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Ammo The ubiquitous BB: Part 2

The ubiquitous BB: Part 2

The steel air rifle shot is commonly called a BB.

Part 1

This report covers:

  • However
  • 1930s to the 1970s
  • How BBs are made
  • Chinese BBs
  • Selection on top of precision manufacturing
  • And BBs today?
  • Summary

Today we return to the story of the BB that is so ubiquitous it literally defines our hobby. We left off last time just after Daisy discovered that steel BBs went faster than lead air rifle shot when sent on their way by the same push. They were made smaller in size (0.171 to 0.173-inches in diameter — remember that?), and because of that and the fact they were steel and not lead they were much lighter. That made them go faster in BB guns until Daisy realized they could ensmalliate (reductify — make less large) the mainspring and keep the velocities the same. That made their BB guns easier to cock and easier cocking meant more sales.


All this was seen as a vast advance but for one thing. When lead hits a hard target it deforms, losing most of its energy. When steel hits the same hard target it rebounds at nearly the same velocity. Remember Ralphie Parker in the movie A Christmas Story? He gets shot in the face by a rebound the first time he tries out his new Red Ryder BB gun (which never was a “200-shot range-model lever action air rifle” by the way). That bounceback is not a fabrication. As I have told you, BB has shot himself many times with rebounding steel BBs. Always wear eye protection when shooting anything — regardless of the distance to the target.

1930s to the 1970s

Once the steel BB was defined it grew more refined as the years passed. Daisy plated their BBs with zinc to retard corrosion but Crosman plated their BBs with copper, inventing the Copperhead line. Now, as airgunners we look at a Crosman BB and say that the copper plating on a BB is incredibly thin, so it shouldn’t cost that much. But from Crosman’s point of view anything you make that gets plated with copper gets expensive when you make millions of them every 24 hours.

Remember folks, the United States went off the gold standard in 1933 because making gold coins was too expensive. We also went off the silver standard in 1965 for the same reason. And, in 1982, the copper cent was abandoned for the copper-plated zinc cent. You don’t need a crystal ball to foresee that at some point in the future copper in coins will be abandoned altogether.

I was given a Crosman plant tour by Ed Schultz in the early years of this century and I saw their BB line. The machine (or machines — it was difficult to differentiate) was around 40-60 feet long and went from cutting steel wire at one end to perfectly plated BBs dropping  out at the other. There was even a reject pile that was collected at the end, which meant that all BBs were subjected to testing at the end by rolling down a spiral trough (think toboggan track at the Olympics).

Crosman wire
Each large spool of steel wire weighs about a ton (2,000 lbs.). These are fed into a precision wire cutter that slices off exact chunks the right size to make one steel BB. You can see by the amount of wire on hand that they intend making millions!

How BBs are made

So, how do they make a perfectly round sphere of steel? You can’t afford to cast steel into balls, nor can you afford to forge or swage the balls — again, because of economy.

So, how is it done? It’s pretty simple when you understand how it works.

Ever roll a piece of clay into a ball? You hold it between your palms and rotate each hand in the opposite direction. Has anyone not done this as a child?

So, short of being Superman, how do you roll a piece of steel into a ball? Well, it helps to have hands of steel, and that’s exactly how they do it.

The first step is to get a piece of steel that’s close to the right size, which means the same mass as the ball (BB) you wish to make. One way to do this is to take a spool of steel wire like the ones seen above and cut it into precise chunks. Then feed those chunks, called headers, between two hardened steel plates that have wide spiral grooves cut in their mating faces. Each plate is several feel across.

I saw all this but was not permitted to take any pictures because BB manufacture was something Crosman (and other companies) considered proprietary at the time I was there. I believe Crosman has since allowed this to be filmed for the TV show, How It’s Made. I have described how they were made many times, but it’s a process you either get or don’t and there’s not much I can do about it. However I can tell you something about how modern BBs are made, and I will soon.

Those machines had stood there for decades but they no longer do so. Crosman buys their BBs from China like other manufacturers. Daisy once had a BB manufacturing plant here in the US but they now buy all their BBs from China as well. And now I will tell you how modern BBs are made. Stay with me, it’s a long story.

