Shooting a well-tuned and quality air rifle is pure joy. And the good news is that there has been simply no better time than now to find the very best air rifle for your needs and budget. Indeed, while the basic principals of air rifles haven’t changed much, models today are generally far more powerful and accurate than those that were available to me when I was first “bitten” nearly 30 years ago.
If you already know which features are most important to you, then feel free to go straight to our 65+ model Comparison Guide, a unique comparison matrix that we’ve prepared in-house, which lays out key data on the best-selling and top rated rifles on amazon.com. Also take a look at our featured reviews, introduction to air rifle scopes, pellets, and other articles. If you’d like some more information before selecting your rifle, please check out our in-depth Buying Guide below!
Air Rifle Guide: Table of Contents:
Selecting The Best Caliber
Selecting The Best Power Plant
>>>>>>1) Precharged Pneumatic (“PCP”)
>>>>>>2) Multi-Pump Pneumatic
>>>>>>3) Single-stroke pneumatic
>>>Gas “Nitro” Piston Rifles
>>>CO2 – Powered Rifles
A Word About Velocity, Energy & Accuracy
>>>Foot-Pounds of Energy (“FPE”) – A Better Way
>>>FPE is More Important Than FPS For Determining a Rifle’s True Impact Power
>>>Very High FPS Scores Are Still A Good Indicator of Power
>>>Accuracy vs. Velocity
Selecting The Best Caliber
The internal diameter of your gun barrel determines what type of ammo can be fired, and each caliber has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Although rifles come in many different calibers, the most common are, from smallest to largest, .177, .20, .22, and .25 caliber rifles. Let’s explore each of these briefly so you can determine which is the best one for your purposes.
These are the most common and widely-available types. They also fire the smallest and most inexpensive pellets. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t respected. On the contrary, there are many features of this caliber that make it an ideal choice, especially for a newcomer to air rifles.
Among all of the calibers, .177 rifles are unquestionably the standard for domestic and international professional target shooting, which make them them among the most accurate of all air rifles. This is in large part due to the very flat trajectories of .177 pellets, which also give them very good accuracy at longer ranges.
In addition, with their small bores and lightweight ammo, these rifles can generally produce the highest muzzle velocities, with many commonly available .177 rifles capable of firing alloy pellets fast enough to break the sound barrier, which is approximately 1,100 feet-per-second (“FPS”). For instance, the Gamo Silent Stalker Whisper IGT, which is one of the coolest rifles we’ve seen lately, is also one of the fastest gas-piston air rifles, boasting velocities of up to 1,300 FPS with alloy pellets:
The .177 caliber rifle can also be very good for hunting small game as long as it’s suitably powered, although, as we discuss in more detail in our article on Hunting, the small size of this pellet makes it rather limited in what it can take down humanely. As a result, this caliber is generally believed to be better suited for taking birds and pests at closer range, rather than furred small game, especially at a distance. In fact, to the extent there is any disadvantages of this caliber at all, it would be that it is not the ideal caliber for more serious small game hunting.
Often praised by old-school air gunners as the ideal middle ground between .177 and .22 calibers, the .20 is a solid option for both target shooting and hunting because of its heavier pellet weight and ability to still retain a fairly flat trajectory compared to a .22. Nevertheless, these rifles – and their ammo – tend to be a bit harder to come by and more expensive when you do find them. However, the Stoeger Air Rifles X 20 Monte Carlo Style Synthetic Stock is a very affordable model that is very powerful, as it’s able to fire an alloy .20 caliber alloy pellet at blistering 1,200 FPS and a standard lead pellet at 1,000 FPS:
Although they can be good for target shooting as well as plinking, this is widely considered to be the ideal bore for all-around hunting and pest control, especially when pursuing furred small game (e.g., hunting jackrabbits, woodchucks, larger rodents, etc.). This is due to the .22 caliber’s larger pellet size, weight and resulting greater impact. Unlike a .177 pellet, whose small size and greater speed can often result in a shot going clean through the animal without killing or immediately incapacitating it, the .22 round transfers much more of its energy payload to the target and makes a bigger entry wound that can help take down game more effectively, cleanly and humanely.
Of course, with any caliber, accuracy is the most important variable to control in order to dispatch an animal without causing needles pain or suffering. And to be accurate with a .22 bore, a bit more practice may be necessary when engaging targets at longer ranges. This is due to the more arc-like trajectory of most .22 air guns compared to .177 models, which is caused by their relatively slower firing velocities (the longer the pellet remains in the air the more time for gravity to pull it down!). However, don’t make the common mistake of equating velocity (i.e., FPS) for knock-down power! Due to their greater momentum, better ballistics coefficient, and superior efficiency at using the force generated by a rifle’s compressed gas source, a .22 pellet always has more knock-down power compared to a .177, even if fired from the same exact gun.
