We’ve written this guide using our decades of experience shooting air guns of all shapes and sizes to help you to make an informed decision when you’re buying your next air rifle. Perhaps you’re just starting out and want to know the difference between a calibre and a springer – then this guide is for you. We hope that it helps, please do reach out to us with any suggestions or comments, we’re always keen for your feedback.

Types of Air Rifle

Though they all rely on compressed air to fire a projectile rather than gunpowder, air rifles have evolved over the years in many different designs and formats, the main ones being:

PCP Pre Charged Pneumatic Air Rifles

The most recent advancement in air rifle technology is the PCP which, as the name suggests, stores compressed air in a bottle or cylinder and releases it in controlled amounts to propel the pellet. PCP air rifles are charged either via a compressed air cylinder or a stirrup pump to a maximum pressure which varies across different brands and models. A pressure gauge or manometer indicates how much air remains in the bottle or cylinder. Some air rifles are fitted with a regulator which metes out a controlled amount of air at a specific pressure regardless of how much air remains in the bottle or cylinder. As a result, regulated air rifles are considered to be more consistently accurate across the fill pressure range. Shooters of non-regulated air rifles can notice a variance in accuracy at the higher and lower end of the rifle’s fill pressure, resulting in a ‘sweet-spot’ in the pressure range at which the rifle is most consistently accurate.

PCP Pre Charged Pneumatic Gun

Best suited to

Hunting

All forms of target shooting

Garden plinking

Advantages

Easier to shoot accurately

No recoil

Very quiet, especially with a silencer fitted

Magazine fed in many cases

Available in very high power where laws allow

Disadvantages

Need to be filled with compressed air every few hundred shots, or less

Reliance on ‘o’ rings means they can leak air, often requiring the attention of a gun smith to put right

Spring Powered Air Rifles

As the name implies, spring-powered air rifles, also referred to as ‘springers’, rely on a coiled spring which is compressed by the cocking action. When the trigger is pulled and the spring decompressed, it pushes air contained in a chamber in front of it which forces the pellet through the breech and down the barrel. Several designs have evolved over the years to compress the spring. The most common is the break barrel; the barrel breaks on a hinge at the breech and by pulling it down, the spring is compressed. Once the internal mechanism catches the spring, a pellet is placed in the barrel which is then returned to its usual position. To perform with acceptable levels of accuracy, the barrel must lock securely and be fully aligned once returned. Any looseness will result in air escaping with the result that accuracy and power delivery is compromised. Spring rifles that use a separate lever underneath the rifle (underlevers), or to the side (sidelevers) to cock the spring have the advantage of the barrel and air chamber being a single unit. Pellets are usually installed either via a sliding hatch at the top of the action or via turn a tap mechanism to access the breach. Unlike PCP air rifles that have virtually no recoil, spring rifles are affected by the release of the main spring which typically will bounce forwards and back several times before the pellet even leaves the end of the barrel. Shooting them accurately requires more technique and practice.

Spring Powered Air Rifle

Best suited to

Hunting

Springer class target/competition shooting

Garden plinking

Advantages

No reliance on compressed air supply

Simple engineering means relatively low maintenance and high reliability

Disadvantages

Harder to shoot accurately than a PCP, requiring practice and proper technique

Louder than a PCP, even when fitted with a silencer

Small recoil. Also makes difficult to use with a bipod

Young and smaller shooters can struggle to cock

Gas Ram Air Rifles

Gas ram rifles are similar in appearance to spring powered rifles. However, they differ in that they do not contain a main spring. Instead, the cocking action compressed a sealed gas chamber which, when released by pulling the trigger, expands and expels the pellet. There is little in terms of difference in performance. Some people maintain that gas ram rifles are harsher than spring powered air rifles. Though in truth there are harsh spring power rifles just as there are smooth gas rams. Others will point to the fact that as long as they don’t leak, they require less maintenance.

Gas Ram Air Rifle

Best suited to

Hunting

Informal target shooting

Garden plinking

Advantages

No reliance on compressed air supply

Low maintenance and high reliability

Disadvantages

Harder to shoot accurately than a PCP, requiring practice and proper technique

Some models recoil more than springers, making them difficult to use with a bipod

Louder than a PCP, even when fitted with a silencer

Young and smaller shooters can struggle to cock

CO2 Air Rifles and Pistols

Unlike other air rifles that compress air, Co2 rifle use small canisters of compressed Co2. Typically the canisters – either 88g bottles or smaller 12g bottles that are some used two at a time – are inserted into the rifle’s chamber and then pieced when the cylinder cap is screwed back on. The Co2 that is released is stored under pressure in the cylinder and meted out for each shot. Unlike air rifles that use air, Co2 rifles are affected by weather conditions and will shoot less powerfully in cold conditions and provide fewer shots per canister. In addition, the performance of Co2 rifles will drop off sharply as the level of co2 dissipates.

