Classic replica air pistol review: Healthways Plainsman/Plainsmaster

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This time we’re looking at the Healthways Plainsman, a CO2 powered multi-shot replica of the classic Colt Woodsman. It’s an ugly little devil, looking like some kind of Frankenstein marriage between a Colt Woodsman and a Japanese Nambu, but it’s robust and reasonably powerful and accurate. Just make sure you know what you’re buying or you may find yourself with a replica that it’s almost impossible to find ammunition for. Incidentally, don’t confuse this with the much rarer and more valuable Challenger Plainsman, a pump action pneumatic air pistol manufactured by Challenger Arms Corporation in the 50s and 60s.

The Healthways Plainsman was designed and first produced in the sixties and it lies somewhere between the quality and technical sophistication of, for example, the Crosman 600 and the cheap and cheerful end of the market represented by the Marksman 1010.  Like the Colt Woodsman that it (sort of) resembles, it’s also a decent shooter as well as being reasonably well made, robust and reliable and decent examples can be had for relatively little money. All good reasons for considering the Plainsman if you’re thinking about expanding your collection of vintage replicas though you do need to know which version to buy if you are to avoid problems sourcing ammunition.

Development

By the mid-1960s, the use of CO2 in air pistols was well established with, amongst other things, a range of Crosman CO2 powered replicas. CO2 cartridges, mainly still the 8g type produced for soda makers, were readily available, relatively inexpensive and offered a reasonable number of shots per CO2. Noting that lots of shooters seemed keen to buy these pistols, US sporting and fitness goods manufacturer Healthways (“America’s most unusual line of sporting goods products”) decided that a CO2 powered replica air pistol would fit nicely within its existing range which included outdoor and sports equipment such as diving gear.

For the design of what would become the Plainsman, Healthways employed engineer and gunsmith Kenneth R. Pitcher and in the course of the late 1960s several patents were registered for new air pistol designs. Finally, in 1969 Healthways launched the Plainsman, modestly claiming that it represented “The most sensational invention in the history of the air gun world” and that it was “acclaimed by gun experts as a new era in gas powered guns”. The slightly less exciting truth was that the Plainsman was a relatively simple and robust design which was sold fairly cheaply (early models retailed at around $12, around half the price of a Crosman revolver replica) and proved to be reliable and trouble free.

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Most sensational pistol ever made!” Hmm… Healthways hyperbole from the early 1970s.

Other than an early modification to the piercing cap which allowed the use of larger 12g CO2 cartridges, the Plainsman stayed relatively unchanged during its production life. It sold well and during the 1970s a licensed version was sold by the Uma Hunting and Sporting Goods Company in Germany (which would later became Umarex) and marketed in Europe as the Perfekta Plainsman. However, despite the commercial success of the Plainsman, by the 1970s Healthways was not doing well. The company had actually filed for bankruptcy in 1963 and only continued to trade as it was bought over by a number of large corporate owners. Production of the various Plainsman models continued until 1980 when Healthways finally ceased trading. However, the Plainsman story didn’t quite end there because in 1983 Marksman bought the rights to manufacture the Plainsman and from 1984 – 1987 the Model 9401 was manufactured and sold as the Marksman Plainsman Model 1049.

Design

The Plainsman is constructed mainly of zinc alloy with steel internal parts and plastic grips. On most models of the Plainsman, grips are black but towards the end of production some were produced with plastic grips in a very convincing walnut grain. Barrels are steel and either smoothbore or rifled according to model. BBs are poured in to a reservoir at the upper rear of the pistol which is covered by a sliding gate which incorporates the rear sight and are then gravity fed to a magnetic elevator arm which conveys them to the breech. The trigger is double action only and the long pull feeds the next BB into place in addition to cocking and releasing the internal hammer. A sliding manual safety is provided on the left side of the grip and a three-position power adjusting screw is located in the base of the grip.

 

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Early Plainsman with lever type piercing cap

The Plainsman is powered by a CO2 cartridge inserted in the grip and pierced using a cap in the base of the grip. The first models used a lever-type piercing cap which incorporated the main seal but during the 1970s this was replaced by a more conventional screw type cap which pressed the CO2 cartridge up against the internal neoprene seal and piercing pin. On models with the lever type cap the CO2 cartridge is inserted neck down (the whole internal chamber inside the grip is pressurized) but on later models with screw type caps the cartridge is inserted neck up. The earliest models of the Plainsman could only be used with 8g CO2 cartridges but the later piercing cap was designed to accommodate the larger 12g cartridges. Later models were provided with the 12g piercing cap plus an alloy spacer which allowed use of the smaller 8g cartridge.

