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Hunting with Spring Piston Airguns

Posted by on October 4, 2012

Hunting Airguns

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.

Springers permit the hunter to grab a gun, some pellets, and hit the field. They are fully self contained!

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.

If you’re going to reach out to greater distances or take larger quarry, one of the big powerful magnum rifles in .22 or .25 might be the ticket

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.

There are often situations in which a compact, lower power, easier to shoot, gun is the more appropriate choice. My .177 caliber C1 is my go-to gun in this case.

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.

32 Responses to Hunting with Spring Piston Airguns

  1. Oscar

    Hi there! Wonderful writing, as usual.
    I grew up shooting a .177 CZ, it was a tack driver, until de government (I was born and grew up in Cuba), decided that was a fearsome weapon and confiscated it.

    Now I have an Air Arms Pro-Spot .177 FAC that is also a tack driver, but a bitch to cock for someone my weight. I love it anyway.
    Best regards
    oscar

  2. Jim Chapman

    Thanks Oscar,
    No matter how many of the great PCP’s I get to shoot, I’ll continue enjoying time out with spring piston guns. I love the fact that you can grab the gun and a tin of pellets and shoot for days. I also believe that when you can shoot a springer well, it will make you a better marksman overall. That Prosport is a very nice gun, In the past I’ve done a lot of jackrabbit hunting with one, good power and quite accurate.
    Jim

  3. Travis

    Jim, I am enjoying your articles. Airgun hunting and pest control are new to me. I bought a like new RWS 45 with no owners manual. How long can you leave a springer cocked WITHOUT worry of spring damage?

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Travis,
      Early on in my airgunning experience I’d been told not to leave my spring piston guns cocked for more than an hour or two, but over the intervening years I’ve left my guns cocked for a few hours at a time without noticing any adverse effect. I think in the course of a days hunting it is probably fine to leave most guns cocked for a few hours, though pellets are cheap and in most instances you can discharge your gun at some point just to be safe. I would never leave the gun sitting overnight (or longer) as there is a possibility the spring could take a set. One advantage of gas piston guns over the conventional mechanical spring is that they can be left cocked indefinately. Good luck with your gun, it’s a fine one and should give you years of shooting/hunting fun.
      Jim

  4. JimG

    Jim, I really got a lot our of your article on spring air guns, and want to thank you for putting down some appropriate remarks from your experiences. My first recollections on “pellet guns” was a friend that had a Sheridan 22 Blue Streak, multi-pump. Way better than my BB gun. Now, some fifty years later I’m back enjoying air rifles and just purchased a RWS 48 with scope. Can’t wait to see it when it arrives, and take out some ground squirrels from my friends orchard. I’ve developed a bit of hand tremor over the years, so it’s going to be a challenge. Recently, I read some articles on the Artillery Hold. So perhaps I can conquer my own limitations one way or the other. Keep up the good writing. All the best.

  5. hmarramlien

    Dear Jim, I am a regular reader of your posts. I always like them very much. Like you, I am regular hunter in Africa, especially in Botswana where you one can get licence and hunt games humanely. I hunted with Gamo Stutzen .22 during 2007, and found it to be very handy and accurate for hunting up to maximum of 30 yards. Next, in 2008, I bought HW80 .22 FAC category and found it to be powerful and accurate. I once tried Hunter Extreme 1250 .22 version but not very impressive with its built quality. Moreover, I did not find it to be more powerful than the HW80 FAC version. I also tried Webley Patriot .25 but not satisfied with it during the trial shooting – too heavy and stiff. I test-shot Hatsan Mod 1250 .22 version on many accasions but could not be convinced with its durability and quality. Finally, I bought my long dream RWS Diana 350 .22 magnum in June 2012. I have been shooting all my airguns with the original iron sights and never used scope. I enjoy shooting spring piston air rifles with iron sights and always felt like real shooting. I found the RWS 350 .22 very powerful, more powerful than HW80, Hunter 1250 .22 and Hatsan Mod 1250 .22. It is as accurate as I the HW80. I can reach safely up to 70 yards for a game the size of pheasants, ducks, pigeon, crow, dove, etc. with vital body shooting. I always kill with body shot at this distance. When I select pellet for my guns, I always consider (i) accuracy up to 70 yards, (ii) flat trajectory up to 70 yards, (iii) powerful up to 70 yards, and (iv) target I can see with my naked eyes up to 70 yards. Bearing these four yardsticks in mind, the best pellet for my RWS 350 .22 is H&N FTT .22 pellet, made in Germany. Can you please advice me with your experience which pellet is best for RWS 350 .22 for longer distance hunting. Is the Weirauch Field & Target Special as good as the FTT? Thank you. Regards. -Careful-airgun-shooter.

