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Theoben Evolution Vs. Theoben SLR98

Mark Camoccio tests the Theoben Evolution vs Theoben SLR98

Cambridgeshire based airgun wizards, Theoben, have seemingly gone from strength to strength in the last few years. They’ve come a long way since their humble beginnings, and their current product line-up rather reflects this; with several hi-tech and innovative pre-charged pneumatic designs sitting alongside the classics that made them famous in the first place. Those gas-ram models put them on the map, and my two rivals this month both originate from the Theoben stable.

Break barrel or lever

The SLR98 is a classic example of what Theoben are generally about; being a solidly made, beautifully finished rifle, aimed fairly and squarely at the hunting fraternity. Pitched against this is the Evolution – the very latest version of the gas-ram break barrel that started it all for them, back in the early ‘80’s. The SLR98, by contrast, is a fixed barrel design, but both rifles utilize the latest version of Theoben’s own H.E. gas-ram system. For the uninitiated, this means that when the rifle is cocked, the piston compresses a sealed chamber of air (Theoben previously used Nitrogen), effectively replacing a normal mainspring. ‘H.E’ stands for High Efficiency, and the clever design incorporates a small dummy inertia piston that moves back against the main piston direction in a whiplash effect that, in theory, helps to counteract the effect of recoil.

In the case of the SLR98, ‘SLR’ in the name is derived from ‘Self Loading Rifle’, due to the magazine facility, and ‘98’ from the year of the rifles introduction, although production eventually came to a halt; apparently the result of high manufacturing costs. With Theoben’s subsequent utilization of computerized CNC machinery, production costs took a tumble, and the SLR found its way back to the marketplace.

My test rifle came fitted with a rather snazzy thumbhole walnut stock, and even the ‘standard’ model (if you can call it that) comes with a smart and highly functional sporter configuration. Made by Custom Stock of Sheffield, the thumbhole woodwork is a masterpiece, with tasteful, yet entirely practical panels of chequering. Laser cut they may be, but the immaculate execution and crisp finish is faultless. From the sweeping curves on the flared forend, to the stylish panels neatly recessed into the finger groove/thumb shelf, the end result is a visual treat. But if you thought this stock was just about fancy looks, then think again. Theoben expect their clientele to take their products out into the field and muddy them up somewhat – so function is the key here.

The hand-filling grip of the extended forend affords a comfortable aim, whilst the ‘thumb up’ or thumb through’ options around the pistol grip illustrate further the well thought out design.

A prominent, crisply defined cheek-piece gives perfect eye/scope alignment, whilst an adjustable Wegu style butt pad is the icing on the cake.

The break-barrel Evolution comes equally well equipped in the timber department, with a stunning walnut sporter configuration, in keeping with the original Sirocco blueprint. A well defined, high cheek-piece, thumb shelf and chunky pistol-grip come together for great handling, whilst the most obvious difference from the ancestral line comes courtesy of those side flares shaped from the wood. Comparable laser-cut chequering covers the Evolution, and the end result is another stylish and supremely functional product.

Both rifles feature short carbine length barrels, and in the case of the SLR the 9.25inch barrel is finished off with a sleek little silencer ending in a blanking cap. This cap can be removed to allow for a larger silencer to be attached, which may improve the balance, yet hardly the looks, since it will interrupt what is a very sleek profile.

The under-lever is held in place via a sprung détente at the muzzle, and Theoben did toy with the concept of venting some of the spent air back down the hollow lever via a link, yet the idea seems to have been dropped; certainly on my test rifle.

Incidentally, according to Theoben, the length of barrel to be used on subsequent SLR’s will be increased by a few inches, to improve handling and performance in general; and I have to agree with them here, since I found the test model just a little light at the front. A longer barrel will reduce the cocking effort too, don’t forget.

The fluted design around the breech adds refinement and sets off some beautifully finished metalwork; as does the high quality, lustrous chemical blueing that covers the entire action- on both rifles I hasten to add. Theoben have had a reputation for top class finish for some while now, and these rifles illustrate just why.

