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

Last week, I made reference to a heavy top hat affecting performance in a spring gun, and blog reader Joe asked this question:

“You wrote ‘…weighted top hat inside the piston, or the piston itself is heavy. Either way, the rifle should shoot medium and heavyweight pellets better than lightweight pellets.’

What is a ‘top hat’? Why would a heavy piston or top hat shoot medium to heavy pellets better?”

Joe, thank you for asking this question. This blog is now in its 10th year, and I forget that the readership has changed over that time. If one person asks a question, it means that many other readers are wondering the same thing and not writing in. Today, I’d like to review the main parts of a spring-piston airgun powerplant and discuss how they affect performance.

The piston is the most recognizable part of the powerplant. When the gun fires, it’s propelled forward by some kind of spring. It may be a coiled steel spring or it could be some kind of gas under pressure — whatever the source of energy is, it pushes the piston. And before anyone asks — yes, there have been guns with springs that pull the piston.

The piston compresses air in front of it as it goes forward. There is some kind of seal on the piston that keeps most of the air contained, so it compresses air very well.

spring piston seal detail
The piston seal (this one is a parachute type, whose sides flare out and seal the chamber better) seals the air in front of the piston.

Tuning tip
Removing excess tolerance makes a spring gun shoot smoother. The top tuners put Teflon or nylon bearings (called buttons) around the rear of the piston skirt to hold it steady and away from the spring tube walls. The piston seal does the same thing for the front of the piston. In a well-built airgun, the metal piston should never touch the walls of the spring tube.

Nitro Piston 2 buttons
These small white nylon bearings on the Benjamin Nitro Piston 2 are part of the reason that rifle is so smooth when it fires!

Compression chamber
Let’s talk about something that’s dirt-simple, yet confuses a lot of people — the compression chamber. It’s the end of the spring tube, which has been closed off by a metal cap. A hole through the cap, called the air transfer port, allows the compressed air to move from the compression chamber to the barrel. If there’s a pellet in the barrel, the air cannot get past it and has to shove the pellet out of the way. This doesn’t happen until the air reaches a high pressure, which is at the heart of today’s discussion. Essentially, the pellet stays put until the piston has come to almost a full stop, then the compressed air blows it forward, like the cork from a champagne bottle.

spring piston powerplant
The spring-piston powerplant is so simple that it confuses people.

We all know what the spring does. It pushes the piston, which compresses the air. A spring can be either coiled steel or compressed gas; but for the remainder of this report, I’ll be talking about a coiled steel spring because it’s the thing that relates to the top hat.

spring inside piston
Thanks to a generous cocking slot, we can see the mainspring inside this piston’s body.

Spring guide
The spring guide does what the name says — it guides the spring. What it actually does is keep the coiled spring from twisting or bending too much as it’s compressed.

spring guide inside spring
This is the spring guide. It’s hollow to allow the piston rod to pass through when the gun is cocked. The metal one is an older Beeman R1 guide, the white plastic (probably nylon) one is what they use more often these days. A lot of vibration can be eliminated by very closely fitting this guide to the inside of the spring.

When the gun is cocked, the piston comes back and compresses the spring. The spring fits up inside the piston, so it’s contained by the piston skirt as the piston comes back over it. The spring guide is a hollow tube at the rear of the spring that the spring fits over. As the spring is compressed, it tries to bend to the side, but the spring guide prevents it. The piston skirt keeps it from bending at the front.

Tuning tips
When a tuner wants to smooth the performance (the shot cycle) of a spring gun, getting rid of excess clearance is a great way to eliminate vibration. The outside of the mainspring is fitted to the inside of the piston skirt very closely. Here’s something you may not have guessed. When the spring is compressed, it also expands just a little (measured in thousandths of an inch), so the internal fit to the piston skirt has to take that into account.

The spring guide is also fitted to the inside of the mainspring. In the best-tuned airguns, the guide cannot be put on the spring unless the spring is twisted against the guide counterclockwise. Airgunsmith Jim Maccari calls that a guide that’s “nailed on.” The mainspring grows in diameter as it’s compressed. When the gun is cocked, the spring loosens a little and slips down the guide.

Top hat (forward spring guide)
Okay — here it is. You had to wade through lot of blather to get to this point, but I hope it’ll be worth it. A top hat is a spring guide that is on the front side (the piston side) of the spring. It fits inside the piston and slides on the central piston rod. Obviously, the mainspring fits over this guide, too, just like it fits the guide in the rear.

top hats and spring
Two top hats (forward spring guides). The heavier one at the bottom was made by airgunsmith Jim Maccari for a special Beeman R1 tune that worked for heavier pellets. I wrote about it in the “Beeman R1” book.

Tuning tip
Joe — this is the answer to your question. A top hat adds weight to the piston. A heavy top hat adds a lot of weight.

When the piston compresses the air in the chamber, it can reach very high pressure before the pellet starts moving. When the pellet begins to move, the air pressure drops rapidly. Although the pressure is very high, there’s not a lot of it — pressurized air.

If the pressure in the chamber is too high and the pellet hasn’t started moving, either because of its size, weight or both, the piston can rebound off the compressed air cushion and travel backwards a few hundredths of an inch before the pellet starts to move. Heavier pellets will resist moving longer than lighter pellets — I hope that’s obvious.

By adding a lot more weight to the piston, it can resist rebounding to a greater degree (because of its greater inertia). Heavier pistons usually do better with heavier pellets. And top hats are one way to make pistons heavier. That’s why I said what I did.

That was a quick and dirty look at the spring-piston powerplant and some of its subtleties. Don’t think this makes you an expert — there’s a whole world of things like this that I haven’t addressed.