One of the biggest choices when you’re starting out spearfishing is which gun to get. With the enormous number of spearguns available now and the amount of information and theories floating around it can be hard to know where to start. I’ve used and tested a heap of guns over the last decade that I’ve been selling them and below I’ll try and outline the main things I look for.
The sharp end of the gun. The spear is subject to the most wear and stress out of any part of the gun. The poor old spear is constantly being fired into rocks and having big fish rolling around and bending it not to mention the tremendous force put on the back end as it’s fired out by the rubbers. Because of all this stress they’re usually the part that fails first on the gun and most regularly need replacing. When it comes to spears the materials are everything. We basically have two choices stainless steel and spring steel. Whilst looking very nice and being impervious to rust I’ve always found stainless steel, even hardened stainless steel, spears to be totally inferior to their spring steel counterparts. Stainless steel is also considerably lighter than spring steel so you’re going to get more punch out of your spring steel shaft as well. The spring steel spears are plated to try to slow down the oxidization process but this is eventually nicked off and you do get some rust on your spears. This plating is normally a greenish colour and is the easiest way to tell them apart from the shiny stainless. There’s no need to get precious about this rust as it’s a purely cosmetic problem and anyway, you probably would have bent and replaced half a dozen stainless steel spears in the time it takes for rust to become a real problem on your spring steel shaft.
There is only one moving part on the spear and its flawless function is absolutely critical to landing your fish. The flopper is the barb on the end of the spear that holds the fish on. The position and way the flopper works can vary a lot depending on the type of environment and fish your spear has been designed to be used on. With the type of fishing we do here in New Zealand the best set-up is a large flopper, around 8cm+ long, set on the bottom of the spear at least 10cm back from the spear tip. A lot of European spears especially will have shorter floppers set on the top of the spear and much closer to the tip. This is great in the cave environments they dive in as it means that there is the maximum chance of the flopper engaging before it smashes into the rocks. Here in New Zealand though we don’t really shoot any fish in caves so this would be a liability as it makes it far easier for a big fish to tear itself off as the flopper and spear tip saw against each other.
It is critical that the flopper flops the first 45 degrees completely freely but then jams open. This means that even if the tension comes off the fish for a few moments the flopper won’t shut again and give the fish a chance to slip off. A lot of spears have very loose floppers that open and shut freely. Again this is a European design that makes it easier to retrieve a spear that has been caught at the back of a cave and again is useless to us here in NZ.
The final part of the spears are the holes (where the shooting line attaches) and the notches (where the rubbers engage the spear). Basically there can either be notches cut into the back of the spear or raised tabs welded onto the top where the rubbers hook into the spear when loaded. It’s a bit of personal preference as to which is better but I prefer notches. In bad spears these notches can be a weak point but I have yet to see a quality spear ever snap. The holes where the shooting line attaches to the spear should be at the very back of the spear. Some spears will have the hole a few centimeters up from the very back or even through the raised shark tabs if they have them. If the shooting line isn’t at the very back you get problems with the spear “teeing off”. The spear often goes right through the fish onto the string and if the line isn’t attached right at the back it will tee-off and won’t pull back through the fish and the thin shooting line is likely to cut its way through the fish. Even worse the spear is more likely to get caught on the bottom or on rocks that you then have to dive down to clear.
The rubbers are the gun powder of the speargun and provide the propulsion for the spear. There are other systems available such as compressed air guns but nothing else is as efficient for the length guns we use here as traditional rubber bands. When discussing how powerful and accurate a gun is going to be the most important thing is the length of rubber pull, that is how far the rubber is being stretched. Basically the further the rubber is being stretched the more powerful and accurate the gun will be. The greater the proportion of rubber pull to the overall length of the gun the better.
The rubber used is latex tubing. The best rubber is natural latex and is made in the States. There is a lot of synthetic junk rubber around as well. The good stuff will have an amber core with a coloured sheath. One of the easiest ways to tell the junk is that it will be the same colour right the way through. Another thing to look out for is an extra thick hole through the middle. We generally use either 16 or 20mm rubber. The good stuff, being made in the States, is all in imperial measurements so the metric measurements are a bit of a generalization.
The two main choices for rubbers are screw-in or wrap-arounds. Screw in rubbers have threaded caps at each end that screw into the muzzle at one end and the wishbone at the other whereas a wraparound rubber is a continuous piece of bulk rubber that threads through the muzzle and has a wishbone that is tied into the ends. The screw in rubbers are convenient and easy to change but nowhere near as efficient as the wrap-arounds. Given that the wrap around rubbers are stretching right the way around the muzzle you get much more stretch and a greater rubber pull and a more efficient gun.
The muzzle attaches the rubbers to the gun and guides the spear. Again materials are everything here and glass reinforced nylon is best, ABS plastic is alright and anything else is to be avoided.
