Friday, May 30, 2008

Same Bait Time, Same Bait Station

After the mysterious incident at the bait station in which a pellet seemed to pass harmlessly through a rat like it was some ghostly apparition, I decided to make some changes to my approach. I surmised from the rat's skittish behavior that the reddish plastic over my flashlight wasn't as undetectable as it once seemed -- especially when the batteries were at full strength -- so I needed a new tack. I 'borrowed' some of my wife's red nail polish, removed the light bulb from my Maglite and painted it. After it dried, I replaced it and flicked the switch within my darkened garage. I was pleased to see a beam of truly deep red light issue forth.

I also decided that I would go back to using Crow Magnum pellets. I knew that if the JSB had merely 'pin-cushioned' the rat, not doing enough damage on impact to drop him in his tracks, then the massive hollow point of the CM was the right solution. I went out that evening intent on zeroing the gun with the CMs, but the wind was howling that day, gusting over 30 miles per hour. No matter what I did, I could not get the pellets to group. Disappointed, I went back to the JSBs. These, at least, I was able to keep striking within a reasonable circle.

As the sun was setting, I baited again with the sun butter/Cheerio combo and settled in at the patio table. It wasn't more than five minutes later that the dark silhouette of a rat could be seen creeping towards the red-lit bait station. He was very cautious, but the lure of the high-protein concoction was just too great. At last he climbed onto the wood platform, almost directly facing me, and started licking the sun butter of the front of the station. I zeroed on his noggin and squeezed the trigger.

There was a sharp squeal, then a thump on the ground as he fell off the fence. I could hear thrashing on the darkened ground. I ran out immediately and found him back under the fence as if he had made an attempt to get back into cover. The pellet had gone in right behind his left ear and out his back on the right. I left the remainder of the bait as an enticement for further participants, and called it a night.

Ol' Blue Eyes

Sure enough, the bait was gone the next morning. So a couple days later, I decided to set up again. I tried another round of target practice with the Crow Magnums since the winds had died down a bit. I had a promising couple of first shots, but then the groups went wild again. Much to my chagrin, it was starting to look like this rifle just didn't love the CMs. That was very disappointing because I really love their knockdown power. In any case, I switched over to Beeman Field Target Specials which were spot on.

Darkness started to descend as I baited and got comfortable on the patio. This time an ambitious rat came at about 8:40pm - trying to get a jump on the crowds at the bait station! He gave me about the same head-on view as the last rat, and I didn't waste any time putting the crosshairs on him. Thunk! The rat flopped and fell off the fence, stone dead.

The early rat gets the sun butter, and express delivery of a pellet to the bean

He was a little guy, only about 11 inches nose to tail. I quickly bagged him up and returned to the patio to see if I could coax out another. Sure enough, at about 9:30 a larger rat poked his head over the back of the fence. He stretched down from above, then ended up sitting right on the bait station. I put down the binoculars and shouldered the gun. But in that time, he had scooted off and did not return. I packed it in about 45 minutes later. So I know there's another big one out there for the taking.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Now Where Were We?

Let me start this post with a couple of notes. First off, I want to apologize for taking such an extended layoff since my last post. Today is January 14, 2009. It has been over six months since I posted about the rat I sniped from my perch atop the shed. Over the summer, I had a lot of ratting adventures in the yard, but I could never seem to get it together and get the stories posted. For those who had become loyal readers of this blog (all three of you!), I feel terrible that I neglected it (and you) for so long. Please forgive me.

Accept this FTD 'Pick Me Up' bouquet along with my apologies

That said, I am now trying to get caught up with the backlog of stories. I made notes and drafts of some stories as they happened, so I am rounding those out and will post them as they are finished. For organizing purposes they will be cataloged by the dates they happened as opposed to the dates when I finally got my lazy ass around to posting them. So look for new posts to show up in May/June/July/etc. of 2008. But hey, enough of my yacking. Let's boogie!

Okay, so after my rooftop sniping success, I went top shelf again one other time. In spite of my best attempts to remain silent and undetected, for some reason, the rats would not emerge. I knew they were close -- I could hear them in the bushes and I knew they were being drawn to the sunflower seed butter. But even after waiting for well over an hour, not one showed his head while I waited. About 45 minutes into my wait, the batteries on my twin flashlights started to fade. I had deliberately not put in fresh batteries because I wanted the light to be slightly subdued. But by the one hour mark, the light had dwindled to the point that I could no longer see the target area. So I decided to call it a night.

Climbing down from the shed roof, I walked around the perimeter of the yard, scanning the blackberries with my flashlight. In at least five different spots in the yard, I heard shuffling in the bushes when I drew near. It seemed as if every 25 feet or so, there was another rat to be heard back amidst the vines. I got the unsettling feeling that I was surrounded. It was nearly midnight, and I was dead tired -- which made it an even more surreal experience. I went back over to the walkway/gap between the garage and shed to check one last time on my bait station when I heard more shuffling. A moment later I saw a medium-sized roof rat climbing over the stump of an old rose vine at the base of the brambles along the side fence. I had my gun, but the rat disappeared before I could even consider lining it up. Baiting back in this tight, confined area just wasn't conducive to continued success. Clearly I needed to find a new means of taking the fight to the enemy.

