Airguns for Survival: AirForce Escape Pellet Guns
May 29, 2014
You awoke this morning to the sound of a truck backing into the side of your house, which is odd, because your house is under construction and doesn't have sides yet! You're living in a Class A motorhome on the lot where your dream house is being built. In less than a minute you knew what that prolonged scraping and rumbling really was — an earthquake! And it was close, too! Shook your big RV like it was driving fast down a corduroy road.
You're building your retirement nest in the hills that surround Tehachapi, Calif. You're close enough to Bakersfield to be civilized but still not affected by the urban sprawl that creeps farther into the high desert every year.
Unfortunately for you, the quake that awakened you wasn't that close. But it was big. Not just big — major! It was a mind-blowing 8.2 on the Richter scale and very widespread. It destroyed a lot of the major infrastructure around Bakersfield, all the way south to Los Angeles. Major highways are cut, bridges are down, water mains are broken and nobody has power from Fresno to Long Beach — unless they make it themselves.
You do have a nice 4.2 Kw generator onboard the RV, but how long will your diesel last? In fact — how long will you last?
You calculate the near-term effects of this disaster, and it becomes clear that you and your family are in for an adventure. Not only will the power be off for weeks (or months!), more basic things like food, fresh water and fuel deliveries will not be made because of the transportation pitfalls. And guess what? When things are fixed, they aren't going to start in Tehachapi. Los Angeles will be first, and so on down the line. This is a real crisis, and you're at the epicenter.
Survival is Real!
If you've watched the movies, you know what Hollywood thinks survival means. The comet strikes and bombs civilization back to the Stone Age, or everybody turns into a zombie, pitting you against the world. Time to pick up your crossbow and head out to the boondocks. Well, that scenario hasn't happened once in all of recorded history, but every year there are earthquakes, fires, floods, tornados, tsunamis, blizzards and hurricanes that thrust millions of people into real-life survival situations.
Survival means you have the ability to hold out (eat, drink, and stay warm and safe) for at least three days until the emergency services can get organized. And you know that it can often be much longer than three days — just ask anyone from New Orleans. We're talking about government services here — the same government that can't get a website — well, you know the rest.
In a real survival situation, you aren't going up against lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) unless you live in a zoo or in places like the Pacific Northwest. But you may have a chance to hunt deer, feral hogs (especially in the South and Southwest!) and other food animals.
Or you may face a different problem. Your lush little Fern Gully may have flooded and transformed overnight into the Cottonmouth Bowl, with you and your family on the 50-yard line. I don't care what the herpetologists say — water moccasins will attack you when you enter their territory, and they are aggressive! When the flood waters rise, your territory becomes their territory right now.
Hunting licenses won't matter in this situation because it'll be you against the world. The D.C.-based Oompa-Loompas who want to tell you how to live your life will be posturing for the cameras in their warm, dry offices while you struggle to keep your family alive, safe and fed. Only much later when the floodwaters subside will they venture forth to prosecute the survivors.
At a time like this, you'll extend the abilities of your weapons to their maximum. In other words, you'll make them do things they aren't normally considered capable of doing. You probably aren't going to need a repeater, either, because real survival is not a matter of holding off the last attack at the Alamo. It's a one-shot, one-kill situation. You need power, accuracy and dependability to get the job done.
A .22 rimfire rifle would be ideal in such situations. Given the current ammunition shortages, though, can you always count on having what you need? Maybe not with a rimfire, but perhaps there's hope in a trio of new survival air rifles being offered by AirForce Airguns.
The basic rifle of the three is called the Escape. It produces about 82% of the power of a standard speed .22 long rifle cartridge. At 98 foot-pounds, a .25 cal. pellet from this rifle can drop much more than just rabbits and squirrels. It's up to the task of hunting serious game, which is anything that might be taken with a .22 long rifle.
But more than that, there are no ammunition problems associated with this gun. A tin of pellets is both affordable and available right now. Once you have them, they'll last a good half-century with no special care beyond keeping them in their original container. The air that propels them is free, and a reliable modern high-pressure hand pump gives you all the shots you'll need.
