Long fins, a sharp low profile mask and a seemingly primitive snorkel were on display in a dive shop. The freediving gear was so different from the cool pastel-color scuba gear. It appeared to lack color and was totally unimaginative in its simplicity except for the extravagantly long fins. The spearfishermen were not into pretty gear I concluded (1987).
Discussions on equipment can go in many different equally interesting directions. Among the initiated, freediving equipment is the source of never ending debates and experimentation. Every piece has been disassembled, x-rayed, condemned and praised. Testing, modifying or even making everything from snorkels to spearguns is at the heart of this sport and freedivers are still largely responsible for the advancement of freediving equipment.
I could write some long discussion about the merits of different equipment but that would not be particularly helpful for people who just want to get the correct equipment.
Therefore I will remain in the realm of the time tested and reliable tools. I will try to identify the most widely adopted gear, underline advantages, tradeoff and correct applications.
To save time and money buy the correct equipment right away. I based my suggestions on what I observed veterans and competitors use, which was straightforward since they all use very similar gear. The serious freedivers have no patience for substandard equipment and apart for fin selection, what they use is adequate for a beginner.
Be wary of the advice of diveshop people. Many are well intentioned but not necessarily very knowledgeable of freediving even if they claim they are. If you let the salespeople choose your equipment, you’ll probably end-up with a neon-lime battery operated self-bailing snorkel and a three-lens mask.
The market is flooded by so-called revolutionary stuff but very little survives the field. Unless you have unlimited funds and really enjoy trying widgets, it is better to stick to the more standard gear. Leave the experimentation to veterans who may not have to pay to try the new gear.
Masks come in many shapes and colors. They occupy a large wall section in diveshops around the world. This does not mean that a great variety of masks are appropriate for freediving.
Freedivers stick mostly to one model of low-volume masks. The model in question is so prevalent that I would advise buying that particular model as a first mask if it fits. It’s the two-lens, low-volume mask that was first introduced in the market as the Cressisub Super-Occio (on the next picture you see two versions: an Omer Abyss on the left and a Sporasub Samourai on the right). Now every gear company has its own version under different names.
The other popular choices are the low-volume wide lens masks. Good examples of these are the old fashion Victoria from Picasso (as seen in picture below) the Asia from Omer or the new BigEye from Cressisub. These masks are very useful for moderate dept spearfishing as they offer a slightly larger viewing area and are still not too large.
There are extra low volume masks for deep diving. Their reduced field of vision makes them unpractical. Beware of any model with plastic lenses because they have a chronic tendency to fog-up (the marketing material may say otherwise).
Stay away from clear skirts and bright colors. The clear skirt lets light come in from the sides. As a result you constantly see your own eyes as they are reflected in the lenses. Bright colors are not the best choices to stalk fish and besides they make you look silly.
Don’t worry if you already posses a neon-lime three lens fish-bowl. It will do fine until you want to go deeper, swim fast, stalk fish or look smart.
No single piece of plastic has been the unfortunate target of so many marketing oriented designers than the snorkel. These bad ideas incarnated in plastic have the scuba crowd in mind. Scuba equipment companies make them for scuba divers that will hopefully never use them.
A good snorkel is a piece of tube with a mouthpiece, nothing more. The diameter has to be large enough to enable you to breathe freely but not so large that it is difficult to empty and remember that a shorter snorkel means that you breathe less of the air that was exhaled. When selecting a snorkel, stay away from valves, cones, anything that appears to be a widget. The snorkel should also be as hydrodynamic as possible. The best way to reduce drag is to tie the snorkel to the back of your head instead of the side. Tying the snorkel to the back of your head will also enable you to cut it shorter since it’s a more direct route to air.
There are many ways of attaching the snorkel to your mask strap:
The traditional way was to insert the snorkel under the mask strap. That will work fine for some people but you can loose the snorkel very easily if you take it out of your mouth. Many find that putting the snorkel under the mask strap interferes with the mask’s position.
The second cheapest solution is using a small rubber strap. It keeps the snorkel in place solidly. The problem with tying it statically is that the snorkel and strap will move as one unit; meaning that your snorkel will change position if the mask strap moves and vice versa.
