Posts Tagged ‘triggers’
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
Adam Vierra is this week’s Big Shot of the Week on Pyramyd Air’s facebook page.
I wasn’t sure there was going to be a Part 3 to this report. But yesterday, when I read your interest about the airguns with double-set triggers, I decided that it was okay to do one more, and this one will be about set triggers, match triggers and stuff like that.
As it happens, this blog is very timely for me, because this past Wednesday I was at the range shooting several firearms and a new airgun that you’re going to read about in January. One of the firearms I shot was my new Winchester high wall in .219 Zipper Improved. Some of you may remember that was the rifle I recently bought and discovered after the fact that it has a single-set trigger.
The screw that hangs down behind this trigger is the telltale clue that it’s a single-set trigger. You can either pull it the usual way, in which case it breaks at about 3-1/2 lbs., or push the trigger forward after the rifle is cocked. It then breaks at just 6 oz.
Shooting an obsolete caliber like a .219 Zipper Improved is a lot of work because they don’t make ammunition for it. In fact, they never have. This cartridge is called a wildcat because it’s always been necessary for the shooter to make the ammunition from some other cartridge. The .219 Zipper was a standard commercial cartridge at one time and is based on a 30-30 case. The Zipper Improved is based on the standard Zipper case, which means it, too, can be made from a 30-30 case. In fact, that’s how they’re made today.
Here we see a 30-30 (left) and the .219 Zipper Improved that sprang from it.
But my shooting buddy, Otho, discovered that the case dimensions of the now-obsolete but far more recent .225 Winchester are virtually identical to the .219 Zipper Improved. The rim is thinner and a trifle narrower, but it’s close. So, he thought we could make our cases from .225 Winchester cases, which are now being produced in limited quantities.
To make a long story short, the .225 case is so exact that all I have to do is prime it, fill it with powder and put a bullet in the neck. That saves me about 5 minutes of case preparation time for each case (when making them from a 30-30), and I also don’t have to clean my gun after fire-forming the new cases, which is a royal pain. Also, I lose about 40 percent of the formed cases, and I don’t think I’m going to lose any with this new method.
On Wednesday, I was at the range with 20 rounds of .219 Zipper Improved made from new .225 Winchester cases to see if this works. The measurements said it should, but since we’re generating 45,000 psi with every shot, theory and practical application are two different things.
I loaded the cartridges on the light side for safety, and I loaded only 5 with each amount of powder so I wouldn’t have to pull apart dozens of cartridges if they weren’t right. I’d seated the 40-grain bullet out as far as I felt I could and still keep it stable in the case. That’s supposed to improve accuracy — if the bullet doesn’t travel far before engaging the rifling.
The set trigger
Now we come to the subject of this report. My rifle has an aftermarket single-set trigger that releases with 6 oz. of pressure. To me, it feels like nothing. I can barely feel my finger touch the trigger blade when the gun fires. That’s as light as I ever want a trigger to be, and only then if it’s on a target rifle or a varmint rifle like this one. I want to be in position and ready to take the shot before I touch that blade.
So, now you appreciate that everything was perfect for this endeavor. If the loads I cooked up were accurate, nothing should get in the way of the results. Put the crosshairs in the center of the aim point at 100 yards, get stable and touch the trigger — BAM! The deed is done. All you have to do is look through the scope. The bullet should be moving at about 3,600 f.p.s., so the hold isn’t very much of a factor. Just make sure you have your head at the same spot every time so parallax cannot enter into the equation, and you should be good to go.
The first 5 shots included the very first shot after the barrel had been cleaned. That one went almost an inch wide, while the next 4 shots landed in a group that measures 0.51 inches between the centers of the two widest shots.
The rifle was shooting a little high so I adjusted the scope down for the next group.
The next 5 shots were with a powder charge weighing one grain more than the first load. I saw the first bullet from this batch land almost exactly on the vertical line above the center of the aim point, so I proceeded to shoot 4 more shots after it. I couldn’t see these shots through my 10x rifle scope, but the spotting scope revealed a tight cluster next to the first shot. That was worth investigating. We called a cease fire, and I walked down to look at the target. What I saw was amazing. The final 4 shots had landed in a tiny cluster measuring 0.239 inches between center. When the first shot is added, the group opens to 0.444 inches. For me this is a very good group!
Top group is the first 5 shots with the new cases. Bottom group is the second 5 shots, using one grain more powder. The group measures 0.444 inches between centers…and the smaller group of 4 measures 0.239 inches, which is less than a quarter-inch at 100 yards.
But the single thing that made this group possible — other than lucking out and picking the right bullet and the absolute best powder charge on the first time out with these new cartridges (which is at least a thousand-to-one-guess) — was the set trigger. It took me out of the equation, by virtue of making the rifle fire when all things were perfect. Even a heartbeat, which can throw off a bullet by more than an inch at 100 yards, was not an issue because I was using the M-T-M Predator shooting rest that holds the rifle perfectly on target without my help.
And that’s what set triggers do. They allow you to either eliminate the human from the shooting equation; or, conversely, they allow the human to knowingly pull the trigger at the exact instant the sight picture is perfect. That’s called sniping the target, and it’s usually not recommended; but since a set trigger doesn’t move the gun like a standard trigger does when it’s pulled, you get away with it.
So far, I’ve mentioned only the single-set trigger. The double-set trigger is more common and works just as well, if not better. Perhaps the most familiar place to see this kind of trigger is on a muzzleloading rifle, where they were favored over the plain trigger.
Double-set triggers often work like normal triggers if they’re not set. Usually, the rear trigger is pulled to set the front one, though not always. The double-set was very popular on bellows dart rifles in the 1700s and 1800s, and these are the triggers that are famous for being so sensitive that a breath of air can make them fire. I’ve owned several rifles with double-set triggers, including a five-lever trigger made by Aydt that was extremely sensitive. But I’ve never experienced a trigger so light that air, alone, can set it off.
Pull the rear trigger to set the front trigger. The rifle can also be fired by just pulling the front trigger, though the pull will be heavier.
Set triggers and target rifles
Set triggers were once an important part of all target rifles. From the days of chunk shooting, when the rifle was a Kentucky long rifle rested on a log (called a chunk), to the final days of international match shooting at 1,000 yards, the set trigger was as common as the vernier peep sight and spirit level front sight that eliminated cant.
In the sporting world, set triggers were found on many varmint rifles of the past. The double-set was more common than the single-set, but either one can be a blessing when you’re trying to do precise work. In recent years, set triggers have been making a comeback on many factory guns, but they may not be as necessary as they once were due to innovations in replacement sporting triggers. More on that in a moment, but let’s now take a look at set triggers on airguns.
For some reason, set triggers have not been very popular in airgun target shooting. Perhaps this started as a safety rule; but considering the light match rifle triggers now in production, that cannot be the only reason. The fact that set triggers do exist on target air rifles indicates that some people wanted to try them at one time, but the rules were written to exclude them from competition…just like Tyrolean stocks and tube rear sights…and today they’re seen only on vintage guns.
Here’s a prediction: If an airgun manufacturer were to put a nice set trigger in an accurate low- to mid-powered .177-caliber air rifle today, they would have a hit on their hands!
Non-set triggers that are still remarkable
This is for our blog reader GenghisJan, who asked blog reader Kevin how he would compare a set trigger to a match trigger. I believe the big difference is that you must intentionally set the set trigger for it to be light. If you don’t set it, the trigger-pull seems about normal. But a match trigger releases at just one weight, and it’s always light. How many times have I seen people fire a match gun before they were ready, simply because they were unaccustomed to how light the trigger is? It actually takes some learning to operate a match trigger safely, and some people never get it.