Chinese BBs

The Chinese approached Daisy and I’m sure other companies years ago, asking to make their BBs. All companies were proud of their BBs and wanted to only sell the best, and one thing Daisy did was ask the Chinese to make their Number 515 Precision Ground Shot — a BB we now call Daisy Match Grade Precision Ground Shot.

515 and Daisy Match BBs
Daisy made their No. 515 Precision Ground Shot in the US. They now source their Match Grade Precision Ground Shot from China.

And I can tell you that these BBs are still made in exactly the same way that Crosman made their BBs, with the exception, as I told you, Daisy Match BBs are plated with zinc instead of copper. Yes, they STILL refer to them as .177/4.5mm shot, which they aren’t, but I guess that’s a windmill BB has to stop tilting at.

How do I know they make them the same way? Because, in a package of Precision Ground Shot from China a couple years ago BB found something. It was a headed piece of steel wire.

headed wire and BB
That cylinder to the right of the BB is a headed piece of wire that’s ready to be rolled into a BB.

Build a Custom Airgun

Selection on top of precision manufacturing

I told you this was a long story. What makes today’s BBs as good as they are is the process of selection after they are made. Yes, the Chinese machinery that makes them is more modern than the machinery American manufacturers used. Therefore this machinery has seen less volume pass through, and that certainly helps, but it is selection that completes the process. In other words, having ways to measure the finished BBs so only those that meet the criteria get through. Bake 100 pies, taste each one and select the 5 best. Only with BBs you don’t have to eat a slice to know.

Therefore, that headed wire that also seems to have slipped through the plating process, is a very rare thing. Perhaps much rarer than one in a billion?

And BBs today?

The Chinese who are making BBs have benefitted the entire industry through greater precision. I assume this is a combination of contractual specifications, testing on both ends of the process (China and America) and more modern machinery.

I see that my supply of Copperhead BBs was made in the USA. It’s time for me to order out a new package of the Chinese-made Copperheads and give them a test — perhaps a comparison test?

Those new Crosman Black Widows that seem to shoot well all the time? Made in China. Like it or not, guys, BBs today are better than ever and most of them are made in the Orient.


My summary is this — we ain’t done yet! I still have not addressed Dust Devils, Smart Shot or the Oktoberfest rifle. We got more coming — goodie, goodie!

author avatar
Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier)
Tom Gaylord, also known as B.B. Pelletier, provides expert insights to airgunners all over the world on behalf of Pyramyd AIR. He has earned the title The Godfather of Airguns™ for his contributions to the industry, spending many years with AirForce Airguns and starting magazines dedicated to the sport such as Airgun Illustrated.

87 thoughts on “The ubiquitous BB: Part 2”

  1. Everyone,

    Yes, the blog failed to publish. This time the software had changed the publishing time from AM to PM, so it was waiting until noon today. I had scheduled it correctly, but I had to do it several times because the software kept changing things after I set them up.

    Oh well, here you go!


  2. Well, I see they fixed it.

    The manufacture of bbs is indeed most fascinating. It is a shame that the industry still uses that old, tired windmill. Keep tilting it. It will likely not change what the industry says, but it will help the newbies to understand there is a difference.

    I look forward to further installments of this blog.

    • RR,

      No, I fixed it. I manually published this one.

      I will have to watch this version of the software, as it wants to change things after I have set them up.



    Off topic, except for Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier), I am interested in how a fellow commenter like you chose your username.
    Do you even remember the thoughts you had, when you originally made it up in order to comment?

    My “hihihi” precedes pyramydair and because I’m lazy, I try to use it everywhere. 🙂

    From what I remember, patched with my best guesses, it was that I, being new to- and about to join an online society of interest (probably a motorbike thing), I felt it appropriate to begin with a greeting.
    So “hi” is what I typed, but that was rejected because it was already taken. Tripled to “hihihi” was ok and so, this is me. 🙂

    Please, how did yours come about?
    Does it still have the same significance today?

