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Airguns for Preppers – a Primer & Practicalities

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Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from R. Ann Parris. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today.


There have been some recent articles and comment discussions about airguns. It’s awesome to see them evolving from the perception as solely a toy to potential tools within the preparedness crowd.

It’s my hope to explain some of the terminology that’s been used so people understand what might best suit their uses and avoid some of the feelings that can come from going to a retailer with unrealistic expectations or the wrong word. We’ve all been there with *that* clerk.

To that end, I put together a primer that explains some of the differences between BB and pellet guns, various types of airguns for preppers, and some resources for comparison charts and additional information.

Some practical applications for airguns follow if you can slog through the data.

Airgun options

First, there is a difference between a pellet gun and a BB gun – but they’re both airguns (so are airsoft guns).

Wait for it, this here is big:

BB guns shoot BBs – round balls like shot, readily available in steel and copper.

Pellet guns shoot pellets – generally pawn- or rook-shaped chunks of lead or alloy with a hollow cone at the rear.

Some airguns will fire both BBs and pellets, but the names are not interchangeable. That’s because the ammo has very different characteristics.

BB guns are for plinking. Pellet guns are designed for high accuracy and can offer hunting-level penetration.

BBs can regularly achieve at least slight increases in velocity over pellets, but they are less aerodynamic and offer less accuracy and decreased penetration due to the shape. The ball shape also lends a higher ricochet risk with BBs.

Pellets are designed to spiral on a tight trajectory. They come in a wide variety of nose types, just like firearm ammunition. As with firearm ammunition, the different nose shapes are tailored toward different functions.

Pellet quality really does affect accuracy. Happily, it’s usually a difference of $1-4 over 200+ pellets between the hum-drum can and the zingers.

You can find more information about pellet shapes and pellet weight here http://www.straightshooters.com/general-airgun-information.html and here http://www.straightshooters.com/pellet-head-shapes.html . Crossman also offers a primer about pellets and BBs here https://www.crosman.com/discover/airguns/airgun-ammunition .

BBs will strip out the rifling on an airgun that shoots both, so from a preparedness standpoint, some restraint is advisable there.

Action type matters

There are four basic types of airguns. In general order of power or velocity (there are always exceptions), they are: PCP (pre-charged pneumatic), break-action (spring or gas piston), variable- or multi-pump, and CO2.

Benjamin BTAP22SX Armada .22 PCP Rifle, Black

Benjamin BTAP22SX Armada .22 PCP Rifle, Black

PCP airguns use a pump or air compressor to build up pressure. They can reach very, very high velocities and there are platforms that offer multiple shots, but there is the drawback of the additional equipment – those pumps.

Because of the air tanks both PCP and CO2 airguns possess, sometimes even a single shot gun only requires opening the world’s tiniest bolt to insert the next pellet.

PCP’s tend to be pretty expensive. I don’t need a $400-$2,000 gun to bring home any kind of burger or roasts.

Gamo Silent Cat air rifle

Gamo Silent Cat air rifle

Break-action airguns use the leverage after breaking the barrel open to cock a piston. Next to PCP, these are typically the highest powered. They are my preferred pellet gun for hunting, but they do have drawbacks.

One drawback is the cocking effort. It may take 30+ pounds of pressure to cock a pellet gun that reaches 600-800+ feet per second (fps) in .22 or a 1000+ fps in .177 (generally accepted as hunting velocities).

That’s not something everybody can handle.

The second drawback, in comparison to some PCP and CO2-cartridge airguns, is that you only have that single shot before you need to re-cock the gun and reload.

There’s a new kid on the break-action market, the nitro piston. Instead of a spring, the piston assembly compresses nitrogen gas.

Without spring wear, it doesn’t need fired off, re-cocked and reloaded as often. You’ll still want to release it periodically (4-6 hours), but it’s a whole lot better when trying to keep track of what time you bagged that bunny.

The nitro-piston system is also even quieter than the old spring-operated break-action airguns. There’s a pvvnngg and a clack, instead of the bwwaannngggg-clunk.

