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Should You Buy an Air Rifle for Survival?

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Many times through the years I have stumbled into prepper articles or discussions about the best firearms to have for SHTF. There are always different perspectives and I myself have shared my own opinions about what I think are the top 5 firearms every prepper should have. Naturally this assumes firearms are available to you legally and you don’t have any ethical problems with the thought of using them if needed for their intended purpose. Training in the proper use and safety of these firearms should go without saying.

But invariably, somewhere in the conversations about the best caliber or whether or not the AK is better than the AR, someone will bring up the concept of air rifles as an alternative to more traditional firearms. For many years I dismissed this advice out of hand because I assumed that anyone who thought it was a better idea to use an air rifle for survival was either anti-gun or had some element in their personal lives that prevented them from owning a firearm. A real gun instead of a toy…

I never really delved into this subject and it was a recent email from a reader of the Prepper Journal that prompted me to look into this topic further, if for no other reason than to fully state my opinion and let the world give me their thoughts on this subject.

Sam writes:

Mr. or Ms., (PH note: For the record Sam, I am a Mr., however I completely understand the ambiguity with the name Pat)

There are many that would like to make a bug out bag but can’t because they may be on a fixed income or in debt e.g. college students or retired. However, Harbor Freight Tools offers some free stuff using coupons that can be used to put in a bug out bag, and anyone can buy a good pack back at any second-hand store for $3 to use. I give Harbor Freight 5 stars for having up to 12 free things that can be used in a bug out bag.

Any prepper should be able to have a high power air rifle if they can’t afford a .22 or other if they chose to bugout so what is a good inexpensive air rifle that someone on a fixed income can buy to use in a SHTF or to bugout with? I would like to know what TPJ recommends or do a story so everyone can read.

First of all, thanks for the email Sam! I always appreciate good information, like the tip about Harbor Freight and for the question about the air rifles. So as I read the question from Sam, I think he (I assume this is a he and Sam is not short for Samantha. Damn both our gender confusing monikers!!!) is bringing up a couple of points. First, that a high-powered air rifle is a cheaper alternative to even a .22. The second is that this high-powered air rifle will be used in a SHTF/Bug Out scenario. I am sure there are other issues and I will try to address my thoughts around each in this article.

Why do so many people recommend an air rifle for survival?

Cost – Air rifles for survival seem to make sense to a lot of people for some very compelling reasons. Most air rifles do cost less than even the lowly .22 Rimfire rifle out there. You can get a brand new Ruger 10/22 Semiautomatic for between $250 and $350 depending on where you shop, but I have found sales on brand new, perfectly capable .22’s for much less. You can also find deals at gun shows that are even less than that. I picked up a perfectly good .22 at an auction for $100.

Air rifles come in a wide array of calibers just like regular firearms but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll stick with .177 calibers. That is the size most of us young kids grew up shooting in the back yard. Why not go up in size to .22, .30, .045 or even .50 caliber (yes they make .50 caliber air rifles)? For a couple of reasons; first off, in some locations; when you go over .18 caliber the local law enforcement usually considers that to be a “firearm”. Some locations regulate according to the muzzle velocity. For an air rifle to fly below this requirement you are looking at muzzle velocities generally below 500 feet per second in some areas. There are air rifles that are much higher power than that, like the Gamo Whisper Silent Cat Air Rifle which has a muzzle velocity of over 1200 FPS!, but if you are purchasing an air rifle that is viewed by law enforcement as a firearm, you are filling out paperwork just like you would have for a .22 so one advantage of the air rifle disappears. Additionally, the larger calibers go up in cost considerably and we are trying to stay on the more economical side here for Sam. I don’t consider the Benjamin Bulldog .357 which is arguably “high-power” and able to take down larger animals in contention for this article for the main reason that its cost is right about $1,000. Not ideal for the prepper on a fixed income.

