Tim McMurray and Dennis O'Flaherty talk to American airgun entrepreneur Robert Beeman
by Tim McMurray and Dennis O'Flaherty
Text only reproduced from an article about 1990* in the British airgun magazine: Airgun World

There are, no doubt, some of you, just thawed out from a chunk of glacier along with your pet woolly mammoth or recently returned from a couple of light years spent mapping the footpaths of Jupiter - who have never heard of Dr Robert Beeman. Most regular Airgun World readers, however, will recognise the name at once as belonging to the Yank behind the C1 Carbine, the machine-tooled Silver Jet pellet, and a large number of other major airgunning goodies.

You probably won't know a great deal about the man himself, though. Even here in the states - where the offerings of Beeman Precision Arms are familiar to every shooting sports enthusiast - little is known about the history of the firm or its President. Constantly on the move, involved in every detail of advertising, marketing and financing for a company that sells a variety of high quality firearms as well as airguns, Dr Beeman seldom comes to rest long enough to give an interview. As such, your intrepid authors count themselves very fortunate to have secured what amounts to an unprecedented scoop!

Like most US airgunners, Dr Beeman can trace his love of air-powered shooting back to a childhood BB gun - given to him when he was only six years old, 'just about a half century ago'. As Dr Beeman recalls: 'Many BB guns and pellet guns followed', and he soon found himself involved in every aspect of the sport, from hunting to DlY modifications.

As we've noted here before, however, airguns have traditionally been 'kids' stuff' to US shooters, who still tend to regard them as merely an entree to rimfire and then big-bore cartridge shooting. Dr Beeman followed this tradition, leaving airguns behind as he grew up.

Aniline-Dye Markers

Not for long, though, because his chosen career as a professional naturalist actually led him to design an airgun out of necessity! Working on a master's thesis involving the migration of elk in Idaho's wilderness country, Dr. Beeman found himself up against the problem of tracking them single-handed in a 200 square mile study area. As he pored over his multi-coloured study map, he found himself thinking ruefully that if only the damned elk were different colours, tracking them would be a cinch!

Inspiration struck a moment later, and as you've probably guessed, the young naturalist shortly found himself building a battery of compressed airguns to fire aniline-dye markers. Set as trap weapons along forest trails, the guns were fired by the passage of any large animal, and it's quite possible that not all the victims were elk. Dr. Beeman later heard rumours of rainbow-hued hunters and rangers coming out of his study area, but fortunately none of them was able to trace the culprit!

With the elk all nicely sorted young Beeman, now with an MA, turned to teaching and soon received a National Science Foundation scholarship enabling him and a select body of other science teachers to return to University for further studies. In Dr. Beeman's case, this meant Stanford University and extensive research into marine biology, which covered the whole spectrum from sailing expeditions in the South Pacific to sub-molecular journeys with an electron microscope.

Finally adding the title of Doctor to his credentials, the freshly-minted marine biologist became a professor at San Francisco State University, where he organised and chaired their first Department of Marine Biology.

Enough to keep anyone busy for quite a while you would suppose. As it happens, however, that pesky little airgun demon we all know so well had been re-awakened by the elk-zapping interlude, and Dr. Beeman soon found himself answering -a classified advert paced by one of the pioneers of US adult airgunning, Robert Law.

English and European Quality

Operating an outfit in West Virginia, called Air Rifle Headquarters, Law published an interesting and informative newsletter and did his best to spread the word on high quality English and European airguns among the stubbornly know-nothing US firearms shooters. Dr. Beeman, of course, needed no convincing. Once he had ordered a couple of the new guns and tried them out with his wife - and close collaborator Toshiko, he found himself well and truly in the grip of the bug.

As he looked more deeply into the question, Dr. Beeman found, to his surprise, that some of the biggest firms in the world of US shooting had tried to launch guns of this type, but without success. These firms included such outfits as Winchester, Stoeger Arms and Hy-Score, but a large percentage of their substantial imports still sat unwanted on warehouse shelves. 

Why was this? Almost every shooter who tried one of these guns expressed instant delight and astonishment that a “mere pellet gun' could be that good. And yet the guns themselves were going unsold!

As Dr. Beeman remarks, he and Toshiko soon realised 'that over 99 percent of American shooters had never even heard of such guns'! The efforts of such pioneers as Robert Law were reaching only a hard-core audience of committed airgun enthusiasts, while the big companies were trying to introduce them at the jobber/distributor level, with virtually no advertising support.

The problem was made even worse by the fact that the average American shooter had a clear and firmly fixed picture of BB guns and pellet guns as something produced in the United States by companies such as Crosman, Daisy, Benjamin, Marksman and Sheridan for school-age shooters. The idea that someone might offer a German or an English air rifle and ask the same price for it as a firearm was bound to be regarded as either crazy or a swindle -or possibly both at once!

Visiting the Weihrauch, Feinwerkbau and Dianawerk factories as early as 1972, the Beemans found themselves drawn more towards the idea of having-a-go where the giants had failed. The effort was going to have to be a double-edged one, and new approaches would have to be taken in both publicity and marketing.

Here, the Beemans each had major contributions to offer. Dr Beeman with the writing and research skills gained from his academic work, and Toshiko with the hands-on commercial experience gained as a buyer for a major department store.

Soon a flood of publicity began pouring from Dr Beeman's typewriter, culminating in the famous Beeman catalogue, a compendium which recognised the fact that the average American shooter wouldn't have the foggiest notion what gun to order until he or she had been instructed from the ground up in the fundamentals of airgun technology and use.

