© Ravi Chopra, 1998
Low pressure operation is probably the biggest fad in paintball right now. Low pressure paintguns started cropping up years ago but it has only recently come into mainstream popularity. People who market low pressure systems and ´guns make all sorts of incredible claims as to the advantages of sub-300 psi operation: reduced ball breakage, 30 extra yards of effective range, doubled efficiency, cures acne, etceteras. Though low pressure systems have been developed for quite a few paintguns, the Autococker has definitely been the recipient of the bulk of the attention. More than a few companies offer their own lower pressure valves, and countless shops are selling their own "Signature Series" low pressure Autocockers.
Recently, AKA Performance Paintball, a young, upstart company, entered the scene with their own high-efficiency valve for the Autococker. Theirs was the first aftermarket valve specifically designed to provide deep low pressure operation for the Autococker. Their claims of the lowest operating pressures (180-250 psi) and highest efficiency (up to 2500 shots from a 114 ci 3000 psi nitrogen tank) flew in the face of common wisdom that said that lower pressures led to decreased shot-counts. In fact, their efficiency claims were so absurdly high that it led many people to dismiss AKA outright as a bunch of crackpots.
I myself was very skeptical, but at the same time I was intrigued by the possibilities if even half their claims turned out to be true. When AKA offered to send me a valve for evaluation, I jumped at the chance. By the time the review was finished, virtually all of their claims were proven true. But along the way, I found quite a few caveats that prospective buyers should be aware of when considering the AKA low pressure system.
The full AKA Autococker low pressure package consists of the Tornado valve, Lightning bolt, Mitey Max valve air reservoir, and the Javelin barrel which can be purchased together for $250 U.S.. In this review, I will be evaluating the system as a whole, and then taking a look at each of the components individually.
There are a few things that are absolutely required for the Tornado valve (the heart of the system) to work. The absence of any of these can result in it being difficult or impossible for you to achieve 300 fps velocities. First, your Autococker or Minicocker must have an enlarged valve chamber to provide adequate flow to achieve sufficient velocity. 1997 and newer model Autocockers all have sufficiently large chambers for the Tornado valve to work. If you have a ´96 or earlier Autococker, you will have to have it drilled out larger by a skilled airsmith. All Minicockers require some sort of external valve chamber augmentation like the Mitey Max air reservoir. Second, you must have an extremely free flowing bolt. The only bolts that AKA recommends for use are the Lightning bolt (obviously), the ANS 10-hole bolt, the Slingshot bolt, and Bob Long´s latest Cyclone bolt for the Autococker. Third, you must have a Nelson-style spring kit installed. Very specific spring tensions are required for the valve to work optimally. Finally, you must use a very consistent, free-flowing, low-pressure gas delivery system. I promise you, the AKA system is so demanding, it will expose weaknesses in the rest of your equipment setup.
My own Autococker is a pre-´97 model. As a result, when I first installed the Tornado valve, I was completely unsuccessful in getting velocities over 230 fps. I sent my ´gun in to AKA to have the valve chamber drilled out and the entire system installed. When I got my Autococker back from them the valve chamber had been drilled out to larger-than-´97 dimensions. AKA also installed the Tornado valve with their recommended springs, the Mitey Max replaced the old front-block screw, and a P-block length Lightning bolt had been specially cut to fit my twist-lock block. They also sent along a 14" Javelin barrel.
AKA had retimed my Autococker very conservatively. This is something that they do recommend, but which I don´t particularly like. The first thing I did was retime the ´gun with the shorter, faster pull that I prefer. Once that was taken care of, I went out to play. All of my results come while running a Smart Parts Max-Flow nitrogen system directly into the ´gun with no second stage of regulation. Using an inferior gas-delivery system will result in poorer performance.
As a result of how the Tornado valve is designed, velocity is set by changing input pressure. Changing spring tension with the standard adjuster in the back of the ´gun results in velocity changes far too small in magnitude to be useful. As a result, if you plan on using the Tornado valve you might as well install the cheapest hammer kit that allows you to install Nelson springs.
