The “Dark Side” has never been brighter!
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- The “Dark Side”
- Early problems
- Modern precharged airguns
- Benjamin Discovery
- Slow conversion
- The $100 PCP
- Other changes in the PCP world
- Fill coupling standardization
- Price point PCP
- It’s no longer the “Dark Side”
I know I said there are lots of backlogged tests, but sometimes I just have to write a report like this. Today is such a day.
The “Dark Side”
Back in the late 1990s, when precharged pneumatics were still relatively unknown to airgunners, someone took license from the movie series “Star Wars” and coined the phrase the“Dark Side” to represent involvement with PCPs. At the time most airgunners identified with spring-piston guns and regarded precharged pneumatics as odd, different and too difficult to understand. And at the time it looked as if that would be the case indefinitely.
Precharged pneumatics are not a new technology. In fact, they are the oldest type of airguns, dating back to sometime in the 16th century! Those guns, however, were made by hand and were frighteningly expensive. They existed at a time when repeating firearms were also the stuff of dreams, so in 1780 it was the airgun and not the firearm that became the first successful repeater. There had been repeating firearms before then, but they tended to explode because of the dangers of loose gunpowder, which at that time meant black powder. Indeed Bartolemeo Girardoni’s son was killed when a repeating firearm he was experimenting with blew his arm off! Incidentally, the last name is spelled GiraRdoni — not GiraNdoni! Dr. Beeman has met with the Girardoni family and confirmed this. Unfortunately, the long article on the Beeman webpage still shows the old spelling.
Modern precharged airguns
In 1980 someone rebarreled a Daystate dart-shooting tranquilizer gun with a .22-caliber pellet barrel and the modern PCP was born. That gun was called the Daystate Huntsman when it went into production. At first people were just glad that such an airgun existed. How it got filled with compressed air was secondary. And that was how the PCP got restarted at the end of the 20th century.
For 26 years PCPs were expensive and arcane. The cheapest ones cost over $600 in the mid-’90s and they all used their own fill devices that did not work with other guns. Ownership was considered a privilege and you almost had to appeal to a higher power to get someone to tell you how these airguns worked. If you were on the inside and used PCPs you understood them as well as they could be understood. If you were on the outside it looked like a closed society. You had to wait for a tap on the shoulder to be asked to join the ranks. It was the reverse of communism. It was elitism.
In 2007 Crosman brought out the Benjamin Discovery — a single-shot PCP that sold for very little money, compared to the other PCPs of the day. In fact, some airgun manufacturers said a PCP couldn’t be made to sell at a price that low. The Discovery was also made to operate on 2000 psi air instead of the then-popular 3000 psi. That made filling it with a hand pump much easier, so Crosman wisely bundled a pump with the rifle and sold it as a complete package. And it came with a manual that explained everything about its use. No more secrets! In a very real sense was the Rosetta Stone of the PCP world. More than 4,000 sold in the first year, alone, making it every bit as popular as the AirForce TalonSS.
Crosman had previously sold British PCPs under their name — which was how airgun companies broke into the PCP market. But those guns had all the problems of the startup age — lack of documentation and proprietary fill technology.
The Disco is dirt-simple and Crosman had initially wanted to launch their reentry into the market with a PCP that was more capable. However, after pondering it awhile they decided to first make a name as a PCP manufacturer and then bring out the gun with all the bells and whistles. It was a good thing that they did, for building the Discovery was a series of lessons for them. When they brought out the Benjamin Marauder the following year, they knew very well how to build PCPs, plus the airgun public was starting to accept Crosman as a PCP maker.
I thought the Benjamin Discovery would throw open the doors to the PCP world, and it did for Crosman. But most of the other airgun manufacturers didn’t seem to grasp the importance of what had happened yet. Well — happy days for Crosman and AirForce. They each sold thousands upon thousands of PCPs every year, while all their competition combined wasn’t selling as many as either one of them, alone. The door had be forced open a little farther.
The $100 PCP
The Benjamin Discovery was supposed to alert the airgun makers that customers wanted performance at a good price, but that didn’t happen right away. Oh, there were some cheap PCPs built. But that’s all they were — cheap! They lacked the thought, documentation and reliability that went into the guns that consumers really wanted. They also lacked an established support base, as in when something bad happens, who ya gonna call? At the same time the elite manufacturers continued doing what they had always done and selling what they had always sold. They prided themselves by saying they were making airguns of unparalleled quality, but features like the Marauder’s adjustable trigger and AirForce’s ability to swap barrels and calibers at the drop of a hat were very big flies in their ointment jars.
So I did the experiment with the PCP that I thought could be produced for $100. Dennis Quackenbush was kind enough to build a PCP for me to test from a Crosman 2100B. He made it safe, but put absolutely no embellishments on the gun and “produced” it for so little that the retail of $100 was more than possible.
I tested that gun and found that it worked good enough to warrant spending some development money on the project. Several years later Crosman informed me they had watched both the six-part blog report on that experiment, as well as the readers’ reactions, and it spurred them to come out with the Benjamin Maximus in 2017. And, in an odd twist of fate that I hope was a calculated decision on their part, they installed a barrel on the Maximus that they made after a company-wide product improvement project on barrel-making. So, the Maximus came to market with improved accuracy. Since that time Crosman has converted their entire barrel-making process. Today every PCP barrel is made the new way. They even make their own .25-caliber barrels, which they used to buy from Green Mountain.
Other changes in the PCP world
During this twelve years — 2007 to 2019 — other big changes have been made in the PCP world. Shooters have switched from scuba tanks to carbon fiber tanks that hold a lot more air, yet weigh less. Retailers like Pyramyd Air are now selling carbon fiber tanks at lower prices because they have an extended life, due to changes in the tank testing specifications.
Air compressors have been engineered expressly for airguns and the prices have dropped from over $3000 to under $1500 for a machine that will fill a large tank in minutes. Yesterday I filled an 88 cubic-foot carbon fiber tank from 2200 psi to 4500 psi in 38 minutes, using the Air Venturi compressor.
There are also smaller and less expensive compressors made to fill just airguns and not tanks. The Air Venturi Nomad II is one that I tested for you recently. And Benjamin has their Traveler and AirForce their Epump.
Fill coupling standardization
In 1990 no company’s PCP was compatible with the fill couplings from a different company. In 2019 the companies that still use proprietary couplings are viewed as troglodytes. The Foster quick-disconnect fitting has taken over the market to the extent that any company not yet on board is loosing sales. The proof of that comes in the form of fill probes that are machined as male Foster fittings on their other end.
Price point PCP
Then there is the phenomenon of the price point PCP — the value-packed precharged airguns that retail for just under $300. Not only have they burst the doors wide open in the PCP market, they have also encouraged manufacturers to sell their other products at more affordable rates. Just one example is FX who now offers their Dreamline rifles at a starting price of under $1,100. Just a few years ago that was only a fraction of their lowest retail price. So it can be done. It just takes thought.
It’s no longer the “Dark Side”
The result of all these changes has opened the doors wide to precharged airguns. Consumers are now flooding in. In a few more years those who still refer to PCPs as the “Dark Side” will be dinosaurs in their own right.