Being a break-barrel, the Evolution’s profile is somewhat more uncluttered, and with an Evolution silencer in place, the test rifle certainly had a purposeful look about it. The jaws of the breech and the overall lock-up are reassuringly sound, whilst the actual cocking stroke is surprisingly manageable.

Cocking the gas-ram action is simple enough, but a deliberate technique pays dividends. A quick sweeping stroke gets the job done and is ultra smooth in the process. As previously mentioned, the longer barrel and under-lever of future SLR98 models will reduce the cocking effort still further, and aid stability on the target.

The characteristics of the gas-ram system gives the Evo and the SLR actions an amazingly fast lock-time; yet don’t be fooled. A fair old kick remains, all be it smooth and slick- feeling more of a snap (in the absence of any spring twang). Like any recoiling rifle, the movement can shake a telescopic sight to the point where it moves along the scope rails. So with this in mind, Theoben were including integral ring mounts with their gas-ram models, to be bolted onto their own dedicated raiser block. All very neat and precisely engineered. They still do with the SLR, but the Evolution now sports conventional dovetail rails.

With the SLR set-up, do bear in mind that because these mount positions are fixed, scopes of a particular dimension may foul the magazine as it rises from the action.

Action wise, the SLR98 comes fitted with a 7shot magazine – the ‘self loading’ part of the package, and, assuming a loaded magazine is in place, the firing cycle would be as follows: the under-lever is unclipped from the muzzle, then gripped firmly and pulled down and back until the trigger sear engages and the lever is effectively locked. At this stage, the magazine is automatically indexed, and the next pellet is chambered via a probe into the barrel, as the lever is returned to its closed position.

Seven shots are available as quickly as the lever can be pulled down and snapped back up again. The automatic safety catch is disengaged by pushing a tab forward (this sits just forward of the trigger blade). 

The magazine itself is well machined from plastic compounds, but follows Theoben’s slightly awkward design trait in this area, requiring a specific method of loading… as follows: the magazine (removable when the rifle is cocked and the lever held down), is held with the facing plate towards you; the facing plate is then rotated anti-clockwise until it stops; a pellet is then dropped into each chamber in turn, whilst making sure that the first doesn’t fall all the way through. Once the drum is fully loaded, the mag can then be pushed into place within the slot in the rifle’s action.

On test, with the magazine positioned, the action cycled without a hiccup, making this particular rifle a slick hunting tool out in the field.

On the range

Theoben's track record on triggers was for a while, one of their weak points, yet the MK4 unit on their latest PCP’s is simply superb, and a general improvement has crept through the range.

The sheer poundage being held back on any recoiling gun, however, forces the trigger involved, to work much harder; yet considering both my test rifles are sporting guns, the 2-stage unit fitted is fairly respectable, with a broad blade and a good, crisp, clean break. One criticism concerns the first pull weight, which still feels a little over-sprung. Reducing this could only help the overall release, and improve those groups still further.

Chronograph readings were near identical for both rifles here, with JSB pellets returning an average of 11ft/lbs in the SLR, against 10.8ft/lbs from the Evolution. Consistency was identical with both guns showing a variation of just 11fps over a 10-shot string. Accuracy was par for the course too, with regular 5/8 inch groups over 30yds from the underlever ( the average hunting range with an airgun), against the Evolution’s half inch clusters.

At around £700, the SLR98 on show here doesn’t exactly come cheap. Yet just recap that spec for a moment; a superb thumbhole stock adding sumptuous comfort and support, allied with a hi-tech, original multi-shot action. If pride of ownership is allowed into the equation, then the finish alone earns a tick in that box.

The choice here really comes down to multi-shot or break barrel. In the SLR98, Theoben have a quality hunting gun, oozing with character, that offers that little something different. But the sheer simplicity and smooth handling of the break barrel Evo in a somewhat lower cost package at less than £450, means there will be a ready market for both.

