A lot of gun owners sort of shrug off the idea of owning an air rifle, since there are small caliber long guns that have similar characteristics to a pellet gun, but are an actual gun. However, both the power and utility of air rifles are underestimated.
Why an Air Rifle is a Great Addition
Air rifles are easy to purchase
Most firearms have a considerable price tag, even cheap ones, and all of them require a background check, which costs extra. Then, in recent years, some sporting goods stores have gone away from selling traditional firearms.
However, this isn’t the case with air rifles. Air rifles cost less, require little or no screening in order to purchase, and are available in most stores where sporting equipment is sold (a good gauge is to check for fishing equipment. Most places that sell fishing tackle sell air rifles).
So, the convenience of an air rifle starts at the point of purchase.
Air rifles are great for plinking
In addition to the low cost of the pellet gun itself, air rifle ammunition is super inexpensive. If you’re planning on going out and popping a few soda cans, you can do it for a fraction of the cost in ammunition compared to a gun.
Additionally, guns generally have to be shot at a shooting range, or in an area with a lot of space for safety (in some states where it’s allowed, the requirement for shooting on public lands is that you are at least a mile from ANY structure).
On the other hand, air rifles have no such restriction. While you absolutely must be sure that you’re shooting in a safe direction, and make sure there’s plenty of space for stray pellets, air rifles can be shot in most areas without breaking any laws. For most pellet guns, straw bales can be used as a target backer to stop pellets.
Since air rifle shooting is less restricted than shooting guns, it’s more convenient and easier to do more often. This brings us to the next point:
Air rifles are perfect for practicing marksmanship
Even though the firing mechanism is different, in terms of shooting skills, air rifles are essentially the same as cartridge rifles. The trigger press is the same. Sighting is the same. Safe handling procedures are the same.
This means that all the core fundamentals of marksmanship can be practiced on an air rifle, and they will translate to shooting regular rifles.
However, most pellet guns have reload procedures that are very different from any standard rifle, and most don’t have the sort of bolt mechanism that can exactly replicate the action of a bolt-action rifle. But, the only skills that can’t be learned and improved on an air rifle are reloading and working the bolt of a bolt-action rifle.
Pellet guns are a great learning platform for children, but they can also be a great tool for long-range shooters who want to consistently practice their breathing and trigger press without having to go out to the rifle range and spend money on rounds.
Air rifles are viable for small game hunting
Although some small caliber rifle rounds will do just as well, pellet guns make a legitimate hunting tool if you’re just looking to take down squirrels, rabbits, or small birds. A quality air rifle should be good for shots of 50 to 70 yards, which is plenty for small game hunting.
There are a couple caveats here:
- Shot placement is incredibly important when hunting with an air rifle. Practice your marksmanship before you start hunting, and try only to shoot at animals that are standing still. Unlike a bullet, a poorly placed air rifle pellet likely won’t kill the animal, so taking careless shots could be inhumane.
- Hunting with a .177 caliber pellet gun isn’t ideal, since these pellets are so small they often slip between organs and tissues without causing any real damage, just pain for the animal. For best results, a .20 caliber or larger is recommended.
All things considered, an air rifle can be a nice tool to take on camping trips, or keep with your survival kit to help teach children good hunting practices or add some longevity to your survival supplies.
So, if you’re considering picking up an air rifle for any reason, here’s a quick guide to help you pick out the right pellet gun for your needs.
Air rifle guide
In terms of specifications—muzzle velocity, barrel length, and so on—a lot of pellet guns are quite similar. However, there are some pretty significant operational differences when it comes to the different types of air rifles and how they function.
Types of Air Rifles
The difference between the types of air rifles has to do with how the pellet gun builds up enough pressure to propel the pellet out the barrel. There are three main types of air rifles:
- Pneumatic air rifles
- Spring powered air rifles
- CO2 powered air rifles
- PCP powered air rifles
The pressure building system of pneumatic air rifles is essentially a hand pump.There’s usually some sort of mechanism on the forend of the gun that the shooter pumps in order to pressurize the chamber for firing. Depending on the brand of rifle, it usually takes between 3 and 10 pumps to achieve the necessary pressure to fire.
