by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2

A history of airguns

American Zimmerstutzen
The American Zimmerstutzen.

This report covers:

  • I didn’t know the gun was loaded
  • And again…
  • And again
  • STOP!!!
  • Blanks?
  • Can real blanks hurt you?
  • They were blanks but he fired too soon
  • KaBOOM!
  • So what?
  • Sooner started…
  • Does this thing even work?
  • No fit?
  • Serendipity
  • HOWEVER
  • Summary

I first titled this report, “Can blanks hurt you?”

In writing about the American Zimmerstutzen today, I rediscovered all my fears about shooting blanks in guns. Why would I worry about that? Well, this home-built pellet rifle was made to be powered by a blank cartridge. And, over the three score and ten years of my life, I have seen countless injuries and deaths from blanks.

I didn’t know the gun was loaded

You may have heard the story that actor Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, was killed during filming, “The Crow.” He was shot with what Hollywood and the media called a “blank gun.” But it wasn’t really a blank gun — it was a firearm. And he wasn’t shot with a blank; he was shot with a bullet. How, many ask? Simple — the film crew was careless while using a firearm to shoot blanks and someone loaded a live cartridge into the handgun that shot and killed Lee. And that was not the only time it’s happened.

And again…

In 2015 an actor was shot with a bullet during a stunt gunfight at Tombstone, Arizona in a live portrayal of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The marshal of Tombstone believed the shooting was an accident, but BB doesn’t. He believes it was a stupident! That’s because he has seen it in person.

And again

At Frontier Village amusement park where I worked during college we were looking for a part-time actor to be a western character to give our outlaw character a day off each week. Several people applied, including a San Jose policeman. We brought the police officer in for a trial run and schooled him on the script of a gunfight. When he had the timing and the lines down, we went for a dress rehearsal with live ammo, which were blanks. He had brought his own revolver that was a .38 special, so he also had to furnish his own blanks, since all of our guns were .45 Colts. No problem, he said. He had a box of them on hand.

STOP!!!

When the gunfight was run the marshal yelled, “Stop!” just after the shooting started. Bullets were tearing through the walls and fence posts next to where he was standing.

Blanks?

It turned out that the policeman wasn’t shooting blanks — he was shooting midrange wadcutter bullets that he thought were blanks because the bullets didn’t stick out beyond the case mouth. We learned a lesson that seems to keep repeating itself throughout history. We thought a policeman would surely know what blanks are. What he thought I don’t know because we promptly said goodbye to him. I don’t know if he learned anything from that, but we sure did!

midrange wadcutters
The bullets on midrange wadcutters are flush with the end of the case, or very nearly so.

Can real blanks hurt you?

So much for stupidents. What about real blanks — ones that have no bullets. Can they hurt you? Well, watch this.

They were blanks but he fired too soon

I remember one gunfight when the marshal’s gun fired before clearing his holster. The blast of flame from the shot tore his heavy wool trousers from the end of the holster to his boots. The skin on his leg was burned off in a patch almost the size of an American football and the meat underneath was — well, it wasn’t pretty!

KaBOOM!

We loaded our own blanks at Frontier Village and they were a .45 Colt case full of black powder (about 40 grains) with a cardboard wad on top. When we shot, a ball of flame stretched about 8 feet from the muzzle of the gun. It was loud and dramatic and we had to stand about 20 feet apart to avoid getting hit by anything.

Our sawed-off double-barreled shotgun held about twice as much powder and shot a ball of flame about 12 feet long. We fired that one from rooftops and special places where no one could get too close. We had to make sure that the crowd that numbered between 20 and 150 people was safely out of the way whenever we fired. Thank goodness the only “accidents” were ever had were the two I have mentioned. But the danger was real and it instilled a great respect in me for blank cartridges.

So what?

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I am trying to work up the courage to fire a blank in the American Zimmerstutzen. Because that’s how I will have to test it. You learned in Part 2 that this rifle uses a blank cartridge to propel a pellet — or at least that is the theory. I’m a test pilot for this gun because it’s handmade and it didn’t come with a set of directions. I know how it is supposed to work, but whether it really does is an entirely different story.

American Zimmerstutzen blanks
I bought these months ago for this test. I don’t like the subtitle “Noise Blanks”!

A couple months ago I bought some CCI blanks for this test. They say “Noise Blanks” which means they are filled with powder that burns even faster than gunpowder. That’s so they will make a lot of noise with no resistance in the barrel. It also means the pressure curve will be faster and probably higher than with a cartridge. No problem if there is nothing in front of them, but if there is — like, say, a pellet — the pressure could rise too high. And this gun is homemade!

I thought that at least I could try one without a pellet and see how bad it really is.

Sooner started…

Okay, I’m scared. So safety glasses, long sleeve shirt and coat and gloves for the hand. Shoot in the garage to not scare the kitties. Here I go.

Does this thing even work?

I removed the “bolt” which on this gun is 27 hand-filed parts that do who knows what. Then I fiddled with the mechanism to get the chamber open.

American Zimmerstutzen chamber open
There’s the bolt out and the chamber open to accept a blank cartridge.

American Zimmerstutzen no fit
And there is a .22 Short blank pushed into the chamber as far as it will go!

No fit?

Wow! In an instant everything changed and my life did not have to flash before my eyes. The person who made this treasure knew something after all! A .22 Short blank is too large to fit into the chamber. What gives?

Serendipity

Talk about luck! Talk about being blessed! Talk about good fortune! Do you know what this means?

No? Then I’ll tell you. I would have anyway, because I am so excited.

What is almost like a .22 Short blank, but a little bit smaller? That’s right — a real 4mm Zimmerstutzen cartridge! I should have some 4mm cartridges without balls in my collection, but it may take awhile to lay hands on them. However, the U.S. supplier of 4mm cartridges is Neal Stepp who is headquartered about 15 miles from me. With luck I can drive up and buy some.

Ironically, I titled this series The American Zimmerstutzen. When I did that I had no idea that it might actually be one! That’s a trip to Serendib.

HOWEVER

The really big deal in this is the fact that a 4mm cartridge uses priming compound, only. There is no powder. So the pressure will not be too high. In other words, this thing might just work, after all.

Summary

I am still not understanding how a builder who was so smart as to create a low-pressure propulsion system did not understand that a .22 rimfire barrel is too large to be accurate with pellets. But I hope there is more to discover. This little series is turning into a journey, rather than a traditional vintage gun test report! I’ll take that!

And, just so you know — yes, this does relate to airguns. How? Well, every 10 years or so somebody else “invents” a system that uses either primers or percussion caps to power a pellet. By the strict interpretation of the law these are not airguns, but way more than 90 percent of the shooters treat them as if they are. All I’m doing is showing you something that was made a long time ago that uses the same principle.