If it's your first time buying an air gun, or even if you already own a few, it never hurts to educate yourself on the key considerations that make certain products a better fit for certain shooters. Depending on your skill level, budget, expectation and general usage, this guide will help you determine the type of air gun that suits your needs and make the buying process that much smoother.
Air Guns & Air Rifles
For those that may not be sure what an air gun is, it is a type of gun that uses compressed air to fire pellets or BBs. An air gun typically falls into one of two categories: an air rifle or air pistol, both of which are replicas of small arms and launch projectiles like small BB's or pellets. Both kinds of air gun can have one of three means of propulsion: a spring-piston mechanism, high-pressure compressed air or a CO2 canister. Based on the shooters intended use, an air gun can serve many purposes.
Common Uses for Air Guns
The primary uses of air guns range from pest control and hunting small game to target shooting.
Target Shooting With Air Guns
Target shooting is an all-inclusive term for air gun activities like plinking, practicing at a shooting range and competitions or target shooting events. Air guns have been around since the late 1500s and have been part of the Olympic Games since the 1980s. The more enjoyable, laid-back version of target shooting is a well-known pastime known as plinking. Plinking is a form of casual target shooting where the shooter typically uses homemade targets like tin cans, soda bottles or even paper targets attached to logs or stumps. The term plinking comes from the recognizable “plink” sound a BB makes when hitting a tin can. The allure of plinking is that you can do it in your backyard or an open field and, aside from the cost of ammunition, you don’t have to spend money to do it.
Hunting Small Game
Small game, like squirrel and rabbit, is commonly hunted with air rifles as long as they meet the propulsion, weight and caliber criteria to be legal. As a rule, steel or lead BB’s are used when hunting any type of game with an air gun. The weight and speed of a lead or steel BB creates the required energy needed to penetrate and pass through the intended target. Airsoft pellets, which are hard plastic projectiles slightly larger in diameter than BB’s, do not create the required energy needed for hunting, especially at long range. Even though they move at over 1,000 feet per second (fps), a plastic pellet is light enough to be affected by environmental factors like wind. This makes it a poor choice for hunting ammo, even with hop-up, a rubber bumper wrapped around the barrel that puts backspin on the pellet to help maintain its level trajectory.
Similar to hunting small game with air guns, you can use air guns or rifles to eliminate pests, like mice and rats, without the excessive cost of regular ammunition. Using air guns for pest control in residential areas is also a much safer than using regular guns. A minimum of 1,000 fps with a .20 or .22 caliber BB is more than enough for pests or small game.
Air Guns vs. Regular Guns
Increased air gun use over the last decade can be attributed to factors like cost, safety, little to no regulations and increased precision. You can buy a 6,000 count bottle of BB’s for under $8, which is significantly cheaper than regular ammunition for target practice. There are several types of BB’s available for purchase that range in price, but regardless of the type you choose, the cost remains a fraction of what you would spend buying live rounds. A pellet is much safer than a BB due to its weight and lack of ricochet, so naturally a pellet is preferred for use indoors or in gaming and competition scenarios. Because of their level of safety, there are limited regulations placed on air guns making them an obvious choice for people who either can’t or don’t want to jump through the legal hoops of obtaining a regular firearm.
Air guns, just like regular guns, can drastically range in price, but they will also range in quality and ability. It’s possible to spend anywhere from $40 for a basic, no frills air gun to upwards of $1,000 for an air gun intended for high-end competition use. The best way to pick from such a broad selection is to take into account an air gun’s intended use. From there, you’ll want to consider factors like power, precision and durability. Then give yourself a budget to work within and you’ll end up with a comprehensive selection of air guns that suit your needs.
Considerations When Buying an Air Gun
These factors will come together to play a major role in what air gun best suits your needs now and over time. When you consider the capability of the air gun, the propulsion method and the ammo and accessories available for that model, you will end up with a better idea of the overall cost and usage of that product long term.
Precision & Power
If you are going to use your air gun for plinking, precision may not be a huge concern to you. If you are looking to use your air gun in competition or target shooting than precision will play a major role in deciding which product best suits you. In terms of air guns, precision means consistent velocity of your BB or pellet. The velocity of an air gun relates back to the means of propulsion used as well as the fps. The power of an air gun relates to the muzzle velocity and how fast the BB is being propelled. The heavier the BB, the more power on impact. A heavy BB combined with high velocity makes for a more accurate air gun.