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Intermediate model with early screw type piercing cap

The first models with screw type piercing caps had a shallow cap with a slot so that a coin or screwdriver could be used for tightening. Later, this was changed to a deeper cap with knurling which could more easily be tightened by hand. Construction of the Plainsman was very sturdy and the zinc-alloy frame in particular seemed more robust than on many other contemporary replicas. The Plainsman proved to be very reliable and Healthways were so confident in it that they offered a comprehensive repair and replacement service for defective pistols.

Models

There are a number of variations on the basic Plainsman theme. All are mechanically similar but if you’re looking to add a Plainsman to your collection, you need to know which is which because some are designed to shoot hard to find .22” nickel coated lead balls.

Healthways Plainsman Model 9400

The Model 9400 has a rifled barrel and was designed to shoot Healthways proprietary nickel coated steel BBs, though it can also be used with modern 4.5mm zinc coated steel BBs. The reservoir holds up to 100 BBs.

Healthways Plainsman Model 9401

The most common model of the Plainsman, this is identical to the Model 9400 except that it has a smoothbore barrel and is designed to shoot plain 4.5mm steel BBs. Sometimes identified and marked as the “Plainsman .175” or the “Model ML 175”. The BB reservoir holds up to 100 BBs.

Healthways Plainsman Model 9404 Shorty

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Model 9404 Shorty

The Shorty is similar to the 9400 except that it has a shorter 3.9” rifled barrel and was designed to shoot Healthways .22” nickel coated steel BBs. These were never especially easy to find even during the seventies, which may explain why the Shorty wasn’t as popular as models which fired .177” BBs. The BB reservoir on the Shorty holds around forty BBs. It’s also notable that, unlike the .177” versions of the Plainsman which have fixed rear sights, the Shorty has a rear sight that is adjustable for elevation only.

Healthways Plainsman Model MA 22

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MA 22

The MA 22 is very similar to the Shorty except that it has a longer (6.25”) rifled barrel. Like the Shorty, it was designed to shoot Healthways .22” nickel coated lead balls and it has a rear sight that is adjustable for elevation. Finding ammunition for the MA 22 is even more difficult than for the Shorty as it uses different rifling which means that, if you can’t find nickel or zinc coated .22” BBs, you can only shoot steel ball bearings with an external diameter of not more than 0.215”. The BB reservoir on the MA 22 holds around forty BBs.

Healthways Plainsmaster Model 9405

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Plainsmaster

The Plainsmaster 9405 is a Plainsman with an extended 9.4” rifled barrel, a plastic grip and fore-end in imitation walnut grain and a removable foregrip. Other than these changes the 9405 is mechanically identical to the Model 9400 and was designed to shoot Healthways .177” nickel coated steel BBs though it will also shoot modern zinc coated steel BBs. The BB reservoir holds up to 100 BBs.

Healthways Plainsmaster Model 9406

The 9406 is identical to the 9405 other than having a smoothbore barrel suitable for shooting 4.5mm steel BBs. The BB reservoir holds up to 100 BBs.

Marksman Plainsman Model 1049

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Marksman Plainsman

From 1984 – 1987 the Marksman company produced the Plainsman Model 1049, which is identical to the Healthways Plainsman Model 9401 other than for Marksman markings on the frame and walnut grain plastic grips. Because it shares a smoothbore barrel with the 9401, this model can shoot standard 4.5mm steel BBs.

Perfekta Plainsman

The Perfekta Plainsman is identical to the Model 9401 other than that it has “Perfekta” and “Kal 4.45mm” markings on the frame.

Design

 

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The frames of the Plainsman and Plainsmaster are constructed from robust zinc alloy with steel internal parts including barrels. Grips are plastic. On early Plainsman models grips are black though on some later models of the Plainsman and on the Plainsmaster and Shorty these are simulated walnut.

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Internal design is fairly complex. Pulling the trigger causes a large link to move to the rear, pushing the hammer back until it reaches the limit of its travel when it is released and strikes the firing valve. The link which cocks the hammer also operates a magnetic BB elevator which takes a single BB from the reservoir and places it in the breech. Because of this the trigger pull is long though not particularly heavy at around 5lbs, and the release point is a little vague.

All models are provided with a power adjustment screw in the rear base of the grip which adjusts pre-tension on the hammer spring. This screw has three pre-set positions – low, medium and high. BBs are stored in a chamber at the upper rear of the pistol. This is accessed by sliding a section at the rear which includes the rear sight upwards to open the reservoir. All models have a sliding, two-position manual safety on the left front of the grip.

Operation

Preparing any Plainsman or Plainsmaster for shooting is simple. Insert a CO2 cartridge (neck down on early models with lever type piercing caps, neck up on later models with screw type caps) and pierce. Open the BB loading cover at the rear of the upper body by sliding it up, pour in BBs and slide the door down to close. Move the manual sliding safety down to the “Fire” or “Off” position and you’re good to go.