Fortunately, next to the .177, this is easily the second most common caliber, which means that ammo is usually fairly prevalent, although .22 pellets are not as common or inexpensive as .177 pellets!
The Crosman Nitro Venom comes in a powerful .22 caliber that makes an outstanding hunting rifle:
If the .22 is a great for maximizing take-down power, then the .25 is even better for the same reasons! In fact, with its greater pellet size/weight, these guns are capable of tackling even bigger game, including things like raccoon and even coyote. Given their heavier ammo though, many of these rifles are powered with rather sophisticated and expensive “Pre-Charged Pneumatic” (“PCP”) systems that can often out of reach for many would-be air rifle owners. However, an outstanding example of .25 caliber PCP air rifle that is truly first-rate while remaining surprisingly affordable is the Benjamin Marauder:
Selecting The Best Air Rifle Power Plant
Like choosing the proper bore, picking the most suitable firing mechanism for your needs is vital towards maximizing your enjoyment. And again, with each type there are certain benefits and tradeoffs to consider, any one of which could be selling points or deal breakers depending on your intended use. Here are the the basic categories/subcategories of power plant types available and their respective pros & cons.
Most of the more powerful guns use compressed air, although they vary as to how and when the air is compressed and/or how it is stored. Here are the three basic kinds of compressed air power plants that are commonly available – the 1) Precharged Pneumatic; 2) Multi-Pump Pneumatic; and 3) Single-Stroke Pneumatic:
1) Precharged Pneumatic (“PCP”)
These power plants used pre-compressed air at pressures ranging from around 1,500 to over 3000 PSI to “charge” the rifle’s air chamber (which can be internal or some type of screw-on chamber). This pressure is attained either by using an external hand-pump or, more commonly, by connecting the gun/chamber to a scuba tank or some other similar high-pressure tank. PCP rifles are really the only type of more powerful air rifle that can shoot repeatedly on a single fill, since multi-pump and spring-cocking compressed air systems can only shoot once and then need to be re-charged. In addition, because they can store a lot of pressure, they tend to be the power plant of choice for maximizing the range and power needed for hunting medium to large game. Take for example the Sam Yang Big Bore 909S, which can fire a monster .45 caliber pellet up to 750 FPS!!:
- PROS: can generate lots of power for longer-range shooting; good for powering higher caliber pellets for larger game; some can shoot multiple times on a single fill; smooth transfer of power (virtually no recoil); convenient type to use once tank is filled.
- CONS: hand-pumps can be tiring and tedious to use, especially if higher PSI is desired; buying scuba tanks and other pressure-filling accessories can get expensive; PCP guns that can really take advantage of the higher PSI ranges tend to be expensive.
2) Multi-Pump Pneumatic
These are some of the most commonly available compressed air power plants, and the type that I most used growing up. These rifles work similarly to PCP models in terms of using pre-compressed air, but differ in the method by which the air is compressed – these rifles charge their internal air chambers by successive pumping, normally between 3 and 10 times depending on the make/model. They also differ from PCPs in that this compressed gas is normally good for only one shot.
Probably the best thing about multi-pump pneumatics is that you can vary fps by adjusting the number of pumps – a feature that is great when you are just plinking in the back yard and don’t need 1,000 fps to knock down a GI Joe figure. They also tend to be affordable and can still be very powerful when pumped to the maximum rating, making them good for entry-level enthusiasts and capable of surprisingly accurate and effective small game hunting as well. And like the PCP rifles, because they use compressed gas, there is little if any recoil, so they can be extremely accurate. Unfortunately, however, many of these low-end pump-type rifles are targeted for the “budget” market and are sometimes not designed with the same level of quality as other types. If you are looking for quality, always be wary of air rifles that can also shoot BBs (which normally means its uses a compromised barrel design)! Nevertheless, if you can find a high quality multi-pump pellet rifle, they can be powerful, extremely accurate and effective – take for example this timeless classic, the Benjamin 392 Bolt Action Variable Pump:
- PROS: usually affordable; can be very powerful at maximum pump rating; adjustable FPS; virtually no recoil.
- CONS: single shot; many models are of poorer quality; pumping several times after each shot for maximum power can be tiresome and results in significant delay between the next shot.
3) Single-stroke pneumatic
These are similar to the multi-pump models, but pumped only once. A good choice for younger users. Normally used for hand guns but also some rifles; the big downside of these rifles is their limited power – for example, this beautiful.177 cal. single-stroke Daisy Outdoor Products Mossy Oak Grizzly generates only about 350 FPS:
- PROS: quick and easy charging.