While this system delivers a rather slow rate of fire, there are some advantages of pneumatic pellet guns:
- Muzzle velocity can be changed by changing the number of pumps applied.
- Muzzle velocity is very consistent given the same number of pumps.
- Very good for children and beginners.
- Can shoot both BBs and pellets.
As a general rule, pneumatic air rifles are powerful enough for small game hunting.
Unlike the name suggests, spring powered air rifles don’t use a spring to propel the pellet. The spring compresses the air in the chamber, which is used to fire the pellet. Spring powered pellet guns come in three variations:
- Side lever: side lever air rifles have a lever on the side of the gun that is pulled back to cock the spring compression mechanism. These are somewhat similar to a bolt action rifle.
- Underlever: on an underlever pellet gun, there’s a lever on the bottom of the barrel that is pulled back to cock the rifle and open the breach.
- Break barrel: a break barrel air rifle has barrel that hinges in front of the chamber. Between each shot, the barrel must be pulled down to cock the spring mechanism.
All three types of spring powered air rifles perform about the same. Aside from the ease of operation, there isn’t a clear winner when it comes to the performance of the three types of spring powered air rifles. In terms of operation, break barrel air rifles are the most complex to operate.
Whichever type of spring powered air rifle you get, these are the advantages you’ll find:
- Consistent muzzle velocity.
- Simple operation (even break barrel pellet guns aren’t much of a challenge, they just happen to be a bit more complex than the other two).
Spring powered air rifles are considered some of the best air rifles for hunting, since they offer consistent muzzle velocity, high power, and fairly fast follow up shots.
CO2 air rifles use a cartridge of compressed gas to fire the projectile. Unfortunately, the gas cartridges are punctured when they are loaded into the gun, and must be used up entirely, or else shooting charge is lost.
CO2 pellet guns are quite popular, because they have a few features that make them very fun:
- CO2 air rifles are semi-automatic. There’s no need to cock or pump the gun between shots (although many bolt action CO2 air rifles exist).
- On average a CO2 cartridge lasts for 50 shots.
- CO2 air rifles can be built to closely resemble actual guns, and can have a magazine to practice reloads.
These characteristics make CO2 rifles very nice for plinking. However, these bonuses do come with a couple drawbacks.
CO2 air rifles don’t have consistent muzzle velocity, since the pressure tends to drop unpredictably as the CO2 cartridge gets low on gas. Additionally, CO2 pellet guns come with the additional cost of buying CO2 cartridges, which can add up over time.
CO2 air rifles are fun, and are great for plinking and marksmanship practice, but are not so great for hunting, since the inconsistent muzzle velocity could lead to non-fatal hits, even with good shot placement.
PCP the newest method of propelling pellets, and is similar to CO2. However, PCP uses a refillable compressed air tank that can be recharged from a scuba tank, a hand pump, or an air compressor. Some PCP pellet guns can also accept CO2, as long as you have the right fittings to fill the canister.
PCP air rifles have several advantages over other types of air rifles:
- Capable of semi-automatic operation.
- More consistent pressure than CO2.
- No need for disposable gas cartridges.
- Can be very high powered.
The only drawback to PCP air rifles is that they’re often expensive. However, they are considered the some of the best air rifles for hunting because of their power and semi-automatic capability.
Air Rifle Calibers
Air rifles are small caliber, and typically come in one of four sizes:
- .177 caliber
- .20 caliber
- .22 caliber
- .25 caliber
The two most popular calibers are .177 and .22. As a general rule, higher calibers have heavier pellets. This means the larger calibers typically have lower muzzle velocities and shorter effective ranges.
