The rise of the accurate pellet: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Accuracy taken for granted
  • Crosman 160 opened my eyes!
  • In the beginning
  • The ball or bullet
  • Smaller calibers
  • Pellet shape
  • Birth of the diabolo
  • A long way to go

Accuracy taken for granted

I was speaking with a group of very advanced airgunners recently and found myself amazed by what we all took for granted. The subject was airgun accuracy and topics like distance, powerplants and pellet shapes came up, but no one in the group seemed to remember the time when none of those things made any difference. They didn’t because there weren’t any pellets on the market that took advantage of them. Until around the 1960s, accuracy with airguns was iffy, at best. The problem was not the guns — it was the ammunition!

Crosman 160 opened my eyes!

I remember buying a new-old-stock Crosman 160 target rifle that had been produced and sold to the U.S. Air Force. The rifle hadn’t been fired since Crosman tested it with CO2 at the factory some time in the 1970s. The Air Force bought an unknown number of 160s that came with slings and the Crosman S331 rear peep sight. Presumedly there was a plan to use these rifle for some type of training, but that must never have happened, because hundreds of them were found in a military warehouse in the 1990s in unused condition. When I opened the gas reservoir to install 2 fresh CO2 cartridges, I found the original cartridges Crosman had used to test the gun before packaging in the 1970s! The rifle was brand new, as were hundreds of others just like it!

When I installed 2 fresh cartridges (with Crosman Pellgunoil on the tips of each), and started shooting it at 10 meters on my basement range, I was flabbergasted by the accuracy. This rifle was a tackdriver! But that was not always the case. When the airgun was new it was only accurate to the level of it’s day. A 5-shot group at 25 feet might measure three-quarters of an inch. Some were better, of course, but others were worst. But when I loaded the then-new Crosman Premiers, I could put 5 into a quarter-inch with ease. Better yet, it was very repeatable.

So, the gun remained the same but the pellets got better. Much better! That opened my eyes to a part of airgun history that has not always been visible, but has always lead the pace of advancement.

In the beginning

One early airgun projectile was a dart, but most airgunners don’t know that because they have never been exposed to an early dart gun. They were not powerful, and they were certainly all smoothbores, but the tail that created high drag as the dart flew to the target also made it a very consistent projectile whose performance could easily be predicted. And, when you know where something will go you can adjust the sights to move the impact wherever you want it. The most common term for that is accuracy.

Yes, the early (circa 17th century) dart guns were accurate at short range (40 feet?), but they were also very costly. Their price put them out of reach for all but the wealthiest shooters. So they never really caught on. Remember too, we are talking about airguns at a time when even firearms were considered exotic. Airguns in those days were unheard-of, though we now know they existed.

The ball or bullet

The lead ball was the first airgun projectile that was commonly known. In those days, again the 16th and 17th centuries, balls were called bullets. The conical-shaped bullet (longer than it is wide) was unknown. So the first airguns shot balls. Those guns were what we call big bore airguns today, because the smaller calibers (.17 through .25) just didn’t exist.

Smaller calibers

Around the year 1840 people started shooting lead balls using just the force of a percussion cap. Because there isn’t much force, the balls had to be made much smaller, and the smallbore calibers were born. This is where the .22 caliber Flobert (in Europe it was 6mm) and the 4.5mm calibers came into existence.

Airguns of the time didn’t immediately adopt these calibers. They were made in slightly larger calibers like .25 and even .28, but the idea of the smallbore airgun was definitely on everyone’s mind. By the 1870s the projectiles used by airguns had become as small as .21 caliber, and in 1886 the Markham company brought out the first true BB gun that shot lead shot on the size BB, which is nominally .18 caliber.

Pellet shape

At this time (the 1880s) some airguns were able to use so-called “cat” slugs that were simple lead cylinders only slightly longer than their width. Then someone got the idea to glue a small felt pad to the base of one of these slugs, and the first intentionally high-drag airgun projectile was created. I say the first, but it really was not the first, since the darts that had already existed for centuries were also high drag. But the darts were reuseable, where the felted slugs were a one-time use. I touched on this in another historical report titled, Other airgun calibers.

Birth of the diabolo

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the pellet shape we call diabolo was first seen. Diabolo refers to a juggling apparatus that is also made as a toy. Popular in Europe and elsewhere, it was also seen in the U.S., but never gained the popularity here that it had elsewhere. The diabolo is an exaggerated hourglass shape with a wasp waist that balances on a string when the device is spun rapidly. I actually bought one a few years ago, just to be able to photograph it, because I often talk about the device and I wanted my readers to see what I was referring to.

diabolo
A diabolo is a juggling device that has also been sold as a toy. More popular in Europe than in the U.S.

diabolo pellet
Diabolo pellet shares the fundamental shape of its juggling namesake.

Eley Wasp
Eley Wasps have the classic diabolo pellet characteristics.

Diabolo pellets changed the airgun scene forever. Air rifles went from being extremely short range toys to fairly accurate guns overnight. Now the importance of rifled barrels became obvious, and the development of modern spring-piston airgiuns took off.