A Benjamin Marauder trigger can be adjusted to have a two-stage release where the second stage is light, but also positive. It’s more than the few grams of pressure that a true match trigger needs, but far lighter than most sporting triggers. This is a wonderful compromise in a trigger, to my way of thinking.
In the world of sporting guns, triggers have continued to improve until it’s possible to buy drop-in units today, or sometimes the parts to make a factory trigger as light as a set trigger. There are many manufacturers doing this — companies like Jewell Trigger, which makes sporting triggers that break at mere ounces. They’re a sort of set trigger that’s always set!
But in airguns, the choices are fewer. In the world of spring guns, there’s the Rekord that can be adjusted to release at just ounces of pressure if properly set up, and the Air Arms trigger that’s even more adjustable. There used to be some aftermarket triggers from companies that would drop in certain guns and be even lighter and better than Rekords, but they’re gone from the marketplace.
You’ll find more good triggers in the PCP world because they don’t have to restrain hundreds of pounds of force. And the state-of-the-art 10-meter match rifle trigger is at the top of the heap. With triggers this sensitive, you don’t touch them until you’re safely on target.
What’s it going to be?
I like a set trigger in the right circumstances. And since most of them can be fired without setting, I found them to be ideal for everything. But I’m just starting to experiment with the crop of new and improved replacement triggers that have hit the market. Though they’re less flexible than set triggers, they might be a good modern alternative.
As far as a true target trigger is concerned, the only place for that is on the range. And you have to train with it by dry-firing so you are ready when the time comes.
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
In Part 1, we looked at single-stage and two-stage triggers. Today, the focus is on single-action and double-action triggers. Is that confusing? Does a single-action trigger sound like a single-stage trigger to you? If it does, you are in the majority, because this confuses a lot of folks — some of them are even writers in the shooting sports! Edith told me about an airgun company that doesn’t appear to know the difference…thinking that double-action and two-stage and single-action and single-stage are the same things but just stated differently.
It may help if I go back to the very first trigger and explain how it worked. In the very early days of shooting, there were no triggers at all. A lit piece of cord called a match was carried by the shooter; and when he wanted to fire his gun, the (hopefully) hot coal on the end of the match was touched to a hole located at the rear of the barrel. That’s where the term touchhole comes from. The hot match would hopefully ignite some of the gunpowder that was at the top of the touchhole and hopefully the tiny explosion would go all the way down the touchhole and hopefully ignite the main powder charge.
How many times did I write “hopefully” in the last paragraph? Four, which is my way of saying that these early hand-cannons were not that reliable. If you make one today, it’ll seem very reliable, but that’s just a comment on how good today’s black powder has become. The early powder was far weaker and harder to ignite, the matches often went out — especially in the rain — and the length, size and shape of the touchhole had a profound influence on the success or failure of the gun’s ignition.
In time it all got sorted out. The powder got better and shooters learned how to care for their matches. At some point in time, a clever mechanic attached the match to an iron rod that was attached to a pivot on the hand-cannon and shaped so the lit match end fell exactly on the touchhole. The other end of the rod was shaped to be easy to operate with the fingers of the hand that held the gun. Thus the first trigger was born. This first trigger did not have a sear. It was just a lever. If you bumped it when the gun was loaded and caused the match to hit the touchhole — oh, oh! But at least they didn’t shoot themselves while cleaning their guns — at least not accidentally!
By the middle 1500s (and probably earlier), we had triggers with sears. They were needed when the wheellock mechanism came along. A wheellock is a cigarette lighter built into a gun. It has a powerful spring that’s tensioned by winding with a lever or key. The spring causes a large, serrated steel wheel to turn; and when a piece of pyrite is held against it, sparks are generated.
The tension of the mainspring has to be restrained so the shooter can select when he wants the gun to fire. A sear is a type of dog or restraining lever that blocks the wheel that’s under tension. The trigger then becomes another lever that trips the sear (releases the dog) so the wheel can turn, generating sparks and igniting the powder charge. This kind of trigger was a single-action trigger. That means you first had to cock the gun (by winding the spring) before the trigger was put in place by another small spring to hold the sear.
With a single-action trigger the gun must first be cocked by some outside activity before the trigger can be set to perform its job. I don’t have a wheellock to show you but I do have a French 1822 flintlock military pistol that’s been converted to percussion. The trigger on this pistol works the same way I’ve described. The hammer must first be cocked or the trigger can do nothing. When the hammer is cocked, internal springs have pushed the trigger to block the sear from moving. At this point, the trigger can release the sear when it’s pulled, allowing the hammer to fall. It’s very similar to the wheellock, except that if the gun is a flintlock, the lock generates the spark for ignition through the striking of flint, rather than the dragging of pyrite against a steel wheel. In a percussion gun such as my 1822 French pistol (a flintlock-to-percussion conversion), the hammer falls on a percussion cap that explodes, igniting the black powder.
The trigger of the 1822 French martial pistol (top) just flops around loose until the hammer is pulled back to the cocked position. Then, the trigger is held in place to block the sear (on the hammer) by a small spring. When you pull the trigger until it moves out of the sear notch on the hammer, the hammer falls and explodes the percussion cap. The cowboy gun below is called a single-action revolver and works in a similar fashion, interestingly enough.
And that was how all triggers were until the mid-19th century. Don’t let set triggers confuse you. They existed well before this time, and they’re all single-action.
The double-action trigger was probably first produced in England or Belgium around the middle of the 19th century. My vote goes to England. Some clever mechanic found a way to link the trigger blade to both the sear and a second lever that pushed the hammer back against its spring. Now, the trigger could do two things. It could release the sear and could also cock the gun. And it could do both of them at the same time, with the result that the gun fired every time the trigger was pulled. Cocking the hammer first went from being a necessity to an option.
You can almost always spot a double-action revolver by the trigger positioned far forward in the trigger guard.
The advantages of the double-action trigger are many. First, it allows you to fire the gun with no other action. Just pull the trigger and eventually the gun fires. On most guns, it gives you the option of also cocking the hammer separately and firing the gun single-action. The single-action trigger-pull is much lighter than the double-action pull. All it does is release the sear. But the double-action pull also has to compress the hammer spring, and that makes a double-action trigger-pull heavier.
The effect of the trigger on shooting
Because it’s lighter and crisper, a single-action trigger-pull results in more control over the handgun. Therefore, it’s always used for formal target shooting. A double-action pull usually results in pulling the shot to the side opposite the hand that holds the gun. In other words, a right-handed shooter will pull his shots to the left when shooting double-action. It’s possible to train yourself to shoot accurately this way, however, and since double-action is faster than single-action, it’s used when revolvers have to be shot quickly.
With a semiautomatic pistol, you can have both. The gun can function as a double-action for the first trigger pull; but once the slide pushes the hammer back to the cocked position, it’s now a single-action until the gun is empty. Or, you can just cock the hammer manually for the first shot and it’s single-action all the way.
And, because double-action triggers require more effort, they’re viewed as safer in the hands of those with less handgun training. So, some semiautomatic pistols have a double-action-only trigger-pull. The Glock is most famous for this.
What to take away from this
The thing to remember is that a single-action trigger-pull means just causing the sear to let go and fire the gun. The gun has to be cocked separately and by something other than the trigger. A double-action pull means also putting tension on the hammer spring, so the gun fires with each pull of the trigger without anything else needing to happen.
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
The two things shooters are concerned about the most are the barrels and the triggers on their guns. This will be a report on triggers.
