Airguns (pellet guns) are popular for training due to the low cost of both the gun itself, and the ammunition. And also because in many locales it is legal to shoot them inside a home (away from windows, and with a backstop), and this makes easier to practice. Other than that, airguns are of marginal benefit for other practical purposes. Airsoft pistols are very inexpensive ($30), shoot 6mm plastic B-Bs, and are only useful for indoor target practice at home.
A firearm such as a Ruger 10/22 rifle weighs around 4-1/2 lb, vs. an air rifle which can easily weigh more than 10 pounds. If you are carrying it very far, that’s a big difference. That 6-lbs of difference in the weight of the gun, can also translate into hundreds of extra rounds of .22LR ammunition carried in your pockets. Yes, .22LR ammunition is more expensive than pellets, but it still only pennies per shot. True, the pellets used in an airgun are even lighter in weight and more compact to carry, and this benefit is often cited as a reason to purchase an airgun for survival use and small game hunting. This is all true, but a .22LR firearm provides substantially greater effective distance, is useful on larger game, and it can provide at least a minimal (very minimal) benefit for self-defense. Whereas the airgun provides absolutely no benefit for self-defense, except perhaps psychologically, as some models do look like a firearm.
This explained, if noise is the major consideration, or the selection of a gun that is less likely to kill or injure someone is paramount, or if you want to practice indoors at home, than an airgun is a good choice. However, for most hunting and survival purposes, the .22 LR firearm is far more useful.
Notwithstanding, a .22LR gun is classified as a firearm, so if you buy it “new” it must be purchased from a Federal Firearms Licensed dealer. Whereas an airgun, pellet gun, B-B gun, or Airsoft gun use air (or CO2) as the propellant, not gun powder, so it does not need to be registered. It is also important to note that if you shoot an airgun and miss your target, the pellet will generally travel no more than 100-200 feet, whereas a .22LR bullet can travel a mile or more.
Some ‘survivalists’ tout the use airguns for hunting because the ammo is both low cost and you can easily carry 1,000 rounds in your pockets. However, most air rifles are quite heavy, which is a major drawback. This said, another positive aspect is that they are fairly quiet to shoot, which means that you’re not giving away your presence when hunting with an airgun during an emergency situation.
Most people think airguns are relatively new concept, but this isn’t the case. Even the Lewis & Clark expedition carried air rifles in addition to their regular firearms for the same reasons that we consider them.
Also, just as with Airsoft guns, you want to select a model that operates by hand action, not CO2 or bottled air. Some hand operated airguns are pumped by hand, while others use hand-action to cock a powerful spring. The spring-powered designs are much more accurate.
I have a precision air pistol you’re welcome to try shooting sometime. Pistols deliver much lower velocities than an air rifles, but they are lighter and obviously more compact to carry. It’s hard to find a good air pistol in a local store, but many sporting goods stores carry at least a few air rifles. Expect to pay in the $150 range for a decent air rifle.
If availability of ammo is of concern, you’ll want to select a .177 caliber airgun. I’d bet that 95% of the airguns out there are .177 caliber, which means the ammo is easy to find in that caliber. This said, the .22 caliber airgun does provide more wallop at close distances. I wouldn’t consider any of the other calibers.
Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s have a good selection of air rifles (pellet rifles) if you want to take a closer look. They are located in an aisle near the gun department.
By the way, you NEVER want to discharge a airgun unless there is a pellet in the chamber. Firing an empty airgun will damage it. Also, you MUST use special lubricants in high-power airguns as conventional petroleum based products can actually detonate due to the high chamber pressure. Lastly, even though B-Bs are labeled as being .177 caliber, a pellet and B-B are not the same size. Many B-B guns will fire .177 pellets, but you’ll damage a pellet gun if you shoot a B-B in it.
There is a lot of debate on what is the best pellet caliber, but the most frequently mentioned are: .177 or .22. As to my recommendation as to pellet caliber, I’ve gone back-and-forth on that issue for years. The larger pellets lose velocity much faster, so the trajectory decline means that aiming is more difficult at distances, and they lose impact-effect at longer range, too. So, at close range, the .22 pellets pack a much bigger wallop for hunting and they are far more effective for hunting, too, but at even intermediate range the benefit seems to be quickly lost. In any case, I think you’re point about using the same caliber pellets in both pistol and rifle is a clear advantage.
FYI, when a pellet’s velocity exceeds 1,100 fps, the pellet passes the speed of sound and therefore produces a much louder “crack” sound when the gun is fired. With this in mind, a .22 caliber pellet shot at 1,000 fps, is a better hunting machine than a .177 pellet traveling at 1,400 fps. Again, the disadvantage of the .22 is that it loses speed much faster so aiming is more difficult at intermediate range and beyond. This is because the bullet-drop is significant. All this said, I still don’t know what to recommend, but .177 pellets are also cheaper and more readily available, if that is significant to you. By the way, if you buy a gun rated at over 1,000 fps and you want to be quiet, just load the gun with heaver pellets to reduce the speed. If the specs say that it’ll also fire B-Bs, you don’t want the gun as the barrel is a compromise.