Last, a slider is the best attachment system available. It looks like a piece of tube with an attachment on it. The thing is inserted on the snorkel where it can slide freely. That way the mask strap can move without affecting the snorkel. Sliders come standard on many snorkels namely the Cressisub America model (my favorite).
The long fins are the foremost symbols of freediving. Their length and the extra snug foot pockets provide an easy glide for the experienced swimmer that can handle them. All freediving fins have a foot pocket that provides complete support. Any play between the foot and the fin is lost energy.
The scuba strap-on fin is out of the question for freedivers since it wobbles in all directions. Dive stores prefer to sell the strap-on fins because they come in few sizes (S, M and L), which reduces the size of inventory. Strap-on fins are necessity only for divers wearing dry-suits.
While SCUBA fins come in different shades of pastel, the freediving fins come in different stiffness, from super soft for long surface swims to the very stiff for the deep dives. The rigidity of the blades can be compared to the gears of a bicycle. The very rigid blades are the equivalent of the 12th gear and the flimsy the 1st. The 12th gear is the best option for going downhill but on the flats you may go faster in the 8th. You will certainly accelerate faster in the 3rd than in the 12th and you don’t want to go uphill in any gear higher than the 5th. The same rules apply to fins except it’s more difficult to change gears.
Using very stiff fins because you have the legs for them is a bad decision. The idea is to match the properties of the fins to the situation. Softer fins make the leg movement easier, often improving style and saving energy. Stiff fins on the wrong people lead to ankle injuries, cramps and bad style typically characterized by bent knees and the infernal cycling motion. For beginners a soft blade is best. You will always need a soft blade fin as you progress since they are ideal for covering long distances, swimming in heavy seas, against current or in cold conditions. The Esclapez blue and the OMER winter are examples of soft blade fins.
The stiff fins are for deep diving from a boat. They are useful if you wish to take as little strokes as possible to reach your destination but they will require strong legs and much getting used to. The OMER Tuna, Esclapez black are stiff fins. They are of limited use for most divers.
Everything in between is a medium fin. The Esclapez green, Cressi Rondine, Mares avanti Quattro are good examples. Most divers use them most of the time. The next picture is me using the Esclapez Green while taking pictures of small pelagics. The wetsuit was from Diveskin our wetsuit sponsor for the 2006 FIPSA World Championships.
Carbon or fiberglass fins are a subject onto themselves. While most of them are stiff and long, there are softer, shorter versions and you should not equate carbon with stiff. Carbon is a better material because it regains its shape faster than plastic. Carbon and fiberglass fins are getting more affordable and sturdier.
If you can only get one pair of fins, get a soft to medium stiffness plastic version.
Freedivers because they spend so many hours in the water, dive year round in all conditions, are very demanding on wetsuits. They have to be warm and flexible.
The freediving wetsuit is composed of two main pieces. The bottom piece or trousers are either farmer John or waistband style and do not differ significantly from the SCUBA suits, unlike the top part. The absence of a zipper and the fact that the hood is directly attached to the top, are the differences that make the freediving top piece so extraordinarily superior in terms of keeping the diver warm and permitting movement without encouraging water circulation inside the suit. The freediving suit design appears to be difficult to put on. But, it is only a matter of trying it once to realize that the concern is unwarranted especially with the new material. You simply get in it head first. You can also put the arms in first, and then put the head through.
What keeps you warm is the protective layer of material between you and the freezing water. Any loose areas will be filled by water and act like a water pump bringing fresh water inside the suit every time you move. The wetsuit should stick to your skin. You want as little water in the suit as possible.
The freediving suit material in order to be comfortable and follow the contour of your body has to be very flexible and elastic. Traditional SCUBA suits are usually made of pressure resistant materials affectionately dubbed cardboard or plywood. The stiff material used for SCUBA will compress less at dept and last a very long time but will give you the grace of a rusted robot. As a general guideline, stay away from Rubatex (the grades used by SCUBA companies at least) and favor Yamamoto type neoprene (the Yamamoto come in grades from the too soft to rather stiff). The major gear companies use the appropriate material for their freediving lines (Picasso, Omer, Esclapez, Cressi and Sporasub in particular).
