An American Classic

The first air rifle I ever saw was a Sheriden Siver Streak owned by a neighbor’s father, back when I was in elementary school. It was a very impressive gun then, requiring great strength to pump up, and capable of doing great damage to breakable targets. And it looked like a serious gun- it was a good deal heavier than the BB guns we were familiar with, and it had a wood stock- just like a real rifle.

blue streak

Years later, when I discovered spring-air guns (thanks to Robert Law) I came to think of the Sheriden as simple, crude device, lacking in the power and sophistication of the finer European guns. With its brass barrel and multiple pumps, it couldn’t possible compete with the fancy British and German guns I was starting to collect. Add to that the odd .20 caliber- the only pellets you could get were archaic looking ones made by the company.

But then when I started writing for American Airgunner I noticed something that at first struck me as odd- a lot of the magazine’s correspondants were hunters, and a lot of these hunters were diehard Sheriden fans. It wasn’t just a matter of money, either; these were guys who could afford a nice $350 spring gun or a $500 pneumatic, but preferred to hunt with an $89 Sheriden. Guys down in Louisiana were writing about bagging dozens of nutria- a decent sized animal- with their Sheridens. Why, I wondered, would someone bother with what I still thought of as a toy gun?

What turned my thinking around was a review gun I had a chance to play with for a few weeks. It was a Benjamin Model 392- essentially a Blue Streak in .22 caliber- that had been given a “steroid” mod by Tim at Mac1 Airguns (mac1airgun.com). This was essentially a stock gun that had been given a stronger cocking lever and Tim’s improved valve, and could be charged up significantly higher than the stock guns. In addition to these internal mods, the gun was also equipped with a forward-mounted scope mount, and a Burris pistol scope. It was, in essence, the airgun equivalent of Jeff Cooper’s “Scout Rifle.” And it had some serious oomph. WIth 20 pumps, it was kicking out 20 grain Premiers at 30ft-lbs! The was only one spring gun that could come close to that back than, and it cost well over $600.

About that time I’d been part of an on-line discussion regarding what would be the idea “survival” air gun, and as I held the modified Benjamin/Sheriden in my hands, I realized I was looking at it. Here was a gun that shot hard enough to bring down small hame, had a barrel impervious to rust, and could be maintained and repaired with simple tools. While it might take a half minute to pump up for that next shot, for the hunter that really doesn’t matter. A rabbit missed with the first shot from a spring-air gun isn’t going to wait around while you cock for that next shot. (The same could probably be said even for hunting with a .22 rifle)

That gun caused me to rethink everything I’d believed until then about the Sheriden. If you’ve felt the same way, you might want to look at one. They’re $130 now, but the mods are still reasonable. Tim will do a basic mod for $45 on a gun he sells, and a full mod with the indestructable “billet” lever for $90.

The Daisy 717, 747 and 777

The Daisy 717 first appeared back in the 1970s, and serious target shooters looked down it it from the beginning. I mean, it’s a Daisy, for goodness sake- they make BB guns! and it looked pretty crude, too, with a cast white metal frame, brass barrel, and cheap plastic grips. And then something strange happened- 717s started showing up at matches, and winning them. These were guns pretty much right out of the box, too, with stock poweplant and grips, and occasionally modified sights. A $50 gun from Arkansas was beating some very fancy $250+ European guns, particularly when given a trigger job developed by shooting legend Don Nygord, who published it in the April 1980 American Marksman. 717

Daisy took notice of this, and started making two improved versions- the 747, which is identical, save for a Lothar Walther steel barrel in place of the stock barrel, and the 777 (now discontinued), which added better metal sights, an adjustible trigger, and wood grips. Being a poor grad student in the 1980s, I bought a 717, and with it learned the basics of good pistol shooting. I made my own custom hand-fitting grips out of epoxy, but otherwise left it alone.

What made this gun so good right out of the box? For one thing, it had a single-stroke pneumatic poweplant, a fairly new concept in those days. The result was exceptional shot to shot consistency- far better than most spring guns, and a lot better than many of the new CO2 powered match guns. A few drops of Daisy oil on the compression chamber O-ring and an occasional swab of the barrel were all that were needed to keep it shooting in the X-ring. The excellent balance and long sight radius helped, too.
The 717 and 747 are still an excellent choice for the new- and maybe intermediate- target and silhouette shooter. With retail prices as low as $138 for the 747 and $110 for the 717, it’s hard to find a better value in a target pistol today.

