Mike Morton explains how to prepare your pellets for best-in-class performance every single time
It’s no secret that individual barrels work best with certain pellets. Some barrels are happy to work well with more than one type of pellet, while others will only deliver the very best results with one brand. Let’s assume you’ve found your barrel’s favourite. What next?
Some centrefire rifle shooters enjoy making their own ammunition, which is known as reloading. It’s a rewarding hobby that can work out cheaper than buying over-the-counter ammo; but its biggest draw is the fact that the ammunition can be optimised for a particular rifle barrel and chamber. Airgun ammo can be optimised, too, through a combination of washing, lubing, head sizing and weighing.
Most pellet manufacturers do an incredible job of producing high-quality ammunition made to very tight tolerances, and they manage to deliver all this at an incredibly low price – roughly 2p per pellet in .177 calibre. Because of this, many shooters are happy to use their pellets straight out of the tin, often getting some superb results.
Cycling fans will probably have heard of Team Sky manager Sir Dave Brailsford, who has an eye for identifying areas where minor gains can be made. These small improvements seemingly offer little advantage in themselves, but can deliver a much greater benefit when used in conjunction with one another. It’s the same here. Of the four steps we’re about to look at I believe two have a major effect on rifle consistency and accuracy, while the others offer only minimal gains. But put all of them together and it’s a winning combination.
IT’S TIME TO WASH UP
Years ago if you bought a tin of pellets there was a good chance you’d also be buying a generous dose of accompanying lead swarf. The argument here is that some of the swarf can collect on the surface of the pellet, potentially gathering inside the skirt as well, and therefore changing the pellet’s weight or otherwise adversely affecting the way it travels down the barrel.
Quality control has come a long way and I can’t remember the last time I opened a tin of pellets where swarf was a big problem. Nevertheless, if you wash your pellets – as we’re about to do – and then examine your rinse water you’ll still find small amounts of lead particles have been removed from your ammo. Will this change your downrange accuracy results for the better? Probably not in itself – but remember Brailsford’s marginal gains.
So let’s get washing. You’ll need a bowl or jar to place your pellets in while they’re being washed, warm water, washing-up liquid, a sieve, a towel and either a hairdryer or a heat gun. It’s not a bad idea to use a dedicated bowl, sieve and towel just for this task because lead is a poisonous metal.
Make up a warm, soapy solution in your container and gently pour in a whole tin of pellets. Swirl the pellets around and agitate them enough to loosen up any of the dreaded swarf or release agents that may have been used in the pellet manufacturing process. Rinse the ammo in the sieve under warm running water. If you’re feeling particularly keen, repeat the process. Isn’t all this pouring, swirling and agitating going to damage the pellets? No, they’re tougher than you think. They’ve already come a long way, typically from either the Czech Republic or Germany, and likely will have withstood that journey pretty well.
The next step is to dry the pellets, and I like to do this while they’re still in the sieve. A hairdryer will do the job but this will take quite a long time. A heat gun is my preferred option, but I take care to keep mine on the lowest heat setting, which is still hotter than the hairdryer. Excess water can be soaked up by a towel placed underneath, which also protects your work surface from the heat.
So we now have a tin’s worth of perfectly clean and dry ammo. If you shoot these pellets now will you see any noticeably different results from those shot straight from the tin? I doubt it. So what’s the point? Again, let’s keep those cumulative marginal gains in mind.
It’s now time to lube those pellets, and the obvious choice for this is Power Pellet Lube from Napier (from £3.83 at www.napieruk.com), which is readily available. It’s a red-tinted liquid that, according to the manufacturer, improves accuracy, cleans, protects from corrosion and increases velocity. Let’s talk about how to apply it, then discuss what it may or may not do.
A great time to apply this product is immediately after the washing and drying phase, while the pellets are still warm. The lubricant will coat a heated pellet far better than a cold one, applying a uniform film over the entire surface of your precious projectiles. A microfibre towel is ideal.
If you are carrying out this operation for the first time you may need to pour quite a lot of lube onto your microfibre towel, but it isn’t being wasted. When you’ve finished lubing your current batch of pellets fold up the towel and keep it in an air-tight container for next time. You’ll only need a few drops per batch thereafter.
Okay, we had clean pellets and now we have clean, lubed pellets. While this isn’t a proper review of Power Pellet Lube, my own findings on its claims are as follows:
Does it improve accuracy? To be honest, I haven’t found any noticeable difference in group size between standard pellets and those that have been lubed. But, as the Americans say, your mileage may vary.
Does it clean a pellet? Yes, especially if you haven’t already washed them. And it’s a great cleaner and rust protector for the bore of your rifle as well. One of the most important functions of the lube is to form a protective layer over the pellets to prevent oxidation. Heavily oxidised pellets display a rough, uneven surface that will definitely affect uniformity, consistency and accuracy.
