Improving an old airgun

If you have a rifle that’s sitting all alone at the back of your gun cabinet, then Mike Morton reckons it’s high time you learned to love again

Getting a new airgun can be a bit like starting a new romance. There’s that massive hormonal rush right at the start that creates a whirlpool of adrenaline and excitement. Sometimes that feeling lasts. But sometimes it doesn’t.

As we progress with our hobby, we tend to acquire more airguns. If we bought wisely, our initial purchases will continue to be shot regularly and will give us years of reliable and enjoyable service. Others will end up being sold. And of those that remain, some will be shot rarely and some not at all. So what’s gone wrong? Why has that feeling that was once so sweet now turned sour?

If you’ve got a once-loved airgun that’s doing nothing more than gathering cobwebs, maybe it’s time to blow off the dust and give it another chance. But if it’s ever going to be saved from permanent relegation, it’s good to work out why it dropped down your personal leaderboard in the first place.

These two guns couldn’t be more different – one’s a scoped bullpup PCP, while the other’s an underlever springer with open sights

There are probably four general reasons for this: the rifle no longer fulfils a particular need, it doesn’t perform as well as it could, it doesn’t fit you as well as it should and it doesn’t look as nice as it could.

If any of these apply to your gun, it could be time to reassess the way you shoot it and give it another chance. If a rifle fits you properly, feels comfortable to hold and to shoot, and delivers the level of accuracy that you expect, then you may have rescued it from obscurity and made it your new ‘go to’ gun.

Role reversal

Airguns have become quite specialised, with numerous options now available for a variety of very different disciplines. Take a look at two rifles that couldn’t be more different – a scoped bullpup PCP and an underlever springer with iron sights.

But while each can be used in its own specialised role, they can also both be shot exactly the same way – for the pure joy of shooting an accurate airgun.

Maybe you’re a confirmed hunter and you no longer have a need for your old target rifle. Or perhaps your forays in the field have come to an end and you prefer punching paper.

In either case, try taking your least-used airgun to the plinking range and see if you’re smiling at the end of the session, because every airgun has the potential to boost the feelgood factor.

Get the balance right

One thing that can really upset the balance of a rifle and limit its usefulness is to fit a scope that’s too big or too small, in terms of both its physical size and its magnification range. Smaller scopes have very specific uses, as do larger ones, but are not always used in the way the manufacturer intended.

A large scope on a small, lightweight rifle can make it feel unwieldy and top-heavy. If the minimum magnification is too high, you may not be able to acquire your target quickly enough and may struggle with a limited field of view.

Remain in control: Comfort and control can also come from the type of grip you adopt – a thumb-up hold may feel more natural with one particular rifle

A small scope, on the other hand, may be mounted too low for you to achieve good head and eye alignment, and the maximum magnification may not be enough to let you engage smaller targets at longer ranges.

If your rifle and scope have been mismatched, you may feel dissatisfied with both, when in fact the gun and the optic may be perfectly good – just not good together.

If that sounds familiar, try to borrow a scope from a friend and see if it makes a difference. It could be all you need to breathe new life back into that unloved gun.

Adopt the stance

While some guns are versatile enough to be used in a number of different shooting scenarios and can successfully be shot from varying shooting stances, others just don’t feel right when they are shot a certain way.

A big, heavy PCP is not necessarily the best choice for taking unrested shots, but may excel when shot prone off a bipod. Conversely, it might be tricky to get yourself comfortable when tucked in prone behind a smaller, lighter rifle, but that gun could be excellent for a roving hunt or shooting an offhand target discipline.

One way to work out the perfect height for your sight is to shoulder the rifle with several different sizes of scope mount

Maybe that unloved gun at the back of your cabinet isn’t the jack of all trades you’d hoped it would be. But it might be perfect for a different type of shooting. Try to adopt the stance that you find most comfortable with that particular gun and see if you can manage to reconnect with it.

Get a grip

Some people use the same grip with their shooting hand with every rifle they pick up, but this may not be the most comfortable. I find sporter stocks with a shallow rake to the grip to be quite uncomfortable, as it forces me to hold the rifle with my wrist bent at an unnatural angle.

Similarly, some stocks are designed so the shooter is expected to wrap the thumb around the grip, which may not be the most comfortable position for them.

A rifle and scope must be mated together by using good quality mounts of the correct height for your individual needs

An alternative is the thumb-up hold. It’s an ergonomic grip, where the thumb of your shooting hand points straight up instead of being wrapped round the stock of your rifle, whether a standard sporter, pistol grip or thumbhole.

