Top tips for setting up your first air rifle

Gun care and general set-up begins as soon as you take charge of your new rifle, and Mike Morton offers 10 tips to give newcomers a head start.

Amid the excitement of setting up a new air rifle, some aspects of prep work, set-up and maintenance are forgotten, but these really can make the difference between owning a solid and dependable gun or shooting one that seems inconsistent and is likely to let you down.

If a rifle is not functioning as expected, then yes, it could be defective and will need to be taken to a gunsmith or even sent back to the factory for the fault to be rectified. But while a rifle may be displaying an annoying problem, it can often be put right or avoided altogether with just a little effort from the shooter.

If you’re someone who’s new to the fantastic sport that is airgun shooting, then here are a few tips to help ensure that your rifle shoots sweetly and you will have bags of fun using it.

1. Clean your barrel

The bore needs a certain amount of leading for optimal precision, but too much will harm accuracy and needs to be periodically cleaned out

If you want to get the best out of your rifle, then you really need to invest some time and effort to properly look after it. In my opinion one of the most important, but often one of the most overlooked, maintenance tasks is to clean the barrel.

Do airgun barrels need cleaning? Some people will argue no, claiming they’ve never done it, never will and their rifle’s accuracy is perfectly fine without it. However, there are degrees of “perfectly fine”, as all barrels will need to be cleaned at some stage or else accuracy will eventually start to degrade.

And if you have a new rifle then you should clean the barrel even before you take the first shot. The manufacturer may have coated the bore with protective oil, grease or even a waxy Cosmoline-type substance for long-term storage purposes. While these products are great for protecting the gun, they do need to be thoroughly removed before the rifle is put into service as they will affect the way the pellet travels down the bore.

A totally clean barrel does actually need a few shots to be fired before it will reach its optimum level of performance, and this process is known as leading the bore. 

But if you keep shooting it without ever cleaning the barrel, the layer of lead will build up too much and the pellets will no longer fly as true as they did before. 

For sub-12 foot pound shooting, I like to clean the bore after every 500 pellets, although your rifle may prefer a different service interval.

2. Protect the bluing

Bluing does offer some protection, but is still prone to corrosion and needs to be  given a light coating of gun oil or a similar product

If you have a rifle with a blued barrel, or any other blued steel parts, make sure you wipe off any fingerprints as soon as you can, otherwise that bluing may turn rusty. Other things to watch out for and clean up as soon as you can, however unpleasant they may sound, are sneezing over your rifle, a runny nose and blood – either from you, via a cut or scrape, or from your quarry if you’re a hunter.

Bluing, especially if it’s been done to a high standard, vastly improves the cosmetic appearance of the steel and does provide a small amount of resistance to corrosion and light scratching. But this chemical process is typically very thin and isn’t very robust. It’s therefore necessary to protect blued steel components, with gun oil being the traditional way to do this.

Gun oil is fairly inexpensive, easy to get hold of and easy to apply, and does its job pretty well. Oil does attract dirt, however, so some manufacturers have experimented with some very unconventional alternatives, one of these being Frog Lube, which is a plant-based product. My favourite is liquid car wax, which despite not even being meant for airgun use dries quickly and won’t attract dust or make your hands oily when you handle the rifle.

3. Clean The Exterior

A toothbrush is great for cleaning hard-to-reach areas of the action and stock, and is especially useful for things like the chequering and inletting

It’s well worth taking the time to clean your gun every time you use it. An old toothbrush is very useful for removing any crud that might otherwise be interfering with the correct operation of your gun. 

Is there any grit in the trigger? How about the safety catch? What about the breech? 

Removing dirt, grit and grime isn’t just about making the gun look nice, it will help to keep it in good working order. Cleaning the gun gives you the opportunity to inspect it for worn or damaged parts such as a split O-ring or a crack in the woodwork. Problems like these can then be put right sooner rather than later.

4. Dry It Off When Wet

If a rifle’s got wet it needs to be dried thoroughly before it’s put away, and that can involve removing the stock to check for any trapped water

Whether or not your gun has been blued, if it’s been taken out in rainy or damp conditions, it should be dried thoroughly when you get home. A clean microfibre towel is ideal. If you have a shrouded barrel, take off the shroud and check for any trapped water underneath. 

Remove the stock and see if any water has been trapped there as well. Make sure to let your rifle air-dry before putting it away, but keep it away from direct heat sources such as a radiator, which can be especially harmful to woodwork, which may swell, twist or crack.

5. Know Your Trigger

Whenever you take a shot the pellet should fly down the barrel when you intend it to. As obvious as that might sound, some shooters get an unpleasant surprise when their gun goes off unexpectedly. This is because trigger pull – the amount of force that needs to be applied to the blade to release the shot – was either too heavy or too light. 

A heavy trigger will require greater trigger pull, requiring more physical effort. This means the shooter will need to squeeze harder and harder, with the muscles in their shooting hand quivering, causing the muzzle of the rifle to wobble, until the pellet finally gets sent on its way and exits the barrel. This is far from ideal as trigger release should be about finesse, not force.

A trigger that goes off when the shooter merely places the pad of their finger on the blade is equally undesirable and is also dangerous. There’s a happy medium that’s right for the shooter and the way they are using their rifle. A target shooter will probably prefer to have a lighter trigger than a hunter, for example, especially if the hunter is out on a cold day and is wearing gloves, while a 10 Metre Precision Rifle shooter can afford to have a trigger pull that’s super-light.