The other two rifles in this offering are the EscapeUL (Ultra Light) and the EscapeSS (sound suppressed). They're specialized variations on the main theme of the Escape, and I'll address each of them in turn.
These three air rifles have an interesting back story. AirForce was already building one of the most powerful smallbore pre-charged air rifles — the Condor.
When it hit the market in 2004, it was the most powerful production smallbore air rifle generally available. It produces 65 foot-pounds of muzzle energy in .22 cal. with standard pellets, which is more energy than you get from a standard speed .22 Short cartridge. At the time of its inception, everyone thought the limit had been reached for smallbore pellet guns. But apparently not everyone got that memo!
The Genesis of Escape
Last year, AirForce owner John McCaslin and Ton Jones, star of television's Auction Hunters reality series, were on a hunting trip in North Central Texas. As they drove toward their destination, they were discussing Ton's experiences with survival training.
Ton grew up in California's Mojave Desert, where hostile conditions and rapid changes in the weather are commonplace. His early conditioning taught him to become self-reliant and always be ready to operate for many days without outside help. This evolved into a passion for the realistic survival training that he now conducts around the country at various sporting goods venues. Ton selects equipment he has tested and includes it in his presentations. And now he has what he considers to be the ideal survival airgun.
What you may not know is that Ton is also an airgunner. In fact, he wears the title "Airgun Evangelist" on his back! He invites the children in his neighborhood and their parents to his home to learn the proper way to shoot, and airguns are the tools he uses. He stays out of the spotlight in this training. To quote him, "I don't want to be anyone's hero. What I want is for the parents to become the heroes, and shooting together is the perfect vehicle for doing it."
He told John that he'd never found an air rifle he could truly trust for a survival role. The Condor was good, but he wanted more power. He wanted a gun powerful enough to be serious, yet light enough for older kids and small adults to handle easily and be able to cock.
So, he wondered aloud what would happen if a longer barrel were placed on a TalonP air pistol. In .25 cal., that air pistol already generates 55 foot-pounds of muzzle energy through its 12-inch barrel. And longer barrels on precharged airguns are known to dramatically increase the velocity and power.
Ton told me John got silent after he asked that. Nothing was said for about 10 minutes. Then a smile broke out on his face as he turned to Jones and said, "You know, I think that might work!"
So what is an Escape? In the simplest terms, the Escape is a single-shot pre-charged pneumatic air rifle. You fill it once from either a hand pump or a compressed air tank and fire it many times before filling again. It comes in either .22 or .25 calibers, which classifies it as a smallbore, but the rifle generates even more power than the AirForce Condor. How much power?
In a test done during development, the Escape developed as much as 98 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle with a .25 cal. pellet weighing slightly over 43 grains. That puts the rifle into the same class as the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.
Ton got just what he asked for! And after many days of prolonged testing, he was proud to call the Escape the rifle he had been searching for.
The obvious question is why not just use a .22 Long Rifle? There are a couple of good answers for that. The first is in the form of a question: Have you tried to buy .22 ammunition recently? There's a shortage of rimfire ammunition right now, which every shooter in the United States realizes. It's not always easy to get your hands on the ammo you need.
But it is very easy to buy premium .25 cal. pellets. Besides pellets, all you need with the Escape is a source of air, and that can be provided free of charge by a high-pressure hand pump.
Externally, the Escape is very similar to other AirForce air rifles. It has the look of a black rifle, and the buttstock also serves as the air reservoir. The Escape offers the user a choice of two calibers, which may be changed in the field in as little as five minutes. The Escape barrel is 24 inches long. Although AirForce Airguns does supply shorter rifle barrels that fit the Escape's frame, only the 24-inch length delivers this stunning power.
All AirForce sporting rifles offer adjustable power, and the Escape is no exception. A power wheel on the left side of the frame allows the user to dial the power up and down. You might think that because the Escape's power is so great that only high power would be useful, but that's not the case!
During testing, I discovered that the Escape has sweet spots within bands of power where it achieves amazing accuracy with certain pellets. These bands are not necessarily at the top power level.