The next day, I moved the bait station to a new spot along the fence on the opposite (south) side of the back yard. This placement was closer to the bird feeders. It was also close to (even more) blackberry and rose bushes from which I had heard activity that night. I baited it that night with sun butter and a few Cheerios to see if the rats would find it. Sure enough, in the morning it was picked clean.

My amateur diagram of the yard with key features noted

The new bait station placement was preferable in a lot of ways. It allowed me to shoot from a comfortable sitting position on the patio. Also, it was at a distance of around 17 yards which allowed me to use the scoped R1 again. And that distance also meant that I could wait without having to fear every tiny noise or movement I made. I would have to be quiet, sure, but not a statue.

I placed lemons on the bait station to use as stand-ins for rodents to get in some target practice. I wanted to find the most accurate pellet for the job, and also wanted to make sure my scope was zeroed for that specific pellet and this new distance. I found that my new .20 JSB Exacts were going more or less where I wanted them so I set up that night for the shootout. In the shed, I had some old bamboo tiki torch holders, so I took the torch part out, drove the stake into the lawn and placed one of my red-tinted flashlights on top, pointing at the bait station. I turned it on at dusk, took my place at the patio table, and waited for darkness -- and rats -- to descend.

It was right at 9pm (the 'witching hour' for most rats around my place) when I spotted a rat emerge from the vegetation about five feet to the left of the bait station. The top rail of the fence was a perfect highway to the sun butter, but the rat hesitated. He seemed shy of the red light. I had replaced the batteries, so it was shining particularly brightly. In fact, the light looked almost more white than red. The rat started along the fence rail but quickly balked as he got closer to the brightest area centered on the bait station. Instead of continuing on, he jumped up onto the top of the fence and disappeared into the darkness of some branches that overhung into the neighbor's yard.

It was about fifteen minutes later when I spotted him again. This time he must have been on an unseen branch or vine because he was supporting himself on the other side of the fence, peeking over like the neighbor from Home Improvement.

Is that you, Wilson?

He finally worked up the nerve to stretch down from above/behind the bait station and start eating the goods I had smeared on the base of it. He was now perpendicular to me -- his head pointing down and his tail up -- but I had a perfect look at him. I raised the rifle and brought him into scope view. I centered on his head and squeezed the trigger - thunk! Through the scope I saw him leap off the fence and onto the ground, then I heard some thrashing in the bushes below. I was certain I'd hit him, but I didn't want to break cover. I was going to take all comers this night. So I waited about ten minutes for another rat to show before my curiosity got the better of me and I went out to retrieve the carcass. When I got out there, it was gone.

I searched high and low in the darkness, but could find no sign of him, not even a drop of blood was to be seen. I could clearly see where the pellet had gone into the wood of the bait station, and it looked like my shot went where I wanted it -- maybe a tad higher than intended, but it definitely looked like a trajectory that would have put it through the rat. In fact, I could even see small traces of rat hair sticking out of the hole in the wood. But no blood. Could I have somehow just barely grazed him? I doubted it, but the lack of blood or a body was hard to refute. Of course it was entirely possible that I could have wounded him gravely, but that he had enough life in him to sneak back into the thicket before expiring -- that's happened before. Another search in the daylight of the following morning did not reveal anything new. All I was left with was a tiny tuft of hair and uncertainty.

And like that... he's gone

However, the daylight did reveal that either he, or another rat had come back in the night and polished off the bait. So one way or another, there is more action to be had.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fire from the Sky

When I left off in my last post, I had observed the first rat activity of the Spring -- a sizable roof rat that had taken up residence in the blackberries on the side of the yard. And I had hatched a crazy plan to bag him with a shot from the roof of the shed. You can get caught up on the story here.

It was a Thursday evening when I first sat on the roof of the shed, gathering intelligence on the rat's habits, and his preferred dining hour. I took Friday night off (but still baited with Cheerios and sun butter), with my plan to go rooftop-sniper-style on Saturday night.

Well, as the old saying goes, "It never rains but it pours". On Saturday morning, I went out back to enjoy the lovely day. As I started to take a seat at the patio table, I looked out and saw the large form of a rat slithering about beneath the bird feeders on the cherry-plum tree. I immediately recognized it as a fat Norway rat, which meant it was a different rat than the one by the shed. So as quickly as I could, I crept back into the house and broke out my R1. Just recently I had received a new shipment of .20 caliber pellets (Crosman Premiers, JSB Exacts, H&N Round Balls, and JSB Predators) and had only fired each type about 10 times in the R1. But from the limited shooting, I had been impressed with the accuracy of the Crosman Premiers (CPs) as well as the JSB Exacts. So I loaded a CP into the rifle and crept back out to the patio table.

My view from the table

The rat was a bold one. He was munching fallen sunflower seeds which I had just that morning refilled the feeders with. He would come out along the wooden rail and just hang out while he scavenged. If something spooked him -- like a scrub jay swooping in to scare the sparrows and finches off the feeders -- he would dash back into the ivy cover, but otherwise he was content to just be out.

So propping my elbows on the table, I lined him up in the Simmons scope. He was about 16 yards away, and hard to see down in the little dirt depression that ran adjacent to the wooden rail. I could see where he was, but couldn't make out the detail of where his head was -- the grass was in the way.

