The modern pellet
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Don’t make them like they used to
- Not a history report
- The olden days
- Crosman Premiers
- The molecular level
- The Pelletgage
- Lead-free pellets
- Production control
- The Premier pee-wee
- Are we done?
Don’t make them like they used to
We hear that a lot these days. “They don’t make them like they used to!” When we talk about guns, we talk about real wood and blued steel. When we talk about cars we talk about horsepower and body styles. No, they don’t make them like they used to. When it comes to pellets, they make them a lot better.
Not a history report
I will start with the history, but that’s not where I’m going today. I have to set the stage, and for many of you that will be a history lesson. But at the end of the report I hope that you will see that today’s pellets are the best they have ever been.
The olden days
Back when I was young and the Earth was still being formed there weren’t a lot of choices when it came to pellets. You bought whatever the store sold, which was pretty much one brand. Where I lived in northern Ohio it was Benjamin who made the pellets. I suppose that’s because of the limited number of stores I shopped in, so my experience may be very filtered.
Old Benjamin pellet tins. The one on the lower right is the newest one. The green tins were sold from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Many green Benjamin tins have a sticker telling the buyer the pellets are sized and lubricated.
In other areas of the country, Crosman made the pellets and who was Benjamin?
The older Crosman pellets came in cardboard boxes. These are for the Crosman model 101 multi-pump rifle that Crosman called the Silent, beginning in the 1940s.
Crosman’s pepper can was popular in the 1950s and ’60s.
If a lot of this sounds familiar it may be that you read it in this blog about 3-1/2 years ago in a report titled, Vintage pellets. Now let’s transition to today.
Crosman “ashcan” pellets on the left, Crosman Premiers on the right. The perfect transition from old pellets to modern ones.
I remember in the early 1990’s Crosman brought out their famous Premier pellet that’s still going strong almost 30 years later. I spoke with the engineer who helped design that pellet and he told me the design was based on aerodynamics. That was novel because until that time I think production was what drove pellet design. Production as in producibility, meaning how fast can we make them without risking a degradation in quality and how long can we make the dies last? If a die costs $20-40,000 they want it to last for many tens of millions of pellets.
I could have started this discussion 20-25 years earlier, because H&N in Germany and Mount Star in Japan were already making quality pellets in the late 1960s that were far better than the ones of the past I have presented here, but I want to look at the newer innovations that have made pellets one of the most highly developed parts of the airgunning experience.
The molecular level
About 30 years ago the H&N company told Robert Beeman that if pellets were to get any more precise it would have to be done at the molecular level. What they were saying is the process is so rigidly controlled that the pellets they are making are as uniform as they can be. But is that true?
Many airgunners take issue with such a statement because they are now examining their pellets much closer than ever. They sorted pellets by weight back in the 1980s but only a few did anything more than that. Some worried a lot about the swarf (lead residue) they found in the pellet tin or box and had procedures for washing their pellets to get rid of it. That also washed off the stuff that retards lead oxidation and those pellets rapidly turned white, so various recipes for oiling the pellets were discussed.
Then came the Pelletgage and things changed dramatically. With a Pelletgage we knew for a fact that some pellets had larger heads than others in the same tin, or we expressed our admiration when we found entire tins whose heads were nearly all the same size. What’s wrong with the manufacturers who had different head sizes? Why aren’t they catching this first?
There is a simple answer — time. To sell a pellet for a few cents no manufacturer can afford to spend a lot of time producing it. They have to use production methods that assure tight tolerances and then live with the product they produce. You must realize there are millions of pellets that never make it into a tin because they are removed by some inspection procedure. Yes those pellets are recycled, but the time spent producing and then inspecting and eliminating them has to be added to the time the good pellets take.
Sure — a hand inspection with something like a Pelletgage could improve the output to some degree, but how much improvement are you willing to pay for? Instead of $32.95 for a box of 1,250 Crosman Premier heavys would you be willing to pay $87? Crosman might be able to hire some folks and train them how to gage the head of each heavy pellet and sort them into exact sizes for you, but a box of 1,250 pellets might take 2 full hours to sort. And, if they paid the new part-time workers $11 per hour, that’s an extra $22 that has to be loaded with their corporate multiplier of 2.7 times (profit plus a very few benefits and holidays) and come out to $59.40 that has to be tacked on to the current wholesale price of $14.50 and now it becomes $73.90 to the distributors. Oh — I guess $87 a box isn’t going to be quite enough, because the distributor has to make a profit and so do the dealers! What dealer is going to spend $80 on a thing he makes $7 on?
Are you starting to see the challenge? And, if most airgunners are still shooting pellets straight from the box or tin — like I do on every test I run unless I say different — is there even a market for something like this? Don’t bother thinking about it — the answer is no. Anyone anal enough to sort their own pellets isn’t going to trust someone else to do it.
In times past lead-free pellets have been like fat-free candy. People who fixate on the words think they are something special and shooters who have tried them know better. There may be no fat in a piece of candy but the effects of the sugar will still put fat on the eater!
HOWEVER — in recent years there have been some lead-free pellets that are actually accurate and worth consideration. You know how I have tested and recommended the Sig Match Ballistic Alloy pellet in recent times. And the Journey pellet from Umarex is another one deserving of your attention. Both are very accurate in many airguns. “Yes, but BB, the Sig pellets are $35 a time and the Journey pellets are $25!” That’s because both are made of tin. Lead costs just under $1 US this year (except in February, when it spiked to $3 for a couple days) while pure tin costs between $11.50 (for 1,000 lbs. minimum) to $19.50 per pound. However you acquire it, tin is way more expensive than lead.
So tin is not just for making lighter pellets anymore. Speed doesn’t sell when it has the reputation of being inaccurate. Lead-free pellets also have to be very accurate to justify the expense. But now that there are a few good choices on the market, competition will start to drive the price down.
Producing airguns requires an investment of money. I’m not talking about making a couple dozen guns — I’m talking about high rate production that cranks out thousands to tens of thousand of guns each year. Making pellets requires a ten times larger investment to produce tens of millions of pellets per year. Making pellets is not something you get into as a hobby.
With everything I’ve said picture a modern pellet production line — one of several in the plant. It’s producing tens of thousands of pellets each hour. What happens when the line gets slightly out of tolerance? It continues to produce thousands upon thousands of pellets until stopped by an inspector. If the plant has invested in automated inspection procedures, the stop will happen sooner. If not it will happen until it gets noticed.
The Premier pee-wee
Like most pellets Crosman Premiers are made from preformed slugs called preforms. If a 7.9-grain preform ends up on the line that is producing 10.5-grain pellets, you get what we airgunners call a pee-wee. It looks like a heavy pellet as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. There’s not enough material. There is nothing wrong with the manufacturing machinery or dies, but there is a flaw in the procedures that allowed that smaller preform to get into the production line. You correct it by revising your procedures until things like that can’t happen.
Are we done?
We are not done. Pellets will continue to improve. And, I’m talking about mainstream pellets now, not the pellets with steel balls in their tips (for greater penetration — ha!) and things like that. There are still more shapes to explore, alloys to test and machinery to be designed and built. And, every so often something wonderful might happen. When the .22-caliber Crosman Premier hit the market the vintage Crosman 160 rifle went from being a plinker to a fine youth target rifle overnight.
Pellets today are better than ever before. And, they continue to improve. We are living in a golden age of pellets and can truthfully say, “They don’t make them like they used to!”