Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review - Benjamin Trail NP XL-1100 - Part 4

Part 3

As I stated at the end of Part 3 of my review, I met with a little bad luck with my new XL-1100. Earlier today while working on dialing in the scope and assessing accuracy my riffle suffered what appears to be a catastrophic failure. For details about the events leading up to the failure see Part 3 of my review.

I wanted to point out a few other observations about the XL-1100 that are not necessarily related to its performance. These should have more properly been addressed in Part 1 but I was quite eager to get out and shoot and skip ahead to the tangible measures of the gun's capabilities. So in this part I will talk about things that I have noticed as it relates to general design and manufacturing fundamentals (not necessarily related to air guns). I have worked in the aerospace industry for 20 years as an engineer in various roles from product engineering to manufacturing engineering, test engineering and development engineering (R&D). I consider myself somewhat of a trained skeptic so when I look at a product of most any type there are just certain things that catch my eye and I would like to share a few of these here.

Before getting into some of my observations regarding physical details I think its worth considering the rifle as a whole and in particular how well it fits the form of its intended user. As I have already stated in previous posts, in my opinion, this is a really comfortable gun to hold and shoot. Its proportions are nice and the smooth "thump" from the shot is satisfying. It should be noted that though the spring "twang" vibration and torque moments are gone and the forward recoil greatly dimensioned, the gun still jumps quite a bit when fired. In the video you can see that it jumps quite a bit when fired by my 17 year old son.

The Weaver scope rail is welded to the compression tube and then machined to remove the weld bead. It could be some type of braze or solder process but my guess is its some form of electric arc weld. Either may the rail is rigidly attached to the tube which seems to make a solid base for mounting the scope. My scope needed less than a full turn of adjustment in both windage and elevation to get on target. Another thing I noted about the Weaver rail is that its slightly higher in the back than the front, compensating for barrel droop I presume. I placed a metal yard stick on edge along the top of the rail and found that it sloped at an angle that allowed an intercept with the barrel center line.

While I am talking about the scope mounting rail, I wanted to drop in a comment about the scope. I do not have a lot of experience working with scopes but this one strikes me as being well made with several nice features. I have already mentioned the eye piece focus adjustment and the AO and adjustable 3-9 power. I really like the windage and elevation turrets. They feature a setting indication system that provides a unique value for any position from stop to stop. Every revolution of the turret exposes a unique tick mark on the non-movable turret hub. If you are familiar with a micrometer, this is the same type of vernier system. You determine the current setting by reading the hub indication and then the turret knob angle indicator. I believe the knobs can also be remove to set true "0" indication when everything is dialed in. This may all be old hat to most readers but I was quite impressed.

Judging from exploded parts manuals I found online the cocking lever linkage appears to very much like what you would find on other Crosman products. The parts appear to be punched from cold rolled steel sheet with a bit of secondary machining for holes and slots and the like. The parts all looked robust and appear to be black oxide treated for corrosion protection. I really did not notice anything here that caught my attention accept the forward stock mount. A strip of steel is folded into a square "U" shape and seated in a saddle cut in the bottom of the compression tube. Two small arc weld tacks are made at each end (see photo at left). The ends of the legs of the "U" shaped bracket is drilled and tapped to accept the two forward stock mounting bolts. Crosman may have a lot of experience with this type of mounting arrangement but in my opinion, a solid block welded in this same location with a relief notch cut to give clearance to the cocking linkage would have offered two advantages. First, a full length weld bead could have been made on both sides at the interface with the compression tube. Truth is this could probably be made with the "U" bracket as well. Second, the block would have given greater thread engagement for the stock mounting screws. I am a little worried about how well these two weld tacks will hold up over a few thousand high g shock cycles that accompany each firing event.

The only other issues that I noticed was receiver had what appeared to be some post bluing grinding work performed on it and the perpendicular faces were left with burs. I took a small jewlers file and cleaned up these edges taking care to not allow the filings to contaminate the rifle. In the photo at left the area I am referring to is the surface just above the spring loaded locking pin. The burrs and unbroken edges were along the bottom and right edges of this surface. I suppose keeping the raw exposed area coated with a thin film of oil will prevent oxidation but I was a little disappointed in the cosmetic impact. The owner stares at this rough ground, uncoated patch of steel every time he opens the breach to load. I also noted a log burr line along one edge of the fork formed at the end of the compression tube, on the top side no less (also visible in the photo, LH fork, top edge). The burr height is small and since it was blued I did not what to break it with a file. These are the typical issues associated with production of any type of product in China. While I realize that its the Chinese production that allows a gun like this to sell for $300 instead of $500, these are workmanship issues that can and should be addressed. Over time I would anticipate that these kinds of details will be resolved.

