Pellet (air gun)

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Top row .22 caliber (5.5 mm); bottom row .177 (4.5 mm) caliber.
From left to right, wadcutter, domed (round nose), hollow point and pointed pellets.
4.5mm pellet exiting an air pistol, photographed with a high speed air-gap flash

A pellet is a non-spherical projectile designed to be shot from an air gun, and an airgun that shoots such pellets are commonly known as a pellet gun. Air gun pellets differ from bullets and shots used in firearms in terms of the pressures encountered: airguns operate at pressures as low as 50 atmospheres,[1] while firearms operate at thousands of atmospheres. Airguns generally use a slightly undersized projectile that is designed to obturate upon shooting so as to seal the bore, and engage the rifling;[citation needed] firearms have sufficient pressure to force a slightly oversized bullet to fit the bore in order to form a tight seal. Since pellets may be shot through a smoothbore barrel, they are often designed to be inherently stable, much like the Foster slugs used in smoothbore shotguns


Diabolo pellet[edit]

The "diabolo" (or "wasp waist pellet") is the most common design traditionally found in airguns. It consist of a solid front portion called the head (which can have a flat, round, hollow or pointed tip) and a hollow thin-walled rear portion (which is conically shaped and open towards the back) called the skirt, joined together by an hourglass-looking narrow mid-section known as the waist, giving the whole pellet the shape of a diabolo. The head is usually sized to just touching the rifling, and this keeps the pellet centred in the bore while keeping the friction as low as possible. The effect of friction is used in order to keep the pellet stationary until the piston has reached the end of its travel, compressing as much air as is possible.[citation needed] The thin hollow skirt is made of a malleable material, usually lead, although non-toxic alternatives are available that use tin or even plastic. During shooting, the skirt flares out and obturates to fit the bore when pressure builds up behind it to provide a good seal that allows efficient pellet acceleration, and engage the rifling whereby imparting spin. In a smoothbore barrel, the skirt will still flare to provide a tight seal, but since there is no rifling the pellet will not spin and is less accurate.

Because majority of the pellet's mass resides in the solid head in the front, and the hollow skirt in the back generates significant drag during flight, this creates drag stability that will counteract yawing and help to maintain consistent trajectories. However, such stability is limited, and if the pellet's speed exceeds what the aerodynamics allows it will become unstable and starts tumbling in flight. When this happens, the pellet can hit the target sideways and leave behind a keyhole-shaped impact hole on the target paper, instead of a clean, round hole as expected from a direct frontal hit. This phenomenon is known as keyholing.

Pellets are designed to travel at subsonic speeds. High velocities can cause light pellets to overly deform, or even break apart in flight. The transition from subsonic to supersonic velocities will cause almost all pellets to tumble. The closer a pellet gets to the speed of sound, the more unstable it becomes. This is a problem for high powered break-barrel and pre-charged pneumatic air rifles, which often can push a normal pellet to velocities exceeding the speed of sound. A few companies[example needed] have addressed this issue by manufacturing heavier than normal pellets for use in these high powered air guns.[citation needed] The heavier weight of these pellets ensure that they will travel at speeds well below the sound barrier, resulting in less tumbling and more overall accuracy. Their weight also makes them less susceptible to air resistance, and thus imparts more kinetic energy downrange, increasing lethality.

Slug pellet[edit]

Recently some manufacturers also have introduced the more cylindrical-shaped "slug" pellets for the more powerful modern PCP air rifles. Compared to the commonly used diabolo pellets, these slug pellets resemble Minié balls and have more contact surface with the bore and hence needs greater propelling force to overcome friction, but they have better ballistic coefficients and thus longer effective ranges due to the more aerodynamic shape. Because these slug pellets have no skirts to generate drag stability, they also require a fully rifled barrel for spin stabilization in flight.

Match shooting use[edit]

A H&N Final Match Pistol 4.5 mm (.177 in) match diabolo pellet

Match pellets are used for the 10 metre air rifle and 10 metre air pistol disciplines. These 4.5 mm (0.177 in) calibre pellets have wadcutter heads, meaning the front is (nearly) flat, that leave clean round holes in paper targets for easy scoring. Match pellets are offered in tins and more elaborate packagings that avoid deformation and other damage that could impair their uniformity.

Match pellets are made of soft lead (a lead alloy with low antimony content). The antimony content is used to control the hardness of the soft lead alloy. It is a very soft alloy, which makes it easy to process. Since the soft lead alloy is prone to strongly deform when striking a bullet catcher, it rapidly loses its kinetic energy and will not easily bounce off. Lead is toxic and hazardous to the environment, so that when shooting with lead pellets precautions should be taken.

Match air gun shooters are encouraged to perform shooting group tests with their gun clamped in a fixed rest in order to establish which particular pellet type performs best for their air gun.[2][3] To facilitate maximum performance out of various air guns the leading match pellet manufacturers produce pellets in graduated weight variants (the light/high speed variants are often marketed for air pistol use) and with graduated "head sizes", which means the pellets are offered with front diameters from 4.48 mm (0.176 in) up to 4.52 mm (0.178 in).

However at higher and top competitive levels, even these variations are thought too coarse-grained and match pellets are batch tested; that is, the specific gun is mounted in a machine rest test rig and pellets from a specific production run on a specific machine with the same ingredients fed into the process (a batch) are test-fired through the gun.[4] Many different batches will be tested in this manner, and the pellets which give the smallest consistent group size without fliers (shots which fall outside of the main group) will be selected (small but inconsistent group sizes are not useful to a top competitor); and the shooter will then purchase several tens of thousands of pellets from that batch. Group sizes of 4.5 mm (0.177 in) diameter are theoretically possible, but practically shot groups of 5.0 mm (0.197 in) are considered highly competitive.[5] Unbatched ammunition, especially if the air gun is not regularly cleaned, is generally thought to be capable of only 8.0 mm (0.315 in) diameter group sizes. Batch testing match pellets for a particular gun is not generally thought to be worthwhile until the shooter reaches a high proficiency level (around the 95% level (570 for men, 380 for women).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ House, Jim. "HUNTING WITH AIRGUNS Ch.6". Crosman. Retrieved 10 December 2014.
  2. ^ "About Pellet Numbers and Pellet Testing". Vogel USA. Retrieved 2012-05-01.
  3. ^ Air Gun Testing Target Pellets
  4. ^ Scott Pilkington (May–June 2008). "About Pellet Numbers and Pellet Testing" (PDF). USA Shooting News. Retrieved 2013-02-20.
  5. ^ Haendler & Natermann Finale Match Rifle