by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • The foundation
  • Airgun Breakfast
  • How things developed
  • Next year
  • Undaunted
  • Progress
  • AirForce
  • Time marches on
  • Back to Crosman
  • Challenger PCP
  • Summary

I’m using the history section for a special report today. It’s history, but also very recent. Last Thursday when I started the report on the Diana Stormrider, reader William Schooley asked me the following question.

“Thought this might might be an interesting 3P juniors PCP rifle until you reported the 20 FPE and 26 FPE numbers. Something tells me that this rifle will exceed rule 4.1.7 limit of 600 fps muzzle velocity.

Will someone please explain why there are no sporter class PCP’s on the market that have been submitted for inclusion on the approved rifle list (Rule 4.2.1) at a $200 price point?

When that happens, that will be a PCP rifle a junior can purchase with their own allowance and odd job money and shoot at 3P and 4P matches.

With all the new $200 PCP’s coming on the market, are there any rumors about any PCP manufacturer detuning a $200 PCP to be 3P rules compliant and then submitting for inclusion on the approved rifle list?”

I told him I had been part of a movement to do just what he suggested for over 10 years and I saw some of the things that happen behind the curtain that make such a thing difficult to impossible. Today I will share that with the rest of you.

The foundation

Americans who attended public schools know that in most school buildings children are assigned a locker to keep their things in while they are in class. They can store coats, umbrellas, books they don’t need and even their lunch in these lockers that have locks for security.

So, let’s say you are a manufacturer of small lockers and are aware of the need schools have. On the plus side, there are millions of kids attending public schools, so they need a lot of lockers. On the minus side the kids use the locker for one school term, then they move on. They may or may not return to use a locker again at the same school next year. The number of kids in school drives the need for lockers, but it is not a direct connection. The kids are cycling through; the lockers are fixed.

Also, lockers are durable. They don’t wear out that fast. A million lockers may service the needs of 40 million kids throughout their lifetime. Now, let me tell you why I told you that.

Airgun Breakfast

In the late 1990s the NRA had a person whose duties included junior airgun marksmanship programs. This man was an organizer who knew how to get things done. He contacted me and told me he wanted to hold an Airgun Breakfast at the SHOT Show, to meet and communicate with the leaders of the airgun industry. Would I please help him determine who to invite? He already knew the people at Daisy and Crosman very well, because they were marketing the heck out of his segment, but he wasn’t familiar with the other players. The NRA had a solid junior marksmanship program that was running quite well, but this man wanted to expand it and to improve things.

So, we put a list together that included all the serious players and invited them all. Here was my criteria for a serious player. If a company had a booth at the SHOT Show and if they made airguns or sold them in a big way, they were serious. If, however, they attended the show but had no booth, as many companies from Asia, eastern Europe and South America did in those days, they were not invited. Those were the “anything for a buck” guys who would promise you the world but had no idea what the world actually looked like. None of us had the time or patience to school them.

Pyramyd Air came to this breakfast, as did Airguns of Arizona and Air Arms, Daystate, FX and many other names you don’t often read in this blog. I tried to make the list as all-inclusive as possible, but I also limited it to the real players.

How things developed

For the first several years the breakfast was more of a social thing, with companies that normally don’t talk to each other getting together for a pleasant morning meal. The main part of every breakfast was a presentation from the NRA on the state of youth marksmanship in the United States. In the beginning these presentations were thin and syrupy, but within several years they began to give us the numbers — big numbers! I remember one breakfast where we were told there were in excess of 74,000 junior marksmanship programs in the U.S., and they had over one million kids competing! That woke up the room!

Now, remember those school lockers? Here is the connection. Daisy had been selling their model 853 target rifle to the NRA junior marksmanship clubs for many years, so there were a lot of them already out there. It wasn’t a mandatory equipment requirement like the Champion 499 is for the BB Gun Championships, but it might as well have been because there wasn’t anything else. But the announcement of these large numbers awoke the sleeping dragon. How could someone get a piece of that great big pie? The native drums began to beat!

Daisy also was surprised by the announcement — not so much by the numbers, because they were already in that market — but by the fact that the numbers had gone public! Oh, no!

Next year

At the next breakfast I noticed several things. First, the attendance was up! It wasn’t nearly as difficult to get people to show up. In fact, I believe we had standing room only that year. And now the people in the room were the general managers and owners of the respective companies. Interest was piqued.

Air Arms brought a sample of a youth target rifle the world had never seen (and still hasn’t 15 years later, to the best of my knowledge). It was sexy! I wanted one!

