Airgun lubrication — pneumatics
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
This report addresses:
• What is a pneumatic?
• No. 1 lubrication need.
• A short pneumatic history.
• Which oil to use?
• Other lubrication.
• Wipe down.
This report was written for blog reader Joe, who asked for it specifically; but I know that many of our newer readers also found the information useful. Today, we’ll look at pneumatic guns. There are 3 very different types of pneumatic airguns — precharged, single-stroke and multi-pump — but I think they’re similar enough to cover all of them in the same report.
What is a pneumatic?
Pneumatic airguns store compressed air for one or more shots. Single-strokes get just one shot per fill and so do most multi-pumps, though there are some that do get multiple shots. Precharged pneumatics (we shorten the name to PCP) get many shots per fill.
Big bores, which are always PCPs, get the fewest number of shots per fill, but the smallbores (.177, .20, .22 and .25) get many. How many depends on the output power of the gun and the amount of compressed air that’s available (i.e., the capacity of the air reservoir).
No. 1 lubrication need
The most important reason to lubricate a pneumatic of any kind is to seal the gun. This is similar to gas (CO2) guns; but since pneumatics use air — which is thinner than CO2, their lubrication is extremely important. The seals in the guns are all sized to their jobs. In the case of o-rings, they sit in channels that assist in their sealing role; but without the right lubrication, all would be lost.
A short pneumatic history
Pneumatics are the oldest type of airgun, and their technology has evolved over more than five centuries. The first pneumatic guns used leather seals in all places to seal the reservoir as well as sealing the firing valve.
As time advanced, airgun makers learned how to lap (polish until smooth) valve faces of animal horn that is much better and less porous than leather. These valve faces would be hand-lapped to match the exact surface of the metal (brass or bronze) valve seats to which they were fitted. When the lapping job was finished, these valves would hold air much longer than leather. Leather was still used to seal the junction around the threads of the reservoir, so the guns still leaked down — but the amount of leakage was reduced by a significant amount.
[Note: Airgun designer John Bowkett determined decades ago that precisely machined stainless steel valve faces and valve seats work best of all, providing there’s enough lubrication and the machining is correct. The contact surface of this type of valve is extremely fine and narrow; but if it’s perfect, this valve will be very controllable. The downside is that valves made this way are still extremely labor intensive.]
Leather seals and horn/brass valves were still being used in big bore PCP airguns up through the 1920s. Smallbore PCPs didn’t come into being until 1980, when Daystate converted one of their tranquilizer dart guns into a .22-caliber sporting rifle they called the Huntsman. Daystate was the first company to build a modern PCP; and when they did, synthetic materials were both available and far better suited for pneumatic valves. At the same time, o-rings in properly cut channels provided the remainder of the sealing solution in place of leather — and the modern PCP was born.
Synthetic seals are less porous than animal horn and last far longer. They’re not as hard as stainless steel, so the mating surfaces of the valve do not have to be machined as precisely (they have a little give to accommodate slight imperfections in the valve seats). Synthetics make the modern PCP possible. And lubrication is what keeps PCPs sealed almost forever.
Leather seals in other pneumatics
Leather has been used for the peripheral seals in multi-pump pneumatics up to as recently as the 1950s. Just like the leather seals of old, the problem has always been how to keep the leather seals lubricated so they remain soft, pliable and doing their job. Oil was used originally in these airguns in the late 1890s. But times change and today we have better lubricants. Petroleum jelly will stay on the job many times longer than straight oil, so even the leather seals in your vintage multi-pumps can be lubricated for a long time.
Which oil to use?
That brings us to the big question of the day: Which oil to use? In this instance, there isn’t just one answer. For PCPs, the right oil needs to have a very high flashpoint so it isn’t prone to explode when subjected to high pressure.
I know of two instances in which petroleum-based oil or grease has caused an explosion in a PCP. One was a vintage PCP reservoir that was pressurized to around 800 psi. The interior walls of the reservoir were coated with grease to trap any dirt particles that might get in during filling. This is a common practice with such airguns; but this time the person who greased the reservoir used petroleum grease instead of organic-based (animal) grease. The reservoir blew apart at the soldered seam! Fortunately, no one was hurt.
The other instance was one I got from a news story, and the person involved was, unfortunately, killed when his modern PCP reservoir exploded. The article said he had apparently introduced regular household oil into the reservoir.
On the other hand, I’ve safely oiled PCP tanks hundreds of times with a couple drops of Silicone Chamber Oil through the air intake port. I put several drops into the fill port before the gun is filled. When the air blows in, the oil is atomized and gets on all the sealing surfaces inside the reservoir and valves.
The oil to use in a PCP is silicone chamber oil. For single-strokes and multi-pumps, the answer is different. For either of these types of pneumatics I use Crosman Pellgunoil. Neither of these types of pneumatics are pressurized nearly as high as a PCP, and Pellgunoil always does the trick.
Can other oils be used instead of Pellgunoil? Certainly. I’ve used Gamo Air Gun Oil in my single-strokes and multi-pumps for many years. I use it exactly as I do Pellgunoil for single-strokes and multi-pumps, but I do not use it in any PCP guns.
The thing about multi-pumps and single strokes is to keep their pump cups sealed and working well. These are the flexible pump heads that force air into the guns, either one time or several. They tend to get hard over time and lose their ability to seal, but keeping them oiled and in use frequently will prolong their service lives. Not using a pneumatic airgun is what really hurts it.
For normal lubrication of moving parts, both Pellgunoil and Gamo Air Gun oil work fine. So do most gun oils, like Remoil. What you do not want to use is silicone chamber oil for this purpose because it doesn’t have enough surface tension to lubricate properly. Your parts will rub against each other and wear.
As always you can use the lubricating oils to wipe down your gun’s metal and wooden parts, but Summary
Airgun lubrication is important, for the reasons mentioned in this 5-part report. Sealing is the biggest role lubrication performs, in all cases. We’ve looked at some very specific examples of products that should be used for the reasons stated. If you decide to substitute, you do so at your own risk.