In spite of the set back and the few workmanship issues that I noticed, I still believe this is a great air riffle. I my opinion Crosman got a lot of things right with this product and the issues I have identified are really little more than the normal teething pains associated with launching any new product, especially when its produced overseas. I am already looking forward to getting my rifle repaired or replaced. It might just be like getting the new gun all over again and that is definitely not a bad thing. Will keep you posted.

Review - Benjamin Trail NP XL-1100 - Part 3

Part 2

Yesterday was a good day of shooting with the Benjamin Trail XL-1100. As I discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this review I was able to work through the obligatory break in cycle and pushed around 120 rounds through the gun. By the end of the day I managed to pull off two 5-shot groupings of 1/2-inch or less at 10 meters with JSB Exact Jumbo's. Not bad for a day's work and the gun seemed to meet my expectations as far as accuracy, noise level and low vibration.

My plan for today was to attempt to repeat the shot grouping evaluation at 10 meters and then push the range out to 20 meters and see how things looked there. I also wanted to make a rough assessment of shot energy at the point of impact. I set up my make shift bench, placed the pellet trap at 10 meters and warmed up the gun with 10 rounds of Superdomes. I hung a fresh 10m target sheet and opened the JSB's. I was able to achieve two back-to-back 5-shot groupings that could easily be covered by a dime. I have included a photo of the target taken after the second volley. The large tear on the target on the right-hand edge is from the impact force check I preformed, but we will get to that a little later.

I am convinced, the guys at Crosman have put together a gun that is handsome, quiet, comfortable to shoot and most importantly its accurate. As I stated in the first part of this review I am by no means a marksman. When a hack like me can get groups like this shooting outdoors in a light breeze (you can hear the wind chimes in the video) the team back at Crosman has something to smile about.

I tried to group the RWS Superdomes again but to no avail. They are 2 gr lighter and it may be that the power this gun has requires the heavier weight to achieve good stability in flight. I am tempted to try the Premiers but they are actually lighter than the Superdomes so my guess is they would not shoot much better. I am sure at some point in the near future I will give them a try. They are far and away the best pellets for the .177 calibers I have shot.

To try and assess the energy level at impact I decided to defer to the phone book penetration test. I had a Yellow Pages addendum book that is 1/2-inch thick and decided it would make a good target for the test. I fired a JSB Exact and a Superdome at the book from the 10 meter distance. To my surprise, the JSB completely penetrated book! The hole in the upper right hand corner of the target sheet shown in the photo above was made by the exit of the JSB. The RWS Superdome did not fair as well, only making it about halfway through the book. While material hardness (determined by metallurgical properties of the pellets and they processing method) will certainly affect penetration depth, I believe there was another factor contributing to the poorer penetration performance of the Superdomes; I will get to that in a moment.

I moved the trap out to 20 yards and sat down at the bench to cock the rifle and take my first shot at the extended range. To my surprise, the barrel lock released and my pull on the muzzle was met with zero resistance. I thought to myself, "I dont remember cocking and loading this before taking the photos." I checked the breach and there was no pellet. I suddenly had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I placed a pellet in the breach, snapped it closed, took aim at the ground and squeezed the trigger... nothing. After not even making it to 150 rounds the Nitro cylinder seems to have expired.

B.B. Pelletier's review was abruptly halted by a weak cylinder and now I have been struck by that condition's ugly step-sister, no cylinder pressure at all. For a gun that seems to have a lot of things going for it, an unreliable power plant is most unfortunate. When a company rolls out new technology, like the Nitro cylinder, they not only have to make certain the design is robust but they must also ensure that the manufacturing and quality control systems that will be used to produce the product are equally robust. As these guns are made in China, and speaking as one who has a lot of experience with outsourcing manufacturing to China, I believe Crosman is going to find that this is their slip between the lip and the cup.

I will follow on with another post to provide an update on who well Crosman takes care of their customers in situations like the one I am now in, and I suspect that I am not alone. If you have not ordered your XL-1100 yet I would suggest you hold the phone for another month or two until it can be determined if this is simply a fluke or a legitimate wide spread problem.

Part 4

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review - Benjamin Trail NP XL-1100 - Part 2

Part 1

This morning I rose with a bit of excitement, looking forward to giving the XL-1100 its first workout. The first task was to make a new pellet trap. I know metal traps and other types are readily available but I fabricate them by simply layering sheets of card board and heavy cloth (denim) with sheets of hard board (the material clip boards are made from). This pack is then placed in a 12X12 cardboard box and any remaining void stuffed with old news paper. Takes less than an hour to make and will last several hundred rounds. Its advantage over the metal type traps is simply that its quiet. As I live in the city noise is a major factor to take into consideration when engaging in backyard shooting activities.

With the trap made and my targets (from printed I set up my simple shooting bench and placed the trap 10 meters away. I ordered RWS Superdomes (14.5 gr) and JSB Exact Jumbo's (15.9 gr). I thought I was going to be able to pick up a tin of Crosman Premiers (14.3 gr) at the local outdoors store but alas I could find none.

