Pellet Seating

pellet toolDo you own one of those gorgeous little Beeman pellet seating tools? I do. It was one of the first accessories I bought after buying my first quality air rifle, a Beeman R7. The pellet seating tool is well made, it’s attractive, and it’s pretty cheap. Years ago a lot of “experts” recommended using it to push a pellet into a barrel until it engaged the rifling for best accuracy. Let’s see why that might not be the best advice.

Imagine a loaded spring air gun at the moment of firing. The piston, propelled by the mainspring, is compressing the air in the compression chamber, transfer port and barrel into a smaller and smaller volume. The pressure is building up behind the pellet, until there’s a high enough pressure to overcome the friction and inertia of a stationary pellet. As the piston reaches the end of its travel, the buildup of pressure slows it down a bit, until, ideally, the pellet begins moving just as the piston comes to a stop.

Now suppose instead of placing the pellet right at the breech, you slid it all the way up to the muzzle. As the piston forces air into the barrel, there’s a large volume of air to be compressed, so pressure doesn’t build up as high, and the piston isn’t slowed down as it reaches the end of its travel. The piston slams into the end of the compression chamber, and the pellet has just enough pressure to pop out of the end of the barrel with very little energy.

Now suppose you load the gun again, and this time you only slide the pellet halfway down the barrel. Lower air volume, higher pressure, and more energy extracted form the spring. Now load it again, and push the pellet just a quarter way down the barrel. And again, pushing it just an eighth of the way…

You see where this is going, The closer the pellet is to the breech, the higher the pressure, and the more energy is extracted from the spring. Pellets should be loaded just far enough so that the skirt is flush with the breech.

Ah, you say, but what about the other end of the pellet seating tool, the ball shaped one? Beeman tells us in their instructions that it’s used for “smoothing out the skirt”. Truthfully, any pellet whose skirt needs smoothing after loading is probably of too low a quality to be used in a precision airgun, and a soft tool like your thumb won’t damage the skirt of a pellet the way a hard metal tool will.

But don’t throw away your pellet seating tool. I think they make great good luck charms for important matches.

Airgun Safeties

Last week the US CPSC announced a recall of Gamo air rifles (details here) after one report of an accidental discharge. as there was only one complaint, I’m curious- wouldn’t a defective safety have resulted in numerous complaints?- but at the same time, I’m surprised that there haven’t been thousands of such complaints, given the nature of most airgun safeties.

There are basically only two ways to build a safety into a gun. One is to design the gun so that applying the safety blocks the trigger and prevents it from moving. This is the least secure way to implement a safety, as droppping a gun can still result in the sear being dislodged and the gun firing. Sometimes just pulling a trigger hard enough can defeat a safety, and indeed, a surprising number of the airguns I’ve tested over the years (including some very expensive guns) can have their safety defeated in just this way.

A much more secure way of implementing a safety is to have it interrupt the firing chain- unless the safety is turned off, the gun can simply not fire. If you’ve ever handled a “post lawsuit” Ruger single action revolver, you’ve seen a perfect example of such a system. The hammer on these revolvers is designed so that it doesn’t actually reach the firing pin, but stops short. No amount of pounding on it could cause the gun to fire. When the trigger is pulled, a transfer bar rises up between the hammer and firing pin, filling in the gap. Now, when the hammer falls, it strikes the transfer bar, the bar hits the firing pin, the pin hits the primer, and bang!

I’ve never seen an airgun safety implemented in a completely fault-proof manner, though I imagine there may be some out there. I have, however, seen a number of accidental discharges that could have been a lot worse if basic safety precautions hadn’t been followed. As Col. Jeff is reputed to have said, there are only two kinds of shooters: Those who have had an AD, and those who are going to.

So even though you may only be shooting a 4 ft-lb target pistol, remember to keep it pointed in a safe direction.

Beware the man with just one gun

That’s an old saying. I don’t know where it comes from, but it carries a lot of truth. I quoted it the other day to a friend who was wondering if he should buy a .22 rifle to match his new .177 rifle, and he remarked that he wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by it.

For the earliest settlers in this country, a rifle was as much as important tool as was an axe, or a plow. It provided game to suppliment what crops they could grop or forage, and might be called upon for self-defense, too. Powder and shot was expensive as well- to the point that lead was often recycled. A miss in a tree or a ball that took down a deer might be dug out, melted, and recast. Given the scarcity of ammunition and the reliance on the gun for food, owners of these guns placed a premium on accuracy in shooting. They learned their guns, and how they shot, inside and out.

Guns today are so cheap in comparison with the handmade guns of the 18th century that the average worker can easily afford a battery of guns- a deer gun, a small game gun, a turkey gun, a plinker, a goose gun, and on and on. Each will have its own peculiarities and each will shoot differently, and learning the ins and outs of each can be quite a job.

Airgunner, like shooting hobbiests in general, tend to be collectors. There’s always something new and shiny to be purchased or traded for. And we’re gadgeteers, too. With all those toys out there  on the market, a lot of us can’t wait to try yet another pellet or lube or sizer or optical sight  that promises better accuracy/impact/whatever.

While collecting is rewarding in and of itself, it’s not the way to become a really good shooter. To do that, you need to shoot a gun over and over, at different ranges, under different lighting conditions and different wind conditions, until you instinctually know where to hold to put a pellet where you want it. And that’s why the man with one gun- and one tin of pellets- is the one to watch out for.

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.