As to pellet design, in .177 you don’t want to use the pointed-tip pellets for hunting squirrels as they pass through the animal. I don’t know about .22 as I have never used one, but there will obviously be less of a penetration problem with .22. Also, they do make hollowpoint pellets, but I can’t imagine that they perform at these speeds on flesh. Anyway, the best choice for pellet materials and shape will take more research. I don’t have much experience in this arena, but I do have a couple of different designs on-hand if you want to do some testing. Beeman is known for making high-quality pellets.
*** You need to use special oils on precision spring-piston airguns as the pressure will make regular oil detonate in the chamber.
Also worth noting is that some airguns are quite heavy and poorly balanced. Because of this issue, I’d recommend checking to see if the gun you like is a different weight when made with a synthetic stock vs. wood. Further, in my view, many air rifles are simply too heavy for backpacking or survival use.
Scopes probably aren’t required but are fine as long as the gun has iron sights, too. Laser sights would likely be a negative on an airgun. Some of the guns don’t look very durable.
Beeman, Gamo, and RWS are the common brands in the mid-price guns, but there are other quality guns, particularly those made in Germany. Also Crosman and Daisy, but they tend to be lower quality. Many big-name firearm companies also sell airguns. If they are really expensive the company probably made the gun, but if it’s a lower price gun, some other manufacturer is probably just paying them to use their name. As to power plant, you probably want a spring-piston powered airgun if you plan to take it backpacking or use it for survival. Most cock by breaking the barrel downward, so a longer barrel means it’ll be easier to cock – but none of them should be that hard to cock, anyway, so this probably isn’t much of a consideration.
By the way, when you compare the performance of different airguns, make sure the measurements are made using the same weight and design of pellet. Usually they’re not, unless the two guns are made by the same company. Anyway, it’s often hard to compare velocity between guns made by different manufacturers. Compare the cocking effort (measured in pounds) between guns. If the cocking effort is the same, there is a good chance that the velocity will be quite similar. By the way, certain pellets will boost the pellet velocity by as much as 200 fps on the exact same gun. So read the fine print (examples below, highlighted in yellow).
Beeman RX2 (www.beeman.com)
Whisper Silent Cat
-Velocity: 1200 feet per second (fps) with PBA, 1000 fps with Lead
Walther Talon Magnum (www.umarexusa.com)
Velocity 1200 fps
The Walther Talon Magnum Air Rifle is a powerful pellet rifle
that features a robust spring piston break barrel mechanism for maximum
velocity with just one cock of the rifle. At an amazing 1200 feet per
second with a standard .177 caliber lead pellet and a zooming
1400 fps with a hyper velocity pellet
Article on Airgun Calibers (www.pyramydair.com)
The lowdown on the four most popular airgun calibers, plus a quick look at BBs
By Tom Gaylord
Exclusively for PyramydAir.com. Copyright ©2003. All Rights Reserved
There are four popular airgun calibers today–.177, .20 (also called 5mm), .22 and .25. In this article, we’ll look at each of those four calibers and see what it does best. We’ll also see how BBs differ from the four pellet calibers.
The four popular smallbore pellet calibers are, from left to right, .177, .20, .22 and .25.
The .177 caliber was probably created shortly after the start of the 20th century. It seems to have surfaced first in England, which was a hotbed of airgun development both then and now.
The advantage of .177 is a smaller pellet that uses less material–usually lead. It is widely used for general shooting and is the only caliber that can be used for bullseye target shooting anywhere in the world. The rules of all official shooting organizations mandate a .177 caliber gun for both pistol and rifle competition.
Because of this, the popular misconception is that the .177 is somehow more accurate than the other three calibers. This is not strictly true, but since all target guns are made in this caliber only, a lot of .177 guns ARE, in fact, more accurate than guns in other calibers. There have been .22 caliber target airguns made in the past in England, Germany, America and perhaps other countries, but today the only target guns made are .177.
The sport of field target is one competitive shooting sport in which a .177 places the shooter at a distinct advantage. The shooter must shoot a pellet through a small hole in a steel target to hit a paddle, knocking down the target and registering a hit. If the pellet touches the side of the hole, there’s a good chance the target won’t fall and no point will be awarded. The kill-zone holes range from 1/4″ to 2″ in diameter, but the smaller holes are by far more common in a match. So, the smaller size of the .177 pellet makes it the statistically superior choice in this sport.
