Home Blog  
Education / Training An Alternative to Steel BBs and Rifled Barrels

An Alternative to Steel BBs and Rifled Barrels

Going Back to Lead

BB pistol surrounded by three types of BBs, copper, steel, and lead.
The HK P30 is designed to shoot pellets with an 8-shot rotary magazine, but also has the ability to fire BBs that load in the CO2 magazine channel like a blowback action semi-auto. The problem is that with its rifled barrel, shooting steel BBs, (like the Umarex 1500 pictured at left) can erode the rifling in the barrel and ruin the gun’s accuracy with pellets. To get around it, you can use lead BBs like Smart Shot (which is copper coated) or traditional Gamo .177 caliber round lead BBs. The catch is how they function in the HK P30’s magazine.

I know the oil refining industry has a rational explanation for this, but I spent a good portion of my life as an automotive journalist and back in the 1970s when unleaded gas was introduced I was always amused that it cost more at the pump than regular leaded gasoline; you see lead is an additive, not a natural property of gasoline, so they were charging more for not putting it in! How does this apply to air pistols? Today we use steel BBs and a variety of cast alloy pellets as an alternative to traditional lead pellets. Even in the world of cartridge firing handguns and rifles, there are a number of non-lead bullets available today. Lead is not a good thing for humans or animals, but it is an often necessary component of a bullet, a pellet (such as the pellets in shotgun shells, though there is steel shot as well), and yes even original type BBs and pistol and rifle pellets. Environmentally conscious airgun shooters often defer to steel BBs and alloy pellets, and that is commendable, but lead pellets still dominate, and proper shooting conditions (use of pellet traps, just as lead bullets are reclaimed at indoor shooting ranges) can keep lead from becoming an environmental issue. (I use a baffle box behind my targets to trap the pellets). But, there is this little question that has arisen of late with the HK P30, a rifled barrel semiautomatic that can fire either pellets from an 8-shot rotary magazine or BBs from a combination CO2 and BB magazine. The question is what happens to the rifling when you shoot steel BBs through it, instead of a lead pellet? The answer is that using steel BBs will unfortunately erode the rifling over time.

Denis Adler holding the pistol in his right hand and the BB tins in his left hand.
It’s a good option for a number of combination BB and pellet firing models with rifled barrels, the lead shot will not damage the rifling and will maintain pretty good accuracy.

The Smart Shot and Lead Shot Option

Smart Shot copper-plated lead BBs were developed to minimize ricochet that can occur with steel BBs, which were developed to replace lead BBs (not so much replace but supplement, since lead BBs are still made), but there has been some pushback from consumers who find that the copper-plated lead Smart Shot BBs do not function well in some semi-auto blowback models. I have experienced this with a couple of pistols including the Umarex Legends P.08. One reader experienced it with the Umarex HK P30, the very gun that also brought about the question of using steel BBs in a pistol with a rifled barrel. The Smart Shot seems to be the quick solution, but there is another option, Gamo still makes round 4.5mm (.177) lead BBs. Lead shot is heavier; Excite Smart Shot has a weight of 7.4 gr., the Gamo .177 round lead shot a weight of 8.2 gr. Average grain weight for a .177 caliber steel BB is 5.1 gr. The lead shot will cost you velocity, but save the rifling. This little factoid also includes the Umarex Colt Peacemaker pellet model (and other pellet and BB cartridge firing revolvers with rifled barrels), which can also fire BB cartridges.

Denis Adler holding the pistol in his right hand and the magazine showing the BBs in his left hand.
For the P30, the CO2 magazine that powers the pellet-firing mechanism can also be loaded with BBs and the pistol quickly converted. BBs load the same as any self contained CO2 BB magazine, however, the follower spring is much lighter than most blowback action pistol magazines, and this may be the culprit for malfunctions with lead BBs vs. steel BBs.

