Using what works: Why airgun models look alike
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
I’m on the road to Roanoke, Virginia, today, so this report was written in advance. You veteran readers please continue to help the newer readers, because I don’t see the comments until I stop for the evening. Thanks!
The American public was shocked to discover in the 1970s that an Oldsmobile car had a Pontiac (or Chevrolet) engine. There was at least one lawsuit over it, and General Motors had to rename all their corporate components with generic titles as a result. But it wasn’t the first time one product borrowed heavily from another and it was about to become the established norm.
I remember being oh, so bitter when Crosman bought the Benjamin Air Rifle Company and soon renamed the new division Benjamin Sheridan, without so much as a hyphen between the names. Benjamin had bought out Sheridan the decade before, but they kept all the models and even the manufacturing sites separate; but when Crosman bought Benjamin, everything went into a corporate blender.
In firearms, you buy either a South Gate Weatherby, a German Weatherby or one made in Japan. Never mind that the Japanese-made guns were at least the equals of and perhaps better than those made in Deutschland (and that will start an argument in most gun circles), nothing made by Miroku could possibly equal the quality of a rifle from Voere! What?
Okay, okay, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll make a big list of all the model names and match them to the real models and manufacturers. Let’s see — a Winchester 427 is a Diana 27. A Hy Score 807 is also a Diana 27 [Hey, this is easy!]. A Hy Score 801 is a Pieper — wait a minute. It could also be a Diana, depending on when it was made. Oh, well, a Blue Streak is always a Sheridan. A Super Streak is a Benjamin Sheridan. WAIT A MINUTE! This is starting to get complex.
There’s a sequence in the movie Rainman where the autistic character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman tries to actually solve the Abbott and Costello routine of “who’s on first.” It’s both humorous and sad at the same time. Well, I’m sorry to say, there are some airgunners doing the same thing with airgun models. I cite discussions we’ve had on this blog about the various pedigrees of the HW50 over the past few years and rest my case.
Why do they do it?
Let me illustrate why manufacturers reuse various parts and even whole guns, rather than being original all the time. When I took the idea for what eventually became the Benjamin Discovery to Crosman in 2006, I did so with one of their existing models in hand. It was not the 2260 that eventually did become the Discovery. My idea was based on the Benjamin AS392T. Because I was able to cobble together an external tank, hose and coupling that connected to the AS392T intake — where the 88-gram CO2 cartridge normally fit to a regulated source of high-pressure air. I did it that way because, as a hobbyist, that was the easiest way I could think of to demo my idea.
But all I had to do was present the concept of operating a PCP air rifle at 2000 psi instead of 3000 psi, and Ed Schultz cobbled together two working prototypes from 2260s — a .177 and a .22 — proving to himself and to the rest of Crosman that I wasn’t crazy. You really could run a powerful PCP on 2000 psi air and still get good performance. He built and tested those two rifles in less than a week! For him, it was easier to modify the 2260, plus it retailed for one-third the cost of the AS392T. It was both cheaper to work with as a prototype and also cheaper to modify into the final PCP we were designing.
As many existing 2260 parts as possible went into the Discovery because they were already in production. For each one that was included, there was no startup tooling cost, no engineering cost and the life cycle of that part was already well-established. That kept the development cost of the Discovery down to a reasonable level.
Was there more work to do after that to complete the Benjamin Discovery? Heck, yes, there was. A lot more. I’m going to go out on a limb and estimate they put no less than $50,000 into the development of that rifle before it was ready for market.
What hobby builders fail to take into account is that during development a company may prototype a part many times, looking not only for the ultimate in performance but also in the cost to manufacture and the life-cycle cost. A hobby builder may make a valve body out of brass, not caring that the raw material (brass bar) cost $7 before the work begins. A manufacturer contemplating making 10,000 of the same valve will spend considerable effort looking for a lower-cost alternative material. Every dollar they put into a gun adds four dollars to the retail price.
