When buying your first air rifle, or looking for a replacement you need an airgun guide. Read Sam Rickitt's comprehensive guide to air rifles for tips on which gun to buy, what pellets to use, and what to aim for...
This airgun guide is a useful introduction to anyone who wants to pepper tin cans, rid the lawn of rabbits or pop the odd pigeon for the pot. Air rifles are great fun to use, and an airgun guide is the perfect start for a beginner or more experienced shot looking for assistance. If you want to buy an airgun look at our list of the top 10 airguns for use in the field. We also have some tip top advice on rabbit shooting – airgunning for summer rabbits and expert Mike Yardley’s opinion on modern airguns.
In this airgun guide Matt Ellis from BASC advises on the law, the models, pellets and scopes.
In common with many, I started my shooting with airguns. The first was my dad’s BSA Airsporter, with which I fired at cans and rabbits before moving through most of BSA’s line-up and arriving at my current air rifle, the BSA R-10. I’ve followed the well-worn path from air rifle plinker to shotgun blaster and rifle stalker and I’ve always had a soft spot for the stealthy shooting required to hunt with an air rifle. I hope this airgun guide will help you.
AIRGUN GUIDE: THE LAW
Airguns are classed as firearms so there are heavy penalties for any offence involving one. In contrast to the situation with rifles, if an air rifle has a power of below 12ft/lb you do not need a licence to own it in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland all airguns with power in excess of 0.7ft/lb need to be held on a firearm certificate and it is likely that such an airgun licence will be required in Scotland soon.
The situation regarding age is complicated. If you’re 18 or over you can buy an air rifle and ammunition and use it where you have permission to shoot. If you’re aged 14 to 17 you can’t buy an air rifle or ammunition but you can borrow them. You can then use the borrowed kit without supervision on private premises where you have permission.
However, if you’re below 14 years of age you can use an airgun only under the supervision of someone who is at least 21 years old, on private premises, with permission of the occupier. Finally, it’s worth remembering that you have an obligation to prevent anyone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to your airguns.
It is irresponsible to use an airgun without ensuing you understand all the points in this airgun guide first.
AIRGUN GUIDE: THE QUARRY
Obviously, the old favourites are paper and tin cans but if you want to shoot quarry the main species are pigeon, members of the crow family, rats, rabbits, grey squirrels, mink and stoats. Rabbits along field margins and rats in and around chicken sheds can be particularly fun, usually offering plenty of safe shooting with suitable backstops and, in the case of rabbits, providing a tasty treat for the pot. Birds, however, are more tricky.
All birds are protected. There are open seasons for gamebirds and wildfowl, of course, but his doesn’t mean they are suitable quarry for airgun shooters – they’re just too big. If you want to shoot pigeon and crows you need to do so under the terms of the general licences. These allow you to shoot birds for specific reasons, including crop, game and wildlife protection and public health and safety. Shooting these birds just for the pot is not lawful.
When shooting mammals it is generally best to aim for the head but shooting birds in the head can be hard as it’s a small target and tends to move around. If you’re not confident with a head shot try aiming just under the wing for a heart-and-lung shot but be aware that this can be tricky because the pellet has to pass through so much muscle and bone.
As with any firearm, safety is paramount. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s “only” an airgun – it can injure, damage, even kill. A safe backstop is essential, so before trying to shoot squirrels or birds out of trees make sure there is a large branch or tree trunk directly behind the target. Air-rifle pellets can travel a long way and not only is it dangerous, it is also an offence to allow your pellets to travel beyond your boundary.
If you’re looking to shoot pests in your garden then, apart from using common sense, such as not waving the gun around for all your neighbours to see, there are a few important points to remember. Firstly, shooting pigeon or corvids on a vegetable patch in your garden to protect your vegetables or fruit would technically be allowed under the terms of the general licences. However, you are required to be “satisfied the legal (including non-lethal) methods of resolving the problem are ineffective or impracticable”. This might be difficult to argue if your veg patch is small enough that it could reasonably be netted. There is no such requirement for rabbits or rats.
Secondly, it is a criminal offence to allow an airgun pellet to travel beyond the land where you have permission to shoot. When someone under 14 is shooting, both the young person and the adult can be prosecuted, so make sure you have a safe backstop for every shot.
Finally, it is an offence to discharge a firearm within 50ft of the centre of a highway if in consequence a user is injured, interrupted or en-dangered. If you have a big front garden you probably don’t need to worry about this but it’s certainly possible for the back windows of a lot of houses to be closer than 50ft from the centre of the highway, so be careful.
AIRGUN GUIDE: WHICH AIRGUN TO USE?
Spring loaded, pre-charged pneumatic, gas ram, CO2… there are plenty of mechanisms to choose from and, ultimately, it’s down to personal preference. Spring-loaded guns take longer to load as you need to cock a large spring each time you want to fire but they’re generally cheaper to buy and run than pre-charged pneumatics. They also recoil and the trick to accurate shooting is to allow this to happen rather than trying to strangle the recoil out of it; the spring is more powerful than you.
Pre-charged pneumatic airguns come with a reservoir of compressed air capable of firing multiple pellets between fillings. This means you can fire off subsequent shots really quickly, especially if you have a magazine. However, the reservoir is finite and at some point you’ll have to stop shooting and refill the gun either manually with a stirrup pump (inexpensive but hard work) or from a large diving bottle (expensive but easy). The refill could be needed anywhere from every 50 to every 250 shots. This has become less of an issue lately thanks to the fashion for guns with removable buddy bottles; when you start to run low on air you remove the empty bottle and substitute it with a spare, fully charged one. Because there is no spring, these guns have no recoil and can be almost silent.
See Matt Ellis’ list of the top 10 airguns for use in the field, and which scopes to use with them.
AIRGUN GUIDE: PELLETS
Once you’ve picked an action you’ll need to choose a calibre. The main options are .177 and .22 and main difference between the calibres (diameter of the inside of the rifle barrel) is the weight of the pellet they can fire. Generally, .177 pellets will be lighter and therefore faster. This affects their trajectory and means they shoot flatter than the .22 but they also have less energy. In practice, the difference in energy isn’t a problem and all calibres will kill when put in the right place at the correct range.
Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by the old adage of .177 for feather and .22 for fur. Use whatever calibre you can shoot with most consistently and stay within the maximum range of your ability. BASC recommends a maximum range of 30 metres for airguns below 12ft/lb but if you struggle to hit a target of 3cm (1¼in) – the typical target area for airgun quarry – consistently at 20yd, then this is the maximum range you should shoot at. Pace it out – it’s farther than you might think.
When it comes to pellets I’m a bit of a traditionalist and prefer the round-headed (diabolo) type. However, other sorts, such as pointed and hollow-point are available. Just practise on targets, make sure you’re confident with your grouping and you’ll be successful with most forms of pellet.
Different guns, even of the same type and by the same maker, seem to prefer different pellets, so try a few to ascertain which suit you and your gun. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the least or most expensive on the market as long as you can be consistently accurate and thus kill humanely with them.
I hope I’ve told you all you need to know in this airgun guide to make a start with your air rifle. You can’t beat an evening stalking the hedgerows trying to get close enough to shoot a couple of rabbits. Although the bags are never large there’s some-thing satisfying about pitting your wits against your quarry and trying to get within that magical 30-metre line. That’s why I’ll always have space in my cabinet for an air rifle.