- CONS: far more limited power generation compared to multi-pump; generally not suitable for hunting. A decent rifle can attain only around 500 fps with a light .177 pellet.
Spring Piston Air Rifles (aka “Springers”) also use compressed air, but it’s not actually compressed before the trigger is pulled. They typically work by using a single-cocking lever to coil a heavy spring behind a piston toward the rear of the compression chamber that, when released, compresses the air ahead of the cylinder – and behind the pellet – which then forces the pellet outward at high velocity along with the jet of air. Because these pellet rifles use a spring to compress the air, they are affectionately referred to as “springers” by many airgun enthusiasts. Below is a beautiful illustration of a powerful 1,200 FPS .177 break barrel – the Crosman Remington Vantage.
The types of levers employed to actually cock the spring vary, but the most common types are break barrels and under levers/side levers. These guns are very convenient to use since they only need a single cocking. They are also usually among the most popular powerful air rifles on the market, often producing velocities of 1000 fps. However, because it takes a lot of force to coil the large springs in the more powerful rifles (around 30-40 pounds usually), they can sometimes be challenging to cock for users other than adult males. In addition, they tend to be louder than other types and generate substantial recoil compared to the pre-compressed models due to the vibrations caused by the large spring mass employed in these rifles.
- PROS: great power, usually affordable, one-motion cocking more convenient and faster than multi-pump, widely available in both .177 and .22 calibers.
- CONS: fires quite loudly; produces substantial recoil; cocking more powerful rifles can be difficult unless user is mature and able-bodied.
Gas “Nitro” Piston Rifles
These work like the springers but use nitrogen gas instead of the spring. These “gas rams” as they are sometimes called by the air gun community offer distinct improvements over the spring piston rifles and are growing rapidly in popularity. Because they lack the large spring mass of a spring rifle, they are much quieter, far easier to cock, and don’t suffer from as much recoil. Overall they simply feel smoother and easier to use when shooting, which is particularly helpful for newer shooters that may be startled by the loud sound and torque of a heavy spring uncoiling. And because nitrogen is relatively inert and far less sensitive to temperature than steel, a gas ram will not suffer from nearly as much reduced performance at very low temperatures.
If quieter, smoother operation, and less coking effort weren’t enough, perhaps one of thebiggest perks of gas piston rifles is that, unlike a spring, the gas piston can remain cocked indefinitely without losing power. A spring on the other hand, will very gradually start to “set” in the cocked position if held there for an extended period and ultimately lose power. This is a very important characteristic for hunters who may go several hours with a gun cocked and ready for firing.
And as far of delivering lots of power, no problem there – witness the Crosman Benjamin Trail NP XL 725, one of our favorite hunting rifles that can fire .25 caliber pellets up to 800 FPS!:
- PROS: smoother action, much quieter than a spring rifle, easier to cock, can remain cocked without loss of power; performs better at low temperatures; much less torque/recoil, which can facilitate greater accuracy.
- CONS: gas pistons are a closed system and cannot be as easily adjusted/fine-tuned like a spring can be by the average user.
CO2 – Powered Rifles
Although much more widely used for pistols, CO2 can and is used to some extent for pellet rifles, including as an alternative pressure source for some PCPs. CO2 is an inert, harmless gas that is advantageous in that it can be stored in a liquefied state in a small cartridge and can power multiple shots, therefore allowing for semi-automatic firing. However, the vapor pressure CO2 exerts is quite temperature dependent, so, on cold days (temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) velocity will slow significantly. And conversely, on very hot days, vapor pressure may elevate to the point that the firing mechanism seizes entirely. In addition, CO2 power is generally the most limited of all types, and cannot match the greater velocities of the other firing technologies outlined above. As a result, CO2 is best suited for target shooting or plinking, and most CO2 rifles should never be used to try to dispatch game/pests of any sort. Having said all that, however, there are some exceptions, like the ultra-powerful Hammerli 850 AirMagnum and this Winchester Model M 14 Semi-Automatic that can reach 700 FPS:
- PROS: one cartridge can power multiple single shots/semi-automatic firing; convenient and easy to us.
- CONS: buying/refilling CO2 cartridges/tanks can be tedious and get expensive over time; power is very limited compared to other types; velocity suffers at lower temperatures.
