It seems that speargun history is repeating itself. Back in the day, the earliest spear guns were made of wood with rubber bands. Soon, however, the pursuit of a better gun yielded many new technologies like pneumatics, CO2, hydro pneumatic, spring, and even gun
powder. While the hunt for the best spear gun technology has been fun, today many of the most serious undersea hunters have returned to wooden, band-powered guns. Having said that, there are still a plethora of options available to today’s undersea hunter, and this primer will help you get started on choosing the best gun for your specific needs.
Part 1: Two Types of Spearguns Dominate the Market Today
There are two main types of spearguns— Pneumatic and band powered—that dominate the market today. Of these two speargun types, band powered guns are the most popular guns on the market. They are silent when shot and very easy to maintain (if need repairing). Band powered spearguns can be categorized into three types:
Pneumatic spearguns were very popular in the 1960s and 70s, but today they are only popular in some parts of the world. These powerful weapons present minimal recoil and make long shots possible with a certain degree of accuracy. The power of a pneumatic gun can be increased depending on the amount of air pumped into it; however, since the gun needs to be loaded by the diver, the gun’s power is limited to the strength of the hunter (although special loading devices and good technique can minimize the strength required to load the gun). Pneumatic spearguns can be categorized as those with “Hi-Low” power actuators and those without.
For the most part pneumatic spearguns use a thick 8mm (5/16”) shaft (spear) which is very difficult to bend, offers great impact, and penetration on larger fish. The gun’s length is measured from the handle to the tip of the muzzle, with common sizes including 55cm, 70cm, 90cm, 100cm, 110cm, and even 135cm (21.7” to 59”). In general, smaller pneumatic guns can be loaded quickly and easily, but larger ones may be both difficult to load and require special loading tools. In both cases, the diver using a pneumatic speargun needs a loader at all times.
Some pneumatic spearguns have a Hi-Lo power actuator. This devise can shut off the main reservoir of air and allows for close-range shots, easy loading for larger guns with higher pressure, and trouble-free discharging of the gun before exiting the water.
While pneumatic spearguns offer a reliable, compact and powerful gun, there are some down sides that must be considered. For example, aiming can be challenging with a pneumatic speargun since the shaft exits from the center of a larger cylinder. In addition, pneumatic guns are noisy when fired, which can scare other fish within the area. Finally, pneumatic spearguns require more maintenance including additional servicing and inspection to prevent the compressed air from leaking and overall mechanism failure.
Band-powered spear guns are very popular the world over. They are powerful, accurate
weapons that are virtually silent when fired. Aiming is easy with a band-powered gun, especially with open muzzles where the diver can see the complete path of the shaft. Unlike Pneumatic spear guns, this gun’s power can be increased dramatically simply by adding more bands, which a diver can load one at a time thus achieving great combined power. Band-powered spear guns also require very little maintenance.
Most band-powered spearguns use a 6.5mm or 7mm (9/32”) shaft. Band-powered spearguns are measured from the muzzle to the handle. Popular lengths include 50cm, 75cm, 90cm, 100cm, 110cm, and 130cm (19.7” to 51.2”). The barrels on band-powered spearguns are made of aluminum, carbon fiber or wood. No special loader is required to load a band-powered gun, but it is recommended that the diver wears gloves and a chest loading pad as protection. Multi-band guns require more time to load, which increases depending on how many bands are installed on the gun.
One of the few downsides to using a band powered gun is the thin shaft thickness. The 6mm to 7mm (9/32”) shafts commonly employed for use with a band-powered gun will frequently bend if used on larger fish.
European Style Spear Gun (Euro Gun)
This style of spear gun is the most popular band-powered gun in Europe and is now gaining acceptance in the United States. It is a highly maneuverable, silent, and fairly easy to load weapon designed for smaller fishes of up to 10 lbs. (3Kgs).
In general, the Euro gun uses thin shafts of 6 to 7.5mm with a single barb. The gun is measured from the tip of the muzzle to the handle, with the most common sizes being 90cm, 100cm, 110cm, 120cm, and 130cm (19.7” to 51.2”). The low profile, round barrels (about 25 to 30mm (about an inch) in diameter) on most Euro guns are made of aluminum, carbon fiber or wood. The handle is plastic with a stainless steel mechanism, and either a plastic or stainless trigger. The muzzle is plastic where a single band usually screws in or double is usually used. No special loader is required to load this gun. The shooting line attaches to a hole at the back end of the shaft, which minimizes drag, adds length to the line, and shortens the stringing line. Common band thicknesses are 16mm, 18mm, and 20mm.
