When Daisy Went to War

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No doubt you’re looking at the Daisy break barrel gun above and thinking that sorta looks like an M-16, doesn’t it? And you’d be exactly correct. In 1967, the US Army adopted a new training program that emphasized instinctive shooting, which was thought to be advantageous in the close-up jungle environments of Southeast Asia. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

Another method of point shooting, developed by Lucky McDaniel and taught by the US Army beginning in 1967, was the “quick kill” method. It was taught using an air rifle, although the same techniques apply to handguns or shotguns. The quick kill method was outlined in Principles of Quick Kill, and was taught starting with a special Daisy BB gun that had no sights. The slow moving steel BB was visible in flight on sunny days, making it an inexpensive tracer round. The students began by firing at 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) diameter metal disks thrown in the air slightly in front of the student and 2 metres (6.6 ft) to 4 metres (13 ft) above the student’s head. After an 80% hit rate is attained firing at these disks, the student is then presented with 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) diameter disks. Once proficiency is attained with the aerial targets, it shows the student has mastered the fundamentals, and training moves on to stationary targets on the ground, first with the BB gun and then with a service rifle having its front and rear sights taped over.

The reason the quick kill method works is that the shooter learns to sight above the barrel, rather than along the barrel. While focusing on the target, the muzzle is placed about 2 inches (5.1 cm) below the target (the distance being measured at the muzzle), which places the barrel nearly parallel to the line of sight of the shooter. To hit the aerial targets, or other targets above eye level, the shooter focuses on the top edge of the target. When shooting at targets on the ground or below eye level, the shooter focuses on the bottom of the target. One of the points emphasized in quick kill is that it is essential to focus on a single spot on the target, such as the top edge of a thrown disc, or the bottom edge of a can on the ground.

Initially, standard Daisy guns were used,  the only modification being the removal of the sights. The gun pictured above came a bit later. I’m not sure how many were made, but samples have sold in recent years from $1,500 to as much as $3,000.

Daisy ‘s first gun designed for instinctive shooting was the “Lucky McDaniel Instinct Shooting Trainer Kit” that came out in 1960, and following their work with the military they came up with a civilian version of the Quick-kill system, calling it “Quick Skill.”  Both of these are fairly rare today.

Instinctive shooting isn’t just for soldiers- shotgunners use something very similar. Around twenty years ago, my pheasant hunting pal Tom and I picked up a couple of  Daisy Red Ryders and used them for off-season shooting practice when we couldn’t get to the range to shoot at clay pigeons. We’d set up stationary targets at various distances, and mount the BB guns just like shotguns, pointing rather than aiming. It was good practice and paid off well when the real season began.

Caliber choice

These days airgunners have an amazing choice in calibers- the old traditional .177 and .22, .20 caliber (as made famous by Sheriden), .25 (an old favorite resurrected in recent years, 9mm, 45, 50, and even larger. Which is right for you? For target shooters, the question is moot- .177 is the standard, and that’s that. For everyone else, it’s an open issue.beeman tins

99% of the books and columns you read tell you that .22 is the preferred choice for hunting. Why, is unclear. “The bigger wound channel”, say some; “more shocking power”, say others, and there are plenty of stories told about a particular shot, but I doubt anyone has ever actually done a careful study of the matter. Truth be told, given the low power generated by most airguns, shot placement is far more important than caliber- at least when considering guns in the 10-18 foot-pound range. I’ve never had any trouble making quick kills on vermin or small game at 50 yards with my .177 caliber rifles.

I suspect the recommendation of .22 for hunting goes back to when there was no such thing as a 16 or 20 ft-lb air rifle in common use. Or perhaps it’s from our friends in Great Britain, and on the Continent, where guns generating over 12 ft-lbs are restricted or licensed as firearms. There, the extra diameter might- just might- have made some difference.

Today, though, I’d recommend that hunters choose a pellet weight based on velocity and energy levels. As noted in a previous article, you shoud always choose a pellet heavy enough to keep the velocity subsonic- that is, below 1000 fps. Up to 20 ft-lbs, there’s not a lot of reason to use anything but .177 pellets. Even at 20 ft-lbs you can find heavy pellets that have much higher sectional density than most any .22 pellet. You might consider also .20 caliber as you approach 20 ft-lbs, as the Crosman Premier .20 has the same mass as their .22- and much higher sectional density. Beeman pushed .20 cal as “the ideal caliber” for years, as they had exclusive rights to a lot of popular guns in .20 caliber, but until the .20 Premier appeared on the market I couldn’t see much sense in shooting .20 cal unless you had a Sheriden pump-up gun.

