Mat Manning heads out with a very special gun

The S400 has seen Mat through a lot of years…and several haircuts

Mat Manning heads out on a hunting trip with a very special gun: his first ever PCP!

For those of us who have been shooting for any amount of time – and in my case it’s well over three decades – there will no doubt be numerous guns that have come and gone over the course of those years.

We probably parted company with some of them for good reason – most often to move on to something better – but many of us can probably think of at least a couple of guns that we should have thought harder about letting go of, and now regret doing so.

Parting with my first airgun – a second-hand Webley Vulcan which was handed down to me by my uncle when I was about 10 years old – was a mistake that taught me to think very hard about selling guns that have sentimental value.

Several spring-powered airguns followed the Vulcan, including a couple of very nice Air Arms TX200s – both of them were excellent airguns, but I’m pleased to say that I didn’t lose any sleep over their departure.

Nonetheless, they served me so well that I was slow to get onto the PCP bandwagon, and didn’t actually embrace precharged airgunning until I moved across to an Air Arms S400 in 2001.

What a revelation that turned out to be. I can still remember the surprise of getting it perfectly zeroed in less than 10 shots – thanks in no small part to its recoilless firing cycle.

The mobile start pays off and Mat sets himself up for a shot at a woodie as it feeds on ash buds

Fitted with a decent silencer, the S400 was also far quieter than any spring-powered gun I had ever used. It was so quiet, in fact, that I did initially doubt its power output… until I put it over a chronograph and discovered that it was doing an unerringly consistent 11.4 ft-lb.

The Air Arms S400 series is famously accurate, and has accounted for more than its fair share of silverware in all levels of competition over the decades, and still continues to do so, but there was something particularly special about my one.

From time to time you seem to get a gun that rolls off the production line as if it had been custom-tuned, and this was certainly one of them.

Over the next few years, I shot almost exclusively with that airgun, and if you see any of my articles in the shooting press up until around 2005, it is very likely that I will have been using the S400. Such familiarity with my kit made me a great shot, and I accounted for a heck of a lot of quarry with that rifle.

My developing career in field sports journalism brought with it the inevitable, and enviable, opportunity to shoot lots of different airguns. As a consequence, my trusty old Air Arms was gradually decommissioned as newer hardware made its way into my gun room. Thankfully, I knew it was a special gun, and after my experience with the Vulcan, I knew better than to let it go.

A cherished airgun restored to its former glory and ready to hit the field

The S400 languished in my gun cabinet, almost forgotten, until the subject of cherished guns cropped up during a visit to the Air Arms factory in Sussex last year. The level of craftsmanship and quality control in their workshops, not to mention the pride that all the staff take in their work, is remarkable, so I had no qualms about entrusting them with my S400 for a long-overdue service.

A couple of weeks later and the gun was back with me, along with service notes and a bag containing old parts that had been removed and replaced. The paperwork also included a velocity record showing a muzzle velocity variation of just two feet per second over a 10-shot string – pretty impressive for an 18-year-old airgun with no regulator.

Seeing what the gun was capable of on paper, I couldn’t wait to put it into action. I quickly attached the old Hawke Predator scope that had been paired with the S400 during its heyday, along with the original mounts.

It was nice to see and feel the combo in its original state, right down to its unusual ‘upside-down’ bolt handle, which appears to be a left-hand component mounted on the right. I did think about getting it swapped for a right-hander during the service, but it’s a quirk of the gun that I’ve grown accustomed to.

I was lucky to have a windless morning for my testing session, and the gun performed brilliantly. The trigger felt exactly the same as ever, and the little Air Arms’ consistent power delivery enabled me to comfortably churn out single-hole groups at 30m.

I think the blistering accuracy that’s often facilitated by single-shot loading is a sobering reminder for those of us who regard multi-shot magazines as essential equipment. Yes, they provide fast follow-up shots, but they can compromise an airgun’s precision.

Single-shot loading may be a bit of a fiddle, but it often delivers optimum accuracy

It’s all very well printing tiny groups on paper, but my S400 was always a hunting tool, so the range session was quickly followed by an impromptu walk round the woods. It was a lovely spring day, and I must admit that I was just happy to be out and about, regardless of the outcome, although it looked like a few shots might be on the cards.

The buds were just coming out on the ash trees, and there was a reasonable gathering of woodpigeons taking advantage of this seasonal feast. Distracted by the sudden abundance of food following the lean months of winter, the birds weren’t as flighty as usual, and I soon managed to bag one. I shoot hundreds and hundreds of pigeons every year, but dropping one with a prized gun after so many years left me feeling totally elated.

I wandered on along the woodland edge, spooking the odd bird as I weaved my way in and out of the trees, but unable to stalk in close enough for a second opportunity. As I made my way into a more open area – a new plantation where the trees are only about 20 years old – I spotted a couple of squirrels pinching grain from beneath a pheasant feeder.

Triggers galore! A visit to the Air Arms factory inspired Mat to give his first PCP a new life

The approach was across far too much open and noisy terrain for me to go undetected, so I decided instead to abandon any thought of stalking in. Instead, I walked up quite nonchalantly, hoping that the departing squirrels would regard me as nothing more sinister than a walker and soon dare another venture out to feed.

Once I was comfortably within range of the feeder, I found a hiding place among a tangle of wild clematis, where the main wood flanks the new plantation, and settled down for a stakeout. I was in action in less than 10 minutes – not with squirrels, but with a pigeon that had swooped into the boughs of a nearby ash.

The woodie had its back to me, and at less than 20m, landing a pellet between its shoulder blades was a mere formality. The plump pigeon flopped from its perch and smashed into the ground with a thump.

Mat’s first field session with the revamped S400 was a sedate rove round the woods

One of the best things about using natural cover instead of building a hide is the fact that you can quickly and easily shift from one spot to another if you set up in the wrong place.

One this occasion, though, it seemed like I’d got it right; pigeons were putting in an appearance and I was pretty confident that the squirrels would soon be back for another go at the pheasant feeder.

The wait took a little longer than I’d expected – but then I always say that patience is one of any airgun shooter’s deadliest weapons. I was staring up at the skies, watching a small flock of pigeons wheeling over a distant block of woodland, and when I looked back at the feeder there was a squirrel beneath it.

This is a familiar trait of squirrel shooting; there’s nothing there one minute, you get distracted for just a moment, and when you look back your quarry is out in full view. It’s like they appear from nowhere.

Eager to fill its belly, the squirrel was far too distracted by the grain to notice me tucked away in the undergrowth. I like shooting from the sitting position, and having chosen a spot that was nice and close to the feeder, it was another straightforward shot. 

The only snag was getting the fidgety little bushy-tail to keep still long enough for me to get a clear bead on its head as it bobbed up and down to scavenge kernels from the ground. 

Patience is rewarded, and Mat gets another opportunity as a squirrel ventures back out to raid grain

Tracking it through the scope, I eventually decided to make a squeaking sound through pursed lips. The startled squirrel sat upright and froze dead still, giving me the perfect opportunity to settle the crosshairs on its bonce and roll it over with a crack to the skull.

All too soon, a couple of hours had passed and although I was having a lovely, peaceful time perched on my beanbag, I really did need to head for home and get on with some work.

The two pigeons and solitary squirrel might look like a measly bag to some shooters, but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. Reacquainting myself with what was my go-to airgun for a long and very poignant time had been an absolute joy. I really must try not to leave it so long. 

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