Theoben has long been absent from the British scene but that’s about to change. Mat Manning talks with Stuart Grant of Elite Optical as the business prepares for the next chapter in the brand’s history.
The news of Elite Optical Distribution’s appointment as UK distributor for RAW, Airforce and, most significantly, Theoben airguns has caused considerable excitement among the airgunning community. The name Theoben has been absent from the new airgun market for a while, and I have no doubt that its return will be welcomed with open arms.
The brainchild of Dave Theobald and Ben Taylor, Theoben was established in St Ives, Cambridge, way back in 1982. Their initial major breakthrough was the invention of the gas-ram power source, which replaced the traditional spring-and-piston setup in their innovative airguns.
Ben’s eureka moment is said to have been inspired by the air-assisted forks on a Suzuki GS1000 motorbike. Adapted into an airgun powerplant, the mechanism delivered a faster lock-time and greatly improved longevity, and also facilitated serious high-power performance.
Theoben’s famous gas-ram range included hallowed names such as the Sirocco, Fenman and Eliminator to name just a few. These are the guns that my generation hankered after in our teens—until the legendary Theoben Rapid 7 arrived, that is.
The precharged Theoben Rapid 7 rewrote the rule book for what a hunting air rifle should be, and its influence can still be seen in airgun design today. This iconic air rifle exploded on to the scene in the 1990s and was the must-have airgun for any serious hunter. It really captured my imagination as it was used by the late John Darling; my shooting hero and the father of modern air rifle hunting.
This airgun had (by the standards of its time, anyway) a massive shot count and a seven-shot magazine—the design of which is still echoed in numerous modern airguns. I desperately wanted to own a Theoben Rapid 7, as did most of my mates, but I regret to say that I failed to save up enough to buy one before newer models seduced me away from what many regard as the original sporting PCP.
It looks like I’ll get another chance to grab myself a Theoben when the new breed hits the gun shop racks in the very near future. I caught up with Elite Optical’s sales director, Stuart Grant, to see what we can expect.
What sort of reaction have you received from the UK airgun shooting community since the RAW, Airforce and Theoben announcement?
I knew that Theoben held a special place in the heart of many shooters in the UK and we expected there to be a lot of interest in the reintroduction of the brand, but in reality the reaction has been a little overwhelming. Not only have we received a lot of enquiries about the guns, but there are lots of people searching for spares and upgrade parts for older models, which we will be able to supply in the coming months.
We expected a strong reaction to the Theoben products, but I have also found that dealers and members of the shooting community are well informed about the RAW and Airforce guns and their links back to Theoben.
What are the first guns we should expect to see arriving in the UK and when are we likely to see them?
We have the RAW HMX1000 on order with the factory. This is the flagship model in the range and the Theoben heritage flows right through it. In fact, this gun shares most of its design with the original Theoben models and has been subtly improved to boost performance and reliability. We will offer this with a choice of two styles of stock, a traditional laminate available in a choice of colours and an AR-style chassis system with loads of adjustment and options for aftermarket accessories.
We also have the Airforce Talon SS on the first shipment. This gun delivers a high-quality, single-shot PCP with a target-grade barrel in a lightweight package. We also plan to introduce the FAC-powered Texan, which is available in some large calibres for long-range pest control.
Our first batch of HMX1000 and Airforce guns are currently in production in the factory in the US and will be available in the UK soon.
How does it feel to be bringing the Theoben brand back to the UK?
It is a privilege to work with such a well-regarded brand and move Elite Optical in a new direction. Theoben has a reputation for producing high-end, no-compromise airguns—this will be a good fit in our range alongside Spuhr mounts, Accu-Tac bipods and other brands that share this no-compromise approach to manufacturing their respective products.
The UK market is also an important one for the factory and we will be working closely with them and our dealers to rebuild interest in this excellent range of products.
What is the situation with the production of Theoben airguns? Who is involved, where are they made and which models are being produced?
Theoben, RAW and Airforce (previously sold in the UK as Gunpower) are all manufactured in the US by Auto-Numatic Corp. It also manufactures the famous BKL mounts from its base in Fort Worth, Texas. It specialises in machining and manufacturing airgun components and accessories.
Combine all that with the continued involvement of Martin Rutterford—formerly of Theoben—who left the UK and created the RAW brand in the US, and you have a powerful manufacturing partnership. Martin is still responsible for overseeing the final assembly and pre-delivery testing, ensuring that the new guns meet the expected levels of accuracy and quality.
Are the new generation of Theoben airguns made to original specifications or have they had any tweaks?
We have all of the blueprints for the original Theoben PCP guns and we will be releasing a select number of these models at some point in the future, though we have no specific date at this time.
The RAW HMX gun is seeing massive demand in the US, and the UK market will be adding to that. Every gun is hand-built, tested and tuned in the US, not mass-produced, so scaling production up requires careful planning. The factory wants to focus on supplying 100% of the demand for the RAW guns before adding more models.
RAW is the American brand born out of Theoben. To my mind, the RAW HMX should not be considered as a separate brand—more like a modestly updated progression of the Theoben concept. The design, engineering and
heritage of Theoben should be immediately apparent to anyone who handles and shoots the RAW HMX guns.
Will there ever be any new Theoben models or will they just be sticking with the proven classics?
The way I look at it, the RAW HMX is the new model in the Theoben line. It’s building on the classic engineering and design with subtle improvements to improve the shooting experience. The result is pretty special.
Currently there are no plans for new models in the Theoben line, but the team in the factory are ambitious and passionate about airguns and always looking for ways to improve their products. RAW is the dominant brand that is recognised in the US, with Theoben being better recognised over here. As new models of gun are released, they are likely to be sold as RAW guns in the US and added to the Theoben brand for sale in the UK.
What is next for Elite Optical?
It has been a roller-coaster first three years of trading for Elite. Watching the growth of HIK Vision/HIK Micro as we launched its range of thermal monoculars and riflescopes has been very exciting. The company has a lot of innovative new products arriving over the next six months, which we are looking forward to launching. We are also developing our own brand called WULF. That will offer an excellent range of night-vision and conventional optics.
The most satisfying part of the job for me is the relationships we are building with dealers right across the country. I look forward to working with them to get the most out of the new opportunity with Theoben, RAW and Airforce