So, you have decided to dip your toes into the wonderful
money pit chronic mania clinical obsession hobby of airguns. Great! It has it own quirks and I will outline the bare basics for you to springboard into your own decisions. This post will focus on smallbore pellet rifles. BB guns may come later. Pistols may, as well.
Can you shoot your Glock 19 down your hallway every night without a visit from the local constabulary to haul you away? Most likely no. Would you like to shoot quietly with no need for earpro? Work on marksmanship for pennies? Take a break from recoil? Hunt small game quietly in places firearms are forbidden? Dispatch yard pests with a minimum of fuss? Do you just plain like fun?
Picture a little lead badminton shuttlecock. There is your pellet. Buy wadcutters for close range practice (within, say, 20 yards), domed pellets for general use, and maybe consider hollow points for close range vermin thumping. Ignore pointed pellets, they are inconsistent. Also ignore alloy and plastic pellets, they don’t work worth a fart in a blizzard. Lead round balls are available, but tend to be specialty items for some neat old airguns not addressed here.
177 – Inexpensive, massive pellet selection, capable of crazy accuracy, not the best choice for game-getting but serviceable on squirrel-class game out of punchier guns. 9mm/223 of the airgun world and for very good reason.
20 – A little more spendy with less pellet selection. Heavier pellets that start to perform very well on squirrel-class game. Bunnies fall, as well. Flat shooting out of powerful rifles that would de-stabilize 177 with excess velocity. A good general use caliber if a tad spendier.
22 – Fun to plink with easy to load fat pellets, heavy weight, better pellet selection than 20 with more expense than 20 or 177. Can be launched very hard to take rabbit-class game with ease. Raccoon-class out of the more potent rifles.
25 – As spendy to shoot as 22 LR, small pellet selection, and pretty solely a game-thumper. A role in which it excels. Also heavy enough to be launched from crazy potent air rifles.
Launched too fast? I want speeeeeeeeeed!
Launch a pellet at/around/above the speed of sound and lose all hope of accuracy, Their ballistic coefficient may as well be negative and the sonic transition is not kind to them. They will de-stabilize hitting it, lose speed quickly, and de-stabilize crossing back under it. Plus, it will be loud. Spring/gas ram/pump guns shooting this potent take muscle to operate and wear you out when you just want to target shoot.
Multi-Pump Pneumatic – pumppumppumppumppump…POP! A lever, be it the forearm or separate lever, pumps air into a cylinder to the desired pressure through a series of strokes. The gun is then cocked, loaded, and fired. These guns can be used in any season, require minimal maintenance of detergent/silicon-free oil applied by the drop to the piston cup every few hundred shots and storage un-cocked with one or two pumps of pressure in the cylinder to keep the seals from degrading. And if the barrel is rifled, DO NOT SHOOT BBs, as they will trash your rifling. Yes, the gun probably comes with a BB resevoir. Ignore it!
Advantages: Low cost, ease of use, consistency, only need a rifle and tin of pellets to get shooting, variable noise/power to bounce from low-noise target punching to small game control with a pop, recoiless.
Disadvantages: pumppumppumppumppump with corresponding clackclackclack of the forearm/lever
Quick suggestions: Budget – Crosman 2100/760, Daisy 880, Crosman MK-177 or M4-177 if you want to look like a Call of Duty cosplayer; Lifetime Companions and worthy investments: Sheridan Streak (discontinued 20 caliber rifles, try to find one used. They are great.), Benjamin 392 or 397
Spring Piston – Break the barrel open like a single-shot shotgun and it acts as a lever to compress a spring and cock the gun. Load and fire. The spring will be released to drive a piston down a chamber, compressing the air behind the pellet, and launch it downrange. With a sproing. Some use a side or under-barrel mounted lever to cock the spring and sport a fixed barrel. Available in power ranges from paper-puncher to squirrel-fucker. All you need is your rifle and a tin of pellets. Maintenance consists of never dry-firing, greasing the lever pivots now and then, not leaving them cocked (unlike magazine springs in a conventional firearm, leaving the spring cocked will ruin its power/consistency), greasing the spring, and not oiling the piston lest you combust the oil like a diesel engine and lose consistency/gain LOUD. These guns require break-in, special scopes if you want glass (recoil is reverse, then conventional, plus a complex wave-form as the spring buzzes) and kill regular scopes no matter how nice, a light “artillery hold” because the gun vibrates while the pellet is still in the barrel. If you hold these tight like a conventional rifle, you will not see any accuracy.
