The question wasn’t unexpected.
At the shooting range, a man who’d been tinkering with his own rifle wandered over to look at ours. He’d been peeking our way for a while.
Curiosity, finally and obviously, got the better of him. He had to ask.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” he asked. “A BB gun?”
Modern-day air rifles are far removed from the Red Ryders so many of us grew up with. They’re precision firearms that – so long as you understand their idiosyncrasies – are effective in the field for taking game.
They’ve been legal for hunting in a lot of states for a while now. Some states even allow them for big game.
Pennsylvania hunters, though, get their first opportunity to use in the guns in the woods this fall.
For small game, rifles must be between .177 and .22 in caliber. For woodchucks and furbearers, they must be at least .22 caliber. In both cases, only single projectile pellets or bullets are permitted.
What should newcomers to shooting these rifles expect?
They’re a lot of fun, to be sure. But they’re in some ways different than traditional firearms.
Those unfamiliar with shooting them will want to understand a few things before buying one and heading off into the woods.
First, these rifles are not necessarily long-range tools.
It’s possible, said Jason Reid, spokesman for Crosman Corp., for shooters using gas piston and pneumatic rifles – especially in larger calibers — to be accurate with them out to 60 yards, and in cases 100.
“Generally speaking,” though, he said, “the average hunter wanting to buy a break barrel will likely only need to shoot less than 50 yards.”
Reliable performance at that distance is not a given, however. With some rifles in some calibers, the maximum effective distance can be as short as 22 yards, according to some Crosman figures.
That’s partly a function of speed.
“Pellets do slow down faster than say a .22 rimfire, which makes things different for long range shooting,” Reid said.
All that makes it critical shooters learn their rifles, added Justin Biddle, spokesman for Umarex, another air rifle manufacturer. The goal, he said, should be to only shoot at distances where they can group all their shots within a 1-inch circle.
Even that can take practice. Air rifles, he noted, can be finicky.
“Air rifles are sometimes picky in how they are held. Most like to be held loosely. If a firearm shooter grips one tightly, they generally think its inaccurate when in reality it’s their hold,” Biddle said. “Tightness of grip and even location of grip can affect a spring rifle’s accuracy.”
Second, these rifles are heavy.
A Ruger 10/22 rimfire rifle weighs about 5 pounds, depending on model. A Marlin Model 60 .22 rifle goes about 5.5.
Most air rifles – counting just those in calibers like .177 and .22 – weigh 8 or more, and that’s before you add a scope. A sling really helps when carrying them around the squirrel woods all day.
Third, air rifles require their own brand of scopes.
Ruth Kass, spokeswoman for Pyramid Air, an Ohio-based air rifle retailer, said that guns using a gas piston- or spring-based power plant moves forward then backwards with each pull of the trigger. All that motion will wreak havoc with a traditional scope.
“You can put an air rifle scope on a rimfire. But you can’t put a rimfire scope on an air rifle,” she said.
The one exception is with pneumatic air rifles, which are charged using a hand or automatic pump. They are calm enough to handle a regular scope.
Fourth, while these rifles are not inexpensive – expect to pay what you would for a rimfire for a lower-end gun, and as much as you would for a shotgun or deer rifle for a mid-range to high-end one – shooting them is.
Pellets come in all shapes and varieties.
But for just standard plinking, you can often get tins of 400 and 500 for less than $7. That allows for lots of range time practicing things like breathing and trigger control and can lead to better shooting overall skills.
Fifth, and finally, understand that it’s energy that counts.
Muzzle velocity is worth noting when buying an air rifle. Faster one shoot flatter and farther.
But it’s how much of a wallop a pellet packs after it’s left the barrel that’s most important, Biddle said. More energy provides more room for error.
“Foot pounds of energy should be the rule of thumb,” he said. “Sure, it’s possible to dispatch game humanely with very little power; but the lower the power produced, the more important it is to hit a certain spot.”
That means paying close attention to pellets.
“Hunters need to always consider the grain weight of their pellet. If you can make sure your air gun is hitting the target with around 15 pounds of force and upward, small game like squirrels and rabbits are no issue,” Reid said.
Shape can make a difference, too.
“We suggest a domed or flat head pellet,” Biddle said. “Hollow point pellets can be good if you can find one that shoots well in your rifle.”
Pointed pellets, by comparison, often pass through a target, doing less damage and sometimes allowing game to escape.
Material is important, too. Non-lead pellets, Kass said, sometimes leave something to be desired.
“The tendency is they don’t fly as accurately or as true,” she said.
Keep all those things in mind, though, and air rifles are a new frontier.
A look at what’s out there
Pennsylvania’s move to allow air rifles for hunting will certainly tempt some sportsmen and women into buying their own.
But which one to get?
We took a look at seven air rifles – several of them brand new to the market – across several prices. Four were .177 caliber rifles, three were .22s.
We ran hundreds of pellets of different kinds and shapes and materials through each at various ranges to see how they would perform.
Those rifles are:
- Gamo Swarm Maxxim
- Benjamin Trail NP XL 1500
- Umarex Octane
- Winchester 1400CS
- Benjamin Marauder
- Ruger Targis Hunter
- Walther Parrus
How did they do? For the most part, all were impressive. There are some noteworthy differences between them, though.
For in-depth reviews and photos of each rifle, click here.