Just then, a neighbor behind us fired up his lawnmower, and the sound of the engine caused the rat to raise his head up. His body was essentially facing me, but his head was now turned slightly to his right (my left) looking over to where the mower roared. I put the crosshair in his ear and squeezed the trigger. Thunk! went the rifle, and I saw the rat roll over, wriggling his tail and kicking his hind legs into the air. By the time I got out there, he had expired.

He was easily the match of the biggest rat I've gotten. A hefty bugger with a thick tail, and kind of a long snout for a Norway. The pellet had gone in just behind his left ear and had traveled three-quarters of the way through his body before exiting just to the left of his spine.

I reckoned this was the perfect way to start the day that (as I planned) would culminate in the thumping of that big ol' roof rat.

Another 16-incher for the trophy room

Later that afternoon, I brought out my open-sighted Gamo .177 to make sure I was still spot on with the zero for the 10-12 foot distance from the shed roof. When I printed these patterns on my targets, I knew I was ready for the party.

So Saturday evening came and I began to set up. I spread out a blanket and a couple of old pillows on the roof of the shed trying to make my sniper's nest as comfortable as possible. I set up the twin red-filtered flashlights in the same manner as on Thursday and brought up my rifle, already loaded with a Crow Magnum pellet. But an hour and a half went by with me sitting up on that roof and nary a sign of the stinking rat. One thing I noticed was that the moon was noticeably brighter even though it was only two nights later than the last time I'd been up. I wondered if that made the rat shy about coming out (due to it being lighter out for any potential nighttime predators) or if the moonlight was showing me off to the rat. Most likely it was neither. I guess I had gotten a little lazy after the amazing success of Thursday's recon mission, so I wasn't as still or silent as I needed to be. It was at this point that I really regretted not having had my rifle with me that first night when I had so many perfect looks. Tired of freezing my ass off, I climbed down at about 10:30pm and packed it in. You win this round, rat.

Sunday morning showed that even though he was shy while I waited for him, at some point in the evening (or morning) he did come out and eat the bait. So Sunday night I baited again with the Cheerio/sun butter combo. I didn't plan to go rooftop again, I just wanted to test whether he would take the bait at or around 9pm, or if in fact he was now shy because of the brightening moon. I went out just after 9pm with a flashlight and tried to do a stealthy approach. Shining the light on the bait station I saw that some bait was already gone! And I heard a shuffling in the blackberries from the startled rat. Now I knew that it was only my incompetence on Saturday night (not the moon) that had kept him away, and that realization pissed me off.

The impenetrable blackberry jungle

I immediately went into the house, got my gun, loaded it and stamped over to the back end of the shed with my left hand both supporting the rifle and holding the flashlight at once. I heard more scrambling in the hedge, and this time the sounds were getting louder - the rat was coming right at me. I frantically scanned the brambles with my flashlight and gun, straining to catch sight of the beast as it drew nearer and nearer. It had all the suspense of that scene in Aliens when Ripley and the Marines are trapped in that room, looking at the motion tracker, watching the blips as the creatures close in on them.

They mostly come at night. Mostly

Well, I never did get a glimpse of the bastard, and soon the sounds of movement were gone. But my blood was still running hot. So I went into the house, put on warmer clothes and climbed back up on the shed, this time taking care to be as silent as possible. Prior to climbing up, I placed the flashlight pointing towards the bait station, this time mounting it on a convenient spot in a crook of the rain gutter drain.

After my failure the previous night, my strategy was to keep a low profile and try to remain as invisible as possible. So I silently climbed the ladder, crawled onto the other side of the roof -- the side that slanted away from the bait station -- placed the two pillows on the shingles and laid belly down on the roof with my head, arms and rifle over the roof's peak, looking down onto the bait station. Then I settled in for a long wait, determined to stay until the vermin surrendered again to that sweet, sweet sun butter.

The view from my sniper's nest

I quickly found that this was not a comfortable position. Within ten minutes, my hands were getting tingly, numb and cold. I had to slowly and quietly move them down to my sides to get the feeling back in them. I was now laying with my left ear on the pillow, not even looking at the bait station. I figured if anything were going to happen, I would hear the devil moving through the vines long before I would see him. But without my arms over the top of the roof supporting me, I had slipped down slightly, and now my feet were dangling off the eave, pointing down to the ground. But I was determined to stay put.

I was rewarded about 30 minutes later when I heard the soft sounds of something slipping through the branches again, below and to my right. I slowly raised myself back up, this time placing my elbows on the peak of the roof, supporting the weight of my head and shoulders. About ten minutes later, I could dimly make out a slightly darker form on the gate, just outside the red light cast on the bait station. I kept blinking to make sure I was actually seeing what I thought I was seeing, but I remained totally motionless. I moment later, the rat stretched out further into the light and grabbed a Cheerio just to the right of the bait station. When he ran back into the bushes to eat it, I took the opportunity to bring my gun to hand and line up the open sights. He was back again, and this time he climbed onto the bait station to lap up some sun butter that I had smeared on the front edge of it. His head was now facing towards me, his mouth and snout pointing down. I pushed off the safety, put the front blade in the notch of the rear sight, placed it right on top of his head and squeezed the trigger. Thwack! The rat seized up and turned to show his profile, convulsing slightly but otherwise staying put on the bait station. A few seconds later, his back legs started to involuntarily spasm and he knocked himself off the gate and down to the ground (out of my view) with a satisfying thump.

