Many fixed-barrel airgun springer fans claim their rifles can rival a PCP for accuracy, so Rich Saunders takes a look at four of the best to find out.
Few things are more pleasurable in airgunning than submitting to the exquisite torment of choosing a new rifle, and surely there’s nothing more tortuous than deciding which underlever you want.
We’ll pore over magazine and YouTube reviews, ask the opinion of people we know – and many more that we don’t through faceless internet forums – and often descend into a spiral of indecision.
Fixed-barrel springers have an advantage over break-barrels as they do not rely on mechanisms to hold the barrel still once cocked. And yet underlevers, and to an even greater extent sidelever springers, are few and far between.
The options for a new, full-power underlever spring rifle are somewhat limited, although that’s not to say choosing one is necessarily easier. It really comes down to a rivalry between just two manufacturers – Air Arms and Weihrauch – the best of Britain and Germany.
It couldn’t be any other way I suppose. Yes, there are alternatives. However the superb Walther LGU has been discontinued and Diana’s equally impressive 460 Magnum seems hard to get hold of, at least here in the UK.
So that’s the manufacturers sorted then. Now to the rifles themselves, and that’s where things get a little more difficult. In the Air Arms camp your choice is either the Pro Sport or the TX200 Mk III, which, for a 12 ft-lb rifle will set you back between £629-£699 and £499-£569 respectively depending on the stock you choose.
When it comes to selecting a Weihrauch, things can get a little trickier still, as both the HW77 and HW97 lines have several variants in terms of stock design and finish.
Additionally, physically getting hold of a Weihrauch to review right now is not easy – which is likely due to a combination of Brexit, the impact of Covid on manufacturing and a boom in people looking for something to ease their lockdown boredom, I suspect.
However, thanks to Stourport-on-Severn’s Allcocks Outdoor Store, we managed to procure an HW77K Laminate (£479), and I managed to persuade my mate Jonny to lend me his prized HW97KT – a rifle that retails for around £439.
Air Arms TX 200 Mk III
World champion performance.
If you were to look down a price list and note the Air Arms TX200 Mk III was a fair bit cheaper than its Pro Sport sibling, you might come to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that it isn’t quite as good and that compromises have been made to save money.
You’d be wrong though, as the TX200 Mk III is every bit as capable, well-engineered and good to shoot as Air Arms’ other underlever. The only difference, however, is in the design, which gives rise to a different layout.
Like the Pro Sport, the TX200 Mk III is available with a beech or walnut stock, however unlike the Pro Sport, there are dedicated left-hander options.
The standard rifle is 1,055mm long with a 395mm shrouded and moderated barrel, and weighs 3.9kg in walnut and 4.1kg in beech. The HC – Hunter Carbine – model is 995mm long thanks to a 319mm barrel and weighs either 3.8kg or 4kg depending on the stock.
Patches of fish scale chequering on the pistol grip and forend are intricate without being fussy and afford plenty of grip. The butt is finished with a ventilated recoil pad, and the pistol grip with a rosewood cap and spacer.
When you consider the long list of FT and HFT titles that have been won with the TX200, including a world championship, it comes as no surprise to learn that the two-stage adjustable trigger is excellent.
Nor are there any shocks in the fact that the engineering on the TX200 Mk III is every bit as good as on the Pro Sport; the use of a low-friction synthetic bearing system ensures a super-smooth, low-effort cocking stroke as well as a refined firing cycle.
Located underneath the barrel, the cocking lever gives an “over and under” look and is held in place with a ball bearing catch under the muzzle. Although the cocking stroke is ratcheted, the lever can be activated silently.
The cross-bolt safety catch at the back of the action comes on when the underlever is pulled down. Once again, there is an additional anti-bear trap that acts as a second line of defence if for some reason you push the safety in and pull the trigger before returning the lever.
To release it, you just have to push a pivot switch on the right of the rifle by the generous loading port.
Air Arms Pro Sport
Price: £629 – £699
Elegant sporting rifle lines
Some people would question why you’d spend what’s mid-level PCP money for a spring rifle. But they’ve probably never picked up, let alone shot, an Air Arms Pro Sport.
Available in either walnut or beech, and only as a dedicated right-handed rifle, the Pro Sport is possibly the most expensive springer, outside of specialist target rifles, on the market.
I’m not party to the inner strategy of the East Sussex company, but I’m guessing it took the view that if someone wants a decent springer over a PCP they’ll be willing to pay for the best.
From the moment you open the box, everything about this rifle screams quality. The finish on the metalwork is deep, and even though I know it’s not, the stock looks like it’s been worked on for weeks by an old chap wearing an apron and brandishing an array of ancient woodworking tools that have been passed down through many generations.
Panels of ornate chequering adorn both sides of the forend as well as the steeply raked pistol grip that is finished with a rosewood cap and spacer. The raised comb gives perfect scope alignment and the cheekpiece makes the Pro Sport very comfortable to hold in position.
Air Arms models the Pro Sport on a fullbore rifle – a look it achieves thanks to a chunky 377mm fully shrouded, match-grade Lothar Walther barrel that includes an integrated moderator and an underlever that tucks away invisibly.
The fact that the underlever does not require a release catch is testament to the rifle’s overall engineering. The use of synthetic bearings to reduce friction on the balanced mainspring, guide and piston system provides a smooth and easy cocking action.
The same arrangement also ensures the firing action is smooth and devoid of twanging. At 4.3kg, the Pro Sport reduces the minimal recoil to a gentle nudge and the report is best described as “thuddy”.