A long way to go

As good as the diabolo shape was, though, it still had a long way to go. It would be over half a century before things began to resolve into what we know today. But that is a tale for another time.

19 thoughts on “The rise of the accurate pellet: Part 1

  1. TOM, Thank you for this report! Brings back memory’s! I came home from VN after my third tour and purchase a dart airgun! I don’t know or remember what brand it was? But! I had shot one earlier in my life before going overseas! I found it quite accurate and deadly for some small varmints! Still praying for you! Until we meet again! Semper fi!


  2. Just a cautionary note on using percussion caps (AKA primers) as the sole propellant (just in case anyone thinks it a harmless good idea.). Whether a pellet, dart, rubber or wax bullet, it’ll come out of the muzzle going WAY faster than you might think. As excellent a way to experience a surprise visit to the ER as exists.
    An aquaintence of mine once (and only forever once) thought it amusing and harmless to pop his 22 pound cat in the butt with a primer powered.wax bullet, upon which the cat walked over and beat the absolute besnockers out of the aqauintence and generated the trip to the ER for said aquaintence.
    It turns out there’s more than one way to suffer a firearms related injury.


    • Reb,
      When asked later if he was angry at the cat he said, ” Hell no! I took the beating like a man because I (and the cat) knew I fully deserved it.”
      Maybe there is some justice in the world.




  3. I used to have one of those diabolos when I was a kid – great fun tossing it in the air and catching it on the string again.

    Felt wads have been used on slugs with good results.

    After opening day of deer hunting most of the deer take refuge in dense brush and swampy areas. My favorite gun for those conditions was a double-barrelled 12 gauge “coach gun” with one barrel loaded with buck-shot and the other with a Breneke slug.

    The Breneke slug was a 1 oz lead wad-cutter that had cast -in “rifling fins” and a ½ inch felt pad screwed to the back end. It was much more accurate than the Foster style slugs and was one heck of a bush-buster.


  4. B.B.,

    Someone has taken the time and effort to photograph dozens, if not hundreds, of airgun pellets and post them online, along with their calibers and weights. Does anyone have that URL and more information? That “favorite” did not survive my last computer migration.

    Thanks,

    Michael


  5. Why do the shooting sports seem to redefine the term accuracy?
    Does their use of the term predate the scientific use? Is it simply reuse of a term in domain specific language?
    To clarify, accuracy is how close the true answer the result is in scientific/engineering language. So for a scientist/engineer a large group equally spaced around the bull has high accuracy but low precision. Precision is how reproducible a measure is. So a very small group far from the bull would be precise but not accurate. A group that has both could be said to possess high trueness.


  6. B.B.
    You are a remarkable man. I was reviewing the comments section for Friday’s blog early this morning when I read about the complication with your sighting eye. I have u in my prayers. You are much more than just a guy who knows a ton about air guns to some of us. All of us. I can’t be the only one who has been deeply affected by your strong charisma. I have never met you, but through your writing I almost feel like I have! Stay strong, Tom. We’re rooting for you!!!


  7. And they don’t have to be expensive to be good. The Winchester 9.8 domes and the Ruger 8 grain hollow points come to mind comma though I can’t find the Ruger hollow points anymore. I was basically shooting a one hole group at 20 yards with my Black Ops jr. sniper clone until I flubbed the last shot! Sigh! I’m continually amazed at how well that $50 multi pumper can shoot. Now if Crosman would only make a wood stock for their 1300 pump pistol in the custom shop…hint…hint!




  8. Pingback: The rise of the accurate pellet: Part 3 | Airguns: Air Rifles and Pistols

  9. Tom you are a National Treasure, did you know that? I hope you do. You are single handed responsible for educating America about pellet rifles, pistols and ammo. Yes I know it’s your paid job but still you are a keen enthusiast who really is America’s Pellet Gun Guru and more.
    I was an Engineer before I retired, and I still has a love for safe target shooting of all sorts, including small bore Olympic rifles and target pellet rifles and pistols and even B-B guns like the Daisy 499B. I’m no longer interested in killing birds like I was as a kid to prove I can shoot (actually I only killed two birds in my life and I ate the Blue Jay in Florida that I shot -It’s a State Bird and is illegal to kill but I was a kid) and I don’t need to hunt to eat. But shooting the correct NRA Paper targets at the specified distances is my favorite hobby of all. It’s a wonderful sport! Anyway thanks for the hundreds and hundreds of useful articles. I only had two shooting teachers in my life, my grandpa when I was six and then you. You may not remember but I won First Place in a 1992-93 Smallbore NYS State wide Competition using my Winchester 52B. I value my NRA Medal more than my College Diploma’s. I would say 95% of my air gun knowledge is from you. Over the years you have written so many interesting and informative articles I know I learned from you and I thank you sir! You can believe me when I tell you that when I teach shooting techniques I say a lot of things that I learned from you.



      • Only if you can teach people how to say Diablo correctly. I say Di a blo, others say Dia abalo or Dibalio. Well I’ll call it even, if you can teach your friend Paul Capello at Air Gun Reporter to say Diablo correctly. Then my work is done.


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