Those experienced in sportsman shooting know the delight in shooting a high quality, well-tuned air rifle. Luckily, there has never been a better time to find the perfect air rifle; modern models are considerably more accurate and powerful than those that became popular nearly 30 years ago.
Today, however, there is some controversy around determining the quality of air rifles. The tips and recommendations in this article aim to help you determine exactly which air rifle will work best for your unique needs.
Best Air Rifle Under $200
If you’re hoping to purchase a quality product with a tight budget, look no further than the GAMO Whisper Silent Cat Air Rifle. This air gun is a versatile product that offers a velocity between 1000-1200 feet per second depending on preferred ammunition. The GAMO Whisper Silent Cat has a 4X32 scope (as well as a base for mounting) and a built-in noise dampener that reduces noise by up to 52%. This product also meets high safety standards as it offers a manual trigger safety and automatic cocking safety system. The ventilated rubber pad works to absorb force from the recoil providing maximum comfort.
The product maintains a solid rating on Amazon boasting easy loading, lightweight transport, and a considerably quiet shot.
Best Hunting Air Gun
The Black Ops Break Barrel Spring Piston Sniper Air Rifle is our top pick for a high quality hunting weapon. This powerful rifle is a .22 caliber that operates with a piston compressed air system. The caliber and the firing system combine to make the perfect all around weapon for taking down the vast majority of small prey.
This Black Ops Sniper is high-powered with a cool, sleek look. The spring piston technology offers 1,000 FPS and has synthetic stock for all-weather reliability. This high functioning product has been boasted as an effective and versatile rifle.
Best .177 Caliber Air Gun
The Benjamin Prowler Nitro Piston Air Rifle is our top pick for .177 caliber air rifles. With smooth cocking effort, less recoil, and up to 70% less noise than typical spring powered air guns, this product is a favorite for small game hunters. Complete with a 4X32mm scope, rifled steel barrel, and two-stage adjustable trigger, the Benjamin Prowler Nitro Piston Air Rifle is a reliable and powerful product.
Best .22 Air Guns
There are many quality .22 caliber air guns on the market, below we have listed our top two picks with different specializations.
The Gamo Raptor Whisper .22 Caliber Air Rifle is a top pick as it offers a blazing 975 FPS firing speed and Inert Gas Technology. This practical product includes ambidextrous cheek pieces, textured pistol grip, and a forearm shock wave absorber. The Gamo Raptor Whisper has successfully made the overall functioning smoother, meaning less torque and less fatigue on the springs. This is a quality product that will undoubtedly come in handy for backyard pests and small game.
If you’re looking for an all around excellent hunting rifle, we recommend the Crossman Nitro Venom Break Barrel Air Rifle. The Nitro Piston technology offers a new level of power and stability in air gun shooting. The beavertail forearm is designed to enhance the shooting position, and the wide forearm area offers a resting position for the palm, improving accuracy. This gun is a great choice for pest control and small game hunting alike.
Choosing the Right Caliber
The internal diameter of the barrel determines the size of ammunition that can be fired from the rifle; different calibers have their own advantages and disadvantages. While there are a number of calibers available, the most common are .177, .20, .22 and .25 caliber air rifles. Some of the specific pros and cons of each caliber are discussed further below
Rifles with a .177 caliber are the most common, perhaps because they fire the smallest and least expensive type of air rifle pellets. That being said, .177 caliber rifles are well-respected among shooters and are particularly useful for those new to using pellet rifles. .177 caliber rifles are largely accepted as the standard for international and domestic professional target shooting, which is a testament to their accuracy. These rifles are great for target practice or hunting small game. The accuracy of these rifles can be attributed to the velocity of the small pellets, which keeps them from arcing. Since the ammo is light and the bores of the rifles are small, .177 caliber rifles will typically produce the highest muzzle velocities. Most .177 air rifles fire pellets fast enough to break the sound barrier, which is approximately 1,100 feet per second at sea level, with some rifles shooting pellets up to 1,300 FPS.
These rifles are an excellent choice for hunters of small game as well as birds and pests, however, due to the small size of the pellets, it can be difficult to take down your prey humanely. Rifles of this caliber are too small for large game hunters.
.20 caliber air rifles are the perfect middle ground between .177 and the larger .22 caliber air rifles. These rifles are a great option for target practice or general hunting since the heavy weight of the pellet is balanced with its ability to maintain a fairly flat trajectory, at least when compared to a .22 air rifle. One drawback of these rifles, however, is finding affordable ammo; .20 ammo tends to be a bit more expensive than ammo for other calibers.
