There has been a sustained growth in the North American airgun market over the last several years, which can be attributed to the growing popularity of airguns for small game hunting and pest control. Airguns are used extensively for hunting in many parts of the world, especially in regions where citizens are prohibited from owning a firearm or where population densities are such that firearms aren’t a viable option. I imagine most readers of this blog already know, and many mainstream North American firearms hunters are beginning to appreciate, that airguns are quiet, inexpensive to shoot, and capable of delivering tack driving accuracy with enough power to be very effective in the field.
The airgun hunter has a couple options when considering a gun; pre-charged pneumatics are filled from a high pressure air source and offer many advantages to the hunter. They are compact, accurate, powerful, recoilless, and effective with large caliber pellets. The disadvantages are that they can be expensive, take additional filling gear, and are reliant on an external power source. The other (and most commonly used) power plant is the spring piston airgun; the advantages being that they are fully self-contained, can be quite powerful and accurate, and as a rule cost a lot less than PCPs. The disadvantages are that they tend to be larger and heavier (not always the case though), have more recoil and therefore take a bit more practice to shoot well, and require more effort to cock as a strong spring must be compressed to ready the gun for shooting.
A compelling argument can be made for either of these power plants, and there are strong proponents for both. I think that it depends on your intended use, your specific hunting requirements, personal preferences, and how deep you want to dig into the piggy bank. I have both, like both, and use both for hunting a variety of quarry. In this blog entry I’ll focus on the spring piston power plant. I find the idea of a fully self contained gun very appealing, and will often take a springer along when heading out fishing or camping, anywhere that I don’t want to carry along a lot of extra gear or can’t be reliant on an external source of power to keep the gun shooting. I’ll sometimes pack a springer as a backup to my primary PCP on a traveling hunt, as they are just about failure prone. And as TSA airport security has become unpredictable and somewhat erratic in the enforcement of regulations, springers are less likely to encounter problems when being checked. So let’s take a look at what these guns can do with respect to performance, what’s available on the market, and what type of hunting you can use them for.
Spring Piston Performance
The spring piston airgun generates power using a powerful spring-loaded piston that is housed within a compression chamber. Cocking the gun (using a break barrel, side lever, or under lever mechanism) causes the piston assembly to compress the spring. When the spring is released it pushes the piston forward compressing a column of air in the chamber behind the pellet. The spring piston power plant is capable of developing sufficient energy to get a projectile moving at supersonic velocities, though effectiveness as a hunting tool is not solely a function of muzzle velocity. Pellet design is somewhat different than that of a firearm bullet, and many do not perform well at supersonic velocities becoming unstable as they transition across the sound barrier, which can adversely impact accuracy. In addition, a major advantage of airguns is that they are quiet. But once the projectile goes supersonic an audible “crack” is generated, though still with a lower sound signature than a .22 short rimfire. If the projectile is kept subsonic, then any sound from the gun is primarily the mechanical noise generated by the piston slamming home. I don’t mean to imply that you disregard muzzle velocity, by all means look for a gun with a higher velocity. But then rather than trying to achieve the highest velocity possible with that gun, which is typically achieved using the lightest pellet available, try a heavier pellet. A 14 grain pellet moving at 1000 fps yields more power that a 7 grain pellet moving at 1200 fps. The heavy pellet moving at subsonic velocities is generally quieter and more accurate, yielding better terminal performance on game.
Most airguns generate relatively low power compared to a rimfire. This is not always the case; there are a couple pre-charged pneumatic airguns in my collection that are getting close to 600 fpe. However, most (not all) spring piston guns are limited to under 20 fpe. This is plenty of power for small game out to forty or fifty yards, and bigger stuff such as raccoon and woodchucks at 30 yards.
In the United Kingdom, where airgun hunting has a huge following, hunters are limited to 12 fpe guns without a special (FAC) firearms certificate. They have taken thousands upon thousands of rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, and crows with these guns over the years. The whole objective of airgun hunting is achieving optimal accuracy from both the gun and the hunter. This is the overriding criteria; once a gun is doing 14 fpe any small game animal it connects with is going down cleanly so long as the shot placement is correct. However, once pinpoint accuracy is achieved, more power never hurts, and it will permit the hunter to reach out a bit further. I’ve been using a Beeman C1 (built by Webley & Scott) since the eighties, and this mid 800 fps carbine in .177 has put more game in the bag than just about any gun I’ve ever owned. If you’ll be going after larger quarry such as raccoon, a gun producing 20 fpe or more is a good idea.