Even though the larger caliber pellets travel a bit slower, they’re generally preferred for hunting, since the smallest calibers general don’t do enough damage to humanely put down even small game.
These are the best uses for the most popular calibers:
This is the smallest caliber, and generally has the highest muzzle velocity. However, the pellet is very light, and usually won’t cause enough damage for successful small game hunting.
.177 pellets a very cheap and easy to find at most sporting goods stores. This makes .177 caliber rifles ideal for plinking and practicing marksmanship fundamentals.
A note of safety: high velocity combined with light weight means these pellets will deflect very easily, so be sure you’ve got a clear area to shoot in.
.22 caliber pellets are considered the best all-around air rifle ammunition. The pellets are heavy enough for hunting, but still very cheap. Additionally, specialty pellets designed specifically for small game hunting are available.
This makes .22 pellet guns the most versatile, since they are capable of performing in almost any role you’d need an air rifle to fill.
Whatever you intend to use your air rifle for, air rifles are best when they have the right supporting hardware, since they’re lower on the performance scale by nature.
These are the best accessories to pair up with your air rifle once you get it:
- Air rifle scope
- Green gas
Even though you won’t be shooting tremendously far with an air rifle, you’ll usually be shooting at smaller targets, especially if you’re small game hunting. On top of that, shot placement is vital for hunting with an air rifle.
So it’s a really good idea to find the best air rifle scope for your rifle, even if you don’t plan on hunting, since it will help you squeeze the most performance out of your pellet gun.
A chronograph is handy for shooting of any kind, especially if you do your own reloading. However, a chronograph is super nice if you shoot air rifles. Here’s what you can use a chronograph for:
Diagnosing problems with your air rifle.
Finding the best type of pellet for your air rifle.
Checking the muzzle velocity of air rifles with adjustable pressure.
No matter what your primary use for your air rifle is, a chronograph is a great tool to have in your toolkit.
There are several types of gas for CO2 air rifles. Most of them are best in airsoft guns. However, green gas has benefits for CO2 pellet guns. Green gas has higher purity than most other gas types, but is a bit more expensive. But, this is what you get for the higher price:
More consistent muzzle velocity.
Cleaner rifle operation and better lubrication.
Overall, your CO2 air rifle will function just fine with standard CO2. But if you want a bit more velocity, range, and easier maintenance, green gas could be a good investment for you.
Now that you’ve got a good idea of the different types of rifles, and what you’ll need to get the best performance, it’s time to have a look at the best air rifles of 2018.
Best Air Rifle Reviews
No matter what your needs are, one of these pellet guns will work for you:
The Benjamin Marauder is easily the best PCP air rifle for the money. It comes standard with a ton of features. Also, the Marauder comes in synthetic stock and wood stock versions, so those who want a lighter rifle can throw down a few extra bucks to save some weight.
The most obvious thing is that the Marauder is a PCP powered air rifle with an adjustable gas system, so you can tune the muzzle velocity for your shooting context. What’s more, the Marauder is known for delivering consistent muzzle velocity, so it’s the best air rifle for hunting.
Then, there’s one more thing for hunters: versatility.
The Marauder comes in .22 and .25 caliber. It’s easily the best .22 caliber air rifle for hunting squirrels, rabbits, and other small game. And, since .25 caliber isn’t as popular, the Marauder is also in the running for the best .25 caliber air rifle overall.
Since shot placement is so important for hunting, it’s nice that the Marauder comes with an adjustable cheek rest, so you can get the most comfortable shooting position and the best sight picture.
Unfortunately, Benjamin doesn’t include sights on the Marauder, so you’ll need to add your own or purchase a good air rifle scope. To make up for the lack of sights, the trigger is a two-stage, adjustable match trigger, which helps make more accurate long range shots and practice core marksmanship fundamentals like your trigger press.