Of late, the most popular suits are made of Yamamoto with an exterior lycra or nylon lining and a smooth-skin interior, meaning no lining inside the suit. The smooth-skin is also, wrongly, referred to as open-cell. The smooth-skin surface resembles rubber and needs lubrication in order to slide on the skin. Divers use inexpensive hair conditioner mixed with warm water as lubricant. Do not use petroleum jelly or any other product that could react with the Neoprene or your skin. The smooth-skin is very fragile and can easily be puncture by your nails. The smooth-skin is nothing short of a revolution in comfort and warmth. No one should be without it. The smooth-skin surface is often coated with a metallic product to which marketing departments attribute all sorts of magical properties. It may make the suit marginally warmer but the true advantage is that it makes the suits easier to put on if you don’t have much lubricant. That said; always use a lubricant if you want to be comfortable.
Some suits have a lining inside and outside like a SCUBA suit. These suits are sturdier and more appropriate for warmer water. Other suits have smooth-skin inside and outside. These are performance suits that are really flexible, glide well, dry fast but that are too fragile for everyday use. Some Italians favor lining inside and smooth skin outside to take advantage of the gliding properties of smooth-skin.
The neoprene is held together with special contact cement called appropriately neoprene glue (Black Magic and Picasso make good glue, do not confuse AquaSeal normal product, which is like marine Goop, with the AquaSeal neoprene glue). The stitching reinforces the suit but it is the glue that holds the neoprene together and seals the seams. Since the neoprene stretches more easily than the lining, the lining seams have to be stitched so the neoprene does not get torn apart.
The freediving suit is a fragile thing. It will last 3-4 seasons, perhaps less, while SCUBA suits can last 30 years. This is due to the difference in material.
Neoprene socks need to be worn unless the water is warm. Sock not only cover your feet but keep the water from circulating inside the bottom part of your suit.
When putting socks leave a two cm fold at the top of the sock and cover the fold and as much sock as you can with the trousers. The fold will create a water barrier.
Socks do not need to be as thick as the rest of the suit. A 3mm sock will keep the water from circulating just as well as a 7mm. Use socks as thin as possible to reduce the cushioning effect of neoprene. In really cold water, 5mm or 7mm sock may be necessary. Socks are in constant need of repair. The more you walk on them the less they last. Either you start levitating or you learn to repair neoprene. Cheap sandals are always useful.
It is amazing what one can learn to do with numb hands but really cold water will send you home if your hands are not properly covered. Divers wear everything from 7mm SCUBA mittens to cotton gloves depending on water conditions. There is no universal advice to give about gloves except to always wear something if you handle a speargun.
When the water is warm enough, latex covered cotton gloves are wonderful. Construction workers wear them as they fit tight on fingers and are really durable. Leather also works but you will need to soak them before you can put them on as they dry to a little shriveled version of their former selves.
Hunting and fishing stores often have very good and cheap neoprene gloves. Most gloves have to be refitted and waterproofed before they can be used in cold water. SCUBA gloves are usually very large at the wrist so that customers can try them easily in the dive store.
Modern wetsuits tare very easily. Fortunately, repairing neoprene is rather straightforward once you learn to use the glue. In fact, if it was not for the difficulty getting raw material (sheets of neoprene) more divers would make their own suits.
Since what bonds neoprene is the glue, not the stitching, it is especially important to get the correct glue. Many companies claim to make neoprene glue but they are not all as effective on the very stretchy material used today. Picasso and Black Magic sell excellent glues. The glue that was adequate for bonding stiff material will not stretch enough for Yamamoto.
Before trying to bond two pieces of neoprene, make sure that each piece offers a clean and even surface. Cut a straight edge or perhaps go as far as replace an entire area with new neoprene if the material is shredded.
To bond neoprene properly you will have to spread at least two layers of glue. For small tares, I sometimes cheat and put only one coat and hope for the best. The first coat is used to prepare the material. Apply an even coat of glue on each side and let it dry for at least 15 minutes but no more than two hours otherwise the glue becomes too stiff. Apply the second coat of glue on each side and wait about 90 seconds or until the glue is only slightly sticky. If you put too much glue it takes longer. If the glue is uneven some areas will be ready before others, which is not ideal.
Don’t bond more than 5 to 10 cm of material at a time. You can put the first layer of glue over the entire piece but apply the bonding coat only on the part that you will bond. Begin with 5 cm. Start from one end and be wary of stretching the material as you try to put the two pieces together. Otherwise the tensions will result in interesting shapes. We sometimes do this intentionally to make socks. Press and hold for 20 seconds. Don’t squash the material together. The repair will hold almost instantly but the glue really sets in 24 hours.