880 Powerline Kit, Dark Brown/Black, 37.6 Inch

880 Powerline Kit, Dark Brown/Black, 37.6 Inch

Variable pump or multi-pump airguns usually generate pressure by having the forend pumped. The cocking effort gets harder as pressure builds.

One of the advantages to a variable-pump airgun is that it is variable. A child or new shooter can pump just once or twice while developing fundamentals, then as skill grows, maximizes the pumps to extend their range. However, it requires a lot of motion and time to reload – and arm strength.

Some multi-pump pellet guns can achieve hunting-level velocities, but many are not going to reach the velocities needed for hunting even the smallest animals at anything over 10-20 yards or so. Still, there are models under $75-100 that work well enough for crows and pests – many with the accuracy to get a head shot and ensure a clean kill.

Winchester 990004-402 Hunting Air Rifle

Winchester 990004-402 Hunting Air Rifle

CO2-operated airguns use a cartridge of compressed air to generate their power. One of the major advantages to this system is the ability to take multiple shots without reloading, or to reload just the ammo and continue to shoot.

CO2 pellet rifles and pistols usually don’t surpass the 400-600 fps range. That is too low to just barely enough for a .22 pellet for responsible, clean kills on targets like squirrels and rabbits. It’s not enough for a .177 caliber.

Many are only good for 20-50 shots at their highest velocity before they need a new cartridge. The power-loss slump is pretty steep after that. The cartridges can also slowly leak while the airgun sits unused, so it’s a good idea to lay on plenty of spares.

Why do caliber and velocity matter?

To get clean, humane kills that don’t require us tracking far, I need a projectile to both penetrate and deliver a forceful blow.

A .177 is going to travel faster, just like alloy. A .22 or lead pellet is going to travel slower out of the same platform, but because it’s larger and heavier, it can get away with a lower velocity to get a kill shot.

There are several resources that can help make a decision on a pellet gun for hunting.

PyramidAir breaks down velocity factors in the “How much power?” section of this page http://www.pyramydair.com/article/Airgun_Hunting_April_2012/83.

Stoeger has a chart about halfway down on this page http://usa.stoegerairguns.com/how-to-choose-an-airgun that compares its models by velocity and purpose among other things, and this page http://usa.stoegerairguns.com/airgun-hunting lists the distances various game and pests can be taken with its various models. Together, they offer a comparison of distance and game types by velocity and caliber.

***I am not in any way affiliated with Crossman, Stoeger, or any other website mentioned. Nor am I pushing a purchase from them – the charts allow you to find a best fit, then match an air rifle to the those specs while shopping around.

Airguns for Self-Defense?

No. Nor is my crossbow or muzzle loader – they take deer. As a training aid, however, airguns can excel.

Some of the CO2 BB guns, especially, very closely resemble the size, weight, sights, and operation mechanics of fairly common self- and home-defense firearms. Some of the similarities even extend to realistic magazine or speed clips that allow good reload practice.

The velocity limitations of CO2-operated airguns mean safe shooting ranges can be cheaply and easily erected in backyards and basements even for new shooters. (Always wear eye and ear protection.)

Buying and feeding an air-gun for actual follow-up-shot and draw-and-fire practice is both quieter and less expensive than even rim-fire shooting.

That means more practice is possible for more people.

Airguns for hunting

An airgun is more than a good starting point for non-rural dwellers, brand-new shooters, and beginning preppers on tight budgets. It can also be a great addition for longtime hunters.

It’s a regular tool for me.

Me? I’m a once-a-Marine combat correspondent who carried an M16, M9 and M4 on various deployments. I am an NRA range safety officer, private-club safety officer, and private-club new-shooter orientation instructor. I assist with several concealed-carry/wear-and-carry classes and act as range officer and assistant for a slew of classes and sporting events. I shoot a handful of disparate sports from Cowboy Action to modern sporter.

I’ll bet I’ve put more in the freezer using a 1000+ fps pellet gun and a shotgun than with my rimfire or centerfire guns.