CO2 Pistol

Best suited to

Garden plinking

Informal target shooting

Close quarter small vermin control

Advantages

Quiet, especially with a silencer

Generally lower powered which makes them ideal for use in gardens and small areas

Less complicated design compared to PCPs

Co2 cannisters are cheap

Easy to use

Disadvantages

Need a supply of Co2 cannisters

Variable power output depending on weather

Generally lower powered than other air rifles

Air Rifle Calibre

The debate as to which calibre is best has existed almost as long as there have been air rifles and each has its own characteristics. In truth, any time spent pondering which is better for hunting or target shooting is probably better used working on shooting technique. Trajectory – the loopy path pellets take when fired – is the airgun shooter’s constant challenge.

Air Rifle Pellets

.177 Calibre Air Rifles

Lighter and smaller .177 pellets will leave the barrel of a rifle much quicker than others calibres, and their trajectory is much flatter over comparable distances. However, being lighter, they are more prone to the effects of wind, and although not much benefit to target shooters, .177 pellets offer better penetration.

Generally speaking, target shooters prefer .177 because of the flatter path pellets take and the need for less hold over and hold under. Hunters tend to debate the merits of calibres more than most.

.20 Calibre Air Rifles

Many argue, with some justification, that .20 calibre pellets offer a happy medium between .177 and .22, offering a flatter trajectory that the bigger .22 pellet and more impact than the smaller .177. Some manufacturers offer rifles in .20, but often as a factory special order. The biggest challenge .20 shooters find is the limited choice and availability of pellets.

Larger and more uncommon pellets – .25, . 30 and even bigger are available, though again choice and availability is limited, and tend to be focused at high powered air rifles where laws and licensing allow. 

.22 Calibre Air Rifles

Compared with .177,  .22 pellets are heavier and slower from the muzzle. As a result, the trajectory is more pronounced and they are slightly more resistant to wind, though by no means immune. Knowing the extent to which pellets, be they .177 or .22, drop over different distances is vital for placing accurate shots. The amount needed to aim above a target to compensate for the distance a pellet will drop is known as hold over. Targets that are much closer than the distance to which a rifle and scope are zeroed will require the shooter to aim low, or hold under as the pellet will be rising. Advocates of .22 will point to greater impact of their preferred calibre, while .177 fans will value flatter, faster trajectory and greater penetration. In reality, kill zones on airgun suitable quarry are small and require a precise strike and once achieved, both .177 and .22 will be equally effective. 

Why Own an Air Rifle?

There are many reasons to own an air rifle as opposed to a shotgun or rimfire/centerfire rifle. The main one is that in many countries, they can be owned without a license. In addition, ammunition is cheaper than for any other kind of gun or rifle, and there are more opportunities to use them thanks to their relatively low power. With a suitable backstop and adequate precautions, many people use air rifles in their suburban gardens for example. Air rifles are also highly effective and cheap methods of pest control, especially in environments where a shotgun or any other form of rifle would be dangerous. Operating within national legal power limits, manufacturers have compensated for the lack of power compared to other guns by making air rifles incredibly accurate. 

shooting air rifle
hunting air rifle

Air Rifle UK Law

Separate laws exist in Scotland and Northern Ireland to England and Wales. The most up to date guidance is available from The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), and its Airgun Code of Practice in particular: https://basc.org.uk/codes-of-practice/air-rifles-code-of-practice/

Air Rifle USA Law

Laws vary by state in the USA. The Airgun Sporting Association (ASA) is a good source of information: https://airgunsporting.org/laws/ 

Air Rifle FAQs

Do you need a license for an air rifle? 

In England and Wales air rifles under 12 ft. lbs. do not require a license. More powerful air rifles require a Firearms Certificate (FAC). In Northern Ireland and Scotland, air rifles in excess of 0.7 ft. lbs require an FAC (Air Weapon Certificate in Scotland).

Do you need a license for a .22 air gun?

Licensing requirements for air rifles are determined by power output, not calibre. In Northern Ireland, all air rifles over 0.7 ft.lbs. must be licenced. In England and Wales a licence is not required for air rifles under 12 ft.lbs.

Where can I shoot my air rifle in UK? 

You can shoot an air rifle within the boundaries of your property or land you own as long as pellets do not leave those boundaries. You are also able to shoot on land upon which you have been given permission to shoot by the landowner.

What is an air rifle?

An air rifle is generally accepted as a rifle, or pistol, in which the method used to propel a projectile, usually a pellet, is the release of compressed air.