You can see the exit wound on his mid-right side

I quickly (but carefully) made my way off the shed over to where he'd fallen. And there he lay, dead as can be. The pellet had gone right into his cranium, and exited out his right side. It was easily the biggest roof rat I'd ever seen. He measured 16 inches from stem to stern, exactly the same as the Norway. And he was thick, too. A week or so on the high-protein sun butter and Cheerio diet had done him well. Until tonight.

The ol' bait station is getting messy

I disposed of the carcass, and packed up all my stuff. I left the rest of the sun butter and Cheerios on the bait station just to see if this big guy had buddies. When I checked the station in the morning, sure enough all the bait was gone. So there's at least one more out there in the bushes, waiting his turn in the sniper's sights. Now I just need to work up the energy to go through the rigmarole again. But you can bet I will, and when I do, you'll be reading about it here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Springtime was Made for Spring Guns

It's been a long layoff since my last post, and even longer since my last rat story, so I'm just going to apologize up front -- no doubt I will be long-winded.

When Spring rolled in this year, I was anticipating an onslaught of the rodent kind. But to date, things have been mausoleum quiet around the yard. It seems as though the colony of Norways that took up residence around the back of the yard last Summer were successfully culled. Nary a rodent form has been spotted scurrying under the bird feeders gathering seeds. And it has been even longer since I've see any sign of roof rats climbing in the brambles or hanging from the feeders.

So 'All quiet' has been the rule this Spring. That was until a couple weeks ago. One morning I went over on the side of the house (where the gate entrance in the fence leads into the back yard) to survey how much the blackberry vines had overgrown from the winter rains.

When I went to open the gate, I heard something shuffling back inside the dense growth. It didn't seem like a bird, but I couldn't see anything to confirm that it wasn't just a wrentit like the one that had taken up residence back in that area at one time last year. A couple of days later, when I approached the gate again -- this time from the back yard side -- I heard the rustling again, and this time saw a shape with a tail scurrying down a vine back in the vegetation. My heart told me "rat" but I didn't see enough of it to say with certainty that it wasn't a large lizard (lizards and even garter snakes have been spotted also inhabiting the brambles). So I decide to set out some stale Cheerios as bait up on the upper cross beam of the fence next to gate latch (but tucked back in under the vegetation to avoid visual detection from a bird passing overhead). I knew that if the Cheerios disappeared, it wouldn't be the work of a reptile.

Sure enough, when I checked on it the next day, the cereal was gone.
Rat on!

I immediately began thinking of ways that I could dispatch the little beast, preferably with a lead pellet to the brainpan. I considered placing a trap on the fence, but quickly dismissed it. I wanted to dispense a dose air rifle justice, dammit. It has been quite a long time since I last used my tool of choice to drop a rat, so I wasn't going to let this opportunity slide. I mean come on, this is a blog about pest control and air guns, not traps!

But the confined space between the blackberry and rose vines and the house and shed was going to make shooting nearly impossible, particularly with the vines overgrown as they were. They were aggressively climbing onto the roof of the shed making a tunnel at the far end -- you literally had to duck half-over just to make it under them. This was a problem in its own right that needed to be addressed, irrespective of the rat situation. So last weekend I broke out the clippers and got to work. I hacked and hewed for the better part of the day Sunday, taking out every vine that had exceeded its boundary, beating back the vegetation to open up the small path once again. For the first time in six months, sunlight touched the ground between the bushes and the shed. I wiped the sweat and blood from my thorn-scratched face and toasted my labors with a cold one.

It's Miller time

Now that this chore was done, I had to figure out where I could get a clear shot at the bait area. There were several issues to contend with. First off, no matter where the shot was going to come from, I was going to end up with pellet holes in the gate, which I did not like the thought of. Second, due to the placement of the shed, brambles and narrow opening, the angle was such that the only realistic shots at the target area were going to have to come at a range of less than six yards. Unfortunately, the scopes on both my rifles cannot focus under 10 yards. Finally, the logical spot to set up was some six yards away at the opening of the path -- on the back corner of the shed and right next to the blackberry bushes. This was problematic because if a rat had to travel through the bushes to get to the gate area, and if I were seated on that spot, it was going to pass within three feet of me. Not only was it unlikely that I could go undetected in that eventuality, but the idea of sitting right next the bushes in the dark of night where all manner of creepy and crawly things traverse gives me the heeby-jeebies. Okay, so I'm a wimp.

John Rambo ate things that'd make a billy goat puke. Me? I'm afraid to sit too close to the hedge

It wasn't long before solutions to all three problems came to me. First, I had this wooden feeder for squirrels that I had picked up cheap last Fall. I had always intended to use it as a bait station for rats but had not yet had the opportunity. I placed it on the top cross plank of the gate and secured it with a thick rubber band holding it to one of the fence boards. It fit perfectly. Now I could use the bait station as the backstop for any shooting, and not worry about the wood on the fence being damaged. Check!

As for my scopes not being able to focus under ten yards, it was while I perused Pyramyd Air for a new scope I couldn't afford that it dawned on me -- I didn't need to use a scope at all! It was one of those V-8 moments where I literally thumped myself on the noggin at the thought. At that close range, there was no need for magnification anyway, so just removing the scope and using open sites was all I needed to do. Check! Third and finally, I had stumbled upon the solution to my shooting spot conundrum while I was trimming the vines. In order to get them off the top of the shed, I had used a ladder and climbed up on the shed roof. While I was up there, I realized I had a perfect view of the target spot. All I would need to do is camp out up there quietly with my unscoped rifle and take the even closer 3-4 yard shot. Check!

