When you heard this was a story on caseless ammunition for a .22, you probably had your interest piqued. However, if you've seen the title, you may be a bit surprised to see the pellet/BB gun manufacturer Daisy. After all, Daisy is more synonymous with beloved children's plinkers and Red Ryder than with futuristic yet-to-be-perfected ammunition systems. This is the paradox this article investigates. The contradiction of the two is interesting, but so is the story itself. The technology and chemistry involved, the potential, the hype, and the fall back to earth. I present to you the Daisy V/L rifle. The little plinker has a pretty neat mechanism and a story to boot. This particular example recently sold at a RIAC auction.
|Shown is a Daisy-Heddon VL rifle, a box of caseless ammunition consisting of ten 10-round tubes, a few loose rounds, and an extra "presentation" wood stock.|
Our story begins in 1961 when a chemical engineer from Belgium named Jules Van Langenhoven invented what his patent describes as "caseless ammunition and propellant." According to the October 1967 issue of Popular Mechanics,
"In 1961, two men walked into a Paris shooting gallery carrying an amazing new rifle. After firing only a few rounds, one man suddenly whipped out his checkbook. He started writing one of the most important checks of his life. Case Hough, president of Daisy/Heddon...was purchasing a revolutionary new gun system. It had been invented by the other man - Jules Van Langenhoven..."
|Image taken from Popular Science Magazine, October 1965 issue. Copyrighted material.|
A bit sensationalist perhaps, but there can be no doubt that Daisy/Heddon acquired the new technology from Jules and had plans to develop it. Patented in December of 1961, Daisy must have been bursting at the seams to tell the world of the new technology when the special gun and its ammo were first introduced to the public on August 20, 1962. Despite their excitement, Daisy proceeded very slowly with what would be called the V/L system, named for its inventor. In October 1965 Popular Science published a brief piece on the rifle, with a photo of Jules firing it, and even includes comments from the author describing its recoil, so prototype rifles had been created and were being used to keep the excitement alive in the press. That same article even cites that a prototype VL gun had been fired 50,000 times without being cleaned (other sources also cite that it fired 50,000 times without a single misfire nor a cleaning). With all the applications Daisy had planned for their propellant - construction, high power rifles, military uses, etc - they took their time and finally began selling the gun in 1968.
How it WorksThe new caseless ammunition can be described as such: a combustible nitrocellulose compound, barely the size of a pencil eraser, is adhered to the back of a lead slug 29-grains in weight and .224" in diameter. That compound serves as the propellant. The rifle itself is loaded at the breech by pulling down a long, straight lever, recessed in the forend, to 90 degrees. Hinged by the trigger guard, this lever opens the breech. Because there is no case for the ammunition, many of the common components of a firearm are unnecessary such as the extractor, firing pin, ejector, and so on.
|A single caseless VL round.|
Like many Daisy products, it operates using an air/spring combination. The gun cocks upon opening, essentially a large piston behind the loading gate is compressed backwards and is secured by a sear. Once the piston is locked into place, spring pressure on the lever is relieved and a VL round may be placed directly in the chamber. Safety measures prevent the gun from firing until the lever is again secured in the forend of the rifle and the safety, which resets after each shot, is switched to fire. Pulling the trigger of course releases the piston which rapidly compresses the air in front of it. Here comes the tricky part. When air is compressed, it increases in temperature, and in the VL rifle the temperature of the gas reaches 2000° F, a process is best explained in the diagram below.
|Image taken from Popular Mechanics Magazine, October 1967 issue. Copyrighted material.|
The gas passes through an obturator, which creates the intense heat. The heated air then pushes the ball forward en route to the nitrocellulose-based propellant which ignites. When the propellant ignites, it creates its own gas which forces the ball back toward the opening adjacent to the cylinder/piston head. This returning of the ball to its original position prevents gas from escaping, not only propelling the round forward, but also preventing the user from what could potentially be a nasty burn. Opening the breech for another shot would reveal... nothing. No case, no primer, no gunk, though one review did mention "only a trace of residue."
