A serious look at air pistols and practicality
By Dennis Adler
Rarely do I use this forum to write an editorial opinion, but it seems that the time has come to compare the market, marketing and manufacturing of air pistols to the expectations of consumers, and these are seldom shared objectives. It does happen, but not as often as most of us would like. We expect new guns every year, and that means we are sometimes thrilled, but more often easily disappointed.
When I came into the airgun/air pistol market as an author almost 20 years ago, most of the airguns I write about today not only didn’t exist, they were not even imagined as being possible (Glocks for example). BB guns were as basic in 2001 as they were a decade or more before. When I looked for superstars that would be the topic for my first book on airguns (published by my late friend Steve Fjestad at Blue Book Publications), the field was small but well focused on two fronts. There was adult sport shooting with BB and pellet guns, and secondly a handful of guns (some the same) aimed at use for fundamental handgun training. This was nothing new, airguns had been implemented in the past for military training in times of war.
In point of view
In terms of prerequisites for today’s world, with the U.S. and other nations engaged in regional warfare, and mass shootings (globally, not just in the U.S.) all too often becoming the headlines, airguns of various types have become a practical substitute for combat and law enforcement training (either for force on force, combat simulation, or active shooter training). Airgun manufacturers now have multiple product lines, some specific to law enforcement and military training, and not offered to the general public. But is this really all that different from the secondary use for air pistols 20 years ago? Let me quote the most famous airgun designer and manufacturer in American history, Dr. Robert D. Beeman, from his editorial in the 2001 Blue Book of Airguns: “The primary role for air pistols are simulated firearm training, plinking, and various levels of target shooting, plus some use in chasing and eliminating pests.” Training was first. That was his observation at a time when the leading CO2 pistols were 4.5mm pellet-firing models using cast alloy 8-shot rotary magazines. They accurately simulated the design, weight, balance, and general handling characteristics of their centerfire counterparts. The examples I illustrated in the Blue Book were all Umarex models, the Colt 1911 A1 Trophy Match with compensator and bridge mount fitted with a Top Point red dot sight, the fairly new (at that time) satin finish Beretta 92FS Match with compensator, blued Beretta 92FS and new Walther CP99. All four had tested at 10 meters with average groups measuring 1-inch center-to-center. I truly wish I had kept them, but they were on loan for the book and I didn’t buy them thinking they would be around for a long time, and I would get to them later on. Of course, the high end Beretta Match with compensator was discontinued after seven years and the Colt 1911 A1 Trophy Match left the lineup only two years after the book came out, a stark reminder to me and to all of you, that when a really interesting air pistol comes along, it doesn’t mean it will always be around. But, once again, almost 20 years ago no one could have anticipated the airguns we have today, not even Dr. Beeman. Blowback action models were all but non-existent and cartridge loading CO2 revolvers not even on anyone’s drawing board.
Hits and misses
I don’t mean downrange but hitting the bullseye for marketing (and even a miss with Airgun Experience readers can be a hit in the big box stores). Umarex has a remarkable record with more success stories than fails, and even some of the fails hang on like the Python, the also-ran of BB cartridge-loading CO2 wheelguns, swept aside by ASG’s later Dan Wesson models. I even gave it another chance this week, but even with the best pellets and pellet cartridges, the limits of the design weighed in. Umarex improved the Peacemaker by adding rifled barrels and pellet cartridges, but left the Python behind.
Looking at the broad spectrum of the airgun market today, there are actually more niches to fill because older WWII-era air pistols, rifles and select-fire models are being built, and we, Airgun Experience readers, are second only to professional target shooters in being hard to please. What has been offered in the last half dozen years, certainly the last two years, has whetted an almost insatiable appetite for authentic looking and handling airguns. But, we are a small part of the market, the part with the most expensive tastes, aside from competition airgun shooters, who will spend a thousand dollars or more for an Olympic quality precharged pneumatic pistol. There is a vast divide here.