    • “My “hihihi” precedes pyramydair and because I’m lazy, I try to use it everywhere.”
      You nailed it! I am also lazy. “thedavemyster” was my handle on some old blogs from 20 years ago; it’s also my email name on gmail, and my name on knife-buying and ammo outlets.
      When a website asks “choose a name,” there are tons of guys named Dave, but the first time I typed in “thedavemyster,” it came up as unique (and generally still does). If I wanted to use “Dave,” I would have to be “Dave385698” or something…and I might forget the number, hahaha! “thedavemyster” is simple to use for me, the lazy guy. 😉
      Blessings to you,

      • hihihi,

        Vana2 is my call sign and the number on my fighter. My moniker comes (partially) from my surname and that I flew 2nd position in an online WW2 combat simulator with my Father Vana1 and my brothers Vana3 & Vana4, who comprised our second element.

        I still fly (virtual) WW2 piston engine fighters using sophisticated software. The current level of computer graphics and physics modeling makes for a very realistic experience.


        • Miss those WWII air combat simulators; stopped playing them when the computer housing the games crashed. It’s been a while; maybe it is time to soar like a hawk again. Favorite scenarios – always playing solo against AI aircraft – included wading into a formation of ungainly Tupolev bombers while dodging I-16 Rata fighters and flaming up a bomber or two, flying a little Brewster Buffalo for the Finns. Another one was to go on a “Betty bomber flaming spree” flying a P-40B and avoiding dogfights with escorting Zeros. Dang, FM has to reawaken the Walter Mitty flyboy inside one of these days and get back into it. As long as it does not take too much time away from air gunnery.

          Think will watch “Flying Tigers” again soon.

        • Vana2 that was a surprise explanation! 🙂

          I too like flying, simulated and even better, for real.
          However, living a retired lifestyle means limited time. I know, sounds ironic, but I no longer ask myself ‘what shall I do today?’, rather ‘what shall I give a miss?’! 🙂

      • FM chose FawltyManuel for this blog, partly to remind himself of his Fawlty skills in this field – and others as well – and because he enjoys the British Monty Python-esque brand of humor. Maybe it’s in the DNA; had a great uncle (thought he was pretty good too) named Albert who had a curmudgeonly personality much like Basil Fawlty’s. I’m so sorry! 😉

        Disclaimer: FM is not from Barcelona.

      • shootski, today, I too, did one of the things you do, and it wasn’t shooting! 🙂

        Little wind, sunshine and surprisingly mild temperatures made the Pyrenees (mountain range between France and Spain) a heavenly place to be. 🙂

          • Bill, I sincerely apologise for that fantasy. But for one little vowel, I would indeed be ‘fit’ ! 🙂

            Yes, I own a bicycle but it’s a pedelec. When pedalling, it assists with an electric motor.

            The Pyrenees are a good hour and a half’s car drive away, or more.
            I am- and cycle in a flat valley, beyond even the foothills, my favourite being, along the very old Canal du Midi.

            My most frequent interaction with the Pyrenean mountains is simply to see them in the distance, which actually gives me great pleasure! 🙂

            PS my experience with French cuisine, overall, has so far, at least for me, been a disappointment… 🙁

              • Wow Bill, I’m sorry to hear what sounds like you’re not in the best of health.
                But getting out and about on those two wheels, even just by yourself, feels good, doesn’t it? 🙂
                Do you still smile like the first time you rode your pedelec?

                If not, just wait until it gets warmer…

                Have you found out yet what range your bike really has in your type of countryside? I don’t ever want to pedal with a dead battery again! 🙂

                • Hi3
                  Fortunately my health is quite good, considering my age off course. It’s just that after so many years of office work starting to pedal again needed some assistance. But the smile is there… Regarding the range for me is around 50km for the 65% of the battery. This concerns easy downhill and relevant uphill. Ah, the model is a Giant Explorer.

      • Motorman, I used to think CB radio really cool. As a kid, I adorned my bicycle with a long willow twig and pretended that it was an aerial. 🙂

        Then, one day, I was gifted a handheld walkie-talkie – with a genuine telescopic aerial – and I realised that reality wasn’t quite up to my fantasy… 🙁


  4. B.B.

    I your second paragraph you say, “Always wear eye protection when shooting BB guns.”
    You should change it to, “Always wear eye protection when shooting anything.”?