People praise the Rekord trigger found in Weihrauch rifles — and in those Beeman R-series rifles that also have a Rekord — without knowing what makes it a good trigger. So, let’s take a look at airgun triggers to try to at least appreciate the basics. This report probably won’t change any minds. If you’re a single-stage man, you’ll still be one after reading the entire series; but at least you’ll know for sure what differentiates a single-stage trigger from one with two stages.
Let’s get the fundamentals out of the way up front. A single-stage trigger is one that has no movement — often called “Take-up” — when cocked. The shooter squeezes the trigger until the sear releases and the gun fires. Many shooters like this kind of trigger because it feels right to them. After all, when a gun is cocked, squeezing the trigger should make it fire, right?
Foreign gun makers often mistranslate technical terms in their manuals and refer to “creep” when they mean take-up. Take-up is when the trigger blade moves without releasing the sear. I will discuss take-up in depth when I present the two-stage trigger, but for now I’m moving on.
On some guns, there’s a lot of real creep in the single stage of the trigger, and that leads to some confusion. Creep is not the same as take-up. Creep is the jerky start-stop movement you feel when the trigger is sliding across the surface of the sear. Sometimes, the creep is very smooth, but you can still feel the trigger blade moving. Other times, the creep is a very gritty feel, with numerous starts and stops. But the point is that with a single-stage trigger, the moment you begin pulling back on the trigger blade you’re in the act of releasing the sear.
Non-shooters believe that a trigger is squeezed or pulled until it releases suddenly, because that’s what it looks like on film. Since they don’t shoot, they never experience the actual movement of a trigger. But every shooter knows that a trigger has some movement when it’s pulled. The better the trigger, the less the movement can be felt — right up to the point that no movement at all can be felt and the trigger breaks (releases the sear) so suddenly that we say it feels as if a glass rod has broken. That analogy means that it feels the same as applying pressure to a glass rod until it breaks. It does so suddenly and without any warning, and that’s how we want a good trigger to act. Then, we know to prepare ourselves in all other ways and make sure we’re on target when it happens.
To recap, a single-stage trigger is one that is ready to fire from the moment you first start pulling it. How long it takes before that happens and how much pressure must be applied to make it happen are what define the characteristics of the trigger — good or bad.
A two-stage trigger has two distinct stages to its pull. The first stage is called the take-up, and is nothing more than a pull against the resistance of the trigger return spring. If you relax your trigger finger during this stage, the trigger blade should return to the starting position, and the gun remains cocked. Sometimes, the tension on the return spring can be relaxed too far, however; and once taken up, the trigger blade will not return to the starting point. It simply hangs loose and floppy on its pivot pin. That’s not how the trigger is supposed to function, though, but is the result of improper adjustment.
Stage two is the point at which the trigger begins to act upon the sear in a serious way. I say “in a serious way” because in some two-stage triggers there is some sear movement during the first stage pull. But no amount of adjustment should allow the trigger to release the sear during the first stage of a two-stage trigger.
So, stage two of a two-stage trigger is very much like stage one of a single-stage trigger, in that all the same things happen. Everything I said for the single-stage trigger about creep and the “glass-rod” release applies equally to stage two of a two-stage trigger. And this is where people make their decision to like one trigger or the other.
Those who prefer the single-stage trigger wonder why there needs to be anything in the trigger-pull before it gets serious. As long as a single-stage trigger feels exactly the same as stage two of a two-stage trigger, they argue, why bother with the first stage?
Marksmen who learned to shoot on a gun with a two-stage trigger would answer by saying that the first stage gives them a safety margin. They always know exactly where the serious part of the trigger-pull is. It’s at the end of the take-up. Once again, non-shooters cannot even imagine what we’re talking about because they lack the tactile experience of having used triggers. But target shooters know that a two-stage trigger allows them to ease into the trigger-pull with complete safety, knowing where things are not serious and where they are. Let me give you an example.
My SAM-10 target pistol has a two-stage trigger. Stage two must be set to release at greater than 500 grams, which is about 18 oz. Those are the rules in both national and international competition. Although it’s possible to set the second stage to break at less weight, it’s a waste of time to do so. The first-stage pull is around 20 grams, which is very light in comparison to stage two, which I have set to release at 515 grams. I set it that way so I never fail a trigger test before a competition, because there’s nothing worse than adjusting (and getting used to) a trigger just when the competition begins.
I can easily squeeze stage one all the way until it stops and know with certainty that the gun will not fire. So, I begin my trigger squeeze when the pistol is still coming down on the target. And most 10-meter pistol shooters do something similar. It’s part of a rhythm we get into and never once in I-don’t-know-how-many tens of thousands of shots has the gun ever fired at the wrong time.
Don’t try this at home!
Having told you that, I must now caution you that most shooters cannot control a trigger this well. I see shooters pick up 10-meter guns all the time and fire them before they are ready. If one of them were to try what I do they would put holes in the ceilings and walls! And before Edith makes me admit it, I’ve shot the walls, the ceiling and even the couch. But I didn’t do it while shooting a 10-meter target pistol.
When 10-meter shooters get together to compare triggers, we “see” things and talk about things that remain invisible to other shooters. For instance, many people think the IZH 46M has a marvelous trigger; but to a 10-meter pistol shooter, that trigger is a beginner-level trigger at best. It has loads of creep and variability that you can sense when you’ve trained your trigger finger to use only the best. But for the average shooter, the 46M trigger borders on being too light.
How adjustments affect triggers
Sometimes, shooters will try to adjust the first stage out of a two-stage trigger, effectively making it a single-stage trigger. That does work with some guns, but not with others. Those guns where the trigger moves the sear in both the first and second stages can become unsafe if you try to eliminate the first stage altogether. Because the sear is being moved in the first stage, the second stage has to be set on the sear so fine (with such a small contact surface) to eliminate the first stage, that it can slip off or be jarred off the sear without pulling the trigger. These triggers should never be adjusted like that.
Many triggers, even most of them, act directly on the sear. On guns with these triggers, there’s a benefit to smoothing the contact surface of both the sear and the corresponding surface of the trigger, as long as you do not cut through any case-hardening. Cheaper triggers often have their parts case-hardened, which is a way to use lower-grade steel and still have a sufficiently hard contact surface to resist wear. But this case-hardening is only a thin shell that can easily be cut away by a file. When that happens, the sear will never be able to hold a surface for long. The trigger-pull will change constantly and can become downright unsafe without any warning. The only safe method of smoothing these surfaces is with a hard stone, and with the part to be surfaced held in a jig, to keep the contact angle constant.
Some better triggers, like the Rekord, use levers instead of direct-contact sears. They do have contact points, but those act on levers that in turn act on the piston. These triggers can be adjusted very light and crisp and no stoning is ever required for their contact surfaces. Creep is usually not an issue with such triggers, as the levers rather than the contact surfaces are what bear the force of the cocked piston.
I say I like two-stage triggers, but two of my favorites are actually single-stage. The first and my most favorite trigger is on a Winchester High Wall rifle that’s chambered in .219 Zipper Improved. It’s a single-set trigger that is a single-stage by definition. Knowing that, I don’t approach the trigger blade until I’m ready to fire the shot. The crosshairs are perfectly centered on the target before I touch that blade with my finger, because it fires with only 6 oz. of pressure, though I could adjust it even lighter if I wanted.
That screw behind the trigger blade on this Winchester High Wall rifle is a dead giveaway of a single-set trigger. Push the blade forward to set it. The trigger can be operated either set or unset.
I could use this trigger unset just as easily. It would break around 3.5 lbs. and would be very crisp.
The other strange trigger I like is also a single-stage, though a zero-stage might be more like it. The trigger blade on my Remington model 37 Rangemaster target rifle does not move. It was called the Miracle trigger by Remington, and it’s fully adjustable. On my rifle, you simply press the blade until reaching 1 lb., 10 oz. when the sear lets go. As far as the shooter can tell, the trigger blade never moves, though in reality it does move about 1/16-inch upon firing.
