Which is simpler — a PCP or a springer?
by B.B. Pelletier
Blog reader Kevin inspired this report with a comment he made on Friday’s blog. He wondered whether my exposure to nearly all the airguns in the world, both past and present, has inspired me to own any one gun in particular. But it also comes from my visit to Leapers this past week (which I will be sharing with you very soon), because that thrust me into the world of manufacturing, again. I still remember a lot from my time at AirForce Airguns, but visiting Leapers and speaking with all their product developers brought technical things back into sharp focus, again.
There was also a comment last week from someone who stated outright that a spring gun is far simpler than a precharged pneumatic. When I read that, it didn’t sit quite right with me, so I thought about it for awhile until I had worked it out. And this report is the result.
So, today’s question is this: Which is simpler — a PCP or a springer? The answer may surprise you.
A spring-piston gun is far less cumbersome for a shooter to operate — I think we can all agree about that. All you do is cock it, load a pellet and you’re ready to go. With a precharged gun, there’s the complexity of the gun, itself, which is pretty much on par with the springer in most cases. Only the repeaters are more complex because of how their magazines or clips are loaded with pellets and then how they’re loaded into the guns.
But a precharged gun brings with it the need to put air into the gun at some point. And this is where things can get very complex. Sometimes, they’re not as bad as shooters realize or imagine. The part about filling the gun can be no more involved than it would be to take the pumping function that all multi-pump pneumatics have…such as the Sheridan Blue Streak…and separate it from the gun. That was what was behind the Benjamin Discovery precharged air rifle, and it’s the reason the Discovery is an order of magnitude less complex than all other PCPs on the market.
The Benjamin Discovery is simpler than other precharged airguns because of its lower fill pressure. One version comes with a hand pump that can easily fill the gun with little effort on the shooter’s part. Think of it as a more powerful and more accurate Sheridan Blue Streak with a separate pump.
The common perception among airgunners is that a PCP is more complex than a springer because of the need for special fill devices. Actually, the Benjamin Discovery and all other guns that use a Foster quick-disconnect air fill coupling have fixed this problem, but there are still a lot of PCP makers who aren’t yet using this type of fitting. So, their rifles are, in fact, more complex and prone to equipment compatibility problems for the buyer. But all Benjamin PCPs, all Daystate PCPs, the USFT rifles and all Quackenbush PCPs now come with the common Foster fitting. So, if informed users shop for a gun that has solved the filling problem in this way, they won’t have to deal with that issue.
AirForce Airguns recognized this fact also and created a Foster fill device for all the AirForce Airgun sporting air rifles (Talon, Talon SS and Condor), adding that company to the growing list.
And the perception problem continues, as new shooters believe that they need to own a chronograph with their PCPs, to somehow manage them. The truth is that you can manage the shots in a PCP just fine by shooting the gun at great distance and stopping whenever the shots start to scatter. That tells you the maximum number of shots you get per fill if you’re shooting at that distance. If you shoot closer, there are more shots per fill before the groups enlarge. But that isn’t how the articles and reports read, and people are blinded by the perceived need for additional expensive technology. I recommend owning a chronograph because it helps you know your gun better, it isn’t absolutely required.
Spring guns, on the other hand, are perceived as being simple and easy to understand. The only complexity that most shooters know about is the need for some skill in holding the gun when it fires. A PCP shoots accurately regardless of how it’s held, but a spring gun can be very sensitive to slight changes in the hold. Other than that, though, the springer is thought to be dirt-simple.
Manufacturers see the spring gun/PCP world exactly in reverse. It’s the PCP that’s simple and straightforward to make, and the spring gun that requires a lot more machining operations and special tooling to complete. The PCP is a reservoir connected to a barrel, with a valve in between. It’s a simple, straightforward arrangement.
A springer has the barrel that must be held in a baseblock to withstand the shock of the firing cycle as well as deliver the small puff of compressed air generated by the piston to the rear of the pellet. While a PCP valve is about as complex as an entire spring-piston powerplant, nothing in it is under anywhere near the stress from an overly powerful mainspring or the heavy hammer-blows of the piston. Where the trigger in a PCP holds back 6-10 lbs. of striker-spring force, the spring-piston trigger might hold back 150 lbs.
A spring-piston gun needs a lot of very strong components to withstand the hammering of the piston. A PCP can be made of lighter components. There are heavy PCPs on the market, but I invite you to examine the Benjamin Discovery and all the AirForce Airgun sporting rifles to compare the power that lightweight PCPs deliver, as opposed to what super-heavyweight springers can do. And I’m saying nothing about accuracy, where the PCP wins every time.
We’re discussing an airgun manufacturer’s perspective of the two types of powerplants, and there’s one weak spot in the PCP’s design. It has to be built to hold air under high pressure for a long time, and air under pressure is hard to hold. Some companies find this to be a very daunting challenge, because they don’t understand the need for absolute cleanliness in the manufacturing area, or they select materials that are known to have porosity issues, or they use dull tooling (not changing it often enough) or they’re just sloppy in their assembly. I worked for three years at AirForce Airguns and was intimately familiar with every step they took to protect the long-term integrity of their compressed-air reservoirs.
I own three AirForce guns, and all are stored at full pressure all the time. In the past 12 years, I’ve never had a single issue of leaking. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, because it sometimes does. But compared to the PCPs from certain other manufacturers that have some or all of the problems I just mentioned, AirForce Airguns has none of them.
I watched Crosman build their first Benjamin Discoveries, and they had the good sense to do a 100 percent testing of their guns holding air before shipment. They continued doing this until they knew they had a positive handle on the build process. That’s how a good company enters the PCP market! In contrast, there have been more than a few boutique PCP builders who learned as they went and let their customers be the quality control. I won’t name any names, but this practice is what gave PCPs a black eye.
Do spring guns have similar weaknesses? Yes, they do, but because of how they work, they can often still function when the manufacturing is flawed. Guns full of metal shavings make it to market, and their new owners are none the wiser. That would kill a PCP, but a springer will still shoot when the compression chamber is filled with metal shavings and the piston is embedded with nails! Comparing a springer to a PCP is like comparing a longbow to a top-of-the-line crossbow. The longbow is simpler and will work under less favorable circumstances, but the crossbow will outshoot it every time and in every way.
The next time you hear someone say that a springer is simpler than a PCP, ask yourself what they’re really saying. Because you may not want all the shortcomings that accompany the “simpler” design.
That concludes this report, but I have more to say. I wrote today’s report because I felt that it would be good to explain the full ramifications of an issue that we airgunners often assume to be an open-and-closed case. I sometimes delve deep into the technical aspects of airgun performance in my reports, and I think it can lead readers astray. My comment above about not needing a chronograph for the enjoyment and operation of a PCP was an attempt to bring this out.
I am soon going to start another test that will be both long and technically involved. The results should prove interesting, no matter what they are, but I’ve had to choose only one of several possible ways to conduct the test. We’ll learn some things, but the possibility exists that bias will also be present, because I cannot test everything. I’m using today’s report to get your minds into an analytical mode, but I don’t want to leave any of the new readers behind.
The object of today’s report is that every question should be viewed from several different perspectives, because sometimes the things we think are obvious are not really what is happening.