  5. Tom,

    So the Chinese used entirely new machines importing the technology from Crosman and Daisy to produce the BBs?


    PS: Section How BBs are made 6th paragraph 1st sentence: “I saw the (all) this but was not permitted to take any pictures because BB manufacture was something Crosman (and other companies) considered proprietary at the time I was there.”

    • Siraniko,

      Fixed it. Thanks.

      As for the Chinese machines, I seriously doubt they could get those Crosman machines to run much longer. As for the Daisy stuff, I don’t know.


  6. B.B., and USA Readership,

    We should have used Chinese BBs to safely shoot down the Chinese Spy Balloon before it ever went feet dry over the USA!
    If we hadn’t detected it before it was over Montana then shame on us! I suspect it was SLOW (sleepy Joe) decision making at the highest levels!


    • They did indeed spot it before it went dry. It was likely Sleepy Joe’s doing that it was not brought down. He did not want to upset his son’s business partners. They might not give him his kickback.

        • I would imagine that the POTUS was alerted as to the presence of the Chinese balloon. The political and military considerations would have been significant regarding a shoot down. Joe is an accomplished constitutional lawyer and a old hand at things political both domestic and international. He was not asleep, and the term “sleepy Joe” is offensive although occasionally hilarious.

          At least under Joe’s watch it was dealt with by sound and reasoned decision-making. If this were under the former fellow, there would have to be an investigation of how Comrade Pumpkinfuhrer received a covert payment for fly-by rights!

  7. Shoot,
    don’t get me started. I’d love to shot it down lol. I find it sad they can do that, yet if I as an US Citizen fly a drone or RC Plane too high I’m in big trouble.


    • Supposedly the fear is the debris field caused by a shoot down could affect areas in Montana. Maybe the balloon is a promotional stunt by a Chinese BB manufacturer?

        • There is also a consideration that if one doesn’t know for certain that there are not radioactive components as in power sources or emitters to measure ionization of atmospheric conditions it might not be wise to shoot it down immediately. I am sure that Biden was in consultation with his team and the decision was reasoned and responsible. That was the right call.

  8. The advertising and personal-messaging possibilities are endless! We should reciprocate. Here is one plausible message: “Taiwan on and relax a little, Mr. Xi!” This could be part of an advert for a nice sake brand.

  9. “You and me in a little toy shop
    bought a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got…”

    Berserkeley is a nickname for Berkeley, California, uttered by some people elsewhere on the planet to mean that the people here are crazy (although a more mellow crazy than a Norse berserker). Mike is short for Michael, an older testament name that hasn’t meant anything for thousands of years. Why I picked those for a username is long forgotten.

    Have a good weekend y’all!

  10. Hihihi,

    I discovered a love for competitive rowing in college. Liked it better than my degree program, really. My class was the Men’s Lightweight Eight. I occasionally rowed mixed boats (men and women) as well as Fours.

    The Eights are the boats that can really fly. Amazing how fast they can skim across the water when you get eight guys rowing in sync. Nothing like it.

    I joined the team and learned how to row my freshman year. Stuck with it all four years, except for semesters spent abroad. Loved it. Got the chance to row on the Tiber in Rome once, so I guess even then I was never far from the water.

    We rowed “sweep” (one oar) as opposed to “scull” (two oars). Sweep rowers must choose which side they want their oar on, and that will also have a bearing on which seat they sit. I favored pulling an oar to my left side. That would be the Starboard side. (Keep in mind the rowers are facing backwards -to stern. Only the coxswain faces forwards -the bow).

    Hence the name StarboardRower.


    • Fun times this . . . my moniker of Hoppalong Doc refers to my missing left leg ( AKA) and my earlier career as a Corpsman in the USN. Oh ya, Boy Howdy, did I love Hopalong Cassidy when I was a boy. Orv.

            • And thanks for your service as well. Being a flier would be exciting, but I picked up enough fly boys that had gone into the drink to keep me out of that business. What did you fly? I spent most of my time in-country on PBRs up the Siagon River. Orv.

