A few bricks short…

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

This report addresses:

• The .22 rimfire ammunition supply problem in the U.S.
• One possible solution for an ammo supply
• A great substitution for .22 rimfire

22 bricks
Bricks of .22 rimfire ammo usually have 500 rounds, except the value packs that contain a little extra loose ammo.

The rest of the world may not be aware, but there’s an extreme shortage of .22 rimfire ammo in the United States at the present time. In my 66 years, the last two are the only time I could not walk into a gun store or even a discount store and buy a brick of .22 ammunition.

What’s a brick?
A brick is a carton of 500 rounds. It holds 10 boxes of 50 rounds and is called a brick for the general size, shape and weight of the box. There are also loosely packaged value packs that contain a few more than 500 rounds.

In 2012, a brick of inexpensive .22 ammo cost around $9 to $10, depending on the sale. The nominal price was about $20, but everybody knew that was too much to pay, so we all waited for the sales. Only when our backs were up against it did we bite the bullet (pun intended) and pay full price.

Today, the street price of a brick is $50, but that’s only when you can find one for sale. Many of the stores are now rationing sales with limits on the number of smaller boxes you can buy at one time. Buying whole bricks is pretty much a thing of the past.

I’ve purchased single bricks from Midway for $29 in the past year, but they limit your purchase to just one; and when they add the mandatory $27 HAZMAT fee and shipping, the price increases greatly. If they would sell entire cases of .22 (5,000 rounds), the fees and shipping would disappear in the volume. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Plenty of .22
There’s no shortage of .22 rimfire ammo in the U.S. The ammo plants are working 3 shifts each day to supply all they can. And the government is no longer buying everything they make. What we have is a run on ammo that cannot be satisfied in the near term. The so-called shortage is being caused by hoarding. This is the reason I reload. I can load .45 ACP rounds for much less than the current cost of .22 long rifle. But .22 is a lot of fun to shoot!

Strategies for getting bricks
You can watch the obituaries and attend the estate sales, but that’s where everybody goes. I would make friends with the supply sergeants! That’s what I did in the Army. Supply sergeants are in control of everything, so go right to the source!

In the civilian world, the supply sergeants are the clerks who work in the gun stores and sporting goods departments of the larger stores. Cozy up to them, and they may let you jump to the front of the line when ammo comes in. I’m not talking about stealing here — I’m talking about being first in line — even before the line forms! When you want something that’s hard to get, this is how it’s done.

But wait — there’s hope!
Actually, this report isn’t about .22 ammo at all. It’s about what can substitute for it. When I was at the Flag City Toys That Shoot airgun show last Saturday, a lot of people were talking about it.

If you just shoot to plink, an air rifle is just as good as a rimfire out at 75 yards. You can go out even farther, but I’m trying to stay conservative. Yes, a lot of air rifles are single-shots, but there are also a lot that are repeaters. And the cost, while higher than the cheap rimfire rifles, isn’t that bad. Especially, since the guns you get for that price will shoot rings around most rimfires out to 50 yards.

A couple years ago, I remember listening to some airgunners bemoan the fact that Crosman Premiers in the cardboard box cost more than $20. You get 625 pellets in that box if they’re .22s and 1,250 if they’re .177s. That was when budget bricks were still selling for $9-10. But those days are over and will never return. When this shortage is finally over, I predict the price of a budget brick will be somewhere around $29-$36, and the sales may lower that to $25 on occasion. That’s just a prediction, of course.

Can a pellet rifle equal a .22 long rifle?
The answer is both yes and no. The new Escape survival rifle from AirForce Airguns produces almost 98 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle when the heaviest .25-caliber Eun Jin pellet is used. That compares favorably to a standard speed or subsonic .22 long rifle cartridge. It’s not quite as powerful, but it’s very close. So, yes, a pellet rifle can equal a .22 rimfire.

But, when you drive that pellet that fast, you don’t get all the accuracy that rifle has to offer. You saw that when I tested the Escape. At max power, that large pellet gave me a 2.48-inch 5-shot group at 50 yards. But when I throttled the gun back and shot JSB Exact King pellets, 5 of them went into 0.715 inches at the same 50 yards.

The fill pressure for that smaller group was just under 2,000 psi, and the power was set at 6 — so the rifle was probably producing around 40 foot-pounds. Before you sneer with derision, because that’s less than half what the gun can do at its best, remember that 40 foot-pounds is still more than a lot of PCP rifles can get when they’re shooting full-out. And that’s my point. Understand what it is that you’re talking about. Yes, a pellet rifle can meet the power of a .22 long rifle, but no, it can’t do it with the same accuracy. Maybe someday in the future, but not today.

Do you really need all that power, or have you fallen into the trap of defining your minimum shooting experience based on what’s out there? Are you a guy who just has to hunt deer with a .30-06 because that’s what “everyone” does, or are you someone who thinks a .28-30-120 might just be the best deer cartridge ever for shots under 100 yards? Don’t ask me what a .28-30-120 is — look it up on the internet and gain some wisdom.

