Buying your first airgun – Mike Morton advises on getting value for money

If you’re thinking of buying your first airgun, Mike Morton offers some tips so you can be sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

Over the last few months we’ve witnessed a massive surge in the number of people wanting to take part in our sport, many for the very first time. If you’re one of these people then there’s some really good news that needs to be shared – the choice of airguns and accessories is huge, and there’s something out there which will be a perfect match for both your shooting needs and your wallet.

Having such a massive choice can be a double-edged sword. For anyone starting out, the amount of guns, scopes and other accessories on offer can be bewildering. Some airguns are specialised, and buying a gun on looks can lead to disappointment if you find your new purchase isn’t right for the type of shooting you want to do.

Airgun shooting can also be expensive – although it really doesn’t have to be. It’s quite possible to pay in excess of £2,000 for a rifle alone, and while guns of this type will offer a number of very real, but often very specific benefits in return for your money, it’s best not to jump in at the deep end with high-end products such as these. It’s far better to learn your craft – and make the inevitable mistakes we all do when we’re starting out – with something lower down the fiscal ladder.

That’s not to say your first purchase is necessarily something you’ll quickly grow out of and discard in favour of something more high-end. If you choose carefully, your first rifle could give you years of service, and additional guns may eventually supplement it rather than replace it. But if you’re a newcomer you’ll definitely benefit from holding back on any purchase until you’ve got the experience to appreciate what rifles are out there, what they do and crucially, what they can do for you.

Your first airgun

Go for the best you can afford, but don’t break the bank and always put quality first – this BSA Meteor Evo offers plenty of bang for the buck

While many new shooters will discover airgun shooting via an organisation like the Scouts or Cadets, plenty more will discover it for themselves – by picking up this magazine for example – and then decide that they just want to buy themselves “an air rifle”. This is great, but before heading out to the gun shop to lay down some cash, have a think about what you want to use that rifle for once you’ve bought it.

There are three basic uses for an air rifle – hunting, plinking and target shooting, and much pleasure can be had from any or all of them. As a general rule, a hunting rifle is your best bet for starting out as it will tick the plinking box too, and can even be pressed into service as a target gun, whereas a full-on target rifle will tend to be more expensive and won’t lend itself to either hunting or plinking quite so easily.

Don’t spend any cash just yet

Newcomers to any sport are usually excited to go out and acquire their own kit as soon as possible, and that’s true of plenty of new shooters, but it will pay you in the long run not to pay out in the short-term. You might have your heart set on a particular rifle, only to find something else suits you better once you’ve delved deeper into what’s on offer.

So instead, spend plenty of time looking at what’s out there, which rifles you might want to put on your shortlist and then set yourself a realistic budget. Think of the wider picture too: not just the cost of the rifle itself, but extras like optics, pellets and clothing, as well as accessories like a bipod or shooting sticks.

Get insured

It’s always advisable to have adequate legal liability (third party) insurance when you go shooting, and becoming a member of BASC provides this.

If you’re hoping to acquire some land for hunting, many landowners will insist on you being insured, and even if they don’t, having your own insurance sends out a positive message that you’re a responsible shooter who takes their sport seriously.

Where to shoot?

You can certainly get started in your garden, and that’s where countless thousands of airgun shooters began, but you’ll probably get the most enjoyment from your shooting by joining a club or going to a range, where in addition to being able to use their facilities, you’ll be able to tap into the wealth of experience available from fellow club and staff members.

You won’t even need to have your own gun straight away, as most clubs and ranges will be able to lend you a rifle or let you hire one. 

This not only keeps your start-up costs down, but gives you hands-on experience with several different types of airgun.

Starting off with a springer makes good sense if you want to keep costs to a minimum as there’s no additional outlay on a pump or cylinder

What are your fellow shooters using?

If you do join a club or visit a range, then you’ll be able to speak to some of the more experienced shooters who will be only too happy to chat about their own guns – and they’ll probably let you shoot them too. 

Airgun shooters are a friendly bunch, and most will be only too happy to let you try their pride and joy for size. You’ll also get a better appreciation of the different types of rifle that are available, the types of power plant they utilise and how to operate them properly.

As well as asking your fellow shooters what they’re shooting, ask them why they bought their particular rifle and what they enjoy using it for. One shooter may have bought a Rapid Air Weapons TM1000 because they want to take part in Hunter Field Target, while another may be shooting a BSA Ultra because they want to carry out some pest control for a farmer friend. 

While either rifle could be used for both types of shooting, they’re optimised for their intended use.

Shooting is a skill that can be self-taught, but it’s better to learn from a more experienced friend or club coach

Get to know the power plants

A huge part of choosing, and then successfully and safely operating an air rifle, is the understanding of what it is that powers it. 

Most air rifles generate the pressure needed to shoot a pellet using one of three different types of power plant, these being the springer, the gas-ram and the pre-charged pneumatic. 

