Rich Saunders takes a look at five of the best PCP air rifles that are on sale for less than £500.
Air rifle manufacturers love to tantalise us with increasingly sophisticated rifles. Daystate brought us the Delta Wolf with its on-board chronograph and computerised settings. And just when we realised a regulator was a great idea, FX convinced us we needed two with the Maverick and the Impact M3.
But such innovation comes at a price, and for many shooters such rifles are either beyond their fiscal reach, especially at the moment, or are simply excessive for their needs.
But if you have say a maximum of £500 to spend, does it mean you have to resign yourself to poorly made, inaccurate old muskets that are horrible to shoot? The answer, fortunately, is a resounding ‘No’ and we’ve assembled five of the best affordable pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) rifles to prove the point.
Range Right has loaned us a Kral Puncher NP-03 which has an RRP of £425. And courtesy of Edgar Brothers, we have another Turkish rifle, a Hatsan Airmax, which will set you back £460. The Shooting Party has sent us a Lee Enfield Sentry, a rifle it sells for £399, and John Rothery has put up the £464.95 Walther Rotex RM8 Varmint. Rounding out our candidates is the Gamo GX-40, which retails for just £379.
Kral Puncher NP-03
Presented in a black hard case, the Puncher NP-03 comes with two magazines, a single-shot tray, fill probe and spare O-rings. The length is between 800mm and 880mm without a silencer, and unscoped weight is 2.6kg.
The black anodised metalwork is of a high standard, as is the black moulded polymer stock, which will resist all but the most extreme altercations. The soft rubber recoil pad is comfortable, but does not adjust, unlike the cheekpiece which can be raised or lowered at the press of a button.
The pistol grip is moulded for comfort and will serve both right- and left-handers. The silver sidelever, whilst well-weighted and smooth, is located on the right side, with no provision to swap it over. The safety catch, positioned just below the lever and operates cleanly and quietly, favours right-handers, as does the power adjustment dial.
Loading Kral’s standard 12-shot .22 / 14-shot .177 magazine requires a plastic face plate to be rotated clockwise and your finger placed under the hole at the back to prevent the first pellet from falling straight through. To insert the mag into the rifle, you’ll need to align a horizontal ridge on the back of the magazine with a groove in the breech.
The 180cc air cylinder takes a 200 bar fill, achieved by twisting a collar at the end of the cylinder to expose the port and accept the provided fill probe. A gauge on the underside of the forend next to a Picatinny rail tells you how much air you’ve got left.
The 430mm barrel is shrouded. Remove the muzzle cap to fit a silencer to the ½” UNF thread. You can remove the shroud and screw your silencer directly to the barrel.
The .22 test rifle returned just over 70 shots at an average of 11.3 ft-lb. The accuracy was superb, hitting 10p coin-sized groups straight out of the box, making the Puncher NP-03 ideal for vermin control.
The Airgun Shooter verdict: “The Kral Puncher NP-03 is definitive proof that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get yourself a well-made and accurate full-power PCP. Kral triggers have also improved significantly over the last 18 months or so, making it much easier to exploit its rifles’ full capabilities.”
At 940mm long and nearly 5kg, the Airmax is a substantial bullpup. Much of that is down to the 400cc metal air bottle which, along with a further 90cc of air stored in a short cylinder, provides around 200 shots from a 200 bar fill. Located near the neck of the bottle, the fill port is accessed by removing a short plastic plug which I had to poke out with a screwdriver.
The ambidextrous stock is fitted with sling swivels and has a double cut-out in the butt to both save weight and provide access to the pistol grip that has no chequering, but is contoured for your fingers. The rubber recoil pad is ventilated, but does not adjust, unlike the soft-touch cheekpiece which will go up and down once a button is depressed. The forend cups the air bottle and has a row of four weight-saving holes and a Picatinny accessory rail.
Hatsan AT44 shooters will recognise the 10-shot .177 and .22 magazine and breech setup. After pulling back the sidelever, the magazine is released by pulling back a short bolt catch which must be returned to lock the magazine in place once inserted. The sidelever operates with no notchiness, and the action has an anti-double load feature.
Cocking the Airmax also sets the safety catch – a back-to-front trigger blade design located forward of the actual trigger that has to be pushed forward to make the rifle live. Although it is resettable, the safety catches that are located inside the trigger guard are not my favourite.
The Airmax has Hatsan’s QuietEnergy fully shrouded barrel that features an integrated silencer. Although it looks like it will unscrew, the muzzle cap is not intended to come off and there’s no capacity to add an external silencer. The Airmax does, however, have the company’s two-stage Quattro trigger, which is adjustable for both weight and travel.
The Airgun Shooter verdict: “You can’t get away from the fact that the Airmax is a weighty rifle and you’ll certainly want to fit a sling to the provided swivels. However, if you plan to shoot mainly from a rested position either on the range or hunting you’ll find it a truly pleasurable and rewarding rifle to shoot.”
Lee Enfield Sentry
Few brands carry the heritage that is associated with Lee-Enfield, so the launch of the Sentry just over a year ago was always going to attract attention, especially priced at just £399.
At over a metre long and weighing 3.5kg unscoped, the slim, ambidextrous beech stock has a black ballistic polymer forend that not only looks distinctive, but is very solid with no creaking or movement. The solid rubber recoil pad is not adjustable, but the cheekpiece can be adjusted for height by slackening a couple of thumb wheels.