But Daisy hadn’t been sleeping, either. This was the year the NRA placed price limits on the guns the kids could use. The limit was $500, which was quite reasonable, because no one wanted this to become an equipment race. That would eliminate tens of thousands of kids whose parents or school districts could not afford to buy the rifles.

Undaunted

Air Arms said they would need close to a thousand dollars for their prototype, so the new price limit ruled them out. Sure they could eliminate things, but they didn’t want to do that, and neither did anyone who saw that prototype. But two other companies took the bit between their teeth and decided to give it a go. They were AirForce Airguns and the Crosman Corporation.

Progress

Crosman struck first with a CO2 target rifle they called the Challenger 2000. It was based on their AS392 (an obsolete CO2 rifle), but had target sights, a different stock and perhaps a few other differences. However, there were some shortcomings. It had the same trigger as the 392 which is fine for plinking and hunting, but not so good for 10 meter target work. Of course you can say the same thing about the Daisy 853 triggers, but after working with them for almost 20 years coaches had figured out how to make those triggers better. Crosman’s new rifle went up against some highly modified 853s.

The greatest downfall, though, was the barrel on the Crosman rifle. It was the same one they were using on the sporting rifle, and quite frankly was not up to the task. You can put target sights on any rifle — that doesn’t make it a target rifle.

At this point, all 74,000+ (the program was expanding) coaches got involved. If there were going to be new target rifles to consider, they jolly well wanted a say about what they were (and weren’t)!

The breakfasts kept happening, year after year, and the controversy grew. The NRA was pushed into making a set of specifications for what the junior marksmanship rifle had to be. Cost was still a large part of it, but other things were now under scrutiny.

Daisy had also seen the handwriting on the wall. The (quiet, wonderful, fat) days of the 853 were coming to an end. They had to innovate or get off the pot. They came out with new models of their own. The models 887 and 888 (now obsolete) were introduced. And, Daisy learned some hard lessons with these airguns. Coaches who knew the 853 single stroke inside-out had to be trained to deal with CO2 for the first time. Sure, the guns said Daisy on the outside and everybody knew Daisy, but they didn’t know the rest of it. Long, steep learning curve.

AirForce

Meanwhile, AirForce had been watching things grow and heat up and they finally made the decision to build a target rifle. They started with essentially a clean sheet of paper, though critics will say their Edge borrows from their sporting rifles. In form (air reservoir is also the butt, straight-flow valve, aluminum extrusion for the frame) it is, but almost no parts I can think of came from their sporters. The Edge is as much like an AirForce sporting rifle as a Porsche Carrera is like a Porsche tractor!

Time marches on

As the years passed and the breakfasts came and went, things were happening. The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) was getting into the mix at the national level, so now there were two sets of rule-makers to satisfy! The NRA had to create an ad hoc team of people to evaluate each new target gun, to ascertain whether it met all the requirements, and so did the CMP. To many it looked like Daisy had a stranglehold on progress, but they were as confused as everybody. It was the corporate inertia of two large organizations — the NRA and the CMP — plus one huge informal organization (the outspoken coaches of all the junior marksmanship teams around the U.S.) that slowed things down. AirForce designed and built their Edge in record time, but it took three years to sift through the infinite filter I just described!

Back to Crosman

Remember the Challenger 2000? Well, Crosman was not about to be put off. They agreed about the shortcomings (accuracy and bad trigger) of that model, but something wonderful had happened to them as time was passing. The Benjamin Discovery had been created! Ed Schultz was the head engineer at Crosman in those days and he knew what he had just done. After I pitched the idea that became the Discovery to Crosman and Ed built two quick proof-of-concept rifles from 2260s to prove it worked (running a PCP at 2,000 psi instead of 3,000 psi), he was already talking about the gun that became the Challenger PCP.

Challenger PCP

Crosman brought out the Crosman Challenger 2009 in 2009. They later changed the name to the Challenger PCP. It’s accurate, has a nice adjustable trigger and gets lots of shots (100+) on a fill to 2,000 psi. And it sells to recognized marksmanship clubs for the right price, just like the AirForce Edge.

Summary

The story is still unfolding, William, but that is what it takes to get a target rifle into the “system”. Because in truth, there isn’t a system. There are many people who can say, “No!” and no one person who can say, “Yes.” To be blunt about it — it’s simply too much trouble to something that there is no guarantee will ever work.

This is the reason I believe the Student Air Rifle Program (SAR) has gone about it the right way. Don’t invent the sport and don’t invent the equipment. Invent the governing organization first. That’s the most effective way to get what you want. It’s called the Golden Rule. He who has the gold makes the rules! (rim shot)