It was 1984 when I spotted an advert in the airgun press for a company called ‘Kestock Conversions’ and the picture of a compact, Weihrauch HW80 ‘bullpup’ jumped out at me. In addition to this rifle, the company sold new Weihrauch and Sharp rifles, offered customising services on them, and retailed the HR Universal one-piece mount. The company was located near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, 35 miles from my home, so within easy striking distance.
I made the telephone call to arrange collection of the mount, and to view this bullpup rifle, ‘The Predator’. Steve Thornley, the proprietor, recommended that rather than driving to his home, from where he ran the business, it would be easier to find his local pub, meet there and then we could go on to his home. I arrived at The Rockingham Arms in Wentworth to be met by a tall, slender fellow. The friendliness and warm-hearted nature of this man was immediately apparent; a contagious laugh and genuine, from the heart, smile. A people’s person, of that there was no doubt. We had a drink and then I followed him to his house - a beautifully quaint and rustic gamekeeper’s cottage in idyllic surroundings.
Steve made me a cuppa and we went through to his lounge and that’s where I first cast eyes on the Predator. Compact and purposeful, and bearing the hallmarks of a true working gun, this wasn’t conceived as a ‘What can I invent to make me some money?’ get-rich scheme. Rather, as a gamekeeper, Steve wanted to use the sturdy and proven HW80 platform, but to improve its handling and portability, mainly with standing shots in mind whilst controlling squirrels and corvids. Its shorter dimensions and more rear-biased weight distribution made for a quick-handling gun, especially useful for walking the woods, with the solid heft of the ‘80 also providing stability on aim. Remember, this was back in the days before the rise of the modern PCP, and the ‘80 was regarded – maybe incorrectly – as one of the few guns that could reliably and consistently provide ‘full power’.
The rifle I saw that day was the prototype and differs to the one that I own, pictured. The stock was darker and wasn’t quite as curvaceous in its lines, but I was instantly smitten. Steve had received healthy interest in the rifle, with many offers of deposits, even from overseas shooters, and he refused to take money from interested people unless he knew he could deliver the finished product, but he didn’t have the resources to get the Predator project up and running, and the rifle offered for sale. I got to know Steve very well and a strong, long-lasting friendship was forged. We shared many a night drinking in his local pub, the highlights being Thursday nights, when the pub hosted many excellent, live blues bands, and in the early, formative days of FT shooting, when springers were the main weapons of choice, we gave the gun a few outings at local events.
Over the next few years, Steve found it frustratingly more difficult to get the project funded. Money was tight for him. I helped to find him a job in the retail motor trade to get some regular income, but it seemed that the Predator would never break cover. Then, finally, a gun shop local to Steve said that they would help to fund the project. These funds allowed Steve to commission Custom Stocks of Sheffield to make five walnut stocks and for a local precision engineering company to make five sets of linkages/joints to locate the trigger forwards. This relocation of the trigger blade further required the adoption of a hinged cocking lever. The accuracy and tolerances involved with the linkages were crucial to the trigger retaining the original, crisp feel of the standard Rekord unit. I cannot recall what then went wrong with this joint-funding project, but a disagreement ensued, ending the venture. So Steve had five stocks and linkage kits but was still not in a position to be able to launch the gun.
MAKE ME AN OFFER
Fast forward a year or two and, one evening, I received a call from Steve. “Do you want a Predator?” Of course I wanted one, but I could not afford one. Back in 1984, Steve had received offers of pre-orders at around the £600 mark, which I simply couldn’t stretch to. I had to decline, but he said that, as a close friend, he wanted me to have one. He needed some money; he knew I loved the rifle and asked me to make him an offer. I explained that I didn’t wish to offend, so would rather not insult him with an offer. The result was that I ended up buying the gun you see here at a price which was much lower than its worth, but with the proviso that if I were ever to sell it, Steve would get first refusal. The gun would be a keeper unless Steve wanted it back.