There are two main types of muzzle, open and closed. An open muzzle is completely open at the top and you have to feed the shooting line over the top of the spear to hold it in place. This gives a beautiful clear line of sight along the top of the spear to aim and holds the spear tightly in place so it doesn’t flop about. They are more complicated to use though and they take quite a bit longer to reload.
The closed muzzle basically has a hole in it that you feed the spear back through while reloading. Some of them can be a bit bulky and when you look along the spear you can’t see right to the tip as the muzzle blocks your view. This isn’t necessarily a problem though as the rubbers usually run parallel to the spear and can be used to line the gun up. They’re simple, easy to use and quick to reload but you can’t point and shoot as quick with them as you can with the open muzzles.
Some of the latest muzzles like the new generation Rob Allens give you the best of both worlds though – a clear line of sight along the spear with the convenience of a closed muzzle.
A couple of things to look for, regardless of whichever style you prefer, is that the muzzle is shaped so that it makes the rubbers run in a line parallel to the shaft rather than on an angle. This makes sighting much easier and the gun more accurate. The other thing is that the rubbers, whether it’s a single or double rubber gun, are held tightly and can’t flip over after being fired.
For extra strength and to protect your barrels edges the muzzle should have an internal spigot that fits into the barrel and then an external shroud.
Rigidity in your speargun is critical. Any flex in the barrel absorbs some of the power from the rubbers and is likely to throw your shot off. For this reason the barrel of your speargun must be supremely strong and stiff. The most common material for speargun barrels is aluminium but carbon fibre barrels are very popular as well. The benefit of the carbon over alloy is that it’s considerably lighter. Your carbon gun won’t shoot any better than an alloy gun but it will be easier and more pleasant to swim with.
Most guns have a plain aluminium tube for the barrel but the best have an extruded rail that runs along the length of it. This rail makes it easier to reload the gun and supports the spear. Much more importantly though it adds a lot of rigidity allowing for greater rubber loads to be put on before flex becomes an issue. There are plenty of imitation rail guns around that simply stick a plastic rail or railed sleeve over the top of a normal alloy tube. Obviously this is just cosmetics.
The barrel needs to be kept watertight and the best way is solid bungs at both ends.
The length of the barrel dictates the range and accuracy of the gun. The longer the gun the further it will shoot. In New Zealand the most popular length is a 120 but Wellington divers will be better off with a 110 and those in the South need a 90-100cm gun.
The Handle and Mechanism
The most complicated part of the whole thing is the mechanism that engages the spear. Usually consisting of little more than a couple of lumps of stainless and some springs absolute reliability is necessary for success and safety. It’s pretty hard to tell what’s going to be reliable without actually trying it out but if the mech looks well engineered and operates smoothly you’ll get a pretty good indication. Again materials are important and glass reinforced nylon or stainless steel parts are best.
The handle itself needs to be attached to the barrel very well as the stress on this join is considerabl,e particularly when loading. The best guns will have an internal spigot that goes inside the barrel and then an external shroud that goes over the outside. This is absolutely critical on carbon guns as the edges of the carbon barrels are quite fragile and prone to cracking. Don’t consider any gun where the end of the carbon barrel is exposed as it will break.
The handle itself needs to fit your hand and be comfortable to hold so there’s a bit of personal preference there. One trap with handle fit is concentrating only on what’s comfortable when you’re pointing the gun. You must remember that for 80% of the time you’ll be holding the gun back with the handle upside down. All those beautifully moulded handles with ridges for each finger may be fine while you’re actually shooting but they’re hopeless over all. They’re very uncomfortable to dive with and encourage you to grip the gun around the barrel while swimming which will result in missed fish as you can’t bring the gun to bear fast enough. They’re designed for areas where divers use the aspetto technique of deep diving and lying in cover for extended dives with the gun outstretched waiting for a fish to swim in front of the gun which we don’t really use here.
Lastly stay away from guns with loading pads on the back or make sure they’re removable. They seem like a good idea but they inevitably wind up concentrating the loading effort onto a relatively small area and hurt. A well designed handle will spread the weight over the entire length of the back of the handle and makes loading much less painful.
All these parts need to work in perfect harmony to make a well-balanced, accurate gun. The parts should all be made by the same company to ensure each piece of the puzzle will fit properly and work well. One of my pet hates are the numerous brands which simply buy cheap parts from the big factories and then assemble them as ‘hybrids’ or their own brands. The result is a hodge podge of mis-matched parts that look the part but don’t have anywhere near the performance. One of the main give aways of these guns are spears that don’t sit flat in their rail – this isn’t a huge problem in itself but it is a symptom of a pretty serious underlying design fault.
A good speargun is going to last you forever so it’s well worth getting it right the first time. Too often I see guys who buy a cheap gun just to try the sport out who then have to buy another one once they’ve lost a few fish or had a trip ruined by a breakage.
So for me the only practical choice is the Rob Allen railgun. These are the original railgun and still the best. Regardless of where in the country you dive or what fish you’re targeting there’ll be a Rob Allen that will be ideal.