Truth About Air Rifles: 4 Guns You Can Actually Shoot

Photo by Dan Saelinger

Not everything you know about pellet guns is wrong. Just most of it. Take the new crop of lightning-fast (up to 1600 fps) .177-calibers at your local big-box store. Gotta be crazy-good, right? Wrong. Most of them are lousy—hard to cock, loud, and the absolute hardest guns to shoot accurately.

That’s not my opinion, by the way, but that of noted authority Tom Gaylord, air-gun designer, 50-year enthusiast, and blogger with, a source for all things air-gunny. As Gaylord recently explained to me, air guns operate in a parallel universe to other guns. And very different rules apply.

For example, if you fire 7-grain and 14-grain pellets from identical air guns simultaneously, it is likely that the heavier pellet will overtake the lighter one at 30 or 40 yards. Why? Air resistance. Because air-gun pellets are so light, they have little momentum. And air resistance increases with the cube of a pellet’s speed, which means doubling the speed increases air resistance eightfold.

Also, as a pellet approaches the sound barrier (1080 fps at sea level at 32 degrees), the air around it becomes very turbulent. More turbulence means less accuracy. Breaking the sound barrier makes pellets fly like teal, not projectiles. Serious air-gunners like to stay at 900 fps or below. Olympic shooters’ $4,000 guns push pellets at a leisurely 560 fps.

And here’s another thing: The reason why most, if not all, of the guns at your big-box store come in .177 is because most municipalities consider anything over .18 caliber to be a firearm, and staying below that threshold makes for less paperwork. But their light, fast pellets are hard to shoot straight. Plus, .177s are typically spring-piston guns, which generate two kinds of recoil—backward (when the spring releases) and forward (when the piston slams into the wall of the compression chamber). Which is why many air guns jump around like squirrels on Red Bull.

So what do you need to shoot one of these guns accurately? First, you need to let all that recoil happen with something called the artillery hold, which involves simply holding the gun loosely and letting it “float” in your hands while maintaining your aim.* Next, when the pellets that came with the gun don’t group, you need to buy an assortment of heavier ones to see which your gun likes. And, of course, you need the right gun. I spent weeks shooting a variety of ammo at an array of targets (including some live ones) to learn what four top models could do on the range and in the field. Here they are, from least to most expensive.

1. Air Venturi Bronco

The Bronco is too slow for hunting. But it’s an awesome value as a target gun, with a crisp 2-pound, two-stage trigger. Easy to cock (only 18 pounds of force required) and relatively quiet, the Bronco has a reputation for short-range accuracy. Once I found what it liked (10.65-grain H&N Baracuda Match ammo), and after topping it with a $40 Tech Force 4x32 scope, even I could put five shots in a nickel at 10 meters. A skilled air-gun shooter could do way better.

Hits The trigger is superb. You also get a well-made wood stock, quality sights, and an automatic safety.

Misses Some users think the stock is unlovely. Big deal. It's not powerful enough for game.

Who Should Buy The budget-minded plinker who is serious about keeping his skills sharp without alarming the neighbors. $130;

Specs - .177 caliber - Break-barrel, spring-piston single-shot - 6.5 lb. - Up to 600 fps - Adjustable open sights with 11mm dovetail for scope

2. Benjamin Trail NP XL1500

NP stands for nitro-piston, which replaces the usual steel spring with a ­nitrogen-​filled gas ram, reducing noise and recoil. The 1500 refers to its reputed velocity using “unleaded” pellets, which you don’t want. With heavier lead pellets, you’ve got yourself a shooter. The gun features a bull barrel and an ambidextrous thumbhole stock. It takes some muscle to cock but has won legions of fans for its accuracy and power on small game. I got my best groups (five shots inside a nickel at 25 yards) with 10.5-grain Crosman Premier Ultra Magnum pellets. The trigger is set at a firm 3.4 pounds.

Hits Powerful enough for squirrels and pests.

Misses At almost 10 pounds with scope, it's a beast. The safety is not automatic, so be careful.

Who Should Buy Definitely not for kids, this high-performance gun is perfect for the plinker who also wants to hunt small game. $335;

Specs - .177 caliber - Break-barrel, nitro-piston single-shot - 8.5 lb. without scope - Up to 1500 fps - Picatinny rail - CenterPoint 3–9x40mm AO scope

3. RWS Model 48

Serious air-gunners love this gun—but then, serious air-gunners also love to tinker. After hundreds of rounds, I'm still haunted by the sense that I've just begun to tap its true capabilities. The 48 cocks via a side lever, which makes for significantly less movement than a break-barrel mechanism, a real plus when hunting squirrels. The superb TO6 trigger is fully adjustable. After a lot of shooting, and some tinkering, I got 1-inch groups at 30 yards using 14.3-grain Crosman Premiers. $450;

Hits Handsome and well balanced, it has plenty of power for small game and varmints.

Misses These guns are infamous both for their downward-slanting barrels and for their abysmal scope mounts. I ultimately had to shim my scope.

Who Should Buy The air-gun geek who doesn't want to break the bank but is willing to put in the time to exploit this gun's impressive capabilities.

Specs - .22 caliber - Side-lever, spring-piston ­single-​shot - 8.5 lb. - Up to 900 fps - Adjustable open sights with 11mm dovetail for scope

4. Benjamin Marauder

I absolutely love this gun, best described as, oh, insane. Yes, it’s another Benjamin, but this one is made in America (not China, as is the Trail NP) and is a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air gun. You don’t cock this one. You fill its 215cc air reservoir to around 3,000 psi with a hand pump. Then you load pellets into the $15 aftermarket eight-round rotary magazine—and unleash holy hell, almost silently. Pfft. I topped mine with a CenterPoint 3–9x40mm scope ($80). My gun shot best at pressures between 1900 and 2300 psi, producing quarter-size groups with 27.8-grain Benjamin .25 ammo at 50 yards.

Hits Great two-stage, match trigger. On air-gun forums, owners brag about bagging bobcats.

Misses The magazine should be included, and it takes a while before it cycles smoothly.

Who Should Buy Anyone who can afford it. It's a serious hunting rifle for small game and varmints. $550;

Specs - .25 caliber - Bolt-action PCP - 8 lb. - Up to 900 fps - No sights, 11mm dovetail for scope