With the full AKA setup installed, my ´gun chronoed at 295 fps with an input pressure of only 230 psi! I was distressed to find that I was getting a lot of barrel breaks and relatively poor accuracy when compared to what I´d experienced before installing the AKA system. Switching to my 12" LAPCO Autococker barrel not only eliminated the barrel breaks and straightened out the accuracy, but it also allowed me to further reduce the input pressure to 200 psi. I do not believe that this indicates that the Javelin is a bad barrel. Rather, it is reflective of the fact that the Javelin´s bore is too tight for the paint I was shooting. I´ll address this issue in more detail later in this article when I look at the Javelin barrel alone. For now, the take-home message is that to get the best performance from this system, you need to get a good paint-barrel match: the paint should fit tightly into the barrel (not roll out the end), but it should not be overly restrictive (you should be able to blow the paint through the barrel without too much drama). Too tight a barrel results in the problems I experienced with the Javelin, too loose a barrel will result in poor efficiency and difficulty in achieving appropriate velocities. AKA actually recommends having 3 barrels to allow you to match all paints: the Javelin 0.684" for very small paint, LAPCO´s 0.687" for small and mid sized paints, and any decent 0.690" ID barrel for monster balls like Nelson.
The efficiency of this system is really something to crow about. Right off I noticed that I was getting off a lot of shots without dropping very much pressure in my nitrogen tank. When it was all said and done, AKA´s efficiency claims were completely borne out. With my 68 ci 3000 psi Max-Flow system, I was getting upwards of 1300 295 fps shots. When I turned the velocity down to 270 fps for indoor practice, the shot count climbed up to over 1500 shots per tank. Their claims for other nitro system sizes are 2500 shots for 114 ci 3000 psi, 2200 shots for 68 ci 4500 psi, and 2000 shots for 20 oz. CO2 tanks. Keep in mind that these are all best-case counts. A poor paint-barrel fit, a mistimed ´gun, an inefficient bolt will all reduce the maximum shot count your can expect from the AKA low pressure system.
Velocity consistency was also a strength of the AKA low pressure system. With good paint and a good barrel fit, I was regularly seeing velocities that fell within a +/-5 fps range, and they occasionally were as good as +/-2 fps. One important thing to note here is that velocity is set by adjusting the input pressure to the ´gun. At the very low pressures that the AKA system is designed to work, input pressure consistency is crucial to maintaining a steady velocity. This system´s performance directly reflects the performance of your gas delivery system. The Max-Flow is possibly the most consistent nitrogen system on the market. Using a less consistent system or secondary regulator will result in less consistent velocities. AKA lists the systems they have had the most luck with and recommend at their web page.
The final issue to address is range and accuracy. I´ve never seen any evidence that convinced me that low pressure operation significantly increased the effective range or accuracy of a paintgun. AKA´s low pressure setup did not do much to change that opinion. Though I didn´t do any bench-mounted range testing (I don´t put a whole lot of stock in that), I didn´t notice that I was shooting any further than I had been when running 450 psi, nor did I notice any better range than people I was playing with and against who were using tournament-level paintguns. Here are a couple simple facts: 1) range is most heavily impacted by velocity, 2) accuracy is most heavily impacted by the quality of your paint and the smoothness and cleanliness of your barrel´s bore. All other factors´ effects are minuscule by comparison.
At this point I was convinced that the AKA system offered some genuine benefits, particularly in efficiency. I then took a look at each of the separate components to see what their individual contributions were.
On it´s own, the Tornado valve has a suggested retail price of $79.95, making it the most expensive aftermarket valve available. The valve body and stem are constructed of heat-treated stainless-steel. The seal is made of high-strength urethane and has 6 small fins projecting from it´s sides.The valve body has enormous inlet and outlet holes - larger than those of any other Autococker valve. The valve is beautifully manufactured with the pieces fitting perfectly and moving precisely. The Tornado is also the only valve I know of that comes with a lifetime warranty.
The only curiosity in the valve´s design is that the valve O-ring sits on a small ledge at the inlet-end of the valve with no ridge to hold it in place. This ledge was flat on early valves, making it exceedingly difficult to keep O-ring in place long enough to seat the valve properly during installation. New Tornado valves have a slight taper to keep the O-rings in place a bit better, though it´s still not as easy to install as other valves. In addition, specific springs and correct timing are essential to get the best performance from this valve. Unless you are highly proficient with Autocockers, I´d strongly recommend having the valve installed by one of AKA´s factory authorized airsmiths.