When I got home that night, I brought my .177 caliber Gamo Hunter 440 out of the closet and removed the BSA scope. I had to use the Gamo .177 because it was the only of my two rifles to still have its open sights. Then yesterday, after work but before the sun set, I sat out back and measured out the 12-foot range and placed a clean paper target on my pellet trap. It only took about five minutes of shooting and adjusting the sights until the Crow magnum hollow point pellets were tearing one ragged hole in the bullseye. Once the gun was sighted in, I put it away in the closet so I could do a little reconnaissance.

I wanted to do a dry run so I knew what time the rat was coming to the bait station. I didn't want a long, uncomfortable wait up there on the roof when I actually had my rifle in hand. So that night I baited the wooden station with more Cheerios and some sunflower seed butter (peanut butter substitute), and climbed back up on the roof of the shed. I placed two flashlights on a towel at the edge of the shed's roof, shining red-tinted light onto the platform where I hoped the rat would soon appear. From this vantage point, the upper cross beam of the gate (and the bait station) were about twelve feet away and roughly three feet below me. It was about 8:45pm -- the sun had set and the sky was darkening. So I got as comfortable as I could and began my silent vigil.

The roof of the shed

It wasn't long before I began to hear small sounds of movement coming from the wall of blackberry bushes below and to my right. Soon the sounds were coming from the fence area to the right of the gate. It was just before 9:15 when a whiskered nose and two beady eyes appeared out of the vegetation next to the gate latch. He stepped out a moment later. It was odd - he had this funny habit of coming out on the 2x4 cross beam and hanging his head down low over the edge of the wood. He would stretch his neck down so far, at first I thought he was going to jump down onto the ground. He would do this for 10-15 seconds at a time. It was only after watching him do this several times that it dawned on me what he was probably doing. He was listening for sounds of a person on the other side of the shed. At that hour, I am occasionally out in the back yard, so most likely he was listening for me!

That was as close as I've been to a wild rat that wasn't already bleeding from one of my pellets. It was incredible how close I was and that he could not detect me. Even though he was well-illuminated, he seemed completely unaware of that fact. If I needed any more evidence that rats can't easily see red light, here it was. After his momentary pause, he proceeded to climb out of the plants and make his way over to the bait station. At first he was very cautious and would stretch out, grab a Cheerio and immediately pull himself back into cover. But on subsequent visits he would linger a little longer, finally coming out and resting on the bait station for lengths of time. In fact, he gave me so many looks at perfect shots, I started to lament that I had left the rifle in the house. I also noted how large he was -- maybe 13 or 14 inches head to tail. But he was a roof rat without a doubt - large ears, big beady eyes, pointy snout and a really long tail. In the past I have sometimes struggled to identify roof vs Norway rats, but there was no ambiguity here.

Over the course of 30 minutes, he carried off all the cereal and licked clean all the dollops of sun butter. When the food was gone, as quietly as I could I grabbed my flashlights and made my way off the shed roof. I plan to go up again in the next couple nights for the final showdown.

The battle plans have been drawn up for Operation Overhead

The next chapter will cover the final stalking and dispatching of the vermin. Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

From Humble Origins to Humble Pie: the facts on my 'Crosman' BB gun

A big thank you to everyone who followed my three-part saga on My Humble Origins. Shortly after posting the second installment of the tale, a reader asked me this simple question about my BB gun:

"What is the Brand/model of your '$5 Garage Sale Special'?"

I suddenly realized that since I had bought it at a garage sale so many years ago, and hadn't shot it since the original rat incident, I wasn't really certain about the specifics. Which is so silly, I mean how could I not know exactly what it is, especially when I'm writing about it on an air gun blog!? I bought the gun all those years ago because of its resemblance to a Crosman air rifle I had when I was a kid. So without ever bothering to investigate further (or at least without remembering if I had ever done so), I naively assumed this gun was a Crosman as well. So I went home that night to look at the gun again.

It took me about 5 minutes of looking before I found (in plain site, of course) the brand and model of the gun. It's not even a Crosman! It's a Daisy model 840 -- what is currently called the Grizzly. So much for the fact-checking department on this blog.

A little further research revealed this model of gun has been in production since the late 70's. The reader who asked the original question found it listed in the 6th Edition of the Blue Book of Airguns:

"Model 840 - BB/.175, or .177 cal., SSP, Mfg. 1978-89."

As for their grading system, which would be hard to describe (for me anyway), in a nutshell:
100% (all original, "perfect condition in every respect") $75
95% (all original, near new condition, very little use, very minor dings/scratches...) $60
90% (all original, perfect working condition, some minor wear) $40
below that, it is listed as "NA" for estimated values. The less rust, scratches, dings the better.

Fascinating! Given it's condition, I think my gun falls firmly into the "NA" category, but it was really cool to finally learn more about it. My online hunt also led me to a print ad (which was for sale on Ebay) for my exact gun.

This ad from 1978 features the great Johnny Unitas

And the revelations kept rolling in. Unlike the Crosman I had mistaken it for, my gun is not a multi-pump at all! Rather, the 840 is a single-pump. And apparently, when you pump it a second time, all you are doing is taking most of the air from your 1st pump back out of the gun. So every time I was pumping it to 10, it was essentially shooting with almost no air. Man do I feel like a real dope. No wonder the rat was barely phased by that BB -- I probably could have thrown it faster than that gun was propelling it.

