue?,….but really, due the potential for re-bounds,…BB guns have an inherent (extra) safety issue.

        Thanks, Chris



  5. Thank you for this report? Seems I have read this very similar report written by you at some earlier date? Maybe in won of your earlier news letters some where? Being a member of the Daisy Museum I might have read this info received by Daisy? Still think you wrote and I read it by you in past somewhere! Thank you again! Semper fi!


    • J. Lee,

      This information has been around for many decades. The one thing in this report that is new is the mention that Daisy probably did not give BB guns away as premiums for windmill sales. This may be the first time that has been seen in print.

      B.B.


  6. It’s a strange anomoly that the BB gun never really took off in Europe, a lot of guns used a round ball of one sort or another in the 1800’s but then, so did most firearms, as soon as technology allowed the waisted pellet (and some other designs) was leapt to almost universally while the steel BB plodded on over the pond for decades, and still does.
    There is a little more interest now for the action/replica guns…but still very much a second fiddle, ditto Co2….goodness knows the reasons


    • Dom,

      Always interesting to read about your perspective from across the pond.

      Many of the very early airguns made in Europe that shot round ball (arguably your BB gun equivalent) were well made and accurate. Some like the Bahco that began around 1900 and evolved into the Swedish Excellents were made for over 50 years. I have a Swedish Excellent that shoots 5,4 round ball/roundkuglen very accurately out to 20 yards. Back in the day they even made a special loading bench to place a Swedish Excellent upon for loading.

      Here’s a link showing the various models:

      http://www.luftvapenbladet.com/images/Excellent/excellent%20modeller.pdf

      Here’s a link showing more Excellent and Bahco models as well as an advertisement showing the loading bench:

      http://www.airguns.se/excellent/Excellent.html

      kevin


      • Kevin,

        Very interesting. They apparently thought that comfort in the cocking lever handle was of great importance, despite upsetting the overall aesthetic lines. Nice to see the old ones.


    • I’ve never been over there but my understanding is that our climate is much more temperate which would explain the lack of enthusiasm for Co2.
      Steel BB’d being I’ll suited for taking ge May help explain that one.


  7. Dom–Here are my reasons—Right now I have 4 Daisys in my collection and one ppk. I bought the Daisys in the 1970,s to teach my kids basic marksmanship and safety. 2 99,s, a Red Ryder and a 105. I bought the ppk around 2008. I seldom shoot them, I use pellet rifles to teach my grandkids the basics. Why?–Because bb,s are a pain to load.! I have several magnets to pick up spilled bb,s. In addition they can rebound from almost any target when used for plinking. Then there is their poor accuracy compared to pellet guns. My Slavia,s,. Bronco, etc are easier to cock and load. I am sure that these reasons are shared by many shooters. Ed


  8. Hi Kevin, a Bahco pellet firing rifle came up for sale in my local airgun shop the other day, a small Diana like rifle that you often see from the continent in one form or another, but almost consistently lead ball, I suspect the alarming rebound of steel bearings vs the intended demographic may have been the decider, I still marvel a bit that more kids aren’t blinded tbh, I guess it’s also down to straight up availability too, most of the bigger airgun manufacturers were making pellets pretty much from the get go.
    As for Co2 popularity, possibly a similar reason, nobody was making the capsules, I’m not sure it is entirely through the environmental temperature, gets a bit chilly in Alaska too
    Who knows, the shot to shot variability I think is an issue.
    The UK and US markets are strangely different in so many ways, multi pumps are universally loathed over here, though I must admit a soft spot for Sheridans…but really not popular.


