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The ubiquitous BB: Part 1

BB
The steel air rifle shot is commonly called a BB.

This report covers:

  • The first BB
  • All early BBs were lead
  • Trouble changes BBs
  • BB’s rant
  • You’ll shoot your eye out
  • Wow!

The first BB

Today we begin a long look at the BB that practically defines us as airgunners. This will be a good one!

The first BBs were actual shotgun shot, sized BB. They are nominally sized 0.180 inches in diameter. They are in the middle of shot sizes B and BBB. Oh, and by the way, If you look for information on this blog with the search term BB you find every one of the 4,000+ reports I have written!

The airgun projectile we call a BB began in 1886 as common lead shotgun shot, sized BB or 0.180-inch diameter. It was selected for W.F. Markham’s revolutionary new spring-piston gun that was made of maple wood and a minimum of metal parts. The probable inventor of the new airgun, George W. Sage, simply chose a commonly available projectile that produced good results in his creation.

Markham BB gun
Markham BB gun.

One year later, Clarence Hamilton of .22 rimfire fame followed Markham by inventing an all-metal spring-piston airgun. When he demonstrated it to local businessman and founder of the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, Lewis Cass Hough, the surprised man declared, in the vernacular of the day, “Boy, that’ a daisy!’ We have heard the same colloquial expression from Doc Holiday in the movie Tombstone when he said, “You’re a daisy if you do.” The actual statement was made during the gunfight at the OK Corral when Frank McLowry said to Doc, “I’ve got you now!” to which Doc replied “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have.”

Back to the subject. Hamilton’s clever little gun was also made to shoot lead BB shot, and Hough thought enough of it that he commissioned several hundred to be built for premiums when farmers bought his iron windmills. Production began in 1888. 

Plymouth Iron Windmill BB gun
This Daisy wire stock BB gun was made in this century. It IS NOT a replica, because it was made by Daisy. One thousand were made.

Plymouth Iron Windmill BB gun topstrap
The topstrap of the recent model says Daisy — a name that wasn’t on the first Iron Windmill BB guns. The letters are hard to read because they were made in a sand casting like the original.

Demand for the new airgun quickly outstripped windmill sales, and Plymouth Iron Windmill began making the BB guns to sell directly. They used Hough’s original exclamation of Daisy as the trade name. In 1895 the windmill company reincorporated as the Daisy Manufacturing Company and continues under that name today. 

All early BBs were lead 

Lead BB shot continued to be the projectile of choice until the beginning of the 20th century, when Daisy contracted to have its own proprietary lead shot made. The new shot was sized smaller, at 0.175 inches. Daisy could now control the uniformity of the shot. They also saved lead, which, when you are making hundreds of millions of an item, pays off. Even better, kids had to buy ammo from them instead of raiding their father’s shotgun ammo supply.

The size reduction also brought a small increase in velocity, which meant that a smaller-diameter wire mainspring could be used and the guns would retain the same velocity while cocking easier.

Other BB gun manufacturers went along with the new shot size because, by this time, Daisy was a 500-pound gorilla. Soon, everyone sold the smaller air rifle shot and the world forgot the old true BB-shot guns. But the name stuck! 

Trouble changes BBs

In the mid-1920s, Daisy began receiving returned BB guns with split shot tubes (the true barrel on a BB gun that is inside an outer sheath commonly referred to as the barrel). The offending guns came mostly from the Minneapolis region, so Cass S. Hough, grandson of the founder, traveled to that city to learn the problem. What he discovered forever changed the BB-making business.

The American Ball Company of Minneapolis had noticed small boys rummaging through their discard pile of ball bearings to find steel balls that would fit their airguns. Company managers had learned there was a market for airgun ammunition, so they began to manufacture steel BBs under the name Bulls Eye.

The ball bearing maker regarded BB shot as a non-precision item, so they didn’t hold the tolerances of their Bulls Eye ammo very tight. Oversized steel balls, being harder than the BB gun shot tubes that were made for lead, would sometimes split open or the BBs would get stuck.

Daisy management initially felt that the steel BB posed no real threat, since their owner’s manual clearly warned shooters to only use Daisy lead shot. But Cass Hough argued that the returns were increasing because steel shot was both cheaper and shot faster in their guns. Unless the company wanted a black eye for standing on its principles, they had better get with the program!

Hough convinced upper management, and in 1928 Daisy and American Ball penned an agreement whereby Daisy would be the exclusive distributor for Bulls Eye air rifle shot. Daisy got a share of the profits and American Ball was connected to worldwide distribution channels. Best of all, Daisy gained control of the specifications and ended the oversized ball problem. A decade later, Daisy bought American Ball, bringing the Bulls Eye brand in house. Only recently have they dropped that name.