As you'd expect in a youth BB gun, it was never intended to be a powerful rifle. The Daisy ad says it will shoot a BB at 320 feet per second - which is a meager muzzle energy of 1.16 foot pounds. That is far, far below the level needed to humanely dispatch a rat, especially at distance. Now I know better.

Once the weather clears up, I need to take the 840 out back and try it again with the single pump it was intended for, just to see how it performs. After all the bad things I said about it, I owe it that much at least.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Humble Origins: Episode III - The Pellet Strikes Back

When Episode II ended, I had just replaced my ineffectual BB gun with a new Gamo Hunter 440 air rifle in .177 caliber in order to deal with a pesky rat that was pilfering birdseed in my backyard. Now all that remained was to mount and zero the scope, and get in a little target practice so I could count on dispatching the rat quickly, cleanly and humanely.

Luke used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home

You can read the first two episodes here:
Episode I
Episode II

Being an absolute beginner with spring-piston air rifles, I was afraid to zero the rifle and practice with it in my back yard for fear of it being too loud to do stealthily. I can hear you now... "Moron," you say, "you bought the rifle for the sole intent of killing pests in your back yard -- now you say you're afraid to shoot it IN the back yard!?" Well, says I, there's a big difference between taking shot after shot to zero a gun, and taking a single shot out of the blue to kill a rat. The first will eventually draw the attention of any neighbor who happens to be in their own back yard. The second will likely go undetected.

I looked into rifle ranges, but there were few nearby, and they did not seem to allow pellet guns. So I called my dad (who lives about 90 miles away) and asked him if he knew of any place in the area that might be suitable. My dad grew up in the Sacramento Valley of California, and lived in a time when undeveloped areas were in abundance. In those days, you could drive 15 minutes out of town and find a place to zero a deer rifle. Times have certainly changed, but he was sure we could find a place without having to drive too far.

So my dad and I met the next weekend and headed north to find a place to shoot. We eventually wound up in an area called Camp Far West near the reservoir of the same name. We stopped at a bait shop near the lake to inquire about a place to shoot and were told that there was a public outdoor shooting range just a bit up the road. Exactly what we were looking for!

Fifteen minutes later we were parking in an open spot right at the shooting line. The loud report of large caliber rifles and pistols was plain to be heard. Stepping out of the pickup, we surveyed the scene. There was no range master, just a collection of about 30 folks on the line, firing every description of ordnance at an assortment of improvised targets -- from hand-drawn bullseyes on scraps of plywood to shards of demolished ice chests and the remains of major appliances. It was clear that no serious attempt had ever been made by shooters to clean up after themselves. The target area was littered with the detritus of everything that had ever been shot out there. The ground around us was literally covered with spent shells and casings. If the range had a name, I don't recall it. But it looked about two steps removed from the Apocalypse.

A fair representation of "the shooting range at the end of the world"

At the next cease fire, as the motley assemblage of shooters ran out to inspect their destructive powers, I paced off 10 yards and set down my Gamo Cone Pellet trap. Yes, I felt just as ridiculous as you'd expect while doing this. With my air rifle and pellet trap, I was a Cub Scout amidst seasoned mercenaries.

The Gamo Cone Pellet Trap - perfect for high velocity pellets and public humiliation

When shooting resumed, I loaded in a Beeman H&N Match wadcutter and began zeroing the rifle. The Gamo was nowhere near as loud as I'd worried -- and not only because there were .30-06s going off to compare it to. There was a subtle recoil, though it was not unpleasant. But the scope needed lots of adjusting. The gun was shooting really low and left (barrel droop, anyone?). In fact the pellets were ricocheting off the ground, kicking up earth and striking the base of the trap. I kept cranking the turrets of the BSA 4x32 scope to bring the point of impact closer to alignment with the center of the target. It took a LOT of cranking at that close range.

A beauty shot of my Gamo Hunter 440. That's not the original 4x32 scope by the way

Meanwhile, the chaos continued all around us. A couple of gents in their late 30's a few places to our left had a table set out with an armory of weapons. My dad directed my attention to them as they filled a large plastic tube with what looked like black powder. I shuddered to think what they had planned with that little treat, but I didn't have to wait long to find out. At the next cease fire, they ran out and placed the tube inside the blown-out shell of an old TV set they had been shooting at about 40 yards away. They then proceeded to take turns aiming their pistols at it and taking shots. My dad and I watched nervously as they hammered away, oddly unsuccessful at finding their mark. When one of their missed shots caused the canister to fall down out of sight inside the TV, the so-called marksmen groaned their disappointment and I resumed my .177 caliber tea party.

Now that my shots were landing on the 5 1/2" square paper target, I had moved the trap out to 20 yards. I put a couple more clicks on the elevation turret and -- KABOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!! There was a thunderous explosion on the range. I looked out to the TV and it was gone. Literally gone. Small fragments of it were now landing around us. I covered my head and gave my dad the "holy shit" look and was unnerved to see it in his eyes as well. Everything came to a momentary standstill on the range as the two gents exchanged high-fives. There was some nervous chuckling from others around us. I think we were all just glad to still be alive.