Though it appears very plain, this Miracle trigger on the Remington model 37 Rangemaster target rifle is anything but. It releases without any perceptible movement.
Today, we looked at single-stage and two-stage triggers and learned how they operate. Do not confuse them with single-action and double-action triggers that are a different thing altogether — and the topic of our next installment.
by B.B. Pelletier
Dave Cole is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week contest on their airgun facebook page.
Nelson Lewis combination gun, made in Troy, NY, around 1850-1870. Rifle is .38 caliber; shotgun is 14 gauge.
Today, I’ll show you the results of the last two outings with this unusual combination gun. Lessons have been learned.
Before we get to today’s test report, I’d like to share a little more background on the gun’s maker, Nelson Lewis of Troy, New York.
The big match
As readers of the internet, you’re all aware that sometimes tempers flare and conversations become heated on the web. Would it surprise you to learn that this is nothing new? One hundred sixty-eight years ago there was a famous confrontation in the internet of that day — the newspaper — between Nelson Lewis and another noted gun maker, Morgan James of Utica, New York. Nelson Lewis had heard rumors that one or more of his fellow gun makers (presumably Morgan James, from the events that followed) had said he had not made the rifle he had used to beat a Mr. Williamson in a rifle match the September before. This was in the Feb. 18, 1854, edition of Spirit of the Times/A Chronicle of the Turf, Field Sports, Aquatics, Agriculture and the Stage, published in New York City. Lewis challenged whoever was spreading these rumors to put up or shut up.
Morgan James accepted the challenge, and the two men began a public correspondence in the newspaper that was not unlike what we see on the chat forums today.
Morgan James was also a famous rifle maker and a contemporary of Nelson Lewis. Like Lewis, he made long-range target rifles that were used by snipers in the Civil War. Many of James’ long-range guns were so heavy they could only be shot from a bench rest that was included as part of their equipment. He was justifiably proud of the rifles he made, as well as his own marksmanship (as was Nelson Lewis); so when he read what Lewis accused him of, he attacked with a letter of his own to the editor of the cited publication.
To make a long story short, the two men exchanged challenges in the paper, and they finally agreed to shoot five each of their rifles against each other with each maker and one or more of his friends doing the shooting. One-hundred dollars was put up for each rifle in the contest, so each maker had five hundred dollars at stake.
Morgan James and his shooters won all five matches and Lewis paid him the money (I believe); but in the end, Lewis was a sore looser. He wrote a final letter to the editor, citing the fact that Morgan James’ rifles were all heavier than his (15-18 pounds against 10-13 pounds) and of a larger caliber (.43 to .48 caliber compared to .36 to .38 caliber), plus James and his partner shot from a machine rest — but their rifles weren’t clamped down, while Lewis and his shooters all shot from common shooting benches. And Morgan James had some sort of elaborate wind gauge on the range that was operated by a separate man who reported the wind to each shooter, so he didn’t have to look at the flags. Lewis and his shooters used the common range flags that had always been used, and each shooter watched the one flag for himself.
From his report, Nelson Lewis seems to have been at a disadvantage, but why he didn’t pin down the details of the contest beforehand with so much money at stake (approximately $13,500 in 2012 purchasing power) is a mystery. He certainly should have. He claimed he thought the match was to be with hunting rifles that could reasonably be carried afield, but the small calibers he chose are a real puzzle! Morgan James did nothing wrong except to try his best to win.
So things haven’t changed, even though a century and a half has passed. Shooters still get hot under the collar and makers will do anything to defend their reputations. This is why I enjoy reading real history — because it shows that people don’t change, even though their technology does.
Enough history. Let’s go to the range.
This time, the gun was ready for the range. The loading and cleaning procedures have been worked out.
Patch problem solved
The second time I took the Nelson Lewis gun to the range, I’d solved the patch problem. Instead of the too-thick patch material I had been using the first time out, I discovered that handkerchief linen from Ireland was both the correct thickness and also was tough enough to do the job in this rifle. I cut my patches by placing a nickel over the material and cutting around it. That gives me a patch of just the right size. And when the ball is seated, I can press it into the bore with my thumb — exactly as the old masters reported a century ago.
The thinner patches fit the balls perfectly, so they can be pressed into the muzzle with the thumb as the masters of old recommend.
The proof that this material works well is seen in the patches I recovered after shooting. They are textbook examples of what a good patch should look like.
The fired patches look good. Irish handkerchief linen is strong, yet thin.
I also discovered that the powder charge could be increased a little with no detriment to accuracy. Now, the bullet gets downrange faster, which I can tell by listening to the sound of the ball striking the target at 50 yards. That may not be scientific, but it does work!
I also took the advice of Ned Roberts, who says to fill the powder measure to heaping, then wipe a straightedge across the top to level the powder. This gives a consistent amount of powder from shot to shot.
Fill the powder measure to heaping.
Then wipe a straightedge (like a knife blade) across the top of the measure to level the powder. This is called “stricken measure” in Ned Roberts’ book.
A tiny funnel Mac gave me is perfect for pouring the measured powder into the rifle barrel.
The new cleaning process
I clean the barrel after each shot. I did that the first time out, but I’ve added a few steps for a more thorough result. First, the bore is swabbed with a wet patch, followed by a brass brush, then another wet patch. These are followed by two dry patches that leave the bore sparkling clean and dry after every shot. It takes about three minutes to clean the bore this way, but that’s nothing when you’re shooting a muzzleloader.
The final thing I tried was patches lubricated both with grease and saliva. Grease is used for the patches of balls in hunting guns, where the ball will be in the barrel a long time. Saliva is supposed to give a slight edge in accuracy, but it dries out over time and also can promote rust in the bore — two good reasons why saliva is used only for target shooting.
I had high hopes that all these things would give me better groups than the first time out, but they didn’t! Something was missing.
Group fired with greased patches on June 16. Fifty yards.
Group fired with saliva-wet patches on Jun 16. Also 50 yards. No improvement.
Mac suggested that since this is a combination gun, perhaps shooting it as often as once every five minutes was letting the rifle barrel heat up enough to warp against the cold shotgun barrel. If this is a meat gun, then shouldn’t the first shot from a cold rifle be right on target? It was the best suggestion anyone had given me; so when I went to the range again this week, I did everything the same except that I waited 20-25 minutes between shots to give the gun plenty of time to cool off.
The first 4 shots went into the best group I’d seen to this point, but shot 5 went wild at 9 o’clock, ruining the group. I held as perfectly as I know how for all 5 shots, and I’ve held 5 shots in three-tenths of an inch with target sights at 50 yards this year with a .22 rimfire — so it’s not me!
Group fired with saliva-wetted patches and waiting a minimum of 20 minutes between shots. Shot at 50 yards on July 12, 2012. Four close shots, but the fifth shot opened the group to the size of the others. So this is no real improvement.
I’m now thinking that the rifling twist in this gun (remember it has a gain twist) is too fast for round balls, and that the gun wants to shoot conical bullets. A patched picket bullet is what the rifle is supposed to shoot. I’ve avoided shooting the picket bullet that came with the rifle, because making them in the manual swaging dies is a lot of hard work. But now it seems I have to try something other than round balls. We’ll see what happens next time!
Why am I doing this?
If you’re a new reader of this blog, you must be wondering if I’ve lost my mind — reporting on a 150-year-old muzzle loading firearm in an airgun blog. Here’s why I do it. Airguns don’t hold a lot of secrets from me. I’ve been around them long enough to have gotten comfortable with them and their ways. I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know, but perhaps I have become too familiar with airguns to remember all those confusing steps that baffled me when I first encountered them.