For ergonomics, the Marauder has a reversible bolt, so left-handers can use this pellet gun just as well as right-handers. The magazine holds 10 .22 caliber pellets, or 8 .25 caliber pellets, which is good for both hunting and marksmanship practice, since you’ll need to reload less often than with some other pellet guns.
A final note: you may also want to buy a female quick disconnect fitting so you can recharge the air system from any air compression souce. The Marauder gas system can also handle CO2 for more flexibility when it comes to filling up.
So, while the Marauder may not be the most powerful air rifle (that award goes to the Sumatra 2500), it comes in a close second. The power and versatility of the Marauder make it excellent as a dedicated small game hunting air rifle, or as a training platform for children or marksmen.
Ruger Blackhawk Combo Air Rifle
Most shooters know Ruger for their standard pistols and rifles. However, Ruger also has some solid offerings in the air rifle category, and the Ruger Blackhawk Combo Air Rifle is the best air rifle under 200 dollars right now.
The Blackhawk is a .177 caliber pellet gun, so it’s less than ideal for hunting.However, the muzzle velocity reaches 1200 feet per second with alloy pellets (1000 with lead pellets), so it’s got plenty of power for plinking and target shooting.
Ruger fitted the Blackhawk with fiber optic front and rear sights, and includes a 4x32 air rifle scope and mounting rings in the package. So, although .177 is a bit small for hunting, the Blackhawk has all the necessary hardware to place shots well enough to hunt small game with good marksmanship skills.
On the topic of marksmanship, the Blackhawk is a great platform for improving your long-range fundamentals. The scope and trigger are perfect for dialing in your trigger press and breathing. Additionally, the break barrel design is ideal for teaching children and beginners good gun handling and shooting skills. If you want to upgrade your pellet gun, the Blackhawk has dovetail grooves on top of the receiver for whatever optic you might want.
The Blackhawk comes standard with a synthetic stock, so the rifle is nice and light, which makes it easy to pack around in the woods or for children to carry.
However, the spring piston mechanism requires 30 pounds of pressure to pump, which might be difficult for younger children to work.
The Blackhawk is probably the best .177 air rifle and can’t be beaten as a training and plinking tool, especially priced the way it is. However, those looking for a dedicated hunting air rifle may want to look for a larger caliber in order to get the ballistics they need.
Crosman M4 Pneumatic Pump Air Rifle
The Crosman M4 Pneumatic Pump Air Rifle is one of the coolest air rifles on the market. It’s built to replicate the appearance and function of an M4, which gives it lots of aesthetic appeal. The best part is, that it features some of the customizability of an M4 as well.
The Crosman M4 has almost the exact lower receiver of an M4, so it’s actually quite handy for perfecting your grip and trigger control if you own an AR-15. On the upper half of the gun, the Crosman features front and rear sights, which are also the same as an M4. So, with the exception of the magazine, the Crosman M4 is an ideal AR-15 training platform for experienced shooters and beginners.
The stock is adjustable, which is nice, since it can be shortened for younger shooters with shorter arms. Additionally, there are a number of picatinny rail sections on the Crosman M4, so you can mount any lights, lasers, or optics that you want.
The magazine holds 5 .177 pellets, so all you have to do between each shot is pump the rifle up and chamber another pellet using the side-mounted cocking lever, rather than loading a pellet each time. This is handy for marksmanship practice and plinking since it maximizes how much shooting you can do during a shooting session.
Unfortunately, the Crosman M4 isn’t quite powerful enough to really be a good small game rifle. The muzzle velocity maxes out at about 600 feet per second, which is half of what some more powerful air rifles deliver.
On the upside, the Crosman M4 comes in at an outstanding price point, and its value as a training tool for transitioning to true AR-15 shooting shouldn’t be understated.
Marksman Beeman CO2 Air Rifle
The Marksman Beeman CO2 Air Rifle is a capable rifle designed for short range plinking and marksmanship practice, and comes with all the right hardware for those who plan to shoot from a bench.
