The modern air rifle shooter is bombarded with a bewildering array of options. However, Mike Morton lays out some basic ground rules to help make that choice a little more informed
Do you remember the first air rifle you bought? Was it a good choice? Did you visit several gun shops and pore over their stock for hours or even days before making a purchase? Did you match your needs to the rifles you were looking at? Or did you buy on impulse? That last option can sometimes be the most effective of all – but it can just as easily leave you out of pocket if you’ve ended up buying a donkey. And, yes, that includes me. I think most of us have ended up buying an Eeyore rifle at some point in our shooting careers!
The choice of air rifles on sale today is phenomenal, but for most people their budget is not. So before parting with your hard-earned cash, it’s worth running through a few pointers – some very basic, some less so –- to make sure you get a big enough bang for your buck when parting with your money. Let’s assume you already know what you want to use your rifle for, but what comes next?
Under current UK firearms legislation, an air rifle which can be held without a Firearm Certificate (FAC) must not have a muzzle energy in excess of 12 foot pounds. This is the amount of energy needed to move 1lb in weight some 12 feet, and is sufficient for all organised airgun target shooting and most airgun quarry hunting scenarios. Some short-range target competitions restrict muzzle energy to 6 ft lb, and some specific guns, such as the BSA Ultra JSR, are voluntarily curbed to this lower power level.
Most new air rifles will be adjusted to deliver just over 11ft lb, to keep them well within the law. However, it is the shooter’s responsibility to ensure their rifle does not exceed the 12ft lb limit. A device called a chronoscope can be used to test a rifle’s muzzle energy. Most gun shops will test your rifle for you on their chrono or you can buy your own.
The debate over calibre – typically .177 versus .22 – has been going on for decades and is unlikely to be settled here (even though it’s .177!). But, joking aside, there are certainly plenty of points to consider when examining calibre choice.
For both precision target work and hunting .177 offers a flatter trajectory than .22, which is a distinct advantage when shooting over different, unknown distances. This is less important at an indoor target club where the rifle will be shot at a specific distance and the scope can be zeroed accordingly. Calibre choice is far more crucial in the hunting field or when shooting outdoor target disciplines such as Hunter Field Target (HFT) or Field Target (FT), where the .22’s more loopy trajectory must be taken firmly into account.
Nevertheless, .22 does have several specific advantages over .177. In a hunting scenario, a .22 pellet will transfer more energy to the quarry – provided you can place that pellet in the kill zone, which is easier to do with .177. A .22 rifle is more energy efficient, and in a spring-powered rifle that means less cocking effort is required as the spring does not need to do as much work and so the firing cycle is a little smoother.
In a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) less air is needed to give a .22 pellet the same energy (not velocity) as .177; therefore, .22 is more air efficient, meaning the rifle delivers more shots per air fill than its .177 counterpart.
There are more immediately practical benefits of .22 pellets as well. They are obviously larger than .177, and are therefore more easily manipulated regardless of the user’s hand size. Some disabled shooters may find .22 easier to shoot.
And while not a deal-breaker for many people, it’s a fact that .22 pellets are costlier than their .177 alternatives. Depending on how many pellets you shoot – 1,000 a week or 1,000 a year – this could be a major factor in your choice of rifle.
Several other air rifle calibres exist, notably .20, .25 and .303, but these are extremely specialist, the uses of which go beyond the scope of this article. Don’t worry, we will be talking about these at length in due course.
SPRINGER OR PCP?
If calibre choice is important then choice of powerplant is crucial, and can be quite divisive among air rifle shooters. But, again, certain facts hold true and at least need to be considered when buying an airgun. Cost is a big factor as spring-powered rifles tend to be cheaper than PCPs, and they can be heavier too, which, as we’ll see, may or may not be an advantage.
Springers are far harder to shoot accurately than PCPs due to the fact that they recoil and may be hold-sensitive. But, for some, this can be an asset. Purists prefer springers because a bad shooting technique is easier to spot with that type of rifle than with a PCP.
Springers can also be more easily serviced at home than PCPs – with the right tools and experience. PCPs tend to be more expensive than springers and have to be filled with compressed air from a separate source – such as a dive cylinder, pump or specialist compressor like the Omega Super Charger.
Now we come to the crux of it: PCPs are easier to shoot well as there is no recoil and they are generally not hold-sensitive; but on the downside PCPs can mask a poor shooting technique. Many target shooters prefer PCPs because they are more clinical and predictable to shoot; however, springers can be shot superbly by those with sufficient skill and experience.
PCPs can be shot offhand, rested, or off shooting bags, sticks or a bipod with virtually no shift in point of impact, provided the forend is stiff and/or the barrel is free-floating.