As I tested the Tornado with a variety of other accessories, it became apparent that you need the other components of AKA´s low pressure package to get the most out of it. Using components that restrict flow or reduce the size of the air chamber in front of the valve forced an increase in operating pressure and a corresponding reduction in efficiency. The importance of exceedingly free-flowing components was dramatically demonstrated by the fact that I could not get sufficient velocity with most bolts, including the stock bolt. The only bolts AKA recommends for use with the Tornado valve are the ANS 10-hole venturi bolt, the Slingshot Bolt, Bob Long´s new Cyclone bolt, and of course their own Lightning bolt.
Anything that restricts flow into the ´gun can cause a loss of velocity during rapid-fire. Pro-Connects, Microline, in-line filters, and slow recharging nitrogen systems and regulators can all lead to this problem.
In short, the Tornado valve can provide exceptional performance, but only when accompanied by the appropriate ancillary components. It is difficult to recommend the Tornado as a product on it´s own. It works, but it doesn´t stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition. On the other hand, I do highly recommend it as the first and most important component of a whole low pressure system with very specific requirements for it´s other parts.
At first glance, the Lightning bolt looks very unassuming. It has the standard three O-rings, one big hole in the side, and one big hole in the face - no venturi design here. When you look into the inlet hole, you find something a little different. The hole slants forward toward the front of the bolt, similar to that found in Bob Long´s new bolt but without the large flow-restricting insert. From the slanted inlet, the channel cones outward to a single large opening in the front. Though it has a uniform diameter down it´s length so it can´t flop from side to side when the bolt is retracted, most of the bolt is hollowed out for reduced weight. A notch is cut in the top of the back of the bolt so you won´t accidentally install it upside-down. A final, nice feature in the bolt´s construction is that it has a durable black hardcoat. Most bolts come with thin, weak anodizing that lasts about 10 shots before it´s scraped clean off. Though I´ve been using them for months now and have put thousands of shots through them, the two Lightning bolts I have don´t show a single sign of wear, even where the ball-detent contacts them.
At $55, the Lightning bolt falls at the high end of the price spectrum for bolts. For an extra $15, you can get an Evolution-style quick-pull bolt retention system installed in it. This is a very nice retention system that I highly recommend.
I´ll admit that I´ve never been a big fan of aftermarket bolts. Most of them seemed to do little more than lighten your wallet and reduce your ´gun´s efficiency. The Lightning bolt is something else entirely. It´s performance is nothing short of astounding, and it doesn´t need the Tornado valve to work it´s magic. Basically, what it does is offer the lowest restriction to flow currently available in an Autococker bolt. Drop it into any Autococker or Minicocker and you´ll immediately see a dramatic increase in velocity, allowing you to turn your velocity adjuster and/or input pressure WAY down.
With the Tornado valve, the Lightning bolt allowed me to shoot a healthy 295 fps at an input pressure of 230 psi (with the Mitey Max and Javelin barrel installed). With the stock bolt, the velocity maxed out at 270 fps at 300 psi (also with Mitey Max and Javelin). To test it with an optimized stock valve, I installed the Lightning bolt in an Evolution Minicocker. While the excellent Evolution bolt shoots 295 fps at 290 psi, the Lightning bolt achieved the same velocity at just 250 psi. Depending on your specific ´gun and valve setup, you can expect to able to drop your operating pressure by 40-100 psi with the simple addition of the Lightning bolt to your Autococker.
The Lightning bolt is a product for which I have nothing but unadulterated enthusiasm. It is, without question, the best constructed bolt currently available for the Autococker and Minicocker, and it performs flawlessly as advertised. If you´re looking to drop your input pressure and improve your efficiency, this bolt is a quick, easy, and not-too-expensive way to go.
The Mitey Max is a simple, empty, air reservoir that replaces your front-block screw and in so doing increases the size of your valve chamber. The idea is that you can reduce your operating pressure by giving the valve a larger ready volume of pre-regulated gas to draw from. It was specifically designed to work with high-flow, low-pressure valves like the Tornado. AKA claims that it offers little or no benefit with other valves. Like the Tornado valve, the Mitey Max is constructed entirely of heat-treated stainless steel. It´s price is $49.95 separately.