I had a few Venom-tuned guns, two of which were HW80s. I had read many positive reports about the Lazaglide conversion so, once funds allowed, The Predator was dropped in at Venom Arms’ Gun Barrel Industrial Estate premises for the Lazaglide treatment. This involved sleeving the cylinder to 25mm inside diameter, allowing the use of a lighter piston, speeding up the firing cycle and greatly reducing the recoil. Swept volume was, of course, reduced with this conversion. The 80’s huge credentials in this area were more suited
to markets without power limits; indeed, a certain Mr Beeman from the US, contributed hugely towards the development of the R1/ HW80. The internals also ran on synthetic bearings - no metal to metal contact and smoother, quieter operation. When I collected the rifle from Venom, I was truly amazed by the ease of cocking, the smoothness and the utterly benign firing cycle of this heavily revised powerplant.
So, the rifle you see here is one of five ‘production Predators’. I don’t know the whereabouts of the other four, nor of the original prototype, other than hearing two unconfirmed rumours that three live in Scandinavia and that (the same?) three were once owned by a spring-gun tuner from Yorkshire who has since ceased trading. Sadly, Steve passed away in 2009, but this endears the gun to me even more and it now holds sentimental as well as rarity value.
The gun, as pictured, weighs in at 10lbs and 12 ounces. A not inconsiderable mass, but the heft seemingly evaporates once on aim. Total length of the rifle is 38½ inches (98cm), including the Slimtech silencer. Pull length is 16½ inches (42cm), a full two inches longer than the generally accepted ideal of 14½ inches. The trigger is located 7½ inches (19cm) forward of the original position of the standard HW80. That long pull length is often questioned when people first handle the rifle, but then most people seem to gel quickly with it and then declare it a non-issue.
Mounting optics could have been an issue, due to the rearward shuffle of the action, but I found that, with the compact 4x42 scope that it previously wore, doubling up two Sportsmatch two-piece mounts behind the turret saddle worked remarkably well. The scope was well anchored and no zero shift was experienced after many years of use.
These days, it sports the compact Simmons scope pictured, and I am extremely grateful to Neil180 of the Airgunbbs for this addition, which I feel enhances the lines of the ‘pup.
I have not hunted for many years now and just enjoy shooting for the sake of it; its therapeutic benefits, the appreciation of fine engineering and enjoying my chosen sport with likeminded people. The Predator often accompanies me to the Boinger Bash events hosted by Mr Furniss of the Airgunbbs forum. Many springer enthusiasts there have had a go with it and most seem to really like its compact dimensions, its easy pointability, the stability, the smooth, easy cocking action and its super-smooth firing cycle. Although it has always performed faultlessly, in recent times I thought it would be prudent to have it serviced. After all, it is now 17 years since it first received the Lazaglide treatment. Although I work on many of my own guns, I wanted to preserve the Venom provenance, so the gun was duly booked in with Steve Pope of V-Mach for a service/refresh.
I collected it in late March this year, just before the first of this year’s Bash events, and the gun always goes down well with the people there. One of the comments received was, “Wow, it’s almost like a PCP. It’s so easy. You take aim, squeeze the trigger and the target just goes down”. The ‘easy’ comment not referring to any dead, clinical feeling, but its ability to take down targets at various ranges effortlessly. One shooter, in particular, an extremely good and knowledgeable shot, was very impressed with its ease for unsupported, standing shots.
Shooting the rifle, with these super-refined internals, remains a divine experience. Discharge movement is smooth, soft, and barely perceptible; the trigger crisp and precise. Follow-through is easy and natural, facilitating repeatable accuracy.
COME AND TRY IT
I have been in contact with Robert, Steve’s son, a handful of times. He is the one person to whom I would willingly give this rifle. Robert is more than happy for me to parade the Predator at our Boinger Bash events and give as many people as possible the opportunity to see and try his dad’s unique creation, and I extend this offer to all the readers. So, if anyone would like to experience the rifle for themselves, come and find me at a Bash or any other event that I might attend and you are more than welcome.
Steve, your dream lives on in The Predator. It is, and will remain, in good, safe, loving hands.
Rest in peace, my friend.
It’s a genuine pleasure to shoot, and performs extremely well.
This rifle means far more to me than steel and walnut.
Silky-smooth cocking, thanks to the genius of V-Mach.
The balance and handling is right up there with modern rifles.
A little bit of airgun history in my hands.
The compact Simmons was the perfect scope.
The mark of top tuning.