What is a BB gun?
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Red Ryder
- BBs have changed
- Safer BBs
- Modern BB guns
This blog went live on March second, 2005. Two days later, on March 4, I wrote this report that I am reprinting today in total — just as it was published then. After you read it, I have a few updates at the end.
A BB gun is the fundamental starting point in our hobby. We shoot them, talk about them, collect them, and, for most of us, just hearing the term “BB gun” evokes a flood of memories. But what we think of when we think of BB guns depends largely on how old we are and where we came from.
The most common BB gun known today has got to be Daisy’s Red Ryder. It was the first BB gun many of us had or wanted and, since it has been around almost continuously since its introduction in 1938, that includes nearly every airgunner alive today.
Contrary to the spiel Ralphie rattled off in the movie A Christmas Story, the Red Ryder is not a “200-shot carbine-action range-model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” Author Jean Shepherd got confused when he remembered the Red Ryders of his youth and not only clipped a bunch of shots from the magazine capacity, he also added the compass and sundial that were only found on the Buck Jones pump BB guns. But we forgave him because of the thousands of pleasant memories he brought to life. Daisy even made a special Christmas Story Red Ryder that DID have a compass and sundial, though they put them on the correct side of the stock (the left) for right-handers. Little Ralphie’s gun was built in reverse for his left-handed operation.
If you are under 40, the Red Ryder may not hold the same fascination it does for older kids. You may, in fact, remember one or two other airguns with equal fondness. One is Crosman’s M1 Carbine, a very close copy of the military firearm that was made popular in the 1960s and ’70s. It was a powerful BB gun that cocked by pushing in on the barrel to compress the mainspring. That took some effort, so smaller kids couldn’t do it, which was good because the carbine was very powerful for its size.
The other gun you may remember is still made by Crosman – the ever-popular model 760 Pumpmaster. Millions of them have been sold since introduction in 1966, the same year the M1 Carbine hit the street. The name was Powermaster back then, a tribute to the easy, short pump stroke that develops magnum power with incredible ease. Millions of boys, along with more than a few girls, fondly remember their 760s.
We still haven’t answered the title question, but here comes a bit of confusion. One of the coolest BB guns ever made is the fantastic Russian Drozd. It shoots .177 lead balls that are SO EASY to call BBs, and yet they are not the same steel BBs that are correct for Red Ryders and 760s. They are both larger and softer, being made from pure lead instead of mild steel. The Drozd has a rifled bore of true .177 specifications, so it shoots round lead balls both accurately and with great force! But, if you put steel BBs, which are both smaller and much harder, in your Drozd, you can jam the feed mechanism and ruin the rifled barrel.
So, have I answered the question yet? Not really, because I haven’t even touched on the latest BB-type gun – the airsoft gun. Maybe this is a good place to stop for now, though, because airsoft deserves a decent discussion (or two) of its own.
Things were certainly much simpler (and shorter) on Day Three of this blog! I use that many words in some of my intros today — like I just did in this one.
And things have changed in the past 15 years. The Drozd is no longer available new, though I do know of a large cache of new-old-stock guns, along with a bunch of very desirable NOS Blackbirds!
The Crosman 760 is still being made, though we recently had a test of the upgraded gun — the Crosman 760 Pumpmaster Classic. In fact, I’m still testing that one and need to put a dot sight on for the next test. Maybe I’ll use the Romeo5-XDR. Wouldn’t that be strange — testing a $35 airgun with a $300 sight? 🙂
The Red Ryder is still with us, of course. And Daisy has released several Christmas Story commemorative Red Ryders for those folks who don’t want to drop $500 to buy an original 1983 Christmas Story gun. Yes, they are easily that much and more, when you can find one.
But recently Daisy came out with a Red Ryder that is sized for adults! Yep, they finally officially recognized that many of their fans have voted for the past 30-40 years.
BBs have changed
The common steel BB that in 2005 was still in it’s humdrum era, has suddenly blossomed in glorious splendor! For starters, the airgun world has recognized that a BB is supposed to be uniform in size and shape. The rusty broken-down BB manufacturing lines that were built more than a half-century ago and produced steel spheres of dubious size and roundness are almost gone. Hint, hint, Crosman. They have been replaced by modern machinery and selection methods that give us BBs of world-class quality! Daisy once bragged about their U.S.-based BB-making capability. Now they buy them from China like everyone else, and we benefit from greater quality control.
I wrote about a BB gun insert that Hammerli made in the 1950s for the Swiss K31 rifle. That insert was supposed to turn the K31 into a decent training rifle for troops. It was a great concept because the soldiers got to shoot their own assigned rifles and become used to their weight, the trigger and the sights. Today that could all be done so much better and cheaper if airgun manufacturers would only realize it. The pellet-shooting Crosman MAR 177 that sold for $600 a decade ago could be remade as an accurate BB gun insert system for AR-15s, M16s and M4s today. Think of all the military could do with savings like that! Of course they would have to wear protection to keep from shooting out their eyes, but from the pictures I see, they already are. [By the way, and the manufacturers all know this — there are tens of millions of AR-15s and copycat rifles in the world. Make an adaptor that is a cheap, safe, close-range BB-shooter for them and you can retire — your fortune is made. You see, gentle readers — AR-15 owners don’t think twice about spending money on their rifles!]
Just so everybody gets it — BB Pelletier just gave away a huge marketing idea to whichever airgun manufacturer is smart enough to capitalize on it. I’m betting on a race between Crosman and Sig. Crosman, because Ed Schultz works there now, and Sig because they can be smart about the market when they try.
Now we come to two different but fabulous inventions that are revolutionizing the BB gun industry today. The lead BB that has existed for more than 80 years was recognized and is now being sold as H&N’s Smart Shot. Heck — they were making lead balls in that size already; someone just needed to explain the marketing opportunity to them. Rename and repackage the product and suddenly their slow sales to a couple hundred faithful Zimmerstutzen shooters are kick-started to far greater levels!
And then there is the Dust Devil. Now in its second generation, the Dust Devil will feed through magazines that rely on magnets, is accurate and when it hits a hard target it shatters into dust. No more bounceback! No more shooting out your eyes! Mothers of America — you need a new slogan. How about “Texting reduces verbal fluidity”? Too verbose? Maybe “Thumbs make you dumb”, or something like that?
Modern BB guns
And now we come to the BB guns of today. Compared to 2005 we have guns with incredible accuracy, beautiful functionality and other performance aspects. The M1 Carbine from Springfield Armory is fast-firing and hyper accurate with the right BB. The Lil’ Duke from Air Venturi is accurate, powerful and affordable. The Legends Cowboy Lever Action BB gun from Umarex is probably the most accurate BB gun I have tested, short of the all-time champion Daisy 499, and I’m just getting started!
The Legends MP40 BB gun from Umarex is so realistic that I had to buy one for myself! I actually bought a lot of these new BB guns. The Legends P08 (Luger) pistol with blowback is another champ! And don’t forget the Crosman DPMS that gives you both accuracy as well as full-auto capability.
And, by the way, I’m not letting you off the hook, Diana. You promised me an American version of the model 30 bolt-action gallery gun that shoots conventional steel BBs! Since steel and lead BBs are way better today are you concerned the new gun may outshoot your existing European Diana 30? Buck up and take one for the team!
I could go on, but I won’t. The world of BB guns has changed more in the past 15 years than it did in the previous 50. We are truly living in the golden age of BB guns.
And now, in the immortal words of Porky Pig, “I believe we have reached the end of our scheduled entertainment, ladies and gentlemen.”