Technical Specifications
Model Evolution / SLR98
Manufacturer Theoben Ltd
Country of Origin UK
Type Break-barrel gas-ram / Underlever, multishot gas-ram
Calibre .22 on test (.20 and .177 avail) / .22 on test (.177 avail)
Weight 7.5lbs / 7.7lbs
Overall Length 40.5inch / 39inch
Barrel Length 10.5inch / 9.25inch
Stock Walnut sporter / Walnut Thumbhole
Power-Source Gas-ram / gas-ram
Velocity (JSB .22 pellets) -over 10 shot string:
High: 557fps / High: 561
Low: 546 / Low: 550
Ave: 552 / Ave: 557
Vari: 11fps / Vari: 11fps
Energy: 10.8ft/lbs / 11ft/lbs
Trigger 2-stage adjustable / 2-stage adjustable
Price £439 / £713
Options Various silencer options / £748 with Evolution silencer
(add £30 approx for all left hand versions)

All Prices Are Guides Due to the Changes in US & European Exchange Rates

User Comments
  • Quote
    although production eventually came to a halt; apparently the result of high manufacturing costs. With Theoben’s subsequent utilization of computerized CNC machinery, production costs took a tumble, and the SLR found its way back to the marketplace.end quote

    I can not imagine the SLR staying around much longer at the asking price that you could get a Rapid for or a top end BSA/AirArms/Wheirauch.

    The new vesion still has Trigger problems and magazine problems so I would highly recommend the Evolution over it,specially at half the price.

    I can not Agree more in regards to the quality of the finish but in my mind it is well over priced,The evolution Is what I would consider high priced for a springer based rifle but at the price one can not argue due to the gas ram included in the Rifle.

    Owned both these Rifles and still own the evolution,If you plan on buying a SLR be sure you want to keep it for life as you will never regain what you have brought it for and in my opinion I would say look around for a used one as they can be brought under 350 mark.

    The evolution holds its price very well and has a big thumbs up from me.
    As sexy as the SLR is I am yet to see a satisfied customer that does not feel they have been over charged and in my opinion so they should as this is top of the range PCP money.

    Just my opinion on the Rifle and what I have heard on the Forums from fellow owners.

    Comment by: jay     Posted on: 30 May 2009 at 06:48 PM

  • Quote
    although production eventually came to a halt; apparently the result of high manufacturing costs. With Theoben’s subsequent utilization of computerized CNC machinery, production costs took a tumble, and the SLR found its way back to the marketplace.end quote

    Forgot to add,with these cost saving results they are yet to cut the price of this Rifle (SLR) which say's it all for me,200-300 shy of a Ripley hand built Rifle and a Daystate state of the art,electronic(most advanced Rifle you can buy).
    Says it all for me I am affraid.

    Comment by: jay     Posted on: 30 May 2009 at 06:52 PM

  • At the IWA show, Theoben were exhibiting a prototype fixed barrel, single shot rifle with under-lever cocking and a sliding breech - perhaps this will give a lower cost alternative to the SLR? Apparently they are still working on it, and there are no immediate plans to get it into the shops - but you never know, watch this space (I know that I'd like to get my hands on one...)

    Comment by: pat farey     Posted on: 31 May 2009 at 02:08 PM

  • I have the longer barrelled SLR98, and it was bought with the notion that it would be the only airgun I'd ever own, and it would be owned for life.
    Nigh on two years later, and I have no regrets except that I haven't used it more than a dozen times!
    There should be more opportunity in the new year and beyond, so why don't I update this next year!
    Anyway, in short, I love it, expensive or not.

    Comment by: Mr Tuff     Posted on: 20 Nov 2009 at 12:45 AM

  • Yes, I know what you mean, there's something about Theoben gas-ram guns that gives them an entirely different feel than springers or PCPs. They are accurate, efficient and reliable, plus the power system is entirely self contained - you supply the energy. First rate rifles.