1200 FPS with a scope for less than $140.

1200 FPS with a scope for less than $140.

Quiet Operation – Air rifles use compressed air generally or a spring mechanism in some cases but usually in both they are far quieter than a regular rifle. Some models like the Gamo above even have a suppressor included making them even more quiet. An air rifle, it would seem would allow you to hunt without making your presence known in a wider area and this could have great benefits to the average prepper who is trying to stay on the down low. You wouldn’t want everyone who is hungry and possibly starving themselves to hear a loud gunshot and lay in wait for you to come walking back to camp with your prize only to take it away from you.

No license/background check required (normally) – This goes back to my previous point above. As long as you aren’t going into the more powerful air rifles which demand higher muzzle velocity, there isn’t usually a background check for someone buying an air rifle. This could have advantages to people who due to their background may be prevented from legally purchasing firearms.

What is an air rifle good for?

So the first question comes back to do you need an air rifle for survival and to answer that question, I want to look at some things air rifles are good at. The first is hunting small game. By small game and in consideration of our caliber limitations that do not require licensing (with caveats) that means birds, squirrels, possibly rabbits and other animals in that size range. For someone living in a city that has an abundance of birds or rodents, an air rifle could make an excellent choice for a survival tool especially if that state doesn’t allow firearms of any kind or severely limits your ability to purchase them.

880 air rifle kit includes safety glasses, 4x15-millimeter scope with rings, 500 Daisy pellets, and 750 BBs - $60

880 air rifle kit includes safety glasses, 4×15-millimeter scope with rings, 500 Daisy pellets, and 750 BBs – $60

Air rifles are great to practice your shooting skills or to teach younger shooters the fundamentals without too much worry of accidents (“You’ll shoot your eye out kid.”). Shooting air rifles is a low-cost sport too because the pellets can be purchased for less than $5 for 250. You can purchase 2400 BB’s for that same price and as far as I know, the government isn’t stocking up on pellets and BB’s just yet.

Quiet operation is another non-trivial benefit of air rifles for survival situations as stated above. You don’t get too much quieter even with sound suppressors than air rifles.

What is an air rifle not good for?

Going back to the initial question about great air rifles for survival and in consideration of something that is cost-effective and doesn’t require licensing, what are the arguments against an air rifle? Do air rifles make a good bug out survival option? I don’t really think so in most cases for the following reasons.

Not good for long-range – This is subjective I know but most air rifles in the category we are talking about above aren’t going to be highly effective past 50 yards. Even at 50 yards, you will have drop on that pellet so you will need to know your weapon and compensate accordingly. Could you kill a rabbit past 50 yards with a pellet gun? Maybe and I know that some of this comes down to the skill of the shooter, but the weapon does have limitations. I think the rabbit would take off before the pellet reached it because sound travels faster than the average muzzle velocities we are talking about here, but again I am generalizing to some extent.

Not good for larger animals – You simply aren’t going to be killing larger animals with the lower caliber (cost-effective) air rifles. Could you shoot birds and squirrels all day and feed yourself? Sure you could, but what if birds and squirrels are few and far between? What if it’s winter time?

Velocity of up to 1,200 fps with PBA Raptor ammunition ; 4x32 air riflescope - $99

Velocity of up to 1,200 fps with PBA Raptor ammunition; 4×32 air rifle-scope – $99

Not acceptable for self-defense – Firearms for me, even more so in a SHTF scenario when I am forced to bug out are primarily for self-defense. This is the two-legged kind of predator I am talking about here and you aren’t going to defend yourself with a pellet gun. You might fool someone from a distance, but you would have to be extremely lucky and that luck would run out if you had to shoot at someone and all they heard was pftt.

Firing multiple rounds quickly – For shooting a single squirrel in a tree or a bunny sitting there next to your garden, single shots are fine in most cases. Most air rifles are single shot. You have to pump them or cock the charging handle after each shot. There are some manufacturers that have something resembling a magazine so you don’t have to reload, but you aren’t able to fire semi-automatic. Also, your velocity can decrease if you shoot too many shots too fast. Rapid fire isn’t recommended.

