Airgun shooting – Tony Belas talks to Mat Manning about the industry’s future

Mat Manning talks industry, electronics and future innovations with airgun aficionado Tony Belas of Daystate, Brocock and MTC Optics.

“A number of ideas that I would not have followed have turned into a resounding success”

Tony Belas knows a lot about airguns. Not only has he worked for leading British gunmaker Daystate for more than two decades, he has also been a keen shooter since he was just 12 years old.

From humble beginnings with an Original Model 22, Tony joined the Royal British Legion shooting team, where he specialised in .22 LR and went on to become an under-15 champion. In 1972, he joined the British Army, beginning a 22-year career in the infantry.

Here, his passion for shooting continued to grow and he became coach of his regimental shooting team. In 1986, Tony embraced the rapidly growing air rifle field target shooting scene, which gave him his introduction to Daystate precharged air rifles. He went on to shoot as a member of the Daystate FT team and eventually joined the business in 2000.

In the 20 years following his appointment, Tony has had numerous roles at Daystate, which now also encompasses Brocock airguns and MTC Optics. He currently heads the media and marketing team, focusing on social media for the three companies.

Daystate has a global reputation for pushing the boundaries of airgun design—initially with the introduction of electronic internals and most recently with the launch of its ground-breaking Delta Wolf—and Tony has been closely involved with these remarkable projects. With all that in mind, I decided to pick his brains about the modern airgun scene and where it might be going.

MM: What single development do you think has brought about the biggest advancement in airgun performance at Daystate?

TB: When you look at the difference between the then cutting-edge Daystate Huntsman FTR from 1987 and the Delta Wolf launched in 2020, you really see how far airguns, and especially Daystate, have moved on. The hallmark of the company over the past 20 years has been its development of powerful electronic airguns, yet even if these didn’t exist the mechanical Daystate rifles have moved on considerably and would be a match for anything else, even if our world-leading electronic Daystates did not exist.

MM: Which airgun in the Daystate or Brocock line-up are you most proud of and why?

TB: I think Red Wolf as I was intimately involved with electronic development back in its early days and the latest Red Wolf Heritage [pictured below] really is the apex of that development. As for Brocock, I love the Safari XR as the semi bullpup idea was the end design from the mid-’90s Bull pup SR92 rifle, yet the final semi bullpup version did not make it to market. The fact that the concept was picked up and developed years later by the current team and has done so magnificently is immensely satisfying and makes me want to go back to the 1995 team and say, “See—we were on the right track after all.”

MM: MTC Optics’s short-eye relief Prismatic scopes are becoming the choice of many airgun shooters. What are their key advantages?

TB: With Daystate developing a bullpup (the Pulsar) and the Brocock rifles at the same time, it suddenly became clear that shorter scopes and shorter eye relief were more desirable. The market has in the past eight years become infatuated with short and light and this development allowed MTC Optics to take the popular Viper Connect and develop it further. It’s another example of an idea thought of years before only becoming a reality when the market was ready for it.

Fixed, high-magnification scopes have many advantages but the one disadvantage—field of view and light gathering—is suddenly removed when you reduce eye relief as this triples the field of view. The Prismatic design makes the scopes incredibly short and that reduces bulk and weight, allowing wider and brighter lenses to be used. The only remaining downside is cost, and that is mitigated by many more shooters being far more willing to shell out whatever is necessary for the scope they want.

MM: Daystate’s limited-edition airguns are incredibly popular and enjoy a cult-like status. What do you put their success down to?

TB: The history behind the limited editions is pretty interesting as initially it was another way of trying out different ideas without it costing development time and money making prototypes that then get disguarded.

In 1997 we made a special edition, the CR97 SE, and from that the idea developed into a titanium Millennium Rifle and then, two years later, onto the very first limited edition: the Merlyn LE. Just 50 of these were made. From there it has developed into almost an annual event, where we are always trying something new. Which is why when you look at any limited edition there is always something slightly risky being tried, and sometimes that makes it to production… and sometimes not.

The limited edition rifles always invoke a big internal debate with a case being made for one feature or another. I am slightly less vocal about it these days and a number of ideas that I would not have followed have turned into a resounding success. Because of the pandemic the company missed out 2020 and has just released the Red Wolf Heritage, a stunning looking Limited Edition that I’m pretty sure will do well—it’s gorgeous.

MM: There is a huge amount of interest in high-power airguns right now, and Daystate and Brocock are big players in that market. Are sub-12 shooters losing out or gaining from advancements in high-power design?

TB: When I first worked with the company in the late 1980s we exported a handful of airguns abroad. By 2000, this figure was up to 10% and by 2010, 30%. Today we export way more than 50%. This affects design when power, adjustability and quietness of an otherwise very loud rifle have to be designed in at the start. So, to a degree, yes they are, but it’s unavoidable.

Airgun law is well established and is not about to change, but be sure that Daystate and Brocock conform to the actual law, not rumour or gossip. In reality, a lot of time is spent keeping as many features into the 12ft/lb guns and these guns are developed in tandem with the high-power version, not an afterthought as you see so often on imports.

MM: What do you say to people who claim electronic rifles are either too complicated or don’t work in wet weather?

TB: This always makes me smile. In everyday life we are surrounded with the most complex electronic systems; everything we touch involves electronics and I am not writing this with a typewriter or pencil. There is nothing that complicated with an electronic airgun that would make it anything but reliable, and it uses—in the main—proven technology. As to waterproofing, well, the UK is somewhat known for its wet weather, it would be hard to miss that detail over the past 19 years that we have been developing and manufacturing electronic airguns.

MM: For years there have been calls for Daystate to make a springer. Would this ever happen?

TB: It’s been looked at but nothing has ‘floated our boat’ yet. It’s a very different market, mostly centred around volume of scale and affordability. Making basic, low-cost rifles is not really our business model, but the market is maturing constantly and we have no problems with the format.

MM: What are your thoughts on the current craze for airgun slugs and can you see them ever replacing pellets?

TB: Hard to say, early days yet. The limit isn’t technology, it’s how much a shooter is willing to pay for a projectile. Currently, a good-quality pellet costs 3p and a slug costs upwards of 9p. If shooters are willing to pay this then companies will sell and develop the slug to be more usable, and manufacturers will adapt their barrels to suit.

At the moment, the slug makers are making slugs to work in the barrels fitted by manufacturers, but this will change as volumes go up and if it is seen that shooters are willing to pay the higher prices. Incidentally, slugs do work in current airgun barrels when driven at slower speeds, and I have seen some quite good results for slugs set at
12ft/lb—but not really better than a pellet and, of course, at three times the price.

MM: What do you believe to be the biggest hurdle currently faced by the airgun industry?

TB: Currently in the UK it’s international shipping. But once the pandemic is over, flight numbers go up and the EU gets used to the fact we have left, then on the bigger world picture it’s encroachment of Chinese manufacturers copying European designs. Like everywhere, they started slowly and now make more airguns than the rest of the world put together. Eventually they could dominate and that may stagnate or even stop development.

MM: The Daystate Delta Wolf’s clever electronics have taken tunability to the next level. Is this the last word in airgun design or is there still more to come and, if so, what do you regard as the key remaining areas for development?

TB: There is always more to come; it’s human nature, especially when you have a company that enjoys making exciting new products. Mind you, with Delta Wolf the bar is set rather high. I expect it to remain as the flagship for some time to come. However, whatever comes next I do hope we never launch it at the beginning of a world-changing event like COVID-19. Mind you, nobody saw that one coming!

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