Gun test: BSA Ultra XL
09:36 10 February 2017
Phill Price asks: was making one of my favourite little guns bigger the right thing to do?
A short while ago, I did one of my favourite things – dream up and build a new rifle for a specific job. I needed a rifle to keep rat numbers down at the farm, and I picked to build it around BSA’s classic Ultra pre-charged pneumatic. It worked a treat, especially the short length and lightweight, which were ideal. So I was a little surprised to find out that BSA were offering a bigger version, the XL.
The first and most obvious change is the all-new stock. It will be a Marmite choice in terms of looks, but it cannot be denied it’s a technological advancement over the old models. I’m going to make a sweeping statement now – adjustable height cheek pieces will become the norm on all high-performance airguns, and anybody not offering them will be in trouble.
The Ultra XL uses a moulded synthetic comb (cheek piece) that sits on two steel rods. These are clamped inside the wooden stock with a hex-drive bolt, making adjustments quick and easy.
Being able to get the perfect position for your own height and build is a huge improvement, and a tangible aid to consistency and accuracy. You have to try one to appreciate what a huge difference they make. On top of this, they make another firm contact point with your face, giving support to your face and the rifle. All competition air rifles offer this feature, and it’s time sporting guns did too.
Next, we come to the elongated air reservoir tube, which holds more air than the old one, and a newly designed and more efficient valving system. The result is a great many more shots every time you fill her up. The .22 has gone from 50 to 80 shots. Of course, you can get more from buddy bottle guns, but I much prefer the handling of a rifle with a conventional, slim, tube-type reservoir. The longer reservoir requires the use of a longer barrel, which adds to the weight forward balance and make this rifle considerably more stable on aim than the old Ultra.
Air-filling is done with a probe and port layout at the front of the reservoir. I was pleased to see that this is fully protected by a rotary collar, borrowed from the Gold Star competition rifle. Keeping dirt and dust out of the guts of any pre-charged pneumatic is vital, and this system will do that perfectly. In front of this is the pressure gauge so you can see in a moment how much air is remaining.
Further forward again, the test gun came fitted with BSA’s well-proven VC silencer, which I know from experience works well and can take a few knocks without harm. The rifle is fitted with a ‘pepper-pot’-style muzzle brake as standard, but I’m sure every hunter will fit a silencer to the 1/2” UNF thread cut into the hammer-forged barrel.
The adjustable trigger wears a simple, curved metal blade inside an unusual, constantly curved trigger guard. The pistol grip of the stock is far more steeply curved than the old model and quite slender in build, delivering my trigger finger to the ideal place on the blade.
The action of the XL is completely different to the old model, incorporating a rationalised and simplified construction that uses fewer parts, meaning there’s less chance of a seal leak. It also eliminates the sliding catch that used to hold the magazine in place. This is now held by a strong magnet that you can feel pulling the mag’ into the action as you insert it. It means one less process needed when reloading.
The mags themselves are used across the BSA range and. having used them extensively, I know them to be completely reliable and durable. The rotating internal drum is moulded from a self-lubricating synthetic material, colour coded by calibre - blue for .177 and red for .22, plus black for .25. There’s a small hole in the steel plate facing the shooter and when you reach your last shot, a white mark shows in it, warning you to reload.
After decades of moaning about the BSA safety catch, the one on the Ultra XL has moved to the correct side for 80 percent of us, i.e. on the right-hand side. There is another welcome improvement in that it’s now completely silent in use - harsh metallic clicks ring through a forest, warning quarry of danger.
A huge advantage BSA has over many pre-charged pneumatic rifle manufacturers is that their magazines sit low in the action, so there is no cut-out in the scope rail and you can use any type of mount you choose in any position. You’re able to mount the scope low to the barrel, which has a beneficial effect on the trajectory of a hunting gun and a reduced need for hold-over on a short range. By reducing any top-heavy feelings, it benefits handling.
To begin my test, I ran my .177 example over my trusty SKAN chrono’ with the Air Arms Field Diablo pellets, weighing 8.4 grains in that calibre. I’d filled the reservoir to 232 bar, or as close as I could. I’m used to these magazines so loading them is second nature. Average velocity over 50 rounds was 773fps for a muzzle energy of 11.2ft.lbs.
Next, I zeroed the XL and set about shooting some groups to get a feel for the trigger and balance. I was planning a feral pigeon outing in a friend’s barn that evening so I wanted to settle everything down and get a feel for the rifle. Unsurprisingly, from a hammer-forged BSA barrel, the accuracy was superb. I found the second stage of the trigger rather long, so I adjusted it to suit my taste.
In the shoulder, the stock feels slender in the pistol grip and against your face, whilst the fore end feels full and rounded. With the silencer fitted the balance is quite well forward, which goes some way to explain the steady feeling on aim that I particularly liked
I was surprised to find that this particular BSA didn’t like the universally popular Air Arms Field pellet, so I went to my collection and took a selection of the most accurate round heads and headed back to the test bench. What the Ultra XL wanted was the RWS Super Dome, a pellet that’s been around forever and was my top choice for years when I shot Weihrauch springers. Several clean 1/2” groups at 30 yards told me everything I needed to know about the rifle’s accuracy potential.
Happy that the accuracy was first-class and that my zero was spot on, I set off with my shooting buddy. The feral pigeons poop day and night and everything, made worse by the knowledge that it carries some disgusting diseases. Welly boots and disposable gloves were the order of the day. With the Ultra XL topped up to 232 bar and the mag’ filled, we set off into the yard. My pal was holding a low-powered red torch that I hoped would give enough light to let me target the birds without scaring them off into the night sky.
We crept in slowly, not using the light for fear of blowing the whole game. Once inside, Russ swept each beam, one at a time, and I hissed a stop each time I saw a bird I felt confident to take. One by one the bag grew until we were searching for any more quarry. It was a great night, we’d accounted for 25 birds and made a huge dent in the breeding population of the farm’s vermin.
With all the clearing up done, I sat on a straw bale and thought through the rifle’s performance. Sure, it’s heavier and longer than the old Ultra I’d been so successful with recently, but I felt the extra mass and length had helped me to take the head shots I insist on for feral pigeons. I’d gained my confidence with the rifle, despite its modest place in the BSA pre-charged hierarchy.
The ‘Made in Birmingham, England’ tag is, without doubt, a guarantee of high-class performance and superb engineering, no matter which end of the product range you choose to buy from.
These rifles are flying out of the gun shop doors, and I’m not surprised. You get English gun-making skills, a reliable PCP action, a very modest price and the performance you’d expect from this prestigious brand. Looks like BSA has done it again.
Manufacturer: BSA Guns
Model: Ultra XL
Type: Pre-charged pneumatic
Action: 10-shot bolt action
Trigger: Two-stage adjustable
Weight: 8lbs with silencer and mag’
Length: 40 1/2”
Fill pressure: 232bar
Shots per fill: 60in .177, 80in .22
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