I am a hunter – touching on 25 or 30 years in the fields and woods now. I’m the kind of hunter who bought a muzzle loader and a crossbow because not only do we get an early start on the season, in many states, we get extra tags.

I have all kinds of firearms for all kinds of purposes, because one size does not fit all. Airguns fill a fabulous niche for me.

I’ll bet I’ve put more in the freezer using a 1000+ fps pellet gun and a shotgun than with my rimfire or centerfire guns. Some of that is because I regularly carry a pellet gun again, even when I’m carrying something else as well.

When I was single and on my own but for dogs, I spent two years hunting almost all our meat. When you’re looking at more beans or breaking down and buying Big Ag chicken for the dogs, you learn to take what Mother Nature gives you.

At that time and again now, I usually have to travel some distance to find deer (unless the poor baby fruit trees are budding out).

But small game, now … they’re all over.

There’s an awful lot of game I’d have wasted down to toenails and fluff if all I’d had was a .357 and a .308 on me.

There’s also an awful lot of game that gets savvy pretty quick around us, and even a .22LR will send Bambi and Thumper racing for cover and staying tucked in during high season.

I have never lived somewhere – East Coast to Southwest, urban or ‘burbs or country – that the doves, crow, quail, pigeons, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, and prairie dogs did not greatly outnumber the pigs, deer, and bear. Should true need arise, I know waterways and I will add sitting rail, duck and geese to the first list.

That means I will most likely in the future – as I do now and did when I started – have more potential targets that can be taken with a pellet gun than those that require me to have a center-fire hunting platform.

(Do not wingshoot with a single projectile, ever, please.)

I have been able to take more animals without busting other game with an air rifle than I have with even a subsonic .22LR, and without other hunters knowing I was nearby until I started waving my hat (wildly – please know your target and beyond).

What does that mean?

I can spend more time out with a shotgun because I have to wait longer for the woods to settle again or travel further before a wait-and-listen. Or, I can bag several squirrels or birds in a shorter space of time with an air rifle, feed my family, and go do something else. Bonus: I can do it with less projectile damage to the meat.

I can do it at 20 and 50 yards, with a $75-125 pellet rifle. That’s not that much more limited than dove and rabbit shot, really, and about as far as I trust the accuracy and velocities of subsonic .22LR ammo.

Is an airgun for you?

Maybe not, but it might be.

If you think it is, and you want it for hunting, make sure to check those charts and get good reviews so your rifle matches your needs and desires. Invest in finding the best pellets for the airgun.

You might just be surprised how much quiet and small can put on the table while the big guns draw a blank or a one-off.

If you liked this article, please rate it.

  • R. Ann

    *That’s not me in the hunting picture. I’ve never owned something that expensive that didn’t have four wheels or a roof in my life (unless we apply the vet bills for pets, in which case, I have some really exclusive, high-end animals). 🙂 –Rebecca Ann

  • Juanita

    Perhaps I did it wrong. I meant to rate this article at 5. But when I attempted to do the rating, the link said the rating was 0/5. The article was very informative. it answered questions that I had. Many thanks.

    • R. Ann

      Thanks, Juanita. No worries on the rating. I’m glad it was useful to you – that’s the best rating on earth. – Rebecca Ann

    • I fixed it for you Juanita. Thanks for voting!

  • Bobcat-Prepper

    The only action air gun I would consider is the spring-driven. In a disaster situation, you are unlikely to have access to new PCP or CO2 cartridges. If stockpiled, how long could these cartridges maintain their pressure?

    I like the idea of air guns as an alternative hunting tool, as they are quieter and one could use them pre-SHTF without licenses, tags etc on small game.