When the switch was made from lead to steel Daisy also reduced the size of the BB from 0.175-inches to 0.173 inches, nominally. I say nominally because steel BBs today range in size from 0.171 to 0.173-inches in diameter. Recently Marksman put out a steel BB that’s sized 0.176-inches in diameter. Watch out because these will jam most BB guns.

BB’s rant

This is where the writer, BB, (see what I mean about the name?) gets up on his soapbox for a rant. WHY are BB manufacturers insisting that their steel BBs are 4.5mm/0.177-inches in diameter? None of them are, but the public doesn’t know that and they don’t pay attention to such things. It’s just as bad as the airsoft manufacturers insisting that their 6mm plastic balls are BBs.  “Oh”, you say. “Who really cares?” How about a mom who buys airsoft balls for her son’s BB gun? How about when she buys steel BBs for his airsoft gun? That’s who cares.

Build a Custom Airgun

You’ll shoot your eye out

It was only after Daisy switched to steel air rifle shot that people started noticing that BBs were rebounding with enough energy to break the skin and pierce eyes. Do they really do that, you say? Yes, they do. Your author has had his lip busted open several times by the rebound of a steel BB shot out at 500 f.p.s. from an Anics BB pistol. And that was from a target 10 meters away! Go ahead, stick your tongue on the flagpole — I triple-dog dare you!

Wow!

When I started this series yesterday morning I didn’t realize how much information there was. Because of innovations such as Air Venturi Dust Devils, H&N Smart Shot and Diana Oktoberfest rifles there is a lot more to say about BBs today than there was a decade ago. We’re gonna have some fun with this one!

55 thoughts on “The ubiquitous BB: Part 1”

    • But then there’s copper-plated lead smart shot which is supposed to smash like lead and not ricochet as much. Not sure if it works. I stopped shooting copper-plated pellets in my basement shooting range when a Baracuda Power zipped back at me after hitting my 3/4 inch plywood backstop.

      • Roamin Greco, similar surprise for me, when wadcutters bounced back at me from a plywood backstop. I had leant the board against a tree and attached a target in the middle of it. Almost every hit on the backstop ricochet’ed, some even hitting me. ๐Ÿ™

        My guess is, that hard and spring-board-like surfaces, will bounce a lead projectile, regardless of it’s deformation, after impact, ie some energy makes the surface act like a table tennis bat, returning the whatever-hit-it. ๐Ÿ™‚

        With other words, I don’t think the shape of a lead projectile causes a ricochet but the surface that bounces it back does!

      • You really do have to be careful with rebounds in low powered guns.

        Just last week I was finishing some tinkering on a new Crosman 1322 I picked up around Xmas. I put a 14″ barrel and a steel breech on it.

        Just as I have it sighted in, what do I see out my shop window in the middle of the day but a honker of a rat raiding my bird feeder. In my fury to load a pellet and get 6 quiet pumps in I had grabbed a heavy JSB Ultrashock (25gr) instead of a JSB Hades (15gr) which is the pest pellet for that 1322.

        I lined up, took a breath, let it go- and felt a little tap in the sternum and the tiny sound of a soft lead pellet dropped from a short distance. There on my workbench was a very flat 25gr JSB. With just a little fur stuck to one side of it. Outside, 7 yards away at the feeder was a dead rat with one formidable forehead.

  1. This is really strange. Here is two days in a row that I am the first poster child. Do not tell me that all the other early posters are finding something else to do!

    • RR,

      I feel that way sometimes, too. but I think people know that this will always be here so they do other things first and then come here to read and relax.

      BB

    • RidgeRunner,

      Nothing to comment s about since I don’t have a BB gun around and do far none have turned up in the market. That wooden Markham BB gun though would be something I could probably make if I really wanted one though.

      Siraniko

    • RidgeRunner,

      Before First Light
      This time of year there is only the US Coast Guard out on the river…not even the Harbor Police! But you might just see a kayak slipping quickly through the DARK WATERS if you look closely and understand the Red, Green, and White lights it shows. No time to read the blog just eat and go, go, go!
      In the warm season the river is still mostly empty other than the US Coast Guard and a few cabin cruiser at anchor, and the occasional rowing team/coach before Nautical Twilight just getting their shells in the water.
      A great time of day to get in eight to ten Nautical Miles of active relaxation.
      Second Breakfast is usually the time to read the blog if the schedule permits today’s read had to take a back seat to an hour session with the PT as well.
      If I’m at the SkiShed in Utah i don’t usually have Internet unless i ski into town so the Blog gets read if and when; but it does get read.

      shootski

    • R. R.
      In your wildest dreams my friend…
      It’s just a matter of silence when there’s nothing to be said. Besides today was the first winter like morning with rain so the fireplace and coffee spared you all from my early “mood”.
      See you all tomorrow, just before starting my life adventure with the K 98… She’s here.

