Pennsylvania is allowing hunters to use air rifles for taking small game, furbearers and woodchucks starting with the 2017-18 license year.
That’s been a long time coming. These guns have been legal in a lot of other places for a long while already. Now we’re getting our chance, though.
The issue now is getting the correct rifle, right?
Experts offered some tips on what to look for when making a buying decision. You can see that by clicking here.
In the meantime, I took a look at seven air rifles – several of them brand new to the market – to see how they performed.
All were tested at ranges between 25 and 50 yards. Most did very well at the shorter distance; 1-inch groups were the norm for several.
Accuracy got a little dicey at 50 yards, though.
To be fair, it was very windy – gusty, even – on the days at the longer range. Better conditions and better practice could have offered better results.
But I’d treat most of these almost like I would my bow and limit shots to 30 to 40 yards.
Still, count me a fan.
Generally speaking, all of these air rifles were just plain fun to shoot. Some were more accurate than others, but all were addicting. With no recoil, little in the way of noise and ammunition that’s so inexpensive it’s almost a shame not to go through it in bunches, it’s easy to get lost on the range for hours at a time.
The one thing that might slow you down?
Preparing these to fire.
Six of the guns I tested are of the break barrel variety. You open the barrel like you would on a single-shot shotgun, load a pellet, close it and shoot.
That’s sometimes harder than you’d think with these. Depending on the rifle, it can take 30 to 50 pounds of effort to cock the barrel.
If you’ve been looking to tone your spaghetti arms, here’s your exercise.
The other rifle of these seven, the Benjamin Marauder, works on compressed air. I used a hand pump to get it from zero to 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
That will get your blood and sweat flowing, too.
But don’t let that deter you. Air rifles have a lot of potential in the woods and are, if nothing else, great tools for practicing your marksmanship without dropping a lot on ammo.
With that said, here’s a rundown of the rifles tested.
Gamo Swarm Maxxim
One thing really stands out about this rifle.
Namely, it’s the only break barrel air rifle on the market capable of holding more than one shot at a time. It’s got a 10-round magazine that loads on top of the barrel, in front of the scope.
You can shoot this gun, break the barrel to reload, and close and shoot it again, 10 times, all without having to reach in a pocket for another pellet.
In a world dominated by single shots, that’s huge.
Not that you don’t want to make the first shot count, but in the woods, maybe hunting squirrels, having that quick follow-up capability is very, very nice.
This rifle is the lightest I tested, too, so it’s easy to carry around. The polymer stock was easy on the hands and, equipped with a 3X9 scope, it was accurate.
The one I shot was a .22, but it comes as a .177, as well.
All in all, it’s a good gun at a good price.
Details: Gamo Swarm Maxxim. Suggested retail price: $199.
Benjamin Trail NP XL 1500
What’s that old movie line about “you had me at hello?”
That was my reaction to taking his gun from the box.
The checkered hardwood stock with the thumbhole and raised cheekpiece – one on each side, to suit those right and left handed — make this seem more like a high-end deer rifle than an air gun. It looks like it should shoot something much more serious than the .177-caliber pellets I ran through it.
Its performance matched its looks, though.
Equipped with a premium 3X9 scope complete with a range-estimating mil-dot reticle and powered by a gas piston, it was a real shooter. It’s a relatively quiet rifle, too. All air rifles promise that, but this one delivered a little more than most.
Despite being a .177, it promises up to 24 foot pounds of energy, depending on pellet. That’s plenty for small game like squirrels.
It comes ready to take a sling, something that’s worthwhile given its weight – almost 10 pounds – and length.
Details: Benjamin Trail NP XL 1500. Suggested retail price: $309.99.
This is another rifle that uses a gas piston. In this case, though, the “reaxis” piston is reversed, something that’s meant to generate more power and impact.
Whatever the tech behind it, the rifle is notably precise.
Once the Octane was dialed in, it performed consistently well. A .22, it put 20 shots within about an inch and half, with most of those within one inch. The nice scope – with a 10 yards to infinity parallax adjustment – held up well.
The rifle surprised in one other way.
