Modern Air Guns and Air Rifles, a Quick Primer and Overview

In the old days when most people thought of air guns they envisioned the classic Daisy Red Ryder and young kids running around the neighborhood accidentally blowing out windows and terrorizing the local stray cats. Most common air rifles in those days really were little more than toys, and the saying “You’ll shoot your eye out” had origins stemming from the fact that these low powered toys were of minimal danger unless you managed to hit an extremely sensitive area.

There were at the time some more powerful air guns available, but their cost and power conspired to keep them out of the hands of younger shooters. Today however, there are a wide variety of air rifles available at very affordable prices that have substantially more power than the Red Ryder of yore. These rifles come in a wide variety of types of varying power levels, and rely on four basic types of operation to propel a pellet from their barrel.

The most common and well known air guns today are the multi-pump pneumatics available at most large department stores. These are usually lower cost air guns made of metal and plastic, and usually are limited to propelling a pellet at velocities of 650 fps or lower. They require several pumps of a hinged forearm stock, which pressurizes an internal chamber which holds this pressurized air until the trigger is pulled. Once the trigger is pulled, the pressurized air is released, forcing the pellet down the barrel and out from the gun. These mult-pump air rifles are the usual choice for younger shooters, however they can still be quite dangerous and require supervision for shooters under around 15 years of age.

Next on the list of common air rifles is the CO2 powered pellet gun. CO2 air guns are very simple in design and can provide an excellent compromise between power, accuracy and cost. With a CO2 air rifle, a simple miniature air tank that has been pre-charged with CO2 gas is inserted into the gun and sealed in with a screw on cap. Once the cap is screwed on tightly, it punctures a small seal in the neck of the CO2 tank, releasing the pressurized CO2 into the gun. When the trigger is pulled, a small amount of pressurized CO2 is released, forcing the pellet down the barrel. This is a simple and elegant arrangement which can provide an economical as well as affordable way for the budget minded to give air gunning a try.

The next most common type of air rifle is the break barrel springer. Break barrel air rifles get their name because the barrel and receiver are mated together at a hinge which allows the barrel to be broken open to cock the gun. This action is similar to how some shotguns are loaded, with the opened barrel exposing the pellet loading port. These rifles have a cocking arm attached to the barrel, and when the barrel is broken open and pulled towards the stock, it causes the cocking arm to compress a powerful spring contained within the receiver. Once the spring is compressed and locked into the “cocked” position, the pellet is loaded into the exposed loading port, and the barrel is then returned to the closed position and the rifle is ready to fire. The compressed spring is held in check by a lever connected to the trigger assembly. When the trigger is pulled, it releases the coiled spring, which in turn uncompresses at an extremely rapid speed and pushes a piston forward. The piston in turn compresses air within the receiver, which them is forced into the barrel, where it then forces the pellet down the barrel and outward.

These spring powered air rifles can be quite powerful, and are commonly strong enough for hunting small game such as squirrels and rabbits at ranges of up to 60 yards effectively. Depending on the size of these air guns and the strength of the springs contained within them, they are capable of propelling a pellet at velocities up to 1,200 fps, which is faster than the speed of sound. Needless to say, such air guns are hardly within the realm of the very young shooter, and those under 18 should in reality be supervised when allowed to operate them

The last type of airgun that has gained a great deal in popularity recently is the PCP, or “Precharged Pneumatic Air Rifle”. These air rifles represent the high end of air gun quality and power, and it is with this group that the most powerful and accurate air rifles can be found. PCP air rifles rely on air compressed to high pressures, often up to 3,000 psi, to propel a pellet. With a PCP, air is usually pumped either by hand with a manual pump or from an external tank, into a smaller air reservoir built into the rifle. The amount of air and the pressure can be precisely controlled to determine how fast the rifle will propel a pellet, giving the shooter a great deal of control over the rifles operation.

These rifles can be quite powerful, easily propelling heavy pellets to velocities in excess of 900 fps and developing energies on the order of 40 to 60 FPE. Because of their power and accuracy, PCP’s have become increasingly popular among shooting enthusiasts in the last decade and are quickly gaining in popularity over spring powered air rifles.

PCP’s however often require a great deal more additional gear to operate, can be quite dangerous, and are more complex than other air rifle types. For these reasons and more the PCP air rifle is far more expensive, and usually selected by more mature enthusiasts.

Air guns have come a long way since the early days of Red Ryders and copper plated BB’s. If you ever find yourself looking for a new outdoor activity that presents challenge as well as enjoyment, consider looking into the modern sport of air gunning. You may be surprised at what you discover.