You should sow the Lycra or nylon lining before the glue sets. Only grab the surface with the needle and leave the neoprene untouched if you can. A simple over and under stitching with nylon or polyester thread works great.
If you get good with the glue, you can try to patch old areas of your suit by cutting out and replacing the worn areas with new material. Adjusting suits to fit your body is another application of the trade and if you get really ambitious you can try to make your own suit.
The most annoying feature of a wetsuit is the neoprene’s ever changing buoyancy. On the surface the neoprene is so buoyant that it could be used as a life vest. But, the neoprene’s buoyancy diminishes as the pressure increases and the material is crushed.
The buoyancy of the suit is determined mainly by the size of the gas bubbles inside the neoprene. Unfortunately, the warmest, most flexible and elastic suits are the ones with the largest and most numerous bubbles. A SCUBA suit will not be affected as much as a freediving suit.
With neoprene’s changing buoyancy your weight belt is either too light or too heavy. If you adjust the amount of led on the belt to make yourself neutral (not floating, not sinking) when you are close to the surface, you will sink like a rock when you go deeper. The solution is to always be buoyant on the surface and neutral at half the expected average depth. For instance if you think that your average depth will be 12 meters, you will adjust the amount of led in order to be neutral at 6 meters or a little deeper. Freedivers that dive to 30 meters may choose to be neutral at 20 or even 25 meters in order to be able to use the suit’s buoyancy to head back to the surface.
The exact amount of led that you will need can only be determined by trial and error. The three determinants are your body type, the amount of neoprene that you are using and the salinity of the water (in fresh water you will need considerably less weight than in salt water).
What type of weight belt?
Weight belt, come in all shapes and colors. Most of them are usable for freediving but you may want something that is better suited for the sport.
As with all pieces of equipment think simple and avoid bright colors. The very best choice is the Marseillaise belt. It’s a thick rubber belt with an oversize buckle. Rubber is preferable to nylon because it will tighten as the suit and your lungs are compressed, staying in place and providing more comfort. The oversize buckle that resembles a classic pant buckle has a quick release system. When you pull on the belt’s unused rubber, the central pin comes back by itself and the belt drops when you let go. The Marseillaise can be found in better diveshops and on the internet but if you need a cheaper solution go for the basic nylon belt with a flap buckle. Avoid gismos and pellet systems.
The led itself should be low profile and distributed evenly on the belt. Choose the uncovered, cheapest, led in increments of 1 kg if possible... Although boat owners may demand covered led. There are matters of preference as for style. I’ve always preferred the two holes flat weight over the bullet led which usually dig in my flesh and move around unless secured with a screw.
Many divers use a strap that hooks in the back of the belt, passes between the legs and hooks to the center pin of the Marseillaise. That strap keeps the belt from moving up your back as you head down. Many divers use ankle weights to keep their legs down when stalking fish and also to distribute some weight away from the lower back. Finally there is a backpack type of weight belt that is useful when diving shallow with a thick suit.
The diving knife’s official purpose since the very first Tarzan TV series is to help you cut carnivorous seaweed and subdue octopuses. Chances are you will never use it for that or to cut through fishing equipment. I don’t think it would be of much help anyway. The knife is really used for everything from filleting fish, repairing gear and trimming your nails. It is your screwdriver, bottle opener, hammer and pry bar.
A freediver’s knife usually is unobtrusive. Slim and small are preferable attributes although the Rambo style knife can double as ankle weight. It all depends what you do with the knife. Spearfishermen want a pointy narrow blade to dispatch fish. Abalone divers might want to use theirs to pry abalone and could do with a thick blade.
Diveshops carry many knives but specialized commercial fishermen equipment stores also hold some interesting products. In any case be aware that you will loose a lot of knives and that cheap is good. A rusty knife that can be sharpened is preferable to a pretty knife that cannot hold a sharp edge. Myself, I am totally sold to the commercial fishermen utility knifes that costs next to nothing (7$) and can be fitted with straps. It slowly rusts in its holster but I don’t worry about loosing it and it cuts well.