Do airguns replace rimfires?
No! And they never will. There will always be a place for a rimfire or two (or more) in my gun closet. But I’m not going to go out and shoot up all my ammo and then whine about it when I own a battery of fine pellet rifles.

I shoot from 100 to 1,000 shots each and every week of my life, with few exceptions. Most of those shots are with airguns. I do enjoy firearms and I frequently shoot them, and rimfires are among the most fun of all; but I don’t allow the current ammunition shortage to hinder my shooting one bit. I’m an airgunner!

All .22 rimfire ammo is not the same!

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Does the pellet matter? Part 1

Today’s report is a continuation of the test we started last week, when I asked if the pellet matters (as far as accuracy is concerned). That test wasn’t quite as dramatic as I would have liked, and several readers chalked it up to my Beeman R8 being an inherently good shooter. No doubt it is, but that still doesn’t explain the good results I got with pellets that I wouldn’t normally recommend for that rifle.

Today, I’m using a target rifle that’s hands-down the most accurate .22 rimfire I’ve ever owned, seen or shot. It’s a Remington model 37 Rangemaster from before World War II, and it’s fitted with the “miracle trigger” that Remington once sold. This trigger has no perceptible movement and releases with just an increase in finger pressure. It’s much like an electronic trigger, only this one is all mechanical.

The rifle has a Redfield 3200 target scope. It magnifies 24X and has parallax corrections down to extremely small increments out to 50 yards.

Remington 37
Remington’s model 37 is a world-class target rifle.

I’ve put 5 shots from into a quarter-inch at 50 yards with this rifle using peep sights.

But this time, I’ll shoot 10-shot groups because they’re the ones that show a rifle’s true potential. For this test, I used 13 different .22 rounds. Most of them weren’t target rounds, but that doesn’t matter. They’re all different, and that will address today’s title question.

Best round first
I had no idea how this test would turn out. I knew certain ammo shot well, but this was the first time I’d shot 10-shot groups with the rifle at 50 yards. The best round turned out to be CCI’s .22 Subsonic Hollowpoint. Ten of them went into a group that measures 0.504 inches at 50 yards. That’s as good as some top-quality air rifles at the same distance, and I was pleased with it.

CCI Subsonic group
Ten CCI Subsonic HPs went into 0.504 inches at 50 yards.

Worst round
The worst round was Remington’s Target ammo — a standard-speed round that Remington recommends for formal target shooting. How’s that for irony? Ten of them went into 1.766 inches at the same 50 yards from the same super-accurate rifle! If that doesn’t make believers out of you, nothing else I can say will. Look at this group. These bullets didn’t even attempt to go to the same place!

Remington Target group
Ten Remington Target rounds went into 1.766 inches at 50 yards.

Another poor round was Winchester’s Wildcat high-velocity ammo. Ten of them went into 1.395 inches at 50 yards.

Winchester Wildcat group
Ten Winchester Wildcats went into 1.395 inches at 50 yards.

I expected the high-velocity ammo to do worse in this test because that’s what everyone says. They say once you break the sound barrier, .22 rimfire ammo loses its potential. So, the large Wildcat group didn’t surprise me. But the Remington Viper group that measures just 0.924 inches does. Vipers are hyper-velocity rounds whose 36-grain lead bullets leave the muzzle of a 24-inch barrel at 1,410 f.p.s.

Remington Viper group
Ten Remington Vipers made this 0.924-inch group. This was not expected.

Remington Cyclone rounds are also hyper-velocity. They leave the muzzle at 1,410 f.p.s. — yet, 10 of them went into just 0.882 inches. According to popular belief, these should have been among the least accurate round in any .22 rimfire rifle.

Remington Cyclone group
Ten Remington Cyclones made this 0.882-inch group. Another unexpected result!

Close, but no cigar
Another subsonic round almost made the second-best group. Ten Remington Subsonic Hollowpoints went into 1.206 inches, but 9 of those bullets made a 0.548-inch group. The one round that’s not in the group is below it, and this tells me what probably happened. Rimfire ammunition has one big weakness. The priming material is sometimes not evenly deposited around the rim, and that causes misfires and poor ignition. This shot looks like it came from a round that wasn’t ignited well and probably went slower than the others. Of course, I can’t prove that without velocity data that I don’t have, but poor ignition is the bane of .22 rimfire target shooters.

Remington Subsonic group
Ten Remington Subsonic Hollowpoints went into 1.206 inches, with 9 of them going into just 0.548 inches.

The Subsonic was the most accurate round in my 10/22, which I tested for Shotgun News years ago, but the Remington Target round that was the worst in this rifle was also among the top 5 in that test. So, each rifle is different, and the ammo definitely does make a huge difference!

I shot a total of 13 different rounds in this test. I’ve shown you the best and worst in today’s report. Besides the 3 bad groups I have shown, there were 4 other rounds that made groups larger than one inch. One inch for 10 shots is small for most .22s, but not for a Remington model 37. Of 13 different rounds, 7 made groups larger than one inch, leaving 6 that made groups under an inch.