Pros: Wide selection of guns, power levels, quality, trigger qualities, sights, capable of very nice field performance. No fuel required, low maintenance.
Cons: Can’t keep cocked very long, require special hold, take practice to master, have a long break-in, gum up in cold weather, sproing
Suggestions: Inbound in a while, about to lose Wi-Fi
Nitro Piston, Gas Ram, GRT, *insert buzzword here* – Replace the spring in the spring piston with a cylinder of nitrogen. The gas is compressed when cocked and pounds the piston forward when fired. These need zero maintenance beyond greased lever pivot points and can be left cocked just fine. No sproing, still hard on scopes (one of mine just killed a piston-rated scope), smooth to cock.
Pros: Crazy simple to maintain, less hold sensitive, no sproing, price now down to Wallyworld levels for truly nice rifles, smooth cocking stroke, work in cold weather as there is no spring lube to gum.
Cons: Still require airgun scopes, still somewhat hold-sensitive less, harder cocking effort for the same power level as a spring piston, no low-power options on the market at this time unless you pay $$$Theoben$$$ for an adjustable gas ram. That said, Theoben makes a crazy nice nitro piston rifle. But you could get a new Ruger Gunsite Scout and some 308 to shoot through it for less than a Theoben Evolution entry model with no sights or glass. And I want one.
CO2 – Drop a dab of oil on the tip of a 12 gram (larger exist, but pretty much work the same. And bulk-fill is wicked neat but functionally identical when firing.) CO2 cartridge or two and insert them into the gas tube of your gun, cap them to pierce, and begin pewpewpew. Mostly bolt or lever actions either single-shot or rotary clip fed. Some double-action repeaters exist, but not many QUALITY true semi-autos.
Pros: Simple, seals are really the only thing to wear out and are typically easy/cheap to service. Can punch pellets out pretty hard and are available in a decent variety of power levels. Recoil-less and can mount ANY optic. Very fun and moderate well if you get the itch.
Cons: Have to pay for CO2, don’t work well in the cold.
Suggestions: Budget – QB78…more to come
Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP) – Everything I said about CO2 without paying for gas and no temperature sensitivity. Can send pellets downrange at 10m indoor levels or ROID RAGE HULK SMASH levels. Require charging via high pressure pump or dive tank.
Pros: No temperature sensitivity, some nice budget options becoming available, versatile, no recoil and can mount any optic, moderate well and you should with the mid to high power models.
Cons: Can still be a bit spendy, are hearing protection required LOUD in the upper power levels.
Single-Stroke Pneumatic – One pump, one shot. Try to pump more than once and the pump arm lets the pressure bleed out to ambient when opened and pump number two just re-charges to the same level as pump one. Single-Stroke. Typically low power suitable only for targets. Most are complete single-shots, but some do have advancing clips to save you the loading step between cock…pump…pew.
Pros: Widely considered an outdated system and some crazy deals are to be had on old full-blown 10m competitive level guns, simple, quiet, recoil-less and can take any optic.
Cons: Only available in lower power outside of curio guns, no true repeaters.
But you should get one, they are great shooters. Ignore the cons.
Suggestions: Budget – Daisy 953…more to come
So, Butch, which system is the best?
All of them. Weigh your own uses and make your own choice. I own an example of all of the above and each has its uses and charm. Every one is fun on a bun.