Air Arms - The Big Test
PUBLISHED: 12:52 10 October 2014 | UPDATED: 16:01 04 November 2014
Do the new Air Arms FTP900 and Ultimate Sporter rifles take in-the-field-accuracy to the next level? The editor finds out
I’ve been a passionate Air Arms fan for a very long time now, for many reasons. Firstly, I simply like the guns they make and I’ve used an S410 as the mainstay of my hunting arsenal for over a decade. Usually, their products aren’t flashy, but rather practical pieces of sound engineering. A criticism that has been levelled at the company over the years is that they seldom bring out any new models, but this year they’ve answered that one. They released not one, but two new guns: the competition FTP900 and the Ultimate Sporter, seen here. As much as I love the FTP, I’m not a competition shooter, so the Ultimate is much more my cup of tea.
Despite its radical new looks, inside beats the heart of the wildly successful and time proven S400 series action. The rifle is based on the S510 from that family of guns, bringing with it the fashionable side lever cocking. Whether it’s better than a bolt action I don’t know, and I’m equally happy with either, but to be up to date, side levers are the thing to have. The action itself is the same mechanically as any other S510, and proven beyond question to offer all the power, consistency and reliability we could ever want or need.
It’s as you progress forward from the action that the interesting stuff starts. Firstly, you’ll notice the shrouded barrel that adds to the rifle’s good looks, closing the gap between the reservoir and the barrel. At the muzzle you’ll find Air Arms’ brand new silencer which has been a long time in development and is something they’re rightly proud of. Their old silencer was already good. In our sister magazine, Airgun World, Phill Price did a serious test of all the major players with a calibrated decibel meter and the old Air Arms mod’ came second to the universally praised Weihrauch one. Well, the new Air Arms silencer is seven decibels quieter than that, so I think we have a new leader in the noise reduction race. To the ear, it’s not only very quiet but has a slightly unusual tone, unlike any other moderator I’ve heard. A remarkable feature it offers is that they’re calibre specific to take the performance to the ultimate extreme. The barrel and shroud are carbine length making the rifle handy in tight spaces like a hide.
Perhaps it’s underselling the rifle to say that extreme accuracy and reliability can be taken for granted, but for me it’s the stock that really makes the rifle. I, like many other serious shooters, realised some time ago that the limiting factor in airgun accuracy was the shooter, not the rifle/scope/pellet combination. Modern pre-charged pneumatics are capable of accuracy our parents couldn’t have dreamed of, and it’s fair to say that today if you miss your target, it was your error, not the equipment. So the quest to take the next step came to looking at the interface between ultra-accurate rifles and the human that steers them. When you dip into the competition shooting world you quickly find that stock fit has been an area of huge research and development that has evolved any number of clever adaptations to the standard stock, but unfortunately many of these are so extreme that they’re impractical for a sporting rifle. However, two stand out, which are the height adjustable butt pad and the adjustable cheekpiece. These can be incorporated into a manageable sporting stock, offering tangible benefits without becoming too heavy or unwieldy to take into the field.
With this in mind, the designers at Air Arms thought about how to maximise the benefits of adjustability whilst still keeping the stock practical. At the same time they were developing the Formula One FTP 900 competition gun, so some cross-pollination occurred. The butt pad was kept quite simple, offering a wide range of vertical adjustment so that it could be optimised for every position, from the tallest man taking a standing shot, to the lowest prone position. This range of adjustment should be more than enough to keep everybody happy. Under the butt pad is a spacer that’s 4mm thick that allows a subtle adjustment in pull length, but don’t underestimate it. Even small changes have a powerful effect so are to be welcomed. More spacers and longer screws are available for those looking to extend the pull length in a kit that costs just £15.49.
Straight down the middle
The icing on the cake, for me at least, is the adjustable cheekpiece. In its simplest terms it allows you to get your eye in line with the central axis of the scope with proper support for your cheekbone, but that explanation undersells its sophistication. It moves up and down, left to right and cants side to side as well. I defy anybody to fail to get perfect support for their cheek, to guarantee that they look straight through the centre of the scope every time they mount their rifle. Apart from the comfort and support issues this addresses, we need to remember that consistency is the key to accuracy and the better a stock fits you the more consistent you’ll be.
These lessons learned from the competition scene were seamlessly incorporated with the classic S510 sporting action taking the combination to the next level of airgun accuracy in the field. While they were at it they made the decision to use laminated wood, known for its strength and stability. The stock is engineered as much as shaped, accepting the metal mechanisms to accommodate the movable parts. Laminated wood is nearly as much adhesive as timber, so unsurprisingly is more dense and therefore considerably heavier. Along with this fact, the Ultimate Sporter’s stock is somewhat more bulky than the S510’s usual sporter stock, so a weight increase is inevitable. This is in keeping with competition thinking because it’s a fact that heavier guns are more stable on aim.
