by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

Part 1

This report covers:

  • Return to normalcy
  • Modern production methods
  • Daisy changes manufacturing processes
  • The age of repeaters
  • Quick Kill
  • Two major BB guns
  • BBs get better through competition
  • Are we finished?

Return to normalcy

In Part 1 we ended our look at the progress of the BB gun just after World War II. I had mentioned that the war stopped the production of BB guns so the manufacturers could make wartime items. When the war was over, there was still a period of time when raw materials were hard to come by. They had been stockpiled for the war and were not in the general channels of distribution for over a year. The government sold most of its stockpiles, but these sales took many years to complete and the materials were often not located where they were needed the most. So a lot of time passed while things returned to normal.

While all this was happening Rosie the Riveter was returning to her home and former military personnel were busy finding jobs. Eventually things did get back on a civilian footing and started to move according to the pace of free enterprise again, rather than to the edicts of the government.

It wasn’t the first time this nation had switched from a wartime footing to peacetime. We did the same thing after World War I. But WW II had a far greater impact on every aspect of life — not only in the U.S. but in every country on the planet.

Daisy went through a couple lean post-war years because of materials shortages, but by 1947 they were back in full production. Only there were production changes coming that nobody had prepared for.

Modern production methods

World War II was a time of raw materials shortages all around the world. Manufacturers had to learn how to do things differently, and the war effort provided the motivation for that. Just to pick one major production program, I turn to my favorite — the production of more than 6 million M1 Carbines by 10 different prime contractors (one of which failed to deliver) and hundreds of subcontractors inside 38 months! Furniture makers and typewriter manufacturers were building one of America’s prime battle weapons. The parts had to be 100 percent interchangeable, regardless of who made what. It was a difficult learning curve, but in the end the program achieved that goal.

One of the most interesting manufacturing techniques tried on the Carbine was one that took place in the late ’40s and into the early 1950s. After the war was over the government tried to use investment cast parts in a firearm! I believe that was the first time that was attempted. A special metal called Armasteel was tried for several small Carbine parts. The parts that were produced this way didn’t live up to their design goals for ruggedness and durability. However, the ground had been broken for cast parts in guns!

Companies continued to develop the process of casting steel parts for firearms, because the return would be enormous. Instead of man-hours and tooling wear and tear, the parts could be produced in unlimited quantities with near-finished dimensions at a small fraction of the cost.

In 1963, the Sturm Ruger company became a leader in the investment casting of gun parts. Today we see metal injection molded (MIM) parts on a significant number of firearms. And nobody thinks less of Ruger for building their powerful revolvers out of castings.

Daisy changes manufacturing processes

Daisy started changing their manufacturing processes around 1952, when they began to blow-mold their stocks and forearms from plastic. The early plastic wasn’t the best. It warped and cracked from exposure to heat over the years and just from the passage of time. But as often happens, things did improve. The initial investment in machinery to support this effort was high, but after production numbers reached a certain point, economies of scale kicked in and plastic parts became much cheaper than the wood parts they replaced.

The other change Daisy made was to move from hot-blued metal parts to painted parts. They used the electrostatic process that is so successful today. This process also needed some time for refinement because the early paint flaked off over time — a common problem in the early days. But it allowed Daisy to remove the caustic bluing chemicals and vapors from their plant, along with the heating tanks. The savings in production man-hours was significant!

I remember as a youngster favoring the wood-stocked and blued-steel BB guns over the newer painted plastic models, even though the newer guns did look a lot sharper. Plastic stocks were a turnoff, and Daisy did things like produce pure white stocks and pink stocks for girls that were a red flag to our impending manhood. After a few years in our hands, it was easy to detect severe wear on the new technology, but by that time I had moved on to firearms.

The age of repeaters

The 1960s and ’70s were the age of repeating BB guns. CO2 had come of age, after almost dying out in the late ’50s from leaky cartridges. Crosman’s business boomed with several popular CO2 pistols like the Hahn 45 that morphed into the Model 36 Frontier. These were two Colt Single Action-looking BB revolvers that let little boys kill bad guys just like Marshal Matt Dillon killed badman Arvo Ojala every week on the opening of Gunsmoke. A lever action BB gun called the Hahn 166 Super BB Repeater was available for those boys who felt the Rifleman channeling through them.

Not to be outdone, Daisy started their Spittin’ Image line of lookalike BB guns in 1960. The first two models were the 179 pistol that copied the single action Colt, and the lever action 1894 that came a few years later. Both were repeaters that were icons of their era.

When the WW II programs like Rat Patrol gained popularity on television, Crosman reskinned their powerful but boring V350 BB gun into the M1 Carbine that captured the hearts and minds of many young boys. Even today, some of those same little boys still cling to their Crosman Carbines that look so real they could fool any armorer who doesn’t look closely.

Crosman M1 Carbine
Crosman’s M1Carbine (bottom) looks like the actual firearm. Carbine at the top made by the Inland division of General Motors.

Quick Kill

It wouldn’t do to overlook the Daisy Quick Kill program developed for the U.S. Army to prepare soldiers bound for Viet Nam to engage the enemy without using their rifle sights. This program is an outgrowth of the earlier program developed and espoused by Lucky McDaniel. Though this program didn’t advance BB gun technology in any way, it did give BB guns a broader appeal.