  9. Great article, BB. I like reading history like this.

    The comment about the sonic dive in a P-38 reminds me of several other such stories (on aircraft ranging from Spitfires and Mustangs to Me262’s), from about the same time period (i.e. before we’d learned much about compressibility effects on high speed aircraft). The speed indicators on most/all aircraft of the period would indicate a false high speed as they got into the trans-sonic region (Mach .7 to 1.0), due to shock waves forming near the tip of the pitot probes. There is a pretty good writeup in wikipedia for the P38, which includes this comment (and the time frame is about right, the tests of the dive flaps were being done in early 1943):

    “The final 210 J models, designated P-38J-25-LO, alleviated the compressibility problem through the addition of a set of electrically actuated dive recovery flaps just outboard of the engines on the bottom centerline of the wings. With these improvements, a USAAF pilot reported a dive speed of almost 600 mph (970 km/h), although the indicated air speed was later corrected for compressibility error, and the actual dive speed was lower.[102] ”

    It was likely still a “heckuva ride” for that pilot: as the aircraft approaches Mach 0.7 or higher, the formation of condensation shocks over the top of the wings, and the buffeting/noise as the tail enters the disturbed air, can make most any pilot have second thoughts about his choice of occupation. We aero engineers would tend to discount a plane of the time going sonic (as the equations predict the aircraft likely coming apart due to flutter when the speed gets high enough).

    In the end, your comment is likely correct – without accurate speed information (from corrected pitot probes), we just don’t know if these planes got up to those speeds.


    • This above.

      I don’t think the P38 went supersonic, but some of the air next to it might have. I don’t think it would have happened with the tail surfaces, specifically the elevator design.

      However, I do think the F86 went supersonic in a dive before the X1. My grandfather flew the later F86 interceptor variant and said they easily and routinely went supersonic in a dive.

      Then he transitioned to the f101b. He said it was way more capable, but a lot harder to fly on the edge- stereotypical century series fighter- all motor and no wing, combined with a T-tail that limited positive g maneuvers.

      B.B. and Ben you might get a kick out of reading the launch procedures for the AIR2 genie. That was a fun story. One of his other fun stories was getting scrambled to shoot down a russian bomber heading from cuba to D.C. at 65,000′ during the missile crisis.

      His backseater told him he was go to fire an AIM4 when he looked up at the target to see a small airplane with long skinny straight wings…


  10. Put the 1399 on the 1377 last night and ran some Vrosman pointed pellets through it with the notch sight but the first two landed about1″ apart, flipped over to the aperture and Winchester round noses and put 10 into 1.25″ @ 8yds rested. Had to start going with 5 pumps due to moderate bruising, May just have to get a decent pair of riding gloves.


  11. B.B.,

    An excellent report.

    Where did American Tool Works (Sterling, Upton, etc.) of Chicago fit into this? I read somewhere that they started around the time of Markham and Daisy in the late 19th century, and were bought by Daisy well into the 20th century.

    Once again, excellent report.

    Michael


    • Michael,

      They were among those companies producing BB guns at this time. I think they came into it a few years after Daisy and Markham, but not by many. At one time there were dozens of companies making BB guns for the then-booming market. My absolute favorites are the Colombian & Bailey guns made in the 1890s. Not only did they have beautiful cast iron frames with animals in high relief, the wood they were stocked with was often presentation grade.

      B.B.


      • B.B.,

        I remember the first time I saw a picture of a Columbian BB gun. I actually gasped, it was so beautiful. I’m not familiar with Bailey, but you can be sure I’ll look it up.

        Michael


  12. Cass hough grandson of the companys founder states in his book its a daisy that the airgun was purchased to give away with the purchase of their windmills and due to high demand they began selling them as a separate item


  13. Sorry to bring up an old thread, but, I have been trying to find information on a Daisy SSP in .22 cal. A spokes person from daisy told me they had sold a .22 cal model some years ago, but had dropped it from their line. No dates, names, or reason were ever given to me. Have you ever heard of this gun ?


  14. Air guns go back farther than this, I think the first one was the Girandoni air rifle of 1779. It wasn’t intended to be a toy, in fact, it was a large bore air gun that made about the same power as the firearms of the day, it was just quieter, smokeless, and it had a much greater rate of fire, as it was a repeater, and could fire 20 rounds, or something, without having to stand up to go through the rigamarole of loading a muzzle loader. It was the state of the art of it’s day. Louis and Clark brought one along on their little excursion.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girandoni_air_rifle


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