Obviously, the ammo does make a difference in .22 rimfires — just as pellets make a difference in pellet rifles. I’m still going to do the test of discount-store pellets versus the best premium pellets. From the comments I’ve received, I believe I’ll test them in 2 different rifles. It should be interesting.

Picking a good pellet

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

This comment came in last week from our new blog reader Jim H, and I wanted to address it right away. It’s a good question for a new airgunner to ask, and it deserves a good answer.

“I’m new to the airgun side of things, so I have a lot of questions but here’s one that is really bugging me. I have read all of the reviews here by Tom and also the blogs over at that “other airgun retailer” written by Jack Elliot. One message that has come through loud and clear is that each gun will tend to like specific pellets and only experience will tell the shooter which one is best. What is the best approach for testing various pellets? Do you pick a velocity that you want to shoot at and then try all the pellets that will get you to that velocity range or do you simply have favorite pellet brands and types that you’ve come to love over the years and that’s what you go with? With the hundreds of pellets available out there, what is the ‘short list’ of pellets that a newbie needs to start with?”

Several of you started to answer Jim in the comments section, so my answer comes a little late; but from what I’ve read, I’m telling him things that are pretty different from what all of you told him. He actually asked 2 different questions: 1. What is the best way to test a pellet? and 2. What is a short list of pellets to choose to test airguns? I took my direction for this report from his request for a “short list” for a newbie.

This will not be a very technical report. I’m not going to discuss pellet head sizes or skirt thicknesses, except where it affects the pellets I name. I have a short list for most of the airguns I shoot, and it’s not rigid. But it’s caliber-specific, and there’s also a small powerplant component to it.

Money is no object
I used to focus on the cost of pellets, but that was before discovering that hitting the target is far more important than saving money. If saving money is your principal goal, get a piggybank. I shoot for fun, and hitting the target is where the fun is. It costs no more to be accurate than it does to experiment by chasing the illusion of economy.

I must also say that I have more experience with pellets for rifles than for pistols. So, today we’re just looking at pellets for rifles. Let’s take a look at them.

.177-caliber rifles
For .177 rifles my short list is the following pellets:

Crosman Premier lites (brown box) springers and CO2
Crosman Premier heavies (brown box) pneumatics and CO2
JSB Exact RS (up to 12 foot-pounds)
JSB Exact Heavy 10.3-grains
H&N Baracuda and Baracuda Match
Beeman Kodiak and Kodiak Match
RWS Superdome
RWS Hobby

That is my short list. There are other pellets that are very accurate, but I find them to be more specific to certain guns. Please remember that this is not a popularity contest. If your favorite pellet didn’t make my list, don’t fret. I try other pellets all the time — these are just the ones I count on.

If you ask me why these pellets are on the list, it’s because they’re the ones that are the most reliably accurate. That’s my only criteria because if you can’t hit the target, nothing else matters.

.20-caliber rifles
The .20-caliber list is very short because there aren’t as many reliable pellets made in that caliber. The most reliable one is the Crosman Premier.

Other than that, I would try anything JSB makes, and that’s about it.

.22-caliber rifles
Crosman Premier
JSB Exact Jumbo 15.9-grain
JSB Exact Jumbo Heavy 18.1 grain (good in powerful PCPs)
RWS Superdome
RWS Hobby
H&N Baracuda and Baracuda Match
Beeman Kodiak

.25-caliber rifles
The quarter-inch caliber is another one with few good pellets. The two on my list have demonstrated they will deliver in all cases.
Benjamin domed (these have no name, but they are essentially a .25 caliber Premier)
JSB Exact King

Pellet shapes
I prefer domed pellets to all other shapes. They’re more accurate at long range and penetrate well. Wadcutters are good for distances under 25 yards but not for farther than that.

Pointed pellets, hollowpoints and lead balls
I have no use for pointed pellets of any kind. I’ve never found them to be accurate, and the slight advantage they have in penetration isn’t good if they can’t hit the target. Hollowpoints are a subject that need a blog report of their own. Lead balls are specialized for certain airguns and are not for most air rifles.

Pellets and power
As power goes up, the pellets should generally get heavier. And PCPs tend to do best with heavier pellets. CO2 guns are a lot like PCPs when it comes to pellets, so I consider them to be the same.

Other selection criteria
There are other selection criteria, of course. I’ve found certain pellets to sometimes be surprisingly accurate in certain guns, and that’s enough to keep me trying them in other guns — searching for more miracles. But the lists above are the tried-and-true performers that almost never let me down. That’s why they made my list.

The second question
The other question Jim asked was how to test pellets. I do it by choosing the most accurate rifle I have and shooting 10-shot groups with each pellet in which I’m interested. Do it that way, and pellet testing is easy.

I usually don’t express my opinions this strongly; but when it comes to picking a good pellet, I think it’s too important to let it slide.

The benefits of oiling pellets: Part 2

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

Let’s begin testing the effects of oiling pellets. There are numerous ways to approach this issue, and I have to pick one at a time and limit the test to just that. But I think as long as I’m testing one aspect, I ought to test it thoroughly so someone can’t come back and second-guess me later in the report.