The other major problem, namely the resistance of gun dealers to the idea of 'BB guns that cost that much' and the attendant spectre of 'kids hanging around the shop', was met ingeniously by encouraging the several thousand early mail-order customers to lobby their local dealers to sell the adult airgun idea.

Soon Dr Beeman found himself choosing full-time airguns over academic life and not long after Toshiko said goodbye to the department store and pitched in. The rest is history. Before long, a nationwide network of some 40 sales reps had been set up, the small original staff had expanded to more than 50 employees, and the annual sales figures passed their first million and kept climbing.

Though substantial enough, the volume of early orders didn't justify involvement with any special models. The first Beeman magnum airgun was the Beeman/Feinwerkbau 124, which, although given a few special touches for the American market - such as higher power, an all-metal trigger mechanism and a large '0' ring breech seal - was essentially the basic European gun.

As the Beeman operation stabilised, however, and its volume of orders from Weihrauch increased, it. became possible to consider requesting the production of a gun to Beeman specifications, and the first candidate for modification was the HW35. Dr Beeman and Toshiko had long admired the Weihrauch rifle for its production quality and fine trigger, but it had never done well on the US market.

As the Beemans worked the problem over, they discovered that all the spring piston airguns on the market at that time had been developed empirically, more on the basis of tradition than in a spirit of experiment and creative design. It seemed clear that the HW35 had a theoretical power potential which wasn't being met, and the question was answered by running a series of computer simulations, varying one factor of the gun after another, which achieved with some speed what would have taken at least 50 experimental prototypes to establish empirically.

Finally, with a complete set of design parameters worked out, the Beemans met with Mr. & Mrs. Weihrauch in California and set forth their plan. While keeping the basic elements of the HW35 intact, the Beemans proposed sweeping changes in detail, from the abolition of the unpopular barrel catch, the introduction of an automatic safety, to power-plant modifications, and a handsome new stock co-designed by Dr Beeman and; master stock maker Gary Goudy.

The result was the Beeman R1, possibly the best known spring piston airgun on the US market. At the same time, an agreement was reached that stated: 'Although the Beeman concept would be produced to our specifications as the Beeman R1, the Weihrauchs would pay for the development costs and do the final engineering and thus be free to produce similar versions under their own name in other markets. These other versions were designated as the HW80, one version of which appeared on the British market even before the R1 because of delays in producing the R1's special stock'.

The most thoroughly 'Beeman' gun to result from this symbiotic relationship with the Weihrauch firm is the pistol known to Airgun World readers as the HW45. Deciding that there was a definite market gap for a high powered, spring-piston sporting air pistol, the Beemans worked out the concept, basic design and performance/operator specifications of the gun which they designated as the Beeman P1. In fact, the nifty receiver latch designed as a mock hammer was a particular inspiration of Toshiko's.

Once again, the agreement with Weihrauch gave them freedom to market their own version in return for development and production costs, so that most shooters on Airgun World's side of the Atlantic have no idea that their favourite sidearm was born in California!

Never content to rest on their laurels, the Beemans continue to bring new ideas to American airgunners, looking for the best guns that Europe and the UK .have to offer as well as optics and pellets produced in the Far East. The past year has seen the launch of a .25 calibre version of the R1 and the introduction of an excellent new .25 calibre pellet from H & N. Added to this Beeman have also introduced an upgraded CO2 match pistol from Feinwerkbau, its new single-stroke pneumatic stablemate, and a CO2 match rifle -  all from Feinwerkbau.

Benefits For Firearms

The firearms side of the Beeman company, comprising rimfire match weapons from Feinwerkbau as well as other high quality rimfire match guns and centrefire weapons, has occasionally benefited from the airgun side of the business. An example of this is the well known 'SS' series of short scopes, which were designed to take advantage of a short and incredibly precise optical column that had been developed for another, unrelated optical purpose. While the SS-1 scope and its successors were ideal for airguns, they turned out to be even better for use on full-auto assault guns and machine pistols, bringing the Beemans a welcome flood of orders from SWAT and other anti-terrorist teams worldwide. As always, though, Dr Beeman's first .love is the spring piston mechanism, and when asked what his thoughts on the future of airguns in the US are, he responds confidently that it will rest with spring piston sporters for a long time to come. While match shooters and hard core airgun enthusiasts - probably not numbering more than a few tens of thousands nationwide -may find themselves attracted to pre-charged pneumatics and high quality CO2 guns, the big market, comprising the millions of firearms shooters from California to Maine, is likely to continue to regard the airgun as something for casual small game and pest hunting, backyard target shooting and just plain 'plinking'. For these shooters, the ease of use of the normal spring piston gun makes it a natural, and we tend to agree with Dr Beeman that the spring piston system will continue to be the choice of the majority of US adult airgunners. Meanwhile, however, we can count on Beeman Precision Arms to keep abreast of all the latest developments in the world of airgunning, and to keep a selection of the best ready for its many customers. For while Dr Beeman has become phenomenally successful as a merchandiser of airguns, he always retains the instincts of a shooter. As he writes: 'While airguns are now built to standards that delight even the most serious gun buffs, they are still great for fun!'

*We have only a photocopy of this article in our files. It was published in Airgun World magazine about 1990. We would appreciate anyone who could give us the date of the issue and the page numbers. See Contact Us.

Now, it is very interesting to compare what Mr. MacMurray says above and his negative comments in Brickbats.