Above .20 ft-lbs, the .25s start becoming more attractive. I did a review of the Beeman Crow Magnum in .25 some years ago that convinced me of the place for that caliber, as the gun under test was producing close to 30 ft-lbs. When you get into the really big airgun calibers and high energies- like 40 ft-lbs and up- you’re starting to intrude into firearms energy levels, with very loud guns, and that’s where I’d personally switch to a .22 long rifle cartridge. Still, a lot of people like these big popguns, and makers like Dennis Quackenbush and Gary Barnes produce some beautiful guns. My own feeling is that the very high powered guns- Quackenbush makes a 500 ft-lb rifle- will eventually lead to BATF regulation of all airguns, and that will be the end of being able to shop for these by mail. But that’s another story.

What about plinkers? What’s the best caliber for plinking? I’d say .177, since that gives you the most shots per dollar. Of course, plinking is all about fun, whether it’s popping asprins with a .177 gun at 20 yards or knocking over steel targets at 100, so buy what makes you happy.

Scopes for Airguns, part II: Optics

Shopping for a scope you’ll encounter a dizzying variety of optical choices- fixed, zoom, low power, 6x, 3-9×30, 8×56- how can you make sense of all this? Start by understanding the numbers and what they mean.

The first number- or number- indicate the magnification of a scope. Two numbers seperated by a dash mans that the scope is a zoom type, with variable magnification. The number on the other side of the ‘x’ is the size of the objective lens in millimeters. Thus a 2-7×32 scope has an adjustible magnification of from 2x to 7x- that is, objects look bewtween 2 and 7 times as large as they would when viewed with the naked eye- and the objective lens is 32mm in diameter. Magnification is certainly simple enough, but what does the size of the objective lens mean? How does that affect performance?

Basically, the larger the objective lens, the more light is gathered, and the brighter the image- but only up to a point. If you divide the objective lens diameter by the magnification, you get what’s called the exit pupil size- that is, the diameter of the bundle of light presented to your eye. The bigger the exit pupil, the brighter the image, until it equals the size of your eye’s pupil. Beyond that, there’s no benefit. So how big is you eye’s pupil?

It varies, depending on the brightness of the environment, and a person’s age. In bright sunlight, the pupil might contract to a 1-2mm or less; at night, a young person’s pupil might be anything from 5 to 9mm, with 7mm being around average. As we age, this decreases on the order of a millimeter or more over the course of one’s life.

Most shooting is done in daylight, and so a pupil size of more than 2-4mm is probably unecessary. Shooting around dusk- say, shooting vermin around a farm or garden- you might profitibly go as high as 7mm.

As you can see, the higher the magnification, the larger the objective lens size you need to acheive a given exit pupil. The old Beeman 2×15 SS2 scope looks tiny until you realize that it has a 7.5mm exit pupil; making it any larger would be a waste of glass. The popular 3-9×32 scopes marketed by many companies for airgun use has an exit pupil of only (32/9) = 3.5mm at maximum magnification; fine for daylight use, but too dim for use at dusk. At the other extreme, I saw a 3-9x80mm scope advertised in a British airgun shooting magazine as the ultimate night hunter- 80/9 = 8.88mm, far bigger than 99.99% of the pupils out there in the population.

Most of us need no bigger than a 4mm exit pupil for most uses, as we do most of our shooting in daylight, unlike our British cousins who sometimes hunt at night. But what about magnification? How much do you need? As always, it depends on the ranges you shoot at, and the targets you’re shooting at.

At the high end, Field Target shooters like to get as much magnification as possibkle, for two reasons- they’re shooting at some very small targets, and high magnification makes it easier to use your scope as a range finder. That’s critical in figuring out your trajectory. Most shooters seem to consider 6-18x to be a minimum range, with the use of 8-32x and 8-40x being not uncommon.
So why doesn’t everyone use a 8-40x scope? Cost is one reason, size another (they’re big!) and ease of use a third. It is extremely difficult to acquire a target at 40x- field target shooters typically acquire the target at a lower magnification, and then zoom to maximum and focus to find the range. Then they adjust their elevation and windage, and aquire the target yet again. Fine for shooting a steel target fastened to the ground, but not to good for game.