The Beeman comes standard with bipods, which are perfect for benchrest shooting, and a synthetic stock with a thumb-hole design for a better cheek weld and more stable shots. The sights are adjustable, for more precision at longer ranges.
Since the Beeman is CO2 powered, it can replicate the bolt action of a standard rifle, since there’s no need to pump the rifle between shots. The trigger is also adjustable, adding to the feel of an actual bolt action rifle. All this makes the Beeman an ideal tool for teaching children and practicing bolt action marksmanship.
Additionally, the stock has a number of picatinny rail sections so you can mount any accessories you want, which is nice since the Beeman doesn’t come with any optics.
The Beeman maxes out at 650 feet per second with .177 caliber pellets, so it’s not ideal for small game hunting. However, the price point is perfect for those looking for a good training platform to improve their long range shooting with their true bolt guns or help teach kids about long range shooting.
Crosman Fire Nitro Piston Air Rifle
The Crosman Fire Nitro Piston Air Rifle comes in an amazing value package, and is quite possibly the best nitro piston air rifle you can get for the money.
Since it’s a nitro piston air rifle, it’s quite powerful, and hits 1200 feet per second with alloy ammunition. Additionally, it comes standard with a lightweight synthetic stock, so it’s easy for kids to handle.
Given that it’s a .177 caliber rifle, it’s smart that Crosman included some hardware designed to maximize your ability to get perfect shot placement. The barrel is rifled steel, and the Fire Nitro comes with a 4x32 air rifle scope. So, even though the pellet might not be that powerful, you can achieve the accuracy you’d need to hunt small game.
To add even more accuracy, the trigger is two-stage and adjustable, so you can get the most precise trigger press possible. Even though this air rifle is viable for hunting, it really shines as a training platform for beginners and those looking to fine tune their marksmanship.
Although the Nitro Fire is a great deal, the price does come at a cost. There are no iron sights included and no mounting points for iron sights if you want them. So the Nitro Fire is an optic only rifle. For those looking to learn to use a scope or work on their long-range steadiness, the Nitro Fire is a killer bargain.
Crosman Fire Nitro Piston Air Rifle
The Gamo Swarm Maxxim Air Rifle is unique because it features an integrated suppressor, which makes it incredibly quiet. However, the durability features have led many to call this the best Gamo air rifle available.
The Swarm comes with three main durability features:
- Inert gas system
- Polymer jacketed barrel
- Recoil reduction rail
The inert gas system reduces vibration when the rifle is fired and improves the longevity and consistency of the rifle. The polymer jacket prevents corrosion on the barrel. Lastly, the recoil reduction rail keeps the scope in good shape. All this means is that the Swarm air rifle will last for many years, and provide maximum return on your investment.
In addition to the durability features, the Swarm also has an adjustable two-stage trigger, with independent adjustments for each of the two stages, and includes a 3-9x40 scope. So the Swarm delivers a lot of precision and durability.
The only real drawback to this rifle is the muzzle velocity. With .22 caliber ammunition, the Swarm only reaches 975 feet per second, which is respectable, but slightly lower than some other break barrel air rifles in this price range.
Overall, the Swarm is a very affordable rifle, that will last for many years of hunting, plinking, or marksmanship practice.
Best PCP Air Rifle
Most people will find that a gas piston, spring piston, or PCP air rifle meets all their needs, whether they’re using it for training or hunting. CO2 air rifles are fun for plinking, but the benefits of CO2 pale in comparison to PCP air rifles. However, a CO2 air rifle is a low cost alternative to a PCP rifle for those who want semi-automatic operation without paying too much.
Best Break Barrel Air Rifle
Ruger blackhawk combo air rifle
For marksmanship training, plinking, and teaching children to shoot, the Ruger Blackhawk Combo Air Rifle is the best value air rifle you can get.
So grab an air rifle, and head out for some quality shooting time!