This antique firearm, on the other hand, is as foreign to me as it is to you. I’m discovering how to shoot this gun successfully and letting you watch me while I do it, so maybe you can relate to the things that stump me. This old black powder gun puts you and me on equal footing as shooters. That’s why I report on it — so you can watch me stumble around and get confused by the same things that are perhaps confusing to you.
I could just spout off a bunch of words that I read in some book and let you think I know what I’m talking about, but I prefer to do it this way. I know this approach bothers some people who wish I would just stick to airguns, but to my way of thinking, all shooting is interrelated. The more you know about all shooting subjects, the more you know about any specific subject. People who disregard black powder guns, for instance, lack a firm understanding of how pneumatics work because they’re very similar. And a poor crown will harm the accuracy of a .223 as much as it will a .177 pellet rifle.
I try to limit these reports to a minimum, but I will continue to make them from time to time because I have to. They are in me, and they have to come out.
by B.B. Pelletier
John McKinney is this week’s BSOTW. Looks like he’s holding a Benjamin Marauder.
The B25H breakbarrel air rifle looks striking with its bamboo stock.
I know there’s a lot of interest in this air rifle. It came through in the passionate comments made to Part 1. Today, I’ll complete my test of the B25H breakbarrel from Xisico with an accuracy test.
I installed a Leapers Golden Image 4×32 rifle scope in a BKL 1-piece cantilever mount. I used the cantilever (an extension of the scope mount that goes beyond the base) feature of the mount to move the small scope back far enough on the scope tube that it was positioned correctly for my eye.
The scope has fixed parallax set at 100 yards. That may sound bad to those who are familiar with adjustable parallax scopes, but I’ve used scopes with fixed parallax for years and not had a problem with them. Shooting at 25 yards, it’s possible that some accuracy was sacrificed, but not so much that this test was compromised. I’ve shown half-inch 10-shot groups in the past that were shot with 4x fixed parallax scopes, so we know they do work.
Very sensitive to hold
My shooting was done from a rest at 25 yards indoors. I know from experience that most breakbarrels are sensitive to how they’re held, and this one is no different in that respect. The shape of the stock invites a hold with the off hand placed just forward of the triggerguard, where the stock drops down. Holding there makes for a rifle that’s very muzzle heavy and that usually helps the groups. But not this time.
I found that holding it there caused the pellets to walk up and down vertically, though they grouped well left to right. So, I slid my off hand out to the point that it was under the cocking slot. The rifle was now neutrally balanced and sat better in my hands, and the groups tightened. But any slight adjustment of my off hand that was not exactly where it had been for the other shots could throw that particular shot two inches away from the group. That’s not unusual for a powerful breakbarrel like this one, so don’t read it as a condemnation. It’s just a reflection on what hold sensitivity means.
During the velocity test, I’d noticed how smooth Beeman Kodiaks shot, so I used them to sight in the rifle and for the first group. All groups are 10 shots unless otherwise labeled.
The first group of Beeman Kodiaks was not a complete group. I’m showing it here so you can see what I saw when the rifle was rested on my palm placed just forward of the triggerguard. What you see are six shots that landed in a vertical line that was almost straight. They did not land in vertical sequence, however. They landed randomly along the line. They told me that either Kodiaks were not right for this rifle or my hold was wrong. Since the width of the group was very tight, I concluded that the hold was the problem, and for the next bull I changed my hold so my hand was forward, under the cocking slot.
Once I saw how the pellets were stringing vertically, I knew I had to change my hold. So, I slid my off hand forward and shot a second group.
The second group was very revealing. It showed me that Kodiaks were indeed good pellets for this rifle. The hold just needed to be right. And within the fairly round 10-shot group is a much smaller 6-shot group that’s a little vertical but still quite round. That smaller group tells me there’s more accuracy in this rifle than I’ve seen to this point.
The stock screws were then checked, because they seemed to be loose. Upon inspection, I discovered they were. All three screws had to be tightened considerably before I resumed the test.
Next, I tried 7-grain RWS Hobby pellets. I seasoned the bore with five shots that were fired while I rezeroed the scope just a bit. Hobbys were hitting the paper two inches below the Kodiaks because of their higher velocity. However, Hobbys did not group well. I stopped shooting them after fewer than 10 shots showed they were not going to be accurate in the test rifle.
After Hobbys I tried some Crosman Premier 7.9-grain domes. Normally this is a pretty good pellet for a breakbarrel spring-piston air rifle, but not this time! The B25H didn’t like Premier lites at all, even though I seasoned the barrel before starting the group. After four shots went way over one inch, I stopped shooting.
Back to Kodiaks
Since the first group of Kodiaks had been shot with loose stock screws I decided to give them another chance. So I seasoned the bore with five more rounds and then shot the final 10-shot group. Since I didn’t re-zero the scope after the Premiers, the group went low; but it was the best group of the test by a slim margin. Ten pellets went onto a group measuring 0.882 inches between centers.
The best group of the test is this final group of Beeman Kodiaks. It measures 0.882 inches between centers. Like the other good group, there’s a much smaller five-shot group inside the main group that measures 0.41 inches.
For the record, I’d like to note that the smaller group of five shots within this final group are the first five shots fired. Had I stopped there, the group would have been a phenomenal 0.41 inches, but not representative of what I was able to do with this rifle at 25 yards. That’s why I shoot 10-shot groups.
I am surprised by the apparent accuracy of this Chinese breakbarrel. The trigger is still very vague and not up to the task, plus the scope I used probably enlarged all the groups just a little — but the rifle, itself, did pretty good.
I like the smoothness of the powerplant that rivals an RWS Diana 34 in both the shot cycle and smoothness during cocking. The bamboo stock is beautiful, and I wish other brands like Weihrauch would use it on some of their better rifles.
At the end of the day, I’ll give the B25H a gold star for holding its own in a tough test. I think anyone who owns one of these has a rifle worthy of a lifetime of shooting pleasure.
by B.B. Pelletier
Jacque Ryder is Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week. He says this about the photo: I took this picture a while ago of my friend at a local shooting range. This was my first time shooting an airgun, and now I am excited to try to purchase one on a tight budget….So, I am entering this photo for Big Shot of the Week!
The B25H breakbarrel air rifle looks striking with its bamboo stock.
It’s Friday and time for me to kick back and write about something something different.
Let’s start a look at a beautiful breakbarrel air rifle I bought at the Roanoke airgun show three or more years ago. I bought it because I thought it was beautiful — and I still think that today. It’s a rather traditional breakbarrel spring rifle, but the barreled action sits in a stylish bamboo stock!
When I bought it, the bamboo stock was relatively new and not well known. But in the years that have passed since the show, these rifles have been seen by many airgunners. Bamboo may not seem like a good material for a rifle stock, but that’s only if your experience is with cane poles for fishing. They’re hollow, lightweight and reasonably strong, but no one would ever call them rugged. The stock on this rifle, however, is an entirely different matter. The bamboo is extremely strong and impervious to the pressure denting that plagues softer woods such as walnut. It reminds me very much of clear maple, only I think bamboo is a little tougher.
I bought the rifle thinking that I would review it for you in the normal way. But other things got in the way, and I didn’t get to look at the gun. So it languished in its box. Every six months, I might look at it, but I bet I didn’t fire 10 shots in the entire time I had it — until now. I want is to finally test this air rifle, to see if it operates anywhere near as good as it looks. Let me begin with a general description.