Pulling the sidelever down opens a generous loading port so you can insert a pellet in the breech and automatically sets the cross-bolt safety catch to ensure the lever won’t trap your fingers if you pull the trigger by mistake. An anti-bear trap mechanism provides a layer of safety and the underlever will not return unless the safety catch is engaged.
An enduring classic
Underlevers were, of course, around long before the HW77, but when Weihrauch brought the model out in the mid-1980s, it revitalised a category that had largely relied on BSA’s aging Airsporter for any space on gun shop shelves.
Weihrauch had a good thing going with its break-barrels, and the HW35 and HW80 were the must-have guns for many, so when the underlever HW77 came it was a little left field.
However, whether deliberate or fortunate timing, the emergence of Field Target shooting soon meant the company was onto another winner. There was a time when you could look over a muddy field somewhere in the country and it looked like the things were being grown there.
Weihrauch had of course made underlevers before the HW77, but the combination of the company’s legendary engineering quality combined with a modern take on the style made for a perfect combination that exploited the advantages of fixed-barrel accuracy to the max.
There have been a few tweaks and modifications over the years. Today, the HW77 is available as a full length rifle or as a carbine, or K, model. Unlike its brother, the HW97, stock options are limited to just a traditional sporter style in either beech or laminate.
At 1,020mm and 4.2kg, our HW77K Laminate model carries on the marque’s reputation for weighty and solid springers that are, at the same time, well-balanced and easy to handle. There’s no adjustment in the solid rubber shoulder pad, but the cheekpiece on the ambidextrous stock ensures excellent eye alignment for a scope or the open sights that come as standard.
Other than a comfortable cut away and some chequering, the pistol grip is plain, and though there’s no shelf or groove, you’ll find plenty of room to grip the rifle regardless of hold.
Pushing a button beneath the muzzle releases the underlever, which sweeps back with no interruption and sets the cross-bolt safety catch at the back of the action automatically whilst opening the loading port to accept a pellet directly into the breech. The safety catch prevents the underlever flying up and trapping your fingers, as does an anti-bear trap feature.
Once loaded, the underlever can be returned quietly. Push the safety catch off – it can only be reset by re-cocking the action – before engaging with the HW77’s sublime Rekord trigger.
German engineering at its best
Weihrauch’s HW77 may have reinvigorated the underlever sector, but the follow-up act, the HW97, has taken it to new heights, winning an army of supporters happy to argue to their last breath that the rifle represents the pinnacle of spring-powered air rifle capabilities.
Although Air Arms devotees will say otherwise, they have a point. Certainly, the HW97 has more variants than Air Arms, or even the HW77. You can choose either a sporter or thumbhole stock in beech, blue laminate or a black tactical finish. If that’s not enough, the Field Target Black Line STL model comes with black or silver metalwork.
Our review gun is a beech thumbhole stock carbine, otherwise known as the HW97KT. At 1,030mm and 4.3kg, it’s still a substantial rifle in the tradition of Weihrauch springers, but the balance is superb, as is the fit, thanks in part to the adjustable shoulder pad.
The thumbhole will accommodate even the biggest hands, and although the design won’t allow you to use a thumb-up grip, there’s a shelf either side of the pistol grip which, along with a cheekpiece on either side of the butt, makes the HW97 truly ambidextrous. Panels of chequering ensure plenty of grip, and the forend tapers towards a gently flared and sculpted end.
Pushing a button underneath the moderated muzzle releases the underlever and although I couldn’t perform the function silently, the click from the release and return can be stifled quite easily. The cocking stroke, which is smooth and requires little effort, exposes the loading port that enables you to insert a pellet directly into the breech.
Cocking also sets the cross-bolt safety catch located at the back of the action and provides a first line of defence to prevent the sidelever flying up and the loading port causing injury.
Even with the safety catch pushed in, the lever will only return if you move it. Once pushed in, the safety catch can only be reset by pulling the underlever down again to re-engage it.
If you’ve never shot an HW97 before you’ll appreciate why people rave about it after taking just a few shots. The easy-to-adjust gold Rekord trigger is still one of the best available and is the key that unlocks the remarkably consistent accuracy of the rifle.
Underlevers under the spotlight
When it comes to buying a new underlever spring rifle, two brands stand far above the others. If you think that makes choosing one easy, think again as all these rifles are well-made with excellent quality and finish, as well as performance to match. They truly are springers that will compete with, and in many cases outperform, PCP rifles for accuracy and consistency.
In a way, although deciding which one to opt for will result in much pencil chewing, you have the security of knowing that of the four rifles seen here there really is no bad or wrong choice.
As is often the case, it really comes down to the rifle that you personally like the look of most, as well as your budget. It’s not easy right now, but seeing the rifles in the flesh and ideally putting them to your shoulder will help you make that tough decision a bit easier.
Good luck, and get that pencil ready.
|NAME||AIR ARMS PRO SPORT||AIR ARMS TX200 MK III||WEIHRAUCH HW77||WEIHRAUCH HW97|
|WEIGHT||4.1kg walnut, 4.3kg beech||3.9kg walnut, 4.1kg beech||4.1 to 4.3kg||4.0 to 4.3kg|
|LENGTH||1,050mm||1,055mm||1,020mm to 1,120mm||1,015mm to 1,030mm|
|BARREL LENGTH||377mm||395mm||370mm to 470mm||300mm|
|HIGH POWER OPTIONS||14 ft-lb. (.177), 18 ft-lb (.22)||14 ft-lb (.177), 18 ft-lb (.22)||n/a||n/a|
|SAFETY FEATURES||Anti-bear trap||Anti-bear trap||Anti-bear trap||Anti-bear trap|
|TRIGGER||Fully adjustable two-stage||Fully adjustable two-stage||Fully adjustable two-stage||Fully adjustable two-stage|