    • Jim Chapman

      You have picked one of my favorite hunting springers, I’ve used the .22 caliber RWS 350 Compact for a few years and thinks it’s one of the nicest and smoothest shooting magnum springers ever. It’s a bit front heavy but that helps to tame it down. I shoot JSB Exact Jumbos (15.89 grain) in mine, and they are very accurate and have excellent terminal performance. BTW: Also like the Gamo Stutzen a lot, as a matter of fact the only Gamo I ever become attached to. I traded mine off in a deal a few years back and have been kicking myself ever since.

  6. hmarramlien

    Thanks a lot, Jim, for your reply. I did tried JSB Exact 16 grain domed head pellets when I first bought my RWS 350 .22 but never worked properly in my 350. The pellets seemed to be fliers for my rifle. The pellets never hit the same place even when I shot at 25 yards. Mine is a T06 trigger and the gun is solid and sturdy. Indeed, comparing with Gamo Stutzen, 350 is nose-heavy. But I felt that all long-barrel air rifles are nose-heavy. After having regular shooting practice and hunting sessions with my 350, I no longer feel whether it is nose-heavy or not. Lifting, handling, aiming and shooting the 350 .22 becomes almost like employing parts of my body such as my hands and legs. To avoid extra weight of the gun, I don’t use scope. I aim and shoot my RWS using factory-built iron sights and it is fun to shoot without scope. Thanks again.

  7. Ogrejelly

    Great article thanks! New to airguns but right next to your store as I live in Gilbert. After the shortages of ammo or the ridiculous expense, I am looking at an air rifle to have some fun with. Because it is so dry here in AZ I am wondering what your thoughts are on the RWS Model 350 Panther Magnum in relation to your recommendation. I assume everything else is the same in terms of the rifle with exception to the stock?

    Thanks again for the great article!

    • Jim Chapman

      Welcome to the world of airgunning! Even though I’m primarily and airgunner these days, I still shoot firearms quite a bit and the lack of ammo, especially .22 rimfire, is killing me! I think the Panther is a very nice springer that I is available in .177 and .22, and is powerful and accurate. I also like the styling, though this is obviously a personal call. I believe the synthetic stock is the only difference, but will double check and post if I find differently.
      Jim

  8. MikeS

    Jim,
    I currently own a Beeman R9 or HW95 in .22 caliber. I currently shoot the Beeman Kodiak 21.14 grain pellet and it seems to group at about 1/2 inch at 30 yards. I was just wondering what kind of accuracy one should expect from this kind of rifle?

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mike;
      I’d say that not only is your gun shooting well, but you are a good spring piston shooter. Consistent 1/2″ 30 yard groups would have me well satisfied in a hunting gun. Can I ask, how long have you been shooting this gun and how often do you get out with it?
      Regards,
      Jim

  9. MikeS

    Jim,
    I have owned my R9 for about 3 weeks now. I’ve owned only one other air gun and it was a garbage Gamo with a horrible trigger. So I must say the R9 is a breeze to shoot compared to the old Gamo. I get out with the R9 about 2 or 3 times a week and I love it… It really becomes addicting. I know most people say its hold sensitive but I haven’t found it too bad. Now I’ve done some research into springers and people say Kodiaks are too heavy for the R9 but for me they group best especially in wind. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not a pellet can be too heavy for a springer like the R9.

  10. steve black

    you know what I miss a lot. I miss the days I would take out my daisy with the long ass handle so u could pump that thing up 10 pumps. my sights would be broke off and I somehow still hit birds out of tree tops at 30 40 yards. just point and aim. lol. black tape would be wrapped around my gun stock holding something on. usealy my sling I had taped around the barrel and screwed in the butt stock lol. it seemed like I couldn’t miss. and now I sit for hours making sure the sights are perfect and I don’t have a scratch on my gun. If i miss a shot now. I think of how I would of made that shot at 11 years old with sights hanging off and just pulling up and shooting. just so you can get the shot off before your buddy did. then we would run up to the next fence, throw the guns over the fence and who knows what they would land on and how hard. just so we could find the next bird or chipmunk, snake, pop bottle or can. it didn’t matter as long as we claimed first shot. and if i didn’t have 20 thousand or more pumps in my right arm. i didn’t have 10.lol. we could put 10 pumps in a gun faster than and gunfighter could draw his six shooter.

    • Jim Chapman

      Steve;
      It’s funny how effective we were with the gear we had as kids, and what we were willing to go through to be out there shooting. On the other hand, I don’t at all mind having a modern pcp in hand at all…. but wouldn’t trade the memories. I think back to the days with my Crosman pump in a scabbard on my mini bike, heading into the coastal hill of So Cal to shoot when I was 11 or 12…. good time man!
      Jim

  11. Ahmad

    Dear jim please some comments on diana 460 magnum and tell some facts of this rifle can we compare this with diana 350 magnum?

  12. MikeS

    Jim,
    In your experience, is it possible to have a pellet that is too heavy for a springer? There seems to be conflicting ideas about this and I was wondering what your thoughts on the subject are?