A compass can be a lifesaver but few divers carry one at all times because it is so rarely needed. The reason that we can do without one is that we usually have visual references to help us find our way back. Unfortunately, references vanish when fog creeps on us. As soon as we lose site of land and markings we feel disoriented and begin doubting our bearings.
If you don’t have a compass and you get caught offshore there are things you can do. First, don’t swim in a random direction. Try to remember in what direction the waves were heading. You may also be able to tell your direction with the faint glare of the sun. Listen for fog horns or land noises (don’t mistake boat horns for a lighthouse horn). Check the bottom for clues. If you swim in a direction that keeps getting deeper you may be headed in the wrong direction (perhaps not).
Disorientation at sea is a nightmare and I strongly recommend carrying a small compass. The best compass is the one that you will always have with you. The 50$ Silva that’s in your glove compartment will not be as valuable as the 2$ toy that is permanently attached to your watch. A compass on the boat is a good thing only if you can find the boat.
Global Positioning System – GPS
The GPS has revolutionized navigation. Some would say it killed it. It provides exact positions anywhere, at anytime to anyone that can read numbers. The tool is very easy to use and the people who would not know how to use a compass, never mind calculate a position, can find their way just as long as the device works.
A GPS provides many services. It reports your longitude and latitude with a precision that was unimaginable previously. It also provides the direction and speed in which you are heading. If you enter a destination it will tell you its direction in degrees, its distance and suggests a course.
There is no better tool to find a small rock far from shore, away from any land bearings. Unfortunately, there is no waterproof model that a spearfishermen can carry around. The unit has to be kept relatively dry.
When purchasing a GPS think of the use that you will make of it. All that anyone needs is the most basic model providing numbers and a little directional arrow. If you want to spend more, get one with internal maps which saves you the trouble of consulting a real map. I strongly recommend learning traditional navigation to anyone who needs a GPS.
There are three main types of spearguns used around the world: the standard European gun, the wooden multi-bands American gun and the pneumatic gun. You can also come across the spring gun, the pressurized air Pelletier gun, the cartridge gun, the roller gun, the traditional Tahitian gun and all sorts of local contraptions.
The standard European gun
Past all preferences and debates about spearguns, when it comes time for spearfishermen to face each other in contests the great majority, if not all, revert to the standard band gun. It is precise, maneuverable, quick to load, indestructible, cheap and reliable. It’s unromantic and deadly.
Typically it is composed of a plastic handle, a 25 to 30 mm diameter aluminum or carbon tube, a plastic head in which bands are screwed in. The gun usually counts one pair of bands of either 16 or 20 mm in thickness. Articulated wishbones are used to grab the shaft. The shaft is a 6, 6.5 or 7 mm stainless steel rod that overhangs by about 30 cm. The tip of the shaft has a single barb about 6 cm from the end. They usually have a one barb shaft called a Tahitian. The shooting line is attached at the butt of the shaft and at the head of the gun. On the handles a line release system helps keep the excess line out of the way until firing.
The length of the gun is measured by its tube. The lengths range from 50 to 140 cm. The popular sizes are 50, 75, 90, 110, 120 cm. The 50 cm gun is useful for shooting small fish point blank in crevasses, caves and in low visibility. It lacks the necessary power to shoot fish of more than 3 kg.
The 75 cm is a great reduced visibility gun. It provides enough power to shoot fish of up to 20 kg although its useful range is between 1 and 4 meters. It’s the second most popular size for the North Atlantic competitors.
The 90 cm gun is the all around tool that is used most often except in open water and tropical environments. It provides enough power to subdue a 30 kg fish, yet it is highly maneuverable and can be used in low visibility.
The 100 cm gun is for longer shots yet not a blue water gun. The 110 and 120 cm guns pack enough power to shoot just about anything and have effective ranges of 2-8 meters. They are awkward to maneuver but each cm of length increases the power of the gun exponentially. Many materials have been used to make these guns. Carbon often replaces the aluminum tube, aluminum replaces the plastic of the handle, shaft are made with carbon, titanium shows up for no good reason in all sort of places while trigger mechanisms which should be made of the finest heat treated stainless available is often mass produced using sometimes folded metal or even plastic.
