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Eastern-bloc target rifle: Haenel's 311 bolt-action pellet rifle.

You wouldn't pick it out at a gun show unless you were searching for oddities. And no American junior team was ever equipped with them. But for all of its non-conformity, Haenel's strange bolt-action 311 target rifle has more than a few surprises for the advanced airgunner.

The 311 is unlike any other pellet gun. There are other bolt-action spring guns, but they shoot either steel BBs or round lead balls, and many of them are smoothbores. None have the manual pellet-loading tap of the 311 that permits the loading of a single pellet. In fact, if you were to take a poll of airgun designers, most would tell you that a tap-loading design is inherently not as accurate as one that permits loading directly into the breech of the gun. Hence, using the design on a target rifle seems like a drawback.

But it doesn't end there. Because of all the target air rifles in the world, this is the only spring-piston design that's cocked with a1 bolt-action. In other words, as difficult as it is to believe, the small bolt actually compresses the coiled steel mainspring until the sear catches it. There have been breakbarrels, sidelevers, underlevers and even one overlever target rifle; but the 311 is the only bolt-action.

The Haenel 311 is a design that began in 1964, when it was already obsolete, and lasted into the early 1990s. It borrows little from any other air rifle and pretty much stands alone in the target world. If it were still made today, it would be categorized as a sporter-class 10-meter rifle because of the low cost, but it's not really suitable for youth shooters because no kid alive can cock it! The short bolt/cocking lever takes the strength of an adult to operate, and even then it puts a strain on the shooter after several dozen shots.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in the late 1980s, East Germany sold carloads of Haenel airguns to a pawn shop in South Carolina. I bought several guns from that shop to test and to report on, and this one has remained with me ever since.

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At the time, the Haenel model 310 repeating ball-shooter was selling for $49, and the 311 target model sold for $59. Because I helped the dealer get the word out about these rifles, he included a sporting rear sight with my 311--and that sight is now a very rare item.

The rifle is easy to pick out of the rack because it's the one that looks like it was stocked with a two by four. The overall length is 43 7/8 inches, and the weight is 7 lbs., 14 ozs., but that will vary with the wood. The metal is polished to a medium finish and hot blued. The stock is some kind of indeterminate hardwood--probably beech--and stained with a thin orange stain that doesn't penetrate the wood. Then, it's finished off with shellac.

The pistol grip is crudely hand-checkered on both sides with coarse, uneven diamonds, and there's a slight palm swell on the right side. The forearm has a finger groove on both sides and is profiled deep and very squared-off on the bottom.

Overall, the gun appears to be one cut better than a Chinese SKS, though the looks are deceiving. Haenel has long been a fine gun maker that can turn out a high-quality product whenever they want. This air rifle has all the earmarks of a government job--something to train the Young Pioneers before they graduate to .22 rimfires.

Of course, the hard cocking effort would have been a problem, so it might have been intended for older shooter. It was never meant to be a world-class target rifle, but certainly one that could hold its own in regional matches. More likely, since it was used behind the Iron Curtain, most shooters on the line would have one because it was the only target air rifle that was available.

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Ergonomics

The 311 was not designed with ergonomics in mind. While the stock fits most adults adequately, too many small details have been left to chance to think that much thought was given to the shooter's comfort. This is a target rifle for a club--one that each individual shooter has to conform to--not vice-versa.

Hard to cock!

One characteristic is common to nearly all 10-meter target air rifles and that's ease of cocking. Most target spring rifles cock with 12-20 lbs. of effort, but the Haenel 311 requires a huge 33 lbs. of force to bring the relatively weak mainspring to the cocked position! That makes this rifle an offhand gun only--not that three-position shooting was ever popular for airguns in Europe. Trying to cock one of these while in the prone position would make you look like a salted slug as you writhed through the effort required to work that stiff mechanism.

I find the best way to cock the rifle and not expose a nearby shooter on the line to my muzzle is to hold the butt on my shoulder while pulling straight back on the 3-inch bolt handle. While this isn't difficult for an adult, it does put a strain on your shoulder that no breakbarrel ever would. A 60-shot match would be a challenge!

See the sights

The 311's sights are unique and well worth examining. The rear aperture sight is capable of precision work even though it's quite simple and has obviously been designed for low-cost production. The design is very similar to the Walther target aperture sight of the same timeframe, except Haenel added one feature that's optional on the Walther. There's a dial-an-aperture disk built into the sight that lets the shooter select different size peepholes for different lighting conditions.

Then, there's the special sporting rear sight that only a very few target air rifles have. A sight base located just behind the loading tap accepts a special sporting-type rear sight that obviously is to be used for different purposes than the rear aperture. Or perhaps it just allows the rifle to be used as a plinker. These sporting sights are not common here in the U.S., and many 311 owners have never seen one.

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This sporting sight is very reminiscent of a zimmerstutzen that has both target and sporting rear sights. I know there was a different kind of competition for the zimmerstutzen when the sporting sight was used, but I have no idea if there was an equivalent competition for an air rifle.

The front sight is a globe that accepts replaceable inserts. My rifle came with an aperture for target work; but if I were to use the sporting rear sight, the front insert would have to be changed to a square post.

The front sight sits atop a tall stalk that aligns it with both rear sights. As front sights go on target rifles, this one is straightforward, even though it's mounted relatively high above the bore. But other target rifles usually have bull barrels, so their front sights are just as high, though they don't appear to be.

Firing

The 311 has a light, multi-lever, two-stage trigger whose only fault is the lack of a positive stop. It's adjustable but is also designed for safety, so it's difficult to adjust the sear contact too light. The one on my rifle releases at 1 pound, 3 ounces, but feels like less. The mechanism engages an automatic safety when cocked, and the last step for the shooter before firing is to thumb forward the black plastic safety button.

My own rifle, which is all that I have by which to judge the model, fires with plenty of buzz. That indicates either a loose mainspring or one that has canted or perhaps both. There's very little recoil to impede your sighting, so it's possible to execute a positive follow-through.

Power and accuracy

Power is where the Haenel 311 shows its postwar Warsaw Pact heritage. My own rifle may be a tad on the tired side, as it posts velocities with medium-weight. 177-caliber lead target pellets in the 475-495 fps range, but I don't think it's that far off the mark for a fresh rifle. Target rifles of its day were averaging 600-650 fps, but this rifle's communist designers marched to the beat of a different drum. Because of how it cocks, they had to keep the mainspring on the weak side.

But it doesn't take a lot of speed to put a hole in a paper target only 33 feet away, and that's what the 311 is designed to do. The accuracy is above average for a vintage air rifle and about on par with Daisy's Model 853 target rifle--say five shots into a group measuring.20" at 10 meters. That's really better than most shooters can do in the offhand position, so the 311 is actually an effective rifle, despite all its crudity.

Where to get one

These rifles are now well-distributed among the airgun community and tend to command higher prices than when they first arrived. I saw an average one at an airgun show in October with a sticker price of S300. If you find one on GunBroker.com, you can expect to pay more, as the listing will undoubtedly say that it's very rare. That means the seller has seen only one.

But the time to buy one of these strange target rifles is when you find it, because it's only going to become harder to find as time passes. Once you have it, better hold on to it, because they don't come around that often.
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Author:Gaylord, Tom
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:Dec 20, 2011
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