Air Supply dependent – Some models used compressed CO2 air cartridges. What if you run out of cartridges? Other models use a pump-action and I personally have witnessed these wear out over time and become less effective. That was with me shooting my air gun occasionally. If this air rifle is your main source of food, could the seals and parts wear out more quickly? Additionally, temperatures affect the air cartridges. Ideally, they are used in warmer temperatures, but not too warm or the cartridges can explode.

I do believe air guns have their place. I have one in my home, so I guess I would have to answer the question two ways. I wouldn’t ever choose an air gun as my go-to bug out firearm unless I had no other options whatsoever. Actually, if this truly was a SHTF scenario and I had no firearms, getting my hands on a weapon would be just about my first priority.

Do I think an air rifle for survival would be better than nothing? Yes, and there are some good models shown above, but I think even a .22 would be better and with some searching you can find a .22 rifle (maybe used) for about the same price as a good air rifle. At least you would have something more suitable for self-defense and taking larger animals.

Now its your turn. What do you think?

If you liked this article, please rate it.

  • EgbertThrockmorton1

    I do not advocate nor recommend an “air rifle” as a replacement for an actual firearm. .22LR caliber firearms are plentiful and well within the budgetary reach of just about ANY person on a “fixed income”. If you have family members/loved ones that are on a fixed income, then the “Gift of Preparedness” is probably in the works. Give them the resources or a real firearm with which to defend themselves and others within their personal sphere of influence.
    As for survival uses, and air rifle is a must for our family. We have several within our family unit and I can attest that the Umarex/Gamo rifles with “muzzle breaks” are indeed extremely quiet. Those were not available when I purchased our first two (RWS Diana models) and those are louder than ,.22LR “colibri” (primer loads-no powder) I’ve fired in the back yard. One can use the air rifles for vermin control(a must in grid down situations), harvesting small game as needed fairly quietly. So, I am all in favor of having at least one or more air rifles on hand for survival situations. Can also be used to sting feral dogs and keep them away from property perimeters and away from elderly loved ones and small children. Yes, it does work-have personally used it when camping on coyotes wanting to share the breakfast bacon.Never saw them again.
    Again, I cannot stress the “Gift of Preparedness” for someone on a fixed budget. best money you will ever spend for that loved one! You will not regret it. Barring that, then move your loved one into your home so they will be protected, loved and cared for far better than elsewhere. Prayers for all, things are fixing to get “interesting”.

    • Great points Egbert! I have tried to use my own air rifle to scare away deer in my yard to mixed results. Even with a pellet and pumping mine to the max repetitions, the deer I hit on the rear just looked at me. I would much rather have scared him away with some .270 right behind the front leg but we do what we can.

      • EgbertThrockmorton1

        LOVE the .270!

  • Bolofia

    Pat,
    An air rifle can certainly be a useful tool for pigeons, particularly if you don’t want to alarm your neighbors. However, given the choice between a .177 pellet and .22 caliber, I would rather knock off rats and birds with the .22 bird shot round. If hunting squirrels or rabbits, my choice would be the standard .22LR bullet. In a SHTF world, I can’t imagine using an air rifle for self defense – for all of the very valid reasons that you gave.

    • EgbertThrockmorton1

      I haven’t seen a single pigeon since moving to the state where we now reside. Magpies? Scads of them! Won’t eat them though. Have dispatched several rats with a ,177 air rifle and scope. Worked well.

      • Bolofia

        I mentioned pigeons only because they are edible, easy to hunt, can be brought down with a pellet, and are found in many communities across the country. In a post SHTF scenario, I doubt that I would be shooting at any bird or small game that I didn’t think was fit to eat.

        • northern raider

          Rabbit, Pigeon, Grouse, Pheasant even Turkey, Squirrel basically anything of that size that will fit in the cookpot can be taken with a decent air rifle silently and for less than a penny a shot.

    • That’s pretty much what I think Bolo so the stocks of .22 are deep and wide.

  • LWJ

    If I were planning on hunting small game, then I would like an air rifle. It is quiet and will not attract attention. However honestly a shotgun would be better alternative to a .22 caliber rifle.