    Comment by: Pat Farey     Posted on: 21 Nov 2009 at 01:42 AM

  • I took delivery of a SLR98 8 months ago. Yesterday while shooting targets in my garden the trigger locked up and the safety catch stuck also the self loading bar which locates the pellet smashed the auto load cartridge. The gun is still under manufactures warrantee but i think a gun at this price should not fail.I have e mailed Theoben and will take the gun back to my local gun dealer.I think they might have used lesser quality parts to make more profit and this has comprmised the quality. I have owned Germany guns and a BSA for the last 30 yrs and have never had a gun fail. I have now lost the thrill of owning this gun,Regards Phil parry

    Comment by: philip parry     Posted on: 30 May 2010 at 09:20 PM

  • Have owned both rifles. The SLR98 is a well made rifle and hasnt let me
    down mechanically.
    The Evolution Carbine with the Olympus stock is a craking lookin rifle.
    I am pleased to see from the article that both rifles were far short of the power output claimed by Theoben. I returned my SLR98 within 2 days of receiving it, claiming that it was underpowered. After their "engineers" working on it for a week, it came back producing very little extra power and
    still far short of their claims for it. The Evolution was no better and even felt
    underpowered.
    Several e-mails top Theoben produced no reaction - they suggested I change pellets to Air arms Field from the Daystate I was using. I told them
    that I didnt think changing pellets would develop another 2 ft/lbs !!! Tried it and guess what - I was right, no change on the chrono.
    Theoben actually seemed disinterested - so I gave up !!

    Comment by: Jftrothes     Posted on: 06 Sep 2010 at 04:30 PM

  • Had my SLR 98 repaired only after speaking to the companies director. He put on a vortex silencer foc . I have now being shooting this gun since repaired from June 2010. I have not had any more problems and i am happy that the gun is now very reliable and i am very pleased. I have also bought a Air Arms TX200 and this is a very good rifle but the SLR IS KING FOR ME, Thanks to Theoben for making me happy again with their service and good will guesture ,I would now recomend people to buy this gun, But beware of long delivery times

    Comment by: philip parry     Posted on: 16 Mar 2011 at 07:50 PM

  • And sending a rifle back to Theoben is not a pleasant experience, it is like returning something into the ether, that's if you can get past the woman on the phone. Also the Evolution as had major faults with the welding, and don't mention the power levels to them, they just will not listen. On the upside i own a fenman and it's a delight, i'm even toying with the idea of buying a SLR98, though as stated elsewhere the rifles seem a little overpriced for what you get.

    Comment by: Anhony Goodwin     Posted on: 26 May 2011 at 12:44 PM

  • Is the evolution available in .25 calibre?

    Comment by: JimladChrisjimthompson     Posted on: 08 Feb 2012 at 10:58 AM

  • I think it's only available in .177, .20 and .22

    Comment by: pat farey     Posted on: 09 Feb 2012 at 11:41 PM

  • I cannot disagree with the first commentator more strongly. I have owned several Theoben rifles and still have a Grand Prix in .177 from 1986, a Rapid 7 from 1992, a Taunus from 1996 and the SLR98 from 2001. In each case they have performed flawlessly from day one and continue to do so today.

    The SLR98 is a unique rifle, it was a groundbreaking rifle that paved the way for modern, multi-shot PCPs with the clockwork magazine that has now been adopted by several other rifle makers, one of whom is mentioned in a post above. The match gradeAnschutz barrel and feeding system produces accuracy to match a PCP, if the nut that joins the trigger to the sight is up to it!

    To complain about the price and compare it to other air rifles is missing the point completely, this was a rifle built to make a statement and it does that impeccably. You can buy a Baikal 12-bore for £150 and it will produce the same pattern at 40 yards that a Holland & Holland will for a price tag of £70,000. If you want quality and exclusivity you have to pay for it, whether that be a supercar, a yacht or an air rifle.

    The SLR98 still remains the ground breaking air rifle it was when it was first launched as the IMPERATOR SLR88 in 1988, the SLR98 model designation merely distinguishes between the early hand made rifles and the later CNC machined ones.

    My own SLR98 is a .22 and it will stack pellets on top of each other at 35 yards, it is every bit as accurate as my Rapid 7 or Daystate Huntsman, the limiting factor is not the rifle, it is my ability to use it. For £720 (now) you still get a glorious rifle that can stand high and proud in the crowd of modern offerings and it is British designed and British built. Fly the flag!

