Getting into airguns

If you’re looking to start out on an airgun adventure, Mike Morton reckons you’re in the right place as he explains the basics of the sport.

When’s the best time to get into airgun shooting? Right now! Take a look at what’s currently on offer, and you’ll find some fantastic airguns to suit pretty much any budget and any shooting scenario.

There certainly are an awful lot of guns to choose from. But with so much on offer, making the right choice isn’t always easy, so let’s run through some of the options to help you choose an airgun that’s perfect for your needs.

Springers

Spring-powered airguns, which are commonly referred to as springers, use a mainspring and piston to provide power to the pellet. When you cock the gun, you compress the mainspring.

When you’re ready to take a shot, you pull the trigger and the spring flies forwards. This drives the piston in front of it, which pushes air through the transfer port, creating a blast of air that fills the skirt of the pellet and propels it downrange.

To cock the rifle, the barrel is pulled down, compressing the mainspring, which in this case automatically applies the safety catch as well

One of the best things about a springer is the fact that it uses a self-contained power plant, keeping everything nice and simple. It’s cheaper too, because there’s no need to splash out on additional charging equipment, and it also means the gun is always ready for action.

The simplest form of springer, and the one most people will probably come into contact with first in their shooting careers, is the break-barrel, which as the name suggests, is cocked by ‘breaking’ the barrel – levering it down to compress the spring.

The repeated stress of cocking can cause the barrel lock-up mechanism to wear and become loose over time, especially with cheaper airguns, but a good quality break-barrel will last for very many years. Break-barrel rifles are capable of some stunning accuracy, although some shooters prefer to shoot a springer with a fixed barrel instead.

Fixed-barrel spring guns use either an underlever or sidelever to compress the spring and cock the gun. If you choose one of these, you can be safe in the knowledge that the barrel will not move or be placed under any stress, meaning it can potentially be more accurate than a break-barrel. This can be a very important feature for people who want to use their spring guns for target shooting.

Cocking effort can vary considerably from one gun to another, so where possible, make sure you choose an airgun that you can cock without straining yourself.

Watch out for guns with very short barrels or levers, because the reduced leverage can make them difficult to cock, although this can be offset by a smooth action with minimal internal friction.

Another type of spring-powered rifle is the underlever, like this HW 97, where the barrel doesn’t pivot and remains fixed in place

Spring guns do have their downfalls, however – the main one being the recoil that’s generated by the moving parts, felt as a slight kick in the shoulder.

Pulling the trigger sets off a series of internal actions, including the forward movement of the spring and piston, which then bounces back and forth after its initial forward stroke. This all happens when the pellet is still in the barrel and can affect accuracy unless you’re careful to keep the gun steady on aim.

Instead of trying to contain the recoil by gripping the gun tightly, it’s far better to adopt a gentle hold, and to use exactly the same hold every time you pull the trigger.

The vast majority of spring-powered rifles are single-shot, with an individual pellet being loaded directly into the breech by hand

If you do this, you’ll let the rifle recoil the same way for each shot, which should mean the pellet follows the same flightpath every time. Some springers can be heavy, but this isn’t necessarily a downside.

As long as you’re able to manage a heavy gun, that extra weight can help dampen down the recoil and keep the rifle on aim.

The movement caused by the recoil of a spring gun also means accuracy can become inconsistent when taking supported shots, such as when using a bipod or leaning the gun directly on a gate or fence post.

The most effective technique is to use the same gentle hold that you perfect during your practice sessions, avoiding altogether the use of a solid rest, which can make downrange performance unpredictable.

Gas-rams

Gas-rams work similarly to spring-powered guns, but they feature a gas strut, like those used to take the weight of an open car boot or bonnet, instead of a coiled mainspring. Cocking the gun squeezes the strut and further compresses the gas that’s been sealed within it.

Spring-powered rifles will recoil when fired, and a light hold is essential so the gun can recoil smoothly and consistently

When you pull the trigger, the compressed gas will suddenly expand, and the resulting pressure will propel the strut forwards, forcing the air behind the pellet to blast it down the barrel.

Gas-rams tend to take longer to wear out than springs, don’t need as much maintenance and can be left cocked for longer periods without losing any power. They also have a faster firing cycle, which means the pellet leaves the barrel more quickly, but they can also feel a bit snappy.

With an underlever rifle like this, the mainspring is compressed by pulling down on the lever that sits immediately below the barrel

Both springers and gas-rams are perfect for plinking in the garden, and also lend themselves well to hunting at close- to mid-range. And if you can afford a top-end springer, you’ll be rewarded with the sort of accuracy that’s required for target shooting at longer ranges.

