Thursday, July 12, 2012
Daren Godfrey is not only the head man at Theoben Engineering, he’s a super-serious hunter. His gun safe contains shotguns, rimfires and a range of high-power rifles for deer stalking, but when it’s time to go rabbit shooting, which air rifle does he take? I figured that he could have any Theoben model, in any calibre with whichever stock he liked. So when I saw him at the IWA Shooting show in Germany I asked that very question and he offered to make an exact copy that we could borrow to test. The rifle you see is the all-time classic Rapid action with an MFR (multi-function rifle) regulator inside, which runs at around 130bar (I don’t know exactly because it’s a trade secret). In front of that is a slim 280cc bottle which allows you to use the MFR-style stock that partially covers the bottle, meaning that your leading hand is in contact with wood, not cold metal on a frosty night.
This combination provides a highly impressive 220 shots-per-fill in .22 calibre, which should be plenty for anybody’s needs. Half a tin of pellets per fill will last many hunters months at a time, if you shoot half a dozen rabbits a week, plus a few more shots to check your zero. The regulator also flattens out the velocity curve that non-regulated pre-charged guns can suffer from, which in turn aids accuracy, and when all is said and done, accuracy is everything. Over my trusty Skan chronograph, shot-to-shot consistency was 8 fps over a 30 shot string with Air Arms Field pellets, which is truly first class.
The pistol grip is a thumbhole design that has the option to shoot ‘thumb-up’, as so many of us do these days. The grip is quite skinny, but when you have your thumb up, you tend not to notice it. I’ve seen this on a number of rifles recently, and I suspect it’s all part of the fashion of making every gun ambidextrous, rather that than dedicated right or left-hand models. The cheekpieces are ambidextrous to. There are chequering panels on the pistol grip and none on the fore end, but for most of its length it’s pleasingly slim, allowing a good grip when handling the rifle. Toward the front, it bulges to surround the buddy bottle and then finishes in a Schnable tip. The area where it expands sits precisely where my leading hand wants to be and adds an unusual, but welcome support. Along the belly of the rifle the Theoben logo has been laser cut, which is a nice touch.
The stock has every modern feature you could hope for, including an adjustable height cheekpiece to ensure that your eye is perfectly aligned with the scope, and a height adjustable butt pad, to help you get comfortable. A single Allen key unlocks the cheekpiece, which when removed, exposes two further screws that allow the comb to be moved horizontally as well. This further allows you to customise the fit and within a few minutes, I was able to get a perfect set-up for my needs. I personally believe that this feature is hugely undervalued by the airgun industry and has a much bigger influence on proper fit than an adjustable butt pad, but the latter is cheaper and easier to fit, so is more common. Having your cheek correctly supported aids consistency and reduces the harmful effects of parallax error too. Most importantly, it makes the rifle more comfortable by reducing the strain on your neck when trying to hover over the stock to see through the scope.
The better the rifle fits, the more relaxed you are and the better you’ll shoot. This is especially true when you need to fire lots of shots, and Daren loves summertime rabbit shooting when the population of conies explodes on his friends’ farms. He takes his beloved (and battered) Landrover and travels miles, culling large numbers of rabbits in a night, so compact dimensions are a bonus. For this reason he chose to build the rifle with a 14” barrel, making it more manoeuvrable in tight spaces, something that would also work well shooting from a hide. Short barrels have a drawback, though, especially on a PCP rifle, and that is the extra noise they make. A long barrel allows the air pressure behind the pellet to reduce before the pellet exits the muzzle, but on a short barrel it’s still very high, with the consequent crack that goes with it. To solve this problem, Daren fitted one of their ultra-quiet Long Series silencers, which as the name suggests is a lengthy unit. The reason for the extra length is simple; a longer silencer (moderator) has a greater internal volume, which can absorb and decelerate the high pressure air, muting the noise to almost nothing. It really is a masterpiece of engineering and when threaded onto the screwcut barrel, you can be certain of perfect alignment. Like everything made at Theoben, it’s not a lightweight, fragile thing, rather a solid piece of real-world engineering that can take the inevitable knocks in the field without failing. Who among us hasn’t whacked their rifle against the window frame of a vehicle when out rabbiting? I’ve been guilty of that mistake plenty of times, I can assure you.