Does the lube increase velocity? In my experience it actually has the opposite effect, probably due to the fact that the slippery pellet has less resistance when travelling down the barrel, and therefore less air pressure can build up behind it. Does this matter? Not really, as long as the velocity from pellet to pellet remains consistent.
Another key function of pellet lube is to prevent the ammo picking up any lead deposits from the lands of the rifle’s barrel, affecting the balance of the pellet and destabilising it in flight.
(HEAD) SIZE MATTERS
I remember when I began taking a more serious interest in my air rifle shooting. I understood reasonably quickly why it was important to test pellets to see whether some worked better than others. But different head sizes? That was an unwelcome complication in my early days of club target shooting. However, it was one that needed further investigation.
Let’s look at .177-calibre pellets. A direct metric conversion is 4.4958mm, but pellets from the same manufacturer and of the same type are sometimes offered in different head sizes. You can find tins of .177 JSB Exact, for example, offered in either 4.52mm or 4.53mm head sizes.
So you’ve tested different types of pellet, you’ve moved on to testing different head sizes and have found one size definitely seems to perform better in your barrel than another. Is that the end of it? It should be but it isn’t. If you take a tin and actually measure the pellets inside you may be unpleasantly surprised to find a variation in head sizes. This may very well account for some of those flyers you’ve been getting.
It’s difficult to reliably measure head size with conventional instruments, such as a digital caliper, so I use a US-made device called a Pelletgage. This consists of a laser-cut metal plate and clear plastic guide frame with cut-outs for pellets sized from exactly 4.46mm up to 4.55mm. Drop a pellet into one of the holes: if it falls in try it in the next size down. Keep going until the pellet won’t fall into the hole. When you’ve found the smallest hole into which it will fall you’ve found its true head size.
I have a tin of JSB Exact with a label on the bottom telling me they are meant to measure 4.52mm. Having used the Pelletgage I didn’t find a single pellet that actually measured that size! All were either 4.49mm or 4.50mm – a huge variation from what they are supposed to be. I know from experience that the rifle with which I was intending to shoot them prefers ‘true’ 4.52mm pellets. This tin is no good for this rifle because the pellets are too small and, as expected, accuracy would suffer.
Subsequent tins of JSB Exact marked 4.52 from a different batch proved to be closer to the magic 4.52mm, with all the pellets measuring either the advertised size or 4.51mm. This is why some people, having found their perfect pellet, will buy as many tins as they can from a specific batch. Accuracy is born from consistency.
In practical terms, I’ve found my rifles are generally fairly happy to shoot slightly different head sizes, but within a fairly narrow range. Find your ideal size and the barrel will probably shoot well enough with a head size one-hundredth of a millimetre either side. Accuracy declines the most when pellets go even smaller than this. An undersized pellet does not grip the rifling sufficiently, and some of the air behind this ammo will be blasted over it rather than converted into a consistent amount of energy. Similarly, a pellet with too large a head will not perform as well as it should because the rifling in the bore will grip the ammo too tightly, adding friction.
WEIGHING IT ALL UP
Just as a typical tin will contain pellets of contrasting head sizes, it will also contain ammo of varying weights – which will give different velocities when fired. Weighing individual pellets is, if anything, even more tedious than checking their head size, but it is necessary to ensure consistency.
Electronic scales have quite a bit of trouble weighing extremely light objects to within a few hundredths of a grain. A typical set of pellet scales is not that consistent – the very opposite of what we’re trying to achieve! If you weigh a pellet, remove it and weigh it again; the chances are you will get a close, but not identical, result to the first measurement. For this reason I like to zero the scales and then take only one reading per pellet. My scales were bought on eBay, but I’ve tried weighing pellets with a far more expensive set of scales meant for measuring smokeless powder for my centrefire rifles and achieved no better results. Nevertheless, both sets of scales are certainly accurate enough to identify the very heaviest and lightest pellets in the batch. These will be used for plinking rather than competition shooting or hunting.
IS IT ALL WORTH IT?
If you employ all four pellet prep techniques then you have your work cut out. It takes a long time! Washing and lubing is straightforward enough, but sizing and weighing take ages. If you start off full of good intentions to prepare a whole tin, the chances are you’ll end up getting bored halfway through. To preserve your home life it may be best to prepare a smaller batch of just 50 pellets at a time.
So, after all this effort, you have a batch of pellets that should perform far better than those straight from the tin. Find a wind-free day and shoot a few groups with some pellets that haven’t been pampered. Then try a few groups with your lovingly prepared match-grade ammo. See the difference and smile!
Accurate ammunition is one step on the journey to ensure your rifle is an accurate rifle. Any errors or disappointments will be down to other factors, such as rifle set-up or shooting technique. You can now be confident that you are shooting with the very best pellets available for your rifle.