Some shooters find it more comfortable, as the thumb is lying naturally, with no strain on any muscles, rather than being forced to stretch round a grip where the thumb muscles are in constant use and are therefore at risk of fatigue.

You can do a simple test to see if it’s worth trying. Hold your shooting hand upright out in front of you and relax all the finger muscles. See where your thumb is naturally lying.

For many people, their thumb will be pointing in the same direction as their arm, rather than sticking out to the side, meaning that the thumb-up grip could be more comfortable for them, and therefore offer more control.

Cosmetic damage

Anything that’s taken out of the house, particularly in an environment like the hunting field, is going to pick up the odd ding, dent, scratch or scrape on its journey, especially if it’s been used hard enough for long enough. 

For many shooters, these aesthetic imperfections add character to the gun, with each little mark representing a potted history of its time in the field with its owner.

Other shooters, however, get very upset when they spot a blemish, and in some cases that’s all that it takes to make them put the gun away for good and not want to use it again. 

This may sound funny to some people, but for others it’s a very real problem. Overcoming this mental obstacle requires the repair or replacement of the damaged item, which will require an investment in time or money to get it put right. 

But if it means an otherwise perfectly good gun gets put back into service, then that’s got to be worth considering.

Mount up

The layout of certain rifles and scopes, particularly some multi-shot PCPs where the magazine stands proud of the scope rail, can sometimes force the shooter to use higher mounts than they’d ideally like, and in situations like this, there’s not much more that can be done.

But in general, it’s relatively easy to find good quality mounts that unify the rifle, the optic and the shooter. There’s one test I like to do to find the optimum height, especially with rifles where there is no adjustment for either the butt pad or the cheekpiece.

If a scope is too high and can’t be lowered, you can add an aftermarket cheekpiece to raise the height of your eyeline instead

If you have access to two or more sets of mounts of different heights, fit them to the rail and shoulder the rifle without a scope, looking through the empty rings.

The human eye and brain are excellent at fitting a circle within a circle, and you’ll know immediately whether the rings (and therefore the scope, had you fitted one) are either too low, too high or just right.

In some cases, however, you will be forced to use mounts that are just a little too high for comfort, and this can be reason enough to stop shooting that particular rifle.

But if the scope can’t be lowered, the alternative is to raise your head on the cheekpiece by using an aftermarket strap-on pad – or you could even make your own.

Enjoy the silence

A moderator is a hugely valuable tool for the airgun hunter. While it can’t muffle the crack of a pellet connecting with a quarry animal, it can hide the location from where the shot was taken. But moderators aren’t just useful for hunters.

Many barrels are already threaded for a moderator, but if yours isn’t, it may be possible for a gunsmith to cut a thread for you

I have a shooting buddy who’s reluctant to shoot one of his guns because it’s too noisy. He enjoys plinking in the garden, but feels uncomfortable when doing so because he’s worried about upsetting the neighbours. The solution is quite straightforward: fit a moderator.

To be truly neighbour-friendly, however, he’s also made up a target box-cum-pellet catcher that is stuffed full of old clothes. Placed in front of a concrete backstop, that gun is now back in service and peace has been restored at both ends of the garden.

Beat the barrel blues

It’s easy to get frustrated with a rifle if it was once shooting sweetly, but no longer hits the spot. Shooters can sometimes work through a list of troubleshooting tips only to find the problem still persists. Often the answer is quite straightforward – and that’s simply to clean the barrel.

As pellets are fired down the bore, the lands and grooves of the rifling will pick up a thin coating of lead. And as the rifle continues to be fired, that coating will continue to build up.

Guns need to be fed the right diet for peak performance – experimentation is crucial to success

That layer of lead is desirable, as it fills micro-fissures and other imperfections in the bore and reduces friction, but it will eventually become too thick and accuracy will start to suffer.

This break-point can appear quite suddenly, and is easy to see if you’ve been punching paper. One five-shot group will be great, then the next will be completely wayward.

In the case of a PCP, this can be a warning sign to you that the rifle is low on air, but it can also be the telltale sign of an over-leaded barrel in any type of airgun.

If your rifle barrel hasn’t been cleaned for a while, then a pull-through is your best option, after which you can keep the level of lead in check by shooting a few felt cleaning pellets on a regular basis.