The literature that came with the gun stated at least 100 rounds might be required for break in. Between 10:30 pm and noon I pumped at least 120 rounds through the gun. That's quite an arm work out! I had to alternate left arm to right arm to get it done. I am 6' and 195 lbs and would consider myself above average strength for my size. I my opinion its a pretty stiff gun to cock, quite a bit harder than other 1000 fps + air riffles that I have shot.

The GRT III trigger definitely feels better than the original. While I do not have a force gauge to measure I would estimate its close to half the draw weight and about half the second stage pull length. I think its a big improvement.

Despite its weight, the gun feels good to hold. I found it to be well proportioned. The noise level it much lower than other springers that I have shot. Sort of a quiet thump sound with a slight whistle imposed on top. The "jerk" is also markedly lower than other the lightweight magnums I have shot although the recoil remains high. By recoil I mean the aft motion of the gun alone excluding movements forward or torque moments. I was watching my 17 year old son shoot and noticed that the gun displaces aft by what appears to be maybe as much as 1 inch. It has a pleasant "feel" when you squeeze the trigger. There is no buzz sound or sensation in the stock; its a smooth, powerful, satisfying "thump".

I ordered the Superdomes with the gun and since I did not specify the quantity the distributor was kind enough to assume I would want the 500 count package so that's what he sent. As I had more of these than the JSB's I decided to use the Superdomes for the break-in work. Though I was shooting rather indescribably the Superdomes did not seem to group well. While I would not consider myself a marksman I can consistently shoot 5 shot 1-inch groups at 33 feet with a Gamo Shadow Sport. Lunch time was drawing near and my arms were getting sore so I decided to take a break and pick it up later in the afternoon. I was hoping that the heavier JSB Exact Jumbo's would settle it down a bit and let a descent group materialize. I also realized that it could be my hold and grip.

Returning to the shooting bench I started to work on scope adjustment and switched over to the JSB's. The gun sounds different when shooting them as opposed to the Superdomes; deeper thud without the higher pitched metallic whistle sound. As I shot the next 50 rounds or so I began to get a little bit frustrated. The gun would group three shots adjacent to each other (overlapping edges on the target) and then the pattern would suddenly shift an inch or more in one direction or another and I was getting quite a few fliers. The more I shot the gun, however, the better it performed. As I approached shot 200 I started to see things settle down a bit.

I worked with several different hold techniques beginning with the artillery hold as taught by Tom Gaylord. While this hold has worked well for me on pretty much every air gun I have ever shot when I used it on the XL-1100 I would get a flier about every 3rd or 4th shot. I moved my forearm grip out about 6-8 inches forward of the front face of the trigger guard. This put my palm pretty much centered on the forearm checkering. This seems to be the balance point for the gun, which might explain the position of the checkering. This position seemed to make a noticeable improvement. I then realized that this gun does not like to be held loosely. I began to hold the forearm firmly and used the thumb-hole grip to pull the butt snugly against my shoulder. I was rewarded with consistently tight groups thereafter.

I was able to finish up the afternoon with two 5 shot groups of less than 1/2-inch at the 10 meter range. The 5-shot group on the right edge was the best of the day, though the shot at the center 1-inch circle was not bad for a hack like me either. I was shooting outdoors, ambient temperature was around 55 F with a lite breeze. I put a little over 200 rounds through the gun so far and from what I can gather an air rifle is not really broken in until you approach the 2,000 round mark. It is my hope that the performance will continue to improve with time and use. I have every reason to believe this will be the case. Tomorrow I plan to extend the range out to 20 meters and see what the gun will do. With another hundred rounds its my guess that I should be able to keep the same grouping at the longer range. I am beginning to believe that the XL-1100 will turn out to be an impressive riffle that is note for being accurate, quiet and powerful.

I did notice something peculiar today while adjusting the scope. I observed what I would describe as hysteresis in the adjustments. It seemed that when I turned the adjustments CCW the impact point would creep in that direction over the next several shots and then stabilize. However, when I turned the adjustments CW I could "walk" the pellet in the direction of adjustment about a pellet diameter at a time in a very consistent manner; click for click. While I am not familiar with scope construction I suspect a spring is employed in the design and set in opposition to each of the adjusting screws. When the screw is backed out (CCW) the alignment system depends upon the spring to keep the optic mount in contact with the end of the adjustment screw. I am not sure if this is normal for an air rifle scope or if it is an indicator that there is a problem with the scope. I would appreciate any feedback on this matter.

