I know that many readers of this blog are experienced airgunners or airgun hunters, but I also get a lot of mail from those new to the sport. A question I’m often asked is, what gun is better to get started in airgun hunting, a spring piston or a PCP? As we know the prospective airgun hunter has a couple options when considering an airgun; either a spring piston or a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) power plant being the most widely used. Pre-charged pneumatics are filled from a high pressure air source, such as a SCUBA tank, and offer many advantages to the hunter. They are compact, accurate, powerful, recoilless, and effective with large caliber pellets. The disadvantages are that they are expensive, take additional filling gear, and are reliant on an external power source. The other power plant mentioned 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 so 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 and use both for hunting a variety of quarry, but in this post we’ll take a look at 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. So let’s take a look at what these guns can do with respect to performance, 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, yet still with a lower sound signature than a .rimfire 22 short. 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 even 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 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 (and almost impossible to obtain) firearms certificate. They have taken untold numbers 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) for well over two decades, 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. 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 couple tins 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.
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.
An in-depth discussion on projectile styles is out of the scope of this article, but I will say that a wide selection is available. There is a pellet style and specification for virtually any hunting application; wadcutters and hollowpoints that limit penetration, roundnose and hunting points that increase it, and specialty polymer tipped pellets that optimize the tradeoff between penetration and expansion. There are light alloy pellets that allow lower power guns to increase velocity, and heavier pellets that allow more powerful guns to deliver greater energy at longer distances. The typical cost for a tin of high quality .177 roundnose pellets is around $6.00 for 500 pellets; though you can spend half that or twice as much depending on what you want, inexpensive any way you look at it.
Increased Hunting Opportunity
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. And because they are quiet and have limited range, they are practical for use in more built up areas. This can result in more hunting opportunities closer to home, and opens up otherwise inaccessible areas where even a rimfire is too loud and carries too far be practical.
Booked my flights out to Arizona for the end of the week and can’t wait to hit the extreme Benchrest again this year …… loads of fun; great shooting events, great people….. if you can make it, it’s well worth the drive! I’m bringing the FX Boss, lots of pellets, and bench rest gear this year….. probably won’t make a huge difference, but after using a borrowed gun last year I promised myself I’d bring my own equipment…. but there are some outstanding marksman coming! Hope to see you there, and if you get out there say hi, I’d enjoy meeting you.