What about dual-power airguns?
by B.B. Pelletier
Before we begin, I have some pictures to show Matt61, who’s installing a reloading press. Matt, the press you see here is a Forster Co-Ax press that generates the maximum force with the lowest input. I can do operations with one finger that takes a lot more effort on other presses. As a consequence, the press puts very little strain on the bench on which it’s mounted. I have it mounted to a one-inch plank that I attach to a plastic workbench with two wood clamps. You’ll see it in the pictures.
Looking down from the top, the base of the press is bolted to the right side of the plank. It overhangs the workbench by about four inches to allow room for the mechanism to move. You can see the two wood clamps that hold the plank to the workbench.
This shows the press bolted to the plank. One of the bolts has no washer, but the other three do. You can also see how far the plank overhangs the workbench.
You can see how the shellholder at the bottom of the press raises and lowers, guided by the twin steel rods. This press multiplies force more efficiently than any other reloading press made. Hence, jobs that are normally difficult, such as full-length resizing rifle cases, are a breeze.
Today’s blog was suggested by a question (actually several ) from reader wprejs, who wanted to know if airguns with dual power were a hot idea. Like all things, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.” It’s more of a “sometimes.”
Variable power is not new
Back before there were cartridge arms, the idea of modifying a gun’s power was easy, simple and straightforward. You simply loaded more or less gunpowder. But when shooters did this, they soon learned that their guns preferred one load above all others, and that was the load they committed to memory — the one load that worked best.
Fast-forward to the American West and the dawn of cartridge arms. In the 1870s onward, a similar thing happened when Winchester and Colt chambered their guns for the same cartridges. You could shoot your .44 Winchester Centerfire (.44-40) cartridge in both your 1873 carbine and your 1873 Colt Peacemaker. That was very handy for the man who planned to be away from civilization for long periods of time.
But in the early part of the 20th century, cartridge manufacturers started loading this caliber and similar cartridges with smokeless powder, and that changed everything. There were smokeless powders that worked best in longer barrels, and others that worked best in short barrels. Although the cartridge remains identical in every other way, they started selling .44-40 cartridges for rifles only and others in the same caliber just for handguns. Once they started doing that, they also started loading the rifle cartridges to levels beyond the potential strength of the revolvers. Once that happened, it was especially critical that you use the correct ammunition in the right firearm.
But this really isn’t what wprejs was talking about. I told you about it only to lay the foundation of this story. What we’re concerned with here are airguns that shoot at two different power levels. I’ll get to that, but we have to continue with firearms for a little longer.
There are some classic dual-power firearms in the world today. Perhaps the best-known of all of them is the western-style revolver that’s chambered for both the .22 long rifle and the .22 Winchester Magnum. To achieve this, the gun must have two different cylinders, because the external dimensions of the cartridges are so different that the long rifle cartridge would burst if fired in the larger .22 Magnum chamber. The western style is used because that is a gun in which the cylinder is easy to remove. A double-action revolver would be much more difficult to switch over and also more costly to produce.
There’s just one problem with this. The bullets of the two cartridges are of slightly different diameters. The bullet of a .22 Magnum measures 0.224 inches, while the .22 long rifle bullet measures 0.223 inches. Ah, but the .22 long rifle bullet is also made of relatively pure lead, and therefore will upset (swell) when it’s smacked in the tail by the force of the burning gunpowder. This allows gunmakers to use it in a barrel that is one-thousandth of an inch too large.
The result is mediocre accuracy. Oh, you can hit a can at 30 feet, just don’t expect to shoot to the same standard as a Smith & Wesson K22 or a Colt Woodsman. But, by keeping the cost of these guns low and the fun value high, they remain very popular.
Other popular dual-caliber guns are revolvers chambered for both .357 Magnum and 9mm ammo. Or .45 Colt and .45 ACP rounds. Or .40 caliber and 10mm ammo. The list goes on, but in most cases the results are similar. Let’s take the .357 that’s also chambered for the 9mm cartridge. I happen to own one of these — a Ruger Blackhawk. With the .357 Magnum cylinder that also shoots .38 Special, by the way, I get the power I want. With the 9mm cylinder, I get the ability to shoot inexpensive ammo that also doesn’t recoil very much. But my barrel is bored to .357 inches, so the 9mm bullets that are .355 inches and .356 inches are really too small. They do work and they work very well, I’m happy to say, but they’re not optimum.
This Ruger Blackhawk Convertible has one cylinder for .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges and another for 9mm cartridges. It works well, though the 9mm bullet is too small for the barrel.
One handgun combo that works very well is the .45 Colt that has a .45 ACP cylinder. The bore sizes of these two cartridges used to be vastly different (0.457 inches to 0.452 inches, respectively), but the ammunition and gun manufacturers have evolved the .45 Colt cartridge to use bullets measuring 0.452 inches. Now everything works well. The two cartridges have similar power in factory ammunition, but the .45 Colt uses heavier bullets and can be loaded much more powerfully than the standard load.