The contoured pistol grip and large cut-out accommodate the biggest hands in either a thumb-up or wrap-around grip. Though the metal trigger blade is not adjustable, the two-stage action is well-defined with crisp let-off and only a hint of creep in the second stage. Positioned on the outside of the trigger guard is a resettable safety switch.
The short bolt action requires a firm tug over its inch or so travel to cock the gun. Returning the bolt feeds a pellet from the eight-shot .22 magazine (nine in .177) that is inserted and removed from the left.
According to The Shooting Party, expect around 80 shots in .177 and 120 in .22 from a 200 bar fill achieved by inserting the fill probe into a port at the front of the cylinder that’s protected by a rotating cap. A pressure gauge underneath the muzzle will tell you when it’s time to fill up again.
A two-piece dovetail rail provides plenty of room for a scope. In addition, there are four Picatinny rails. There are three on top of the 430mm barrel, and another for a bipod. Two more rails can be attached to the sides of the forend.
The barrel is shrouded and finished with a plastic silencer. If you prefer, it can be unscrewed and replaced with your preferred silencer thanks to a ½” UNF thread.
The Airgun Shooter verdict: “Evoking the legendary Lee Enfield name and a unique aesthetic means the Sentry is likely to divide opinion. However, that aside, this is a well-made, feature-packed and regulated full-power rifle. The price point is designed to appeal to those tempted by the thought of a PCP, and those who succumb will be glad they did.“
Walther Rotex RM8 Varmint
Walther’s Rotex RM8 Varmint has been around for a few years and its reputation as a well-made and good quality PCP rifle set the standard for other rifles to live up to.
There are several rifles in the RM8 range, including beech and blue laminate stock versions as well as an Ultra Compact (UC) model. At just under a metre long and weighing a little over 3.8kg unscoped, the Varmint has a good quality black synthetic stock that will handle most encounters with fences, gates and farm machinery.
The perforated recoil pad and raised comb are fixed in place, but provide good shoulder fit, cheek weld and eye alignment for a scope attached to the 65mm long dovetail mount. There are textured patches on the pistol grip and around the generous forend which make the RM8 Varmint easy to hold, even in wet weather.
The two-stage adjustable trigger has a comfortable, broad blade. Out of the box, the first stage was light before stopping decisively and breaking cleanly on the second stage.
The RM8 Varmint’s bolt is reassuringly firm and feels well-engineered. The large handle is easy to grip and a firm pull backwards both cocks the action and sets a safety catch at the back of the breech.
Opening the bolt also allows you to slide a catch so you can insert the eight-shot rotary magazine on the right-hand side. The 200cc air bottle takes a 232 bar fill, achieved by inserting the provided fill probe into a port underneath the forend next to a pressure gauge and a short moulded Picatinny accessory rail. Expect around 180 shots in .177 and a little more in .22.
The 500mm barrel is not shrouded and is fitted with a perforated muzzle brake on the ½” UNF thread. If you plan to hunt with the RM8 Varmint or use it in the garden, you’ll want to fit a silencer.
The Airgun Shooter verdict: “As you’d expect from a brand like Walther, the Rotex RM8 Varmint is a quality product. The combination of a regulated action, Walther barrel and adjustable trigger wrapped up in a tough and durable stock makes it a great choice for hunters.”
When it comes to affordable rifles, Gamo has more than its fair share. Its Coyote and Phox offerings already have a strong following, and the GX-40 rounds out a trio of no-nonsense, well-made PCP rifles.
At 3.3kg and 960mm, the GX-40 is full-sized, although you will want to fit a silencer to the ½” UNF thread in place of the muzzle brake, especially if you plan to plink a few targets in the garden or go hunting.
The black polymer moulded stock is tough enough to withstand plenty of abuse and has patches of roughened stippling on the pistol grip and forend to aid grip. The cheekpiece does not adjust, but is nice and high, enabling good eye alignment to a scope mounted on the dovetail rail. The 10-shot magazine slides into the breech from the left with no additional manual catch and sits below the rail, enabling you to set your scope low to the barrel. The bolt requires a firm tug, but will ease with use.
Safety catches located within the trigger guard are undeniably convenient to use. However, the resettable catch on the GX-40 is shaped like a trigger in miniature and in inexperienced hands it could be easy to confuse with the actual trigger. The two-stage trigger itself belies the GX-40’s budget status. External adjustments allow you to alter the travel for both stages as well as the weight of the second stage.
The 500mm cold hammer-forged barrel is the result of Gamo’s relationship with BSA. There’s no shroud, and a figure-of-eight band attached to the air cylinder keeps the barrel firmly in place and aligned.
Pulling a plastic collar off the end of the air cylinder reveals a fill port. Using the provided probe, the GX-40 takes a 232 bar fill which is enough for a claimed 130 shots in .22 and a little less in .177.
The Airgun Shooter verdict: “The Gamo GX-40 may be a no-frills, affordable PCP but it covers the basics extremely well. The shoulder fit and stock design are excellent, and thanks to a dependable cocking action combined with a good quality trigger and BSA cold hammer-forged barrel, it is as accurate as many more expensive rifles.”