by B.B. Pelletier

The RWS Diana 54 recoilless air rifle, also called the Air King, is big, beautiful, powerful and accurate.

Recent interest among our readers in the Beeman P1 pistol has given me cause to revisit some of the other classic airguns I’ve tested in the past. If the guns are still available for sale, I’m taking a look at the old reports to see if they stand up to our current standards. Today’s rifle, the RWS Diana model 54 recoilless rifle, was the first classic airgun to be considered, though it did struggle with the Beeman R1 to get there. I read the old reports on this classic recoilless spring-piston air rifle and was surprised to see how different they are from what I do today. It’s time for an update.

RWS Diana 54
This rifle is made by Mayer & Grammelspracher Dianawerk, an airgun manufacturer located in Rastatt, Germany. The gun is imported into the U.S. by RWS USA, which is where the RWS name comes into the picture. The model 54 is a recoilless version of the Diana sidelever rifle action. I’ll have more to say about the recoilless system at the end of this report, but now let’s look at some general information on all the Diana sidelevers.

When the 1,000 f.p.s. “barrier” was broken for the first time by a .177 caliber Beeman R1, I thought we’d gone as far as we could go in terms of velocity. That was in 1981. After a few more years, though, Diana brought out their model 48 and 52, which were sidelever rifles that advertised 1,100 f.p.s. in .177 caliber. And, they really could do it! At that point, all bets were off and the power race was on.

But the recoilless model 54 waited until 1993 to come to market. When it did come out, however, it made a big splash, because not only could you break the sound barrier, you could now do so with a rifle that also handled sweet, like a Feinwerkbau 300. That fact fascinated many airgunners of the day, but not me. You see, I didn’t believe it at the time. I’ll come back to that.

The rifle
The first impression everyone gets of a model 54 is how large it is. Both the 48 and 52 have somewhat slender stocks, but the 54 is mounted in a fat, rounded stock that conveys the impression of great size. Weighing well over 9 lbs., it dwarfs most contemporary magnum centerfire rifles. The next thing you notice is the checkering. It wraps around the forearm and conveys great quality. The pistol grip is also checkered with the same sharp impressed diamonds (pressed into the wood by heat and a metal die). As far as ambidexterity goes, the cheekpiece is only on the left side of the butt, and the cocking lever cannot be moved, but other than that this rifle is reasonably ambidextrous.

The wood has a medium-brown stain and a satin finish. The inletting and fit is very good. Because of the anti-recoil system Diana used, the action cannot be tightly fitted to the stock. The buttpad is a black rubber that’s separated from the stock with a white line spacer. All major metal parts are finished semi-shiny. There are some plastic finishing touches on the rifle here and there, but it’s mostly a wood and metal airgun. Most of the metal you can touch is steel.

The trigger
The 54 trigger is both crisp and adjustable. When the rifle’s cocked, the safety automatically comes on. It sticks straight out the back of the spring tube and can be taken off with the thumb of your firing hand as you grip the rifle to shoot.

While a Diana trigger is not in the same category as a Rekord or Air Arms trigger, it’s still very good and can be adjusted to a crisp, light release. It’s certainly far ahead of other spring-gun triggers that have many aftermarket upgrades. Once you get it adjusted to suit your needs, it should serve you well for as long as you own the rifle.

Diana sights have always been good and so are the current ones. The front sight is a post attached to an inclined ramp that’s cast into the muzzle piece. It allows the front sight to be raised (lowering the shot) and lowered. The rear sight is a click-adjustable open notch that offers a choice of four different notch shapes. As open sights go, this is a good one, but very few U.S. owners will use it.

As powerful and accurate as the 54 is, it begs to be scoped. It certainly does if you want the absolute best performance the rifle can give. Now that the UTG scope base exists, nothing could be easier than mounting a scope to this rifle. Because many of the sidelever rifles do have some barrel droop, I recommend using the scope base that’s made for this particular model. Even if it raises the impact of your shots higher than you need, no harm is done. No one ever needs a negative adjustment range on their scope, so any downward adjustment below the sight in impact point is wasted. But a scope that has to be adjusted too high is the death of accuracy.

With all the power that’s available, I feel the 54 is ideal for .22 caliber. However, because it’s recoilless, it also works in .177 caliber, as long as you use heavier pellets that are accurate. Personally, though, the .22 is my pick, and the rifle I’m testing is a .22.

No, the RWS Diana 54 is not actually recoilless. Neither is the Feinwerkbau 150 nor the 300 target rifle. What they do is isolate the shooter from the recoil by allowing the barreled action of the gun to slide backwards in the stock when it fires. Because of this, rifles like these apply a perfect artillery hold on their own and you can hold them like you hold Winchester .30-30s and still do remarkably well. Because you are not restraining the rifle from recoiling when you do.

When the rifle is cocked, it sets itself up to counter the piston’s movement. When the piston takes off, the rifle moves backwards in the stock on steel rails that are hidden from sight. This is called the sledge anti-recoil system and it works remarkably well. It also means you can rest a 54 directly on sandbags and get superior accuracy, because the stock does all the work.

This system works so well that shooters are surprised by the accuracy of the rifle the first time they shoot it. All that’s happening is the rifle is executing a perfect artillery hold, instead of the shooter having to perfect his technique. Since I’m one of the converts, this is something I know about. Until I first shot a 54, I didn’t see how it could be anything more than a glorified 52 that didn’t recoil. But I was missing the greater benefit of a consistent artillery hold. I actually out-shot my TX200 with a Diana 54; and ever since discovering that, I’ve been trying to spread the word.

In an ironic twist of fate, there once was a semi-recoilless version of the TX200, but I owned one and tested many others and can report that they were not well-executed. They were no more accurate than the straight TX200, plus they took a bunch more effort to cock. The Diana 54, in sharp contrast, got everything right and is the airgun it should be.

This report might potentially go longer than three parts if enough ancillary testing needs to be done. You readers will tell me what you’d like to see.