We as CO2 pistol shooters tend to look for ways to make shooting models like the Colt Peacemaker (paired with the Legends Cowboy Lever Action), modern guns like the Dan Wesson Model 715, Sig Sauer 1911 WTP, Glock 17 Gen4, as well as WWII-era based BB models like the new M1 Carbine and M1A1 Thompson, as entertaining and challenging (to ourselves) to shoot as possible. We look at SASS, IDPA and IPSC competition as a comparison. Conversely, watching 10-meter Olympic pistol shooters is as exciting as watching grass grow, with all due respect to the skills of Olympic 10-meter pistol shooters. On my very best shooting day ever with a CO2 pistol or quality single stroke pneumatic, I couldn’t have made the cut, so in no way am I disparaging the men and women who shoot 10-meter pistol. But air pistol enthusiasts want something more, and despite how much of the market share we get, are never quite satisfied. We look at the Shot Show and count how many new air pistols or rifles check the boxes on our wish list, and never quite realize how much it costs manufacturers to come up with a new design (just ask Sig Sauer) to build an air pistol that fulfills the wishes of handgun enthusiasts, more than airgun enthusiasts. We want an authentic S&W Model 29 pellet-loading cartridge revolver chambered in .22 caliber, or a classic Browning Hi-Power with blowback action, a rifled barrel and self-contained CO2 pellet magazine. We want them to look and feel like the real centerfire guns. Why? Because, to a great extent, Crosman did it in the past with the technology at hand in the 1960s and 1970s with S&W and Colt-style wheelguns, and today’s technology should make it possible to do even better in the 21st century, that’s why.
The truth is, the industry moves at different paces to meet different needs, and much as I hate to rationalize it, most of the attention today is going to Air Soft guns for training, not BB and pellet guns by any degree of comparison. In light of this, we are fortunate to have the makes and models we have today, and new guns like the CO2 pellet-loading magazine Walther PPQ that is forthcoming from Umarex. This may be the highlight of 2020, it’s hard to predict. Manufacturers are not reveling too much, information comes slowly until a product is all but ready to introduce, and the manufacturing battle lines have been drawn by Umarex, Sig Sauer, and Springfield Armory (Air Venturi). They are the juggernauts building the BB and pellet guns that fulfill our wishes for more. Just not fast enough.
I have a more pragmatic look at this because 20 years ago, writing three articles a week on CO2 pistols would not have been realistic or even possible over the long term. Writing about airguns in general, like Tom Gaylord has done for decades, absolutely, but to be as specific and centrist as Airgun Experience requires manufacturers to keep turning out new models that meet the expectations of real firearms enthusiasts who also like airguns. They do it, and we want more. Ask for more, expect less, and you will occasionally be surprised.
10 thoughts on “Greater Expectations”
The comment comes from someone living in Europe where firearms are under very strict legislation so we have a need for substitutes. On the other hand we have access to any new airgun along with the vintage models that you state since they are still in stock. With these two parameters in mind you can see that building co2 versions, not only replicas, of the firearms has a profitable future for the companies. There’s only one problem though. Illegal conversion to firearms is what banned the Baikal MP654, even in the USA. Just some more time in the drawing board.
Very well said. Keep these editorial observations coming. In our eagerness to see more realistic replicas of old and new guns, we still need to be reminded of the time, effort, and cost to design and engineer the production of these replicas and understand and appreciate the manufacturer’s budget limitations and legitimate concerns about return on investment from product sales.
Here’s another example of a greater expectation that airgun manufacturers have not yet been able to fulfill. Umarex was very successful with the cartridge loading, firing, and expelling Cowboy Lever Action rifle. Umarex threw down the gauntlet at Sig Sauer, and now Sig Sauer needs to demonstrate that they can do it. Sig Sauer has released two versions of their MCX pellet firing rifle using a belt fed magazine in both. It’s time for Sig to come out with an MCX pellet rifle using rear loading cartridges for that additional level of realism.
Well I know every movie and TV production armorer would surely benefit from that and since sound is usually added or enhanced anyway, it would be a big savings overall. Wouldn’t want the job of picking up the empty brass to reload, though, but everyone with a Cowboy Lever Action is learning the drill. Stay off the grass! I think in time we will see this advance in semi-auto CO2 rifles, maybe even CO2 pistols someday. There is still a lot of technology to develop and an eager market for the products.
The Cowboy legends is pointing the way. Prior to that I had the Walther lever action. Putting aside the Walther’s unreliability I have had far more fun with the Legends. Preparing;loading and collecting the empty cases is all part of that fun. It takes longer than a bb magazine but I am not in a hurry nor am I out in the bundu worried about losing cases. I am in my garden or on a range but am free to enjoy my guns at low cost and without the danger of killing my kids or neighbours with an accident.
It follows that the next step is to put cartridges into a blow back pistol or maybe the next generation MP 40 or Thompson.It is also for that reason I shall not be buying the M1 or SMLE in their latest incarnations. No cartridges!!!
Sounds like you are ready for a belt fed Browning 30 cal or a Gatling Gun on the back porch. The next cartridge firing rifles should be a Springfield o3 and a K98 , as well as an SMLE
A fine and very interesting essay. I appreciate reading your observations and thoughts on these sorts of topics. And I agree that the air gun industry’s designs and the state-of-the-art has come a long way. It has filled a large need by providing backyard-friendly trainers for firearm shooters in a meaningful and satisfying way.