  2. I think we will see further useful advancements in BB tech. I like the idea of shattering BB’s but gen I & II Dust Devils disappoint in many ways. Maybe a Sintered metal BB without the ring of Saturn around it ? An accurate BB that shatters will be invented I hope in the near future.

  3. BB,
    What a good blog entry this morning! I said, “Wow.” twice before my wife asked, “What?” and I told her that I wish BB wrote my history books in school. Thanks for writing this blog each weekday, we love it.
    At the Daisy Museum in Rogers, Arkansas, they have a floor board, a piece of dark wood with shiny bits all over one side. It once was a section of the floor, taken from where Daisy manufactured their BBs. My memory says it is less than a square foot in area and is covered in embedded BBs. How many BBs you ask? Think about your fried egg in the morning with a generous sprinkling of pepper. They said that the entire floor around the machine looked like that. The steel wheels of the carts (filled with BBs?) used in the shop pressed the BBs into the wood.
    The Daisy Museum was a lot of fun to visit and I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys reading this blog.
    Regards,
    Will

    • Will,

      I read in Cass Hough’s book (I think) that the engineers shot BBs at the floor to see that they would embed. A sort of wooden chronograph.

      BB

      • A wooden chronograph can be as effective as a coconut telegraph, says the FM who was going to shoot five BBs out of his Umarex MP40 yesterday to see if they registered on the DLX chrony only to realize – too late – he’d forgotten to install fresh CO2 cartridges in the MP magazine. FM forgot to install a fresh brain in his head. Will git ‘er done next time.

    • Will,
      I too love the Daisy Museum. Lots of cool stuff there. I need to go back again. I do with Daisy made air/bb guns in the USA again (or somewhere other than China). Sad they shut the plant down here. Also wish they are anyone made bbs anywhere other than China.

      Doc

  4. BB,

    I don’t own a bb-gun. We always considered them to be inferior (accuracy, range, power) to our break barrel pellet guns (and even slingshots) and that prejudice has been with me my whole life.

    We did use bb-guns (and a heavy felt blanket as a backstop) for indoor shooting in the winter. The quiet, low power of the bb-guns was actually an advantage over pellet guns in that situation. The big bonus was that the ammunition was reusable.

    Might be time to get a bb-gun and judge it on its own merits. I keep on looking at the Daisy Model 25 but can’t find it in stock anywhere in Canada.

    Hank

      • BB,

        I’ve thought about the 499, haven’t discounted it but I think I would view it from the accuracy perspective of my 10 meter airguns and that would not be fair. Got that base well covered.

        The Model 25 would have its own place/niche in the gun cabinet as a rapid-fire tin-basher. Think it would be ideal for defending against an attack from a case of feral soda cans. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Hank

        Maybe I can find a no longer being used Model 25 that someone wants to sell or trade for.

          • TomGaylord (B.B. Pelletier), the M1 bb gun is an interesting idea! ๐Ÿ™‚

            I was going to suggest to Vana2 a VZ 35 or VZ 47 lead bb repeater, if he can find either.

            Those Czech air rifles can easily compete for precision, but I’ve never seen, nor shot a Springfield Armoury M1 BB gun to compare.

            I wonder what your thoughts are?

          • If I recall correctly, the Umarex Cowboy Lever Action is another BB gun receiving high marks for accuracy- rivaling the 499 in Tomโ€™s tests Some may find the โ€œcartridgesโ€ it uses a disadvantage despite the contribution to authenticity. Well, thatโ€™s why we have all the choices we have in this rapidly advancing sport.
            Still have the model 25 given to me in the late 60โ€™s and a recently gifted RR. Some how the 25 has moved with me through the years until being โ€œfoundโ€ when the air gun bug bit about 3 or so years ago and I discovered this blog.

          • Hihihi,

            I’m replying here because your comment is already at the maximum of four levels down. Sorry I can’t reply to it directly. Hoping you will see this.

            I have both the Springfield Armory M1 Carbine (wood stock option) and a vz.35.

            The M1 carbine is the more accurate shooter, by far. Plus, the M1 Carbine is MUCH easier get! Highly recommend.

            Now, it doesn’t have the history, style, or old world craftmanship of the vz.35! It’s apples and oranges. But when it comes to accuracy, that’s easy. Get the M1 Carbine.