Now, let’s contrast the Discovery investment with the one that was required to turn the Benjamin Rogue from a concept into a production gun. The Rogue needed a new valve, new trigger, new receiver, new feed system — new everything. I would not be surprised to learn that Crosman poured 10 to 15 times as much into the development of the Rogue, and they’re still working on it. It was a huge risk compared to the Discovery because they had to design everything from scratch.
Why this is so hard to understand
People just cannot comprehend that manufacturing something as simple as a precharged air rifle is anything but easy. They see a talented amateur build one gun or even a half-dozen — and immediately, they think a manufacturer could do the same thing on a larger scale. It’s so simple, they think. Just do what he’s doing, only do more of it. What they don’t realize is that the amateur has spent 10 times more of his time building the one gun than anyone would be willing to actually pay. How many of you would buy a PCP that sold for $4,000? That’s what it would cost if the amateur builder were willing to charge all his time to the project. But he doesn’t, of course, and so the only cost we ever see is the $350 for supplies, materials and parts he had to buy. And we grouse about that!
Crosman has to build the same gun for $125 — materials and labor — to be able to retail it for $500, because on top of their cost to build they must add money for advertising and several different wholesale price levels for their various customers who also have to make money. So, when the hobbyist buys a Lothar Walther barrel for $90 and puts it on his one gun, that’s $90 added to his bottom line. When Crosman does the same thing, they negotiate a better price of $72 for the same barrel because they buy a 1,000 at a time, but they have to add an extra $205 to the retail price of the gun to pay for it. So, to them, a Green Mountain barrel that costs $30 and is accurate is a much better deal than a Lothar Walther barrel costing $72.
If they can use the same $50,000 worth of injection molds to make the stocks for three different rifles in their catalog instead of only one, that’s much better, too, because those molds get amortized over three line items and a lot more production. If half of their pneumatics use the same diameter seamless tubing for their air reservoirs, they can save a lot because they have to stock fewer unique materials to build guns, plus they can buy more of each type of material, thereby enabling them to negotiate a better price.
Now, I’m gonna shock many of you. According to some sources, the U.S. sent men to the moon and got them safely back over 40 years ago. They used the Saturn V booster rocket to launch the lunar payload into orbit. But we used up all those rockets, and they were expendable. We don’t have any more. To make a long story short, we don’t have a booster rocket today that can do what we were able to do 40 years ago. The scientists among our readers can correct me on this, but I believe it’s correct to say that we have lost some of the manufacturing ability to produce an essential component of the space program. That’s not to say we can’t build even better rockets today or that we have lost all the knowledge that came with the Saturn V program — just that we haven’t kept up with the technology as well as we might have. If I’m right, then there are things that can be built during one period of time and then never again replicated.
You aren’t going to like this!
When the Glock 17 pistol first came out, the media went into histrionics about “plastic guns” that could not be detected by X-ray. Shooters rebelled against them, at first. Then, as economics plus the reliable performance of the synthetic guns became established, more and more institutions and then the general public embraced the technology. Now, hold on to your seats.
There is a “thing” called a 3-D printer. Imagine a device the size of your kitchen refrigerator, only when you program it correctly it fashions parts from plastic goo. In the beginning, we stood around these things and watched them work. They spit out brittle plastic parts that were sufficient to see the shape and size of a design created in CAD software. Then, the plastic material got better and we were able to use the parts for prototypes. Now, the goo is good enough that some real usable parts can be made this way. These machines don’t work fast enough for high-rate production, yet, but they’re money-savers when you compare what you have to pay a 25-year-old CAD programmer against what a 50-year-old model maker costs.
The next step could be high-rate production and testing directly from paperless “drawings.” And, perhaps some time in my lifetime, we’ll say to a machine, “Tea, Earl Grey” and a hot cup of a potable beverage will materialize.
But, as these things come to pass, guess what? Airguns aren’t going to be made of wood and steel any longer. And the economy of sharing platforms (meaning actions, reservoirs, triggers, barrels and sights) among several different models will become more and more the norm. I guess my advice is to get used to it — or go vintage, like so many of us already have.