A problem .177 pellets have is that their light weight allows them to go faster than the larger sizes. Once the speed of the pellet approaches the speed of sound (a variable speed of approximately 1,100 f.p.s. at sea level), the accuracy suffers. For powerful air rifles, shooters must select the heaviest pellets in .177 to keep the velocity down.
Sometimes, guns come in both .177 and .22 calibers. Which should you get? Well, consider this. Any given gun will shoot faster in .177 than in .22, if all things are equal. That same gun will hit about 20 percent harder (have more energy) in .22. The .177 pellets tend to be less expensive than .22 pellets, plus there are often more of them in a box. The .22 pellet is larger and some people find it easier to load than the smaller .177.
One final thought. The .177 caliber is by far the most popular today and will be the easiest pellet to find in a store.
Did you notice at the start of this article that the .20 caliber is the only one also designated by its metric size? While all pellets are marked with both their English and metric sizes today, the .20 caliber was actually created that way from the start.
Sheridan introduced the .20 caliber pellet to the world in 1947. Even then they also referred to it as a 5mm.
In 1947, Ed Wackerhagen designed a multi-pump pneumatic air rifle that he called the Sheridan. He found commercial airgun ammunition of the time too inaccurate to work well in his rifle, so he created a proprietary caliber–the .20. Of course, this also meant that his company had to supply all ammunition. While that sounds like a good way to make more money, it can also backfire and destroy the entire marketing plan. If shooters feel they may not be able to purchase an odd-sized caliber in the future (consider the Remington 5mm rimfire that can now cost a dollar a round), they might not buy the gun.
The .20 caliber/5mm got off to a somewhat tenuous start, but Sheridan remained in production and by the mid-1970s, nobody gave it much thought. However, no other airguns were made in that caliber until Robert Beeman requested Feinwerkbau to make up five special model 124 rifles for his company. That project never went anywhere, but within a few more years Weihrauch, the German maker of all the Beeman R-series guns, began making 5mm guns. The market blossomed from there.
America has been the leader in .20 caliber/5mm airguns, but Europe is producing more of them all the time. The pellet makers are also making more designs of pellets in this caliber. There are still fewer choices in .20 caliber than in .177 and .22, but the gap is narrowing.
Many shooters consider .20 caliber to be a good compromise between .177 and .22. Robert Beeman promoted it that way in his catalogs for many years. Actually, .20 is a little closer to .22 than it is to .177 in terms of the cost of the pellets and pellet weight.
While some British ads promote the .20 as a long-range pellet that’s superior to the .22, they’re looking only at the very specific instance of Crosman Premier pellets in that ad. The .22 has a great number of pellets that are better for long-range shooting than any .20 caliber pellet, though there’s nothing wrong with shooting a .20 at a great distance.
Get a .20 caliber gun for general shooting and for hunting or pest elimination. The pellets cost about as much as .22 pellets, but there are fewer styles to choose from.
.22–the hunter’s choice
The .22 caliber pellet grew out of the .22 rimfire, which, at the start of the 20th century was the choice for most small shooting jobs such as pest elimination. But, a .22 caliber pellet is no longer the same diameter as a .22 rimfire bullet, nor will a rimfire barrel work well for pellets. The rimfire barrel is sized 0.222″ to 0.223″ across the grooves, while the airgun barrel is sized 0.217″ to 0.218″.
Twenty-two caliber was the most popular airgun caliber in America until the late 1960s. That’s why more airguns of that caliber exist among the vintage and antique guns made in this country. The .22 caliber pellet is definitely the choice of the hunter and pest eliminator. It hits harder and also transmits more of its energy to the target than the smaller .177. A .177 pellet traveling at high-velocity is small enough to pass completely through the body of a small animal, leaving no visible signs of trauma if a vital organ or bone is not hit. Even a chipmunk can be “acupunctured” in this way. Of course, the animal is in extreme pain, but since animals don’t act the same as humans, it appears to simply run off. Usually, it will die several days to weeks later, after suffering increasingly greater pain.
The same thing CAN happen with a .22 pellet, but, because of the larger size, it’s much less likely. Speaking of high velocity and hunting with pellet guns, let’s clear up a misconception. In firearms, a high velocity bullet does so much damage to its target that much smaller calibers can be used to hunt big game. This began with the introduction of the .220 Swift in 1935 and grew very popular through the promotion of Roy Weatherby.
But, pellets are not centerfire bullets. They don’t travel 3,000 f.p.s. and faster. Even at a top speed of 1,200 f.p.s., a pellet is going WAY too slow to have a similar hydraulic shock effect on game. So a “fast” pellet is of no advantage to a hunter unless it also carries a large amount of energy that it can successfully transfer to the animal. That’s why the .22 is the king of the hunting calibers.