The only real downside to the Euro gun is the shaft size and the likelihood of bending it if larger fish are targeted.
The rail gun is a newbie to spearguns, and is most popular in South Africa and Australia. This band-powered gun evolved from the Euro gun and is popular with divers wanting the benefits of a Euro gun (see above) with thicker shaft lengths to target large pelagic fish at longer ranges.
Rail guns use shafts of 7 to 8mm, with a single barb. The gun is measured in the same manner that the Euro gun is measured, but the rail gun’s barrel has thicker walls, which reduce barrel flex on guns of up to 150cm (59.1”). The shaft is guided by the gun’s namesake rail (also know as a shaft guide), which runs along the full length of the barrel. This rail guide ensures the shaft is launched perfectly straight making the gun very accurate. Like the Euro gun, the shooting line on the rail gun attaches to a hole at the back end of the shaft. The handle is plastic with a stainless steel mechanism and plastic trigger. Rail guns possess a plastic muzzle that will accommodate one to three bands that wrap around the openings on the muzzle. Band thickness depends on the number of bands, but a gun with double bands will accommodate 16 to 18mm bands, and single-band guns will take one 20mm band.
The biggest downside to the rail gun is that the rail, while adding accuracy, also makes the gun a bit noisy when fired.
The speargun is truly an American innovation, and the American-style spear gun is still a reliable weapon of choice. It is a particularly powerful and well-balanced gun capable of handling large game.
American-style spearguns use thicker shafts (from 8 to 9mm) with threads at the tip to accommodate double barbed spear tips or slip tip mechanisms. This gun is usually made of wood (Generally Mahogany, Teak, or Padauk) with the highest quality stainless steel mechanism that can hold multiple loaded bands. Since wood is dense, American-style guns are well balanced and can accommodate up to six or more bands This makes them exceedingly powerful and appropriate for hunting very large species. A plastic muzzle is common, but some manufacturers drill holes in the front end of the stock to hold the bands. Unlike the Euro and the rail guns described above, the shooting line on the American-style spear gun is attached to a slide ring that runs the length of the shaft, stopping at the butt end.
Usually referred to as “hip loaders,” the stock of the American-style gun extends five to ten inches beyond the handle and is usually finished off with a plastic or rubber butt. This extension aides in the loading process as the diver can rest the rubber butt on his/her hip when loading. The size of these guns is usually measured in inches from muzzle to butt, and range from 32 to 60 inches (81.3cm to 152.4cm) in length.
The downsides to the American-style gun are that the slide ring configuration adds an extra line loop to string up between shots, the slide ring set up adds a bit of drag the the shaft when shot and these guns are usually bulky for strength. In addition, maneuverability is less than with a Euro gun, and the slide ring set-up can be noisy due to the slide ring hitting the end of the shaft when fired.
PART 2: Options and Configurations
In addition to choosing a pneumatic or band-powered gun, the diver must make several other choices regarding the spear gun’s length, the shaft (spear) and point type, and the rigging. Here is a brief overview of these options.
Speargun Size (Length)
Choosing the correct length speargun depends on a variety of factors. The three most important factors, however, are the species being hunted, the visibility of the water and the area in which the diver is hunting. Generally-speaking, shorter guns of 50cm to 75cm (19.7” to 29.5”) are useful inside caves and when visibility is poor. Longer guns (over 75cm (30”)) offer a longer reach for pelagic species and difficult to approach game when the water is clear. As an example, a 48-inch (122 cm) gun is ideal in many reef hunting situations, while a 60- or 65-inch (152.6” or 165”) is better for open water hunting when large pelagic species are being targeted.
Shafts range from 6mm to 9mm, and are manufactured out of stainless steel, spring (hardened) stainless steel or galvanized steel. Stainless steel is the best of these materials for resisting corrosion, but it is also the material that bends with the least amount of force. Galvanized steel is stronger, but even galvanized steel will rust after a short period of exposure to salt water. The best compromise is hardened stainless steel. Usually these shafts have a brownish color obtained when the metal was heat treated. This color can be polished off and the shaft will look shiny like stainless steel and remain less prone to bending.
The most common tip for a shaft is the single barb (flopper) style with the points milled directly into the shaft. Shafts with these tips are commonly referred to as either Hawaiian or Tahitian flopper shafts. Hawaiian refers to shafts with floppers on the bottom, and Tahitian refers to shafts with floppers installed on top. These differences do impact the trajectory of the shaft, so the best option varies from gun to gun and is often based on personal preference. The stainless steel flopper is generally about 3 inches (7.6cm) long and is installed about one flopper’s length from the tip of the shaft. The flopper itself provides holding power by “flopping” open (or “engaging”) after penetrating the far side of the fish and then resting perpendicular to the body of the fish and stopping the shaft from pulling back through the hole.
