In this second part I’m going to take a look at the growth of big bore airguns, again from my personal observations, so it’s a history that is skewed to what I’ve seen. Having spent a lot of my life living around the globe, I found that the history I learned in school wasn’t quite the same as the history others were learning in Europe, S. America, Asia, Africa ……. in broad strokes it’s the same but the interpretation and importance of events differs. So be it with my history of big bore airguns!
For me it started when I was looking for a guinea fowl gun to take to South Africa about twelve years ago, and knew I wanted something more than the standard calibers I was working with, and was thinking about something that could shoot a .30 roundball. In doing my homework I came across references to the Lewis and Clark gun, and even older guns used for hunting and military purposes. That was interesting, but what was more important was that I came across the name of Dennis Quackenbush, which I talked about in last weeks post.
The first gun Dennis built for me was a .308, which was configured as a short rifle (20″ barrel).He’d been selling this gun for a couple years in small numbers, and mostly guys were using them as a sort of novelty, with hardly any discussion of them being used for hunting….. Except for one guy out in Texas by the name of Eric Henderson. I’d used my .308 for coyote, fox, and raccoon, but heard from Dennis that Eric was shooting hogs, rams, and other exotics. I had Dennis build me a .50 caliber with a longer barrel, and after a couple phone calls with Eric, jumped a plane and flew down to hunt with him.
At this time there were not too many places where you could hunt these guns, so Texas became ground zero for us. As a matter of fact most of the places where you could hunt with big bore airguns restricted them to high fence non-game animals. I took a lot of rams in Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma, with the .308 and .50 caliber guns from Quackenbush. This was not my favorite type of hunting, but it did let us get a lot of the initial experience with these guns on game.
The only other big bore guns I found during these early days were being built by Gary Barnes, and were the polar opposite of the practical hunting guns Dennis was building. They were very expensive, took a a very long time to build, and well quite honestly always seemed to me like the fantasy swords of the airgun world. I shot a couple of them, but was never inclined to take one hunting.
Then one day I got a call from the guys in Korea to say that they had built a rifle called the Dragonslayer in .50 caliber. They had the first gun to hit the USA shipped to me, and I took it out to hunt hogs. This gun was much lower power than the Quackenbush rifles I was shooting, but it was very accurate with roundball, and I managed to take deer, hogs, and later some smaller African antelopes as well as many predators with it. Having a production gun readily available was a game changer, because by this time Dennis was lining up buyers as fast as he could build guns and not everyone that wanted to hunt a big bore could get one. The second thing that happened was that it opened a market for big bore airgun tuners that could up the power on these production guns.
A few other guys with backgrounds as machinist started small scale production of bigbores. Joe Bontrager, Leroy Rodenaur, Jack Haley and a few others were turning out guns in limited number, but still the demand outpaced supply. Some of these guys didn’t stay in business long; Bontrager over extended himself and his business failed. To be honest, I liked Bontrager small bore guns but was not at all impressed with his .50. It was powerful enough at about 300 fpe, but it was inaccurate with every projectile I tried, had a terrible stock, and one of the worst triggers I’ve ever used. I never felt comfortable enough with this rifle to hunt with it. Leroy’s rifles are really well made, I used his little .457 short rifle to take a deer in Missouri a few years back and was quite impressed with it. Unfortunately for us (fortunate for him) his business in aeronautics took off and his time to manufacture guns vanished…. so if you have one of his guns, good on you and hang on to it! Jack was the guy that started turning out guns in numbers, and his design was really a slightly modified early generation Quackenbush knock off, but he built them solid, they were powerful and accurate and they did offer a viable alternative to waiting on a Quackenbush.
During this time Dennis had come out with his long action (LA) model guns, and the first three he built for Eric, Randy Mitchell, and I to bring to South Africa where we used them to take a lot of big game. Several tuners and modders have taken these guns and cranked up the power getting over 600 fpe and going to some very large calibers (.72), The American manufacturer Crosman entered the fray with a .357 called the Benjamin Rogue, which was accurate, powerful, but also very big, heavy, expensive, and the electronic action did not resonate with the market leading to it being discontinued within a couple years. But this gun was responsible for getting a lot of visibility for big bore airguns in the mainstream hunting media. My hunting buddy Randy had also started manufacturing a gun through his company Adventures in Airguns called the Corsair in .308, eventually adding a .357 to the line. These are sleek little guns, that can be very accurate and powerful, and many owners have added sleek stocks available from Richards MicroFit.
The Korean manufacturers; Sam Yang expanded their line of big bores to include .357, .457, and .50 calibers and Evanix came to market with a wide array of .357’s in the 100-135 fpe range. these guns were notable for a few reasons; they were moderately powerful and are well suited for predators and medium sized game, they are moderately priced, and readily available. However, without being tuned to generate higher energy output the Evanix guns are not well suited for larger quarry.
More recently the Europeans entered this niche segment with the .303, which is the smallest of the big bores that I prefer to call midbores. The Daystate Wolverine came out with FX fast on their heels with the companies Boss .303. These guns are in the 100 fpe energy range and are great predator guns that are very effective and practical for small game. as well.
Concurrent with the development of guns there has been rapid development of ammunition with Seth Rolands BHD, Robert Vogels Mr. Hollowpoint, Hunters supply, and H&N coming out with a wide range of airgun bullets. In addition JSB has come out with traditional Diabolo style pellets in .303 and .357. There are now pellets and bullets to meet just about any application from small to big game, in a multitude of calibers.
At the present time I know of three new big bores that are either completing the prototype phase or preparing to go into production, and expect that by the time the 2015 SHOT Show comes around we’ll have some new guns available.
I’m finishing this blog entry as I prepare go out for another day in Virginia hunting with my Quackenbush (converted to a muzzle loader), taking a nice whitetail on opening day of season. I’ve shot lots of mule deer, blacktail, and whitetail with firearms before switching to big bore airguns and they tend to be a bit hazy, but I clearly remember pulling the trigger on every one of my more than three dozen airgun harvested deer…… As more venues open up to hunt deer with big bore airguns, I think it becomes less likely I’ll use my fireams again!
NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, and just realized I never posted it. Sorry for the delay!