This rifle is filled with air from an external source such as a scuba tank or a hand pump. In the past, the air tank unscrewed from the rifle, but the new Spin-Loc tank remains in place and is filled through a Foster male quick-disconnect fitting located on the tank. On the other side of the tank from the air filling nipple is a pressure gauge that tells you the status of the fill at a glance.
Because the user fills the rifle, he also controls the pressure inside. Sometimes, the ideal fill pressure is not the maximum, but something below the maximum. You may get fewer shots, but those shots will all be very accurate. This is the kind of thing an owner has to test on his particular rifle, and it's what I did to evaluate these rifles. Putting it bluntly, it's better to connect with 100 foot-pounds than to miss with a thousand.
Smaller Air Tank Equals Easier Filling
The Escape is based not on the Condor, but on the TalonP pistol. Because of that, its reservoir is much smaller than the one on the Condor, but its valve is more efficient. It passes more air every time the rifle is fired. As a result, the rifle is more powerful. Couple this with a 24-inch barrel, and you get maximum efficiency.
The smaller tank and greater airflow mean there are fewer shots per fill; but thinking like a survivalist, that doesn't matter. It's the one kill shot you're after — not a spray and pray hailstorm of lead.
A smaller air tank makes for quicker filling with a hand pump. The normal 490cc air tank on a Condor takes many hundreds of pump strokes to fill from empty, and over 100 strokes to fill from the useful end point, which is around 2000 psi. The Escape tank is just 213cc and can be filled with far fewer pump strokes. I filled it from 2000 psi to 3000 psi with just 85 pump strokes that took about three minutes. That's enough air for 10 shots at maximum power, which is more than a full day's hunting, so this is a very practical size for the survivalist and the serious airgun hunter.
Testing the Escape
Ton Jones did a lot of testing when the new rifle was under development. He tested it for power, accuracy, penetration and ease of filling the air tank. Some of his tests were standard strings through the chronograph and groups on paper, but a few were more novel.
One test had him shooting a .25 cal. Escape into a prepared wooden target, to see how well the pellet penetrated. Unfortunately, the pellet passed completely through more than 3 inches of lumber and went right out the back side of the target, so that test was inconclusive — except it tells us the rifle is a serious thumper!
Velocity, of course, depends on the weight of the pellet as well as the power setting on the adjustment wheel. In the .25 cal. rifle, velocities for a super-heavyweight 43.2-grain Eun Jin pellet with the rifle set at top power was up to a maximum of 1010 fps, yielding 97.88 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.
From the first shot, the velocity started dropping off, recording 990 fps for shot two and 974 fps for shot three. By the fifth shot, this pellet was leaving the muzzle at 940 fps, for an energy reading of 84.78 foot-pounds. So, the velocity spread for the first five shots on the highest power setting is 36 fps.
Drop the power adjustment to the number eight on the power wheel, and the first shot leaves the muzzle at 996 fps, with shot five going at 944 fps That's a total velocity spread of 52 fps across the five shots, and a muzzle energy that runs from 95.18 down to 85.5 foot-pounds.
How many shots are available on a single fill of air depends on what the shooter wants to do. If he's shooting groups at 50 yards, there are perhaps five or six shots per fill with this pellet at the top power level. But if he's hunting for groundhog-sized game, there can be more than 10 shots. It's just a matter of knowing where the pellets will go as the velocity drops.
Shot 10 with this pellet at top power is moving out at 860 fps and producing 70.96 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. That's still more energy than a .22 cal. Condor gets on the first shot!
In .22 cal., this same rifle generated 67.85 foot-pounds with a 32.4-grain Eun Jin pellet leaving the muzzle at 971 fps when the rifle was set on top power. I note that the power is significantly lower than the same rifle in .25 cal. I guess that's why Ton's favorite caliber is .25.
I spent several days at the range getting to know my Escape test rifle and shot several .25 cal. pellets. Ton's favorite pellet is the .25 cal. Predator Polymag. It's a hollow-point with a polymer ballistic tip that cuts through the air and keeps the pellet on track. The super heavyweight Eun Jin that weighs 43.2 grains is another favorite.
When it comes to penetration, that big Eun Jin blasts through more critter than any other pellet around; but for shocking power, Ton has found the Predator to be the best. The polymer tip falls off to one side, allowing the hollow-point to capture a bubble of air in front of it and shock the animal more than any pellet around. It helps that both these pellets are accurate when the rifle is set to the highest power.