The speculation is that this rifle is a copy of the Diana model 34. I would say that it resembles a 34 in many ways — like the ball-bearing barrel detent and the centrally mounted safety switch; but in other ways, like the trigger, it’s different. I don’t think of it as a copy of anything.
My rifle is a .177-caliber breakbarrel, though this model also comes in .22 caliber. The barrel is 18.7 inches in length, and the entire rifle spans just over 45 inches. It’s fairly large. It weighs 7.7 lbs. and some of that can be attributed to the stock that is heavier than beech or walnut. You’ve noticed the huge hole in the butt. Setting styling aside, it’s there to decrease the weight of the very dense bamboo.
The metal is finished to a matte sheen, but it is uniform and reflects much more work than just a tumbled finish. The automatic safety button comes out the center of the end cap, making the rifle entirely ambidextrous.
There are a few small plastic parts on the rifle, namely the end cap, the safety and the triggerguard. The rest of the dark parts are all metal, including the large muzzlebrake, which is steel.
The bamboo stock is gorgeous — or at least that’s my opinion. It’s flawlessly finished to an ultra-smooth surface that’s been sealed with some kind of (probably) clear synthetic finish. I’ve seen other examples of this rifle with the bamboo stained medium brown like every other breakbarrel rifle stock in the world, so this blonde color is part of what attracts me.
Close examination of the wood reveals the laminated layers that went into making the whole stock. After careful scrutiny, I find no spots where wood filler has been applied. There’s shallow checkering on either side of the forearm, and the pistol grip has been left smooth. This is a quality stock.
Here you clearly see the bamboo laminations. Notice that there’s a center section that runs counter to the outer sections.
Whoever decided on the shape of the stock is either a shooter, or they listened to one, because this rifle is made to be held! It has a wide, flat forearm that’s perfect for holding in a field target position or just in a good artillery hold. Air Arms did the same thing with their TX200SR years ago, and I think the shape dates back to the British field target stocks of the 1980s. The pull is 14-1/4 inches from the very straight trigger blade to the center of the thick black ventilated rubber buttpad.
There are no sights, though the baseblock does have two rubber buttons that fill the screw holes for a rear sight on some of the cheaper B25 models. Scopes and other optical sights can be mounted to the 11mm dovetail grooves cut directly into top of the spring tube. There’s an anchor plate at the back of the dovetails to stop the scope mounts from moving under recoil.
The trigger is adjustable, though I must criticize it. It’s long and mushy, with no definite release point. It just goes off whenever it wants to. It’s certainly not heavy, but I would much prefer a 5-lb. trigger that has a sharply defined second stage over something vague like this. As I experiment more with the gun, perhaps I can adjust it to something more civilized. The owner’s manual warns that if the adjustment screw is turned out too far, the trigger loses its second stage and becomes unpredictable — which is exactly what I have.
I did try to adjust it, but the screw that adjusts the pull was turned out very far and would not go in without stripping the head. I think someone has put some thread-locking compound on it, or they’ve staked the threads. All I know is that even with the triggerguard off the gun I could not get that screw to turn very far. For the time being, it remains a light, vague and mushy single-stage trigger that releases with 1 lb., 13 oz. of pressure.
My rifle has supposedly been tuned, though I don’t know all that entails. I can see some aftermarket lithium grease on the baseblock, so perhaps it was just a lube tune. I’ll report more on that as I test the gun, but for now it cocks smoothly with 33 lbs. of effort — and it shoots smoothly, as well. There’s a fair amount of forward recoil, so I’ll assume the piston is on the heavy side and the stroke is a long one.
And, speaking of the baseblock, the one on this rifle is fastened to the spring tube with what appears to be a bolt and nut. That will allow adjusting the tension on the baseblock, which is sometimes a key to improving accuracy.
The cocking linkage is two-piece and articulated, so the cocking slot in the stock can be shorter. That cuts down on vibration when the gun fires, and with a powerful springer that’s always a good idea.
The rifle is rated to 1,000 f.p.s. in .177 caliber. The manufacturer doesn’t specify which pellets were used to test it, so I’ll assume they were lightweight lead pellets.
I started testing with the JSB Exact 8.4-grain dome. It averaged 818 f.p.s., but the spread was from 780 to 825 f.p.s. Actually, just one pellet went 780 f.p.s. All the rest were 817 and higher. At the average velocity, this pellet generates 12.48 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
Next, I tried the 7-grain RWS Hobby pellets. They averaged 950 f.p.s. and ranged from a low of 937 to a high of 961 f.p.s. At the average velocity, this pellet averaged 14.03 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
The last pellet I tried was the Beeman Kodiak — a 10.6-grain lead pellet. These averaged 757 f.p.s. and ranged from 744 to 764 f.p.s. At the average velocity, they generated 13.49 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.
So, the rifle shoots okay. It’s not especially consistent, but it’s also not too bad. The power is where it should be, and it seems to meet the advertised power specifications. It shoots smoothly but has a noticeable two-way recoil.
The manufacturer says to expect 0.20-inch groups at 10 meters, and I’ll assume they mean 5-shot groups. At 25 yards, I should be able to put 10 into a group a little smaller than three-quarters of an inch. We’ll see if I can do that in the next report.
by B.B. Pelletier
Adam Crowson is Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week.
This Nelson Lewis combination gun was made in the mid-19th century. It’s .38 caliber and 14 gauge.
A lot of readers have been waiting patiently for today’s report. Although we’re airgunners, we’re shooters first, and many of us appreciate the similarities between pneumatic guns and those that use black powder. Today’s subject gun was made about 150 years ago by a maker of some fame who made sniper rifles for use during the American Civil War. I’ve lived with this gun for several months now and have held it, admired it, considered it and wondered about it. And on Tuesday of last week, I took it to the range for its first outing.
On every TV show where old guns are shown, you’re advised to seek the services of a gunsmith before firing any old gun. They’re supposed to check the gun for safety. Last week, I discovered that I was the one performing that service on this piece.
While Mac was still visiting me several weeks ago, we pulled both locks out of the stock and examined them closely. They differ from each other only because one is for the right side and the other is for the left; but, in essence, they’re the same lock. The inletting in the stock is so precise that the left lock has to be “buttoned” into position to get it back in! It fits into an undercut section of the stock and cannot be inserted straight into its slot. A bolt passes through the left lock, through the stock and into the right lock. When tightened, it pulls both locks together in a fit so tight that a razor blade cannot be inserted between the stock and either of the two lockplates.
The locks are not complex, but they are made right and tight, which makes all the difference in the world. This is the right-hand shotgun lock.
The locks are back-action (meaning the hammer spring is located behind the tumbler, so the majority of the lock extends backward — rather than forward – from the hammer) and are remarkably simple in construction. Some file marks are still evident from the time each piece was fashioned by Lewis, who made all his own locks, triggers and barrels. For a short time, I was concerned about the gun having been “gunsmithed” because the rifle lock (operated by the rear trigger) fires with about 2 lbs. of pull and is glass-crisp. It feels too light for the gun, considering the hammer requires about 12 lbs. of effort to cock! But close examination under a 10x jeweler’s loupe shows no evidence of any work other than Lewis’ original job.
The rifle lock is on the left side of the gun, and the hammer on that side was a bit loose when I got it, so one of my gun buddies and I shimmed the square shaft on which the hammer rides with 0.0015″ shim stock. That took up all the play. Now there isn’t a hint of movement.
I removed both nipples and was pleased to see what good condition they were in. Both have tiny flash holes at their bottoms, exactly like they’re supposed to. Often, these holes will be enlarged from the hot gasses and cause greater pressure to flow back through the nipple and against the bottom of the hammer. They seem to be plated with platinum, which was a common touch on the finer guns of this period. The plating allows them to resist the erosive gasses of the gunpowder many times longer than plain steel. These are either original to the gun or are period replacements, and I would think at least the rifle nipple has to be a replacement.