Lucky McDaniels kit
Lucky McDaniels kit that was made for him by Daisy. He also sold a BB gun made by Parris.

Daisy Quick Skill
Daisy’s Quick Skill kit was an attempt to convert the Army Quick Kill program to a commercial product.

Both McDaniel and Daisy tried to sell the instinct shooting concept to the public. McDaniel did it personally through his training programs that even trained famous athletes like heavyweight prizefighter Floyd Patterson. Daisy sold the Quick Skill gun as a package that relied on the purchaser to train himself. Of the two, Lucky’s was the one that endured, training thousands of shooters when all was said and done.

Two major BB guns

Two BB guns from this time stand above all others. First was Crosman’s 760 Powermaster that’s called the Pumpmaster today that came out in 1966. Patterned after Remington’s slide action model 760 Gamemaster hunting rifle, the Crosman 760 multi-pump pneumatic soon rose to flagship status for the New York-based company. It shot both BBs and pellets, but the targeted customer base was far more likely to use BBs because they were more affordable. Due to its success, the 760 is still in production half a century later.

The other major BB gun is Daisy’s model 880. Since 1972, the 880 Powerline multi-pump has been delighting little boys of all ages with power and accuracy. It also is a dual ammo long gun that for some reason gets used with pellets a lot more than the 760. And, like the 760, the 880 is still in production today.

BBs get better through competition

To this point I’ve talked about the advancement of the actual BB guns. For the majority of these decades, though, the BBs themselves remained the same. They were wire chunks that were chopped up and rolled into a ball by heavy opposing steel plates. Many of them came through the process with flat spots, but since there was nothing better to compare to they were accepted.

BB flat spot
This Crosman Copperhead BB of the 1960s is typical of the quality of that day.

Then something remarkable happened. Daisy has been hosting the national BB gun championships since 1966. Shooting first at 15 feet and later revised to an international 5 meters (16 feet 5 inches) millions of children around the world have learned to shoot and to compete through this competition.

In 1959 Daisy created the model 99 BB gun for target shooting. It had a sling and target sights, but in all other ways it was a standard BB gun. The first year they offered it as a 1000-shot gravity-feed model, but then it was switched to the 50-shot forced-feed magazine that was found in guns like the Number 25.

In 1975 Daisy brought out their model 299 — an advanced version of the model 99 that was intended for competition. But it was still a plain gun in the trappings of a target model. Daisy knew that coaches around the country were testing the individual barrels of their guns and switching them out for those with the tightest internal dimensions.

So — in a Six-Sigma/Value Engineering/Japanese Management type of program, Daisy took the bull by the horns and created the BB gun that the coaches really wanted — the model 499 that is known today as the Avanti Champion 499! In 1976 they brought out this BB gun that is now revered as the world’s most accurate.

To go with it, they perfected the shot-making process to produce the most perfect steel BBs the world had ever seen. These were the number 515 Precision Ground Shot that are sold today as Avanti Precision Ground Shot. The BB-gun world was rocked to its foundations by this formidable combination, and I think a lot of that response echoed back through Daisy!

You can say what you want about the reasons and motivation for Daisy improving their standard BBs, but I note that they were doing it within a decade of the 499 and Precision Ground Shot. Today Daisy’s Premium Grade BBs are much advanced from the BBs of the 1970s. As a result, every new BB that comes to market today uses Daisy’s BB as the baseline. If they can’t make their BBs at least as good as Daisy’s, there’s no sense trying to compete.

This is one area where the Crosman Corporation has lagged behind. And I believe I know why. I have visited Crosman’s BB production line several times and seen the enormous capital investment that’s needed to make a BB. Looking at the small steel ball you can’t envision the 100-plus feet of 2-storey-high automated machinery needed to turn steel wire into a finished packaged product. To modernize a process that large would take an investment of millions of dollars. Compared to making BBs, making pellets is pocket change. And, when you’re done, you get to sell your product to the most price-driven market in existence. Only farming would be less profitable!

Are we finished?

Have BB guns gone as far as they can go? I don’t think so. I don’t think we are even close to the end. I see the potential for many new products that haven’t seen the light of day — as yet. Manufacturers — here come the freebies!

Take a precharged pneumatic like the AirForce Edge, but without the fancy sights and expensive target equipment. Leave the trigger, though. Run it at 2000 psi, or better yet, 1500 psi, because it’s only going to need a small puff of air for each shot. Develop a tight BB barrel that exceeds the accuracy of even the 499. Don’t think it can’t be done! When the 499 came out we didn’t think it was possible, either. Build this gun to retail at a low price, so it will attract target shooters. The 499 is your guide. Use Daisy’s Precision Ground shot for the best accuracy, or better yet, use the new Smart Shot BB we looked at yesterday.

To put this as simply as I can — MAKE A TARGET BB GUN THAT TOM GAYLORD WOULD LOVE TO SHOOT.

Okay, another one. Take the Colt Single Action Army revolver from Umarex and the Smart Shot BB and create a BB-gun component of Cowboy Action Shooting. Only the targets and rules have to be created. The hard stuff already exists!

Last one — and only Crosman can do it. Take the NightStalker carbine and fix the action so it cocks the trigger with the shot. Ed Schultz told me that was possible. Make it shoot BBs and give us the reincarnation of the Crosman 677 — BB-firing semiautomatic pistol!