by B.B. Pelletier

Photos and tests by Earl “Mac” McDonald

Today, we’ll begin a look at a strange duck. It’s an airgun model that is still current, but this variation is a relatively little-known offshoot that, because of its nature, is a completely different airgun. I’m referring to the Benjamin 397C. I linked to the Benjamin 397, which is the parent model and is still available for sale, because the “C” or carbine version of this multi-pump pneumatic isn’t made anymore. It was made and sold between 1994 and 1998, but not a lot of them were made. That’s the gun we’re studying today — the 397C that’s different than the longer 397, as this report will show.

The Benjamin 397C (right) is noticeably shorter and smaller than the 397 long gun. It’s three inches shorter and more than a full pound lighter than the rifle we know today.

Mac bought two brand new 397Cs at an airgun show several years ago. He has since gotten rid of one, but he holds on to the other because he’s grown to like it so much.

The carbine is 33 inches overall with a 16-inch barrel. The length of pull is a short 12-1/4 inches, but it’s comfortable for most adults in the offhand position. It weighs 4 lbs. 4 oz.

Design limitations
Because the 397C is a carbine and must be shorter than the long gun model, by definition of what a carbine is, it must also suffer the limitations that come with it. As regular readers of this blog know, pneumatic guns derive their power partly through the length of their barrels. Just as in the 19th century, a firearm rifle with a longer barrel was often more efficient and got more power from the same load than a shorter rifle when all things were equal, so any pneumatic will suffer from a power loss when its barrel is shortened. This is one time when physics will not give in to design.

Additionally, the pump mechanism and air reservoir were also shortened to make this carbine, so these two facts will affect performance as well. The bottom line is: don’t shorten the barrel if you want to get maximum efficiency from a pneumatic powerplant, anymore than you would shorten the barrel of a black powder rifle and not expect a similar power loss. Heck, for the same reason, the U.S. Army has discovered to its chagrin that the compact M4 carbine hamstrings the performance of the 5.56mm round that’s standard in the M16.

Design benefits
On the other hand, carbines are much handier to hold and to use. Mac pointed out that his 397C is a delightful airgun that he pulls out often when guests come over to shoot. Everybody likes the compact, light feel of the gun; and until you shoot it over a chronograph, you don’t notice the power loss. All things considered, Mac likes the carbine size over that of the full-sized rifle.

Because it comes from an older period in the life cycle of the 397, this carbine has the rocker-style safety that has a tab on either side of the receiver. It’s called a rocker safety because when the action is out of the stock you can see that the safety mechanism rocks from side to side as the Safe and Fire tabs are pressed.

The 397C has the old-style rocker safety that shooters love.

Like all other Benjamin pneumatics, the 397C is almost completely ambidextrous. The bolt is on the right side and cannot be switched, but the gun’s simple lines and the way the safety works combine to make it easy to operate from either side.

Like the full-sized 397, the carbine is recommended for a maximum of eight pumps and no more. Being a multi-pump, it can get along with fewer, depending on the situation. Three pumps for indoor target practice at close range and five if you want to shoot farther. Mac measured the effort required for the pump strokes and found that it takes 10 lbs. at stroke number two, 18 lbs. at stroke four, 24 lbs. at stroke six and 30 lbs. at stroke eight. That makes it somewhat easier to pump than the full-sized rifle, which requires about 35 lbs. for the eighth stroke. Of course, that means that less air is being compressed with every stroke.

Williams peep sight
Many of you know that Mac likes peep sights on his rifles, and Benjamin multi-pumps are made at the factory to accept them. When he purchased the gun, it had the Williams peep sight that is made specifically for Benjamin and Sheridan air rifles.

The Williams receiver sight is specially made to mount on the Benjamin and Sheridan pneumatics.

Two maintenance procedures
One thing the readers of this blog should have learned by now is that most CO2 and pneumatic guns require frequent oiling to keep the interior seals fresh and doing their job. But a quirk of marking on the rifle confuses many owners. The air intake hole has the words AIR HOLE DO NOT OIL stamped next to it, and many owners assume that means they are not to oil the rifle at all. In fact, oiling is one of two maintenance procedures that keeps the rifle operating for many decades. But you don’t oil through the small air hole. Instead, you extend the pump handle as far as it will go, which draws out the pump piston head as far as it can come. The pump head gets the oil. Three or four drops of Crosman Pellgunoil on the pump piston head every six months will keep the rifle working properly for a long time.

When the pump handle is opened all the way, the pump piston head comes as far out of the pump mechanism as possible without disassembling the airgun. Put three or four drops of Crosman Pellgunoil on the piston head at the end of the pump slot and then work the pump handle back and forth to spread the oil to the inner walls of the compression chamber.

The second maintenance procedure for this rifle is to always store it with a pump of air in the gun. That keeps both the inlet and firing valves shut against airborne contamination, and the seals will stay fresh for many years.

Mac promised to test both velocity and accuracy for us in the weeks to come. We’ll have a chance to look at this less-common type of Benjamin pneumatic and compare it with the longer rifle of today.

The 397C is another example of a rare type of airgun that’s still relatively unknown and still available for a good price. While it may not be your cup of tea, it gives us all hope that the field of airgun collecting is not just reserved for those with deep pockets and access to vintage airguns.