Avoid the hype around new spearguns. Keep in mind that the essential quality of a gun is the balance between its weight, the thickness of the shaft and the amount of power the bands produce. Too much power and too little weight results in an inaccurate gun that kicks. The tube whether it is made of carbon, aluminum or titanium has to remain perfectly straight under the weight of the bands. A line release system, which is sometimes absent on the cheaper European guns, is an absolute necessity. The gun should be neutral once in the water and float when the shaft is released. Finally, it has to shoot straight.
The wooden gun
The wooden guns are made by hand using exotic wood such as teak. They look great and are typically assembled with the highest quality trigger mechanisms and superb heat treated shafts.
It is more than a folkloric showpiece. It is very useful if not necessary on large fish in open water. They are generally better balanced than other spearguns, you can install many bands, fit the shaft with a detachable head and it makes a great wall decoration. But it is also the least maneuverable gun, long to load, super expensive, requires religious maintenance and may have way too much power for most fish.
If you regularly shoot fish over 30 kg, wood may be the way to go. For fish as large as blue fin tuna, it is the only practical option. On the other hand if you hunt smaller fish in reduced visibility or around rocks, leave the behemoth over the fireplace.
The pneumatic gun
The pneumatic gun was more popular a few decades ago. It is still useful for hunting large game in holes or in reduced visibility. It’s a gun for special applications. The modern versions of the pneumatic are great when they work. The ones with the thinner shafts (7 mm) now allow long shots.
The main problem is that they don’t always work. The gaskets inside the gun often blow or leak and there is very little you can do on your own to remedy the situation. Pneumatic owners are very dependant on the manufacturer for repairs. The noise the gun makes when fired used to be a major issue. Some of them are so loud that they can be heard from the surface and scare fish straight out of the water! Loading is difficult if not dangerous and you have to keep a loading handle with you all the time. The gun usually sinks making it tiresome to carry.
The pneumatic is measured in total length from the handle to the tip of the shaft. I don’t suggest purchasing anything smaller than 70 cm but beware of loading difficulties for guns over 100 cm.
The piston system pushes the shaft very evenly and it is theoretically a great gun. Long shots are possible but because the shaft is encased aiming is very challenging.
The high power that you get at close range can be really useful in certain circumstances but I don’t suggest getting a pneumatic until that specific need is felt and you own every other type of gun. I use mine perhaps once of twice a year.
Shafts come in many thicknesses, lengths and material, to say nothing of varieties of tips and notches.
Standard European gun shaft
The shaft on a standard European gun is meant to be cheap and disposable. On a 90 cm gun the shaft usually has a diameter of 6.5 mm and 130 cm in length. It is usually made of rather sturdy stainless steel. Some shafts will bend easily others will break. Obviously you want to choose the bending kind if you plan to shoot large fish and keep them. For competitions, I favor the stiff and more brittle since it shoots better and remains straight for the duration of at least one competition.
People who spearfish a lot often switch from the stainless steel to the more resilient galvanized steel. The galvanized shaft resists breaking and bending better than the stainless material. It is also cheaper and rust generally shows after it is time to change the shaft. If you fish only once in a while it is more economical to use stainless.
If you don’t mind paying the price, it is possible to get heat treaded stainless steel. The heat treated material is brownish in color. They are difficult to find for European guns but it is the standard for American guns. Jay Riffe now makes a heat treaded shaft for European guns. It comes with tiny shark fin notches. They come in American sizes of 1/4 and 5/8 inches (6.3 and 7.1 mm). Bringing the imperial system into the 21st century has the advantage of providing alternate, if somewhat odd, diameters.
There are three common diameters. The 6 mm shaft is the thinnest. It will travel much faster but it may lack the weight to penetrate large fish and is more subject to bending. It is an ideal choice for most competitions because of its speed. The 7 mm is a heavy shaft. It is too slow for most applications unless you use two sets of bands but then your gun will surely be out of balance. It will work great for shooting large fish point-blank. Longer European guns (above 110 cm) require the use of a 7 mm shaft since it resists bending better.
6.5 mm is the standard diameter. It provides plenty of speed and penetration power with a normal amount of bands. In doubt, use a 6.5 mm on guns ranging from 70 to 110 cm in length.
Choosing the length is rather straightforward. On a European gun the shaft should overhang at least 30 cm past the muzzle. Some hunters like a longer overhang, perhaps as much as 50 cm in order to improve sighting. The disadvantage of exaggerated length is the loss of gun balance.