While this caliber may be useful for target practice, .22 rifles are generally accepted as the go-to choice for pest control and hunting, particularly for furry small game such as groundhogs, jackrabbits and large rats. .22 rifles have a large pellet size, heavy weight, and excellent stopping power compared to other calibers. In comparison to the pellet of a .177, which might go straight through an animal without killing or incapacitating it, the pellet of a .22 will transfer its energy right into the target, bringing it down humanely.
Keep in mind that in order to kill an animal humanely the accuracy is the primary variable to be controlled, and obtaining accuracy with a .22 caliber rifle may require considerably more practice and familiarization. This is due to .22 air rifles’ arc like trajectory. Next to the .177, the .22 is the most common caliber air rifle and ammo, which makes finding pellets for the gun pretty easy, although they are considerably more expensive than the pellets for those of .177 caliber.
Rifles of .25 caliber are the best for taking down prey as quickly and painlessly as possible. The large pellet size and heavy weight means a .25 air rifle can take down prey like raccoons and coyotes. Since the ammo is so heavy, many of these rifles require specialized firing systems that make them prohibitively expensive for the majority of air rifle hunters.
Power Types for Your Air Rifle
Air rifles can be powered in a variety of ways. Choosing the right firing mechanism is important to be able to make the most out of your air rifle experience. With each powering system come advantages and disadvantages, just like with different calibers. The primary powering systems have been listed below, with some discussion of their pros and cons.
Pre-Compressed Air Rifles
Most powerful air guns make use of compressed air to fire a pellet, however the main difference lies in the way the air is stored before you pull the trigger. The three most common types of pre-compressed air rifles are: pre-charged pneumatic, multi-pump pneumatic, and single-stroke pneumatic.
Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifles
This power system makes use of pre-compressed air, which is typically between 1500 and 3000 PSI, to charge the air chamber of your rifle. This pressure can be achieved either by using a manual hand pump, or attaching the rifle (or the air chamber if it is detachable) to a high pressure tank, such as a scuba tank. These are essentially the only super powerful air rifles that can shoot multiple shots with just one fill; spring cocking and multi-pump air guns can only shoot once before needing to be recharged. Due to the pressure behind the pellet, this type of air rifle is the optimum choice for taking down game in the medium to large range. There are some rifles this size that can fire a .45 caliber pellet at a whopping 750 feet per second!
- Excellent for shooting at long range
- Provides power for large caliber pellets
- One of the best systems for taking down large game
- Many can fire more than once on just a single charge
- Transfer of power from storage to pellet is smooth with hardly any recoil
- Once the tank is filled, it is easy and convenient to use
- Using a hand pump to charge requires a bit of stamina
- If a higher PSI is desired, a high pressure tank will be necessary
- Pressure filling accessories can be expensive and difficult to find
- Air rifles that work efficiently with this system tend to be a bit more expensive
Multi-Pump Pneumatic Air Rifles
Multi-pump pneumatic air rifles are probably the most common compressed air power system on the market. They operate in a similar fashion to a pre-charged pneumatic system, but the method used to compress air requires pumping the chamber full, and the compressed air is only good for one shot.
One of the best things about this type of rifle is that you are able to alter the feet per second by controlling the number of pumps. This is an excellent feature for target practice when you don’t need 1000 feet per second with each shot. These rifles are also very affordable and are extremely powerful when pumped to the maximum. This makes them perfect for those new to the air rifle world, and also a great choice for those looking for an effective and accurate weapon for hunting small game. These air rifles are usually marketed for those on a budget, so make sure to thoroughly research your selection. If you are looking for a quality multi-pump pneumatic air rifle, avoid getting a rifle that is also capable of shooting BB pellets, as this can mean the barrel design was compromised to accommodate the BBs. That being said, quality multi-pump pellet air guns can be effective, powerful, and accurate.
- Very affordable
- Limited recoil
- Extreme power when fully charged
- Good for both beginners and seasoned air gun users
- Many models are poor quality
- The rifle is single action, meaning it will need to be recharged after each shot
- There will be a delay between shots while you recharge
Single-stroke Pneumatic Air Rifles
Single-stroke pneumatic air rifles are very similar to multi-pump models, but are pumped just once. These are a great choice for younger air gun users. Normally used for pistols, hand guns, and occasionally, rifles, the least attractive feature of these rifles is their limited power.
- Easy to use
- Quick to recharge
- Power generation is much weaker when compared to a multi-pump air rifle
- Typically not a great option for efficient hunting
Spring piston rifles, also known as “springers,” make use of compressed air, but the air doesn’t get compressed until the trigger is pulled. Usually, these rifles work by making use of a single-cocking lever to prime a heavy spring behind the piston that, when released, compresses the air in the front of the cylinder – and behind the pellet – to propel the pellet outward at a high velocity.