Caseless ammunition is nothing new. Technically, early paper cartridges did not have a case, nor did the Walter Hunt's Rocket Ball, nor did Smith & Wesson's Volcanic cartridge. However, wrapping paper around the ingredients of a round hardly counts and resulted in undoubtedly fragile ammunition. The latter two, while demonstrating a sound proof on concept, were quite underpowered. The VL caseless ammunition, on the other hand, suffered from no such lack of pep. The .22 caliber bullet would leave the barrel at 1,150 fps! Lower speed cartridges were developed that would travel 700 fps, but they were never brought to market. Neither were the faster ones, clocking in as fast as 3,000 fps.
A Bright FutureThere were several different versions of the rifle released in 1968. The first 1,000 serial numbered guns are unofficially dubbed "Collector's Models." They had a wood stock and a plate engraved with the collector's name and the rifle's serial number. After that Daisy/Heddon made a mix of the standard model, using a plastic stock of which roughly 19,000 were produced, and their Presentation Model. The Presentation Model was the same as the Collector's Model, but the buyer would put their own name on the plate. Price information on the three models varies. Regular models have sources citing their prices anywhere from $29 - $40. However, even the $29 price tag would have made it more expensive than other single shot .22 rifles. I don't yet have a reliable source for the price on the higher quality models. The 1,000 round "bricks" of ammo sold for around $17.
|Even the tubes for the VL caseless ammunition had their own patent. |
The removable plug at the end of the tube was reversible.
ATF Crashes the PartyDaisy/Heddon was in the business of selling air rifles and pellet/BB guns. The ATF was fine with that, since that's what they were licensed to produce. What the ATF was not fine with was the unlicensed production of firearms. Since the V/L rifle utilized a propellant, the ATF ruled that the V/L rifle was a firearm. Daisy not being licensed to produce firearms, and having no desire to become a manufacturer, ceased production in 1969. Exact dates are fuzzy without additional digging, but it is allegedly a production run of approximately 8 months for a gun that was nearly 8 years in the making. The very chemical compound that should have propelled Daisy/Heddon into the future instead brought about its own demise.
|Image taken from Popular Mechanics Magazine, October 1967 issue. Copyrighted material.|
Potential ProblemsMaybe the ATF is solely to blame for the death of the VL rifle. After all, if Daisy believed in the gun so much, why didn't they simply acquire a firearms manufacturer's license and continue production? The primary reason is likely the reason driving most business decisions: money. As mentioned earlier, the VL was not exactly competitively priced in the market. Like most new technology, it would take time for the price to come down. Also, once production ramped up, they could depend on economy of scale to push prices lower still. Daisy didn't have time and sales of the VL proved to be sluggish at best. Even with the heralded new technology, Daisy gave the VL the same plastic stock it gave most of its products, giving the gun a chintzy, cheap feel.
Then there were all the other problems that other caseless ammunition pioneers have had to tackle: how to extract a misfire, cooking-off rounds, and maintaining the necessary seals of the weapon. Daisy also had the additional issue of the propellant being fragile enough to crumble off using only a fingernail.
Regardless, of what killed the VL, it still remains a curious little firearm. It has a permanent place on the short list of firearms to use caseless ammunition. The guns and its ammo are not difficult to find today, nor are they expensive, so if you want a firearm that uses caseless ammo, you're much more likely to obtain a VL than an H&K G11. There's a comparison I never thought I'd make. It's another fascinating firearms concept that at least saw the light of day, even if it didn't see it for long.
-Written by Joel Kolander
Bradshaw, Hank. "Now - A Bullet Without A Case." Popular Science Oct. 1965: 173. Web.
Evans, Donald J. "An Amazing New King of Gun. It's Not All Hot Air." Popular Mechanics Oct. 1967: 120+. Web.