Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Final Thoughts on CO2 Air Pistols for Training and Recreation - Not Reccommended

KWC Blackwater 1911 CO2 .177 steel BB gun
Nearly one year ago to the day I wrote my first post on the subject titled, Airguns as Viable Recreational or Training Trigger Time Alternatives?
In the time since then I've done a fair amount of shooting and fiddling, writing more blog posts, and sending them in for replacement. There are 4 other posts on the subject which sort of follow along with my testing.
Part 2
More Testing
The Sig X-Five
Sig X-Five Return

The original post has continued to be one of my most viewed posts all throughout the year and I have finally run both guns enough to find their failures in that time. To get new readers caught up, we're dealing with the Cyber Gun or KWC 1911 and the Sig X-Five, CO2 powered airguns in .177. The concept behind this whole project was to see if these guns could go beyond backyard plinking and overlap into competitive or action shooting and even firearms training. You will recall from the very first post that I asked a simple question at the beginning - will these guns make that overlap? The answers were no, no and yes mostly. Pictured in that post are an Umarex PX4 .177 and the G&G Xtreme 45 airsoft pistol, along with the Blackwater 1911. My answer has changed since then to a firm no on all accounts. I had built a list of requirements which airguns needed to meet in order to be considered for real trigger time.
-External accuracy to the firearm equivalent.
-External controls identical to the firearm equivalent.
-Magazine dimensions as close to identical as possible.
-Blowback (last round hold open firstly AND some kind of inertia which moves the gun and forces user to realign sights, however minimal)
-Weight similar to that of a firearm.
-Wouldn't hurt if it was at least relatively well made.
-I prefer steel BBs.

There is one requirement I got wrong; relatively well made. It's vital and should be requirement number one, that we get our money's worth from these products. And I don't think it is possible to do that with these guns. I think one glaring factor that I overlooked when starting this project was the cost relative to .22 caliber firearm equivalents. I did compare the cost, and with steel BBs, it is still lower. But I recently spent $15.00 on 500 .177 RWS pellets, and a 550 round brick of .22LR USED to be about the same price. Now let's pretend someone designed and manufactured an air pistol that didn't suck and ran pellets rather than BBs. Chances are, the price would come up to .22 levels in both ammunition and gun pricing. That said, .22 ammunition is difficult to even find and the price is unstable at this time. Furthermore, I was seeing .22 pistols priced much higher than they're worth recently.

So let's talk about what needs to happen for this to work before I get to strictly bashing the KWC/Cyber Gun products. First on the list should have been; quality product. These guns are poorly designed and they will always fail because of the design weaknesses. That's unacceptable. As long as these guns stayed under .22 firearm and ammo prices, while offering significantly more variety (brands, makes, models), then I think consumers would be willing to spend another $50 or even $100 on an air pistol that lasts.

*External accuracy to the firearm replicated. This means the airgun needs to feel like the firearm. It does not have to be absolutely identical down to the last detail. It needs to feel the same and it would be nice if it fit in the same holster. This is not to say that a completely fictional gun would be unacceptable. 

*Identical external controls. This is an area where things have to be right. Slide release, safeties, mag release - all the controls have to be identical in order for there to be any training value. It would be nice if the trigger was the same but I can accept that this is probably an unrealistic expectation. With that said, the triggers on these airguns were perfectly acceptable so accuracy in this department isn't necessarily out of the question. I want to also point out that I am specifically talking about external controls. Internally and functionally, I would much rather have a quality, functioning airgun that doesn't sacrifice performance for realism. These guns function very similarly to their firearm counterparts and I think often this carries a performance penalty.

*Magazine dimensions. They have to be very similar. Reloads are an obvious training benefit that ariguns could provide especially when packaged with other benefits. Mag carrier compatibility here is likely another unrealistic expectation. Furthermore, much of the function of the airgun is really in the magazine. Again, I'd rather have a good airgun over an accurate replica in this department. The magazines are expensive and I had some minor leaking issues with mine. They should be user serviceable, and internally and functionally universal. They should also design all of them with a shock absorbing base pad.

*Blowback. Firstly, it's fun, let's face it. We're looking for recreation and action shooting here. More importantly this feature provides last round hold open which facilitates reload practice.

*Weight and steel BBs. The weight is not vital but it's important that you're training your body to move an object that weights about what a pistol weighs. Relatively speaking, there is a fair spread in weights from something like a Glock to an all steel 1911. If I could, I'd own 20 guns, probably across the weight gamut, so weight only needs to be about "like a gun". Running steel BBs is also a flexible requirement. Less surface area, more density, better outdoor performance than other options. You might be thinking this is pretty important if it's not important, because there are about a thousand airsoft guns and some of them might just be pretty good. Yeah maybe, and I might give that a shot one day. In a perfect world I would move up from steel BBs to lead pellets, stacked in the magazine just like firearm cartridges. Moreover the important factor here is that BBs and CO2 are readily available and very inexpensive.