    • Cruella DeVille

      Agreed.
      I purchased a Gamo Cat a while back to help solve a squirrel problem. With the included 4×32 scope I can put a pellet through the critters head at 30 yards, and hear it hit the trees 200 feet beyond.
      It would probably be usable on the small white tails, and smaller feral hogs we have around here as well.
      And at $6 for a 150 high performance pellets…

      • R. Ann

        Hi! I used a Gamo Cat for a while, too, and had no prob with the included scope, either. That was a while ago, but the gun reviews have stayed solid.
        I know we’re talking disaster potential, but there are shots I won’t take on Eastern whitetails with a .223 depending on the ammo and angles I have. I’ve also run into various animals with old wounds – healed or put-down tags/stamps – and having played alongside various game officers, there’s always the .22 points: poachers use them, effectually and ineffectually.
        One way you can test the distance and pellet combo ahead of time is to legally take with an appropriate slug or rifle, then start backing off taking shots with the air gun.
        I can’t think of anything bigger than a fox or beaver I’d try taking with a .177 (truly starving wipes the slate – granted) although I’d be willing to settle for a yeep on a yote if it was in progress at a coop or hutch or jug. A .22 or .25… *shrug* … times determine in situ.

        • BHill

          I’ve shot and killed lots of Eastern hill country white tails with 223.
          Never lost one.
          Most drop in their tracks if you do your part.
          Lethal medicine.

          • R. Ann

            Doing your part means ensuring you have the right ammo and angles, and understand the distances involved. Without a head shot (with the proper caliber and distance and proper placement) most deer do not drop in their tracks. I’ve been on ride-alongs where deer are spine shot and in agony and I’ve helped recover deer with their ears and the backs of their skulls blown off, with jaws blown off, and choking on bloody foam from a poor neck shot. Poor shot selection – or an animal that moved in the instant of trigger break – but in some cases, an expanding tip ammo, better angle, and sometimes a larger and more appropriate caliber would have saved them some agony.

            Since a lot of hunters learn and stick with lung and heart shots, particularly flanking and quartering (most of which are not a “drop in tracks” shot, although I think if a deer is running more than 20-50 yards, a hunter needs to do some self-assessment) and an awful lot of people only seriously stock up on ball and green tip 5.56, some consideration of the target and hunting platform – particularly regarding shot target, angle and ammo selection – is regularly merited.

            You also get a lot of gung ho types who’ve never actually been in combat and assume a “military” gun can surely take a dumb animal. They regularly don’t realize how commonly it takes more than one or two shots to make a human stop – and then there are the ones who don’t realize how much tougher deer are than humans.

            So, while I’ve taken deer with .223/5.56 (and an AR, even) there are a number of shots I will pass on depending on my angles and ammo. Given those chances, I’d rather have a K98 or .308 as a deer gun than a .223.

    • R. Ann

      Bobcat, I assume you already do, it’s for anybody else…

      PLEASE be aware of your local laws pre-disaster.
      There are places where you have to get pest control permissions/special licensing, and some where on your property you don’t have to get tags or licenses, or they’re free and it’s just 2 minutes of paperwork or online checking of buttons for small game (and sometimes deer and furbearers).
      Crows, some marsh birds, and doves fall into different categories in different states.
      Quail and pheasant require licenses and tags still, even on private, hunter-or-hunter’s-immediate-family property everywhere I’ve been, just like migratory waterfowl.

      States differ hugely in how they handle hunting and fishing, and sometimes there are additional restrictions with counties and with generalized zones within a state (highways have replaced rivers in some as divisions and sometimes it’s broken up into territories by county).

      Bobcat, back to you: 🙂
      If you get a chance, check out the Benj NP Trail pistol. Those gas-ram nitro pistons are my go-to now, although they need a serious crossbow or high-fps scope.

      It’s low for a .177, but it’s what I carry when I go out with a shotgun or centerfire rifle now and it does the job just fine (I live in heavy brush, but there were time in AZ it would have been awesome, too). Pops now carries one for finishing game and furbearers.

    • R. Ann

      I forgot to hit this — “If stockpiled, how long could these cartridges maintain their pressure?”
      Sorry.

      The CO2 cartridges get pierced when you insert them. How long they last in the gun itself is variable – 4-8 weeks, for some, depending on the quality of the seals. A dab of pellet gun oil around the seal after installation can extend that some.