            Starboard Rower

          • Ah StarboardRower, thanks for your comment, which, luckily, I indeed found by chance. ๐Ÿ™‚

            I prefer oranges, but I know you know your fruit, so maybe I’ll try the apple too. Oddly, I struggled to find a vendor until I looked next door, ie outside of France. ๐Ÿ™‚

            I wonder what low-ricochet bbs I should include with my order besides H&N Smartshot, which performed well for Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier)? Have you any recommendations?

            Would you let me know in the current blog of your reply here or wherever, including where to find it, please? Thanks StarboardRower. ๐Ÿ™‚

            PS I’m still waiting for your next VZ35 guestblog ! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Hank

          My 499 likes to shoot 10 meter distance too. Sub 1โ€ is likely standing. This is a quality air rifle with a distinct shooting cycle sound all its own. Nowhere on the exterior does Made In China appear. Rogerโ€™s, Arkansas is stamped but not the word Made. I thought it was manufactured here.

          Deck

          • GF1,

            Hear you! But…

            Contrary to my usual obsession with a single shot accurately placed I’m thinking more about perforating a bunch of cans with a spray of BBs ๐Ÿ™‚

            Hank

  5. BB,
    Well, I’d guess a wooden board or a log was everybody’s first chrony. The deepest BB wins!
    Will
    PS: I wonder why my posts always go to the bottom, even though I click to reply in a thread?

  6. Tom,

    An excellent report! As you know these ar my favorite airgun subjects.

    For those here who do not own a BB gun, and especially those who have never owned one, you really should get one the next time P.A. has a sale. A cardboard box stuffed with the brown paper packing in the box the gun came shipped in will probably be enough to prevent ricochets. Outdoors empty aluminum cans directly on the ground are perfect.

    They are a lot of fun for thje most casual plinking, are very easy to cock, and are exceptionally quiet. I recommend Daisy Red Ryder (adult or child’s size) and any of the silver colored mid-priced BBs. If acceptable accuracy out to 15 to 20 feet will satisfy you, you’re good to go. Otherwise, pay a bit more and get a 499 competition BB gun, which at 15 to 20 feet is as accurate as most pellet rifles.

    They have a romantic appeal no plasticky black rifle can provide. When I shoot my Red Ryder, I can practically feel the history of them, all of them, and the stories they have to tell, at once.

    Michael

    • Since getting my 25 my RR has not got much love. Over the weekend I shot the RR and was shocked at it thumping my poly swingers. The 25 is fun but is lower powered so the โ€œ pumpโ€ wonโ€™t be so hard to work.

      • singleshotcajun,

        The Model 25 is supposed to be slightly more powerful than the Red Ryder, but my 25 is about the same on my chrony as my Red Ryder. Interestingly, I have a Daisy Buck that is supposed to be less powerful than either, but mine shoots about 40 fps. faster.

        Michael

  7. B.B.,

    Enjoyed the Blog today.
    Never owned a BB gun as a kid.
    Never owned a Break Barrel as a kid either!
    Came back to airguns as an adult and went right back to CO2, Single/Multi-pump 10M.
    Joined the Dark Side early and moved up to Big Bores early too!
    Took me until this Millennium to own an adult break barrel. Now I own two!
    I doubt I will ever own a B.B. gun…but then Never Say Never.

    shootski

  8. The way pellet prices are going over here in Europe and the threat of a lead ammunition ban makes me think BB guns are going to be much more popular in the coming years!

  9. BB
    Enjoyed today’s report.

    And yes the 499 is the stuff. But I like my Oktoberfest with the Williams/Crosman rear notch sight. The notch fits/matches the Oktoberfest front post great. And I’m having good results with the H&N Smart shot.

    Again nice report today.

    • RG
      I have with some 3 and 1 oil. Slightly better accuracy but only for a little bit. Kind of messy and a slight mist of oil each shot.

      I don’t mess with lubing bb’s anymore.

  10. So, I guess my Daisy Wire Stock could be considered a new and improved ‘Rare Limited-Edition Continuation’ model? Interesting thought.
    I can leave out the word replica in any description. Ahh … yes, but as mentioned 12 years ago, it has MFD BY IRON WINDMILL CO on it and they no longer exist. But wait … It also has Daisy in front of it and they did buy out the windmill company. So, if they called it the DAISY IRON WINDMILL CO for a short time back then it would be a Daisy continuation. Just not of the original. …. Because it has all that information on it now that the original did not. But it is a new AND improved model, Sooo? !

    In any case, if you shoot smart shot through it, you could be “Slinginglead” again with it.
    Wonder what that Piero Manzini’s Doo-Doo can is worth these days? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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