by B.B. Pelletier

This report is specifically for blog reader Robert from Arcade, who mentioned last week that he always wanted to own a Sterling air rifle, but didn’t have the money when they were available. Well, I can relate to that! My Sterling just jumped into my lap at the Roanoke airgun show last year. It was at the very end of the show when Jim Grossman came over to my table and offered me the Sterling for a BAM B-40 I had on the table. I took the trade because I was intrigued by the rifle, but also because I’d be able to test the Sterling for you. It’s not a common air rifle by anyone’s definition, and I think it’s always nice to be able to look at something a little different.

At the time we made this deal, I was unaware who I was dealing with. I only found out after I returned home that it was Jim, from whom I purchased the Haenel model 1. Jim is the guy who packs all his guns in custom-fitted foam containers for shipping. He is also the guy who let us look at his Relum Supertornado underlever back in December 2009.

The Sterling HR-81 underlever spring-piston air rifle was designed in the UK and ultimately manufactured in the United States by Benjamin Sheridan.

The Sterling is an unusual spring rifle in many ways. I guess the main way it differs from all other airguns is that it was originally made in the UK by the Sterling Armament Co., the company that is more famous for making the Sterling submachine gun in World War II. Then, the rights to manufacture were purchased by Benjamin, and it was made right here in this country. The Blue Book of Airguns puts a small premium on the guns built in the UK, but I like the idea of owning a U.S.-made rifle. I have no idea which one is scarcer, but I do know that when Crosman bought Benjamin in 1994 they stopped production of the Sterling very quickly.

Lothar Walther barrels
Here’s a bit of trivia. I was present at the Baldwinsville airgun show when Davis Schwesinger of Air Rifle Specialists sold Dennis Quackenbush 1,000+ surplus Lothar Walther barrels that had been destined for Sterlings. Davis obtained them from Crosman after the Sterling was cancelled. I guess in the 1990s, Crosman wasn’t interested in making spring-piston air rifles. The staff has changed since then, and I bet they wouldn’t throw away a whole design like this today! Dennis used those barrels for his projects for many years.

What is the Sterling air rifle?
The Sterling is an underlever spring-piston rifle that has a unique bolt-action loading system. To load the gun, you lift the bolt handle and it jumps to the rear under spring tension. The pellet is then put into the loading trough in front of the bolt; and once the bolt is pushed forward and down, the rifle is loaded. The bolt handle is located at the rear of the action, but the tip of the bolt is located over 8 inches forward. The loading port or trough is closer to the front of the action. The spring that pushes the bolt handle back when you raise the handle must be overcome to close the bolt after loading. In that respect, it feels a lot like working the action of an old SMLE battle rifle. And, because the bolt is spring-loaded, you feel that closing it cocks the rifle, but it doesn’t. Cocking is accomplished by pulling back on the underlever until the sear catches the piston, just like any other underlever.

The bolt handle is located at the rear of the action, but the loading trough (the dished-out area on top of the action) is toward the front.

This is how the rifle is marked with the maker’s name.

The model number and caliber are marked on the right side of the receiver.

Sterlings were made in three calibers: .177, .20 and .22. I don’t know if Benjamin was the reason the .20 caliber was in the lineup, because Benjamin owned Sheridan at the time they bought Sterling, and the Sheridan airguns never existed in any caliber other than .20. Perhaps one of our more savvy readers can tell us if there were ever any .20s made when Sterling was still a UK brand.

A quick check of the internet reveals that Sterling rifles were fraught with quality issues. The triggers were the most-often criticized parts, as they tended to break and fall apart in use. Only the wood stock held some of the trigger pins in place, and sometimes they didn’t even do that. The sights were next, with the rear sight being considered substandard to even the TS-45 Chinese rear sight. Apparently, the 2-piece front sight fell off often, so Benjamin made it a 1-piece part. The screws all over the gun fell out from vibration. In fact, twangy operation was almost a universal criticism of the Sterling design.

The trigger with the manual safety lever. Notice the trigger pin that’s free to fall out through the stock cutout for the safety.

But Jim Grossman has been inside my Sterling, because it doesn’t vibrate too much and the mainspring has a light coat of tar instead of the lithium grease that Benjamin used. My trigger is single-stage and lets go at just 2.5 lbs. The pull is a little creepy, but it’s well within the realm of decent triggers.

I also see a square-section mainspring inside the rifle. Jim told me he got the rifle off the airgun classifieds, and it was very twangy when he got it. It also dieseled badly. When he opened it up, he found a lot of grease forward of the piston seal, which served as fuel for the dieseling. He installed a Merlin spring that he bought from Jim Maccari. He verified that it is, indeed, a square-section wire spring. He lubed it with just a hint of black tar to get rid of most of the twang.

The rifle is stunningly heavy, at 8 lbs., 10 oz. Yet, it delivers the power of the Beeman R7. We’ll see that more closely when I test the velocity. That, more than anything other than the poor build quality, probably doomed the design. An underlever is always heavier than a breakbarrel, simply because of the extra lever, but you don’t expect a rifle this heavy to be so underpowered.

My gun is the HR-81, which is the plain version of the rifle. It has a beech stock that is not checkered, but has a ventilated black rubber recoil pad. The metal is polished fairly well, but it’s not perfect like a TX200 or an FWB 300. It’s much better than most of what is being sold today in the $300 price range. The front sight is fixed to the gun — a decision Benjamin apparently made. Although it’s designed to take interchangeable inserts, the screw-in back that holds the inserts in place has been lost. Without it, the front sight cannot be used unless you glue them in place. The factory rear peep sight did not come with the rifle. From the comments I’ve read, I’m not missing anything important. Fortunately, there ‘s a long 11mm dovetail atop the receiver, so I’ll just install a scope.

There was also a deluxe model called the HR-83. It had a checkered walnut stock with a raised cheekpiece. When Benjamin took over manufacture, the look of the rifle and the shape of the stock, not to mention the selection of the wood they used, all improved noticeably.

Another interesting minor trivia point is that I found my exact rifle for sale on Auction Arms back in 2007. It was referenced on the Vintage Airgun Forum, and I was able to call up the expired sales page and identify my rifle from the various patterns in the wood. It doesn’t mean anything or add any value to the gun, but it’s interesting that it sold back then for about what I traded for it at Roanoke. I don’t think this rifle appreciates much over time.

One final comment. If you read the reviews, you’ll see split opinions about the quality of the Sterling. Some say it’s a high-quality air rifle, while others criticize it soundly. Nobody feels neutral about the rifle. I took the time to analyze these remarks and came to the conclusion that it was people who were unfamiliar with airguns who thought the quality was high. Experienced shooters were able to compare it to other guns and thought the Sterling came out second best. I’m going to reserve my opinion until I see the whole test, because I want to give the rifle every chance to succeed.