Two other types of powerplant are available in air rifles: gas-rams and CO2 capsules. Gas-rams behave similarly to springers and can be treated as such when exploring rifle choices, although their firing cycle can be quite snappy. CO2 rifles are best suited for plinking (informal target shooting) only as they are not really consistent enough for accurate target shooting or hunting – despite the claims of some manufacturers. Nevertheless, plinking is just as valid a use for an airgun as any other, so CO2 might be the perfect powerplant for your rifle.
SINGLE-SHOT OR MULTI-SHOT?
With some rare exceptions – such as the Gamo Maxxim Elite (www.gamo.com), the long out of production 1990s BSA Gold Star (not the new PCP of the same name) and the 1970s ASI Paratrooper – gas-rams and springers are single-shot only. Most PCPs, on the other hand, are offered in single- or multi-shot format; the latter is usually a removable 10-round magazine, although some PCPs from a decade ago did offer a sliding breech block holding two pellets.
Single-shot rifles can be more accurate as the pellet is pushed centrally into the breech, whereas this may not always be the case with a multi. Single-shots are cheaper and are generally more reliable as there is less to go wrong. Single-shots are also easier to operate as there is no magazine to index before the next shot is taken, just the need to cock the rifle and seat the pellet.
Multis, on the other hand, with their faster rate of fire, are arguably more fun and give the shooter the ability to reload whilst keeping their eye on the target – potentially offering more consistent shot placement for target work (competition rules allowing) as well as a quick follow-up shot in the hunting field. By contrast, single-shot rifles, with every pellet having to be individually loaded by hand, are arguably safer.
There’s an old argument that says single-shots offer greater accuracy simply because each pellet can be inspected for deformities before it’s loaded into the breech, but the shooter has exactly the same opportunity to check each pellet before they are loaded into the magazine.
OPEN SIGHTS OR TELESCOPIC SIGHT?
With some exceptions, including dedicated short-range target rifles, almost all modern PCPs and many springers are intended to be shot using a telescopic sight. Some rifles, usually springers, may come with open sights but will have the option of fitting a scope, such as the Weihrauch HW 77. In this case a scope is usually used instead of the open sights, but it is sometimes possible to use both if see-through scope mounts are fitted.
Both open (also referred to as iron sights due to the metal from which they were originally made) and telescopic sights must be adjusted before the rifle can be shot accurately. Scopes offer more precision when aiming, but it’s faster to acquire the target when shooting with open sights.
Telescopic sights and the mounts needed to attach them to the rifle are an additional cost; however, they can be taken off and used on other rifles if required. Setting up and adjusting a telescopic sight needs a certain amount of expertise, time and suitable test conditions – it is not something that should be rushed. Check out our scope-mounting article in issue 96 for more details.
LIGHT OR HEAVY?
Contrary to popular belief a heavy rifle can be a bonus, at least in terms of accuracy. Heavy guns can generally be held steadier for short periods of time and, in the case of springers and gas-rams, absorb recoil, both of which promote accurate shooting. But heavy rifles can be impossible to shoot for youths and slightly built adults unless they are mounted on a bipod or are otherwise shot rested. A heavy gun can also be an encumbrance when out stalking for any length of time.
LONG OR SHORT?
A rifle with a shorter than normal barrel length is called a carbine. Carbines are easier to handle and the barrel is less likely to hit an obstruction. This makes a carbine easier to shoot in confined spaces, such as from a hide or vehicle, and makes it easier to store in a shorter gun bag or gun cabinet. This is also true of bullpups which can have a rifle-length barrel in a chassis that delivers the overall length of a carbine.
The other dimensions to consider – which are far more important – are the length of reach and the height of the cheekpiece. The reach is the length of the rifle from the butt to the trigger. People with short arms will struggle to properly shoot a rifle with a long reach, and the same is equally true for long-armed people using a rifle with a short reach. You need to handle the rifle and make sure the reach is correct for you. A very rough rule of thumb is to hold the rifle in your trigger hand, place the butt in the crook of your elbow and see if the pad of your trigger finger falls naturally over the trigger blade. If this feels good, shoulder the rifle and test the reach this way as well.
The height of the cheekpiece – the area where you rest your head when taking aim – determines where the shooter’s eye naturally falls behind the scope. If it is too high or low the shooter will find it difficult to maintain a consistent aim through the scope – or open sights for that matter. Some rifle stocks have adjustable cheekpieces and butt pads, and scope mounts can sometimes be substituted for those of a different height. These can all help solve problems relating to the height of the cheekpiece.
A rifle needs to be accurate, reliable, durable, and easy to operate and shoot, but above all else it must fit the shooter. They will never realise their full potential unless they are comfortable – physically and mentally – with the rifle they are using.
Someone looking for their first, or replacement, rifle should visit a club, shoot its rifles, shoot other members’ rifles and ask lots of questions. Ultimately only they can determine whether one rifle is more suitable for them than another. Which is best? It’s the one that fits you properly.