Shock and awe at the rifle range

On our right, a recently-arrived family with a young teenage boy were laying out some rifles on a folding table they had just set up. As the range resumed their shooting after the fireworks, I loaded up another pellet and -- BOOM! a bullet went whizzing into the ground in front of us. The boy had gone to pick up one of the rifles from the table and had inadvertently pulled the trigger, nearly striking the leg of a man who happened to be between us and them. The kid had made the exactly wrong assumption that the rifle wasn't loaded. His parents were suitably apologetic and stern with the young man, and he was clearly shaken up and started crying. My dad and I looked at each other and decided immediately that we were well past high-time to get the hell out of there.

We hastily called a cease fire -- much to the chagrin of the other shooters as it was only a few minutes since the last cease fire. I suspect their annoyance was only magnified when they saw it was me running out to collect my dainty pellet trap. I closed my rifle into its case and we beat a hasty retreat out of that God-forsaken mark on the map. We left so fast, we were a mile down the road before I realized I'd left an open tin of pellets on the hood of the truck.

Camp Far West Reservoir - go for the fishing, stay for the unsupervised shooting

We ended up finding a secluded (and unsanctioned) spot off the main road where I finished zeroing my rifle under the quiet boughs of some sprawling oaks. We kicked ourselves realizing that's what we should have done to begin with. So with a spot-on air rifle and a few new gray hairs, I finally headed home to face my quarry.

It was not long before the rat showed her face again. Within a few days of the range exploits, while I was scanning the back yard through the kitchen window, I saw that big Norway rat back out under the feeder.

She was right alongside the wooden rail, directly under the feeder

The time for which I had so laboriously prepared was upon me. I went into the closet and took out the case that held the Gamo, laid it open and lifted out the rifle. I crept to the sliding glass door and slowly pushed it open wide enough to accommodate my rifle. I broke the barrel and inserted the same Beeman H&N wadcutter I had zeroed with. I had selected the wadcutter because I figured the broad head would bring a real wallop at the 20-yard range I was shooting. And having zeroed with it, I knew I could group it well enough for this target. I snapped the barrel shut and edged the muzzle out through the open sliding door. I leaned my left shoulder against the door frame, brought my cheek to the rifle and my eye to the scope.

The rat grew 4 times larger, but at 20 yards still felt like a small target. She was facing directly towards me as she scoured the ground for seeds. I placed the crosshair right between her eyes, snicked off the safety and started to pull through the squishy first stage of the trigger. I could feel my heart pounding and the blood throbbed in my head. I took a deep breath, let it halfway out and squeezed the trigger. The rifle let out a 'thunk' and the spring buzzed inside. Out in the yard, I saw the rat do a flip and start to squirm in the grass. I ran into the garage and grabbed an aluminum baseball bat thinking I might need to finish off the poor devil. By the time I got out to the scene, the rat was making its last gasp. A second later she was dead.

The pellet had gone in at the right cheek and had anchored her right on the spot. All told, she had expired within 20 seconds of the shot. Still, I felt that slight twinge of guilt at having killed her. But the feeling faded as I considered the accuracy of my shot and the delivery on the goal of one shot, one kill. It was a job well done, and I was pleased. I double-bagged the carcass and sent her off to the rubbish bin. Then I went inside to collect accolades from my wife. And although she was squeamish about the entire idea of it, she delivered props in abundance.

More satisfying than destroying the Death Star

Well, that's story of how this adventure began for me. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I had fun recalling those days (and marveling that I survived them with all limbs intact). Cheers!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

My Humble Origins: Episode II – A New Hope (Comes in .177 Caliber)

Happy 2008 to all! But before we get into the New Year, let's jump back into our tale of the past...

At the close of Episode I, we were in the late summer of 2005. I had just discovered a large Norway rat in the back yard, and had been frustrated in my attempt to dispatch it with a broke-down Crosman BB gun. I had acquired the Crosman for five bucks about a dozen years earlier at a garage sale. It was chipped and rusting, poorly maintained, only vaguely accurate and completely underpowered. But other than that it was a great gun.

But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up a new pellet gun

In case you missed it, you can read Episode I here.

After the BB gun debacle, I started to ponder other options. Quite coincidentally, we had just arranged for an exterminator to come spray the house for ants, spiders and such. So on his first visit, I asked him if he could get rid of the rats for me. He seemed strangely reticent about doing so. He said that if we put out poison or traps it could result in driving the rats into the house (huh?), and until we were able to seal up every possible point of entry into or under the house, he did not recommend taking any action. He told me he could manage the placement and removal of traps but I thought the price for the service was hefty. Frankly I had neither the inclination to go crawling around under the house on fix-it missions nor did I like the idea of paying someone to do something I felt I could probably do on my own. So I determined to be my own man of action.

Sure I had lost the first battle, but in this war, I was determined to become a more intelligent soldier. I started doing research online about rats and reliable ways to rid myself of them. There seemed to be three basic means of controlling the pests: 1) baiting them with poison, 2) setting out a battery of traps, or, 3) shooting them. Since shooting had been my first instinct, I was immediately inclined to further investigate option #3. I must be honest; the idea of developing and using my marksmanship skills was appealing not just from a functional but also from a sporting point of view. But I was primarily interested in what would be the most effective and there were pros and cons to all three methods.

