by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • They don’t make ‘em like they used to
  • Are today’s airguns better?
  • 1. Technology — back then
  • Technology — now
  • 2. Understanding the principles — back then
  • Understanding the principles — now
  • 3. Company staff and leadership — back then
  • Company staff and leadership — now
  • 4. Market trends — then and now
  • Summary

Happy New Year! May 2016 be a good year for all of us.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to

Ain’t that the truth? Nothing is the same anymore. Usually when people discuss this subject they only remember the good things from the past. Things like the heavy metal Detroit muscle cars that had huge engines. They forget that those engines had to be tuned up every 10K miles, or that they often leaked oil.

As far as airguns go people remember blued steel and walnut stocks. They remember airguns that were made like firearms, and they both looked and felt like it. But a lot of facts are edited out.

Before 1970, an airgun that could achieve 800 feet per second (f.p.s.) velocity was considered a magnum. Today, the same gun would be a youth model, or at best an adult plinker. Today’s airguns top 1,000 f.p.s. regularly. The fastest exceed 1,400 f.p.s.

Prior to 1990, 50 yards was considered the maximum distance an airgun could shoot with accuracy, and even then it could not keep 10 shots in a group of less than about two inches. Today there are airguns that will put 10 pellets in 3/8 inch at 50 yards and less than one inch at 100 yards. Airgunners today are shooting to 200, 300 and even 400 yards.

BSF S54
BSF S54 underlever was a fine air rifle for the 1950s. But it tops out at 725 f.p.s. in .177 caliber and it isn’t that accurate.

Are today’s airguns better?

What made all of this possible are both the modern airgun powerplants and the pellets they shoot. We have powerplants today that eclipse the best guns of 50 years ago, and today’s pellets will make even the old guns more accurate — to say nothing of what they will do in a modern platform.

The traditionalist insists that a modern airgun is no good because its metal is matte black or even painted. Today’s stocks are either made from nondescript hardwood with no grain or worse — they are synthetic. Compare that to the best guns of the past and of course the modern guns suffer.

So, who is right? Are today’s airguns better, or have we passed right through the Golden Age on our way to tracer burnout? And what drives change? That’s what I want to talk about today.

I will present several factors that influence change. These are listed in no particular order and their significance increases or decreases as circumstances change.

1. Technology — back then

The first change driver is technology. Airguns of the past were made on manual production machinery like lathes and mills. They had to be designed to suit that machinery.

Tolerances were held as close as possible without spending too much time so costs didn’t rise too high. Labor was cheap in comparison to the large capital expenditures needed for production machinery. Therefore the time spent on the machines was the biggest cost. And the time it took to set up those machines to run a job was time when they weren’t producing, so designers took that into account.

The results were designs that changed very little over the years. Airguns shared parts to a large extent. But because the machines that made those parts often left rough surfaces with tool marks, a lot more hand finishing had to be done.

The tolerances held by the machines tended to change over time as their cutting tools wore out. Some hand fitting was necessary to assemble the guns. The person doing the assembly was also helping check for finish flaws, which improved the final result.

Both wood and steel finishes have evolved greatly with time. In the past, bluing, which usually meant applying a process called black oxide, was the number one way to finish steel. This finish was thin, tough and tended to show any marks that were left on the metal, so more hand finishing was done to correct it.

Wood finishes of the past were those that had existed for hundreds of years. They were oil-based and soaked into the wood grain where they achieved good depth.

Technology — now

Today we have single machines that can do many times more machining jobs on a part than in the past. They are driven by computers, so changing the design during production doesn’t impact the schedule like it once did. Software does the changing and once the tools are loaded and the system is checked, the machines take over. These same machines can change their tooling automatically when they detect wear, so the tolerances they maintain from part to part are much closer than in the past. Far less hand fitting is required during assembly. In fact less human involvement of any kind is necessary.

Hand finishing is becoming a thing of the past. The tools of today leave smoother finishes than in the past and automated finishing processes take over from there. Of course the mirror finish on steel is no longer achieved, but the material is often a metal other than steel anyway. And the finishes that are applied are in-step with the rest of the manufacturing processes.

Modern manufacturers uses materials like aluminum and engineering plastics in applications where they are best suited. Many times shooters complain, but if they look at law enforcement and military firearms, they have been moving in the same direction for decades. This is a fact of life in the 21st century. It’s always possible to get a job done by hand using the classic materials but the price is steep. Little red wagons are not often made of steel anymore!

Diana 34P
German Diana 34P is a best-selling modern spring rifle. The metal is matte and the stock is synthetic, and it will put 10 pellets into one inch at 50 yards.

Molybdenum disulfide, or moly for short, is a high-tech lubricant that reduces friction and adheres to the material it’s applied to. It has been the lubricant of choice for custom tuners for decades. Now we are starting to see manufacturers use it on their new guns.

