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The Clash of Arms

PUBLISHED: 10:01 21 August 2012

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I love my Air Arms S410. It's been my primary hunting gun for nearly 10 years and the performance and reliability have been so good that I've never considered changing it for any other model from the Air Arms range. It's true that I'd love to own a TDR (take down rifle) but I'd never take it down, so no benefit for me there. I love the Pro Sport's beautiful looks and handling, but truth be told, I'm a PCP boy. The ease of accuracy the recoilless action is just too much of a draw to take me back to a spring gun, and the extra skill that's required to get the best from one. The S410 carbine is clearly more compact and lighter than my gun, but offers slightly fewer shots per fill, which I felt was a disadvantage compared to my faithful old Classic length rifle. Even when the S510 models came along, I saw no need to change. What would one do for me that my old gun didn't?

Part of my rationale for sticking where I was came down to the fact that the core of all the S400/500 rifles is the same, with many common parts fitted throughout the range. Trigger, valves, barrels and the action block are pretty much the same across the models, as is the most important feature of any airgun I plan to own, which is accuracy.

I don’t say this lightly, as it’s possible that some readers might have had a different experience, but I’ve never seen an inaccurate Air Arms gun - not one. Straight from the box, I’ve seen these guns shoot as accurately as highly-tuned competition guns, which is really saying something. Simply fill one to the correct air pressure, open a tin of Air Arms Fields, load up and fire, and there’s a better-than-average chance that pellet will land exactly where the sights were pointed. This, I believe, is because Air Arms is an engineering company as well as a gunmaker. Their machining capability and quality control are first class and quite possibly the best in the industry, even compared to the Germans’ famously high standards. Nothing is left to chance; every single component is rigorously checked and checked again, with each and every gun being shot for accuracy, consistency and power before it passes through the factory door on its way to your gunshop.

So knowing all this, you might be wondering why I came to be testing an S510 Carbine, if in terms of performance on paper it’ll give near identical performance to my prized S410. Well, the truth is that there was one in the office and I picked it up. Really, it was as simple as that, and what struck me was just how different it felt to my own gun. The shorter length and weight saving were immediately noticeable as of course, was the thumbhole stock.

I’m not normally a fan of thumbholes, but this one felt great. It was wearing the new Nikon Prostaff 3-9 x 40 scope which is also light and I feel this helped my decision making. It’s exactly the right fit for the S510, so that’s how I took it to the field. The scope has a relatively slim design which allowed it to be fitted in medium-height Sportsmatch mounts which easily cleared the top of the raised magazine. This is always a consideration when fitting scopes to a PCP and I try to use the lowest mounts I can, to prevent the scope being lifted unnecessarily. This set-up gave a good solid weld between my face and the comb of the stock which is something many people overlook. With proper contact, you’ll be more comfortable and mount the rifle more consistently, which in turn aids accuracy.

Let’s look at the build so that I can describe some of the many features that make these guns so successful. On that subject, somewhere in excess of 70,000 rifles in the S400/S500 family have been made, which is a stunning number. This just shows that the key design features were right from the start, allowing all the variants to grow from the basic models all those years ago.

Starting at the muzzle you find a screw-in thread cap which can be removed if you choose to fit the optional silencer. This is highly effective and reduces the already modest muzzle crack to near silent, but of course adds length and weight.

Behind this we find the full-length shroud which contains a 100mm section of synthetic sound-deadening baffles. Now, these cannot be as effective as a full-length silencer, but they do an impressive job of cutting noise and I for one, wouldn’t spoil the handling of this fine gun to save that much noise. Right at the back of the shroud you find radially drilled holes that allow high-pressure muzzle blast that has been deflected and redirected to escape. The air that comes through has lost its energy and therefore its ability to make noise.

Below the barrel we find the air reservoir that, when charged to 190 bar, holds enough air to give this handy little rifle well over 90 shots in .22 calibre. Yes, you did read that right 90-plus. You might remember when the S510 first came on to the market that it produced considerably fewer shots than this and the reason the current model does better, is that Air Arms chose to fit a longer reservoir about two years ago.

The difference in handling was almost unnoticeable and the increase in shot count was welcomed by everybody, so the change was considered a complete success. It did change the look of the rifle a bit, but not in a negative way to my eyes.

Behind the shroud is the action block which received some updates in external machining at the same time as the Super-Lite models, adding aesthetic appeal to the otherwise plain surfaces. In a transversely cut channel we find the time proven 10-shot rotary magazine. These are an exercise in simplicity and reliability. They have few moving parts and need no special technique to load. You simply drop a pellet into the empty chamber and then rotate the aluminium pellet carrier around to the next indexed position and drop in another pellet and so on until the mag’ is full. I can even do this is the dark with .177 pellets, it’s so easy.