The great weakness of the European shaft is that it uses notches to hold the wishbones. Since the notches are difficult to smoothen out, the European guns are fitted with metallic wishbones. Kevlar string and steel cable will disintegrate in very little time. Rob Allen, the South-African gun manufacturer, is the only one to produce shafts with smoothed out notches that will not destroy Kevlar strings or wire but they fit only his guns and the Aimrite mechanism. Jay Riffe European shafts have little pins that are gentle on string.
The shooting line passes in a hole at the butt of the shaft or in a hole in front of the first notch. Using the hole at the butt makes taking fish off the string much easier. During competitions it is preferable to use the back notch. Using the hole in front of the notch reduces the chances of loosing a fish if the shaft breaks. Moreover if the shaft makes its way right through the fish the shaft will act as a very large detachable tip insuring the fish’s capture.
The standard shaft on a large American gun is beautiful. The workmanship alone shows that it is not meant to be a disposable item. Instead of notches grooved in the metal, pieces of metal are welded and smoothed to resemble a shark fin. A hole is drilled in the fin to pass the shooting line. Since this hole is easily smoothed out the shooting line does not suffer much from abrasion.
The metal used for the American shafts is the real bonus. They are made of heat treated stainless steel with a high resistance to bending and breaking in comparison to the metal of the European shaft. The metal has a brownish color. The exact composition of the metal is no secret. It’s 17-4ph, a rather standard mix in the industry but it’s not always easy to get it in shaft size diameters. The heat treatment varies according to the rigidity desired (measured in Rockwell).
American shafts are often treaded to fit detachable tips, a standard item on big game guns.
All shafts can be fitted with a flopper system or treaded to affix a detachable tip, a flopper, a power head or a 3 to 5 prongs tip. The European gun is typically rigged with a Tahitian shaft. It has a single flopper about 6 cm from the tip and 3 to 8 cm in length. The floppers used in Europe are rather small 3 to 5 cm whereas the ones used in the rest of the world are more in the 5 to 8 cm range. The Tahitian shaft offers very little resistance to water and can hold even the largest fish if the shot is good.
The 3 to 5 prong tip is used for shall fish (up to 5 kg) in reduced visibility. There are large and very expensive 3 prong tips that are fitted with floppers on every prong that can paralyze even a large fish. All prong tips offer great resistance to water, travel slow and damage the flesh.
The slip tip is an ancient design that can be seen in museums featuring prehistoric pieces of North-America. The modern version was probably born in California where it is still widely used.
Slip tip designs are varied. The ice-pick is the best example. The tip of the shaft ends in a small pin that will fit into a hole at the base of the ice-pick. It holds together only precariously. The line that goes from the middle of pick to the tip of the shaft is used to hold the two pieces together until the shaft is fired. Then the tip stays in place because of the thrust and should fall off the tip and restrain the fish after penetration.
The slip tip is useful only on very large fish. It is cumbersome, fragile and very expensive (the ice-pick alone is worth as much as a European gun).
The diamond shape AGX is a variation of the slip tip used on the East Coast mostly to catch large stripe bass in reduced visibility. It resembles an arrow head and does much more damage to the fish, often killing it instantly. The main problem with the AGX is that it does not travel very well unless it is totally straight.
The shooting line connects the shaft to the gun. The length of the line is counted in wraps. Guns are normally rigged with either one or two wraps of shooting line. On a gun with one wrap, the line starts where the shaft is attached, goes through the muzzle, comes back to the line release on the handle and goes up again to the muzzle where it is attached. On a 90 cm gun, one wrap means approximately 3 meters or line. A speargun fitted with two wraps has an added loop before the line is attached to the muzzle. Two wraps on a 90 cm gun provide about 5 meters of line.
The material used for the shooting line is either: 1.5 to 1.9 mm monofilament, coated wire or nylon string. String knots easily and I cannot recommend using it. Wire is used mostly for big game and around corals.
Monofilament is the most popular option because it keeps its shape (limiting the possibility of entanglement) and it is strong. The appropriate monofilament does not stretch and keeps its shape. High Seas makes great mono for spearfishing, Junkai is too elastic. Some people use weed-eater instead of monofilament. It’s a good replacement when nothing else is available. It doesn’t last as long and stretches more. The price difference is not worth the inconvenience.