Here you see the bottom of the rifle barrel nipple. It’s clearly in great condition despite its age. Notice that the breech plugs have been shaped into water drains, or “snails,” as they’re termed. They direct any water away from the nipples and also protect the barrel and lockplate from the erosive hot gasses that occur at firing. Much of the original nickel plating has been lost to these gasses.
I shined a powerful tactical flashlight down both nipple holes with the nipples removed to see down the barrels from the muzzle. Both were sparkling clean and shiny. The shotgun barrel, however, is not like any shotgun barrel of today. Instead of a mirror bore, this barrel still has tool marks, both horizontal and vertical, from when it was fashioned. You can see them in the photo of the muzzle in Part 1. I doubt there’s any choke — I can’t see evidence of one.
This photo is very revealing! Notice the graduated gap between the left and right breech plug? That’s not sloppy work, it’s intentional to provide clearance for when the plug shown right in this picture is unscrewed. Both nipples must be removed before the plugs come out. Notice the index marks that align the breech plugs with their barrels. They keep the nipples aligned with the hammers when the plugs are in place.
Then, I did some thinking about when this gun was made and what hunting was like at that time. This gun may have been made before the Civil War. Nelson Lewis made guns from 1843 into the 1880s at one location in Troy, New York. Internet research reveals that the building where he had his gun store and workshop is still standing on the corner of Congress and Church streets. Church Street is just an alley today, but Congress Street still exists, and his workshop has recently housed a small Greek sandwich shop.
It was a very different time
I can’t prove exactly when this gun was made; but as a combination gun, it’s very different from what we think of today. Let’s use the Savage model 24 for comparison. The model 24 is a modern combination gun with a rifle barrel and a shotgun barrel — just like this Lewis gun. The 24 is superposed, where this Lewis gun is side-by-side, or a Cape gun as some would call it. But Nelson Lewis also made combination guns with superposed barrels. A Savage model 24 is a lightweight, handy gun that’s useful for hunting all manner of game. The Lewis gun is also useful this way, but it’s not light!
As I reported in Part 1, it weighs 9 lbs. It’s decidedly muzzle-heavy and would not swing like a modern shotgun. But while thinking about the time period when it was used, it dawned on me that this gun may not have been designed to be used as a “handy” gun in the same terms we would think of today. It was handy because it fired both a single bullet and shot, of course, but I don’t think it was made for shooting birds on the wing.
Hunters in America didn’t always shoot birds on the wing back in 1850. They often shot them on the roost. In those days, game abounded and sportsmanship wasn’t the same as it is today. In both England and the eastern U.S., there were men in small boats called punts, and they were shooting ducks by the hundreds on the water with a small cannon called a punt gun. Nobody thought anything of a lone hunter shooting a few ducks, geese and swans while they were on the ground or the water. Yes, I said swans. Why do you think they called it “swan shot”?
“Shooting flying” is the name given to the sport of wingshooting. The flintlock made it more feasible to shoot a flying bird than anything previous; and the percussion lock, with its instantaneous ignition, coupled with the general improvement in the power of gunpowder at about the same time (1830-1840), made shooting flying gain popularity. But a meat hunter, subsistence hunter or just a plain hunter, wasn’t always interested in shooting as a sport. He was out to get food, plain and simple.
This Nelson Lewis combination gun is no more a subsistence gun than a Dodge Viper is a car for a soccer mom. Yes, it can do the job and yes, it seems to have all the necessary qualifications, but subsistence hunters can and do get along with a lot less. This is a fine sporting gun for the man who has the money to spend and wants something special. Just how special I will now discuss.
Nelson Lewis didn’t make up many guns (if any) on speculation. They were nearly all made to order, because at the price a person had to pay, which was several months’ wages for laborers, customers demanded exactly what they wanted. It’s my belief that the customer who ordered this particular gun was reasonably well-to-do, and he was also a man with very specific tastes. I believe the gun, itself, shows us that.
I’ve now seen six or seven of these Nelson Lewis combination guns in various auctions and on websites, as well as in the book by Ned Roberts, The Muzzleloading Cap Lock Rifle. They’re all similar in size, weight and caliber — with one exception. While more than half of the guns I’ve seen have the lollipop rear peep sight, mine is the only one so far that also has a hooded or globe front sight. That steel hood is there for just one purpose — to protect the thin post-and-bead “pinhead” target front sight — a sight that belongs on a target rifle.
The tiny post-and-bead front sight was meant for the most precise aiming possible with iron sights in the Nelson Lewis combination gun’s day. It seems out of place on a combination gun. Notice the beautiful condition of the rifle’s bore at the muzzle!
Remember — this is a combination gun. A gun that is both a rifle and a shotgun. It’s main purpose is for getting meat of all kinds. It’s not a target rifle, because that would have just a single barrel, double-set triggers and probably a false muzzle for more careful loading of the bullet. It’s not a shotgun, because that would be at least two pounds lighter and not muzzle-heavy. This is a meat gun — pure and simple.
So, why does it need target sights? Who puts a Lyman Super Targetspot scope on a Savage model 24? Yet, this Nelson Lewis combination gun from the mid-19th century has sights that belong on the finest target rifles of the day. Why? What about the gun requires such a precision sight, when it also has a traditional sporting rear sight mounted forward of the breech, between the barrels (see a picture of that sight in Part 1)?
These are all interesting topics to ponder, but they don’t tell us anything about how the gun really works. For that, we’ve got to get real!
When I arrived at the 50-yard range last week, all these thoughts about the gun were rambling around inside my head. Did the owner want a meat gun that was also part target rifle? And, if so, how accurate would it be?
I was about to shoot a gun that was more than a little strange. And this could be the first time it’s been fired in decades! So, as a continuance of my careful examination, the first thing I did was fire a cap on the nipple of the rifle barrel. There was a moment of panic when the caps from one manufacturer proved too small for the nipple; fortunately, the Remington No. 11 caps I had fit perfectly. I’d guessed that the No. 10 on the nipple meant the cap size, and it may well have been a size 10 of a century ago, but today a No. 11 cap fits.
After the cap fired successfully, I loaded a charge of powder into the barrel and tamped it down with a cloth wad. There was no bullet for this shot, as I was still testing the gun. That charge fired perfectly. After that, I did something I’ve never done before. I cleaned the bore with a damp cleaning patch, followed by two dry ones. According to many authors, this is the only way to do fine (accurate) shooting with black powder.
The bore was cleaned and dried after every shot. This practice was universal among target shooters in the 19th century.
Then it was time to load the first ball. For the record, I’m using fresh GOEX FFg powder. You may be wondering how I figured out the correct powder charge for this rifle. It was simple, really. I used an adjustable black powder measure and adjusted it to a little more powder than I use in my .32-caliber Thompson-Center rifle. How did I figure that powder charge? I guessed! Was I right? I seem to have been, because that rifle shot a nice tight 5-shot group at 50 yards its first time at the range.
Black powder works differently than smokeless. You don’t have to weigh each charge. You measure black powder by volumeinstead of weight, and I have enough experience with black powder guns that I won’t overload the gun. The problem may be that I load it too light, but that gets refined the more I shoot. I fill the powder measure to level full, and that’s what goes into the gun. I discovered that I do need a funnel with a really tiny mouth to fit into the muzzle, but I improvised this day with a funnel made from paper.
I used a paper funnel to drop the black powder down the bore of the rifle.