Most models use under levers or break barrel levers to cock the spring; these rifles are easy to use as they only need to be cocked once. Typically, these rifles are more powerful, capable of producing velocities up to 1000 FPS. However, due to the amount of force needed to coil the springs (typically about 30-40 pounds) they can sometimes be challenging for unfamiliar users. Also, these rifles tend to be noisier than other air guns and typically have more recoil compared to pre-compressed models.
- Substantial power
- Typically affordable
- One-motion cocking action is faster and more convenient than the multi-pump air gun system
- Widely available in both .177 and .22 calibers
- Significant recoil
- Cocking can be difficult
Gas “Nitro” Piston Air Guns
These air guns operate similarly to springers, however, they use nitrogen gas instead of a spring. These “gas rams” offer several benefits over the use of a spring piston air gun, and are rapidly growing in popularity. Without the big spring mass of spring rifles, nitro piston air guns are much quieter and considerably easier to cock. In general, these guns have a smoother feel and are easier to shoot, making them an excellent choice for shooters new to the air gun community that may be startled by the torque and loud noise of a heavy spring uncoiling. Since nitrogen is much less sensitive to temperature than steel, guns that make use of a gas ram don’t have reduced performance in low temperatures like springers.
Another significant advantage of a gas piston air gun is that, unlike a spring, the gas piston has the ability to stay cocked for an indefinite period of time without losing any power. A spring, on the other hand, will eventually start to “set” in the cocked position if it remains there for a long period of time, and will eventually lose power. This is an important consideration for air rifle hunters who might need to spend several hours with a rifle cocked and primed to fire.
- Smooth action
- Much quieter than a spring rifle
- Easy to cock
- Gun can stay cocked without loss of power
- No performance change in low temperatures
- Less torque and recoil, which can facilitate greater accuracy
- Gas pistons are a closed system and cannot be as easily adjusted and fine-tuned by the average user
CO2 Powered Air Guns
Although more common for pistols, CO2 can be used to some extent for pellet guns, often as an alternative pressure source for many PCPs. CO2 is an inert and harmless gas that is useful because it can be stored in a liquefied state in a small cartridge, and can be used to fire multiple shots, allowing the user to fire the weapon in a semi-automatic mode. However, the vapor pressure CO2 exerts depends largely on the temperature. As a result, on days when the air temperature is below 60 degrees, the velocity of the air gun will be significantly reduced. Conversely, on very hot days, vapor pressure may elevate to the point where the firing mechanism seizes up. Additionally, CO2 power is generally the most limited, and is unable to reach higher velocities like various firing technologies outlined above. Due to these disadvantages, CO2 is best used for plinking or target shooting. CO2 rifles will not be effective for hunting pests or game.
- One cartridge can power multiple single shots
- Semi-automatic firing is a possibility
- Convenient and easy to use
- Buying or refilling CO2 cartridges can be tedious and rather expensive
- Power is limited compared to other power systems
- Velocity suffers at low temperatures
Understanding Velocity, Energy, and Accuracy
Feet Per Second (FPS)
The velocity of the muzzle – normally referred to in feet per second (FPS) – is the most popular way for manufacturers to categorize the power of air rifles. This is practical, as many shooters are primarily concerned with speed and power. Understanding the reality of FPS measurements, however, is important when comparing different rifle models. Many manufacturers tend to manipulate FPS by reporting it in creative ways, such as testing the velocity using very light alloy pellets to raise the gun’s apparent FPS. As a result, many air gun users who buy a “super-powered” .177 rifle that boasts a 1200 FPS may discover that it only fires 900 FPS when using a properly-weighted pellet suitable for hunting or target practice.
Foot-Pounds of Energy (FPE)
A considerably more accurate and consistent way to assess the true power of an air gun is to understand the muzzle kinetic energy, i.e. Joules, or in the U.S., Foot-Pounds of Energy (FPE or ft-lbs). In order to determine FPE, the only thing you need to know is how fast a rifle propels a given pellet (FPS) and that pellet’s weight in grains.
FPS vs. FPE
FPS by itself is an often misleading indicator of the true power of an air gun. When using an air gun for hunting, the aim is to maximize the kinetic energy transferred to the target. For example, if a .177 and a .22 pellet are shot from the exact same gun and power source, the .177 pellet, which travels faster, will always deliver less power to the target than the slower traveling .22 pellet, as the .22 pellet has more FPE.