    Comment by: Simon Everett     Posted on: 07 Jun 2012 at 10:25 AM

  • Hi Simon, I totally agree with your comments regarding the original SLR88 - which as you said was ground breaking - and the more recent SLR98, in my opinion, is an even better rifle. Unfortunately I've just heard that Theoben are dropping production of the SLR98, which I think is a real shame.

    Comment by: Pat Farey     Posted on: 07 Jun 2012 at 11:36 AM

  • Pat, not only is it a shame, I actually think it is a bad move. Theoben have never been cheap rifles, they have always stood out at the upper end of the industry, they need to retain that position, not chase their tails downwards with price conscious buyers. There is no harm in being aspirational - look at Daystate, their £1500 rifles are no better than their everyday ones, but people queue up to buy them. Money isn't a factor for these buyers and that is what Theoben should be tapping in to.

    Dropping it is a mistake. Having it on the books as a "built to order special only" would cost them nothing, but retain their position!

    Comment by: Simon Everett     Posted on: 07 Jun 2012 at 02:47 PM

  • It's a shame when any model is dropped, but I suppose only Theoben know how many they sell per year. I presume they think it is no longer economically viable, even as a special order.

    However, I'd have thought any orders would be welcomed in the current dire financial situation we find ourselves in.

    Comment by: Troll Hunter     Posted on: 07 Jun 2012 at 06:40 PM

  • Within my collection I have a SLR98.it is one of the first of the new production.Within hours of taking possession Theoben rang me to ask for the gun to be returned, the reason being that on cocking, the underlever would foul the stock. As I had already discovered this and removed the offending woodwork, a 2 min job,I declined the offer.
    Now nearly 14 years on the gun has never failed or been recharged,the only money I have spent on it is for a spare magazine and a fitment that allows single pellet loading.
    Yes the rifle is expensive but for me that was money well spent,the gun still looks special,and to me it is.

    Comment by: Michael Hartley Steward     Posted on: 15 Dec 2012 at 11:14 PM

  • The SLR98 is a brilliant rifle and one of the few air rifles that I've wanted to own but never got around to buying

    Comment by: pat farey     Posted on: 16 Dec 2012 at 01:57 PM

  • Hello Pat, You may have missed the boat.The recent demise of Theoben means the SLR98 might have passed into history.
    There is the possibility that they may drop in price on the preloved market but over the past years I have not seen a great many parted with after purchase. God willing mine will give me many years of good service,it is now my roosting pidgeon gun of choice fitted with a moderator it soon gathers a couple of brace.

    Happy Shooting.

    Comment by: Michael Hartley Steward     Posted on: 16 Dec 2012 at 02:54 PM

  • I now about Theoben closing - but never say never!

    Besides, I buy a lot of my rifles second-hand, as I often have them tuned and/or customised so I only need them as a base - mind you, I reckon the SLR98 is good exactly as it comes out of the factory (or as it used to come out of the factory!

    Comment by: Pat farey     Posted on: 16 Dec 2012 at 10:12 PM

  • I longed to own a Theoben as a youth but my limited budget meant a Webley Eclipse was a far as I could stretch too. The mediocre accuracy of the Webley (in my hands) put me off airgun shooting so I switched to rimfire and fullbore for my kicks. However when I was offered my brother in law's airrifle earlier this year for £150 my eyes lit up when I saw Theoben Imperator written on the action! This rifle shoots beautifully and still chronos 11.8 ft lbs. I am now hooked on airguns after a 20 year break.

    Comment by: Mark S     Posted on: 27 Dec 2012 at 10:39 PM

  • Mark S - you have just acquired one of the most iconic air rifles ever made. If ever you want to part with it.......

    Comment by: Simon Everett     Posted on: 28 Dec 2012 at 01:41 AM

  • I'll have a look. Thanks.

    Comment by: Simon Everett     Posted on: 27 Jan 2013 at 03:22 PM

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