Rimfire devotee Tim Pilbeam is intrigued by Daystate’s .303 Wolverine PCP air rifle, but how will it compare to his tried and tested rimfires?
When asked if I could test an air rifle, I must admit, I had to bite my lip. But my interest was sparked immediately when “.303 calibre” and “120ft/lbs” were uttered.
It has been 35 years since I used an air rifle for serious vermin control. Once I was of legal age to use a firearm, I jumped ship with no regrets. Having said that, my .177 break barrel air rifle was responsible for dispatching hundreds of rabbits and, as most shots were below 35 yards, it taught me the art of stalking and fieldcraft. On one memorable occasion, I was crawling on my belly towards a young coney when a badger appeared from the hedge. It walked to within two yards of me, stopped and cluttered off in a scamper. Viewing through a scope full of black and white was exhilarating and damned frightening (the rabbit was also lucky).
I am no expert on air rifles and will not venture into the more technical details, but can an air rifle be a capable substitute for a rimfire? The Daystate .303 Wolverine, after years of development, is a PCP (pre-charged pneumatic) air rifle that shoots 50-grain pellets at around 1,000fps with power of up to 120ft/lbs. Any air rifle that produces power over 12ft/lbs, requires a Firearms Certificate just like the rimfire.
The first thing I noticed was the size and bulk of the Wolverine. It is larger than most centrefire and rimfire rifles due to the beautifully sculptured high stock and pressurised air receiver that sits below the barrel. It may be hefty, but it looks stunning. Showing off some impressive engineering, the clean lines and blend of wood, silver action and matt black barrel make it visually pleasing.
A weight of 9.5lbs, while not entirely surprising, conflicted with my potentially narrow-minded memories of very light air rifles from years ago. The stock is made from high quality Turkish Walnut with an ambidextrous, high cheek piece that makes viewing through the optics comfortable. The butt pad is fully adjustable, allowing for all shooting positions, but it is the pistol grip that feels best. Thanks to the high quality stippling around the grip, it seems to be ergonomically spot on, allowing the thumb to remain vertical and in line with the action. The lack of grip to the front of the forend is an interesting omission, as I imagine many shots will be taken standing.
Moving on to the metalwork, the bright action dominates the Wolverine. Due to the immense pressures required for the 120ft/lbs maximum performance, the action is substantial. Made from expensive but strong titanium alloy, it eliminates flexing and acts as a rigid chassis. The bolt is smooth to use and, with the help of an Allen key, the handle can be swapped over to accommodate a left-handed shooter. An ambidextrous design is a priority, and the five-shot rotary magazine can be loaded from either side of the action.
The 23in barrel, made by Lothar Walther, is finished in matt black and has a shroud around it to absorb the exiting air. The 300cc-capacity air receiver allows 10 to 12 shots at 100ft/lbs at a maximum of 250 bar, though the only practical way to load this beast is by using an air bottle. To control these immense pressures, the trigger mechanism must be faultless – this is not a concern thanks to the two-stage mechanical assembly protected by a side-moving safety on the rear of the action. Cleverly, the trigger can only be activated when the bolt is in the forward locked position.
The combination of a superior action, quality barrel and advanced trigger assembly is essential for sustainable performance. To guarantee 100ft/lbs through the Wolverine’s life is a major engineering challenge, explaining the years of expensive development by Daystate. I am no expert on air rifles, but articles and experts suggest that Daystate has produced a state-of-the-art, cutting edge and high performance air rifle. This means nothing to me unless it performs in the field.
For the test I am using a Leupold VX1 3-9 x 50, kindly loaned from importers GMK. For ammunition, a joint venture between Emperor and Daystate has produced hefty 50.5-grain pellets made of a lead-based material similar to most common air rifles.
Considering that most .22 air rifle pellets weigh 18 grains, this perhaps explains why there is so much interest in it as a hunting calibre.
As for charging, using an air bottle is new to me, but once mastered the operation takes about 30 seconds. Having to rely on a heavy gas cylinder is certainly a limitation, and you wouldn’t want to carry it around in the field.
Against the shoulder, the rifle feels balanced despite its bulk and weight. The rear hand fit the pistol grip well, giving my trigger finger total control of the blade, and the two-stage trigger was a delight to use. The bolt has to be firmly pulled backwards to the end of its travel to prime the system. Shooting was comfortable, with slight noticeable recoil, but it was the load report from the muzzle that was surprising. It was noisy and needed moderating, though I understand this is being developed.