              • Hoppalong Doc,

                After a bunch of Trainers, RA5C, RF14 test bed, short stint in A26A (don’t ask) EA3B, EP3E/B (All other P-3 types) TR1 (U2R), ES3A, and some others.
                I like flying just about anything but especially without motors these days!


                • WOW! I certainly don’t know aircraft, but the P-3s I remember. Is all your experience with propeller aircraft? P-3s did a lot of ASW above us as the tin can (USS DuncanDDR 874, then USS Shields DD 586, and finally the USS Duluth LPD6, not a can but a landing platform dock) I floated around on searched for subs. I also remember some of you guys flying low over the Siagon River to feeding intel to us down on the water in our little PBRs. We were all so young then. . . long, long ago. Orv.

                  • Orv,

                    I started out in Props transitioned to jets but never (no time) qualified in helicopters. The RA5C was my first Fleet jet a big and fast twin engine nuclear bomber reconfigured for reconnaissance. The EA3B was also originally a nuclear bomber that was reconfigured for signals intelligence operations. Most of what I flew was a “modified from something” bunch of aircraft. Losing the RF-14 to Congress saying NO was the one that hurt the most. What a fantastic platform.
                    I always enjoyed flying rivers low and fast while staying within their banks!


                    • And we who were down below thank you. Those guys in the reconfigured Cessnas with the tail props were nuts down on the river. They got all the attention while we did our infil. A lot of unsung heroes. Orv.

                • Shootski
                  Now you really got my attention. TR1 operations in your time is something I would really like to discuss with a glass of good bourbon in our hands. But maybe you can enlighten me about your A26A experience. Then again the second A designation might be telling something.
                  Thank you anyway even if you don’t want to reply.

      • Hoppalong Doc, boys can and will be cruel. I too was given a nickname (that failed to hurt) and generally bullied.
        Taught me to disregard all the ‘barking’ and watch out for the ‘biters’… 🙂

    • Starboard Rower: My #1 Granddaugher took it up at Miami University (Ohio), and loves rowing. I computed that the 8’s are averaging 14 MPG which is a good road bike cruise or a really fast MTB speed on hard pack. My grand is an absolutely gorgeous and shapely young woman who is a physical “beast.” She has supendous muscle power from years of gymnastics and competition cheer. Her intellectual and academic performance is even more spectacular than her sweaty prowess.

      I can see why you loved rowing. It is graceful, highly demanding, athletic and a real team sport where everyone is equally important. It’s all-stars or nothing!

      • LFranke,

        You have every reason to be proud! Sounds like a fine young rower, there.

        No doubt the discipline and strength she gleaned from gymnastics will be a perfect foundation her rowing career. I hope she loves it!

        I competed against Miami (Ohio). They were at a few of the same regattas we went to. I rowed at Clemson. I seem to remember MoO at SIRA’s, which is held in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is a fall race, which is the”distance” or Head races, as they are called. Head races are a 6K race course.
        The Spring season is the Sprint season. Those were 2K of the most painful, flat-out, relentless rowing you can imagine! Worse than the 6k, in which you can pace yourself a bit more.

        Tell her to stick with it! Love every second.


      • Hihihi,

        Too far!

        Literally… because Texas doesn’t have much in the way of lakes and rivers. And metaphorically, as I am squarely in the parenting years, there is no time for rowing anyways. I do miss it, however.


    • StarboardRower,

      I really enjoy being on the river when the Crews are practicing. The only human powered boats on the river that are faster than the EPIC 18X Double are the well rowed Heavy Eight! It is impressive to have them out accelerate us from a dead stop. Our top sprint speed is about 8 Knots (4.1 m/sec. or 9.2 mph) and once they get going we try to draft them!
      Doesn’t work for long.


