People buy air rifles for several different reasons. Some simply enjoy a bit of backyard plinking or target practice. While for others it's an affordable way to learn the basics of rifle shooting. Still others use them for cost-effective vermin control. Our concise buyer's guide discusses the points you need to consider. We've also made a few suggestions that cover a range of price and performance alternatives. Our favorite, the Gamo Varmint Air Rifle, certainly lives up to its name. A powerful .177 caliber that will soon eradicate your pest problem.
Considerations when choosing air rifles
There are three main considerations when buying an air rifle:
Most people think of air rifles as lightweight small-caliber weapons, but there are .357, .45, and .50 models. That said, those specific models are specialized. The vast majority of air rifles are .177 caliber (some of these will also fire BBs) or .22 caliber.
If you're just looking for target practice, .177 are generally cheaper. If you want pest control, the decision is more difficult. A .177 pellet can theoretically travel farther and faster -- but a .22 is larger, so it will do more damage. You need to consider the size of the target. A squirrel is quite different than a raccoon. Some hunters argue you need the larger caliber for the latter. Others argue that a high-velocity .177 will do the same job if you're accurate.
Our selection features a .177 air rifle with a muzzle velocity of 600 fps (feet per second). Really, that's a practice gun. We also have a .22 at 685 fps. That's not much of a greater velocity, but taking caliber into account, that's a good rifle for pest control. Our top pick is another .177, but this time at 1,000 fps, which has much more stopping power and is rightly called a "varmint" rifle.
The other big deciding factor is the power source -- the propulsion for the pellet.
Break-barrel models: The simplest air rifles are break-barrel models -- spring-operated and single-shot. They are reliable and low-cost but not very powerful. Advanced types of break-barrel models use IGT (inert gas technology), which uses a sealed gas canister for propulsion rather than a spring. They produce much higher velocity, but the main drawback is a pronounced recoil.
Variable-pump air rifles: Variable-pump air rifles, also called pneumatic air rifles, are almost as simple; except this time the action is operated several times (usually between 2 and 8 "pumps") to compress air in a cylinder. They are more powerful but still single-shot.
CO2 air rifles: CO2 air rifles can use a pre-charged or rechargeable gas cylinder. They provide high power for multiple shots. They are more convenient than single-shot models. CO2 is susceptible to temperature fluctuations, so range will vary depending on hot or cold it is outside.
PCP rifles: PCP rifles (pre-charged pneumatics) are similar in operation to CO2 rifles, except you fill an air cylinder yourself from a master tank -- like a scuba tank, for example.
Spring and pump models only fire one shot before you need to reset the action, but that just comes down to muscle -- you can do it as many times as you're able. There's no restriction on the number of shots. CO2 and PCP offer a rapid-fire alternative, so you might shoot a dozen or more times. But if you're not near home when the "gas" runs out, that means your shooting time is done.
The other factors you'll want to look at are weight, construction, whether it has sights or a scope, and if it has a picatinny rail for accessories. These are minor in comparison to the major three factors and personal choices.
Air rifle prices
There are some cheap air rifles on the market, and you can purchase youth BB models for about $20. There are good entry-level pump or spring-action guns for about $60 and accurate powerful models for between $85 and $150. If you want IGT, CO2, or PCP, they will usually cost between $180 and $260. Competition standard- and high-caliber air rifles are in a whole different bracket. They start at $500 and can exceed $2,000.
Q. What's the law regarding the minimum age for shooting air rifles?
A. Federal law has no restrictions. Non-powder guns are not "firearms" because there's no explosive charge. However, many states have their own regulations. Often minors younger than 16 must be in the presence of an adult. The only way to be sure is to check local statutes.
Q. Is an air rifle easy to look after?
A. Yes. There's no explosive residue, so barrels need cleaning less often than a typical firearm. There's also some occasional lubrication needed. It's quick and easy, but be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure lasting performance.
Air rifles we recommend
Best of the best: Gamo Varmint .177 Air Rifle
Our take: A well-made high-powered air rifle with a scope for efficient pest control.
What we like: Easy cocking. Durable ambidextrous stock with rubber buttpad for comfort. Polymer-jacketed, rifled barrel. Muzzle velocity as great as 1,250 fps while using alloy ammo.
What we dislike: A small percentage of owners experienced scope problems.
Best bang for the buck: Crosman M4-177 Pneumatic Pump .177 Air Rifle
Our take: A low-cost introduction to air rifles for backyard target shooting.
What we like: Military styling will appeal to many. Shoots pellets or BBs. Picatinny rails to mount scope, light, or laser.
What we dislike: Low muzzle velocity restricts range. Poor sights.
Our take: High-quality classically styled air rifle for varmint or target shooting.
What we like: Nice hardwood stock, and generally good fit and finish. Rifled brass barrel. Variable pump gives plenty of stopping power.
What we dislike: Expensive. Inconsistent quality control.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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