    • Very true in terms of functionality, but not noise, right LWJ?

      • LWJ

        Yes the crack of a .22 LR being fired will give you away, which could be a bad thing. I really would not care to break noise discipline to shoot a rabbit. Call me a snob but I prefer to go big.

    • northern raider

      With my Air Arms s410 PCP the only noise you hear when hunting is the thwack of the pellet hitting the target, its almost completely silent.

  • northern raider

    My Air Arms S410 is a UK legal full power air rifle, 10 round magazine fed bolt action and with a full charge of air in its reservoir it can fire over 80 22grain 22 cal pellets, fitted with a moderator it is almost totally silent you can often take out 4 or 5 birds or rabbits before they realise they are being shot at.
    My BSA Meteor Mk 7 is a UK spec full power budget break barrel in 22 which is superb for putting pigeon, hare, rabbit, game birds, squirrel etc in the cook pot and is superb for vermin control.
    Look you can put meat on the table far cheaper with an air rifle a tin of high quality ammo of 500 rounds can be had for less that £10 ($12)
    No an air rifle cannot replace a fire arm in personal security issues, that’s a given, but I believe FEEDING YOUR FAMILY is likely to be the more dominant issue than Fighting a Gun Battle.
    If you want a very reliable bunny basher or squirrel killer for putting food on the plate or controlling vermin a good silent, reliable air rifle wins hands down.

    • Well long time no see Northern Raider! Nice to hear from you again.

      • northern raider

        Cheers Pat

  • northern raider

    Dunno exactly what is available in the US but there is a US company in AZ that stocks a lot of high quality European Air rifles. We in the UK have tools like the BSA Ultra Tactical which is a ten shot, synthetic stock full power PCO air carbine that is only 30 inches long. Bullpup stocks are getting very popular for shooting at bunnies, pigeons, etc even from inside a vehicle. You can buy take down air carbines like the Air Arms s410 TDR which is a great legal tool for bug out bags and expeditions. Many of my associates armouries always appear to have a 22LR rimfire bolt action or semi auto carbine AND and an air rifle ( Carbines are becoming massively popular over here)

  • caedus

    Save your money and just get a .22. If that $100 is what’s keeping you from getting one, then you need to cut some other spending long enough to save.

    I got a Mossberg 715T off of Gunbroker for about $200, with shipping AND FFL transfer fee. Added a $25 red dot scope, and it’s good enough for what I would use it for. They’ve had some bad reviews on jamming, I fixed mine by just adding a little superglue to the magazine spring, for some reason it was loose and wasn’t pushing the cartridges hard enough.

    Also, get it WITHOUT the expanding stock. You can just drill a small hole and add a keychain ring and convert it yourself as opposed to spending another $30+ bucks on it. They all come with the functionality, you’re just paying for the lever that you’ll rarely use.

  • RAPTOR555

    There is NO substitute for a firearm; PERIOD. An air rifle or pistol is great for killing mice and practicing sight alignment shooting in my back yard and nothing else. I consider them toys. I own an very good single-shot pellet pistol that I use for target practice at home in my back yard and it does that well but is not considered a weapon in my book. I can’t think of any other use for it.

    • northern raider

      on a bad day I can collect 6 or 7 rabbits, a dozen game birds etc all silently at ranged on average of 35 to 40 yards, at a cost of less than one penny a shot.
      In the UK air rifles can and do take out fair sized critters on a regular basis, don’t set aside air rifles besides there is no comparison between a little air pistol and full sized hunting air rifle.

    • tman

      There are plenty of more powerful air rifles. A .22 spring loaded rifle could easily kill small game with correct shot placement. I think it is likely that a year or two into shtf the deer and other large game is going to become scarce from over hunting.