There are also threaded shafts that will accommodate an array of spear tips commonly available on the market. American made shafts have a 6mm metric thread, while some European shafts have a 7mm metric thread. Hawaiian and Tahitian flopper shafts are the most popular shafts, as they are light,accurate, easy to remove from fish, less expensive than threaded tipped shafts, and provide minimal drag.
Most tips are available in pencil-nose (Rock Point Tip) and tri-cut point designs. Pencil-nose points are recommended for more delicate skinned species where only perforation is needed (e.g., species like yellowtail, trevallies, bluefish, (European) pollacks, mackerels, dorados, etc.). Tri-cut points are recommended for thicker skinned, scaled and/or skulled fish where a more aggressive penetration is needed (e.g., species like grouper, parrots, snook, and snapper). A disadvantage of tri-cut tips is the fact that they are more susceptible to damage by banging into rocks or other hard surfaces and will bend and dull far more when compared to a Pencil-nose tips.
Two factors affect a band’s power potential: stretch and diameter. All other things being equal, a 9/16-inch band provides less potential power than a 5/8-inch band. Adding additional bands increases the power potential in a linear fashion (i.e. two 5/8-inch bands yielding 100 pounds (45.4kg) of power potential. Each band, combined, yield 200 pounds (90.7kg)). Bands are frequently made of latex and come in diameters of 9/16-, 5/8-, and 3/4-inch. Some bands come with wishbones already installed, although some divers prefer to buy their own band material and install their own wishbones.
The line attached to the spear shaft is called the shooting line. Shooting line may be attached to the gun, a gun-mounted reel or a floatline. When considering a shooting line, weight is critical, as lighter line means less drag. Shooting lines are commonly available in nylon, Kevlar, monofilament, and stainless steel cable. Other options include braided, waxed and coated. As a rule of thumb, stiffer lines prevent tangles. The strength of shooting lines generally varies between 200 and 1000 pound (90.7kg and 453.6kg) test. Keep in mind, the weakest link in a shooting line is always the point of attachment. Nylon and monofilament shooting lines work well in most situations. They are durable and will last a long time. Although cables may rust or be damaged before nylon and monofilament, cables are a must for big game.
The muzzle is at the business end of the spear gun and both holds the bands (on a band-powered spear gun) and directs the shaft. There are both open and closed muzzle designs. While both open and closed muzzles have their pros and cons, one indisputable advantage to an open muzzle is the line-of-sight gained down the shaft. Open muzzles also tend to be quieter than closed muzzles. Nonetheless, an open muzzle gun is more difficult to reload, and some people feel an open muzzle is not nearly as accurate, especially on a high-end spear gun. Like many things in this sport, the choice of open or closed muzzle often comes down to personal preference.
In addition to being open or closed, muzzles also vary in the type of bands they can accept. Make sure to get either a screw-in or loop muzzle design based on the type of bands you intend to use. Overall, loop bands are less expensive and, in many people’s opinions, more reliable.
Finally, it is important to pay attention to the muzzle material. Nylon muzzles hold up to the force placed on them better than aluminum.
Spearguns are typically rigged with the shooting line attached 1) to the muzzle of the gun with a shock cord, 2) to a gun-mounted reel or 3) to a detachable float line. For small fish, a shooting line with a shock cord that is attached directly to the gun is appropriate. When hunting larger fish, using a shock cord set-up will eventually lead to a lost gun, which is why many big game hunters use a float line.
A float line may either be detachable, so that once the fish is speared, the shooting line automatically transfers onto the floatline, or a floatline may be attached to the gun itself, leaving the gun inline between the float and the speared fish. In most cases, the former is a preferable set-up to the latter, but both can be effective when hunting big game.
A gun-mounted reel is a real advantage when spearfishing in areas where obstructions such as pilings or kelp may be present. In these situations, the float line can get fouled easily and become more of a hindrance than a help.
When it comes to spearguns, there is enormous diversity. Every day manufacturers around the globe are spending millions of dollars to innovate and design the perfect weapon for underwater hunting. The thing to keep in mind is that every speargun has its pros and cons, and what it really boils down to is that there is no one spear gun suitable for all conditions, all species or all divers. Know before you buy, and take your time to make the right choice based on your needs, understanding that ultimately, a diver must have a selection of spear guns to be effective in all conditions.