Can a classic pre-charged rifle match a new model? Pete Evans compares a Rapid 7 and an Ultimate Sporter
Modern classics compared
When out shooting recently, I was struck by the fact that air rifles have undergone significant changes over the past 40 years. The stand-out moment for me was the advent of the pre-charged pneumatic, a game changer for many. Even the PCP has been refined and improved to get where we are today. If we were to consider two sporting rifles, at the top of their game at their time, but separated by 20 years, and shot them side by side to see how they match up, would the golden oldies still have a place in our armouries, or should they be consigned to be wall hangers? I hope to answer these questions, so without further deliberation let’s meet the contenders.
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
The Theoben Rapid 7 needs little introduction. Anyone with a passing interest in air rifles has heard of it, if not shot one. This iconic rifle was the brainchild of Messrs Dave Theobold and Ben Taylor, hence the name Theo/Ben – clever that. Back in late 1970s, they were busy designing gas-ram rifles when the other manufacturers were content with spring types.
This development proved very successful and many models were spawned from this platform. Not content with a ‘single power plant’ type, they diverted to developing a PCP that came to be known as the Rapid 7.
An excited public awaited the unveiling of this new rifle in 1990, and the Rapid did not disappoint. It offered many innovative features, not least the seven-shot magazine from which its name is derived. Such was its popularity that it even had the late, great John Darling reaching for one in place of his Venom-tuned HW80.
“Good, original examples command a value similar to their new purchase price”
The Rapid underwent further development over the years and has been seen in several guises, but all seem to hold true to the same basic design; solid engineering and relatively easy to repair, but unfortunately, therein lies one of its weaknesses.
Back in the day, people were obsessed with power and this extended to springers as well as PCPs. As a result, many beautiful guns fell into unscrupulous hands and these guns were ‘tuned’. As a result of such work, the guns became inaccurate, sometimes dangerous, and definitely illegal for those without the necessary firearms certificate. Theoben did offer the gun in various power levels, which was definitely the way to go if that was your desire.
These factors can pose a problem for anyone wanting one of these examples today. My advice would be to buy a gun that has been stripped and serviced by a reputable source, and therefore its performance verified. So-called ‘tuning’ can be difficult and costly to rectify; the term ‘caveat emptor’ is very apt in this situation.
If you can find a good Rapid, it won’t come cheap. Since Theoben’s sad demise a few years ago, the prices have taken an upward hike, and good, original examples command a value similar to their new purchase price.
My own example is a 1996 model in .22, wearing the sought-after walnut Tyrolean stock. It came as standard with a 400cc bottle, capable of returning in excess of 200 shots, delivered via an Anschutz barrel.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
As a direct descendant of the S300 model, developed in the 1990s, the Air Arms Ultimate Sporter is a prime example of airgun evolution. NSP Engineering, the parent company of Air Ams, had already been successful in the PCP field with their Shamal and 100 series rifles, but wanted an entry-level gun with a recommended retail price just shy of £300. Enter Nick Jenkinson, field target shooter of world renown, and skilled engineer.
Nick designed and developed prototypes of a relatively simple design, a well engineered and accurate rifle that would go on to become the S300. I had the privilege of speaking to Nick earlier this year, and his passion for all things air related was contagious, and he’s a nice bloke to boot. He described the way in which he developed the hammer system, which I found fascinating.
The hammer housing needed to be machined with a number of slots, to facilitate the trigger mechanism, and also a means by which the bolt could cock the hammer. It started life as a hollow tube, but when the slots were machined it became a little more oval in shape. A round hammer won’t run smoothly down an oval tube so a solution needed to be found. Nick had previously worked in the motor trade and was accustomed to using a slide hammer to pull out dents in body work, so he borrowed the slide-hammer principle for the S300. The gun’s hammer runs on a central rod so it will always run concentric to the housing, thus eliminating any judder, an this system has been employed in the ‘S’ series since then – a testament to excellent design and engineering.
The S300 proved to be a popular gun and gave many the opportunity to sample PCP shooting at a reasonable price. I vividly remember mine with fondness, having purchased it following an article in this very magazine. The S300 gave way to the S400/410 models, from the year 2000 to the present, and the side-lever cocking S510 joined the fold in 2008.
The Ultimate Sporter saw the light of day in
2013 and it was bound to be a success, built on a firm foundation. The action is a carbinelength S510, with the delightfully quiet Q TEC silencer fitted to the shrouded barrel. It is the standard, S510 side-lever cocking type, coupled with a 10-shot rotary magazine in either .177 or .22 calibre.
I have left the most striking feature until last – the stock. Air Arms has ditched the usual beech or walnut and opted for a stunning laminate design – plywood never looked so good! Not only is it a looker, but the multi layers of wood also make for a very strong stock. The example considered here is a year old, and in .177 calibre.
HOW DO THEY MATCH UP?
Both these rifles were specifically designed for field use and so it made sense to shoot them as such. Targets were set at 30m and shot from a simulated hunting stance, forearm braced against a tree.