Hunters typically use lower power scopes, or even fixed scopes. I have a Burris 6x mini on my Theoben Sirocco. It’s small, very rugged, and quick and easy to use. It doens’t allow for the same precision when shooting at 55 yards as does my Simmons 6x18x scope, but I try to hunt at shorter distances than that. (A miss in Field Target means you lose a point; in hunting, it means you wound an animal, and as hunters, we should always try for quick, humane kills.) Scopes in the 2-7x and 3-9x are very popular, and indeed are probably ideal for hunting.
Plinkers, who shoot for the pure fun of it, have the widest range of choices. Some like big target scopes, others like small, simple scopes, and some like the non-magnifying scopes and optical sights commonly seen on competition handguns and combat rifles. These don’t allow the same precision in pellet placement as do magnifying scopes, but a good shooter can do well with them, and they’re the quickest and easiest to use of any sight system.

What about the leaf sights that come on just about every air rifle?  Why not just use them? Well, while they’re more than adequate for plinking, they simply don’t have the accuracy needed for airgun huting, let alone target. Sure, a lot of deer have been taken over the years with iron sights, but the lethal area on a deer- the heart and lungs- is much bigger than entire body of most of the animals airgun hunters pursue. There are always exceptions- I know of some very successful hunters who use an old Sheridan pump gun with the stock sights- but for most of us, a scope is a better choice.

Scopes for Airguns, part I: Construction and Parallax

If you’ve been shooting a while, you’ve probably heard that not all rifle scopes are designed to handle the two-way shock of a spring piston gun. Let’s see why that’s so.

If you look at the objective end of a telescope sight- the end that faces the target- you’ll see that the objective lens is held in place with a threaded retaining ring, often sealed with a drop of lacquer or other adhesive. What’s unseen, though, is how the lens is held on the other side, or how internal elements are held. Quite often lens elements in scopes are held in place by a simple raised ring, created by rolling a die around the tube during manufacture. That’s a very accurate way of locating a lens in a scope designed for automated assembly. The problem is that it’s usually on the wrong side of the lens element to handle the shock of a piston slamming into the end of a compression chamber. The soft aluminum tubing using to make inexpesive scopes will deform as the lens cell is repeatedly pushed against it by recoil.
This style of construction is not found only in inexpensive scopes; many scopes costing $200 and up are built this way as well, and while such scopes would work fine on even magnum caliber rifles, a spring airgun can shake them loose in only a few hundred- or sometimes a few dozen- shots.

So the first thing to look for in inexpensive and moderately priced scopes is a guarentee that they’ll work in airguns- Bushnell, Simmons, and BSA (and others) sell many moderately priced scopes that come with a guarentee. Some of the very inexpensive scopes at places like Cheaper Than Dirt also come with a guarantee. The better scopes made by Burris and Leupold don’t use the rolled-ring method and can easily stand up to spring gun recoil. And of course, pneumatic guns don’t have this problem and can use any scope that will fit- so long as it’s parallax corrected for airgun ranges.

That’s another term you’ve probably come accross- “parallax corrected”. What does it mean? Close your left eye and old your hand at arm’s length so that your thumb covers some object. Now close your right eye and open your left eye. Your thumb is no longer covering the object. That’s parallax error.

In any telescopic sight, there are three basic functional units: The objective lens, which forms an image of the target; the reticle, or crosshair, which provides the aiming reference; and the ocular lens- the one you look through- which magnifies the reticle and the target image.

In a properly adjusted scope, the objective lens is focused so that the image is formed in the same plane as the resticle, and the ocular lens is adjusted so that both the reticle and the target image are in focus. Typically the ocular lens is adjustible so that individuals can fine tune it to their eyesight. The objective lens is typically not adjustible, except in high-power scopes; this is because the eye can adjust and adapt over a fairly wide range. The scope might be adjusted for, say 20 yards, but the eye can compensate enough to focus at from 10 to 50 yards.

But even though the eye might be able to compensate at 50 yards, the actual focused image will not be in the same plane as the reticle. Try this looking through a high-powered scope: Move your head slightly from side to side, and see if the position of the reticle moves relative to the target. If it does, you have parallax error. That error is enough to put you off by several inches, and that’s one of the reasons field target shooters almost all use scopes with adjustible objective focus. Low-powered scopes don’t show as much error. I have a 6x Burris Mini on a Theoben Sirocco that seesm to show alomost zero error from 10 to 55 yards. My 6-18x Simmons, though, when set for 18x, isn’t nearly as tolerant. And the 30x scopes I’ve seen used by some Field Target shooters need careful adjustment, both to minimize parallax, and just to get within the eye’s focusing tolerance.

If you do have a scope with a focusing objective, checking for parallax is a good way to make sure your focus is perfect. Although your eyes will compensate for a slightly out of focus scope, this can cause eyestrain, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to put a pellet in a 1/4″ target at 50 yards.