Pneumatic framing nailers have a big effect on the speed and
quality of the work. Tasks that take forever with a hammer can
be done in a fraction of the time with a framing gun. I run a
framing crew on the Kitsap Peninsula, west of Seattle, Wash.
Around here, everyone uses stick guns that take 20- to
22-degree plastic-collated full round-head nails.
For this article, my crew tested 11 round-head stick nailers
from Bostitch, DeWalt, Duo-Fast, Hitachi, Makita, Max,
Porter-Cable, Senco, and Spotnails. There were usually three or
four of us on site, and we framed every day. I kept the guns in
the back of my truck for a couple of months, and carpenters
were free to use any gun they wanted. The information in this
article is based on our collective experience with the tools.
We all used every gun.
One thing we could not evaluate was durability. All the guns
appear to be well made, but the only way to know for sure would
be to use them till they started wearing out. There was no way
to do that with 11 guns — by the time we finished, many
would be out of date.
Power and Ergonomics
The first things I notice when I try a new gun are how much
power it has, the amount of recoil, and whether it's easy to
lift and handle.
Power. A framing gun should
drive fasteners all the way home, but the proliferation of
engineered lumber has made it harder for guns to do this. We
regularly use LVLs for ridges, hips, and valleys. Some of our
older guns have trouble driving nails in engineered material,
and that forces us to do something we hate — finish the
job with a hammer. But none of the guns we tested had any
trouble driving .131-inch fasteners, the size we normally use
for framing. Several take fasteners up to .148 inch in
diameter, and a few go up to .162 inch, which is a full 16d
nail. The major difference in driving large versus small
fasteners is that you can't go quite as fast with bigger nails.
We also felt more recoil when firing larger nails.
Recoil. None of the guns
recoiled excessively, but some dampened the blow less than
others. For example, three of the guns take 16d nails —
the Bostitch, Makita, and Hitachi NR90AC2. They all have the
power to sink those nails, but we could feel how hard the
Bostitch gun was "hitting." The vibration of the nail strike
traveled up my arm, and it didn't feel good. That didn't happen
with smaller fasteners, but you should be prepared for it if
you use a lot of 16d nails.
DeWalt's D51845 was exceptionally light, so we expected some
recoil. There was none, but the crew agreed that it didn't
cushion the blow as well as other guns.
Weight and balance. Tools are
easier to handle and cause less fatigue when they're light and
well balanced. I generally prefer light guns, but none of these
was so heavy that it would scare me away from buying it.
DeWalt's was the lightest, and Hitachi's NR90AC2 was the
heaviest. But the Hitachi was so well balanced that it felt
lighter than it was. Most of the tools felt reasonably well
balanced, with the Max topping the list in this category.
Depth of Drive
We work in an active seismic zone, so the houses we build have
plywood or OSB shear walls. Buildings must pass shear nailing
inspections, and if too many fasteners are overdriven, the
project will fail. That's why it's important to have a gun with
a reliable, easy-to-use depth adjustment mechanism. Depth of
drive is adjusted by changing the length of the contact
element. In the past, this always required the use of tools
(see Figure 1), but now most guns can be adjusted without them.
We much prefer toolless mechanisms: They make it easier to
switch between nailing framing and shear, with no need to hunt
Figure 1.It takes an Allen key to adjust
the depth of drive on this Duo-Fast gun. It works but
is less convenient than a toolless
Mechanisms. Bostitch and
DeWalt use a push-button release to change depth of drive
Figure 2.A push-button release allows you
to extend and retract the contact element on this
The Max, Porter-Cable, Senco 702XP, and both Hitachi guns
rely on nose-mounted thumbwheels (Figure 3). Makita uses a
thumbwheel, too, but it's mounted next to the trigger. All of
those mechanisms will do the job. The thumbwheel type has more
throw but is also more likely to stick. The push-button type
doesn't stick but is limited to a set number of indexed
Figure 3.The thumbwheel-activated depth
control on this Porter-Cable nailer is typical of what
you'll find on most newer framing guns.
The Spotnails gun does not come with an adjustable depth of
drive, but it can be equipped with an optional flush drive
attachment. The Duo-Fast and Senco 602 still require the use of
The guns we tested will hold two strips of nails. Some tools
hold slightly more, but it's more trouble than it's worth to
break a strip of nails to top off the load.
Top vs. rear loading. Some
magazines load from the top, others from the rear. Both types
are easy to load, but the top-loading magazines are easier to
unload. We change nail sizes a lot, so we strongly prefer
top-loading tools. To load, you pull back the pusher and drop
in the fasteners. To unload, you pull back the pusher, tip the
gun upside down, and the nails fall out. It's harder to get
nails out of a rear-loading model. It's no big deal, but it is
aggravating when you're in a hurry.