So, today I’ll test with one rifle, and the next time I’ll test with another. What I won’t do is test with each different brand of airgun, just to see what will happen. If a powerful gas spring rifle performs in a certain way, I’ll assume that all powerful gas spring rifles are going to do the same. If the difference between dry pellets and oiled pellets is close, I may do additional testing; but if there’s clear separation, I’ll accept that as the way it works.

What am I testing?
The question that started this experiment was, “How much faster will oiled pellets shoot than those that are not oiled?” One reader has asked me to also test this downrange because he wonders if a thin coat of oil changes the laminar flow of air around a pellet. I may get to that at some point, but for the present I’m just concerned with muzzle velocity because all pellets slow down after they exit the muzzle — oiled or not.

I suppose this needs to be tested in all three powerplant types, but today I’m testing it in a spring-piston powerplant. Today’s gun is a weak powerplant, so next time I’ll test it in a more powerful gun.

I’m using an HW55 SF target rifle to test three pellets. This rifle is a variation of the old HW50 rifle, so it shoots in the 600-650 f.p.s. region with lead pellets.

Since oiled pellets will leave a film in the bore, I tested all pellets dry first, and then tested the oiled pellets afterwards. Before the first test shot with oiled pellets, I fired two pellets to condition the bore. That turned out not to be enough, but I’ll come to that later.

Pellet shapes
I’ll test the three major pellet shapes in this test. They’re the wadcutter, dome and pointed head. There are other shapes, like hollowpoints, but they’re based on one of these three main shapes, so this is all I’m testing.

How I oil pellets
I oil pellets in the following manner. A foam liner is placed in the bottom of a pellet tin, and 20 drops of Whiscombe Honey are dropped onto the foam. Then, a single layer of pellets is spread on the foam, and the tin is rolled around. I shake the tin lightly to move the pellets around…but not enough to damage them. Whatever oil transfers to the pellet is all the oil it gets. I’ve been doing this for many years and it works well.

Oiling pellets
Twenty drops of oil on the foam is what I use. Then, a single layer of pellets.

Oiling pellets tins
One tin for each type of pellet used in the test.

The pellets end up with a very light and uniform coat of oil. When I handle them the tips of my fingers become oily, but I can’t see any oil on the pellets. Other people use more oil than I do, but this is what I am testing.

Whiscombe Honey is a mixture of two-thirds Hoppes Gun Oil (not Number 9 bore cleaner!) and one-third STP Engine Treatment, by volume. Shake the mixture until is takes on a light yellow color. It will look like thin honey, hence the name. This mixture should not detonate easily in a spring gun.

Test one — dry pellets
Crosman Premiers
Crosman Premier 7.9-grain pellets were the domes I tested. The average velocity for dry Premiers was 606 f.p.s., with a low of 577 and a high of 616. So, the spread was 39 f.p.s. The average muzzle energy was 6.44 foot-pounds.

Gamo Match
For wadcutters, I tested Gamo Match pellets. The average for dry pellets was 652 f.p.s., with a low of 640 and a high of 663 f.p.s. The spread was 17 f.p.s. The average energy was 7.14 foot-pounds.

H&N Neue Spitzkugel
The pointed pellet I selected was the H&N Neue Spitzgugel. When shot dry, they averaged 601 f.p.s., with a low of 585 and a high of 620 f.p.s. The spread was 34 f.p.s. The average muzzle energy was 6.81 foot-pounds at the muzzle.

Oiled pellets
Now, I shot two oiled pellets through the bore to condition it and began the test.

Oiled Crosman Premiers
Oiled 7.9-grain Premiers averaged 591 f.p.s., but the spread went from a low of 545 to a high of 612 f.p.s. That’s a spread of 67 .p.s. The average energy for oiled pellets was 6.13 foot-pounds. I did notice the pellets were going faster at the end of the shot string, so I thought I might come back to them after testing the other pellets.

Oiled Gamo Match pellets
The oiled wadcutters averaged 658 f.p.s. — a slight gain over the dry pellets. But the real news was the spread, which went from a low of 651 to a high of 663 f.p.s. Instead of a 17 f.p.s. for the dry pellets, the oiled pellets gave a spread of just 12 f.p.s. That’s too close to draw any conclusions, but it’s interesting. The average energy with the oiled pellets was 7.27 foot-pounds. So, with the oiled pellets, the velocity went up — along with the energy — and the shot-to-shot variance went down.

Oiled H&N Neue Spitzkugel
Oiled Spitzkugels averaged 609 f.p.s. — which was a small increase over the same pellet when dry. The average energy was 6.99 foot-pounds. The spread went from 585 to 620 f.p.s, which was identical for the same pellet dry. Velocity and energy were both up slightly from dry pellets, and the shot-to-shot variance remained the same.

By now, it’s obvious that the bore needed more than two shots to condition it, so I retested the oiled Crosman Premiers. The second time the oiled pellets averaged 604 f.p.s., which is just 2 f.p.s. slower than the same pellets dry. But the spread that was 67 f.p.s. on the first test of oiled pellets and 39 f.p.s. with dry Premiers now went from a low of 594 to a high of 613 f.p.s. — a much tighter 19 f.p.s. total. The average energy was 6.40 foot-pounds.