6. Adjust If Necessary

Most triggers can be adjusted at home, and the trick here to make only one small change at a time, testing to see how different it now feels

Most manufacturers are quite good at setting up their rifles with a safe and reliable trigger pull out of the box, but most air rifle triggers can be adjusted if required to make them either lighter or heavier, usually only requiring a screwdriver or hex key.

The important thing to remember here is to make one small adjustment at a time, testing what effect it’s had on trigger pull by actually shooting the gun before going any further. Any shooter who doesn’t understand what they are trying to achieve or how to go about it should take their rifle to a gunsmith or their club armourer so it can be adjusted safely, rather than risk a DIY disaster.

7. Do The Smack Test

Giving a cocked rifle a sharp tap to the butt with either your hand or a rubber mallet will let you know if the trigger has been adjusted safely

If trigger pull has been made too light, an air rifle that’s cocked and loaded can go off unintentionally if it gets dropped or knocked. In order to ensure a trigger is safe, the rifle should therefore undergo something I like to call the smack test. This involves cocking the rifle, aiming it in a safe direction and whacking the butt with your hand, or a rubber mallet if you prefer.

This should be done with the safety catch applied, then if the rifle has passed this test, repeated with the catch set to fire. If the gun goes off, the trigger has been adjusted too light. It must be made heavier and the test carried out to ensure the gun is now safe. 

You should do this test without a pellet in the breech if you’re using a PCP, however, you risk damaging your rifle if you dry-fire a springer so once you’ve double-checked the area is safe you can load a pellet for the test. 

If the rifle passes the smack test then no shot will be fired, but if it fails the pellet will be released, so it’s vital you do this test in front of a pellet-catcher and safe backstop.

It’s good practice to carry out this test on a regular basis, even if the trigger hasn’t been adjusted, because components do move and get worn with normal use, especially on a recoiling rifle, and trigger pull may have been altered without the shooter’s knowledge.

8. Prep Your Scope And Mounts

When using a new set of mounts, clean the inner surfaces of the rings to remove any manufacturing oil, which could cause the scope to slip

Clean the outside of the scope tube and the inside of your mounts before installing them to ensure they are free of grease, oil or anything else that could cause the scope to twist, or move backwards or forwards with use. Lighter fuel and isopropyl alcohol are good choices for cleaning up residue while still being gentle on the usually anodised finish of both the optic and the mounts.

Springers and gas-rams can sometimes recoil with so much force that the entire scope and mount combination will slide backwards on the rail, even if the mounts were tightened to the correct torque at the outset. 

The solution to this problem is simple enough though, as all the shooter needs to do is fit an arrestor pin or block. The pin is attached to the rear mount and is then slotted into a corresponding hole on the rail of the rifle, providing an anchor point that will keep the rear mount in place.

When fitting the pin to the rear mount, it’s important to have it protruding enough to let it engage with the hole on the rail. But if it protrudes too far, the rear mount may not sit level.

Examine the way the mount sits on the rail by looking at it from several angles. If it is sitting unevenly, remove the mount from the rail and push the arrestor pin into the mount a little further. 

If you end up pushing it in too far, you can just use something like a spare hex key to push it back out again from the opposite side. It’s well worth taking the time to get this exactly right.

9. Don’t Overtighten Fasteners

Torque drivers are great for tightening fasteners, but if you don’t have one then you’ll have to judge how much force to apply – less is more

Stock screws, mount screws and other fasteners should be tightened by the right amount, preferably following the manufacturer’s instructions when provided. The perfect way to achieve this is to use a torque wrench or driver, with most airgun applications requiring between 1.5 to 3.0 Newton metres of torque, but not everyone has access to a tool like this.

When tightening by hand, it’s easy to apply too much force, which can strip threads or crush scope tubes. One unscientific rule of thumb is to stop when you think you’ve tightened the fastener enough, then apply just a tiny bit more force. 

When using L-shaped hex keys, instead of holding the tool by the long section, which offers more leverage, try holding it by the short end, where you’ll be applying less torque. It’s far better to undertighten than overtighten a fastener. Loose fasteners can be re-tightened, while ones that have been done up too tight may already have caused damage.

10. Use A Chronograph

Owning a chronograph isn’t essential, but having access to one is, not just to check a gun’s legality, but its consistency too

A ballistic chronograph, sometimes referred to as a gun chronograph, is a device that measures the velocity of a pellet, typically as it leaves the muzzle. If the weight of the pellet is known, it is then possible to calculate the muzzle energy of the rifle. 

We need to know the muzzle energy of our guns to ensure they are within the legal limit of 12 foot pounds, otherwise they must be held on a Firearm Certificate. Something easily forgotten is that once we take possession of an air rifle, the legal responsibility for that gun is now ours, not the retailer’s.

Knowing a gun’s muzzle velocity is also incredibly useful for letting us know how consistent the rifle is, with a variation in velocity of less than 10 feet per second over a 10-shot string being good, and a variation of less than five feet per second being excellent. Don’t forget that if you change pellets then your results will also change, so you’ll need to chrono your gun again.

For these reasons, every airgun shooter should have access to a chronograph. They don’t necessarily have to go out and buy one, but should be able to chrono their rifle at their local gun shop, club or range.

Final thoughts

Buying an air rifle marks the start of an exciting journey. Scope choice, scope mounting, developing the right shooting techniques, ammo selection and accuracy testing are just a few of the things a new air rifle owner will need to get to grips with in the weeks, months and years ahead. And properly looking after your rifle and knowing it’s safe while doing so will ensure it delivers decades of shooting pleasure.

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