I discovered that the test rifle also likes to operate at a much lower fill pressures. When the rifle was filled to just 1950 psi, there were five good shots with ultra-accurate JSB Exact King pellets that drilled tight groups at 50 yards with astounding ease. This was with the power setting dialed to six. Although the power output was only in the 30+ foot-pound range (and thus higher than 80 percent of all smallbore air rifles), this pellet shot like it was laser-guided.
If filling the Escape's air tank seems easy because the tank is so small, stopping the fill at less than 2,000 psi is absurdly easy! It's virtually a one-hand operation. And those five shots will still slap down animals up to the size of woodchucks and raccoons. So, you don't always have to run nails-and-dynamite in the rifle.
Survival rifles aren't usually known for their accuracy, but the Escape comes with a pedigree German Lothar Walther barrel. Not only does this rifle deliver smashing power beyond all smallbore air rifles with standard pellets, it also puts them in the same place, shot after shot.
As the power is dialed up, the groups open somewhat, which is why those ultra-heavy Eun Jin pellets are so welcome. They keep the velocity safely subsonic, avoiding the flutters that come from breaking the sound barrier. But even on the highest setting, you can still put five into 1.5 inches at 50 yards, which is a head shot on larger game all day long.
Living with the Escape
The Escape is not recoilless like many precharged air rifles. With every shot, the rifle pushes back into your shoulder about like a .22 rimfire firing a Long Rifle round. The push lasts longer and is a bit less sharp than that of the firearm; but for those used to air rifles that don't move, it will come as a shock.
The discharge sound is very similar to that of a .22 Long Rifle. It lasts a bit longer and isn't quite as sharp, so the decibels aren't quite as high — but you still know when the rifle fires. If that's a problem for you, there's a quieter version of the rifle I'll present in a little while.
The two-stage trigger was recently refined on the other sporting airguns; and although it isn't adjustable, it still breaks at 26 ounces out of the box, which most shooters can't argue with. The new safety still sets automatically when the rifle's cocked, but now it can be pushed off with the trigger finger, alone.
The safety can be reapplied at any time, but the rifle has to be fired to relax the striker spring. On the old gun, you could ride the striker down by holding on to the bolt handle. That's not possible because of the new trigger's design. The bolt must be closed or the trigger will not work; so if the gun's cocked, you have to pull the trigger to release the striker.
The length of pull is adjustable by loosening the locking screws on the butt extension and sliding it along the air tank to the desired position. Once you have it where you want it, tighten the screws and it will stay in place. This does help reduce the overall length of the rifle a bit; because unlike the older air rifle, the Spin-Loc tank on the Escape, which also serves as the anchor point for the buttstock, does not remove from the rifle without tools.
The benefit is that you get a pressure gauge and quick-fill nipple right on the tank, but the downside is that the rifle doesn't collapse quite as much as the older designs.
As with all AirForce sporting air rifles, there are generous accessory rails on top and underneath the gun. Because this gun is for survival, a sling with quick-detachable swivels seems an appropriate option. After that, it's your choice of options. Everything from a laser to night vision can be adapted to this family of air rifles with common attachment hardware.
While the Escape will meet most people's needs, there are some who might value light weight above everything. For them, the EscapeUL (Ultra Light) has been created. The UL has an 18-inch barrel in either .22 or .25 cal. and a thinner profile. This allows shaving just over a pound from the rifle's weight. An Escape without scope weighs 5.3 lbs., while UL version weighs only 4.25 lbs. To a bush pilot or backpacker, that extra pound may be significant.
Because of the physics of precharged airguns, lopping 6 inches from the barrel means a loss of velocity. With the 43.2-grain .25-caliber Eun Jin pellet, the top velocity of this rifle is 910 fps, exactly 100 fps less than the Escape rifle with 24-inch barrel. With all other pellets in.25 cal. and in .22 cal., there's a proportionate reduction of velocity.