From this test, I observed that these three pellets either remained at the same velocity or increased very slightly from the light oiling I gave them. In two of the three cases, the velocity spread got tighter when the pellets were oiled.

I further observed that it’s necessary to condition a bore with oiled pellets before doing any testing. As a minimum, I would say that 20 oiled pellets should be fired before testing.

These are very small differences from oiling; and although I can’t draw any conclusions yet, I would think that such a small change is not enough to matter. It hardly seems worth doing at this point. However, there’s still a test to be done in a powerful airgun. Until we see those results, I think it’s too soon to say anything for sure.

Although the question that drove this test was how much faster oiling pellets makes them shoot, I think we still have to take accuracy into account before forming any opinions.

And now for something completely different
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Provides technical assistance to customers and labor quotes. Handles escalated calls or provides assistance requiring more complex issues.

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The benefits of oiling pellets: Part 1

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

This report will be lengthy because I want to test several aspects of oiling pellets. For starters, I want to test it with spring guns, PCPs and CO2 guns just to get a complete picture of what, if anything, oiling pellets is doing in each of those powerplants. I’m interested in velocity because of the question that spawned this blog, but accuracy might also be interesting to test.

The question
We received this question in the following form. I will paraphrase, but this is the gist of it, “How much faster do pellets go when they are oiled?” That question came in on one of our social networks and was referred to me for an answer. Well, you know me! Give me a topic and I turn it into a week’s worth of blogs. But this question really begged for the full treatment because there’s so much to cover.

When I got interested in shooting airguns as an adult in the middle 1970s, the question of oiling pellets wasn’t around (as far as I know). In talking with the late Rodney Boyce, I learned that the oiling question really came to a head when PCPs first started being used in the early 1980s. A PCP shoots very dry air, and their barrels are made from steel; so, at the higher velocities, they tend to get leaded bores. Some shooters were also oiling pellets for their spring guns; but a lot of the time they did it because they washed the pellets, thinking the black compound on them was dirt. In fact, it was anti-oxidant to keep the pellets from turning to white dust. Had they just left the pellets alone, they wouldn’t have oxidized.

In defense of the spring-gun guys who washed their pellets, though, some brands did have a lot of lead swarf (flakes of lead from the manufacturing process) inside some of the pellets, and vigorous washing did remove it. But then the pellets needed to be oiled again, or they would quickly oxidize.

Why we oil pellets
We oil pellets for two reasons. The first is to prevent the oxidation of the lead after washing. The second is to reduce the leading of the bore, though this is principally a PCP problem. Other pneumatics either shoot too slowly or they have brass or bronze barrels that do not allow the lead to attach itself, so they do not lead up.

Do oiled pellets shoot faster?
That was the question that started this report. I’ve tested this in the past and found that with a PCP shooting .177 pellets at 850-900 f.p.s., oiled pellets went slower, not faster. But that was just one test, and I don’t want to say what oiling will do for other guns until I do some more testing.

Flimflam man
I’ll tell you this — oiling pellets became such a hot topic in the late ’90s that people were swapping their favorite secret formulas on the internet. And I know one UK company that sells an oil for pellets that they still claim gives increased velocity. Well, that’s too good to pass up, so I’ll test some of their oil in this test.

Not just oil
Don’t think that oil is the only thing people put on pellets. I remember lengthy discussions of how to apply a thin even coat of wax on pellets. Then, the topic shifted to what kind of wax to use! One guy went so far as to specify a high-tech boat hull compound called Bo-Shield for his pellets. When he talked about it his eyes got that faraway stare, as though he was transcending the real world and entering the spirit world.

What I will test
The first thing I want to do — have to do, in my mind — is test what the application of oil does to the velocity of pellets. Okay, that opens about 10 worm cans, right there:

What constitutes “an application of oil”? (I have seen paragraphs of instructions telling you how to know if the application of oil has been enough or if you need more.)
Am I testing this on lightweight pellets? Heavy pellets?
Do I test a powerful springer as well as a lower-powered springer?
Do I also test this on a precharged pneumatic?
A powerful PCP and a lower-powered PCP?
What about testing on a CO2 gun?

And on and on….

I think the best approach is to ask the question: Why do we oil pellets and who does it? We know that people who wash pellets also oil them, and we know that PCP users oil them; so that includes all the categories above. I don’t see a need to go to the extremes with this test. I’m not HP White Labs, and this isn’t a burning consumer question. If the findings suggest further testing, I could decide at that point?

What about the possible side effects?
Will oiling a pellet cause extra dieseling? Maybe. Is that what’s behind those flimflam salesmen who claim that oiled pellets go faster than dry pellets? I don’t know for certain; but as long as I’m going down the path, this is something I want to look at. Obviously, we’re talking only about powerful spring guns.

Does oiling affect accuracy?
I don’t know, but it seems we ought to find out. This gives me another excuse to unlimber my R8…so, hurrah!