The biggest difference between my gun and the S510 is the side-lever cocking, which caused a huge amount of interest when it first came to the market. In fact it attracted so much attention, that other manufacturers soon brought side-levers into their own ranges. Perhaps you’d expect this of me, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, and say that I have no strong feelings one way or another when it comes time to choose between a side-lever, and a conventional bolt action. They work equally well; both systems are strong and reliable and I find each as easy to operate. I’m just as happy with either.

The trigger is the latest multi-sear unit that’s fully adjustable to suit the individual’s taste and the one fitted to the test gun was spot-on for me. The weight was set at 2½ lbs and broke as cleanly as you could ever wish. The blade is coloured gold while the cross-bolt safety is left in white for contrast. Although the safety is simple, it’s effective and also discreet.

In the belly of the stock just in front of the trigger guard is the pressure gauge, which is something I feel every serious pre-charged pneumatic should have. It takes just seconds to see the reservoir’s status and despite the high shots-per-fill capacity of this rifle, I still like to know just where I am in terms of shots left.

The stock itself, like all Air Arms stocks is, carefully designed and slim, with no odd lumps and bumps. The fore end sits easily in the cup of your leading hand, ensuring that you have a confident and secure grip at all times. The cheekpiece is set nice and high, exactly as it should be on a gun that will only ever be shot with a scope. Why so many manufacturers don’t understand this is a total mystery to me. At the back, the thumbhole versions have an adjustable butt pad which is highly popular with competition shooters, but is something I leave just as it comes. If you only ever shot from one position you could optimise its position, but hunting to me means that I’ll take any shot, at any angle, from any position when the quarry presents itself. It’s for this reason that I leave the pad in the neutral position. Air Arms stocks are, in my opinion, some of the very best available exactly because they’re so versatile.

The walnut on the test gun had some very attractive tiger stripes running through it and was a pleasant mid-brown oiled finish. The chequering however was something of a work of art. This work is done by lasers these days, which allow skip-line patterns, a fleur-de-lys, to be added, by the skill of a computer operator, rather than by a man with a metal tool.

So that describes the gun, but what I really want to tell you about is how it felt and how it worked. As mentioned, I was surprised at just how different it felt to my S410 and this effect was all the more noticeable in the field. I spent some time practising with it to gain the confidence that it was properly zeroed with the batch of .177 Air Arms Fields I was using. The quality and consistency of these pellets never ceases to amaze me, and much of their superb accuracy, I’m sure, can be attributed to these qualities. Accuracy was stunning, as expected, allowing me to produce tiny groups at long range, time and again. Through the chronograph the consistency was first class, varying no more than 8fps through a 50-shot string. The power was set to 11.2ft.lbs. at the factory and was still exactly that during my test.

With my standard tests completed, I set off for my favourite kind of hunting trip, which is what I call mooching; slowly and quietly ambling around the hot-spots, to see if something tasty can be found. I find this the most relaxing and absorbing form of hunting I know. All I need is some time and a bit of decent weather, which was exactly what I had. Any hunting gun I own will have a sling fitted on day one, but as this gun belongs to Air Arms, not me, I couldn’t fit one, which meant carrying the gun all afternoon. This is where the light weight was most noticeable, because a heavy gun tires your arms unless you let the sling do the work, and tired arms equal shaky muscles and poor accuracy.

The short overall length was appreciated while ducking under low branches and trying to move stealthily through dense woodland. Eventually, I came to a spot I hoped would offer a rabbit and tip-toeing up to the gate I spotted a three-quarters grown one sitting way out in a field of rough grass. My rangefinder told me that it was at 35 yards, a long shot, especially with an unfamiliar rifle. I crept along to use a low rail as a rest and settled down to let my heart rate slow after all the exertions of the stalk. I was deep in shadow and the rabbit had no idea I was there, so there was no need to rush. When I felt steady, I slipped the safety off and rested the rifle on the thick trunk, pleased to see just what a solid platform it gave. I saw the pellet strike home exactly as planned and allowed myself a silent grin as I cycled the side-lever in the hope that an unseen rabbit might show itself.

With none showing, I walked forward to collect my prize. I’d listened carefully to see how much difference the additional muzzle noise made and, to be honest, I’d have to say ‘not much’, because as I picked up my quarry I was tempted to walk around the headland for a look. Sure enough, not 50 yards away was another rabbit sunning itself, just like the first. I’d like to describe a successful stalk but that would be a lie. It saw me as I crawled in and bolted. The day’s mooch bagged three rabbits, a squirrel and an unlucky pigeon that only saw me after the pellet had left the muzzle.

This is a truly delightful gun to hunt with, offering outstanding handling, a fine trigger, excellent accuracy and complete reliability. I wish I hadn’t picked it up now, because I really love this rifle and after all this time I’m thinking very seriously about changing my beloved S410. n

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