by B.B. Pelletier
We had a comment last week from DB, who says, “I have had some interest in these precharged airguns but the prices for the pumps seem to me to be way out of line, and scuba tanks are even more expensive. You can buy a really nice firearm for less than the cost of this gun [Career 707 Carbine] and pump. Is there any economical option in our future? My wife would kill me if she thought that I would spend $200 on a pump!”
I want to put the prices of precharged guns and gear into perspective for you. Before Daystate began making precharged rifles in 1980, they hadn’t been made since before World War I. New guns were still sold in the early 1920s, but they were assembled from parts made before the War. In today’s money, those smallbore airguns started at a low of about $1,000 and went up rapidly. They developed less than 200 foot-pounds, and their pumps sold for hundreds of dollars (adjusted to today’s prices).
The 19th century was the big-bore heyday
The finest and most powerful big bore guns were made during the 19th century. Power levels got as high as, perhaps, 300 foot-pounds, and guns were sold in kits with all the tools and equipment needed to make them work. A starting price for a complete kit was around $2,000 of today’s money, but the price quickly rose to $10,000 and more on the finer models. These were gorgeous guns, for sure, but they didn’t use scopes and all had to be filled from hand pumps. If one of today’s big bores had been around, it wouldn’t have been inoperative, because no one had the means to charge a gun to 3,000 psi. Those vintage hand pumps could get as high as 1,000 psi in extreme cases, but then they took a very long time to fill the gun because they compressed so little air.
After Daystate broke the ice, the entire world got into PCPs. Shooters discovered how accurate they are and how easy to shoot. Shot after shot with no pumping, no cocking, nothing but loading and shooting. And, accuracy that surpasses a .22 rimfire out to 50 yards.
The big bore revival began in 1996
Dennis Quackenbush brought out his CO2-powered Brigand rifle in 1996. It shot a .375-caliber round ball and got 60-80 foot-pounds of energy. Accuracy was on the order of 5 shots in 1.5″ at 30 yards. Gary Barnes soon followed, and his early big bores were pushing the 250 foot-pound mark, with accuracy equivalent to Quackenbush. The Koreans saw a market and brought out the Fire 201 air shotgun with a 9mm rifle barrel. That gun got 150-175 foot-pounds and accuracy of 1″ at 40 yards. By now, the 21st century had started and the race for power was on!
The multi-stage hand pump debuted in the mid-90s
Fredrik Axelsson designed a multi-stage hand pump that could compress air to 3,000 psi for the European target shooters and the few sporter PCPs that existed. The name of the first company to market a hand pump was Axsor. Within a few years, Axelsson left Axsor and started another company called FX to make a different hand pump and several models of sporting PCPs. Hill of England came out with a completely different hand pump capable of achieving pressures up to 3,500 psi.
Before we move on, you should know something about the technology in one of these exotic hand pumps. They are actually a pump within a pump within a pump! That’s correct, there are actually three pumps nested inside what looks like a common bicycle pump. I have repaired many of these pumps, and they’re very complex inside. There are about 20 different-sized O-rings in one of them! And they generate great heat when they work – high enough to cause brass parts to fail if you don’t give them a break after five minutes of pumping. I own all three models – the Axsor, FX and Hill, and all my pumps still work perfectly after many years of service because I follow the manual’s recommendations. Yes, $200 is a lot of money, but not when you consider what you’re getting.
Incidentally, DB, a 3,000 psi 80-cubic-foot aluminum scuba tank sells new for around $150, so it doesn’t cost more than a hand pump. I have two tanks. I paid $20 at a garage sale for the last one and $100 for the one before that.
High-pressure electric compressors
You’ll pay $2,500 for a cheap electric compressor that will go to 3,000 psi, unless you buy the FX electric compressor. Yes, it does have the hand pump at its heart, but it is water-cooled for much greater longevity. As long as you don’t abuse it by filling scuba tanks, the FX compressor should last a long time.
“You can buy a really nice firearm for less than the cost of this gun and pump.”
Yes you can! You can also buy a nice lawnmower for less – so what? Neither one is a precharged air rifle. You don’t buy these things to save money – even though I hope that I’ve demonstrated you are now paying less than ever for this technology. Precharged air rifles are science experiments with practical applications. They aren’t firearms, nor should they be used as substitutes for them. Enjoy them for what they are.
What about the future?
I don’t see big bore prices coming down much. What I see is capability going up. Quackenbush now makes a big bore that delivers 1,000 foot-pounds, and Barnes does the same. The Korean guns are pushing past 300 foot-pounds. Smallbore repeaters are becoming more accurate and more reliable. A new hand-pump that is being developed will at least hold the price steady, regardless of where the Euro goes. Plus, there are several lower-priced electric compressors in development. Companies are working toward a target retail price of $600 for a portable electric compressor (the FX compressor is now at $1,200). If you’re interested in precharged airgunning, you’re in, what will someday be called, the Golden Age.