by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

Part 1
Part 2

This report covers:

  • Up to this point
  • What came next?
  • Head size
  • Enter the Pelletgage
  • High-performance expanding pellets
  • Solid “pellets”
  • Lead-free pellets
  • Conclusion

I bet some of you didn’t realize there was so much to making pellets accurate, did you? This is the third installment of this report and we still have some ground to cover.

Up to this point

To summarize, we have learned that the introduction of the diabolo shape made pellet more accurate than ever before and ushered in the age of the accurate airgun. But after that first surge of advancement, pellet makers didn’t really forge ahead. They were comfortable just making diabolo (wasp-waisted, hollow-tailed) pellets. It wasn’t until 60 more years passed that they began to question whether there was more that could be done.

What came next?

The next advances happened on both the individual shooter level as well as the manufacturing level. Manufacturers of premium pellets began to tighten their control over the specifications. They were already doing that in-house, but when they started selling pellets to World Cup and Olympic competitors, they started selling their productions by lots. Shooters tested each lot until they found the pellet that worked best with their gun, then they bought a significant portion of that lot, in the belief that there would be more uniformity in the same lot than across lots. In the world of rimfire competition and 10-meter airgun target competition, this is still the practice today.

In the 1980s field target shooters were also interested in getting the best accuracy from their air rifles, but they were shooing domed pellets that had not come under scrutiny previously. The pellets were very good because the manufacturers (premium makers) were holding the tolerances tight, but until field target, and more recently long-range benchrest shooting, nobody was checking. But field target shooters looked for ways of making these good pellets even better.

Two methods surfaced — weighing and sorting by head size. Pellets that were sorted by weight seemed to shoot better than the same pellets selected at random from the tin or box. When I competed in field target in the 1990s, weight-sorting was considered mandatory if you wanted to win. You use an electronic powder scale and group the pellets into categories that do not vary by one-tenth grain. While there are a few scales that show weights down to one-hundredth grain, it turns out that level of sorting doesn’t add much accuracy, if any. The real benefit comes from not shooting two pellets that vary by nearly half a grain in weight at the same target 55 yards away.

The head size sorting was less scientific. Shooters used transparent ballpoint pen barrels that were known to taper smaller on their inner diameter. Since they were transparent, the pellets could be seen from the outside and marks were made to show the ideal range. If a pellet stopped falling in that range, it was considered good for competition.

Head size

What this sorting was after was a pellet with a consistent head size. The skirt would always be larger than the rifle’s bore and would be squeezed down when shot, but the head was the part of the pellet that was engraved by the rifling and affected accuracy the most. The shooters did not know the exact size of the head — it was just the relative size they were after, so all pellets would be the same. But that was all it took to make a difference.

Enter the Pelletgage

In 2015 the Pelletgage hit the market. This tool that I have reviewed for you several times is by far the best way to sort pellets by head size. Pelletgages are shipping around the world, and competitors are discovering a new level of performance from guns and pellets they already thought were perfection. Future competitors will have to use this gage just to stay even with the pack!

Pelledgage
The Pelletgage is a game-changer for competitors wanting ultimate accuracy.

High-performance expanding pellets

We are not done. Next we will consider the hunters’ need for expansion on game. When I got into airgunning seriously in the mid-1970s, there were hollowpoint pellets, but they were mostly a gimmick. They only expanded if they hit an animal while traveling very fast, which meant you had to be very close to the game, because in those days, airguns did not shoot that fast. Well, times chage. Guns have speeded up and pellets now have remarkable performance at even moderate velocities.

It takes a lot of time and money to develop a good expanding pellet. Sometimes the shape of the hollow cavity makes a huge difference and other times the thickness of the cavity walls matters the most. Even striations in the cavity walls that weaken it can be significant.

Vortek Lamprey Hollowhead pellets were among the first to experiment with new shapes, and they actually turned inside-out when they deformed. To this date I have not seen an expanding pellet that could equal what they could do, though they have been off the market for over 10 years.

Vortek pellets
Yes, the long end is hollow and it is the head! Vortek Lamprey hollowhead pellets outperform every expanding pellet ever made! They are no longer produced.

The thing about expending pellets is they perform best within a range of termial velocities (velocity at the target). Each one will give you a different range with different airguns. And then there is the accuracy potential. Today’s expanding pellets are usually quite accurate, because their makers know airgunners insist on accuracy over everything. So that part of the pellet market is bright and getting brighter.

Solid “pellets”

Sorry, but I’m too much of a shooter to call a solid projectile a pellet. Just because it goes in a pellet gun doesn’t make it a pellet. It’s a bullet, plain and simple.

And, being a bullet, the ballistics are determined by spin, where diabolos are more sensitive to drag. Pellet makers haven’t tripped to this yet and keep bringing out these ridiculous projectiles that don’t shoot well in most airguns, in my experience. Give them time to learn the lessons black powder shooters have learned and eventually there will be some useful solid pellets. But for the present — not on your life. If anyone knows different, please inform me.

Lead-free pellets

For many years I taunted the pellet makers about their lead-free pellets that weren’t worth much. I said if anyone ever made a good lead-free pellet, I would become its head cheerleader. Well, Sig Sauer did just that, with their Match Ballistic Alloy pellets. Now the JROTC teams and all those who shoot in California have something good to shoot in matches! Yes, I know they are made by H&N and are probably the same as H&N Match Green pellets, but I haven’t tested those yet, so I can’t say that with authority. I will do that test in the future.

Conclusion

We are now living in a golden age, where pellets just keep getting better. I look for more developments in long range pellets soon, plus more good lead-free pellets. I don’t think the advancements will end anytime soon.