A short history of the spring-piston airgun
This report covers:
- Before modern springers
- Quackenbush Lightning or model Zero
- First modern spring-piston pellet rifle
- A reader miracle
- Standing on the shoulders of giants
- What came next?
- The dry years
- Velocity race
- Gas spring
- Sig ASP-20
- Written for Yogi
This report will be a quick look at the brief history of the spring-piston airgun. I say brief, even though this type of airgun has been in existence for over 125 years. In its modern form the springer began in 1905/06.
Before modern springers
Before modern springers there were primitive versions of spring-piston airguns, including one that used rubber bands to power the piston. Let’s start there.
Quackenbush Lightning or model Zero
The Quackenbush Lightning or model Zero had a piston that was pulled forward by rubber bands attached to the outside of the gun. A picture is easier to understand than words, so look.
The Lightning piston is pulled forward by rubber bands (arrow) on both sides of the receiver.
Obviously the Lightning was weak, but all springers were before the first modern one. They shot darts the best, and also lead slugs with felt glued onto their end. The projectiles went slow and nobody cared because that was all there was at the time.
First modern spring-piston pellet rifle
In the early 1900s, Lincoln Jeffries developed and built a number of prototype underlever pellet rifles. We would not recognize these rifles today, as some of their features were still in flux, but by 1905 Jeffries had settled on a rotating tap to load his rifle. He patented his underlever cocking mechanism in 1904 and approached several large gun manufacturers to make his rifle in quantity. The Birmingham Small Arms Company that we know as BSA, entered into an agreement with Jeffries in 1905 and their engineers undertook to redesign parts of the Jefferies design to make then easier to produce and use.
In 1905 the first thousand “H The Lincoln” air rifles were delivered to Jeffries and things were underway. I’m now going to fast-forward a bit, because Jeffries apparently didn’t have the distribution channels to sell as many air rifles as BSA could make. So BSA bought the design from him and preceeded to make their own air rifles.
This is a later version of the first BSA underlever.
A reader miracle
And here is where our tale becomes personal. It was at one of the very last Roanoke, Virginia, airgun shows that reader RidgeRunner bought a tired BSA underlever for what was then a good price. The seller told him that it needed work and BB and others assured him that is would be relatively easy to work on so he took it home and worked on it. And to his amazement, it came together and worked as it should. He talks about it all the time. And even Mrs. RidgeRunner is proud of that air rifle and the ambience it lends to their log cabin home.
But the thing about this first modern air rifle was — it worked! It was powerful, compared to what had gone before. It was also accurate. A rifled barrel, when coupled with the newly developed diabolo pellets made the difference.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Once the modern air rifle was out there other companies started piling on. Like anything else that’s new, they all looked alike until one of them didn’t and then the market went that way.
Some of the Early Dianas looked a lot like the BSA underlevers, but around 1912 they started making breakbarrels, and then the airgun world followed them. Was Diana the first maker to breakbarrels? Heaven’s no! But the early breakbarrel guns were smoothbores that proceeded the BSA underlevers by 25 years. Their hinge mechanisms quickly worked loose and they were notoriously weak and inaccurate. Diana break barrels had tight barrel pivots that lasted.
Diana model 20.
What came next?
Well, I’m skipping over a lot of spring guns that are unusual and unique, and I’m doing it for that reason. Just as an example, one unique springer was the Webley Service and Webley Service Mark II. Both were unique in their ability to change barrels and calibers in seconds and their overlever design, but they have more in common with their own air pistols than with other air rifles that pushed the technology.
Webley Mark II Service air rifle.
Mark II Service rifle cocked.
The dry years
From about 1930 until sometimes in the mid-1950s the spring-piston world was quiet. They were still being made and there were some unique designs like the Haenel model 28 pellet pistol of the 1930s. But the large technological leaps weren’t there. Of course World War 2 was a chunk of time right in the middle of that period.
Haenel model 28 air pistol.
The Haenel 28 borrowed its cocking linkage from smoothbore pellet guns of a half-century earlier.
To load the Haenel 28 becomes a break barrel.
In the 1950s Weihrauch came to the forefront. The HW 55 was among the first of the rifles they made, although the HW 50V dates to the late 1940s, according to the Blue Book of Airguns.
The HW 55 originally came with a direct sear engagement trigger, but within a few years the famous Rekord came out and the rest is history. The Rekord is so fine and adjustable that it became the trigger that other triggers wanted to be. Air Arms has a variation of the Rekord in their TX 200 rifles and whenever we talk about spring-piston triggers, it is the Rekord that we compare to.
In the early 1970s BSF, Diana , Weihrauch and Feinwerkbau were all in the great horsepower (which in a pellet rifle is velocity) race. At the time 800 f.p.s. or just a little more for a .177 was as fast as it got Feinwerkbau pulled into the lead until the early 1980s when Weihrauch came out with the Beeman R1 (also known as the HW 80) that was the first spring piston airgun to be designed on a computer. That rifle added close to 200 f.p.s. to the velocity and reigned supreme for a few years until Diana came out with their 48 side lever that bumped the velocity up again.
In the late 1990s Gamo topped 1,400 f.p.s. in their .177 break barrels, though they advertised 1,600 f.p.s. That is way too fast, but marketeers knew that velocity sells and they were so happy to mark their boxes with large numbers.
I went past the gas spring that came about in the 1990s. It is also a spring-piston though pressurized gas is substituted for the coiled steel mainspring. They are a little lighter, can remain cocked for a long time without damage, but they are harder to cock and they can have nasty vibrations that sting the face.
All that changed in 2018 when Sig Sauer built an air rifle they called the ASP20. It was easy to cock, powerful, smooth-shooting and had a brand-new trigger design that is entirely different than the Record or its offshoots. It instantly became the high-water mark for spring piston air rifles. And then Sig abandoned it. It was like they had walked into the Golconda diamond mine looking for gold under all the sparkly rocks and left when they didn’t find any.
Written for Yogi
Today’s report was written for reader Yogi who is a spring gun aficionado. When I told him two weeks ago that springers were relatively new in the airgun world he responded defensively. So I thought it was time for all of us to look at the history of spring piston airguns.