Testing Lead in the HK P30

The HK P30 is a non-blowback action design and costs almost twice as much as most blowback action semi-autos. This is because of the P30’s construction and pellet-firing mechanism, a long proven design that is just about faultless, and accurate. To test both Smart Shot and Gamo lead BBs, the Umarex Heckler & Koch P30 is being used for this evaluation. A velocity test of Umarex 1500 steel BBs, Excite Smart Shot and Gamo Round .177 caliber BBs returned averages of 367 fps, 342 fps and 349 fps, respectively. But alas, here’s the rub. Just as had been commented on after the HK P30’s test in Airgun Experience No. 116 and No. 117, the Umarex magazine follower jammed with the Smart Shot copper plated lead BBs. In this test it also jammed with the Smart Shot and Gamo Round lead BBs, yet functioned flawlessly with the Umarex steel BBs!

Dennis Adler shooting through a chronograph.
A chronograph test of the Umarex steel BBs, Excite Smart Shot copper plated lead BBs and Gamo .177 caliber round lead BBs showed that velocity did not suffer significantly with the heavier lead rounds since the HK P30 is not a blowback action pistol.

So what makes it jam? Not being a blowback action design, the force of the air is all directed to firing a 4.5mm lead pellet. With the BB adapter in place, there is enough force when the gun is fired to drive the rest of the BBs in the magazine downward in the loading channel and the lowest BB gets caught in the loading port; this locks the follower down. You have to remove the magazine, force the stuck BB back into the channel and allow the follower to move back up into position. This, however, never happens with steel BBs, which is curious since they are lighter than either the Smart Shot or Gamo lead rounds. So, even though you can save the rifling in the HK P30’s barrel by using lead BBs, the gun won’t function reliably with them, only with steel BBs, which will eventually erode the rifling. Catch 22.

Dennis Adler in shooting stance.
Accuracy didn’t suffer much between the smooth shooting .177 caliber Umarex steel BBs, and the Smart Shot and Gamo lead rounds. The pistol’s operation, however, suffered greatly when trying to operate with lead rather than steel BBs. It’s a good concept, but you need to shoot steel through the HK P30 and that will eventually result in ruining the rifling.

My best suggestion, shoot the 8-shot rotary pellet magazine and don’t shoot BBs in the HK P30, or just figure that over time by shooting steel BBs you will ruin the gun’s accuracy. Is it worth it? Here are the differences in accuracy at 21 feet with lead BBs and steel BBs fired from the HK P30. The .177 caliber Umarex steel BBs delivered a best group of 10 shots measuring 1.81 inches with a best 5-shots at 0.875 inches and zero malfunctions. With the Excite Smart Shot copper plated lead rounds the best 10 shots measured 1.95 inches (and the gun jammed four times), the Gamo delivered 10 at 1.90 inches and jammed twice. Just as a recap of the original test with Meisterkugeln lead wadcutters fired from the HK P30’s 8-shot rotary pellet magazine, the pistol delivered a total of 16 shots (two rotary magazine loads) with 13 out of 16 rounds obliterating two sections of the 10 and X ring for a total spread of 1.74 inches and a best 5-shots all overlapping at 0.68 inches.

Pistol laying on target showing the groups made during the shooting session.
Best accuracy came from shooting steel BBs through the HK P30.

Bottom line, you have to accept using unleaded ammo if you’re shooting BBs out of the HK P30. This, however, would not apply to a rifled barrel pellet revolver that can also fire BB cartridges; here you could use lead BBs since there is no mechanism to jam. For the HK P30 it doesn’t make any more sense with BBs than it does with gasoline, just get the lead out.

author avatar
Dennis Adler
Dennis Adler has been an author and contributor to Blue Book Publications since 1997 and was co-author of the First Edition Blue Book of Airguns. He is an airgun collector and enthusiast for over 20 years and wrote the Air Show column on air pistols for Combat Handguns magazine and other publications before joining the Pyramyd Air writing team. His articles appeared in the Pyramyd Air Airgun Experience blog and provided readers with expert reviews and in-depth articles.