Part 3

Review - Benjamin Trail NP XL-1100 - Part 1

Yesterday afternoon I received my long awaited Benjamin Trail XL-1100 air rifle. I have only been exposed to air rifles for a few months but in that brief time I have become quite enamored by them. Being an engineer by trade and someone who enjoys sports shooting by hobby the world of air gunning seems to scratch a natural itch. I have purchased two air guns previous to the Benjamin trail and though they were both probably decent guns in their own right, I was somewhat disappointed with them both. I became quite interested in the new Crosman Nitro power plant technology and had considered ordering a conversion kit for one of my guns. When I began searching for my third gun I was quite delighted to find that the new Benjamin Trail series would come with this power plant as standard equipment.

I have never purchased a product that I did not first invest a significant amount of time researching, perhaps even to a fault. As I begin to investigate the XL-1100 I was discouraged to find so little information about it. As I am quite familiar with the typical new product development process I suspected that the Crosman Nitro was a pilot program for field testing of the new Nitro power plant tech before deployment across a broader product line. I read the reviews on the Nitro and was pleased with what I found. Leaning on the Nitro reviews and hoping that there was still something to the Benjamin legacy I decided to take the plunge with the new gun.

Before going any further with my review I would like to point out that the main reason for posting this review is to provide people like me with a layman's perspective on this new product. My guess is a lot of guys are sitting on the side lines waiting for the first few customer reviews to roll out before they commit to a purchase. There are several experts who do a great job providing detailed reviews on air gun products and I am sure within the next few weeks they will have videos and technical reviews posted on this much anticipated rifle. I have little experience with air riffles and no measurement equipment so take this review for what it is; a simple assessment of the rifle by someone trained in engineering, materials science and manufacturing processes. If you are reading this review and find mistakes and technical oversights please post a comment and point them out.

So on with the review. The UPS driver dropped off the new riffle just before I arrived home from the office. I opened the box with a bit of hesitation, wondering if had made a mistake spending this much money on an air rifle. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. In a word, Wow! It had a really nice look and feel. I unpacked it and found everything to be in order. It was a bit oily in a few spots; probably due to intentional over lubrication to guard against corrosion for the boat ride over the pond.

The Center-Point scope looked really nice and mounted nicely on the Weaver rail. It made solid positive engagement with no perceivable play even with the mount screws just finger snug. This is my first time to work with this type of mounting system and I must say it will be hard to use anything else in the future. The scope has an adjustable magnification from 3 to 9 power, 1" tube, and 40mm adjustable objective. The objective adjustment spans from 30 ft through infinity. It also has an adjustable eye piece and Mil-Dot style reticle. Its very similar to the Adventure class scope without the red/green illumination feature.

I had maybe 20 minutes before sunset so I quickly mounted the scope and scurried out back to squeeze off a few rounds to get a feel for the trigger. The first 3 or 4 shots had to be dieseling as each had an accompanying "crack" that sounded like a .22 LR rimfire. I suspect this is normal and attributable to the excess oil in the barrel and piston cylinder. A large amount of smoke could be observed coming from the breach after each shot. By the fifth shot the "crack" was gone and for the first time I began to get a sense of how quiet a gas spring power plant can be.

The trigger had a perceptible first stage and a deep second draw with a moderately heavy pull in my opinion. I did not attempt to make adjustments as I had made the assumption that the Trail and Super Streak share triggers and everything I have read about the Super Streak suggested replacement was a good idea. (I do not know for certain if these guns share the same trigger) I removed the stock and wiped away the excess oils from all the metal works leaving only a lite film. I removed the factory trigger and replaced it with a GRT III which dropped in quite nicely. I noted that the original trigger (shown at right) is solid metal, not a folded stamping like the Gamo for example. It appears to be a forging with a small amount of machining work. A single tool pass makes a slot perpendicular to the pivot arc and the three holes are drilled. I also noticed that the factory trigger has nearly identical geometry to the GRT III except the trip arm of the GRT III is set at a slightly different angle with respect to the center line of the pivot pin bore. I laid one on top of the other, aligned the two pin bores and they appeared to be almost clones. I did not try it but my guess is you could remove the slack spring from the stock trigger and, if you have enough adjustment in the second stage screw, achieve similar performance to the GRT III. As I already had the GRT III from another project I did not bother with the experiment.

The form of the stock and the details in the checkering, grip end plate and butt plate are really nice. The Crosman team went all out to make this an attractive gun. Judging from the photos I have seen this is the same stock as used on the Super Streak. The walnut stock finish leaves a little to be desired. Nice tight grain with no apparent wood filler but there does seem to be a few spots where debris contaminated the the stain and sealer. The sheen of the finish was flat and it felt almost as if the stain were still wet. As the grain appeared to still be somewhat open and as I prefer a satin appearance I wiped the stock down with Brichwood Casey gun stock wax. This made a noticeable improvement to the appearance and improve the tactile "feel" of the stock. It should also help protect the stock from minor scratches and weather.

Part 2