  • NRP

    Should You Buy an Air Rifle for Survival?
    No.
    If you want one for game/pigeon-control/play/whatever before the SHTF, sure, after a SHTF, absolutely not. If your going to depend on an “air-riffle” to feed your family after a SHTF, your in deep crapo. You sure as heck better plan better than that.
    NRP

  • vince

    3 years ago I would have agreed that a .22 firearm would be a better choice, but not now. Finding .22 ammo is still impossible for most people to find at normal prices. So now I think an .22 air rifle is a much better choice, 1200-1500fps air rifles are about the same cost as a .22 rifle and you can actually find ammo for it.

    • caedus

      I think if you want .22, you’re going to have to spend the hiked price and be done with it. You can get 500 rounds for about 60 bucks. If you need more than 1000 or so rounds if SHTF, you’re going to have other issues.

      • vince

        But it isnt just the 1000 rounds you need for SHTF. You still need to practice on a regular basis, people still hunt squirrels, and people still enjoy shooting and teaching their kids to shoot. Like I said if it were 3 years ago I would agree with you, but not now. When you can get a pellet gun that has a higher muzzle velocity than a .22 firearm and no problems with finding ammo for it, buying a real .22 rifle now seems stupid.

        • caedus

          True, but a 22 can double as a self defense (although you have to be a great shot and probably fire multiple times), whereas a pellet gun is just going to piss someone off.

          22 is easy to come by, people just don’t want to pay the price for it. I’d rather just pay extra and be pissed off than to hope its going to drop a little.

          • vince

            Paying the high prices just keeps the shortage and high prices going. If no one buys the ammo at the ridiculous prices they are charging they will lower them.

  • William S

    Northern Raider has been completely on point with all of his comments on this story, and I think it bears repeating (and is something that Pat mentioned as well). An air rifle can be perfectly responsible and reasonable in a bug out scenario if the intent is not standing off marauders, but is instead for the purposes of taking small game. Sure a person might in their heart of hearts prefer to carry an M14, a Mossberg along with dual Sig 220’s in drop legs, but go ahead and hike like that for any appreciable time for any real distance and likely you will be shedding gear like crazy. For people who live in a city and may have to foot bail, an air rifle is exceedingly workable. Plus, the ammo is so small and light that you can carry huge amounts. Sure it would be great to upgrade when you got the chance, but the air rifle would work and is legal in nearly all locales in North America and most of Europe as well as Australia/New Zealand (depending on their moods at the moment). Conversely, in Africa and Asia I would just get an AK and call it a day.

  • Jack Veteran

    I think everyone should have a BB gun / air rifle for training, taking out pests, harvesting small game, etc., now and after SHTF. But more importantly is to stock up on BBs. You can get them from amazon at 6000 copper BBs for $8.50 with free shipping. I have about 100,000 stocked up and I think I don’t even have a tenth of what I want. Think of the long term potential of your kids/grandkids guarding the garden and harvesting critters trying to eat your food, the trading potential of giving BBs in trade for food post shtf. Every kid has a BB gun, but not many BBs. I’d never trade my real ammo, but BB’s could bring in a steady stream of income/food post SHTF, and a they’ll last forever, so if SHTF happens in 50 years, my decedents will still be able to use them.

  • Stephanie Johnson

    You can put a silencer on a .22 right ?

    • northern raider

      Yup and only spring air rifles it reduces the hypersonic noise levels substantially but unfortunately the whack of the spring and piston cannot be muted. BUT on a pump action air rifle or modern PCP ( precharged pneumatic) fitted with a silencer that are almost totally silent. my own Carbine fire 80 full power shots on one charge, I recharge in under 2 seconds from a cheap divers air bottle.

    • northern raider

      plus 22LR rimfire rifles using subsonic ammo and a silencer are also insanely quiet.

  • Randy Wilson

    This conversation has taken an interesting turn.

