(Mostly) Silent but (Definitely) Deadly: Modern (and not so Modern) Air Rifles

Air guns. Pffft. Those are for kids.

Big kids, that is.

Like Lewis & Clarke, perhaps:

Yeah, a .46 caliber, rifled, multi-shot air gun, accurate and deadly out to 150 yards. In 1803.

The Girandoni is what we would call today a Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP) air rifle. It saw military service for about 35 years, and was the first truly functional repeating rifle. If the technology for compressing and storing air had been better, the history of weapons development may have been quite different. But as it was, the Girandoni and other similar guns suffered from the time/effort necessary to charge their air reservoirs (some 1500 strokes with a bicycle-style hand pump) as well as the limitations of how well those reservoirs could hold pressure.

You can still get all manner of PCP air guns today, from good quality mass produced guns from a wide variety of manufacturers to very high-end custom guns which are works of art unto themselves. All of these are available in a variety of calibers, and with a range of bullet velocities/power more than sufficient for hunting almost any kind of game in North America.

Well below the PCP guns in the cost spectrum, other options for air guns include CO2 guns, pneumatics which you charge with a built-in hand pump, and then spring-piston models. CO2 and hand-pumped pneumatics are usually what most people think of if you say “air gun” or “pellet gun” – the sort of thing which are good training tools for kids, even if they present some safety issues.

They can also be used as training tools for adults, of course, though a lot of them don’t have much power (and hence range). But for the best mix of cost and performance, you might want to take a look at the spring-piston guns.

These work by compressing a powerful coil spring through some variety of lever-cocking mechanism. The spring is compressed behind an air piston. When the spring is released, the air piston moves and compresses air to fire the gun.

Of course, these types of air guns also come in a wide variety of quality, and you can spend as little as about $100 for one to more than $1000. But realistically, for $200 – $300 you can get a pretty good gun, which will have plenty of power for longer-range shooting.

What about range? Well, the model I got several years ago from a big box retailer is .22 caliber, and came with a variable power scope calibrated out to 100 yards. It’ll shoot a lightweight (about 15 grain) target pellet that distance accurately, and at about 1000 feet per second. If I go with a heavier ‘magnum’ hunting pellet, the velocity drops off to about 850-900 feet per second, and I usually only shoot those out to about 25 yards before I notice significant drop off from the aim point.

A 20 grain pellet at 900 feet per second is about on a par with a .22 short out of most pistols (this, based on the BBTI testing we did in June – results coming soon). In other words, not something I would care to use for self-defense, but more than adequate for taking care of pesky rodents of one variety or another without alarming the neighbors.

And in my opinion, this is where a modern spring-piston air gun really shines. You should absolutely make sure you are in compliance with all state and local laws (some places still consider an air gun to be a firearm, and regulate it accordingly), but with just a modicum of common sense and safety planning you can usually practice safely with an air gun in a suburban back yard or even indoors. That safety planning and common sense should include the 4 Rules as well as an adequate & appropriate  backstop. But taking these things into account, you can easily keep your rifle shooting skills sharp year round, even if you don’t have the time for a full trip out to the range. The power of the guns is low enough to be manageable. The sound is about like a loud clap of your hands, so it won’t draw a lot of attention or require hearing protection. And yet you can practice your trigger control, sighting skills, breath control, and mental focus. In fact, shooting my air gun is such a good exercise that I will frequently have people shoot it first when we go out to the range for an ‘introduction to shooting’ session.

Don’t get me wrong – I would love to have a high-end PCP gun in a large caliber. A buddy of mine is about 2/3 through paying for one of G. L. Barnes’ masterpieces, and I look forward to getting to shoot it someday. But there’s certainly a place for a much lower-end yet still quite functional air gun in my safe. Maybe there should be in yours, too.

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