With the zero set to 50 yards, I compared the .303 Wolverine to the rimfires. The .22 rimfire was my old, reliable bolt action Anschutz 1417 mounted with a budget Tasco 6 x40mm scope. Being the carbine model, it has a 16in barrel with an unknown moderator, ideal for shooting rabbit from pick-ups and tractors. Using low velocity subsonic ammunition, I zero this calibre at 50 yards for rabbit control. The .17 HMR, is a CZ 455 Thumbhole Varmint with 16in varmint profiled barrel, a variety of moderators, and a Weaver Classic 4-16x42mm scope with Millet mounts – all supplied by Edgar Brothers. This is a popular, proven rimfire from CZ, zeroed at 100 yards and fully capable of accurate headshots on rabbits to beyond 120 yards (I absolutely rave about this calibre).
As the comparison table shows, perhaps the .17 HMR is in a league of its own, but there are closer comparisons to be made between the .22 subsonic rimfire and .303 Wolverine – such as velocity, energy and bullet weight. Bearing in mind that both are zeroed at 50 yards, the bullet drop (and windage) of the .303 and .22 at 70 yards are very similar. The air rifle achieved a grouping of 1-1.5in, the 22 1in, and the .17 HMR realised an expected 1.25in at 100 yards, all shot in windy conditions. Perhaps the Wolverine should have performed better? As mentioned, the .303 was much noisier than the moderated .22, making more of a loud thud, but it was not as noticeable as the crack from the feisty HMR.
Comparing an air rifle pellet to a bullet is an interesting exercise. One of the selling points of the high-powered .303 is its down range safety. The pellet is malleable lead that is apparently softer than .22 low velocity hollow points, reducing the worry of ricochets. Apparently, the drop-off of performance after 100 yards is dramatic, making down range safety less of a concern compared to the .22 rimfire, renowned for noisy ricochets.
Bearing this in mind, I tested the penetration of all three calibres on dead rabbits, expecting the pellet to either totally break up or expand. The .22 and the .303 pellets showed similar expansion, while the HMR 17-gram polymer tipped bullets fragmented, causing massive trauma. As seen on the Fieldsports Channel (aired 24 September), I tested the Wolverine at night on rabbits with mixed results. Several rabbits did not drop immediately after being shot, with pellets passing through hard tissue and exiting cleanly. A .22 subsonic has better knock down capability, but we only had the rifle for two days and struggled with the accuracy that night.
So what is my conclusion? The .303 Wolverine seems cheaper to run, as the ammunition is slightly less expensive than .22 pellets (see table), but one must factor in purchasing an air bottle at around £300 and subsequent refilling of air at £10 a go. With the rifle only having a capacity for 10-12 shots before recharging, I think it will put many air rifle hunters off, not forgetting its extra weight.
For curiosity’s sake, I borrowed a .22 30ft/lbs FAC-rated air rifle and found it grouped 0.5in at 50 yards and 1.25in at 100 yards. In the right hands, 100-yard headshots are taken on rabbits with 70-yard kills being the norm. But why produce a .303 calibre 120ft/lbs air rifle that shoots 50.5-grain pellets, when a normal 30ft/lbs FAC model shooting 18-grain projectiles does the same job at a significantly lower price?
I am not an air rifle expert, but it seems there is huge interest from the overseas market, where hunting with large calibre air rifles is very popular. With an RRP of £1,500, the Daystate .303 Wolverine has generated huge curiosity. It is a very specialised air rifle, and when compared to the cost of the average rimfire at £400-700, I know what my preference would be. I am biased, so what do I know? But it was very interesting to shoot the .303 Wolverine.
I cannot comment on how successful the .303 concept will be, but I expect Daystate will be using the new action for other projects, which will be very exciting for the industry to see how it develops.
|.303 Daystate Wolverine||.22 LR Anschutz 1417 Carbine||.17 HMR CZ 455 Thumbhole Varmint|
|Muzzle velocity (fps)||950||1050 (subsonic)||2500|
|Muzzle energy (ft/lbs)||100 – 120||116 (subsonic)||245 (17g)|
|Bullet weight||50.5 (pellet)||40||17-20|
|Bullet make up||Soft lead||Harder lead, hollow point||Copper jacket, lead core, ballistic tip|
|Ammo price (per 100)||£7.50||£10||£30|
|Rifle weight||9.5 lbs||5.2 lbs||7.5 lbs|
|Power required per shot||6bar (10-12 pre fill at 100ft/lbs)||n/a||n/a|