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”
This blog is read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. When they are new to airgunning they usually land here first, or very soon after they start searching the internet for information on airguns. And some of these blog reports are found way more often than others. This is one of them.
We are seeing a huge influx of new airgunners in the United States. They are coming over primarily from the world of firearms, either because they can’t find ammunition or they don’t want to pay the high prices. And this has happened at the time when the technology of airguns has exploded! Ten years ago it was a real feat to shoot 10 pellets into a one-inch group at 100 yards. Today there are airguns that have made it commonplace when the wind permits.
There is also a large number of people who are buying firearms for the first time. The National Rifle Association puts the number of new gun owners at 10 million, or twice as many as there were active shooters in the United States a decade ago. We know that previously over 70 million housholds in America had at least one gun, but most were not active shooters. Well that number has now swollen by another 10 million, and these people are newcomers who need to learn everything about handing firearms. These people will be shooters — at least for a while.
These are adults who never previously showed any interest in owning or shooting a firearm, but for various reasons have changed their minds. No doubt many of them believe there will be classes available for them, and there are, but we all know how widely the quality of such instruction varies. I’m going to do my part to fill in the blanks for them.
Pyramyd Air has asked me to update this report to help all the new airgunners. I wrote this one in 2019 — just a few years ago. Let’s see what has changed in the past two years.
The “Dark Side”
Airguns (pellet guns and BB guns) are powered by one of three principal powerplants. There are guns with a piston that is pushed forward by a spring to comprerss air to push the projectile and these are called spring-piston guns. There are guns that operate on carbon dioxide, a compressed gas, and we call these CO2 or gas guns. Then there are pneumatics that operate on stored compressed air. These further break down into single-stroke pneumatics that use just one pump of air, multi-pump pneumatics that the shooter pumps a number of times for each shot and precharged pneumatics (PCP) that are filled with compressed air from an outside source and are then fired several times before refilling. Today’s report is about precharged pneumatics, alone. Precharged airguns exist as both rifles and pistols, but this report will concentrate on rifles.
Back in the late 1990s, when precharged pneumatics were still relatively unknown to many 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. At the time it looked like 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. The best guess puts them around 1550! Those guns, however, were each made by hand and were frightfully 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. Girardoni invented the model 1780 21-shot repeating air rifle that served for 20 years in the Austrian Army and also was the rifle Lewis and Clarke carried on their journey. It is considered the most important rifle that ever existed, as its presence protected the expedition of soldiers in Indian territory.
The Girardoni repeating air rifle of 1780.
Precharged pneumatics were made right up to the 1920s, in the form of air canes. But they were still quite expensive and far from the mainstream of the shooting sports. After that time production quietly ceased and these airguns were unheard of for more than half a century.
Modern precharged airguns
In 1980 someone rebarreled a Daystate dart-shooting tranquilizer gun with a .22-caliber pellet rifle barrel and the modern PCP was born. That gun was called the Daystate Huntsman when it went into production. I owned one of these early Daystate Huntsman PCPs that I purchased used in the 1990s and I still own a Shamal PCP that Air Arms made in the early ’90s.
At first people were just glad that such an airgun existed. It was almost a science experiment. How it got filled with compressed air was secondary. And that was how the PCP we know today got restarted at the end of the 20th century.
For 26 years (1980-2006) PCPs were expensive and arcane. The cheapest ones cost over $600 in the mid 1990s and they all used their own unique 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 at the time. 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 (around $250 for the rifle, alone), 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 for around $400. The rifle had the male Foster fill coupling that has since become widespread. And it came with a manual that explained everything about its use. No more secrets! In a very real sense the Benjamin Discovery was the Rosetta Stone of the PCP world. More than 4,000 of them sold in the first year, alone, making it every bit as popular as the AirForce TalonSS. A pity that it is no longer available, but there are other inexpensive PCPs that are even nicer.
Crosman had previously sold British-made PCPs under the Crosman name — which is how airgun companies used to break into the PCP market. But those guns had all the problems of the startup age — a lack of documentation and proprietary fill technology.
The Discovery was dirt-simple and taught shooters how to operate a PCP. It also taught Crosman how to build PCPs, which was just as important. 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 just happened. Well — happy days for Crosman and AirForce! They each sold tens of thousands of PCPs, 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 in China and elsewhere. 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, by selling what they had always sold. They prided themselves by saying they were making airguns of unparalleled quality, but features like the Marauder’s power adjustments and 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 an experiment with the PCP that I thought could be manufactured to retail for $100. I called it the hundred-dollar PCP. Dennis Quackenbush was kind enough to build one 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 for a large company like Crosman.
I tested that gun and found that it worked good enough to warrant spending some development money on the project. Two years later at the SHOT Show Crosman informed me they had watched both the six-part blog report on that experiment, and 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 produced after a company-wide product improvement project on barrel-making. So, the Maximus came to market with improved accuracy over the Discovery and even over the Marauder that carried Crosman’s barrels. Since that time Crosman has converted their entire barrel-making process, and today every PCP barrel they make 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 fourteen years — 2007 to 2021 — other big changes have been made in the PCP world. Shooters have switched from 3,000 psi scuba tanks to carbon fiber tanks that hold a lot more air, yet weigh less. Retailers like Pyramyd Air are now selling pre-owned carbon fiber tanks with extended lives 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. 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. And Benjamin has their Traveler and Umarex their ReadyAir.
Fill coupling standardization
In 1990 no company’s PCP was compatible with the fill couplings from a different company. In 2021 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 losing sales. The proof of that comes in the form of proprietary fill probes that are machined as male Foster fittings on their other end, plus numerous adaptors that bring the proprietary couplings into the real world.
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. One outstanding example of this is the Air Venturi Avenger, a PCP that allows the shooter to not only adjust the power but also the regulator from outside the airgun! And it is just as accurate as a $1,700 Air Arms S510 XS. 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. Those who still refer to PCPs as the “Dark Side” are now officially dinosaurs. And the PCP is now developed enough for the person who is new to shooting to operate.