Have I forgotten anything?
You tell me if I’ve overlooked any test that ought to be conducted. This isn’t a guessing game or a creativity contest, so please tell me only things that really matter to you.

The art of collecting airguns: Part 8

by B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

My Ballard is a factory-made special-order rifle made in 1886. It looks almost new and the bore is pristine.

Today, I’ll report on my progress in getting the Marlin Ballard to shoot. I’ll tie that back to airgunning, because the same principles that drive the accurate firearm rifle will work there, as well.

In fact, today’s something of a shocker and a screamer. The shock comes from how badly I prepared the ammunition, and the screaming came when I saw the last two targets for the first time.

To prepare to shoot the Ballard, two things must happen. First, the rifle was cleaned as soon as it returned from the range the last time it was shot. Because the barrel is so glass-smooth, it takes only a few minutes to clean. Then, it sits on display, proudly awaiting its next outing.

The second thing that must be done is the ammo must be prepared. I have not resized the cases before reloading them. Because they are always fired in the same rifle and in the same chamber, I have filed a notch in their base so each case is always oriented in the chamber the same way. They are loaded straight into the breech with the notch at 12 o’clock.

The cases were deprimed, the primer pockets were then cleaned and Federal large rifle primers were inserted into each case. Then, I ran a belling tool into the case to open the throat to receive the new bullet. Next, all 40 cases received a fresh charge of H4198 powder. I’m using an RCBS Uniflow powder measure, and it was easy to set it at the 17 grains of powder I determined last session would be the optimum charge.

I’m still using the original Winchester cases that I determined were slightly too short for the rifle’s chamber. But, they’re all I have and they’re on their third loading right now.

The key to today’s test was to see if I could detect a difference in accuracy between the sized bullet that measures 0.379″ and the as-cast bullet that measures 0.381 inches. With everything else being the same, I figured a 10-shot group would show the difference, if there is any.

Trouble, trouble, mega trouble!
Never have I had so many difficulties loading a few straight-wall rifle cartridges. The 20 sized and lubricated bullets went together with their cartridges pretty quick and without any problems; but, when it came time for the as-cast and finger-lubed bullets, it was like juggling flasks of nitroglycerin. Some of the finger-lubed bullets got stuck in the seating die from the excess lubricant around the bullet. I had to disassemble the dies several times and drive out the stuck bullet out. I assembled the die again, and that caused variations in the overall cartridge length.

Another problem I had was that the nose punch in the seating die has the incorrect taper for the bullet I’m using. It cut a ring on every one of the 40 lead bullets I loaded. This was the worst lot of ammo I’ve ever made, and it showed.

Each of these problems has to be addressed and fixed in the future. Right now, they’re causing me to make ammo that isn’t too pretty.

Those cartridges should all be the same overall length. Having to constantly disassemble the dies to remove stuck bullets caused this. This is sloppy ammo that shouldn’t shoot well. Notice the file marks in the base of each case that are used to index the case to the chamber.

The ring below the flat nose of the bullet shouldn’t be there. It was caused by an improperly shaped nose punch in the bullet-seating die. The fix is to send several bullets to RCBS, the die maker so they can cut a nose punch that’s matched to the shape of this bullet. This is one more problem that detracts from the accuracy of this reloaded round.

Excuses, excuses!
With all of these excuses, I’m sure you expect another mediocre report. Don’t! The gun did very well in spite of all I did to derail it. The day was perfect, without a breath of air, so 100-yard shooting was very easy.

As always, the rifle was rested on an MTM rifle rest on my MTM shooting bench. The bulls are 3-7/8 inches in diameter and perfect for these sights at 100 yards. My front sight element is an aperture, so the trick is to center the bull inside it and level the bubble in the spirit level to cancel any cant.

The sized bullets were in the first group of 10. They gave me an average target.

Well, at least they’re all in the black. Ten sized bullets made this mediocre group at 100 yards.

Then, I switched to the unsized bullets. I expected a thorough trouncing of the sized bullets, but it didn’t happen. In fact, the two targets look very similar. And, I threw one shot out of the black!

The unsized bullets were slightly worse than the sized bullets.

So, what gives?
I’m sitting there wondering what I could do to improve this rather mundane performance, when it hit me. I wasn’t close enough to the rear aperture! I would have to hold my eye up close so the most light possible comes through the tiny peep hole.

Also, I could pay more attention to the bubble in the spirit level with my eye closer to the peep hole, because I could now see the bubble better. You would be surprised to see how much cant you normally put on a rifle if you haven’t got a bubble to check yourself. I found that it felt like the rifle was tilted to the left when the bubble was actually leveled. My natural inclination to hold the rifle resulted in it being tilted far to the right.

Second targets
Now that I sorted out how to shoot, it was time to shoot the second set of targets. This is where the surprise was.

Eight sized bullets went through the group in the bull. This is real progress!

Seven bullets went through the center of the bullseye! These are the unsized bullets.

Analyzing the targets
I’ll cut to the chase. I don’t think I can really tell whether the unsized bullet is more accurate or not. Seven out of the 10 bullets made a group that measures 0.835 inches between centers. However, the actual group size of that target is 2.609 inches.