We had trouble with some of the rear-loading magazines. The
Hitachi NR90AC2 worked fine with large nails but tended to jam
when we loaded 8d fasteners. The problem occurred because the
back strip sometimes lapped onto the strip ahead of it. We
liked this gun for framing, but the jams were so aggravating
that we stopped using it on sheathing. The magazine on Senco's
702XP also tended to jam but nowhere near as often as the
NR90AC2. We had trouble with the pusher on the Makita gun. It
rains a lot around here, and when the tool got wet, the pusher
sometimes stuck when we pulled it back to reload.
Most nail guns can be operated in sequential or contact trip
modes. With contact trip, you hold down the trigger and fire
nails by pressing the contact element into the work. Contact
trip allows you to bump-fire, which is the fastest way to drive
nails. Sequential trip is safer, because it limits you to
firing single shots: The trigger has to be released after each
shot is fired. All the carpenters I know hate sequential trip,
and the guys on my crew never use it.
With some guns, you have to remove and replace the trigger to
change firing modes. This is true of the guns from Bostitch,
DeWalt, Max, Senco, and Spotnails. It's not difficult to swap
triggers, but if you're like most carpenters, you'll install
the one for contact trip and never take it off. Some
manufacturers make it easier to go back and forth between
modes. Makita, Porter-Cable, and Hitachi equipped their guns
with mechanisms that allow you to change modes by activating a
switch. Max's gun has an additional safety feature, an
anti-double-fire mechanism. You can still bump-fire, but if you
depress the nose before firing, the gun won't drive a second
nail until you release the trigger and squeeze it again.
Most of these guns share the same basic features, but some
models have a little extra. For example, the Max is equipped
with a swivel fitting that plugs into the hose. I like it
because it prevents the hose from kinking (Figure 4).
Figure 4.A useful "extra," the swivel
fitting on the Max nailer helps prevent hose
The Makita, Max, and Hitachi NR90AC2 have built-in air
filters, which extend the life of the tool by keeping dust and
dirt from getting inside (Figure 5).
Figure 5.A built-in filter protects the
innards of the gun by preventing the entry of dirt and
Every gun except the Bostitch, Spotnails, and Hitachi NR83A2
has an anti-dry-firing mechanism to prevent it from being fired
when the magazine is empty. Besides being bad for the gun,
firing on empty may cause you to accidentally underfasten
Many of these guns come with nonmarring plastic tips. A tip
can be installed over the end of the contact element to keep
the barbs from damaging your work. My crew does very little
trim, so that feature wasn't important to us.
Rafter hook. A rafter hook
may sound like a minor feature, but if you ask me, every nailer
should have one. A hook makes it safer and easier to nail
rafters, roll joists, and work off a ladder because you can
hang up the gun when you're not using it. You're safer because
it frees a hand, and the tool is less likely to fall and hit
someone or break (Figure 6). DeWalt's gun has a large plastic
hook on the end of the grip. The hook rotates so you can fold
it out of the way. Senco's 702XP has a metal hook that folds
out from the side of the magazine. Neither of these guns was
the overall favorite, but we liked the hooks so much that we
always used either the DeWalt or the Senco 702XP when we worked
6.DeWalt's D51845 and
Senco's 702XP were the only guns tested that have
built-in rafter hooks — a must-have feature,
according to the author (below). Guns without hooks
tend to fall or get held in uncomfortable positions
Hitachi's NR83A and Max's SN890-RH were clear favorites. I'd
be happy to own either one. The NR83A2 is nearly identical to
the older NR83A, a gun that has proven to be durable and is
very popular in our area. The new model is well balanced and
absorbs recoil, so it's comfortable to handle. It has plenty of
power, and we appreciated the recently added toolless
Max's SN890-RH exudes quality. Because it's well balanced, it
feels lighter than it is. It dampens recoil, so it's
comfortable to use, and has added features that we liked, such
as the built-in air filter and swivel fitting. It rarely jammed
and consistently set nails to the proper depth in
If we had to choose a second pair of guns, we'd pick Makita's
AN922 and DeWalt's D51845. The AN922 operates smoothly and
reliably sets 8d nails to the proper depth. It did a good job
toe-nailing and had plenty of power. We liked it in spite of
its rear-loading magazine. DeWalt's gun is extremely light and
has some very good features. Depth of drive is easy to set, and
the magazine pops off to clear jammed fasteners. We wished the
gun absorbed the shock of firing better but were willing to
overlook that problem because we loved its rafter hook.
Tim Uhleris lead framer for Pioneer Builders Inc.
in Port Orchard, Wash.
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