The springer and gas-ram are self-contained units, while the PCP needs additional charging gear to fill the onboard reservoir with compressed air. In general, springers and gas-rams are cheaper than PCPs, and can be every bit as accurate. 

But because these rifles have a lot more recoil, they demand more skill to shoot well. However, this can arguably make them more fun to shoot and there’s a definite sense of achievement when you manage to shoot a springer accurately.

Understand the calibres

Air rifles are available in a number of calibres, with the most common being .177 and .22. As a very general rule, .177 is a good choice for target shooting and plinking, while would-be hunters can choose either calibre, just being aware that the heavier .22 pellet will have a more loopy trajectory, although both calibres are equally accurate.

Taking the plunge

Having carried out plenty of research, and preferably having handled and shot plenty of air rifles, you’ll now have a much better idea of what you want to buy. 

Airguns are available for all budgets, and that includes PCPs. There are some cracking pre-charged pneumatics on the market these days at around the £600 mark or even less, but as these guns need to be filled with compressed air the charging equipment will be an additional expense.

I’m a firm believer that anyone who is starting out should be able to enjoy their airgun straight away, but there are two very different schools of thought regarding whether or not people should learn on the near-recoilless PCP, which is much easier to shoot than a springer and delivers more immediate results, helping to maintain a new shooter’s interest, or go the “train hard, shoot easy” route and get to grips with a spring rifle first. 

However, if keeping the cost down is your main objective, then that means starting with a spring-powered rifle as there are no additional costs beyond regular servicing with this type of power plant.

Scoping up

If choosing your first rifle is hard, selecting the right scope is equally difficult unless you really understand all the features on offer and know what you’re looking for. 

But as a rule of thumb when starting out it’s usually better to go for optical quality over extra features that you might never make use of.

Twenty or so years ago everyone seemed to want a scope with a massive range of magnification and a correspondingly large objective lens. 

Telescopic sights with additional features definitely have their place in shooting, but for a general purpose scope it’s best to choose something with no more than 12x magnification and an objective lens of around 44mm or less. This keeps the weight down, which will help to keep the rifle better balanced, and ensures you’re not spending money unnecessarily.

Reticle choice is also important, as the reticle should be simple enough to let you acquire the target quickly, while having some extra aim points that you can use when shooting at different distances to your chosen zero. 

One final tip that may prove useful to the beginner is to wind down the magnification to a lower setting as this will give you a wider field of view, which in turn will let you acquire your target more easily. It’s a good exercise, not to mention good fun, to practise shooting your rifle with the scope on a low-mag setting. I enjoy shooting the Hawke Vantage 3-9×40 scope seen here at the 7x setting, for example, and sometimes go even lower.

Mounting up

Many shooters will spend a lot of time choosing a rifle and telescopic sight, but will then pay very little attention to the third and final part of the combo – the mounts. 

However it’s essential to get a good quality set to ensure your scope is set up properly and stays that way. Two-piece mounts are suitable for virtually all pre-charged airguns, and they can be used on springers and gas-rams too, provided an arrestor pin or block is used to counter recoil and prevent the scope from creeping backwards. 

For a belt-and-braces approach, you can fit a sturdy one-piece mount to your recoiling rifle, but two-piece mounts can give you a bit more flexibility in terms of placement when it comes to fitting the scope to the action.

When it’s time to buy your mounts, make sure they are the correct fitting for the rail on your gun, which will either be dovetail or Picatinny. They must also be the correct size to fit the tube of your scope, which will usually be 1” (25mm) or 30mm.

Practice makes perfect

You may have to try a few tins of pellets until you find one your rifle really likes, but it’s time and money well spent

Go shooting as often as you can, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve the level of accuracy you’re hoping for straight away. Shooting is an ongoing process; that’s one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable, and expertise will come with plenty of trigger time. Practise when you’re fresh – perhaps visit the range at the weekend rather than on a weekday evening after a long and tiring day at work.

It helps to set yourself achievable goals. Most of my own shooting these days is off the bench for the various rifle and ammo tests that I carry out for this magazine. 

This offers a highly controlled, stable shooting environment which is perfect for seeing what a particular piece of kit is capable of. 

It’s tempting to read some articles or watch YouTube videos and conclude that everyone should be capable of shooting tiny groups at 50 yards with their rifle, however in my experience this is far harder to achieve than many people realise, even in sterile test conditions.

So try to abandon any unrealistic expectations. If you’re starting out, then around 20 or 25 yards is a perfectly good distance to shoot at. The size of the target matters too. It needs to be small enough to be challenging, but not so large that it takes minimal skill to hit. The idea is to gently hone our shooting skills, constantly improving and overcoming the odd disappointment, while having fun at the same time.

Choosing wisely from the outset can provide a big boost to your confidence and your shooting skills, and will save you money. I’ll offer one final piece of advice – and in many ways it’s the most important. 

Whatever rifle, scope and mount combo you choose, make sure you like it, don’t get it because someone says you should. Why? Because if we like something, we’ll want to spend more time with it, and ultimately that’s what will make us better shooters.

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