Behind the scenes at BSA
Mike Morton visits the shop floor at BSA, and finds out how this company is continuing to fly the flag for the UK airgun industry
Birmingham Small Arms was established in 1861. In Great Britain. That’s an important point, because due to its close ties with its Barcelona-based sister company, Gamo, you could be forgiven for thinking BSA is as much Spanish as it is British, but in fact that’s simply not true.
All BSA’s pre-charged pneumatics are made at the factory in Armoury Road in Birmingham. And with the exception of one Gamo model that’s unavailable in the UK in any case, all Gamo PCPs are produced in the same manufacturing plant as well.
At the moment all the break-barrel springers are manufactured in Spain, although some components, such as the barrel and breech block assemblies, are made here in the UK.
But even that is changing as some spring guns are being made entirely back in the UK, the first of these being the brand new Meteor Super. The exceptions to this are the Italian-made Minelli stocks that have been so well received that they have become something of an industry standard.
The message is clear: BSA is based here in the UK, and it’s a successful company that’s growing. And the company prides itself not only on maintaining its 160-year-old heritage of building guns in Britain, but on building them locally.
Most of the parts and materials are not just made in the UK, but are sourced within a 15-mile radius of the factory, which bolsters the local economy and helps keep down costs, ultimately benefiting the shooter.
While the Gamo factory may be the biggest airgun manufacturing centre outside of China, BSA has more of an influence on Gamo products than the other way round. BSA manages to employ more than 60 people around the world, most of them coming from the Birmingham area and based in the factory in Armoury Road.
Anyone visiting the factory will be given an instant reminder of the company’s pedigree when they walk through the door, thanks to a display of BSA’s piled arms logo made out of air rifles. Visitors can also see one way in which the company tests its products, as the reception area hosts a machine that subjects a PCP that’s been taken at random from the production line to 10,000 shots. The process takes 72 hours to complete and the machine can even be run overnight with the testing being checked via a camera.
BSA is constantly working to develop new products and components, such as the monobloc action that’s used on the new versions of the Ultra, and the smoother cocking links and improved triggers that were designed for the new all-British Meteor Super. The barrels on these guns are also being cut with a standard ½” UNF thread so a moderator can be fitted.
Anyone owning a BSA will be familiar with the company’s famous cold hammer-forged barrels, produced completely in-house, including the finishing and blacking stages. Each barrel starts life as a length of round steel stock, the solid rod initially being cut to one of three barrel lengths before being drilled through, which is the first procedure in forming the bore.
A mandrel, again made in-house, is inserted into the bore and then the barrel is subjected to no fewer than 30,000 hammer blows – a process that takes only two minutes and 30 seconds per barrel to complete. This forms the rifling in the bore, which has a twist rate of 1 in 16.
The hammer blows reduce the diameter of the barrel and also extrude the barrel by work-hardening it. A Super Carbine barrel, for example, which would have measured 12” when it was initially cut to length, will end up measuring 17” after this process.
Barrels destined for use in FAC-rated rifles will be made longer from the outset in order to make them as air-efficient as possible. After hammer-forging, each barrel is inspected to ensure it’s perfectly true.
CNC machinery is used to carry out additional processes such as cutting the crown, cutting the thread on the muzzle, cutting and drilling the transfer port, and creating the lead into the rifling, which is a very slight taper that ensures the pellets are seated evenly and smoothly. The completed metalwork will then be polished and degreased before being treated to blacking.
This is a similar process to blueing, but as the name suggests creates a blacker finish than gun blue. Multiple parts are secured on a rack which is then submerged in a series of chemicals for around 20 minutes, effectively etching the steel and creating a deep black finish that will protect the metal while adding to its aesthetic appeal.
The rifles are then assembled, tested and tuned as necessary, especially regulated actions like those of the R-10. There’s a huge amount of work involved, simply because air rifles, and especially PCPs, are a lot more complicated to build than the average cartridge rifle. Firearm shooters often forget that while the power for their guns is contained within the ammunition, an air rifle has to provide its own.
Each springer is shot around 60 times to get rid of any excess grease and dieseling, and to make sure the rifle is safely within the 12 foot pound legal limit. PCPs need fewer test shots, between 20 to 30, during which time any regulated actions will be tweaked to produce optimum efficiency.
Air cylinders are subjected to a leak test before they are used to build a new gun, but after testing all air must be drained from them before the guns can be shipped as required by UK law. And that’s surely the point. It’s UK law, not Spanish, German, Turkish, Eastern European or Chinese. Because BSA is British – and proud of it.