The best sized bullet group measures 1.437 inches for 8 shots and 2.55 inches for all 10 shots. That’s too close to call. But since the unsized group is not that much larger than the sized group, and because my sloppy reloading can easily explain the difference, I think the larger bullet is the better one. My lubrication process has to change, because I can’t keep disassembling the bullet-seating die all the time. I need to find a way to lube the bullets so it leaves the grease in the grooves instead of all over the side of the bullet. I guess I’ll break down and try the classic “cake cutter” method, where the bullets are stood in a flat pan and melted grease is poured in the pan until it reaches the top groove. The grease is allowed to re-harden, then an old cartridge with the end cut off is used to cut each bullet out of the hardened lubricant.

Also, I need to remember to begin my sighting procedure the right way next time, with my eye close to the rear aperture. I have to remember to level the bubble for every shot.

Mac suggested that leaving the powder loose in the case might have been a contributor to fliers. The next time I reload, every case will get a Dacron wad over the powder. I use one in my .43 Spanish, and it works well.

Lasting impressions
I’d forgotten to take a spotting scope to the range on this day, so I was unaware of what the final two groups looked like until I walked up on them. Seeing a large hole in the center of the bull on a 100-yard target is thrilling, to say the least. I refer to good shots as “screamers,” and I’m darned if I didn’t do a lot of screaming when I saw those two targets.

All my life, I’ve read articles about the great marksmen of the late 19th century, and I’ve looked at the targets that accompanied their articles. To put my shooting into perspective, Harry Pope, the great barrelmaker and world champion rifle shot, once put 10 rounds into a 0.20-inch group at 200 yards. Talk about a screamer!

This group is a representation because the original was lost. This was scanned from the book, The Story of Pope’s Barrels, by Ray M. Smith, copyrighted 1960 and published by The Stackpole Company. Revised edition 1993 printed by R&R Books.

Pope shot this group with his .33-47 rifle, which was a breechloader that was also a muzzleloader. The loaded cartridge was first loaded into the breech in the normal way, then a bullet was loaded from the muzzle and rammed down to the top of the cartridge. That way the “fins” of lead resulting from the rifling were not on the base of the bullet when it exited the muzzle, and that has proven to increase accuracy. Should we be muzzle-loading pellets? I think not.

Pope shot the famous group and walked down to the 200-yard target to retrieve it. He set it on the ground and measured it with the calipers he always carried; but, since the wind had picked up, he held the target down with his knee. After measuring it, he stood up, but before he could grab the target, the wind caught it and dropped it in the nearby river.

Unlike Elmer Keith’s famous 400-yard elk kill with a .44 Magnum revolver, nobody doubts the truth of this story. Harry Pope had the reputation of being scrupulously honest in all his dealings; and, if anyone was ever going to shoot a group like that, he was the one most likely to do it.

I never expect to come close to this kind of accuracy, but it would be pleasing some day to shoot 10 shots into an inch at 200 yards. I know benchrest shooters do it all the time, but I would feel more fulfilled doing it with this 125-year-old rifle. It was good enough for target shooters in 1886, and that makes it good enough for me today.

How does this relate to airguns?
I think that’s a good question that deserves an answer. In airgunning, there are certain air rifles with a reputation for extreme accuracy. Some, like the underlever TX200, require technique to shoot this well, while others are more forgiving.

Some of these accurate airguns are even vintage and no longer made. The FWB 124 would fall into that category, as would an Air Arms Shamal PCP. We’ve discussed subjects like extreme accuracy, and many of us seem to be in pursuit of the smallest groups possible. It’s my hope that by sharing what I’ve had to go through to obtain good accuracy from my old Ballard, that you’ll be able to apply some of these same things to your airguns.

I haven’t even mentioned sorting my bullets by weight to this point, but that’s coming. Now that I have a good load (equate that to finding a good pellet and the right power setting) and have learned the importance of good shooting technique like sighting and cant reduction (equate that to the artillery hold and also using a bubble level on your airgun), I’m ready to take this quest to a whole new level.

I admit that I do enjoy shooting this firearm a lot, which is the main reason I do it. Kevin has just shown that my rifle might be worth over $12,000, but I’m darned if that will make me get rid of it. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at, but seeing those tight 10-shot groups at 100 yards is more beautiful to me. Townsend Whelen said it all when he said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” Well, this one fascinates me. But it is just as easy to be fascinated by a Weihrauch HW50S that cannot seem to shoot multiple pellets anywhere but to the same place.

How to reload

by B.B. Pelletier

This report is intended to show an easy method of reloading metallic cartridges. The cartridges loaded in this lesson have already been fired with accuracy at 25 yards, so the question of whether or not they’re “good enough” has been answered. They certainly are. I normally use more advanced reloading equipment, however I do not necessarily make more accurate rounds with it. Often, it’s just faster with no other advantage. The beauty of what I’m showing here is that you can reload while watching television, though any distractions that are apt to confuse you are not good. Make sure you’re watching something mindless and that there’s no requirement for conversation.