The recoil created by a spring gun or gas-ram can put some people off, but this can actually make them more enjoyable to shoot as they provide instant and direct feedback, compared with the dead firing cycle of a PCP.

Pre-charged Pneumatics

PCPs, or pre-charged pneumatics, are powered by an onboard source of compressed air that is usually contained within a slim cylinder or a fatter type of air reservoir called a buddy bottle. Pulling the trigger releases a controlled blast of air, sending the pellet on its way.

The firing cycle of a pre-charged pneumatic involves very little mechanical movement, and PCPs with a muzzle velocity of sub-12 foot pounds have virtually no discernible recoil or muzzle flip, which makes them relatively easy to shoot accurately.

Some rifles, like this BSA GRT Lightning XL SE, use a different type of power source called a gas-ram, also known as a gas strut

Apart from having no recoil to contend with when holding the gun on aim, the absence of any kick also means you can take supported shots without having to worry too much about what the gun is resting on or the way you’re holding it – although the same light grip you’d use for a springer or gas-ram also works well for a PCP.

If you lean a PCP on a fence post or tree, or shoot it off a bipod at your chosen zero distance, the point of impact will remain more or less exactly where you set it when you zeroed the sights.

The HW 100 is an example of a pre-charged pneumatic, or PCP, which contains its own onboard supply of compressed air

Another big advantage offered by the PCP is the fact that these guns take very little effort to cock, because they are already charged with compressed air. This can be an important consideration for shooters of smaller build.

This is usually done by means of a rear bolt or sidelever action. PCPs can also incorporate a multi-shot magazine, enabling fast reloading without having to fumble around for pellets, making them perfect for hunting and plinking alongside fast-fire target disciplines.

Having a pre-charged air supply also means PCPs don’t become difficult to cock when the power is increased beyond 12 foot pounds at FAC levels. It also ensures the firing cycle remains relatively smooth. Some pre-charged FAC airguns can deliver muzzle energies in excess of 100 foot pounds, with muzzle flip and felt recoil still remaining fairly modest.

Pre-charged airguns do have their limitations – the main one being the need to refill them with compressed air. This could be after several hundred shots with an efficient regulated rifle fitted with a buddy bottle, or after just 40 or so with a small unregulated carbine.

Most airgun shooters will end up going the easier route of buying a large scuba-style charging cylinder for filling their PCPs at home. The initial outlay adds to the price of the airgun, but you’ll be rewarded with fast and easy filling at the turn of a tap.

Your gun will also be filled with clean, dry air that won’t harm the internals. Your charging cylinder will last for years, and you will only need one, regardless of however many airguns you have. When the pressure drops too low, the charging cylinder itself will need refilling, but virtually all dive shops and many gun shops will offer this service – usually for well under a tenner.

PCPs need to be cocked to prepare for firing – the R-10 uses a bolt to cock the gun, index the magazine and seat the pellet

An alternative, and initially more affordable, charging option is to go for a manual stirrup pump and fill up by hand, just like using a shop pump to inflate a bicycle tyre.

You need to be reasonably fit as it represents quite a workout, especially if you’re filling your gun from a low starting pressure. For this reason, it’s much easier to just use the stirrup pump for regular top-ups, rather than a full refill from empty.

The HW 100 carries out the same functions as the R-10, but this time using a sidelever rather than a bolt

Nevertheless, an air supply is always available from a pump like this, and you don’t need to rely on anyone else for compressed air whenever your gun needs to be refilled.

PCPs tend to cost more than springers, although plenty of more affordable models are available, and you do have the additional expense of the charging kit, be it a scuba cylinder or stirrup pump. But PCPs offer phenomenal accuracy, and can be used for any type of activity, including longer-range hunting and top-level competition shooting.

Co2 guns

Some rifles and pistols are driven by yet another type of power source – CO2 capsules. These are usually the small 12 gram type, but some guns take a larger 88 gram capsule.

The air supply for this HW 100 is contained within a thin cylinder. As with any PCP, it must be topped up to the correct pressure before use

They are similar to PCPs in having an onboard supply of compressed gas, but are generally bought pre-filled with carbon dioxide and can’t be refilled and reused.

The main downside with CO2 is that it tends to have quite a pronounced power curve as you run through the charge. Pressure changes brought about by a shift in the ambient temperature can also cause fluctuations.