    In my opinion, there are many good uses for an air gun. Each of these uses centers around either bug-in or bug-out shelter situations. I’m a big fan of the viewpoint that every tool has its use. I see an air gun as I see a fishing kit. Tools for procuring food close to the homestead. I, nor any of my people would be allowed more than 200 yards from the homestead without a real firearm in a TEOTWAWKI situation. Carrying an air rifle as a primary tool for hunting would require at least a side arm, and a second person covering them with a legit defensive weapon, like a semi-auto rifle, shotgun, or centerfire hunting rifle (this one is a last resort, IMO). Even if you live 100 miles from the nearest neighbor, there is still a chance that you will run into someone. Carrying an air rifle as the only option equals a death sentence in my book.

    In a bug-out situation, I could not sleep with myself for letting a family member or friend walk into the Savage Frontier with an air rifle above the age of 6. Even if there is a shelter on the other end of the journey, the road to that shelter must be assumed to contain numerous perils where being properly armed to defend oneself and those under ones care, making legit defensive weapons mandatory, IMO.

    Walking around the woods AFTER with naught but an air rifle is, to me, akin to sitting on the side of a creek with a fishing pole in one hand and your other thumb stuck up your tail pipe. Why would anyone roll the dice of fate like that?

    ************************

    As for .22LR ammo, the conversation is somewhat amusing. The reality is that it is out there. No, its not $2.50 / 100 rounds like the old days. It will never be that cheap again, but I’ve found boxes of 525 rounds of Yellowjackets for $25 (one per customer). Only once, but it happened. I guess I’m confused as to why a person would choose to lament the $0.10 / round cost for basic .22LR ammo vs ensuring they have the tools they need when something catastrophic happens. Personally, my .22LR block has been checked. I started with a mixed brick of 20 year old Winchester white box and Yellowjackets, and built the inventory starting in 2013. It wasn’t like the old days, but nothing around us is like the old days anymore. I didn’t spend more than $0.12 / round on any of it, most of it at $0.10 / round.

    I fully understand the supply/demand implications of over spending on any specific ammo type, but when you have zero, and you need 500, and want 2500, you can either choose to face TEOTWAWKI with an air rifle, or you can spend a little lunch money getting what you are need and are comfortable with.

    The choice was clear to me.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Randy and I agree about the issues with Ammo procurement. Yes, it is more expensive than it used to be, but it is still for sale and I stock up when I can.

  • Michael Simpson

    I have always wanted a nice pellet rifle. Based on the recommendations of this article, I bought the silent cat. It’s a lot of fun! Thanks for the info!

    • Hope you enjoy it Michael! Let us know your experiences when you have put it through its paces.

  • tman

    One can buy an enough ammo for any teowatki situation with not a lot of money. Also if you buy a break-barrel spring rifle versus a pneumatic pump air gun the power and range is increased. This is also not just for a bug out bag, but if one has a bugout location where they cache supplies. I also have seen air rifle kill smaller hogs. While maybe not the most humane way (we are talking survival), it is still an option with a good shot. There is a place for air rifles, even if one wants to just use them with iron sights to sharpen accuracy for little to nothing in ammo cost.

    • Is a spring rifle really more powerful than a pneumatic?

      • tman

        In some cases yes. For the multi pump pneumatics, such as a basic daisy pellet gun the spring rifle is more powerful. I don’t have experience with the single stroke pneumatics. The pre-charged pneumatics that shoot the large caliber bullets would be a bad idea for shtf because you would have to either have a large supply of co2 or way to recharge the cylinders. This video is a good example of the power of some spring air rifles.
        https://youtu.be/ugyO7dcF1n8

  • hybred18

    I think air rifles have their place. I live in Chicago the only time I’m using a firearm is for self defense. Shooting a gun would attract allot of negative attention. If I needed to supplement our food supply there are literally thousands of pigeons squirrels and rabbits in my area and not allot of competition for them. Most people here wouldn’t be able to hit a live target or prepare their game for cooking if they did. A air rifle is nice and quiet. That being said I would have a proper weapon on me for the two legged predators.

  • Raunchy Randy

    So, i live in a country where firearms are prohibited, but it is allowed to buy, and own a rifle like the benjamin bulldog (including ammo) with no problem whatsoever. Money is not an issue… My question is, can I use that fun for self defense?