UPDATE:

Here’s a good site with info on stripping and tuning the Daisy target pistols:

http://www.pilkguns.com/tenp/spd747.htm

The DROZD

I’ve been curious about the Russian-made DROZD automatic BB gun since first reading about it in the sporting press, so when a visiting friend from another state dropped by with his, I was anxious to try it out.

Picking up the DROZD, you can’t help but notice that this is a substantial piece of equipment- there’s a fair bit of steel in there. It’s not all plastic like some BB and soft air guns. It’s a hard shooter, too, with some reviewers claiming velocities of 1200 to 1600fps- although as I didn’t chronograph the gun, I can’t verifiy those figures. They’re reasonable numbers, though, as the computed muzzle energy would only be between 3 and 5 foot-pounds, assuming a standard steel BB.DROZD

Although- reading the reviews and recommendations at Pyramid’s web site leaves some question as to exactly what the proper ammunition should be. Pyramid initally said only lead shot should be used, but later discussions said that lead shot could deform and jam the gun, and that the factory actually approved the use of steel. This is even more confusing when you consider that BBs are smaller than .177- so if indeed the gun was designed for lead, BBs will allow a lot of air blowby.

And if the DROZD was designed for steel, lead shot may well jam. Back in the 70s, Robert Beeman sold .177 lead pellets and recommended that they be used in preference to steel in all BB guns, which led to a lot of jammed guns (including my collectable Daisy 1894!) and a lot of malfunctioning guns that normally depended on a magnet to hold a BB in position for firing.

Regardless of what shot you use, this isn’t a gun that particularly interests me. I like accurate guns, and the DROZD is very much a spray-and-pray gun. You can’t shoot target with it, and it would be downright inhumane to shoot even vermin with it. It does have some of the charm of the fairgrounds shoot-the-playing-card BB machine guns I enjoyed as a child, but loading the magazine could get very tedious. Of course I suppose that’s true of automatic firearms as well. And if you live in a state that bans Class 3 weapons, this would really be your only option, other than a plastic pellet firing “machine gun”.
Regardless, I’ve already had my fill of BB machine guns. If you look at the lower right hand corner of this fragment from a 1960s Johnson-Smith catalog, you’ll see a picture of the hand-cranked plastic BB machine gun I saved up my pennies for many years ago. (I bought the jet engine, too, but that’s another story for another web site.)

The Webley-Scott Tempest

 

No other airgun seems as ineffably British as the Webley Tempest. In part, this is because the Tempest has perhaps the longest history of any British gun- perhaps any airgun; it’s a direct descendant from the 1924 Webley Mark I, and functionally, it’s not all that different. Having been around longer than any of its competitors, the Tempest has traditionally been the first serious air pistol for most British shooters- the one you moved up to from the GAT.

Beeman imported these for a while and sold  a few accessories for it, like the trigger shoe seen on this giun and a US-made holster:

Paradoxically enough, given its popularity, the Tempest is not a particularly accurate gun, or a particularly pleasant gun to shoot. Trigger pull is extremely high- higher than any air or powder arm I’ve ever owned; only by adding a wide trigger shoe could I make it even reasonably easy to shoot.(Newer Tempests have a factory-supplied wider trigger.) Accuracy is low, with 1-1/2″ to 2″ groups at 10 meters being common. Cocking is difficult, given the peculiar folded air path design, and getting the barrel to lock up the same way every shot is problematic.

So why is it that the gun still sells well today, even with so many more accurate, cheaper guns around? And more curiously, why is it that I- someone who repeats Warren Page’s contention that “the only interesting guns are accurate guns” like a mantra- why is it that I continue to keep this pistol, while having bought and sold scores of better air pistols over the past few decades?

I could say, like some, that its inaccuracy, clumsiness, and reverse recoil make it a good firerarms trainer for basement practice. Of course, as I haven’t done any firearm pistol shooting in ages, that would be a bit or a stretch. Or I might argue, as others do, that it’s a good gun to introduce new shooters to the sport, which would be an even bigger lie. It’s a dreadful gun for that.

The real attraction of the Tempest is precisely that it is such a difficult, fussy, and eccentric gun- in other words, and quintissentially English gun, brought to you by the makers of the Webley-Fosberry Automatic Revolver, and, for that matter, the same nation that gave us Monty Python, Cricket, and great eccentrics like Lord Rokeby, who endevored to spend his entire life floating in water. Every time I pick up my Tempest, I am reminded of Great Britain, and all her eccentricities, and her many charms. Long may she prosper.

Update: The Tempest was discontinued, owing to costs of production in the UK, but it was brought back as a gun manufactured by Hatsan in Turkey. Not quite the same same gun, but unless you can find a used one, the only way to get one today.