Another consideration when choosing a hunting springer is the cocking effort. It only takes a single cocking motion to prepare the gun for shooting, but the effort can be substantial. As a rule of thumb, the more powerful the gun the more effort will go into cocking it. Also for break barrel guns, the length of the barrel also effects the cocking effort, longer barrels are easier to cock in very powerful guns. That’s why my 30 fpe .25 caliber Webley Patriot is not the first choice when plinking. The 40 lb cocking effort is very manageable for a days hunting, but is less ideal if the intention is to shoot a tin of pellets during a range session! I think finding the right balance of accuracy, power, cocking effort, and field attributes (size, weight, fit) is key to selecting the right gun.
Example of Hunting Springers
So what guns are available and where do you get them? It is possible to find a limited selection of spring piston airguns at the local discount chain or sporting goods stores. If you live by one of the big hunting specialty stores, the selection increases. But these only represent the tip of the iceberg; to see the wide variety of springers available you need to go to one of the virtual airgun shops such as Airguns of Arizona. They carry a selection of models from RWS/Diana, BSA, Webley, Crosman, Weihrauch/HW and others. I have many springers in my collection, and have shot and hunted with literally hundreds of others over the years.
Some of the current production guns I think are best in class for spring piston hunting arms include the HW 95, HW 80, RWS 48, RWS 350 and the AirArms TX200, along with my favorites older guns the Beeman/Webley C1 .177 and the Webley Patriot .25. I also think there are a lot of budget priced springers from Crosman/Benjamin, Mendoza that can get shooters started at a lower price point.
The HW95 is a superbly built break barrel that comes in all standard calibers, but I like a big powerful gun such as this in either .22 or .25 caliber. When you purchase a high end springer like this, you get a great fit and finish and perks like the outstanding Rekord trigger. Generating around 750 fps in .22, this gun will let you reach out to fairly long range.
I also like the RWS Model 48 side cocking rifle as well, this cocking action makes the implementation of a very strong mainspring possible, which in turn allows this gun to achieve impressive power. In .22 it achieves about 900 fps, and if you want to shoot larger quarry with a spinger it’s hard to beat. But it’s a big gun, and if your intention is to shoot smaller quarry, something a bit lighter might be in order.
This is where I really like my little .177 C1, when hunting rabbits or squirrel and keeping shots inside of 35 yards, this fast handling and easy cocking carbine has enough power to do the job but is also easy for me to shot accurately. As a matter of fact, I shoot this gun more accurately offhand than any other springer I’ve hunted with. It is however, one of those guns that people either seem to love or hate, but the idea of going for a lower power, easier to handle, easier to shoot gun is a concept worth considering if most of your quarry will be smaller game.
What Caliber Is Best?
There are four standard airgun calibers; the.177, .20, .22, and .25, with the .177 and .22 by far the most common. An old adage I’ve heard repeated by many British airgunners is; .177 for feathers and .22 for fur. I don’t think it is quite so simple, and believe that the best caliber depends on what projectile will be used, what ranges will be encountered, how large the quarry is, and the hunters ability to deliver precise shot placement with a particular gun. When comparing the .177 and .22 for instance, both can be effective; the point is that due to the lower velocities achieved with the .22 (in the same model gun) the trajectory will be more arced while the .177 will shoot flatter and require less holdover. On the other hand, shooters that don’t have a problem judging holdover will be able to deliver higher impact energy on target with the .22 caliber.
Pre-charged pneumatics airguns work more efficiently with larger caliber pellets, so I’ll usually opt for a .22 or larger. With springers on the other hand, I don’t have a strong preference and use the .177 on most small game without reservation. The .20 caliber is a good trade off between the advantages and limitations of the two more common calibers, but both guns and ammo are a bit limited in availability and selection, yet still worth consideration. The .25 is the big kahuna when it comes to spring piston air rifles, and can generate upwards of 30 fpe. There are only a handful of guns that are chambered for the largest conventional caliber, but it is a very effective for medium sized game.
There are many options available when it comes to the selection of a spring piston air rifle for hunting. The one that is best suited for you depends on what you want to hunt, where you will hunt, what ranges you’ll shoot at, and of course, which rifle appeals to your sense of aesthetics. Many of the newer spring piston airgun designs are capable of supersonic velocities. But as discussed, there is more to it than simply getting the highest muzzle velocity; it’s picking a gun that yields adequate power and exceptional accuracy. When you hit a small game animal with a head shot at 35 yards, it doesn’t really matter if the muzzle velocity was 900 fps or 1130 fps. It’s all about shot placement! When making your rifle and pellet selection, keep in mind that once the pellet goes supersonic there may be some degradation in accuracy depending on pellet design, and it will be louder. With the right gun and pellet combination, a spring piston airgun provides more than enough power to cleanly and efficiently kill just about any small game or pest species found in North America.