Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Dark Side of the Drozd

Today I want to discuss the IZH-Baikal Drozd. The Drozd is truly an awesome and revolutionary airgun, and it has been widely popular in a worldwide market. However, even with it's decided success, there are several problems with the Drozd which have been gnawing at my brain during 'ponder-time', and I want to share them in hopes of encouraging discussion. For this blog I would like to look at The Dark Side of the Drozd.

The most frustrating problem I have with the Drozd is it's difficulty to modify. Admittedly, there are many 'hacks' to improve the Drozd, but they are exactly that- hacks. The modifications require great skill, intimate knowledge, or extensive cutting/drilling/removing plastic. After studying the device for some time, I almost want to say the Drozd was designed specifically to limit a customer's ability to modify or improve the airgun. Of course I cannot prove that assertion, nor do I even have enough data to effectively argue it. More logically I would need to blame the Drozd’s difficulty of modification rooted in the designer’s need to make the airgun safe and affordable… respecting the component design, manufacturability, assembly time, material selection, packaging size, liability insurance, and regulation compliance which are all relevant to a product’s retail cost. Whatever the reason, allow me to continue into the frustration of modifying a Drozd.

The 'easiest' and most readily available Drozd modification is an extended barrel. A longer barrel will improve the airgun’s muzzle velocity and potentially accuracy. But what does it take to install this barrel? Well, highlights from instructions to install the aftermarket barrel include: gripping the stock barrel's threads with needle nose pliers, holding the gun in just a manner such that it does not fall apart when the barrel is removed, and keeping the magazine installed during the barrel-swap or else an internal part comes loose which then requires the Drozd's complete disassembly to fix. What? You need to grab the stock barrel's threads with pliers? That does not sound good for the barrel! And it will disassemble itself if you don't hold it correctly with the magazine installed? Would it have been terribly expensive to add a screwdriver slot or wrench flat to the barrel? Or to hold the internal pieces differently such that the entire assembly is not dependent on the barrel?

And who wouldn’t want to add a cool laser or dot sight on their favorite airgun? Or how about attaching a flashlight for nighttime rodent hunting? Sorry… no dovetail, Weaver, or Picatinny rails were integrated on the Drozd. Well, yes a dovetail was molded just fore of the rear sight, but it is too short for many common accessories. If you want rails or mount points to add sights or accessories, then you have to carefully drill into the plastic housing and screw one on- lovely. How easy would it have been to add more rail to the top or bottom of the Drozd? To add those features into an injection mold tool would have added negligible cost- yet it was not done. Why? I could reason why a Russian company would not add a commonly American Weaver/Picatinny, but why no 11mm-13mm dovetail which is so common across the globe?

Another common upgrade to the Drozd is a bulk gas supply. Yes, it's hard to believe, those little 12 gram CO2 bulbs just aren't enough for an energy-thirsty device like an automatic BB gun. So after a while on the market, kits began to appear which adapted paintball style C02 tanks to the Drozd. Tank adapters were easily made to fit inside the Drozd's shoulder stock attachment taper, but to route the new gas source to the magazine took a good bit of 'hacking'. The plastic shroud on the magazine is modified for an NPT elbow which feeds pressure to a part replacing the intended 12g bulb. Some kits even used an actual 12g bulb with 1/8 NPT threads right in the side! Which, need I say, is a freaking scary liability considering the thin wall of the C02 bulb. The ‘hack’ has been quite popular, and honestly the end result is not horrible, but it is obvious that the Drozd was never meant to utilize gas from any source other than a 12g C02 bulb, which is silly considering the volume of gas required by an airgun designed to shoot such a large quantity of projectiles. I don’t know if the ASA tank mounts are common to Russia, but I do know they are common all across the globe, and the Drozd was designed as a global product- why not make amendments for the adapting of an ASA or even an 88gram bulb for all those BBs? Which brings me to my next point...

The second big problem with the Drozd is it’s magazine. The magazine in the Drozd contains not only the ammunition, but also the gas supply and the valve. Normally, the purpose of utilizing a removable ammunition magazine in a gun is to allow the shooter to load several magazines before engaging whatever target they feel the need to destroy. This is especially important with automatic weapons which have the tendency to exhaust said magazine fairly quickly. Now, by integrating the ammo magazine with the gas supply (and all associated parts and support geometry) and the gas valve (with its tight-tolerance fits and complicated parts) the Drozd magazine now becomes a very expensive part of the airgun... around 50USD. This therefore renders moot a removable magazine, as it is too expensive to buy multiple magazine to load and have at the ready.