Monofilament and cable have to be crimped properly. An appropriate crimping tool (approximately 35$ US) is a necessity since the line has to be changed often.
The art of finding proper bands for a specific shaft size and gun length is a challenging one surrounded by much guess work. The length of the bands depends on the material and the power needed. As a general rule, bands should not be stretched past 2.5 times their initial size. Otherwise the material looses its effectiveness and wears out fast.
Brand name screw-on bands from Europe are usually good. Once in a while some bands standout for their quality like the Dessault 16 mm did in the 1990s. It is very difficult to tell what bands are really good without trying them.
There are no true standards for the size of bands versus the lengths of guns. Some company make recommendation for certain bands. Picasso for instance offers band measurements for each of its guns (written on the side of the barrel with the suggested shaft length and diameter). The recommendations are made for 20 mm Picasso bands on a Picasso gun with a 6.5 mm shaft. It provides some idea of ideal band length but it doesn’t take into account personal preferences (I use a band on average 2 cm shorter than suggested) and stops being valid if you rig the gun differently.
Picasso suggested measurements:
90 cm gun = 20mm * 22 cm bands (…)
If you want extra power for a special occasion, like a competition, you could install bands meant for a shorter gun but you should be aware that that expensive set of bands is going to be ruined.
Picasso is only one European example. Most screw-on bands fit most guns regardless of company except for the notable exception of the OMER which produced a special fitting for its 20 mm bands.
There are only three common combinations of bands used on European guns. One pair of 16 mm is the traditional, weak rigging. One pair of 20 mm is probably the most popular choice at this time. Two pairs of 16 mm is more powerful than one set of 20 mm but can be too much for certain shafts. European guns are normally too light for twin 20 mm bands. The result of overpowering a gun is an uncontrollable kick, poor accuracy and loss of power. Some18 mm bands are appearing as an alternative to 16 and 20 mm.
The great weakness of screw-on bands is the waste of band space. Not only do you loose a few cm because of the band rings but the rings are attached closer than a circular band would.
Although Rob Allen guns are African they can be labeled European, they use hand rigged circular bands. Rob Allen makes some length suggestions for his guns. The lengths will appear to be much longer since a circular band goes back and forth in one piece. But these measurements are rather short for most people.
Rob Allen 20mm band sizing
gun size (cm) band length (cm)
For 16mm (5/8") band material
gun size (cm) band length (cm)
Work on 1/3 x L x 2 + 10cm
or if you want a bit more power but harder to load.
1/4 x L x 2 + 10cm
L is the length of the gun (Track area) 10cm is the amount of rubber to allow for the muzzle.
American guns are more difficult to rig since there is no standard on material or diameters. People use whatever is available. And since it is possible to install anywhere from one to ten bands on these handcrafted guns, one can only proceed by trial and error or by asking around for an educated guess.
On the European guns using screw-on bands a 3 piece articulated wishbone is screwed on the band. The articulated wishbone is not subject to wear, carries the shaft very efficiently, is always set right inside the notch. There are other metal contraptions to use with screw-on bands and European shafts but none compares.
On American shafts or any shaft with pins or smoothed out notches, you can use a string or cable wishbone. I suggest using a sturdy Kevlar, nylon, spectra or newer indestructible material and avoid the metal cable. The metal cable tends to shred and leave nasty spikes. The string wishbone is fitted with a bead, set inside the band and held by a constrictor knot. An articulated wishbone can be installed using the same technique on non screw-on bands.
All guns have some sort of line release system. The very weakest being only a clamp. For most spearfishermen the crocodile clamp is a poor excuse for a line release but the people hunting in holes like them.
Decent guns have a mechanical line release, a sort of little finger that lets go of the shooting line when the trigger is pulled or when the shaft leaves the mechanism. On European guns the release system is located under the handle in front of the trigger. The American line release is located on the side of the gun next to the mechanism.
Do not focus on equipment
Having the correct equipment will make spearfishing or freediving much more pleasurable. That said, apart from the wetsuit none of it has to be top notch for you to enjoy yourself or do well in competitions. For a very modest investment you can go a long way and you should avoid focusing on equipment.