Poison can be effective to a point, but rats are intelligent and will figure out what poison looks and smells like after one or two of their brethren have been affected (or if they themselves ingest less than a lethal dose). Also, poison can work very slowly and painfully, and as much as I wanted the rats dead, I did not want them to suffer if it could be avoided. Lastly, since I would be baiting outside, I didn't want any collateral damage either from the wrong creatures inadvertently taking the bait or from dying rats being eaten by other wildlife (or the neighbor's cat!).

Traps can also be effective if you are able to regularly switch up their placement and the type of bait you use to keep the rats from figuring out that they equal danger. But most traps are really intended for indoor use. If left out in the open, they carry the same risk of collateral damage that poison does.

The classic Victor wooden rat trap is still the choice of most trappers

Now it's true -- shooting will never completely eliminate a colony of rats, because you are restricted to taking only those that happen in front of your sights. But you can stack the odds in your favor if you have a food or water source to which you know the rats will be drawn. In this way you can at least do a fair job of keeping their numbers down and not letting them become a real nuisance. And for me, the most attractive benefit of shooting is, if you shoot responsibly, you will never kill anything that you do not absolutely intend to kill.

My online research led me, inevitably, to a site called There I found a community of folks who were united in the common cause of ridding their local habitats of rats. I learned quite a bit about others’ methods of control, and started to see that the use of guns, particularly air guns, was quite common for the task. Feeling significantly less marginalized, I was inspired to begin seeking out a new tool. - not for the faint of heart

As I studied the subject of air-gunning, I learned a substantial amount rather quickly from the knowledgeable folks online at Straightshooters and Pyramyd Air, particularly from the fountain of wisdom known as B.B. Pelletier (Tom Gaylord's alter-ego). I read reviews of air guns to find out what people liked, and what they didn't. I learned about different calibers and power plants, pellet velocities and shapes, as well as muzzle energy and what was required to reliably kill a rat. And I began to digest information on the extraordinary variety of guns that are available – it really is quite dizzying, especially for the beginner.

I was very interested in the German-built guns offered by Beeman/Weihrauch, but couldn't imagine spending that kind of money for a pellet gun (or more specifically, justifying to my wife spending that kind of money for a pellet gun!). I was also intrigued by the Diana guns from RWS, the Hunter series from Gamo, as well as the multi-pump rifles from Benjamin Sheridan. Based on B.B. Pelletier's strong accolades, I was nearly persuaded to go with either a Benjamin 397/392 or a Sheridan Blue/Silver Streak. But ultimately I began leaning towards a break-barrel style spring gun so the Benjamin Sheridans took a back seat. I also knew I wanted to get the maximum accuracy I could wring out of a gun, so I investigated gun + scope combo packages as well.

Eventually I went on a few reconnaissance missions to sporting goods stores and gun shops in the area (which as you can imagine in the San Francisco Bay Area are few and far between) looking at their woefully limited stock of adult air rifles. What air rifles I did find were all in .177 caliber -- I honestly don't remember coming across any other calibers in all my searches (except for one Sheridan Blue Streak I found which only comes in .20 caliber). I guess that most consumers are obsessed with velocity (I know I certainly was in the beginning), and since .177 pellets are the lightest and tend to travel the fastest, retailers only stock that caliber rifle. And there were very few high-end air rifles in stores. I do recall finding a Beeman R1 (it was buried in a back room in the single-most disorganized and messy gun shop I have ever seen). The gun itself was brand new and in perfect condition, but even if I had the money to spend, the $600 price tag was impossible to rationalize for a beginner's gun.

Shortly after that, I stumbled upon a Gamo 440 Hunter Combo with a 4x32 scope at Big 5 Sporting Goods. I liked the look and feel of the rifle -- it had a nicely-shaped beech stock, black rubber butt-plate with a clean white spacer, and laser-cut checkering on the grip. In .177 caliber, it was advertised to shoot a pellet at 1000 feet per second. Given what I had learned, I knew it was adequately powered to handle rats at my backyard ranges. It also had received mostly positive reviews, the bulk of the gripes coming over the notoriously squishy trigger. The 440 I found at Big 5 was the last one they had in stock, and the scope it was combined with had a few minor dings on its surface, so the salesman agreed to knock a substantial amount off the price. At that point I felt like I was getting a bargain on a gun that was in my consideration set, so I went ahead and made the buy.

The Spanish-made Gamo 440 -- affordable accuracy

Now that I had my gun, I needed to mount and zero the scope and get enough practice with it to feel confident I could hit and kill a rat with one shot. But having never fired an air rifle like this, I was entirely uncertain how loud it would be. From what I had read, a spring gun was substantially louder than a BB gun. Also there was this pesky thing called dieseling which some new guns were prone to (basically dieseling is the inadvertent igniting of residual oil or grease inside the gun). I had no idea how loud this might be. Would it be as loud as a firearm? With neighbors on all sides, and being in an area that we'll just say is about as far from NRA Headquarters as you can get in America, I was terrified of taking the many shots I knew I would need to zero the rifle and practice with it in the backyard.

So now I had the right tool, but I needed to find some time and a place to take the gun and get it ready to do the job for which it was procured. This would prove to be an adventure in itself -- one that would endanger my very own life and limb.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment of the saga in which a beginning air-gunner with a new rifle must pass a trial of fire (and shrapnel) before facing his scaly-tailed opponent in a final Thunderdome-style confrontation...

Two men enter, one man leaves