After a few minutes tinkering with some Allen keys I was soon comfortable with the stock fit, so I set about testing. The Air Arms Field pellet is my standard test ammo for any gun and this time it was the one the gun was developed around, so I was totally confident it would be the perfect partner. On checking the pressure gauge, I was a little shocked. At first glance I thought that the indicator needle had fallen off until I realised that the gauge had a brand new face that uses colour rather than numbers to show you the reservoir’s condition: green for good red for ‘fill me up’. It’s a clean and elegant solution.
Filling is the same as with any current Air Arms product and I soon had the 190 bar charge in place. The magazine is again an Air Arms staple but with a stylish and welcome upgrade. The translucent cover is now a smoky grey rather than the standard yellow, something I vastly prefer. Its subtle colour blends in with the action very smartly yet allows us to see the pellets in their chambers at a glance.
Accuracy was, to say the least, excellent largely helped by the fully adjustable two-stage trigger. This has always been a fine unit allowing complete control of the shot’s release. The one on my test rifle was set lighter than I’m used to but that caused me no problem. The pistol grip is swept back further than I was expecting for a semi-competition rifle and the reach to the trigger blade will suit bigger hands more comfortably. If you have small hand you’ll definitely want to test shoot the rifle before committing. I was a little surprised to find that the stock was ambidextrous because any ambi’ stock has to accept compromises such as the lack of palm swell. A stock that’s ‘handed’ ie dedicated to either right- or left-handed use, can be more specifically tailored to the trigger hand to maximise support.
The laminate the stock is made from has a very pleasing palette of colours being a light brown, a medium brown, and a smoky grey that blend to give a look that appears high-tech and sporting all at once. It also sports a matte finish which feels contemporary. The adjuster screws are neatly placed and do nothing to detract from the rifle’s good looks. Under the square section fore end, Air Arms decided to add an accessory track. Their thinking was that many people like to add lasers and torches to their rifles and this would offer bolt-on fitting options. I was very happy to see that the rifle is supplied with sling swivel studs at standard. Weighing in at 9.5 lbs with a Hawke Airmax 4-16 x 50, I was very relieved to be able to hang it on my shoulder on longer walks.
It’s obvious that this rifle will appeal to hunter field target (HFT) competitors and these days almost every one of them uses a hamster. This is a block that sits in front of the trigger guard adding depth to the stock to support standing shots. I’m sure it won’t be long before somebody offers one that fits the accessory track which would be an easy fit and offer fore and aft adjustment in the process.
I’ve heard a few comments from people who thought the rifle should have had a regulator fitted, like competition guns do, but I disagree. There are a number of reasons for keeping the rifle simple. First is cost. Regulators are ultra-precise devices and expensive to manufacture. Secondly, they can suffer what’s known as ‘reg’ creep’ which happens when they’re left for long periods. Their internal pressure can go up slightly higher than optimum causing the shot velocity to change. This is why you’ll see many FT shooters fire their unloaded rifle down range before loading up for their competition shot. This ensures the reg’ is at the correct pressure. This is all well and good for competition but useless for hunters. We load our guns and then carry them until our quarry is spotted, which could be five minutes or three hours and it’s we have only one shot, one chance to make a kill.
Any non-regulated PCP will have a power curve, which is the change in velocity caused by the pressure condition in the reservoir. When it’s at its highest the spring that opens the firing valve struggles to open it fully so a little less air is released. As the pressure drops the valve opens normally and velocity increases and finally, when the reservoir pressure gets to the bottom of its working range, velocity reduces again. Air Arms has engineered their action to minimise this effect and during my test this variation was just over 22 fps across 50 shots. So what does 22 fps mean to our shots at long range? In reality almost nothing. If you’re zeroed at 35 yards the highest velocity shot would land 1.22” low while the lowest velocity shot would strike 1.38” low. 0.16” from best to worst is clearly not even worth thinking about.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this, the latest evolution of the S400 family of rifles, is a significant step forward in allowing us to extract their full accuracy potential. Getting your gun properly fitted to your individual physique brings rifle and shooter into closer harmony encouraging consistency, which is always a good thing. I can see HFT competitors loving them and serious hunters buying them to improve their hit rate on the trickiest shots. Beyond this its good looks, innovative engineering and proven track record will seal the deal and I’m completely unsurprised that Air Arms is selling them as fast as they can build them. n