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Healthways claimed that sub one inch groupings were possible at 25 feet with the Plainsman. This may be technically feasible, but it is rather difficult to achieve in practice. The issue is the long, double action trigger pull. Although pull weight is very consistent, the long pull introduces vertical spread in any grouping and at 25 feet, a two inch vertical spread is much more likely. The Plainsman does shoot with a satisfying bang though of course there is virtually no felt recoil.

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BB loading cover

Using the power adjustment screw allows the usage of CO2 to be controlled. At the lowest power setting (i.e. with the screw all the way in), a Plainsman in good condition will shoot .177” BBs at around 250 – 270fps. Medium power will give around 350 – 380 fps and on high power you can expect 420 – 440 fps. Healthways claimed that on the low power setting, all 100 BBs in the reservoir could be fired with a single CO2 cartridge. You won’t be surprised to hear that as power is increased, the number of shots per CO2 will decrease. I don’t have figures, but I’d expect the longer barreled Plainsmaster to fire at slightly higher power and the .22” Shorty and MA 22 will shoot at around 300 and 350fps respectively on the high power setting. Obviously, these figures are for guidance only and the actual performance of any Plainsman will vary dependant on temperature and condition.

Shooting CO2 powered replicas doesn’t get much simpler than this. Just load CO2, pour BBs into the reservoir and keep pulling the trigger until you run out of one or the other. These replicas may not be the most powerful or accurate you’ll ever shoot, but they have no major vices or problems and in general they’re robust and reliable.

Buying a Plainsman/Plainsmaster

Large numbers of the Plainsman and Plainsmaster were produced and it isn’t difficult to find used examples for sale. As with all older pistols, price will vary dependent on condition and whether a box and manual are provided but these are generally fairly inexpensive to buy, especially compared to some Crosman vintage pistols. I hesitate to quote prices given that these are subject to variation depending on where you live, but generally I’d expect that you can find a good, working Plainsman for around the equivalent of $100 and a pristine, boxed example probably won’t cost much more than $150. However, you can expect to pay more for the rarer Shorty and MA 22 models.

All models are generally very robust and reliable, with the obvious caveat that you may be buying a replica that’s anything up to forty-five years old so it may be sensible to budget for a re-seal at the very least to get the best out of your Plainsman. All models of the Plainsman seem to retain their finish well and thirty and even forty year old versions can still look very good indeed. Current manufacturers please take note – I don’t know what kind of coating Healthways used for the finish on the Plainsman, but could we have something as durable as this on modern now? Please!

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If you can find an early, boxed Plainsman in this sort of condition you should be very happy indeed.

One of the major issues if you’re thinking about one of these will be ammunition. If you’re going to buy a Shorty or an MA 22, you’ll need some form of coated .22” BB to get best results. You can use steel ball bearings in either (though these need to be of smaller diameter in the MA 22), but you may damage the rifled barrels and you certainly won’t achieve optimum accuracy. Lead balls in .22” are commonly available, but these won’t feed properly due to the magnetic parts in the feed system. Finding ammunition for the Shorty or the MA 22 isn’t impossible, but it is much more difficult than picking up standard 4.5mm steel BBs or .22” pellets. You may want to do some research on this if you’re considering buying a Shorty or MA 22.

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Late production Plainsman with deep piercing cap and walnut grain plastic grips

The Model 9400 and Plainsmaster 9405 both have rifled barrels and were designed for use with Healthways own nickel-coated steel BBs which are no longer available. However, zinc or copper coated steel BBs are still widely available and can be used on both models.

For modern shooters, the Plainsman 9401 and the Plainsmaster 9406 are probably the simplest in shooting terms as both will happily use standard 4.5mm steel BBs. Fortunately the 9401 is probably the commonest Plainsman of all, so there are still plenty of these around. The Marksman Plainsman Model 1049 and the Perfekta Plainsman are both based on the 9401 and can also be used with steel BBs.

Conclusion

Despite Healthways extravagant marketing claims, the Plainsman and Plainsmaster are nothing special in terms of design, power or accuracy. However, all Plainsman models are reliable, robust and fun plinkers which seem to go on shooting without major issues for a very long time indeed.

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As ever, it depends what you are looking for. If you want technical innovation and high quality, go for a Crossman 600. If you want extreme accuracy, go for a Crosman Mark I or a Smith and Wesson 78G/79G. If you want to spend less money for a simpler but still enjoyable and reliable vintage plinker, the Plainsman may be the very thing you want.

Links

Excellent article on dismantling the Plainsman   http://anotherairgunblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/healthways-plainsman-bb-pistol.html

Related Pages:

Classic replica air pistol review:  Crosman Wild West revolvers

Classic replica air pistol review:  Crosman 38 revolvers

Classic replica air pistol review:  The Marksman Repeater

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