Coincidentally, I dusted off my old Umarex replicas two weeks ago and reacquainted myself with them in my basement on a snowy day. I have the Walther CP88, Colt 1911A1, Beretta 92fs, Magnum Research Desert Eagle (which has a mild blowback to cock the gun), and the Walther Lever Action, which uses the same 8 round pellet clip of the others. I also picked up and shot my Umarex Smith & Wesson 586 with 8 inch barrel that came out roughly the same time as the others. I shot them off a pistol rest in my basement at 10 meters. (I intentionally left my Umarex Redhawk in its box as that is more fun to look at and handle than to shoot and isn’t a replica of anything.)
Because like just about everyone I have been shooting only blowback replicas for years, I was reminded just how nice it is to get 60 or so 400-425 fps shots on a single CO2 cartridge! What shocked me, however, was how much more accurate they are than any of the four dozen or so blowback BB shooters in my collection. Granted, they shoot pellets through a rifled barrel, but the difference was considerable even when I backed the target to 7 meters. I compared the groups to my notebook, and in every case the blowback models were significantly less accurate. (I concede I might shoot those slightly more rapidly because of the feedback they provide, but I still only record results if I shoot deliberately.)
I have a handful of the relatively recent shell-shooting pellet revolvers, but the Dan Wesson was the only one that equaled the oldies. It is itself something of an oldy, too, the 8 inch barreled model that uses the older screw-on shell tips. I am confident that shell design, while a pain to load, makes a big contribution to that revolver’s accuracy, which nearly equals that of the S&W 586.
I came away from the experience with a very strong hope that the industry returns to producing good-triggered (i.e. no trigger activated belts), semi-auto, blowback pellet models, even if they aren’t field-strippable. In addition to my quite accurate Umarex Desert Eagle, I also have a Daisy 2003 pellet pistol that has blowback and true semiautomatic action. I also have a couple Crosman Nightstalker pellet rifles that use blowback to cock the hammer. They are “plasticky” but are all excellent shooters.
What the world needs is not just a good five cent cigar, it also needs a good-triggered semiauto pellet pistol.
Again, a very fine essay.
I wonder if you could provide some detailed information about velocity and accuracy of the 8″ S&W, the Desert Eagle and the 1911. I missed the chance of getting an S&W like yours and I never had any of the other two.
Thanks in advance.
I am a lousy shot, even with a pistol rest on a bench, but the S&W 586 shot in single action is very nearly as acurate as my Alpha Proj single-shot, PCP, 10 meter pistol in my hands at 10 meters indoor, bench rested.
The other two are not quite there but are pretty close, especially, believe it or not, the sweet-triggered Umarex Magnum Research Desert Eagle. It is a gas hog, however, getting only about 20-25 good shots per CO2 cartridge. It is huge, but not really that heavy as most of the externals are a high quality plastic. Check out Tom Gaylord’s blog on the Pyramyd Air site for his tests of all three of these pistols for his accuracy and velocity tests: https://www.pyramydair.com/blog/2012/03/smith-wesson-586-pellet-revolver-part-2/ , https://www.pyramydair.com/blog/2012/03/smith-wesson-pellet-revolver-part-3/
That’s a tall order but you seem to have a praise-worthy collection of pellet models. It is hard to beat the Dan Wesson, but if you want to add another to your collection, I recommend the 6-inch model with the correct Model 715 design and the newer rear-loading pellet shells. You will even find the 2.5 inch model a worthy contender for your older pellet-firing revolvers and semi-autos. As for BBs vs. pellets, nine out of 10 times pellets beat BBs for accuracy at the same distances.
Glad you enjoyed the articles,
I have salivated at the prospect of purchasing the Dan Wesson 715 2.5 inch pellet model. There have been far too few CO2 snubbies produced ever, which really bugs me.
I grew up during the era of “Mannix,” “Baretta,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “The Streets of San Francisco”and a whole barrel full of Quinn-Martin TV police detective shows. As you know, the Colt Detective Special and S&W Chief’s Special helped make those shows special, a visual element as intrinsic to police work and detective programs as the cheap suit.
Part of the attraction to me must also be that my great grandfather was a decorated big city Lt. Detective very much like the hard-charging Mike Torello of “Crime Story.” I proudly own his nickel plated Colt Police Positive in the manly caliber .32 Colt.
Ah, good times!