To test it, I checked how it affected the operating pressure of Tornado and non-Tornado equipped paintguns with various bolts. The result was just as the manufacturer said, the Mitey Max offers impressive reductions in operating pressure when combined with the Tornado valve, but less than stellar results with the stock valve. With the Tornado valve, you can expect the Mitey Max to allow you to drop your input pressure by at least another 50 psi below what the Tornado allows on it´s own. With the stock valve, the Mitey Max dropped the input pressure by 0-10 psi, depending on the bolt used.
This one is simple. If you don´t have a Tornado valve, the Mitey Max is not worth installing. It won´t improve your performance one iota. On the other hand, if you have or plan on installing a Tornado valve, the Mitey Max is a worthwhile addition if you want to achieve the very lowest operating pressure. With Minicockers it is an essential, required addition due to their very small valve chamber.
The Javelin barrel is a tight-bore barrel designed to maximize gas efficiency and work optimally with low pressure paintguns. The barrel I tested was 14" long and had a tiny 0.684" ID. They are also available in 10" and 12". A limited edition of 0.687" ID Javelins is also currently being offered. For comparison, most barrels today fall somewhere around 0.691" ID. The Javelin is constructed entirely of aluminum and has an industrial hardcoat and Teflon coating to provide a slick surface. Looking down the bore revealed that the barrel does not have the mirror-polished surface I´ve come to expect in barrels these days. Rather, it appeared to have a patterned surface from the coating process. Six holes are drilled circumferentially around the middle of the barrel and the end has an interesting muzzle break similar to the old Crown Point, but which doesn´t cut entirely through the barrel. Prices for the Javelin vary from $79.95 to $89.95 depending on length.
This barrel has an extremely tight bore. It was designed as such specifically for use with the AKA low pressure system. It is not recommended for use with larger paint brands like Nelson, or with Autocockers that run over 300 psi.
As I mentioned above, I had problems with this 0.684" ID barrel´s performance. I strongly suspect that this was due to it being too tight for the paint I was shooting. This was supported by the fact that I gained velocity when I went to my 0.687" LAPCO barrel, indicating that the Javelin was restricting the ball´s passage. A limited run of 0.687" ID Javelins are currently available which should be much more appropriate for most brands of paint available today. The 0.684" Javelin may be a better fit for some of the new expensive tournament-grade paints (like Evil and All Star) which are extremely small and tend to roll out of even 0.687" barrels.
The price of these barrels is about average for aluminum aftermarket barrels these days, though LAPCO´s excellent tight-bore barrel can be had for $20-$30 less. Some people on the internet have claimed exceptional performance from these barrels. My own experiences were not as good, but as I said, I do think that it was mostly the result of a poor paint-barrel fit. To ensure you always have a good fit, AKA recommends having 3 different barrels with their low pressure system: their own Javalin for small paint, a LAPCO 0.687" for mid-size paint, and any of the many 0. 691" barrels on the market. If you´re considering the purchase of one as part of the AKA low pressure package, you already have a low pressure Autococker, or if you shoot very small paint, the Javelin could be a decent barrel choice. If you don´t fall into one of these categories, I find it very difficult to recommend.
As you´ve probably gathered by this point, AKA´s low pressure setup provides what is very likely the lowest pressure operation and highest efficiency currently available for the Autococker. The trade-offs for this cutting-edge performance are demanding performance requirements for the rest of your paintgun, limitations on the accessories you can use, and a steep price of entry for the whole system installed.
Add to the $250 cost for the package the price of professional installation and any components you may need to add or replace to support this demanding system and you are looking at a substantial investment in your paintgun.
When you consider that people regularly spend much more than this on purely cosmetic work for their Autocockers, it doesn´t seem like all that bad a deal. On the other hand, when you consider that other valves on the market provide 75-80% of the AKA system´s performance without the limitations and at 20% of the cost, the waters become a little murkier.
I do heartily recommend the Lightning bolt to anyone and everyone who shoots and Autococker or Minicocker. It´s an exceptionally well made piece and offers performance that betters that of any other bolt I´ve tried. As for the rest of the AKA system, it really depends on just how important low pressure operation and ultra-high efficiency are to you. If they´re crucial factors, you won´t find another system that works better than this.
All material at this site is © Ravi Chopra, 1999