Table of Contents
By Tom Gaylord
originally published in ShotGun News
The airgun projectile we call a BB began in 1886 as common lead shotgun shot, sized BB or 0.180-inch diameter. It was selected for W.F. Markham’s revolutionary new spring-piston gun that was made of maple wood and a minimum of metal parts. The probable inventor of the new airgun, George W. Sage, simply chose a commonly available projectile that produced good results in his creation.
One year later, Clarence Hamilton of .22 rimfire fame followed Markham by inventing an all-metal spring-piston airgun. When he demonstrated it to local businessman and founder of the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, Lewis Cass Hough, the surprised man declared, in the vernacular of the day, ‘Boy, that’ a daisy! Hamilton’s clever little gun was also made to shoot lead BB shot, and Hough thought enough of it that he commissioned several hundred to be built for premiums when farmers bought his iron windmills. Production began in 1888.
Demand for the new airgun quickly outstripped windmill sales, and Plymouth Iron Windmill began making the BB guns to sell directly. They used Hough’s original exclamation as the trade name. In 1895 the windmill company reincorporated as the Daisy Manufacturing Company and continues under that name today.
Shot grows smaller
Lead BB shot continued to be the projectile of choice until the beginning of the 20th century, when Daisy contracted to have its own proprietary lead shot made. The new shot was sized smaller, at 0.175 inches. Daisy could now control the uniformity of the shot. Even better, kids had to buy ammo from them instead of raiding their father’s ammo supply.
The size reduction brought a small increase in velocity, which meant that smaller-diameter spring wire could be used and the guns would retain the same velocity while cocking more easily.
Other BB gun manufacturers went along with the new shot size because, by this time, Daisy was a 500-pound gorilla. Soon, everyone sold the smaller air rifle shot and the world forgot the old true BB-shot guns. But the name stuck!
Trouble changes BBs forever!
In the mid-1920s, Daisy began receiving returned BB guns with split shot tubes (the true barrel on a BB gun). The offending guns came mostly from the Minneapolis region, so Cass S. Hough, grandson of the founder, traveled to that city to learn the problem. What he discovered forever changed the BB-making business.
The American Ball Company of Minneapolis had noticed small boys rummaging through their discard pile of ball bearings to find steel balls that would fit their airguns. Company managers learned there was a strong market for airgun ammunition, so they began to manufacture steel BBs under the name Bulls Eye.
The ball bearing maker regarded BB shot as a non-precision item, so they didn’t hold the tolerances of their Bulls Eye ammo very tight. Oversized steel balls being harder than the BB gun shot tubes would sometimes split the tube open or get stuck.
Daisy management initially felt that the steel BB posed no real threat, since their owner’s manual clearly warned shooters to only use Daisy lead shot. But Cass Hough argued that the returns were increasing because steel shot was both cheaper and shot faster in their guns. Unless the company wanted a black eye for standing on its principles, they had better get with the program!
Hough convinced upper management, and in 1928 Daisy and American Ball penned an agreement whereby Daisy would be the exclusive distributor for Bulls Eye air rifle shot. Daisy got a share of the profits and American Ball was connected to worldwide distribution channels. Best of all, Daisy gained control of the specifications and ended the oversized ball problem. A decade later, Daisy bought American Ball, bringing the Bulls Eye brand in house.
The eyes had it!
Unfortunately, while the new steel BB solved some problems it also created some new ones. For starters, the swaged shot seat that tightly held a lead BB in the breech before firing no longer worked. A lead BB can be forced through a slight constriction, but a steel one cannot. A new hairspring BB holder had to be designed for the steel shot tube.
A greater problem was that steel rebounds from hard surfaces, where pure lead does not. Kids were getting hit hard enough in the face with BBs to pierce eyeballs! In addition to the new rebound accidents, the “BB gun wars” kids fought in those days before airsoft did not help the situation. Eye injuries from BB guns skyrocketed and the often-heard phrase, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” was born.
Through these turbulent times, Daisy soldiered on, even staying solvent through the Great Depression. But when the country entered World War II, the production of BB guns and BBs halted. Daisy retooled for the war, and Cass Hough became a military pilot of some distinction. On September 27, 1942, over Bovington, England, while performing a power dive in a P38 Lightning from 43,000 feet, Hough became the first pilot in history to break the sound barrier!
After World War II
The end of the war did not immediately restart America’s peacetime economy. Wartime industry had to be phased out and plants and tools returned to their rightful owners. Certain materials remained in critical shortage for several years. Companies like Daisy had to virtually remake themselves from the ground up. So steel BBs were off the market for quite a while.
Aluminum BBs were tried briefly as a substitute, but without the weight of steel, they exhibited the worst sort of instability, even at relatively slow velocities. Old stocks of lead air rifle shot were called upon for a time until the late 1940s, when factories got the steel flowing again.
Through the 1970s, the major production problem with BBs was the way in which they were made. There were always one or two flat spots on the circumference of the sphere to disrupt flight. Because the guns of the time were also largely inaccurate, this was not a major factor, but that was about to change.
Competition improved the breed
Daisy and the U.S. Jaycees started the International BB Gun Championships in 1965 to encourage shooting education for American youth. No BB guns at that time were capable of fine accuracy, so they took the best model they had and turned it into a match gun. The Daisy model 99 Champion eventually morphed into the model 299, Daisy’s first example of a target BB gun.
Team coaches all over America worked together to improve the marginal accuracy offered by what was still basically a production gun with target sights. They traded tuning secrets until the kids began to have a chance of doing well, but Daisy had an ace up their corporate sleeve.
In 1976 Daisy proudly unveiled the model 499 single-shot target gun. It was made specifically for competition. What a wonder it is! The muzzle-loaded gun is called “The World’s Most Accurate BB Gun”, and no one can justifiably challenge that claim. At the regulation distance of five meters (16.4 feet), it can shoot 10 shots into an aspirin-sized group offhand! At that distance, I’ve shot many 10-shot groups that stayed inside Roosevelt’s head on a dime. If you miss the 9-ring with a 499, it’s YOUR fault.
The BB had to keep pace
The new gun warrants the finest ammo, and Daisy created it. No. 515 Precision Ground shot is to BB guns what MatchKings are to long-range shooters.
Initially, this stuff was such a challenge to make that Daisy restricted distribution to clubs and competitors. Supplies are still limited, but it’s possible to get through Daisy’s Special Market Programs. If you own a 499, you need it!
BBs come of age
Today’s standard BB is much improved. According to Daisy Marketing VP, Joe Murfin, BBs are still made on the same machinery as in the 1970s, but the flashing and plating operations are more uniform. Also, some procedures, such as shot sorting, have been improved. The result is a smoother BB with no flat spots.
The American BB gun has done as much as any military rifle to further the shooting sports. At its heart, the lowly BB has had an interesting life.
Thanks to Joe Murfin and the Daisy Manufacturing Company for their assistance with this article.
Watch this video on how to select the right BB gun: