Stephen Archer looks to the future. What’s the limit for airgunning technology?
The great thing about our august editor, ‘el Tel’ – remember that nickname from the past? – is that he’s always pushing the limits. He pushed the limits of FT shooting in his competitive days, of course, and he constantly pushes the limits to bring you great material for this magazine, for sure. He’s also keen to understand how far the limits of airgun technology can be pushed, as I discovered the other day.
“Steve,” said Terry, “I really liked your thoughts about where the airgun market is going in future.” (AGW February 2018). “What I’d like you to do, mate, is to write a piece on where you see the limits of what can be achieved by airgun technology. You know, ‘How far can it go?’”
As you can tell, he pushes the limits for his contributors, too!
THE US PERSPECTIVE
Of course, this is easier to do from an American perspective. On this side of the Pond, we have no legal power limit for airguns, at least not at present. In fact, let’s face it, there are very few limits at all for US airgun shooters. This means that we see the full range of possibility for airguns and airgun technology. So, let’s take a look at some airguns available in the US market today, and think about how close we might be to the limits.
IS PRICE A LIMIT?
I think we can immediately remove price as a limit. There are air rifles available from a number of manufacturers that sell here for the thick end of $2,000, and this at a time when I can walk into our local Walmart and buy a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic 22LR rifle for $250 with no problem. Just show your driver’s licence and stroll out with it!
Here, we have a widely-available firearm that’s just 36 inches long and weighs 5lbs, and yet it has a muzzle energy of around 100 to 150 ft.lbs. for most loads, rising to 350 ft.lbs. for the hottest ammo. In other words, similar muzzle energy to a powerful PCP air rifle in a calibre of .30 to .357 costing considerably more
– and that’s without allowing for the cost of the HPA tank, compressor etc. How far can the price for an air rifle go? I don’t think we’ve reached that limit yet.
SIZE AND WEIGHT
Having removed price as a limit in answering Terry’s ‘How far can it go?’ question, let’s move on to some fundamental practicalities that just happen to be really big issues – size and weight. No matter the size of our wallets, there really are some practical limitations to the size and weight of an air rifle, or any long arm for that matter. Again, I’ll look to the firearms’ world for some well-known comparisons. The British Army and the Wehrmacht knew what they were doing when it came to developing infantry weapons; both independently ended-up with battle rifles of about 44 inches long and 9lbs in weight – that’s the Lee Enfield No. 4 and the Mauser Kar 98K for you. I don’t think that was a coincidence. I also believe that this signifies an approximate maximum limit to the size and weight for a long arm that can be comfortably managed by the vast majority of able-bodied men – their target audience.
Of course, the big issue with airguns, compared to cartridge firearms, is that they need to develop their own source of power, rather than having that power contained in a separate cartridge. This makes the challenges that much greater for airguns when it comes to size and weight, but whatever the power source, length is length and weight is weight. It’s clear to me that we have definitely reached the limits of ‘How far can it go?’ with respect to length and weight of air rifles. In fact, I’d say that we have already pushed to the limits and beyond!
LET’S FOCUS ON SOME HATSAN MONSTERS
To simplify matters, let’s compare these limits to two air rifles from Hatsan, a company that’s clearly pushing things as far as it can go when it comes to airguns. We’ll take the Hatsan 135 break-barrel, gas-ram air rifle first; this is 47.2 inches long and weighs 9.6lbs, without a scope. This gun clearly exceeds our ‘benchmark’ length and weight already. It’s a monster! Did I mention that it has a cocking effort in the 50lbs range? That means many full-grown men, including me, will need to use two hands to cock the gun, maybe even resting the butt plate on the ground as they do so. Is this an all-day plinker or field target rifle? I don’t think so! There’s a limit, right there, for how far cocking effort can go. Conveniently, the Hatsan 135 is available in multiple calibres from .177 to .35. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
In the PCP arena, enter the Hatsan Hercules QE. Here, we have a giant air rifle that’s 48.4 inches long and weighs no less than 13lbs without the necessary scope. Is this as far as it can go? You bet, and some! By the way, the Hercules has a built-in HPA capacity of no less than 1,000 cc, courtesy of two – yes TWO – 500 cc tanks. I’d say that also has to be some sort of capacity limit for PCP air rifles. Most others max out at 500 cc. The Hatsan Hercules is also available in a huge range of calibres all the way from .177 up to .45 cal. Again, that’s very useful.
Let’s be clear, I’m not calling out Hatsan for bad reasons – quite the reverse. It’s my belief that they are one of the companies that’s forcing airgun technology to the limits. Hatsan designers are obviously smart chaps and they’re pushing really hard to answer Terry’s question of ‘How far can it go?’
POWER LEVEL LIMIT FOR BREAKBARRELS
Now, maximum power, or muzzle energy, level is undoubtedly a major part of Terry’s question. Analysing the power capabilities of Hatsan’s 135 and Hercules can, I believe, give us some clues as to the maximum power capabilities of differing airgun technologies. Sticking to the manufacturer’s specifications, the Hatsan 135 break-barrel, gas-ram air rifle has a claimed maximum muzzle energy ranging from 28 ft.lbs. in .177 calibre to 34 ft.lbs. in .30 cal. If you can actually cock it, that is!
It’s not easy for me to see that these power levels can be significantly exceeded with a manageable size and weight –at least, not without extensive use of very expensive, lightweight titanium and carbon-fibre parts, and improved cocking technology. So I’m going to say that break-barrel, gas-ram air rifles probably have gone about as far as they can go at a maximum 30-35 ft.lbs. muzzle energy level.
POWER LEVEL LIMIT FOR PCPS
The Hatsan Hercules QE gives us muzzle energies that range from a claimed 50 ft.lbs. in .177 calibre to 290 ft.lbs. in .45 cal. Now, this is pretty impressive, particularly when combined with the very acceptable claimed shot counts per fill. Does the Hercules answer the question, ‘How far can it go?’ Probably not, particularly when it comes to big-bore air rifles. After all, the announced, but not yet shipping, .50 calibre Umarex Hammer has a claimed maximum muzzle energy of 700 ft.lbs., albeit with a shot count of just three per fill. The tank size is 500 cc.
One of the key determinants of PCP power levels is the operating pressure. Currently, 3,000 psi is the industry standard fill pressure, but Hatsan – among others – goes to 3,625 psi for the Hercules. The Hammer uses 4,500 and Chinese company, Huben, has pushed fill pressure to no less than 5,000 psi with their K1 air rifle.
What’s the limit here? In my mind, that depends entirely on high pressure air charging technology and tank capabilities. There are several Chinese firms pushing hard to make low-cost HPA compressors. Make no mistake, they are also very smart people.
Over the next few years, I believe we can expect to see a revolution in HPA charging technology. This will lead to lower prices, improved performance and higher fill pressures.
So, ‘How far can it go?’ for PCP power levels? I believe we have a long way to go yet before the fundamental physical limits of PCP air rifles are reached. Could we see a 1,000 ft.lbs. big-bore air rifle? It wouldn’t surprise me to find this at an IWA or SHOT Show a few years down the road.
WAIT, THERE’S MORE
Today, we’ve concentrated on muzzle energy as a measure of finding the limits of air rifle power, but down-range energy retention is another story, and it could be much more important. It will also play a big part in shooting accuracy. That’s bound up with pellet design, and with the Editor’s approval, we’ll talk about that in a future issue and see if we really can discover how far things can really go.
Stephen Archer is the Publisher of the online US airgun magazine Hard Air Magazine, https://www.hardairmagazine.com
The manufacturers’ muzzle energy specifications in the Hatsan 135. Notice that the ft.lbs. is pretty well maxed-out at 33/34 ft.lbs., at any calibre greater than .177 - a clear indication that the power is at its limit.
Unlike the 135, the ft.lbs. developed by the Hercules increases with calibre, and pellet weight. Steve thinks this is far from being the limit PCPs could be capable of in future.
Hatsan has a wide range of big, powerful PCP air rifles. The Hercules, at the top, is obviously the largest, but the Gladius and Bull Boss below it are also powerful and not exactly dainty.
Cecil Bayes, from Hatsan USA, shows us the Hercules at the SHOT Show. Yip, there’s a reason for that bipod under the fore end. This would be a tough air rifle to shoot unrested!
Jesse Abbot, of Hatsan USA, shows us the Hatsan 135 at the SHOT Show. Jesse’s a big chap. The 135 is big even against him.
This close-up of the Umarex Hammer shows the size of the gun, even in bullpup configuration. That bipod is going to be needed.
Gilbert Distribution’s Ross Marshall shoots a .45 calibre Western Big Bore Bushbuck in competition at 300 yards at Extreme Benchrest.