  11. Bob M
    Started out with ‘Max Firepower’. A plinking situation we had when everyone opened up on the same target at once. May have read it in Firepower Magazine. Any way it was simply too long to be typing out all the time. (KISS)
    Had the chance to fly in a Boeing 767 flight simulator. A cockpit that actually tips and leans on hydraulic actuators. What surprised me the most was how slow the aircraft was to react to the flight controls. No quick corrections. You need to be prepared and start well in advance of any changes. or you could be a pilot and just enter numbers into the autopilot or hit the auto takeoff / land buttons.
    I have a really hard time controlling tanks in war games trying to keep it going where I want it to while controlling the turret and firing. Especially in small European towns.

    So, they don’t simply drip molten steel from a tower.

    • Bob M,

      “No quick corrections. You need to be prepared and start well in advance of any changes. or you could be a pilot and just enter numbers into the autopilot or hit the auto takeoff / land buttons.”
      Even in one of the most aerodynamically efficient and fastest responding aircraft (760°/Sec roll rate) like the A-4 Skyhawk in time you realize that control/throttle movement response isn’t instantaneous and you need to stay ahead of “things” every split second.
      Yup! Experience and Seat Time slows down perceived time interval! Much like in shooting.


  12. Shootski
    Another problem I had with slow reacting was weaving or overcorrecting to stay lined up and I’m sure that’s another thing that requires experience to control. I know there is computer assistance to minimize that, but it may be associated with the autopilot, or I drastically exceeded its limitations. We don’t get inside black boxes in flightline maintenance, and we sure don’t use it on the ground. Unless I’m driving my Veloster and forget to shut it off! ;(

    A very eye-opening experience to things I never considered, and I gained a lot of respect for pilots. Especially in heavy aircraft. Kind of thought it was a walk in the park.

  13. Well Shootski and Bob, I’m glad you got together on this aviation discussion, I read along and was interested to hear of it and thank you both for your service to our country. I became a mechanical engineer because of my love of model airplane design. After decades of life’s interruptions, the hobby stuck fast and I’m still making my own today, I busted up my last one from pilot error (wind affects everything) and am working on my next iteration of a remote control model airplane that I think is fun to fly. I’m skeert (afraid) of flying in full scale planes, so hats off to you men for doing it in any weather.
    Since we’re on to talking about things and other things, I’d like to go rekord regarding the trigger on my Weirauch 35E, it is so nice to work with. What a beautiful air gun that is, where they put everything that works, all together…all the plusses they could design into an air rifle…and see what happened as a result. I guess they do this for a job, but that group got really good at what they do!
    I love to shoot guns like these when I’m doing terrible at shooting springers that are not built to such high standards. I love my Notsayingwhich air rifle, I’ve been inside so often and most times things work well afterwards, but I think I screwed up something this time. Before the second spring broke, it was a really good shooter. I put in a new spring and then a piston sleeve to tighten things up (made from an aluminum turkey baster) and then later cut a few coils from the spring to make it zero preload…and it’s become a fair to an awful (icky) airgun. It shoots everywhere other than where I’m aiming. I put it away for now, but it will draw me back for more soon. It has good bones, but it’s the guts that need the right kind of repair. I missed out on hot rod cars, so air guns will have to do. What a great hobby this is and it’s been fun to “meet” the many contributors that add depth of interest to Tom’s excellent blog. Cheers, happy shooting!

    • Will S.,

      Your welcome Will!
      Most of the time i was always astounded that I got payed to do what I loved so much until it was time to wait for the next mission and spend time thinking about my family so far away and left behind again; that, no amount of pay could ever make up for!

      I have no way to know for sure about the Aluminum in your Turkey Baster but our’s is made from some really soft alloy and not say, 6061 or even better 2024-T3 Aluminum alloys. I’m pretty certain that your spring, spring tube, and your piston are made from far harder steel. I have a feeling they aren’t playing well with the Turkey Baster Aluminum.
      But I am no Spring Piston expert so that is just a guess from watching metal work well and not so well when the types are mixed; and I might add even with good lubricant choice and application.

      Hope some folks chime in with more knowledge than me.


    • Will S.,

      Before you placed the aluminum spacer did you determine how much the spring is loose within the piston chamber? You may not have actually needed to use the aluminum spacer because too tight a tolerance can produce unpredictable drag which can lead to inaccuracy.


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