As far as general shooting goes, the .22 caliber is just fine. The pellets do cost more than .177s and the velocities of the guns are usually slower, but a good shot will have no problem with a .22. It’s the second most popular airgun caliber.
The big .25
To many shooters, “Bigger is better.” So the .25 caliber has to be the best – right? Perhaps, but learn all the facts before making up your mind.
The quarter-inch bore is somewhat older than the .177. It existed in smoothbore airguns at the end of the 19th century, and BSA made it popular in 1906 with the first rifled smallbore air rifle to use .25 caliber. In those days, and on up until around the 1980s, all .25 caliber air rifles were low-powered and slow. Velocities were in the 300 to 400 f.p.s. range.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the emergence of powerful rifles made this caliber truly viable and brought it fully back to life. The funny thing is, some guns that OUGHT to be great in .25 caliber don’t fulfill their promise, and others that SHOULD be too puny to do well are surprisingly good! The RWS 48/52 is one of the most popular spring guns ever made. In .22 it is very powerful for a spring rifle, yet in .25 the power drops off a bit. On the other hand, the lightweight BSA Supersport Magnum, which is a delight in .177 and .22 and ought to be a dog in .25, seems to defy logic by also handling the big caliber well.
In the precharged rifles, .25 caliber doesn’t deliver much of an advantage. That’s because the new solid .22 pellets are already so heavy that there is no clear advantage for a .25. Yes, there are solid .25 pellets that are even heavier than the heaviest .22s, but they take away some velocity, which makes long-range shooting that much more difficult.
The Beeman P1 is considered a very powerful air pistol. Even so, at just six foot-pounds, it’s not powerful enough for small game hunting.
All we’ve talked about so far is air rifles. Where do the pistols fit in?
For starters, air pistols are MUCH less powerful than air rifles, as a rule. The magnum spring pistols top out at about 6 foot-pounds, while the rifles get up to the low 30s. In the precharged guns, air pistols in the four smallbore calibers we’re looking at get up to 12 or even 14 foot-pounds, but the rifles get up as high at 80 foot-pounds! There are a few specialty pistols made in the Orient that get 30 to 50 foot-pounds, but these airguns are as large and heavy as small carbines.
This difference in power between pistols and rifles makes .177 caliber almost the universal choice for an air pistol. When people ask about hunting with a pistol, we tell them that unless they have a 12 foot-pound pistol, they really shouldn’t hunt. Yes, it’s possible to kill certain pests like rats and mice with an air pistol, but it’s almost never a sporting choice for a hunter.
As long as you keep the power level in mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with owning and shooting a .20-, a .22- and even a .25-caliber air pistol. Just knowing about the big power difference between air pistols and air rifles will help you decide what to get.
Not all round balls are BBs. Shown from left to right: BB, .177 round ball, .22 round ball and .25 round ball.
BBs: Are they the same as .177?
No! The BB is smaller than .177. In fact, it’s a completely different caliber. When it was first created in 1886, a BB was a type of shotgun shot sized 0.180″ in diameter. Through the years, the size became smaller, until todays steel BB is 0.172″ to 0.173′.
Some airguns can shoot either BBs or pellets. What’s the deal there? The deal is that they’re designed with some kind of compromise bore that will not be damaged by steel BBs, yet a lead pellet can also be shot. These guns are seldom as accurate with either ammunition as regular pellet-only guns, though some of them do a pretty remarkable job at short ranges.
NEVER shoot steel BBs in a gun designed to shoot only pellets! Pellet gun barrels are softer, and the undersized steel BB will damage the rifling (if there is any) as it rattles down the bore. If the gun is smoothbore, there’s no rifling to ruin, but a .177 bore is still oversized and will give poor performance.
A good way to shoot round balls in a pellet gun is to use a round lead ball. These are sized the same as lead pellets and won’t harm your barrel. A few manufacturers make round balls in .177. .22 and .25.
The four main airgun calibers give you a lot of choice. You have to think about what you want to do with your airgun, then pick an appropriate pellet and try it out. Like anything else in life, the final answer to what’s the best caliber or best pellet lies with you. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand the most important fundamentals. But for survival use, a .22LR caliber rifle or pistol is oftentimes a better choice. A firearm such as a Ruger 10/22 rifle, weighs around 4-1/2 lb vs. an air rifle which can easily weigh more than 10 pounds. That 6-lbs of difference translates into a lot of .22LR ammunition. And, a .22LR firearm provides substantially greater range, is useful on larger game, and it can provide at least a minimal benefit for self-defense. If noise is the major consideration, or the selection of a gun that is less likely to kill someone, than an airgun is a good choice. But for most other purposes the .22 LR firearm is a better choice.