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