The EscapeUL produces a maximum of 79.46 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, and so it still surpasses the high-speed .22 Short cartridge. It's also more powerful than the Condor, but several inches shorter and over one pound lighter. So, where's the disadvantage? Air capacity. The EscapeUL is based on the Escape powerplant that uses the small air tank. And it has an air valve that passes more air with each shot than the Condor valve. The number of shots per fill are reduced from what a Condor delivers. Hunters will have to decide if they want raw power or a higher shot count per fill.
In basic terms, a Condor owner is probably a squirrel and woodchuck hunter who likes to take a stand and drop several animals in quick succession — terrain and game allowing. An EscapeUL shooter is more concerned with one perfect shot and the transportability of his equipment.
The Condor hunter probably takes one or more carbon fiber compressed air tanks into the field to top off the tank on his gun after 20 shots. The EscapeUL shooter probably carries nothing more than a compact five-pound high-pressure hand pump, and expects to top off his tank after 5-10 shots. But those shots may not all happen on the same day. It's a different mindset that makes perfect sense to each shooter.
The EscapeUL has the same power adjustability as the basic Escape, so the only practical differences are a lighter, shorter rifle that delivers somewhat less power. Since AirForce rifle barrels are interchangeable, it would be possible for an Escape owner to modify his rifle to the Ultra Light spec, though the thinner barrel would entail more than a straight barrel swap.
AirForce Airguns has made their rifles so interchangeable that the owner almost always has the option of changing what he has with optional parts that are readily available! In fact, that brings up an interesting point.
Owners of the TalonP pistol already have the foundation of the basic Escape! All they have to do is install the 24-inch optional barrel and a different end cap to fit the new barrel and nothing more! At a time when most manufacturers work hard to make their products exclusive of one another, AirForce has done the reverse and made them as interchangeable as possible so the owner can choose the configuration he wants.
The third rifle in the trio is the EscapeSS — a version of the rifle with features that quiet the report. I mentioned earlier that the Escape discharge sounds very similar to a .22 rimfire, and that presents a problem for those who live in suburban surroundings. The SS has a longer frame to enclose or shroud the barrel and also to provide a chamber ahead of the muzzle of the barrel.
Into this chamber, AirForce has placed three synthetic air diverters that channel the highly compressed air in directions away from the open end of the cap through which the pellet exits.
There are internal holes drilled through the bushings that align the barrel, allowing the excited air passage back into the frame of the gun. By the time this air finds its way back out the end cap, it's lost a considerable amount of energy, thus lowering the discharge sound.
The EscapeSS is not a silent airgun by any means. It still makes a respectable pop when it fires, but it's not the crack of either of the two rifles that have no silencing technology. Don't think of it as a backyard rifle for a cramped housing tract, but rather as an airgun you can use on several acres without disturbing the cows or the neighbors.
To make everything fit, 6 more inches were removed from the barrel, so the EscapeSS has the same 12-inch barrel as the TalonP pistol. What it has that the pistol doesn't have is the silencing technology.
This rifle also comes in both .22 and .25 cals., and we know the TalonP pistol develops 55 foot-pounds of muzzle energy in .25 cal., so the EscapeSS does the same. Some power is exchanged for quieter operation.
The remainder of the rifle is identical to both the Escape and the EscapeUL — same great trigger, same power adjustability and same small air tank. You can expect to do exactly the same kind of fill pressure and power setting experimentation for this rifle that I did for the Escape, and the results will be similar. Expect that higher-power shots will group more openly and that there will be sectors of air pressure and power settings that will be highly accurate with specific pellets.
What AirForce Airguns has done goes beyond just three new airgun designs. They've given the world a viable trio of survival guns suitable for rugged use away from the traditional support grid. They'll appeal to airgunners who like new guns, but they should also attract shooters whose interest in guns goes beyond the sport and hobby of airgunning.
These three rifles having a promising future as tools in a world where self-reliance has become the watchword. All those who pack one or more bugout bags ought to consider one of these new offerings!
My thanks to Ton Jones, who freely shared his thoughts on the new rifles with me. Thanks also to AirForce airguns (AirForceAirguns.com, 877-247-4867) for providing these three rifles for an extended test and to Pyramyd Air (PyramydAir.com, 888-262-4867) for providing pellets for testing.