The rifle uses the latest Theoben trigger assembly called the MK4, which is held in a tough, rigid metal frame that can be removed by simply drifting two steel dowels through the action. Again, this is a robust piece of engineering, with no flimsy or delicate parts to fail. It’s also highly adjustable, allowing a huge range of pull weights, from super-light for target shooting, up to sensibly heavy settings for field work, all with full sear overlap for safety. The manual safety has a metal tab to operate it which sits directly in front of the trigger blade, a feature I appreciate and value. In this position, you can feel without looking, to know if the safety is on or off. It’s also ambidextrous. Like this, it can be left engaged until literally the very last second before a shot and then removed. By moving it gently, it’s totally silent, again, something I value in a hunting gun. There’s no traditional metal trigger guard with the MFR stock, as the woodwork encloses the area.
The barrels are made by German giants Lothar Walther who supply them to Theoben as rifled tubes, ‘in the white’, which means the external surfaces are unfinished. Theoben then grinds the surface to tight tolerances, both for good looks and to ensure a precise fit into the action. The breech is machined and then the all-important muzzle is crowned to perfection, because this area is vital if you want any hope of making an accurate rifle. Theoben also applies the choke to their own dimension, because this allows them full control. Years of experience has taught them just how much to use, depending on the calibre and the power at which the action is set. The final step is chemical blacking to give that lustrous deep finish that they’ve become justly famous for. It’s good enough for an English shotgun, which is a comparison I’ve heard many times.
Filling is accomplished by removing the bottle in the traditional way, although Theoben’s quick-fill fitting can be specified as an optional extra. This would be my choice as it’s far more convenient and has the secondary benefit of a pressure gauge; I would be prepared to pay the extra.
An area where Theoben has always been strong is in their rotary magazines which have among the highest capacity in their class. The .22 supplied with this rifle holds 12 pellets, two more than is common. They need a little bit of practice to get the knack of filling one, but once you’ve got it they’re quite easy to use. They also stop the bolt from closing when they’re empty, which saves you from pulling the trigger on an empty chamber, something I’ve done far too many times in the past. Many rifles will cycle on and on when empty, and I’ve been left scratching my head when what appeared to be a perfect shot had no effect on my quarry. You’ll never suffer that problem with a Theoben.
The big mags’ do have one drawback; they sit quite high above the action so you need to choose your scope mounts to allow for this. However, once you know what you need, Theoben offers a huge range of options for their dedicated rings. These bolt directly to the action block and are ultra-reliable. You can choose from 1” low, right up to 34mm high, so every need is catered for.
High Power Precision
The final personal set-up that Daren chooses is to run his personal .22 calibre Rapid at 25 ft.lbs. which gives a nice flat trajectory and plenty of punch. Most of his shots at rabbits are from a rested position in the Landrover, and when shooting over the flat Cambridgeshire countryside, the extra range that the high-power rifle provides can be very useful. He has an identical rifle set-up at 12 ft.lbs. for rat and feral pigeon work. This means that he’s immediately comfortable swapping from one to the other, only needing to recalculate trajectory figures.
There’s no escaping the fact that this is an expensive gun, but you must remember that it’s made in England, by craftsmen with a huge amount of experience. This isn’t a mass-produced product, built on cheap labour, favouring speed of production over quality. The fit and finish are only equalled by the rifle’s performance, and the durability of these guns is legendary. I asked Daren if this was going to be a stock model in their catalogue, which made him laugh. “We haven’t had stock sitting on the shelf for decades,” he said. Their order books are always full, with more coming in from around the world on a daily basis and every rifle built goes straight out the door.
Having spent a few productive evenings shooting rabbits with this rifle, I can fully understand Daren’s choices. The handling is better than any Theoben I’ve tried before, and the trigger and accuracy are everything I’d expect from this premium brand. Shortening the barrel does indeed make it handier, which I like in a hunting gun. Of course, this configuration won’t be everybody’s dream Theoben, but as ever, you can talk to the factory who can often take your specification and build it just as you’d like. So when you’re ready to buy a new rifle, why not sit down with a sheet of paper, and list your personal feature hit list. Imagine every detail being just as you want it and ask Theoben if they can build your ultimate hunting rifle. n