Check those stock screws

One of the best ways to achieve accuracy is to maintain a consistent head position behind your sights, whether they’re irons or optics. Conversely, the easiest way to ruin accuracy is by adopting an inconsistent head position, and one cause of this is a loose stock. 

Your head and eye will not be in the same place relative to your scope for each shot if your stock is loose, so check your stock screws

Again, this is quite an easy fix – just work your way around your rifle, nipping up the various screws. Recoiling rifles like springers and gas-rams will suffer from this the most, but even PCPs can suffer from loose stock screws over time.

Pick the perfect pellet

If you’ve been neglecting your gun due to accuracy issues, it may not be the rifle’s fault. If it was shooting well with a particular pellet, are you continuing to feed it exactly the same type? 

Head sizes can vary, and aren’t always signposted on the top of the tin. Maybe you picked up a tin of 4.50mm instead of 4.52mm. Pellets also vary from batch to batch, and the dies used to make them will also wear over time.

So if you’ve been using the ‘same’ ammunition and getting disappointing results for no apparent reason, double-check what you’ve been using, or perhaps try firing another type instead – it could make all the difference.

The eyes have it

Eye relief is the distance from the rear lens of a telescopic sight at which the shooter can achieve the full viewing angle. In practice, this means sliding the scope backwards and forwards until a perfectly clear image can be seen through it.

If you see a half-moon effect, this means you are partially looking at the inside of the scope tube and have not got correct eye relief. Ensure the scope is on its lowest magnification and keep adjusting until eye relief is right for you, then double-check it’s in the correct place by cranking up to maximum magnification, which is far less forgiving, and do a final tweak if necessary.

If you have run out of room and the scope needs to come either further back or further forwards than your existing rail and mounts will allow, all is not lost. 

Grab hold of a set of extended mounts, which are also known as reach-forward mounts. They can be fitted so they extend forward, giving you more eye relief, but despite the name they can also be flipped round so they extend backwards, decreasing eye relief.

On the level

If the crosshairs on a scope have not been levelled with the action of the gun, it can be tricky to shoot it accurately, even if the gun and optic are capable of delivering superb results.

You’ll be suffering from cant – the act of sloping, tilting or angling the vertical crosshair from the vertical plane.

You can use a small bubble level to check whether the crosshairs of your scope are correctly aligned with the action of your rifle

A rifle held perfectly upright may still exhibit cant if the scope has not been mounted vertically. Similarly, the shooter can induce cant on a correctly mounted scope by angling the whole rifle away from the vertical

Spirit levels and plumb lines can be used to ensure everything is properly lined up. Loosen the rings, and gently rotate the scope, without moving it backwards or forwards, until the crosshairs are levelled with the plumb line, ensuring the action is also level.

Adjusting the trigger

Most of the triggers that are installed on air rifles today are two-stage. The main advantage of a two-stage unit is knowing exactly when the trigger is going to break. When you pull back on a two-stage trigger, applying consistent, even pressure, you will effectively come to a stop point. 

This is a warning that you’ve come to the end of the first stage and have reached the second. As you continue to apply pressure, the gun will then fire.

The majority of the adjustments available on a trigger are to do with the actual distance the trigger has to travel over each stage and the trigger-pull necessary to fire the rifle. If your trigger is excessively heavy, consider lightening it, but only if you know what you’re doing. If not, take it to a gunsmith at your local shop or club.

Most triggers allow some degree of adjustment to the first and second stage – a well-adjusted trigger can certainly enhance accuracy

Each trigger is different, offering varying degrees of adjustability, but typical adjustments are for trigger-pull and trigger travel. The key to adjusting any of the settings on your trigger is to change only one setting at a time, test the rifle, repeat the process until you’re happy with your results, then move on to the next type of adjustment if necessary.

The other factor you should bear in mind is to make sure you adjust only in small increments. A tiny movement of the adjustment screw can have a huge impact on how the trigger behaves.

A well-adjusted trigger won’t magically transform an inaccurate rifle into an accurate one, but in most cases it will make the gun more predictable and pleasing to shoot – and maybe that’s all your old airgun ever needed.


Unless there’s a sentimental reason why you’re still holding onto a particular rifle, maybe it’s finally time to move on and find it a new owner – but only if you’ve exhausted the alternatives.

If you do try out some of these tips you may well find you’ve managed to reconnect with your rifle, and in many ways an old friend is the best type of friend anyone would want to spend time with. 

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