Wood finishes are now sprayed on to form a tough topical coating. Or they are applied by a process of dipping the stock into a tank where they adhere to the surface. Either way, they are topical, only.

O-rings have been used to seal CO2 guns since they were first introduced in the 1940s, but in the past they were soft and absorbed gas. Today we see manufacturers looking at more advanced materials for their dynamic seals like o-rings. Things like durometer ratings of o-rings and other seal materials that were once just a specification are now being applied to make modern gas guns virtually leak-proof.

2. Understanding the principles — back then

As time has passed, our understanding of how airguns work has grown. In the past manufacturers were content just to get airguns to work. Guns that didn’t leak when fired and guns that were both safe and reliable were the goal. Velocity and accuracy were secondary in those days. Maybe people didn’t think that way, but in retrospect we see that is what happened.

Understanding the principles — now

Today we know much more about what makes an airgun work well than ever before. We know that a piston with a long stroke will generate greater power than one that is shorter. We understand that the tightness of fit at the breech of a breakbarrel spring rifle is paramount to accuracy, just as a free-floated barrel works best in a pneumatic. We understand that the fit of the piston seal to the compression chamber and the size and length of the air transfer port have a huge impact on how an airgun performs. And that is just the beginning.

We now know how to remove almost all of the wasteful vibration of a spring gun powerplant — turning it into more power with a smoother shot cycle as a benefit. Twenty years ago things like tight-fitting spring guides and buttoned pistons were the bread and butter of custom tuners, but today we see them being built right into the airguns at the factory! What’s more — modern manufacturers are using advanced materials to enhance the products they make.

USFT Innovation
The USFT rifle is made in low numbers by Mac-1 Airguns. It takes a 1650 psi fill and gets 55 powerful shots that will all hit a quarter at 50 yards. This rifle breaks new ground in several pneumatic principles.

And pneumatic guns are taking off like a rocket — pardon the pun! Things as simple as barrel length are now understood to boost power in guns with no additional investment or changes. Valve timing, de-bounce devices (to let the valve stay closed when the gun fires) and balanced striker springs to lower fill pressures are all advancing the world of the pneumatic airgun faster than anything else. Yes, technology has advanced the modern airgun greatly.

3. Company staff and leadership — back then

In the past airgun companies had workers who spent their entire lives in the same job. They were managed by leadership that emerged from the same workforce. To say the people in such companies lived and breathed airguns is not an exaggeration.

Company staff and leadership — now

Today’s companies are often managed by professional businessmen and -women. They understand the financial side of the operation quite well, but often they are not shooters and do not understand nor use the products they make. Consequently business decisions are made using only the information they do understand — creating a company that’s run by a spreadsheet.

Workers are hired for their age and their wage requirements. They are then trained in-house by the workers who were previously hired and trained in the same fashion. In time this becomes a workforce of the blind leading the blind.

Boards of directors are also just interested in the bottom line — not in the future health of the company, so they press for and often get short-term solutions. Imagine a cheesemaker who doesn’t actually make cheese, but buys it from another source. From time to time they slice a thin sliver off the top of an existing block to expose the fresh cheese underneath. At some point there won’t be any more cheese to slice — to say nothing about creating cheeses that haven’t been in their inventory in the past.

A few airgun companies are staffed with people who actually do understand and appreciate airguns. They tend to be the younger companies, although under the right leadership any company can thrive. These are the companies that bring the lion’s share of innovations to market.

4. Market trends — then and now

You might think that the consumer dictates what comes to market, and if we were talking about cars, movies or television programs you’d be right. But the airgun market is such a narrow niche, even within the shooting sports, that the customers are often the last people to be heard. Fortunately there is a strong base of boutique airgun makers at the grassroots level who turn out the guns and products they know serious airgunners want.

Smart companies spend time on the chat forums, looking at what’s being discussed by active airgunners. But the chat forums are home to less than one percent of all the airgun buyers.

Most airgun buyers know little or nothing about the airguns they buy. Sometimes they know less than nothing, because what they think they know is wrong. These are the customers for whom the major manufactures are producing.

You will notice I’m discussing this topic all together — no past and present. That’s because little has changed in the world of airgun consumers and marketing over the past 100 years. Accuracy that once ruled has been displaced by velocity as the primary sales feature, but that is because of the low cost of a chronograph. And the paramilitary look is in, not because buyers want it as much as because it’s one of the few things a modern staffer with no shooting experience can appreciate. If it looks like a gun to them, they reason, it must be right. And most of the time, they are right, because buyers often know as little about guns as the staff members.

Summary

I have told you a lot about how and why modern airguns got to be the way that they are. In several cases I haven’t suggested what can be done about it. That’s because this is a hard market to understand and an even harder one to crack. But at least now you have some insight into why “they” don’t always do the things you think they should.