That being said, the very highest FPS ratings, even if inflated, still have some value. For example, one of the most powerful .177 caliber air rifles is rated at a staggering 1,400 FPS, which may be inflated due to testing using ultra light PBA Platinum pellets, but when you calculate the FPE, it still results in over 20 FPE at the muzzle – which makes it an extremely powerful .177 caliber rifle.
Velocity or Accuracy?
The relationship between velocity and accuracy should be taken into consideration before purchasing an air rifle. It’s generally known that the accuracy of a pellet gun deteriorates rapidly when it reaches the speed of sound (about 1,100 FPS). If a pellet is fired from a rifle at about 1,900 FPS, it is certainly traveling faster than the speed of sound, and right after departing the barrel it will give off a loud cracking pop that signifies the sound barrier has been broken. Unless shooting at a very close range, this means your accuracy will suffer because the pellets will slow down rapidly. The flight at supersonic speed will indeed be short lived, and the resulting sonic wave generated in the rear of the pellet will presently catch up and overtake the pellet as it slows down, wrecking its flight trajectory and causing it to tumble. This may not be an issue when shooting targets at close ranges, but for more serious target shooting or hunting, the turbulence will detract greatly from your accuracy. Usually, experienced air rifle shooters try to keep their FPS at about 1,000 by using a heavier pellet on high-powered rifles so they can avoid breaking the sound barrier.
Break Barrel Air Guns
Break barrel air guns are probably the most common design of air rifles on the market. Break barrel air rifles are probably the best starter air guns for those who are just getting into the sport of air rifle shooting if for no other reason than their simple assembly. Break barrel guns are air rifles that shoot pellets, not BBs, however they are still easy to operate, despite having to load each shot by hand as you fire the weapon. Additionally, loading each shot by hand will lead to a much more powerful result.
These air rifles are known as a “break barrel” because they receive power from a tight spring that is cocked when you push the barrel downward so it disengages, or “breaks,” somewhere near the end of the main body of the gun. Pressing it down to the maximum capacity arms the spring and reveals where the pellet should go. The pellet is put in the chamber with the point facing down or out toward the end of the barrel, which is then lifted back up and locked into place.
Maintaining a Break Barrel Air Gun
One of the main reasons to own a break barrel air gun is that they are extremely easy to maintain. Keep in mind, however, that the maintenance could vary considerably between models. Failing to maintain your air rifle should never be an option.
For most models, you can simply break the barrel open, put a cleaning pellet inside the chamber, and run the pellets through the barrel with a ramrod. This will typically clean out all of the residue that might otherwise build up within the barrel and cause your pellets to miss the target or be less accurate than they otherwise could be.
For other models, though, maintenance can be a more difficult. The common Gamo Bone Collector Bull Whisper, for example, requires considerable cleaning and oiling after each use. This is not so much a flaw in the rifle as it is simply the design. The additional work that you put into your gun is reflected in the ease of use and level of accuracy.
Ease of Use
Break barrel rifles are incredibly easy to use. There is a simple procedure to follow for a shot: break the barrel, load the weapon, snap it back together, and fire. This firing process is much simpler than a pre-charged pneumatic air rifle or even a CO2 powered rifle.
When dealing with a pump action air rifle or a pre-charged pneumatic version, there will be a large air chamber inside the weapon that generates the power behind each shot. While these can provide consistent shots, they are also prone to breaking on multiple models. All it takes is just one leak in the air chamber to make an air gun practically useless. Someone who is not accustomed to maintaining an air rifle will likely be unaware of how to prevent a leak. If you own a break barrel, this is a problem you can avoid.
Break barrel air guns tend to have greater accuracy as the pellet has less distance to travel through the barrel than other types of firing systems. Another reason is the spring action is a powerful way to fire a pellet.
With an air rifle that uses compressed air in a chamber, there will be a small release that allows that air under pressure to escape, but only briefly. This will create the force that fires the pellet out of the barrel. While this can be a very powerful way to fire a pellet, it can also be inconsistent, particularly if the air begins to run low.
With a spring powered rifle, the mechanics work by compressing a spring behind a piston and attaching it to a latch that is connected to the trigger. When you pull the trigger, the spring is released. It then pushes the piston forward, compressing the air in its path. With nowhere else to hide, the air rushes forward and pushes the pellet out of the barrel so it can escape. This will usually result in considerably more consistent pressure and a more accurate shot.
Of course, accuracy can be affected by numerous factors in any given weapon, such as the ammo used and the conditions when shooting. It is essential to take time to determine which options will work best for you.