A Word About Velocity, Energy & Accuracy
Muzzle velocity – normally described as feet-per-second (“FPS”) – is clearly the most popular and traditional way air rifle manufacturers characterize power. Indeed, it only makes sense, since there is seemingly no end to our “need for speed,” whether it be the auto industry or pellet rifle world, especially for beginning enthusiasts. Further, since FPS is so widely used in promotional materials and product specification sheets, it is often impossible to not rely on FPS. But what’s the problem? The faster the pellet goes, the better, right? Well, not necessarily, and FPS values alone do not allow you to compare two guns’ power anyway. And to make things more confusing, manufacturers can and will manipulate FPS by reporting in different ways – including by chronograph (velocity) testing using extremely light alloy pellets (that may only be good for generating high FPS scores!) to inflate FPS. In any event, as a result of this type of reporting, many who buy a “super-powered” .177 rifles rated at 1300 FPS may be surprised to learn that it can generate only 900 FPS when using a properly-weighted pellet.
Foot-Pounds of Energy (“FPE”) – A Better Way
A much more accurate and consistent way to discuss a rifle’s true power is by talking in terms of muzzle kinetic energy – i.e., Joules, or here in the US, Foot-Pounds of Energy (“FPE” or ft-lbs). This is really the best way to compare the power output of any airgun or rifle. To determine FPE, you only need to know how fast a rifle propels a given pellet (FPS) and that pellet’s weight in grains.
So, you may still be thinking at this point – so why do I care about FPE? Isn’t faster still always better – isn’t it always more important to simply buy a rifle that shoots faster? The answer to that is no and no.
FPE is More Important Than FPS For Determining a Rifle’s True Impact Power
FPS standing alone is a poor or potentially misleading indicator of a rifle’s true power and value for hunting purposes. As we discussed in this article about Air Rifle Hunting, when looking to take down game, the aim is to maximize the kinetic energy transferred to the target – and as between a hypothetical .177 and .22 pellet shot from the exact same gun and powerplant, the faster .177 pellet will always carry less power to the target than the slower .22 pellet. It is because the .22 pellet in this scenario has more FPE.
For the sake of illustrating this a bit further, let’s see what happens when we rely solely on FPS. Imagine a lightweight 5.4-grain .177 PBA pellet is shot from a modern spring-piston air rifle that reaches 1,200 FPS. Based on the FPE calculator above, this equates to approximately 17.3 FPE. However, compare this with a rifle that fires a standard 14.3-grain .22 cal pellet at only 750 FPS – this results in 17.9 FPE – in other words, a much slower but still harder hit. Of course, either of these rifles would be sufficiently powered for small game hunting, but the .22 caliber rifle in this scenario would deliver more impact power.
Likewise, FPS between the same caliber rifles can also be deceptive. Again, take the same rifle that shoots a 5.4 alloy pellet at 1,200 FPS that results in17.3 FPE. But this time compare it with another .177 caliber rifle that is tested using a typical 7.9 grain lead pellet, which it fires at 992 FPS. The first rifle seems more powerful – but they both deliver the same FPE!
Very High FPS Scores Are Still A Good Indicator of Power
Having said all that, the very highest FPS readings, even if inflated, do of course mean something. Take for example the Gamo MRA Showstopper Shawn Michaels 1400 FPS. It’s rated at a whopping 1,400 FPS, which is clearly inflated due to testing using PBA Platinum pellets, which are only 4.7 grains. But when you put this into our calculator above, it still results in over 20 FPE at the muzzle – which equals one very powerful .177 caliber rifle from any perspective!!
Accuracy vs. Velocity
While it may sound cool (and it is, actually) to have a pellet rifle that can fire a lightweight pellet at supersonic speed – i.e., greater than the speed of sound (which is around 1,100 FPS), there is at least one thing you should keep in mind: accuracy. It’s widely accepted that a pellet rifle’s accuracy deteriorates rapidly upon reaching the speed of sound. But why?
Let’s say a pellet is fired from a rifle at around 1,200 FPS. As it comes out of the muzzle it is indeed traveling faster than the speed of sound, and just after exiting the barrel it will produce a loud cracking that signifies that the sound barrier has been broken. But unless you are firing at very close range, this is a bad sign for accuracy’s sake, because pellets decelerate quickly, and this supersonic flight is short lived. As a result, the sonic wave that was generated behind the pellet as it broke the sound barrier will soon catch up and overtake the slowing pellet, perturbing its flight trajectory and/or causing it to tumble. Although this may be insignificant when shooting beer cans/targets at close ranges in the back yard, for more serious target shooting or ensuring a humane kill when hunting in the field, it’s definitely enough to make you miss badly. This is why experienced shooters know to keep FPS at around 1,000 by using a heavier pellet on high-powered rifles precisely to avoid breaking the sound barrier.