Common PCP leaks and some common fixes
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
I’m still in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, as I write this, so please excuse the brevity of the report. A while ago, I wrote down this idea as a possible report topic. Those who haven’t yet come over to PCPs often wonder how reliable they are, and those who already have the guns sometimes encounter things that are common problems but new to them. Let’s talk about that today.
WARNING: The procedures I am about to describe are for those who know what they are doing. In every case, there are proper safety steps to be taken so accidents don’t happen. I cannot possibly describe all of those steps, so the following procedures are presented only for your education — not to train you as an airgunsmith. Safety with pressurized air and airguns should always be the No. 1 concern.
I can’t fill this airgun!
Boy, have I ever heard this one! It can come to you in a variety of ways, such as, “This airgun is broken — how do I return it?” I used to get at least one of those calls every month while I was the technical director at AirForce Airguns. The first few times I heard it, I was worried; but I got so used to hearing it that I would start telling them the cure before the problem had been fully stated.
The guy would tell me that he couldn’t fill his old-style Condor tank. I asked him how he was trying to fill it — from a scuba tank or with a hand pump — and a lot of times that made the guy mad. He wanted to know why that mattered because he should be able to fill the gun from a scuba tank or from a hand pump. Right? When this call came in, I knew he was filling with a hand pump, and I also knew he was trying to fill an empty tank.
The answer to “can it be done” is both yes and no. Yes, you can fill this kind of tank from a hand pump if there’s already some air inside it, and no, you can’t fill the tank if you start with it empty. That would really anger some people until I explained that the air inlet valve on an old-style Condor tank is also the exhaust valve. It’s a door that swings both ways. If there’s no air inside the tank, the valve will not recognize the small puff of air from a hand pump and will escape, again.
The valve will not close because it also uses internal air pressure to help it close tight. If you fill the tank from a scuba tank, the incoming air is under so much pressure that it will fill the tank quickly, and the internal air pressure will help close the valve when the filling stops.
A hand pump cannot fill some pneumatic airguns (not just Condors) unless they already have some air pressure inside to hold the inlet valve closed. We would ship tanks out with what we called a maintenance air charge in them — just enough pressure to hold the valve shut. But if the guy received the gun and then proceeded to shoot all that air out, as some of them did, they then had a gun that could only be filled from a scuba tank. It’s not funny when it happens to you.
This phenomenon is not just confined to AirForce guns, either. Almost all of the powerful Korean airguns work in a similar way. But the Korean guns can accept a charge by simply cocking the bolt — sometimes. In that case, taking the pressure of the bolt off the valve allows it to close and seal completely.
The newer style of Condor (as well as all other AirForce sporting PCP rifles) has a Spin-Loc tank with a separate inlet valve and firing valve. I’m not certain, but I believe this has solved the problem I just discussed. If I had a tank and pump here with me, I would check it right now. I’ll look into it when I get home.
Now you know two things about PCP “leaks” that are both very common problems and often misunderstood. First, they aren’t really leaks. They’re part of the gun’s design. Second, some guns must first be cocked to be filled.
Before you go all — “They shouldn’t design them that way!” on me, remember, the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane leaks fuel until it flies fast enough to heat and expand the airplane’s skin. Only then do all the leaks stop. Sometimes, a product can have a quirk that isn’t a flaw — it’s just the way it works. The Sheridan Supergrade rifle is one that cannot be pumped up unless the bolt is cocked first.
Use a hammer!
I probably shouldn’t tell you guys this next one; because when some of you get a hammer in your hands, every problem looks like a nail. But in the world of pneumatics, there are times when a big rubber mallet is exactly the right tool to use. When is that time? When a pneumatic that has been performing well all along suddenly develops a fast leak. It’s probably due to a piece of dirt that’s gotten onto a soft seal and is allowing air to pass through. To get it off the seal, it sometimes works to tap the end of the valve with a soft hammer. It opens the valve, and the blast of air will probably blow the dirt past the seal.
When I built valves at AirForce, I tested each by pressurizing them in a fixture and tapping the valve stem with a rubber hammer. I had racks of 100 valves at a time, and I went through and did this to each one in turn. That process seated the valve and created a small ring of contact between the synthetic valve and its seat. Sometimes, the valve needed to be hit several times to seat it properly, but it always worked. And it also worked if a valve had a small piece of dirt anywhere in the seals.
When customers would call with an air gun that leaked and I determined the leak was a fast one that had popped up all of a sudden, I told them to try this procedure before sending the tank back for repairs. It fixed probably over 75 percent of all such leaks.
But this isn’t magic. If your gun has been a slow leaker the whole time you’ve owned it, this isn’t going to change a thing. It’s just for those all-of-a-sudden leaks that crop up sometimes. It will work for all guns, but most of them don’t allow direct access to the valve head like the AirForce tanks do. For those, you can do the next best thing — dry-fire the gun several times. That usually fixes the problem unless you’re timid about it. I sometimes had to get a timid owner to dry-fire his gun by telling him to fill it full and then dry-fire it 20 times in rapid succession. All that was doing is getting him to dry-fire the gun repeatedly without pausing to see if it was fixed yet. When there’s a piece of grit on a seal, it takes a lot of air flowing past to dislodge it, and a couple tries are often not enough. Twenty shots is probably overkill in all situations, but it saved me time from having to explain in detail just what the guy was doing — as I have now done for you!
You now know a genuine airgunsmith procedure! It isn’t as fascinating as it sounded, is it?
Okay, let’s go back to 1960, when cars had points and copper spark plug wires with (sometimes) poor insulation. Mechanics had a genuine stethoscope in their toolboxes. Or if they were shade-tree mechanics, like me, they had a 4-foot length of small rubber hose. We would put one end of the tube to our ear (the ear that worked best) and move the other end around the engine compartment while the motor was idling. You could quickly zero in on an arcing sparkplug wire or an exhaust manifold leak. It also works for precharged airguns!
You don’t need a hose because the barrel is the pipe that transmits the sound. Cock the gun but don’t load it. The sound you’re listening for is an air leak at the exhaust valve. But here’s an important safety tip — never put your ear directly over the muzzle and never do this if the gun is loaded! Listen from the side of the muzzle; so if the gun were to fire, the air would blast past your ear instead of into it! You can use a piece of paper to direct the sound, if needed. That keeps you safe and still lets you hear the smallest sounds.
I’ve found a number of valve leaks this way. This is just a diagnostic tool — it doesn’t do anything to fix the valve.
If your ears aren’t that good, or if you just don’t want to do it this way, you can also put a few drops of soapy water down the muzzle of a cocked gun. Bubble-blowing solution that you can buy at a dollar store works perfectly for this! If any air is escaping the valve, there will be bubbles at the muzzle. I always had a small bottle of bubble-blowing solution next to me when I worked on guns at AirForce. Of course, you have to clean the barrel and wipe it with an oily patch after doing this.
These little procedures have proven very valuable over the course of time. If the situation is right, they’ll fix the problem more often than not. While they seem simple to the point of being somewhat ridiculous, they do work.