The term BB can be used to describe either a type of air gun ammunition or a small lead ball or pellet (called "shot") used as the load in shotgun shells. The shotgun shot size called BB is 0.180 inches (4.57mm) in diameter. In air gun ammunition, "BB" describes a steel ball 0.175 inches (4.45mm) in diameter, coated with either copper or zinc to prevent rust. It was developed by the Daisy Manufacturing Company, maker of the Daisy air rifle.
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The Lead BB
The term BB originally only described a size of shot used in shotgun ammunition. There are different sizes of shot and each has its own number or letter designation; the larger the number, the smaller size of the shot. Number 6 shot is 0.110 inches (2.79mm) in diameter, while number 4 shot is 0.130 inches (3.30mm). Larger size shot is given a letter designation, beginning with B (0.160 inches or 4.06mm) up to BBB (0.190 inches or 4.83mm). In between those is the BB size (0.180 inches or 4.57mm).
The Daisy air rifle, introduced in 1888, originally used lead BB shot (0.180 inches) as its ammunition. In the early 1900s, Daisy reduced the calibre of its air rifle to 0.175 inches (4.45mm). Although Daisy referred to the new lead pellet ammunition for this calibre as "air rifle shot," most people had become so used to using the term "BB" that the name stuck.
The Steel BB
In the mid-1920s, the American Ball Company of Minneapolis began to manufacture steel BBs for air rifles under the brand name Bulls Eye. The steel BBs were lighter than lead shot and were more consistently spherical, therefore more accurate. This new ammunition proved to be so popular that Daisy purchased American Ball Company in the late 1920s and stopped offering lead air rifle shot.
Today, air gun BBs are steel balls coated with copper or zinc to prevent rust. They continue to be 0.175 inches (4.45mm) in diameter. There are only two manufacturers in the United States: Daisy and Crossman.
In air gun literature and air gun ammunition supply catalogues, the term "BB" is sometimes used to describe types of ammunition fired from an air gun other than 0.175-inch-diameter steel balls. The term BB is sometimes used for 0.177 inch calibre pellets, meant to be fired from a type of air gun called a "pellet gun." This ammunition is usually hour glass-shaped, made of lead, and has a concave base at one end. Also on the market is a 0.177 inch diameter lead ball produced by the Spanish company Gamo. Airsoft pellets, which are 6mm in diameter, and .22 calibre pellets, are also sometimes referred to as BBs. Whatever they are called, none of these can be fired from a Daisy-calibre BB gun.
If a shooter is in doubt as to which ammunition can be fired safely from a particular air gun, he or she should ask the opinion of an expert, such as a firing range safety officer or a gunsmith.
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