I was speaking with a friend that works in the airgun industry at SHOT Show, and he remarked that there has been a sustained growth in the North American airgun market over the last few years. He attributed this in a large part 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, but have been less visible in the States. However many North American hunters are beginning to appreciate that airguns are quiet, inexpensive to shoot, and are capable of delivering tack driving accuracy with enough power to be very effective in taking game.
A compelling argument can be made for both spring piston and PCP 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 your wallet. I have both and use both for hunting a variety of quarry, but in this pot I want to 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, 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, 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 day’s 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.
Example Of Hunting Springers
One of the spring piston guns I really enjoy hunting with is the HW95, which is manufactured by the great German airgun maker Weihrauch. I find this a great field gun that offers great design elements along with outstanding preformance. The fit and finish, of both wood work and metalwork is a cut above. This rifle is fitted with the Rekord match-grade trigger unit that can be tuned to a shooters specific requirement, but with a smooth, light and crisp release of 2lbs out of the box I’ve never felt a need to mess with it. The 95 comes with open sights that are adjustable for windage&elevation, but I prefer to scope my hunting guns for the most part. The stock on the premium level Luxus model has cut checkering on the pistol grip and forestock with a raised cheek piece and soft butt pad for comfort. I find that I get an excellent sight alignment through a standard 3-9×40 scope in medium profile mounts My gun is a .22 though I have shot the .177 quite a bit as well though haven’t had the chance to u the other standard calibers. I’m getting about 750 fps and this gun is deadly on squirrels and pest birds, I’ve had some very high count days on pigeons with the rifle!
Another rifle I’ve been having a lot of fun hunting with is the new Walther LGV Ultra. This rifle is probably the best out of box hunting springer I’ve used, with standard features like synthetic piston bearings at the front and rear of the piston, a spring guide that eliminates vibration. It took me a bit of time on my first bird shoot with it to get a feel for the gun, for an out of the box springer it cycles quite smoothly which ironically threw me off at first. But once I settled in this gun performed like a thoroughbred! The match grade trigger is fully adjustable and has an excellent tactile feel, and the safety position at the rear of the receiver was easy to get at. Important for me when hunting is that both trigger and safety felt solid yet easy to work with my gloves on, as I typically have them on when in the field. The breech lock up system provides rigidity better than just about any break barrel spring piston gun. The forend of the stock has finger cuts for a comfortable hand position and the pistol grip has cut checkering that results in a solid hold. This is another gun that I’ve hunted several times now, and it is high on my springer list.
There are lots of great spring piston guns to choose from; while there are good springers to be found at lower price, if you can swing a slightly higher buy in, I’d take a look at one of the quality guns from the Germans or Brits (RWS, Weihrauch, Walther, AirArms, etc). They’ll cost more, but they will last you a lifetime and you won’t outgrow them. If you can’t pony up with the additional funds, don’t let that stop you, take a look at the guns from Crosman or Hatsan as a solid entry point.
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 tradeoff 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 is a growing lineup of guns that are chambered for the largest conventional caliber, and even though you have to deal with a bit more trajectory, it is a very effective for medium sized game.
One of the request I’ve been getting in my mail lately is to spend more time on springers, so this year you’ll see me hunting, evaluating, and writing a lot more about them!