The first patch was laid over the muzzle, and a .375 swaged round ball was centered and pressed into the muzzle with my thumb. I could see this patch was going to be too large, and of course it was. When I started the ball down the barrel with the short starter, the patch closed over the top of the ball and then extended a quarter-inch above it as it was rammed down. That’s way too much patch!
The ball is pressed into the muzzle in the center of a greased patch. This patch is way too big for this ball.
The short starter is used to start the ball down the bore. At this point, the patch material had bunched up around the ball and was fighting the loading effort.
This ball was difficult to ram down until the very end of its travel, at which point I was able to feel the ball settle against the powder charge. It’s very important to always seat the ball on the powder with the same force, so this lessening of effort at the end of the ram was a providential thing. The last step in the loading process was to put a fresh percussion cap on the nipple. I then rested the gun in my rifle rest and settled in for the shot. Once I was comfortable, I pulled the hammer back to the full cock position, making the rifle ready to fire.
When ramming a ball down the bore it’s very important that you purse your lips just right!
The trigger-pull was light and glass-crisp, as noted earlier. That first shot fired with authority. The report sounded sharp, as it should when properly loaded. The recoil was very light and not bothersome to my eye that was very close to the lollipop rear peep. Fortunately, this peep folds forward for storage, so if my shooting glasses contact it during recoil it will simply lay down. I have the same setup with my Ballard rifle that recoils harder, and I always push the rear sight forward a bit with every shot.
Getting set to touch one off.
Crack! The shot is off.
I had envisioned the first shot going to the X-ring, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the shot went wide at 10 o’clock in the 7 ring. Bummer! My thought was that the oversized patch was the culprit, but only more shooting would tell me for sure. Fortunately, I had a batch of smaller size patches with me as well, so I got them out for the next loading. But before that happened, the barrel needed to be cleaned.
The hammer was pulled back to half-cock, and a damp cleaning patch was run down the bore and back out with a satisfying hydraulic pop. This was followed by two dry cleaning patches, the second of which had very little dirt on it when it came out. Then, the rifle was loaded in exactly the same way as before, with the exception that the new smaller patch was used. This time, the ball started easier and rammed easier, though even this patch was still too large for the rifle. Now, before you point out the obvious and tell me that I could have cut the patches down, let me tell you that occurred to me on the range. But I didn’t have any scissors, and a knife makes a poor patch cutter, unless you’re cutting the patch right at the muzzle. I usually do cut off my patches at the muzzle with the patch knife that I had on the range this day, but that can leave scratches on the muzzle — which I don’t mind on my Thompson-Center rifles but wouldn’t think of doing to this vintage gun!
The second shot went to the 10 o’clock position at the edge of the black, cutting the nine ring. That was more like it! I then cleaned and loaded several more times until about the fifth shot. That patch also bunched up from being too large; again, I had a hard time ramming the ball. The shot went out to 7 o’clock in the 6-ring! This demonstrates the importance of a properly patched ball.
The first shot went high and left. Then I changed patches and they started landing in the center of the target, but high. Shot five was a thin patch that got bunched-up during loading and caused unnecessary pressure to ram it down. That shot went wide to the left and low. There are two balls in the same hole at the top center of the target.
I fired a total of seven shots in all, and two of them were fliers from patches that were too tight. The other five went into a group that measures 1.903 inches between the centers of the two shots farthest apart. Two of those shots are in the same hole and have to be examined closely to see that they’re separate shots. Given the difficulties I had with the oversized patches, I think this first session went well. Of course, I’d hoped for better, but this was the first time and there was a lot to be learned.
Seven shots may not sound like a lot, but it took about 45 minutes with the loading, cleaning, picture-taking and lip-pursing. I did notice that I fell into a pattern as time went on; and by the fourth shot, I was loading them pretty much the same every time. Only that one shot (No. five with the patch that got stuck) got in the way of a perfect session.
When I returned home, I cleaned the rifle barrel by removing the barrels from the action and then removing the rifle barrel nipple. I stood the barrels in a shallow tub and poured boiling water down the muzzle of the rifled barrel. The water rushed out of the threaded nipple hole, carrying all the ash and soot with it. The boiling water left the barrels extremely hot, which made any residual water evaporate immediately. When the barrels cooled a bit (but were still very warm to the touch), I ran a clean patch with Ballistol through the bore. The outside of the breech and the nipple were both cleaned with a brass brush and assembled once the bore had been oiled. The barrel exteriors were wiped with a rag soaked in Ballistol.
Getting ready for next time
I ordered some Irish linen handkerchiefs off eBay to use as possible patch material. I thought they probably wouldn’t arrive in time, so I cut down the smallest patches I used at the range this time by holding a nickel over them and trimming around the edges with sharp scissors and lightly oiled the patches with Ballistol. They’re now roughly the same size as the two patches I found in the patch box when I got the rifle. I think the smaller amount of material will allow these patches to load more smoothly (as they are supposed to).
When the Irish linen handkerchiefs arrived, I have cut a strip of linen into nickel-sized patches that I’ve left dry (for the moment). I’ll moisten them with saliva at the range. According to Ned Roberts (of .257 Roberts fame), that gives the absolute last bit of accuracy with a patched ball. That assumes the patches are of the right thickness, and this material seems very thin. We’ll just have to wait and see. At any rate, I now have two different patches to try next time I’m out, and they’re both sized correctly for the balls I’m shooting. A saliva-moistened patch is supposed to have a slight edge in accuracy over a greased or oiled patch. Since saliva can rust the barrel, this kind of patch is used only for target practice, where the gun will be fired and cleaned within minutes. For hunting, an oiled patch is better.
I have some specific goals for next time. One is to get a better-fitting patch so the ball doesn’t have to be rammed so hard. It’s essential for accuracy to always seat the bullet on the powder charge with the same pressure every time. You can do that best when you’re pushing the ramrod down instead of ramming it. I now have patches of two different thicknesses to try, so we should see some results the next time out.
A second goal will be to weigh the powder charge I’m throwing and adjust it to what the vintage books say is the right load. Some of you may have noticed that in Part 1, I referred to the rifle as a .39 caliber, while in this report I’m calling it a .38. The ball I’m shooting is a Hornady swaged 0.375-inch round ball, and the patch does take up some space, so the caliber is just larger than .38. For that reason, I think it should more correctly be called a .38 caliber.
According to Roberts, a .38-caliber ball should use about a 35-40 grain charge, with 35 grains being closer to correct. I’ll weigh the charge I was using the last time out and adjust the powder measure to throw the “right” charge, if necessary.
Why write about firearms?
I can’t do too many of these firearms-only blogs; but since there’s so much crossover between black powder and compressed-air guns, I feel that today’s report contains several good lessons for all of us. Also, since I’m not that familiar with either this muzzleloading gun or with my Ballard, you get to watch over my shoulder as I try to learn something new. That’s useful for any new airgunner who needs to do the same kinds of things I’m doing here to learn about his new airgun.
Have you noticed that I’ve not subscribed to any forums and asked other shooters what they think about this combination gun? That’s because, in my research, I find that most people don’t know very much about guns like this, so they make stuff up or they guess. The same holds true for airguns, doesn’t it? Whenever I read a question from a new shooter about a gun he’s just bought or hopes to buy, asking me what sort of modifications I think he should do to it, I shudder. I’m saying don’t do anything at all until you have shot that gun enough to know it well. Then, you won’t be tempted to make unnecessary changes that might not be reversible. That’s the real lesson in today’s report.
And, now, for something completely different…
In 1948, the Johnson Indoor Target Gun sold for $15. That was a lot of money for an airgun in those days. What kind of powerplant did the Johnson have and what caliber was it? The answer will be in Monday’s blog, but please feel free to leave your answer in the comments.