The Rapid managed a 16mm edge-to-edge, seven-shot group, whilst the Air Arms gave a 10mm group, again with seven shots. It might be worth noting that the Rapid preferred the H&N Field Target Trophy pellets, whilst the Ultimate Sporter thrived on its own-branded Field pellets. Perhaps older design guns prefer older design pellets. Both guns have nothing to prove in the accuracy stakes, but what about handling and practicability?
I believe it is fair to say that the Rapid handles better than its looks would have you believe, the buddy bottle suggests that things could be front heavy, but in reality, the balance is fairly neutral, and weight unobtrusive.
The Tyrolean stock, as fitted to this model, must be the stock of choice because it is very comfortable. It has a generously curved, adjustable butt pad, and the thumb-up groove somehow takes the tension from the trigger finger.
The Rapid has been described on many occasions as ‘agricultural. This seems to refer to the bolt and trigger unit, but rather than consider this a derogatory description, I would consider ‘agricultural’ to suggest that it is of strong construction, built to last, and easily repaired – all features of my Massey Ferguson 65 tractor built in 1960!
Triggers can be adjusted and improved with the addition of a shoe, and some owners add aftermarket trigger kits, but my preference would be the shoe, and a trigger sear polish.
The biggest drawback for the Rapid must be the lack of pressure gauge and quick-fill system, which seem standard features on most new designs. These are available from aftermarket sources, but might need alteration to the stock in some cases.
On the subject of maintenance; the Rapid, although no longer in production, is well served in the spares department, and many parts are available from independent sources. Impact Airguns, who took over from Theoben, are well placed to offer a repair service.
ULTIMATE SPORTER STOCK
The stock on the Ultimate Sporter is not only easy on the eye, but can also be adjusted to fit you like the proverbial glove. There is a cheek piece that moves up and down, fore and aft, and it swivels. There is really no excuse not to get a good fit with this gun because the butt pad is also multi-adjustable. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the stock of this rifle with Claire West, Air Arms’ director, and I commented that the stock had flowing lines. “We like flowing lines,” was her response. It has flowing lines in abundance, together with sculpted finger grooves to the fore end and a central thumb-up groove at the rear of the action – very important, in my book. The clever design means that it can be used by right- and left-handed shooters.
The underside of the fore end houses a useful accessory rail that has a stud to which you can attach your bipod or sling; a sling stud is fitted to the rear stock. You really do get the impression that this has been designed by hunters for hunters.
I am a firm believer in the important role
“... we really should be looking at anything that tips the balance in our favour”
that psychology takes in shooting. When a person is pleased with the aesthetics of a rifle, and indeed the fit is right, he or she is far more likely to be able to perform well with it. As hunters, we really should be looking at anything that tips the balance in our favour, and if that needs to be borrowed from the target lads, that’s fine by me. Let’s face it, they know about accurate shooting.
Fit is nothing without control. This is assured with the fully adjustable trigger, and muzzle report is kept to a minimum with the
highly effective barrel shroud and QTEC moderator. The magazine is a doddle to fill with ten pellets, and the side lever ensures that each one of these feeds flawlessly into the barrel.
This rifle is designed so well that there is very little to go wrong. The only potential Achilles heel is the indexing post for the magazine, which could give problems, but a new one costs less than a tin of pellets, and takes ten minutes to fit – a job detailed on the Air Arms website.
This gun wants for nothing. All you need to add is a scope and some pellets, and successful hunting trips ensue. If ever a rifle deserved its name it’s this one.
WHAT ARE THE CONCLUSIONS?
Classic airguns are certainly capable of matching current models in the accuracy stakes, but the new designs shine in their refinement and everyday usability. It’s good to know that older models like the Rapid are far from dying out; their many devoted fans will ensure that never happens.
Classic guns will always have a place in our racks and hearts, but for everyday use, for me, the Ultimate Sporter can’t be beaten. All the features and ergonomics just allow me to shoot better, and that matters a lot to me.
So, if the Ultimate is the ultimate, why keep the Rapid? The Rapid has earned its place in my cabinet because it is an icon among air rifles, a piece of our rich air rifle heritage, and besides, I need something in .22 as well!
A couple of classics, one from our shooting past, the other very much part of the present and the future - but how will they compare?
Potent combination. The Rapid’s 400cc buddy bottle, that renowned Anschutz barrel and an Evo silencer.
The Ultimate Sporter’s indexing post can be replaced in a few minutes, and it’s easy to do.
I fully appreciate this Rapid’s Tyrolean stock design.
The magazine system that started the revolution.
I’m now in the unusual position of owning a high-performance air rifle that’s older than my children.
Exemplary accuracy from both rifles. The ergonomics of the Ultimate Sporter make it easier, though.
Full marks to the Ultimate Sporter’s balance, ergonomics, performance and looks. Here’s a rifle that really does live up to its name.
The Ultimate Sporter’s fully-adjustable stock is a huge step forward in maximising its performance. Air Arms barrels have nothing to prove, and that QTEC silencer adds stealth to Ultimate accuracy.