Durability & Safety
The desired level of durability and safety also depend on the primary use of an air gun. When considering high-powered Olympic-grade air rifles, you’ll be more concerned with muzzle velocity and power. But for basic plinking or target shooting models, you should consider factors like weatherproofing and overall safety. Is there a trigger safety? How challenging is it to operate or load the air gun?
Air guns powered by carbon dioxide (CO2) gas cylinders are very popular, especially for simulated shooting competitions given their ease of use. All that’s needed is a full CO2 container and an air gun can be cocked and immediately filled with the appropriate amount of gas for a set number of shots. This is one of the easiest methods of propulsion because it only needs to be cocked once and fired until the gas runs out.
Pneumatic air guns employ a pump action to internally compress air for each projectile shot. There are single and multi-stroke pneumatic air guns, the former offering less muzzle energy and precision, and the latter providing varied amounts of power based on the shooter’s needs. Most multi-stroke pneumatic air guns have a mechanism that jams the lever when maximum pressure has been reached.
A pre-charged pneumatic air gun will provide more power and therefore increased precision when compared to standard single or multi-stroke pneumatic air guns. The main difference between an air gun that is pre-charged and one that is not is simple. The reservoir for compressed air is significantly larger and built for up to 3,000 psi. These air guns must be filled with an external high-pressure source like a hand pump or SCUBA tank. The result is a higher amount of shots all at the same velocity and power.
A spring piston air gun is as basic as it sounds. A spring is retracted before each shot and when released it pushes the internal piston forward, propelling a charge of air into the barrel. A spring piston is one of the most common methods of propulsion and tends to be extremely consistent and very powerful. What varies from product to product is the cocking mechanism, which changes the placement of the lever from barrel action, side-cocking or underlever. This factor is usually just a matter of shooter preference, as it doesn’t noticeably change the performance of the air gun itself. There is also a spring piston air gun that operates with a gas spring instead of a mechanical one. The benefits of a gas spring are a faster lock time (the time it takes for the trigger to be pulled and the projectile to be discharged), significantly less recoil and the ability to keep the air gun cocked for long periods of time without damaging the spring.
Because of rising costs for live ammunition, air guns have become a wonderful alternative for hunters and marksmen who want to keep up on their target shooting without breaking the bank. There are various types of ammunition available ranging in use and cost. The means of propulsion should also be considered when calculating the price of ammunition, as CO2 containers and SCUBA tanks can get expensive quickly. However, the long-term cost of ammunition and propulsion methods is still far below the cost of regular ammunition.
The accessories required for shooting a standard air gun are few, however there are several pieces of equipment that prove useful to more serious target shooters. Common accessories can assist in the accuracy and longevity of your air gun as well as shooting glasses to protect your eyes in the case of a ricochet.
Charging Systems & Air Tanks
CO2 and pre-charged pneumatic air gun owners have a wide range of choices when it comes to propulsion. Your decision should largely revolve around rate of use. If you don’t intend to shoot a lot at one time, then you won’t need some of the larger tanks available to you.
Scopes & Sights
Scopes and sights help to increase accuracy, especially when shooting long range. You should a scope that fits your average air gun usage, whether to help you reach longer distances on sunny days, or to make plinking a bit easier in the backyard on a rainy Sunday. Make sure it’s weatherproof and capable of the distances you plan to shoot.
Cleaning Kits & Targets
Although an air gun doesn’t get nearly as dirty as a regular gun, there is some cleaning and maintenance that you should do if you want your product to last. Many air guns require silicone oil for spring piston propulsion, cleaning brushes to remove rust and particles and oil for maintaining the air gun’s exterior to avoid rust build up. The type of target you choose to aim at should also depend on your intent. If you’re plinking, you can use empty bottles and cans and call it a day, but if you’re target shooting or using your air gun for small game hunting or pest control, then you want to have lifelike targets placed at varying distances. It’s no surprise that the more you practice in the off season, the more accurate you will be when picking up a regular rifle when September rolls around. Targets can have a number of features, including shooting galleries that automatically reset, center mass knockdown and/or durable metal construction. Air guns not only make for great gifts, they also serve as tools for honing your accuracy, hunting small game and carrying out humane pest control. Now that you know the types and capabilities of the many air guns in today’s market, you can make a better decision when it comes time to make your next purchase.
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