The butt end of the stock is, well, different. It’s got a thumbhole, but otherwise looks like a starving man with his ribs showing. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how comfortable it would be to shoot. I ended up liking the feel of it, though.
One thing I’d change: the safety. Located directly in front of the trigger, it has to be pulled back, toward the trigger, to fire. It would seem more natural to push it forward, out of the way.
But that’s a minor quibble on an otherwise fine gun that I really enjoyed.
Details: Umarex Octane. Suggested retail price: $299.99.
Manufactured by Daisy under the Winchester name, this rifle has one thing none of the others did: a built-in bipod.
Fold its legs down and they extend from 9 to 13.5 inches. That was convenient for shooting when no rest was available.
What was just as nice was how they fold up – and rest far enough forward on the stock to be out of the way – when they’re not needed.
That’s a neat feature.
There are some other things to like about this rifle. One is the location of the thumb safety, easy to reach with your hand in the thumbhole stock. It comes with a sling, making it comfortable to carry, and just flat-out looks good with its Mossy Oak camo stock.
The one thing that was less than impressive?
The trigger on this rifle was long and slow. I found myself squeezing and squeezing, anticipating the shot before it came. That, combined with the somewhat jumpy spring that powers it, made it difficult to be consistently accurate.
Details: Winchester 1400CS. Suggested retail price: $199.99.
Two things make this rifle different than any of the others.
First, it’s the only one of the seven tested that is powered not by a piston or spring but compressed air. To power it up you pump air into it, getting it to between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds per square inch.
Once charged, it can shoot up to 32 rounds before needing refilled. It’s easy to tell when that time has come. A gauge on the bottom of the stock tells the tale.
It’s also different from the others in that it’s a bolt action with a 10-round magazine.
So how did it shoot?
This rifle, in .177, was quite simply outstanding. The two-stage adjustable trigger was so crisp, and the gun so steady, that it seemed to fire almost on its own, with no recoil or movement at all. It felt almost like a competition-grade target rifle in that sense.
It was, by far, the quietest of the rifles tested, too.
The rifle’s other features measure up to its shooting. The wood stock has an adjustable comb so you can customize the fit. It comes with sling mounts, as well, though it’s relatively light and very comfortable to carry.
This is the most expensive rifle of the bunch, but it feels worth it.
Details: Benjamin Marauder. Suggested retail price: $539.99.
Ruger Targis Hunter
This is a rifle you’d have to classify as good value. It’s the least expensive of those tested, yet did pretty well on the range.
It’s capable of shooting at high speed – up to 1,200 feet per second – and has a two-stage adjustable trigger. It comes with a 3X9 scope, too.
One of its most impressive features, though, is the ease with which it can be cocked. It’s said to be 25 percent easier to arm than some others. That might make it especially appealing for smaller shooters.
Indeed, if you’ve got a teen who’s interested in plinking on the range and chasing squirrels in the woods, I could see this being a great starter gun, one that they could cock on their own and have good success with.
The spring that powers the gun is a little jumpy, but not too bad. The stock is attractive, and the thumb safety – though a little sticky – is well situated.
The scope that comes with the Targis is a pretty standard 4X, though. Were this my gun, I might upgrade that.
Details: Ruger Targis Hunter. Suggested retail price: $149.99.
Another .22 with a gas piston, the German-engineered Walther is equipped out of the box with a fiber optic front site and adjustable rear site. It shot it that way and with a scope; it performed well both ways.
This is a rifle for bigger folks, though, in several ways.
First, it is one of the hardest to cock. Spend a lot of time on the range and it will give you a workout.
Second, the Parrus’ synthetic stock has a unique shape. The forearm portion is bulbous, like a snake that’s swallowed a rabbit.
That’s actually comfortable, but only so long as your hands are big enough. Smaller-framed shooters might find it tough to deal withh.
There is the option of getting a standard wood stock, too.
Finally, this rifle is a heavy one, checking in at more than 9 pounds.
It’s got a lot going for it, though. The thumb safety is the best of all tested.
All in all, those large enough to get the most from this gun won’t be disappointed.
Details: Walthur Parrus. Suggested retail price: $299.99.