So, dual-power firearms do exist and they do work. Some work quite well and make it possible for a shooter who doesn’t reload to have several power selections for one firearm. Without getting into the topic of subcaliber chambers for centerfire rifles (.32 ACP pistol cartridges being shot in a .30-06), I’m going to switch the focus over to airguns.
Now the airguns
Like firearms, there are dual-power airguns that work well and others that don’t do as much as a new buyer might think. I guess I should begin by talking about the dual-fuel concept that Crosman pioneered with the Benjamin Discovery rifle. You can operate the gun on either air or CO2 and get two different performance levels from it. Since the barrel remains the same, no accuracy is lost, but you do have to sight-in for the power source you have selected. Air gives fewer shots at greater power, and CO2 does just the reverse.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of this effect is found in the three AirForce rifles, the Talon, Talon SS and Condor. On air, they each perform differently but all are powerful. Switch over to CO2, and you get hundreds of shots per tank at a much-reduced power level. This idea of running the rifles on CO2 was first conceived by Pyramyd Air owner, Josh Ungier, who went to AirForce with a prototype valve and tank. He had to sign up for a large run of product, but he brought the concept to market by doing so.
There’s also a CO2 gun with two different power settings that works really well — the vintage Crosman Mark I and II Target pistols. The Mark I is in .22, while the Mark II is in .177 and BB. Both guns function well on low power, where they conserve gas, and on high power where they’re accurate at longer ranges. Of course, the sighting changes for each power level; but if you can stand that, it really works well. These guns are no longer made, but they can be found in working condition for around $100.
Crosman’s Mark I and II target pistols have two power levels that really work, because the low-power setting saves on gas, while the high-power setting is best for longer distances.
But the guns wprejs specifically asked about were springers, and that’s the one powerplant that does not do well on dual power levels. Let’s take the Beeman P1 (HW45) as an example. Cock it to the first stop, and you’re on low power. Pull the topstrap forward to the second stop, and you’re on high power. The problem is that the gun shoots to two different points of aim when you do. On low power, the gun shoots much higher than on high power. In fact, it’s difficult to adjust the rear sight low enough to get on target at 10 meters on low power.
The recoil and noise is the same on both power levels; and since there’s no cost difference, there really is no reason to ever shoot on low power. In the 15 years I’ve owned my P1, I’ve probably fired fewer than 100 shots on low power, compared to several thousand on high. It isn’t so much a fault of the gun as not adding anything to the equation. Why shoot on low power when high is just as easy and more accurate?
What would work, in my opinion, is a spring gun that has never been built. A spring rifle that cocks easily (maybe 12 lbs.) and shoots at 5-6 foot-pounds on low power, or you have the option of cocking all the way with much more effort, a longer piston stroke and generating serious power (16 foot-pounds in .177). You could shoot the gun on low power for casual plinking or go to high when you want to hunt or dispatch pests. You’d still have to make sight changes when making the switch, but this rifle would be so different at both power levels that it would be worth the effort.
The attraction is even greater for a gun that comes in two or more calibers. The dual-caliber airgun has existed for over 75 years and is basically a good idea but has been implemented incorrectly in recent years. Instead of making quality airguns, importers have been buying cheaply made Chinese breakbarrels with interchangable barrels and then wondering why they don’t sell well after the initial surge drops away.
The Chinese can screw up anything they get their hands on, so stay away from them unless you know the product is good from test reports. If a quality airgunmaker were to create a dual-caliber air rifle that really worked as the customer thought it should, it would probably sell well.
But wait, such a gun is already made! AirForce sells four different caliber barrels in three different lengths for their three sporting rifles. These barrels are accurate and do change the way the guns perform. The Talon SS is quiet with its 12-inch barrel, or it can roar with twice the power when you install a 24-inch barrel.
Is there more?
You bet there is! Wprejs, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of variable power airguns in this report. I could go on for days with this discussion, but to what benefit? Dual-power guns exist, and sometimes they work the way you think they should. Other times, they don’t. But that isn’t the real issue.
When you ask for dual power in an airgun, you’re usually asking for two guns in one. Such guns do exist; I’ve already talked about them here. The AirForce guns are excellent examples of this. But you’re not going to get something that works this way and also spend under $200. Just the barrels on the AirForce guns cost almost that much.
I haven’t even mentioned the Whiscombe rifle that comes in four different calibers and has air transfer port limiters that can be adjusted to any power level under the maximum possible. But at about $10,000 for a complete Whiscombe set like this, you probably won’t be buying one real soon.
What you probably really want is a gun that does what you want it to do when you want to do it, and that’s a very different thing. Instead of a Swiss Army airgun, you want one that you can learn to shoot so well that it will do almost anything asked of it. That’s the subject of another blog.