Slide release in up and down positions.
So how did these guns fair on the requirements list? First and foremost they are poorly designed and both failed prematurely. Externally they are both very good replicas, though most likely they sacrifice air gun performance for realism. They both fail on external controls. The controls are correct, and feel right, they just don't work. The 1911 will not disengage the slide lock using a slingshot reload technique. The reason for this is a simple design flaw where the notch in the slide does not bump the slide catch when the slide is pulled fully to the rear - the notch is simply located in the wrong place. The Sig fails in the same category because slide lock is not consistent. Furthermore the slide catch is able to remain up by friction which causes it not to drop with gravity, so sling shot reloads are hit and miss. The 1911 magazines have no base pad, but overall the magazines are ok.

The fatal flaw in the KWC Sig X-Five is the method used to secure the mechanism which controls the CO2 delivery. It's retained by two screws (green arrow). These screws have coarse threads, are poor quality, and insufficient for the task. Because there is very little material to thread into, they extend up into the rear sight. Coarse threads are a poor choice given the softness of the metal the entire gun is made of and it takes little or no effort to strip these screws, and unlike a properly used machine screw, they naturally want to back out even with threadlocker applied. Once the screws are loose the entire unit (highlighted in green) falls out. This whole area is taking a lot of the forces involved in this gun and once the whole thing starts to drop down the gun jams. I returned the first one for this problem, but the problem is not one gun, it is the entire design. This mechanism should be pinned in rather than screwed in, or in some other way secured. This same part on the 1911 is secured slightly differently, but not much better and suffers from the same problem.

In this picture the green arrow points to a failure I didn't really expect. The tube seen in the picture seats the BB in the chamber and delivers the CO2. Directly below that is a small tab which strips the top BB from the magazine and guides it to the feed ramp. This part is made from a single piece of plastic. You will notice there is a small gap between the tube and the small tab.

This is a picture of the same part from the bottom - it is identical in both guns. The small tab meant to strip BBs from the magazine bent slightly upward. The plastic is soft and weak, and I theorize that this occurred when the entire mechanism became loose and dropped down slightly. This tiny difference causes it to jam on every single shot. This tiny failure itself makes the gun completely unusable.

This is a picture of the barrel and feed ramp. You will notice a hole above the feed ramp (green arrow), and below the barrel. The mechanism from the previous two images fits here and is the reason for the gap between the tube which seats the BB and the tab that strips the BB from the magazine. The gap has to be there, but at the same time creates a serious weak point. All of these guns work in exactly this same way. Once things start to get loose, then the internal parts of the system start to move out of place and the gun is done. Nothing breaks necessarily, although I can see no way to repair the bent portion, it's just a chain reaction of parts failing and it all comes back to two little screws.

How close did we come? Well pretty close. Poor design is the biggest problem. I could have overlooked some of the flaws if I had a solid product, but I absolutely cannot recommend these KWC Cyber Gun pistols. However, we got close simply because these things had a big number of the features necessary to generate some interest. My guess is that a lot of owners of these guns have non-functioning replicas sitting around and thought, oh well, it was fun for a minute. As a short term solution, the system that handles CO2 delivery needs to be made from better materials and properly secured in the slide. But for me it's more than someone making an air pistol that happens to be useful for more than plinking. I want to see air guns designed specifically for a new market. In fact, I have to ask myself what the goal really is for companies making replica air guns and I think they should ask themselves as well. I think the answer right now is, because they are cool, and that's it. In my original post I talked about what I think are the four aspects of shooting. First, is the romance of the firearm. Second, are the fundamentals of shooting. Third, is the challenge of the game. And fourth is practical firearm training. We've touched on a couple of these aspects here. If replica air guns are made because they are cool, that's really addressing the romance of the firearm. It gives people a different kind of access to something very similar to a real firearm but really only needs to fulfill the cool factor. Virtually all air guns address the basic fundamentals of shooting - sight alignment, trigger control - though perhaps not all of them in many cases. In my mind, these two aspects aren't nearly enough and I think it's clear that the interest is fairly low, even within the shooting community. The interest isn't gone however. There are a number of factors driving shooters to look for different avenues while at the same time a large expanded interest in shooting sports, action shooting, and practical firearm training. I also think that programs like NRA's 3 Gun Experience which includes rimfire and airsoft guns, indicate that there is some movement toward different shooting experiences.

As I said, I think we are seeing the very tip of an emerging market and there is only one way it's going to continue to grow - the air guns have to fit all four of the shooting aspects. It is not until I put my hands on an airgun that makes me want to go out, set up some targets, and run drills and isn't falling apart after 5,000 BBs or 10,000 BBs that we will have a new shooting experience that's worth while. I believe the guns from KWC / Cyber Gun could easily be made to last without significant changes, and that in itself is a shame. It's disheartening to have something that's so close, but just can't deliver because of a few design flaws.