4 thoughts on “An Alternative to Steel BBs and Rifled Barrels”

  1. Thanks for this report. I wasn’t originally sure if the Smart Shot jamming was due to the lead BB itself or something that I was doing wrong. Now you’ve confirmed that the jamming is due to the lead BB. I’m not crazy after all! 🙂

  2. The H&N bbs cost about as much as most 177 pellets ,and don’t appear as reliable or accurate in semiautos. The only real use I could see for them is in a dedicated bb revolver like the Umarex Peacemaker. To not purchase pellet cases to shoot pellets in the smoothbore version, if you are shooting at reactive steel plates. Steel bbs are dirt cheap in my neck of the woods. For shooting paper I use bbs in bb airguns and pellets in pellet airguns

Leave a Comment

Buy With Confidence

  • Free Shipping

    Get FREE shipping on qualifying orders! Any order $150+ with a shipping address in the contiguous US will receive the option for free ground shipping on items sold & shipped by Pyramyd AIR during checkout. Certain restrictions apply.

    Free shipping may not be combined with a coupon unless stated otherwise.

    View Shipping Info

  • Shipping Time Frame

    We work hard to get all orders placed by 12 pm EST out the door within 24 hours on weekdays because we know how excited you are to receive your order. Weekends and holiday shipping times will vary.

    During busy holidays, we step our efforts to ship all orders as fast as possible, but you may experience an additional 1-2 day delay before your order ships. This may also happen if you change your order during processing.

    View Shipping Times

  • Shipping Restrictions

    It's important to know that due to state and local laws, there are certain restrictions for various products. It's up to you to research and comply with the laws in your state, county, and city. If you live in a state or city where air guns are treated as firearms you may be able to take advantage of our FFL special program.

    U.S. federal law requires that all airsoft guns are sold with a 1/4-inch blaze orange muzzle or an orange flash hider to avoid the guns being mistaken for firearms.

    View Shipping Restrictions

  • Expert Service and Repair

    Get the most out of your equipment when you work with the expert technicians at Pyramyd AIR. With over 25 years of combined experience, we offer a range of comprehensive in-house services tailored to kickstart your next adventure.

    If you're picking up a new air gun, our team can test and tune the equipment before it leaves the warehouse. We can even set up an optic or other equipment so you can get out shooting without the hassle. For bowhunters, our certified master bow technicians provide services such as assembly, optics zeroing, and full equipment setup, which can maximize the potential of your purchase.

    By leveraging our expertise and precision, we ensure that your equipment is finely tuned to meet your specific needs and get you ready for your outdoor pursuits. So look out for our services when shopping for something new, and let our experts help you get the most from your outdoor adventures.

    View Service Info

  • Warranty Info

    Shop and purchase with confidence knowing that all of our air guns (except airsoft) are protected by a minimum 1-year manufacturer's warranty from the date of purchase unless otherwise noted on the product page.

    A warranty is provided by each manufacturer to ensure that your product is free of defect in both materials and workmanship.

    View Warranty Details

  • Exchanges / Refunds

    Didn't get what you wanted or have a problem? We understand that sometimes things aren't right and our team is serious about resolving these issues quickly. We can often help you fix small to medium issues over the phone or email.

    If you need to return an item please read our return policy.

    Learn About Returns

Get FREE shipping on qualifying orders! Any order $150+ with a shipping address in the contiguous US will receive the option for free ground shipping on items sold & shipped by Pyramyd AIR during checkout. Certain restrictions apply.

Free shipping may not be combined with a coupon unless stated otherwise.

View Shipping Info

Text JOIN to 91256 and get $10 OFF Your Next $50+ Order!

* By providing your number above, you agree to receive recurring autodialed marketing text msgs (e.g. cart reminders) to the mobile number used at opt-in from Pyramyd AIR on 91256. Reply with birthday MM/DD/YYYY to verify legal age of 18+ in order to receive texts. Consent is not a condition of purchase. Msg frequency may vary. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help and STOP to cancel. See Terms and Conditions & Privacy Policy.