Semi-auto pellet pistol evolution
From perfection to perfection
By Dennis Adler
It was just 23 years ago that Umarex introduced the first semi-auto style pellet pistol, the Walther CP-88. It is still manufactured. In 1999, Umarex developed its second semi-auto style pellet pistol, the Beretta 92FS, which was introduced at the turn of the new century, becoming what remains, 19 years later, the best built CO2 pistol of its kind, still handcrafted and manufactured in Germany. Two remarkable guns that launched a generation of rotary magazine semiautomatic pellet pistols, but were they true semi-autos? The answer then and now is no. The Umarex Beretta 92FS looks, feels, and handles like its centerfire Beretta counterpart but its internal operation is that of a revolver with the cast alloy 8-round rotary magazine turned from chamber to chamber by pulling the trigger. It was a beautiful deception.
And generations followed
The concept pioneered with the CP-88 and 92FS continues to this day, it is a design that works, is reliable, and allows a CO2 pistol to shoot lead pellets through a rifled barrel with precision accuracy. While the majority of air pistols built today using this system, like the Umarex Beretta PX4 Storm, are either built in Japan or Taiwan, in its day, a generation ago, the “Made in Germany” models were the foundation for using CO2 pistols as training guns; the 9mm Walther P-88 and Beretta 92FS and then the Walther P99 were at the time, among the most popular handguns in the world, in use by law enforcement and military.
For all intents and purposes these CO2 copies were the best multi-shot pellet-firing air pistols you could own for quality of construction, fit, and exceptional finish. And in all honesty they have never been surpassed in that respect, since many of even the finest new models, like the centerfire guns they are based upon, use polymer frames, which were introduced by the Umarex Walther CP99. Still the technology of the rotary magazine, even when updated with 8+8 rotary stick magazines in guns like the Umarex Beretta PX4 Storm were still revolvers at their core.
But technology finally overtook them in the last year and of all the airgun manufacturers in the world that could have done it, it was a company that had only started designing and offering their own brand of air pistols in 2016, Sig Sauer. The P320, introduced in 2017, became the first rifled-barrel, pellet-firing semi-auto pistol that was, in its operation, a true magazine-fed semiautomatic and not an internalized revolver.
Sig’s technology is as yet unchallenged by other air pistol manufacturers, but has this new higher level of authenticity surpassed the original rifled barrel semi-auto style pellet pistols? To find out, the very latest example, the Sig Sauer M17, with a 20-round self-contained CO2 pellet magazine, goes head-to-head with the best of the original multi-shot pellet pistols, the Umarex Beretta 92FS. It is not only a comparison of airgun designs but a comparison of handgun evolution.
What you get from different technology
We begin with the Beretta and how this German-crafted airgun is put together for its suggested retail price of $300 with nickel finish and real hardwood Beretta grips. This is the way things were done in the 1990s when realistic-looking air pistols were few in number and Umarex built them is Germany. And the 8-shot rotary pellet magazine was the new technology. In 20-year old dollar values, the Beretta was top price for quality at $258 in nickel with wood grips when it came out.
At 2 pounds, 15 ounces, the 92FS air pistol remains a hand-filling gun that was scaled to the dimensions of the 9mm 92FS. Where Umarex cut the smallest corner was in not having the optional (for the 9mm model) white dot sights. For holstering, drawing, sighting and firing the first shot double action, the CO2 pistol delivered the accurate feel right up until you pulled the trigger. Then it was a soft report and no recoil. The slide didn’t move and the gun stayed solid in the hand like a single shot target pistol. It was all show and accuracy, and little more in terms of actually handling a centerfire Beretta 92FS. It was good enough for the time and despite all the technology that has followed, still good enough to remain one of the best selling multi-shot pellet pistols in the world almost 20 years later.
Time and technology will win out
That is not always a given. Simple solutions to operation for the 92FS were to locate the CO2 into the pistol grip (by removing the right side grip panel) and incorporate a built-in seating screw and piercing mechanism in the base of the grip frame. This system is still used on a number of much newer CO2 models, including the Sig Sauer P320, which, while it improved the operation, remained the same idea; two separate procedures for loading the pellets and CO2.
The breakthrough of incorporating the CO2 and the pellets into a single magazine was not a solution anyone had worked out until last year when Sig Sauer developed the P320 M17 CO2 model. This third solution to increasing pellet capacity from 8 to 16 and then to 20, had also achieved a means of creating a self-contained CO2 pellet magazine. Using a two-piece design, the M17 magazine holds a 20-round pellet clip and CO2 in one.
And thus we arrive at the greatest total number of improvements from the first Beretta 92FS pellet model to the innovative Sig Sauer M17; a near 20-year journey. But, along the way, blowback action was also developed for pellet pistols like the Beretta PX4 Storm and the Sig Sauer P226 (and P250) designs. Essentially Sig rendered the 8+8 rotary stick magazine obsolete with the P320, but still with separate CO2 and pellets.
The M17 in turn makes the P320 obsolete in that same respect. We have before us the two ends of the design spectrum, the 92FS and the M17. The question that needs to be asked now is “will the M17 (like the Beretta 92FS pellet model) still be in production 20 years from now?”
In Part 2 we see if technology can create a gun that will outshoot an established design.