Air rifle pellets sure have come a long way, although even the newest are lead or alloy variations on the classic “Diablo” form, with a relatively narrow “wasp” waist and broader head and skirt. This overall shaped has remained popular simply due to its favorable aerodynamic properties, which minimize drag and keep it flying straight without tumbling.
Just a word of caution on air rifle ammo – don’t go cheap! Buying poor-quality “bargain” pellets can at best result in horrible accuracy or at worst damage to your rifle! Compared to conventional fire arm owners, air rifle enthusiasts already benefit from the cheapest ammunition around – as such, it’s worth spending a few extra dollars on established brands of pellets that have been proven safe and high-performing.
The following are the more common types of air rifle pellets and their typical uses:
These pellets, such as this Crosman .177 Cal, 7.4 Grain Wadcutter, are designed for lower velocities and are traditionally used at very close ranges, primarily for target shooting competition as they cut a nice big hole in target paper. Consequently, you can be sure they are built for laser-accuracy at lower FPS. However, targets are not all that they’re good for. Due to their flat, wide heads, these are also very effective for close range (up to 25 yards) pest elimination, and are particularly good for using with high-powered .177 caliber rifles that tend to overpenetrate. Any pest unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of one of these is unlikely to run away.
Round-noses or domes are probably the most popular and best all around hunting, target shooting and plinking pellet type there is. And for good reason; with their fairly classic diablo shape, they combine remarkably good range, accuracy and hitting power. Moreover, they are fairly inexpensive to boot, even high-quality pellets, like these German-made Umarex Superdome Field Line Pellets.
Consequently, if there was just one type of pellet you could buy – a good round nose would be the one.
Hollowpoints are designed to expand and deform immediate upon hitting the target, thus maximizing impact rather than penatration. As you can guess these are a popular hunting pellet, but they are really only good for hunting at close ranges, as their light weight makes them bounce around too much in flight and decelerate too quickly to be used at any distance. Probably the best use for these is for maximizing take down power and mitigating the tendency of high-powered .177 caliber rifles to shoot right through game. Of course, it could and still may happen with these pellets, but any game animal unlucky enough to be struck through with one would be far less likely to make it back to a burrow! Hollowpoints tend to come in a classic dome shape but with a hole in the head, like this Crosman Premier .177 Cal, 7.9 Grain Hollowpoint.
The pointed pellet is the quintessential hunting pellet, designed for stable flight, distance, accuracy and achieving extra penetration thanks to its pointed head. It’s therefore unsurprising that many consider them to be the best choice for the serious air rifle hunter. Nevertheless, as with pellets generally, they are not necessarily the best choice depending on your quarry and rifle. For example, while greater penetration and range may be helpful for a slower .22 pellet, it is probably overkill for a very “hot” .177 caliber, especially at closer ranges, since these rifles tend to overpenetrate game anyway. As such, some are now produced in a somewhat hybrid wadcutter style, like this Crosman Destroyer (.177 cal.) 7.9 Grain Pointed Pellet, which is supposed to prevent overpenetration.
As you can guess from the name, these pellets are just a solid chunk of lead or lead alloy. The whole point with these pellets is to be as heavy as possible, which maximizes momentum during flight for range and also gives them lots and lots of downrange knock down power. For example, these H&N Rabbit Magnum II (.177 Cal) 15.74 Grain Pellets are heavier than your typical .22 pellet! Of course, such weight also slows down FPS dramatically, which could be a good thing if your rifle has lots and lots of FPE. In fact, if your rifle does not pack serious power, then these pellets are a waste of time and money. However, if you have a sizzling .117 cal. that is burning through everything in sight, then these puppies might give you the range and slap-down power of a .22 air rifle!
PBA (Performance Ballistic Alloy) Pellets
Whereas solid pellets are designed for maximum weight, PBAs, like this .177 Gamo Raptor PBA 5.4 Grain Pellet and even lighter PBA Platinum Pellets seek to minimize weight while retaining hardness. These non-lead pellets are most notable for wringing-out a rifle’s maximum FPS potential, and they do this well, typically adding between 20-30% or 200-300 more FPS to an otherwise 1,000 FPS rifle using lead pellets. As such, they have grown in popularity, but in our view they are only really useful for bringing up FPS on rifles that are low-powered or have borderline power. Given then detrimental effects to accuracy when any pellet breaks the sound barrier (~ 1,100 FPS) we can’t see the utility in going faster than this, except perhaps for certain close range shooting. At any rate, if your rifle is already powerful, you should probably be looking for a heavier pellet, rather than a lighter one.
A Word About Steel BBs & Darts
For any new airgun enthusiasts who may not know – darts are generally not suitable for and will destroy most rifled barrels. As such, they can only be shot from a smooth bore gun or rifles expressly identified as accepting these projectiles. In addition, even when they can be used, they should never be employed for hunting or pest elimination. In fact, we feel that darts are rather gimmicky, potentially unsafe items that are probably best just left alone altogether.
Although cheap and plentiful, like darts, steel BBs are only appropriate for smooth bore guns, and because of their very poor accuracy are just barely good enough for plinking, and should never be used on live animals of any kind. In addition, they are extremely prone to ricochet, so when safety is considered, they are often more trouble than they’re worth in our estimation.