My grandfather taught me something a long time ago: A good tool will pay for itself many times over. While that's true for almost every tool I own, it goes double for powder actuated tools, or PATs, as they're known.
We use PATs to fasten metal track to concrete decks for interior steel framing, installing plywood onto concrete as a substrate for wood floors, and for attaching 1-by and 2-by lumber to concrete and masonry. We also use them in some cases to make steel-to-steel connections. You think your framing site gets loud? These tools fire .27-caliber explosive charges to drive their fasteners.
My framers and I tested five strip-feed tools connecting wood and steel to concrete, and fastening steel to steel. Three of them, the Powers P3500, Simpson PTP-27AL, and Remington 493 PowerPro, sell as dedicated semi-automatic tools. Semi-automatic means you load a strip of 10 collated boosters (shots) but load nails (pins) individually. Two of them, the Hilti DX460 MX and Ramset RT400M, sell as semi-automatic tools, but are upgradeable to fully automatic, which means both boosters and pins are collated.
Over a test period of 12 weeks, we looked for production output and ironclad dependability from these tools. We also looked carefully at power, recoil, noise, and ergonomics. Then we examined features that make PATs easier, faster, or better to use. Finally, since we carry so many boosters and pins with us (along with eye and ear protection), we also evaluated their tool and accessory boxes.
Power, Recoil, Noise, & Ergonomics
Power. Every tool sunk every fastener into all the materials we threw at them: wood to concrete, steel track to concrete, steel to concrete, and steel to steel. Across the board, I think each tool provides ample power for anything you'll find on site. Differences arise, however, in how the tools handle the secondary energy–recoil and noise–from the explosions in the firing chamber and the drive-piston impacting the nail head.
Recoil. If you've ever shot a pistol or rifle or taken basic physics, you know what recoil is, and that Sir Isaac Newton was right: every action has an equal–and opposite–reaction. These tools actually react to two forces: the explosion energy from the discharged cartridge and impact energy from the piston driving the nail, both of which cause the tool to recoil in the opposite direction the nail goes. To deal with these forces, tool designers at each company have provided a cushioned handle that helps absorb some recoil, but the similarities end there.
Hilti's tool deals with recoil the best, dispensing explosion and impact energy with a recoil spring inside the tool and a lighter piston. These two features really help with the recoil your hand feels. Simpson's tool also handles recoil well. The trade-off for absorbing recoil on both tools, however, is that they're a little larger and heavier than the others, but after a couple thousand shots, your hand will thank you.
The Powers, Ramset, and Remington have much more noticeable recoil.
Balance and Feel. Balance and feel are tightly linked with recoil.
If you're pumping out a thousand pins an hour or just doing one-shot jobs, Hilti's well-designed handle and larger, but nicely-balanced, tool design make it the most comfortable tool to use overall. I also like the Simpson tool for these applications. It's a little more compact than the Hilti and deals nicely with recoil.
I like the Powers, Ramset, and Remington tools for their compactness and the way they feel in my hand. They're particularly good for one-off shots, especially in awkward places like shooting top-track up in a corner or fastening an electrical junction box. They're light and easy to handle, maneuver, and activate. However, because recoil is more pronounced in these three tools, their slim, easy-to-use-designs become uncomfortable in high-production applications.
Noise. Noise levels and recoil management go hand-in-ear. The two tools that managed recoil the best–Hilti and Simpson–were also much quieter. This makes a huge difference when working in tight spaces or around a lot of people.