Reloading is not an art, nor is it a science. It’s a straightforward process not unlike cooking, which, when done right, produces good and repeatable results. It’s safe to the extent that the person doing it is safe. I’ve reloaded for the past 45 years and never have I had an accident during the process. However, I’ve made every mistake in the book; and if you start reloading to the extent that I have, you probably will as well.

Step 1. Making the fired case ready to reload.
In the first step, you need to remove the spent primer from the cartridge. You also need to resize the cartridge that expanded when it was fired. There are several versions of resizing, but I’ll show the most universal one, which is to resize the cartridge along its full length so it’ll function in any firearm of the same caliber.

I normally tumble the deprimed cases until they sparkle like new, but that step is unnecessary. I eliminated it in this lesson.

To decap and full-length resize, we use a full-length resizing die with a decapping pin. I’m installing this die in a Lee Breech Lock Hand Press, which is a modern version of a reloading tool used by sportsmen in the 1880s. It accepts standard reloading dies and doesn’t need to be fastened to a bench. You can hold it in your hands, which means you can load cartridges anywhere. It will decap and full-length resize pistol cartridges with ease. I use a sizer die with a carbide insert so the cases do not need to be lubricated for reloading.

This is a set of reloading dies for the .45 Colt cartridge. The sizer with priming removal pin is on the right, the cartridge mouth bell-forming die is in the center and the bullet seater and crimper is at the left. The small circular piece is a shellholder.

The dies and shellholder attach to this Lee hand press. It’s very inexpensive.

This is a .45 Colt cartridge case that’s been fired. You can see the indent in the primer at the bottom.

The empty case is inserted in the shellholder and the press handles are squeezed together, resizing the case and decapping at the same time.

The primer was removed when the cartridge was resized. But that crud in the primer pocket has to go.

The primer pocket was scraped clean by a small flat-bladed screwdriver. It took 5-10 seconds. This case is ready to accept a new primer.

The reloading components
You need three things to reload cartridges: gunpowder, primers and bullets. I buy primers by the thousand, and Russian primers are now on the market at $19/thousand. That’s less than two cents per cartridge. I buy powder by the pound, and a pound of Unique that I’ll use today costs about $20 regularly, but Cabela’s is selling it for $15 a pound. I’ll use 7.5 grains of powder per cartridge, which will give me 933 reloaded cartridges. At $20 a pound that’s just over 2 cents per cartridge. The bullets I cast myself from lead that’s free. But there’s a cost for the lubricant, so let’s say a bullet costs me a penny. That means I am reloading these cartridges for $5.00 per hundred. The over the counter price is at least $40.00 for the same quantity.

This is the Unique gunpowder I’m using. Two of those yellow dippers filled level with the top equals 7.5 grains of powder, and it won’t vary by so much as a tenth of a grain. This load is so safe that I do not weigh every charge. But I did verify that I’m using the correct dipper every time I reload by checking it on an electronic powder scale.

Here are five new primers to go into the cases. At the lower right is the spent primer I just removed.

These are 200-grain lead bullets that I cast, sized and lubricated myself. They’re soft lead, so they don’t lead the bore of guns, as long as the velocity is held below about 950 f.p.s., which my load does. In this enlargement, I even see a flawed bullet that got through my inspection. There’s a void in the nose of the bullet at the top right.

Step 2. Prime the case
In this step, a new primer is inserted into the cleaned pocket of each cartridge case. I use a Lee Auto Prime tool that gives me incredible feel over the process. After the case is primed, I run my index finger over the base, feeling for the primer standing proud. If I can’t feel it, the case passes.

The Lee Auto Prime tool makes priming cartridges fast and accurate.

The primer has been inserted and lies below the level of the case base.

Step 3. Bell the case mouth
In this step, the primed case is run into the belling die. A flare is put in the mouth of the cartridge so that when the soft lead bullet is pushed home the brass case doesn’t shave lead from the side of the bullet.

The case on the right has had its mouth flared slightly to accept the lead bullet without shaving lead from the sides. Case on the left hasn’t yet been belled.

Step 4. Put powder in the case
In this step, you put a measured charge of gunpowder into each primed case. I’m shooting a 200-grain lead bullet, so I chose to use 7.5 grains of Unique powder. That makes a very light load that will be safe in all modern guns of this caliber. The bullet will travel just over 900 f.p.s. at the muzzle and will group very well at 25 yards.

I’m using a powder scoop when loading this load. I normally use an adjustable powder measure that’s set to deliver the correct charge, but neither method is more accurate than the other.

Step 5. Load a bullet
In step 5, a bullet is placed in the loaded cartridge case, then the case is run into the bullet seating die that also crimps the case mouth around the bullet.

The bullet seating die pushes the bullet into the case to the exact point that the crimp can squeeze the case mouth into the crimp groove on the bullet.

This finished round took about one minute to make.

This has been a quick look at reloading cartridge ammunition. There are many other topics I did not touch on, like case trimming and so on, but this has shown you the basics. For under $100 startup cost, you can be reloading your favorite cartridges just this easily.