Furthermore, because the bulk paintball tank adapter discussed above ‘permanently’ attaches to the magazine, a shooter cannot use more than one magazine with the same bulk adapter. Yes you could devise some sort of double-tank and double-magazine or a tank magazine with another 12g bulb magazine firing scenario... but that is irrelevant. It is difficult and expensive to concurrently increase the gas and ammo supply to the Drozd... to the great irritation of nearly every user.

Speaking of increasing ammo capacity; what a crock! How long have people been trying to invent and market a bulk magazine for the Drozd? Why is it taking so long? That should be an easy task right? WRONG! Even I 'gave it a shot', and I promptly quit after finding so many faults in the Drozd design relating to upgradeability. It is very difficult to make a market-successful bulk magazine for the Drozd. Why? Firstly because the valve and gas supply are integrated into the magazine- that immediately makes an aftermarket magazine expensive because the manufacturer must either reproduce valve parts, use Drozd valve parts, or modify Drozd valve parts... and all of those options require expense. It would be exponentially more simple to design a bulk magazine were the valve not integral.

Secondly, the Drozd fires into an open breech which places a high force on the stack of ammo below the projectile being accelerated down the barrel. This is a serious design problem. This force is why a magazine cannot simply be made with a longer track and spring, and this force is exactly why you cannot use an airsoft style hi-cap magazine... because the back-pressure of the open breech damages or disrupts the feed wheel mechanism. Novel attempts to overcome or 'deal with' this force have been presented, but the resulting concepts were either expensive, cumbersome, or ineffective.

Another big problem… steel BBs or lead balls? Steel BBs are supplied with the Drozd, but distributors and the manufacturer state to use lead balls. Lead balls often jam in the magazine and quickly become a pain to use; steel BBs on the other hand work flawlessly in the magazine even at 1200rpm full auto. The barrel of the Drozd is rifled- which would require lead balls to ‘take’ the rifling. Steel BBs simply damage the rifling (as a side note- no one has proven with certainty that spherical projectiles benefit from a rifled barrel, and one could argue convincingly in loose conversation that the projectile’s lack of a polar moment bias along the axis of travel causes rifling to actually decrease projectile accuracy). Were I to choose a projectile, lead balls would be more satisfactory because of increased impact energy and reduced possibility of harm from ricochet. However in my dealings with the Drozd, lead balls are just not practical. The Drozd more effectively shoots steel BBs, but consistently launching lead balls (or even better- lead pellets) would make for a much better product.

My last grievance with the almighty Drozd is it’s feel. Thinking back a few years to the arrival of my first Drozd- after much anticipation my excited hands ripped open that cheap Ruskie (or Chinese for all I know) cardboard, and I quickly picked up the Drozd. I remember thinking 'Oh jeez! It feels like a toy!'*. The feel certainly did not live up to my mind's preconceptions about the world's first commercial fully automatic airgun**- with the potential to fire 6 BBs over 500 fps in under a second with one trigger pull, I would have assumed it would be a meaty, metal, gnarly, aggressive ... GUN... not the soft-curved, comfortable, plastic, ray-gun I held. Those plastic/sticky/fragile switches worried me. At that point I hadn’t even read that it required batteries. BATTERIES? You mean… like in a toy? So I loaded it up and went out to shoot. That first trigger pull of the Drozd… what a let down. No kick. No recoil. It was like shooting a rubber band gun. Sure the BBs were traveling 500fps… but it didn’t feel like they were. The Drozd has serious performance- it needs to feel serious. It needs to feel threatening. It needs to demand respect. But alas, I remain disappointed.

Don’t mistake my complaints for ingratitude. I wholeheartedly respect every man-hour which went into designing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the Drozd. The airgun is very well designed and executed- even if the end product does have serious shortcomings. Some would ask why… Maybe product planning was distraught with compromise and bureaucracy. Maybe Baikal seriously underestimated the wide acceptance and desire of such an airgun in the market and undercut its features accordingly. Maybe the powers that be were hung over during that phase of the project. Whatever the reason… it leaves me very excited, because we live in an economy where competition is encouraged. Therefore the market is free to respond to the Drozd by improving upon all of it’s problems to release an even more impressive product. Perhaps someday the world will see such an airgun.

cough, aahem, GSMG, cough, Sorry- something in my throat.
Thanks for reading,

*'toy': I strongly believe that airguns should never be referred to as toys. Any airgun, even the weakest single pump pistols, has the potential to kill a person. They should never be thought of as toys- they demand the respect and safety which is required of anything that can cause harm or death to a person. My comment was only meant in comparison to Baikal's other products and the Drozd's mismatch of performance to perception.

**I do not consider the Larc an airgun. It was a sandblaster fitted for lead shot.