by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Today’s report is a fun one. The idea came from blog reader John, who said this:

“I’m starting to think we have reached the very end of what is possible with airguns. Looks like the average high end of what they can do is 1000-1200 fps. I’m seeing most guns look the same, function the same, even fire practically identical to every other gun there is. In fact I haven’t seen very many new offerings in the airgun market. So, I’m wondering, is this it? Have they reached the edge of the envelope of what can be done now? About the only guns that have come out that really got a rise out of me are the new Condor SS, the MK-177 and the MSR77. Other than that I have not seen one gun that wouldn’t get lost in my armory.”

I had to smile when I read that because it reminded me so much of something someone else once said:

“It may be assumed, therefore, that the spring-air design has about reached the perfection of its form. However, combination systems utilizing the good spring-air characteristics of a single cocking stroke, combined with an air storage chamber giving the good release characteristics of the pneumatic type, offer considerable possibilities for future development, as the interest in these arms and their form of shooting increases.”

That last one is a quote from W.H.B. Smith’s book Smith’s Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World, published in 1957. The mechanism Smith alludes to is what we now call the single-stroke mechanism, which would be introduced by Walther several years after he wrote about it. He doesn’t say it will be more powerful — just easier to cock and as smooth-shooting as any pneumatic.

What is progress?
The question we have to answer before we can make any sense out of all of this is what makes an airgun “better?” What does “better” mean?

Does an airgun have to shoot faster to be better? In 1957, the upper limit for a straight airgun (i.e., one that did not rely on a chemical explosion to boost velocity, like the Weihrauch EL54 ether-injected gun) was somewhere in the low 700s. Smith thought they had reached the limits of possibility at that speed. Fifteen years later, 800 f.p.s. was the magic number. There were four famous models in the 1970s that could do 800 or just a little better — Diana 45, BSF S55/S70, HW 35 and the fastest of all…FWB 124. The HW 35 was a sometimes thing that varied gun by gun. Most of them were just below 800 f.p.s.

The rise of velocity
Then, in 1982, the R1/HW80 hit the market at 940 f.p.s. and the horsepower race was on! Today, we’ve reached around 1,350 f.p.s., with lightweight lead-free pellets boosting that number just a little and ad copy boosting it a little more — up to 1,650 f.p.s. That’s a velocity that no spring gun has ever achieved without a chemical explosion. But it still  doesn’t answer the basic question: Is velocity the single criteria determining the “goodness” of an airgun?

Other criteria
Most people would say no after some consideration. Things like smoothness of the shot cycle, accuracy, ease of cocking, great triggers and perhaps some other things are also part of what makes airguns what they are. And these things are in constant flux. One example I can give is the new Walther LGV breakbarrel rifle. It cocks smoother and shoots better than many tuned air rifles. It’s very accurate, as we’ve seen in our tests, and offers a superb package of handling, weight and styling. It isn’t as fast as the mega-magnums, but all it takes is one shot to know it’s a superior air rifle. And it was launched in 2012! So from that standpoint, good airguns are still being made.

I can cite other examples of fine airguns that have emerged in the recent past — the TX200 in the late 1980s, the Talon SS in 2001, the Condor in 2004, the Benjamin Discovery in 2007, the Benjamin Marauder in 2009 and the Bronco in 2009. And this totally disregards the ergonomic advancements made by certain 10-meter target guns.

From the standpoint of refinement and innovation, airguns are continually improving. Triggers get better, powerplants get smoother, sights improve and accuracy increases all the time. But you won’t see it if you don’t look at the entire market. If you only concentrate on lower-priced guns or only the guns of one powerplant type, or if your sole criteria for advancement is velocity, then the picture becomes skewed.

Taking the same viewpoint, hybrid cars aren’t advancing, either, because the Toyota Prius has remained pretty much what it was when it was launched in 1997. The Tesla car that has all the big auto manufacturers so concerned isn’t seriously regarded, yet, because it has a starting price above $62,000 — and who’s going to pay that for a hybrid car? But don’t give up on it. In 10 more years, there may be a host of affordable cars that get the same 80-100+ m.p.g. that the Tesla gets now.

Back in 1967, the electronic calculator we had in the San Jose State College Psychology Department cost over $2,500, and students had to schedule time on the machine in 30-minute blocks. We each had signed out mechanical Munroe calculators to do chi-square problems that were assigned as homework. In 1974, I went to Germany with a $100 pocket calculator to make monetary conversions. Three years later, gas stations were giving away calculators with a tank of gas. Today mechanical calculators are cheap — even the ones that do advanced math.

My point is that prices drop as popularity increases. Technology that was once reserved for only the best products becomes affordable as time passes. If it doesn’t seem to happen as fast with airguns as it does with cell phones, there’s a reason. Airguns sell in the tens of thousands; cell phones sell in the hundreds of millions. The scale of the market drives the speed at which advancements trickle down.

I think the trick is to go at this with imagination. What would you like to see, and how can it be accomplished? Don’t ask for the impossible, like a 1,000 foot-pound big bore that shoots half-inch groups at 100 yards, is filled from a bicycle pump and sells for $100. That’s impossible on a number of levels. But what about a real PCP rifle that retails for $150? Is it possible? I don’t know, but if it could be done and if the accuracy was equivalent to that of a good springer (inch groups at 35 yards), I think you would have something.

When I became serious about airguns for the second time in 1993, modern PCPs were still very new. The HW77 was a world standard and the TX200 was the fresh young interloper. The FWB 124 and 300S were still available brand new. In those days, spending $600 to get a used single-shot PCP was considered a good deal.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m an old-timer who has lost touch with reality. Yes, I’m old and yes, none of the guns just mentioned are as hot as they once were — except for the TX200 — but all that’s really changed are the names. The logic remains unchanged, and it will still be the same a century from now.