This BSA R-10 SE has a larger buddy bottle, which can hold a greater volume of air – this one is made out of aluminium

Despite this, CO2 is a popular choice with garden plinkers, and lends itself well to toppling tins with fast-firing pistols. At least one type of high-end match pistol also uses CO2.

Stock selection

After settling on a power plant, you need to choose an airgun that fits you, and is well-suited to the type of shooting you intend to do.

Stock designs vary greatly, from basic ambidextrous models to highly sophisticated designs that offer a great degree of adjustment for both hunting and high-end competitive shooting.

Several types of materials are used to make stocks, from beautifully figured walnut to warp-resistant laminates and weather-proof synthetic polymers.

The buddy bottle on this Daystate Red Wolf is made of carbon-fibre. It’s more expensive, but is lighter than a metal bottle

The best way to find the right airgun for you is to try a few until you find the one that suits you best. While it’s tempting to jump in with both feet first and buy the first one you like the look of, it’s far better to take enough time to find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Your local gun shop should be able to give you plenty of helpful advice to steer you in the right direction, and it’s also a good idea to join a club, where you can talk to other shooters and see what type of guns they’re shooting. Most club members will be only too happy to let you have a go with their guns, so you can get a real feel for how they handle and perform.

Buying second-hand

Buying your first airgun doesn’t have to mean buying brand new, as some great deals can be had second-hand – as long as you know what you’re looking for. However, you can end up with a poor performer if you get it wrong. Here are some tips for choosing a decent second-hand airgun:

• Look out for any sign of rust. Remove the gun from the stock and check underneath. Also check on and around the air cylinder of a PCP.

• Be wary of mangled screw heads. Any sign of damage can reveal over-enthusiastic and amateurish tinkering that may have caused more serious damage on the inside.

When buying a second-hand break-barrel, you can easily check the condition of the bore without fully cocking the rifle

• In the case of a break-barrel springer or gas-ram, make sure the barrel lock-up is secure with no sign of any slackness.

• Check wooden stocks for splits, dents and cracks that can reveal previous careless handling, extended exposure to the elements or even a drop.

• Test the gun before you buy it. Take a few shots to confirm the gun has a smooth firing cycle and is accurate downrange.

• Shoot the rifle over a chronograph to confirm that its power is not only within the legal limit, but is consistent.

• Inspect the bore. Overzealous cleaning and the use of projectiles such as metal darts can damage the rifling, which should be a nice and uniform spiral.

The condition of any slotted screws is a good indicator of how well a rifle has been treated – these screws are in good shape

• If buying second-hand from a shop, ask if a warranty is available.

• Buy from a fellow club member. Club shooters really look after their kit and whenever they upgrade, you get the chance to buy their old gun, often at a bargain price.

• Don’t feel obliged to buy a gun you’ve shown an interest in. If you have any nagging doubts, just say no. There are plenty more out there waiting for you.

The law

You don’t need a licence to own an air rifle in England or Wales as long as its muzzle energy is 12 foot pounds or below, above which you will need a Firearm Certificate. The maximum UK legal limit for a pistol is six foot pounds. Muzzle energy can be tested with a chronograph.

To own an airgun in Scotland, you will require an Air Weapon Certificate. Certificates are subject to conditions, and young people are restricted on where and how they can use airguns. 

Whatever type of airgun you end up shooting, you’ll need to find suitable ammunition – there is a huge range to choose from

In England and Wales, no licence is required, and people aged 18+ can buy an airgun and ammunition, and use them on any ground where they have permission to shoot.

People aged from 14 to 17 years can borrow an airgun and use it, without adult supervision, on any ground where they have been given permission to shoot. They cannot buy or hire an airgun, or ammunition, nor can they receive one as a gift.

So for anyone that is aged 14 to 17 and wanting to use an airgun, it will have to be bought and looked after by someone who is aged 18 or over – which is usually their parent or guardian.

There’s yet another type of airgun powerplant – CO2. Most guns, like this Umarex Beretta Px4 Storm, are pistols, but CO2-powered rifles exist too

Anyone under 14 years may not buy, hire, borrow or receive an airgun, or ammunition for an airgun, as a gift. Parents wishing to buy airguns for persons under 14 years old must never allow them to possess the airgun or ammunition for it unsupervised, even when it is not in use.

The young person can use the airgun under the supervision of someone of or over 21 years of age, on private premises with appropriate permission. If a pellet goes outside these premises onto someone else’s property, both the youngster and the adult supervisor commit an offence.

It is also an offence for a person in possession of an airgun to fail to take ‘reasonable precautions’ to prevent someone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to it. The best way to do this is to either store the airgun in a locked cabinet or gun safe. 

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