Have spring-piston air rifles reached their limits?
by B.B. Pelletier
We received this interesting question last week: "It seems that the [spring] airguns being built in 2006 have reached a limit, given the limitation in materials and physics. ...What kind of improvements do you think possible for spring [guns]? Is the sound barrier the limit? Do you think we can do more research in making springs to improve the material, so it does not break? If you were [a spring] airgun manufacturer, what would you do to improve today's technology? Regards, Robert"
Have we reached the limit?
To answer this question, allow me to quote from the classic airgun book Smith's Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World."It may be assumed, therefore, that the spring-air design has about reached the perfection of its form." W.H.B. Smith thought that the 1956 HW 35 with leather seals and generating less than 650 f.p.s. in .177 was the "perfection of the spring-airgun form." He felt the limits had been reached.
Where are we today?
The "limit" today seems to be a 14.3-grain .22 caliber pellet traveling faster than 900 f.p.s. The handmade Whiscombe spring rifle is capable of accelerating a .22 Premier to an average of 920 f.p.s. A Kodiak tops 800 from the same gun. The most powerful Whiscombe rifle can generate just over 30 foot-pounds in .25 caliber with light pellets. A more affordable Theoben Eliminator can do almost as well, hitting 30 foot-pounds on the nose. So, is that the limit? Hardly!
Velocity IS NOT where it's at!
By now you should know what I think about velocity and airguns. It's fine as long as you are hitting the target; however, velocity is almost always a guarantee that you aren't. The new Gamo Raptor pellet that I recently tested for you in the CF-X report illustrates my point. Fast - yes. Accurate - no. Worth it? For winning bar bets - perhaps. For serious airgunning - never!
Then, why the hype about velocity?
Numbers sell! It's that simple. When you buy a stereo system, do most people shop with their ears or do they look at the power of the amplifier? I rest my case. But there was a second part to Robert's question, "...what would you do to improve today's technology?" Now, that's a question I can answer!
Make them smoother!
We have gone too far in the power race, until we have rifles like the Theoben Eliminator and the Webley Patriot trying to loosen your fillings every time they shoot! I'll live without 30 foot-pounds if it means not getting slapped in the face. But I have shot spring guns hand-tuned by Ivan Hancock, the world's finest spring-gun tuner, that didn't buzz, kick or hurt in any way. Even powerful guns such as the Beeman R1 with Hancock's Venom mainspring, piston and seal installed were an order of magnitude smoother than the stock R1 that had only 75 percent as much power. So, smooth is achievable, if elusive. Or is it?
Here's a smoothie!
Right out of the box, the TX200 MkIII is a smooth spring rifle. It's easily the smoothest springer on today's market. There is some room for improvement by hand-fitting the powerplant parts, but right out of the box this air rifle shows the world how it's done. Yet it isn't the fastest-selling spring air rifle in the Pyramyd Air lineup. Why not? Well, there is probably a better reason than what I'm about to say...however, I believe shooters have to pass through distinct stages before they are ready for the best airguns.
Stage 1. Velocity!
This is the reason Gamo markets the Raptor pellet. Beginning shooters only know one thing - if the gun doesn't shoot at least 1,000 f.p.s., they don't want it. That's the reason some marginal airguns are advertised at 1,000, even though they don't break 900. Velocity shooters own chronographs (or want to) that they stare at for hours, trying to decide if they like or hate their airguns.
Stage 2. Caliber!
This is the Harley-Davidson stage. Shooters want the absolute largest caliber they can find. Know how to ruin a 9mm airgun owner's day? Tell him there's a 10mm!
Stage 3. Energy!
The caliber shooter discovers that energy is a factor of both velocity AND projectile weight. This is the modified Harley stage, where the jugs are bored out and a nitrous oxide injector is attached. PCP shooters talk about filling their guns with helium in this stage.
Stage 4. Accuracy!
Shooters in this stage spend all their time looking for the smallest possible spread of pellets, center-to-center. Some shooters become corrupt and start bragging about three-shot groups as if they were the same as five-shot groups, when all the while five-shots are a shortcut for ten-shot groups that actually determine relative accuracy. They buy dial calipers and shoot only from a bench. Many use vices to hold their guns, and the really perverse ones stop speaking to other shooters altogether.
Stage 5. Enlightenment!
Few shooters reach this stage, but those who do have some chance of resuming a normal life, or what passes for one where they live. They admire all aspects of airguns and speak of their continual amazement that pellets can do what they do powered by nothing more than just air! They speak in simple sentences and have the innocence of a child. They sit on toadstools and drink ambrosia while the nymphs cavort in the dappled sunlight of the deep forest.