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mike; Springers don’t generate the energy of PCP’s for the most part, and the drop in velocity when using a heavy pellet can make the trajectory more of an issue at longer ranges. For this reason I prefer a medium weight pellet in mos of my hunting springers.
      Jim

  13. Randy

    Jim,

    just ordered an air rifle. my first since I was 12 yrs old. I ordered a RWS model 48 (22 cal). Reading the information it appears keeping the gun cocked furlong periods is not advised. What is the guidance on how long you can the gun cocked without doing damage? I can see needing to keep the gun cocked for a few hrs if hunting (at least two hrs anyway).

    Thanks

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Randy;
      I think that this is an overstated concern, I used to worry if I left my gun cocked a half hour while hunting my gun would be ruined! Then as an experiemnet (i just wanted to know the risk) I took three of my springers a few years back, chronied them, left them cocked over night, and measured again…. there was no reduction in any velocity for any of the three. I still wouldn’t make it a rule to leave your gun cocked and laying around for weeks (even days), but a few hours shouldn’t cause any problems.

  14. John

    Hi Jim,

    I have an R9 in .177 cal. I am planning to exchange it with an .22, 350 magnum or HW80. My hunting prey is mostly jack rabbits. Is it required to exchange the R9 with the magnums to take down jacks. Your opinion is very much appreciated

    • Jim Chapman

      The R9 can do the job, but for jackrabbit hunting I would prefer the .22 350 magnum. Only partly because of the power, using a heavy round nose pellet you can reach out another 10 yards, and the .22 is a more effective caliber on these big rabbits in my experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve shot literally hundreds of jackrabbits with a .177 and it does the job ……. but the .22 does it better.

  15. John

    For hunting, which among these would you prefer the best HW80 or Diana 52/48 in .22. Is there much difference in the power between the two.

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi John;
      The HW 80 in .22 is generating velocities in the 760 fps range and the RWS is in the 890 range so there is substantially more power in the RWS. However, it’s not all about power, especially in big magnum springers. Of the two I prefer the milder HW 80, still plenty of power for the game I’d hunt with a springer and (for me) easier to shoot accurately. But either are a great choice, so figure out which appeals to you the most and you won’t go wrong.
      Jim

  16. Ricardo Garcia

    Rearing your articles is a plenty satisfaction about air gun outdoor field. Loving the sport and reading you, complement my passion for it. Now, it is a question about spring air rifles, Which is the best air rifle (springer) all around, no matter caliber category ( power, accuracy, smoother, compact or lighter, handling, reliable)?

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Ricardo, glad your enjoying airgunning and glad you like the blog! Whats the best springer ….. that’s impossible to answer! But I can tell you what my three personal favorites are: a) the WEIHRAUCH HW97K Thumbhole, b) The RWS Model 460, and c) the AirArms TX 200 Carbine. These guns are all beautifully designed, expertly crafted, and even though the HW97 and TX 200 are both under barrel cocking, I din’t have a bias as to action. My preference in springers is generally .22.
      Regards,
      Jim

  17. Juha

    Hi there all springer fans. I currently own Bsa Supersport in both .177 and .22 , and a HW95K Luxus .22. And three airpistols Webley&Scott Tempest .177 and .22 and a HW40 .177 (not a springer).
    I have had several other springers before but these are keepers.
    Now on my wishlist is a Diana/RWS 350 .22 the Classic model with short barrel and a HW45 .22.
    That´s all folks for now. Good shooting to you all.

  18. Juha

    Juha
    Hi there all springer fans. I currently own Bsa Supersport in both .177 and .22 , and a HW95K Luxus .22. And three airpistols Webley&Scott Tempest .177 and .22 and a HW40 .177 (not a springer).
    I have had several other springers before but these are keepers.
    Now on my wishlist is a HW80K .22, Diana/RWS 350 .22 the Classic model with short barrel and a HW45 .22.
    That´s all folks for now. Good shooting to you all.

    • Jim Chapman

      Juha;
      Nice collection of guns you have there. I bought one of the Tempest several years ago from Doc Beeman, and regretted selling it but needed to finance some other airgunning projects. Have fun shooting!
      Jim

  19. Joselito de Guzman

    Sir Jim,

    Good day, i am planning to buy an air rifle. My choice is the “Diana RWS 48 .22cal”.

    According to reviews, RWS48 does not have a good or decent stop pin on its rail that compansate recoil. In the long run, this pin will snapped due to wear and tear. And also, it has great barrel droop.

    Would you recommend the best if not, the right scope and mount for this type of AR?

    I would be very much appreciative for any recommendation from you Sir.

    You may send your suggestion to my e-mail add
    tolits558@gmail.com

    • Jim Chapman

      Hello Joselito;
      The RWS 48 is a brute to be sure, but one of the great springers. I’ve had good experience with the Hawke scopes on my magnum springers, if it was me I’d probably look at the AirMax EV 3-9x40AO with a BKL single piece mount. That should stop the scope from walking back, though for extra security you could use a scope stop as well.
      Regards,
      Jim

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