      Unopened, rust-free, cartridges can last years and years. We’ve fired 5-6 y/o cartridges without any problems in my family. There are reports on various forums of cartridges 10-15 years old and even from the 80s that have been used without any problems.
      🙂

    • Apophasis

      PCP means precharged pneumatic. You pump them up with a hand pump, an electric pump, or charge them from a scuba tank. In SHTF, a PCP with a hand pump is a great tool, better than a firearm for getting small game sustainably, quietly. Benjamin Marauder and Hill pump, if you can afford them.

  • Chuck Findlay

    I have several air guns, my favorite are a Gamo rifle that fires a lead pellet at 1,000 fps and a Webley Alecto that fires one at 700 fps. Both (.177 cal.) are good for small game and pest control.

    Use to have a Beeman R1 but a divorce caused it to go away. It was expensive and a very good gun, but the Gamo (3-years old and works just like new) seems just as good and was 1/4 the cost. I don’t want China-made air rifles (Ruger Air-Hawk, Winchester-1,000 and many Beeman are made in China today) Gamo are maid in Spain, the Webley made in Turkey, Both are great guns.

    I think an air rifle is better as a survival gun as rifles are more powerful, but an air pistol is also good for SHTF as it’s easier to conceal if needed. The Webley is a wonderful gun, but at $300.00 US it’s not for everyone. It loves being taking out for an afternoon walk. I just need a holster for it. I also have a Crossman 1377 air pistol ($60.00 to $70.00) that is slow to reload (it needs 10-pumps to get to full power of 500 fps) and noisy when you pump it up. But for hunting game it is able to kill a squirrel at 20-yards with no problem. I’ve had the Crossman for 30-years and it helped train my son to shoot. And we both still enjoy using it. Guns seem to really scare people, but when we go camping and whip out the air guns they draw people over to give them a try. I camp at an out-of-the-way primitive camp ground and one time I was shooting the Webley and a Sheriff stopped by ( they patrol the campground as it’s remote) and just look at me for a min and then come over to talk and then he played with it for a bit and told me he “That’s a nice gun I need to get one.” I think he was concerned as it looks just like a 357 Mag Desert Eagle (it’s the same size and look of one.) It turned out he knew and works with my brother (also a Sheriff.)

    I must have 40,000 pellets that I have been buying for the last 30-years. I agree that for SHTF or just a way to shoot them inexpensively that CO2 or compressed air tanks are not the best choice.

    The Gamo is a single-pump and the Webley is pneumatic (not spring-piston) and works well. It takes 3-pumps to get full power.

    Another thing to take note of is that every bird on the planet is safe to eat and they think 30-feet up in a tree is safe. Even a low power Daisy Red Rider can kill one at 30-feet. And no there is not a lot of meat on a bird, but with an air rifle or pistol you could kill a lot of them in a few hours and feed yourself.

    One thing to take note of is when shooting up into a tree you need to aim below the target point, not above as most people think. When you aim up gravitional (sp?) pull is actually less not more. The gravitional footprint is smaller at a 45 deg up angle then it is shooting horizontal. It’s not a lot, but a bird and a pellet is small and it can cause you to miss.

  • NRP

    Great article, one of the best here on TPJ, thanks for the info, have been thinking on an Air for some time now….
    Thanks Again
    NRP

    • R. Ann

      Wow. Thanks. There have been some really awesome articles here on TPJ, so it’s a little strange to get looped in there by somebody. Make sure you check out the starvation-staving diet article and the series on “hiding your tracks” if you missed them – they’re two that immediately jump to mind as incredibly nice sources of direct-application and guideline-forming information.

  • R. Ann

    The news from the past week or so has provided really good examples of why we use the appropriate calibers and velocities to hunt. They’re airguns here, but it applies to shot shells and rifle calibers as well.

    Puppy – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/puppy-shot-18-times-bb-gun_us_56cd512ce4b0ec6725e473da – Survives 18 BBs, but would it without medical attention?

    Shepherd – https://www.yahoo.com/news/neighbor-admits-unintentionally-shooting-salma-023402037.html – Hit with a heart shot with a .177. Take away the justifiable dog fighting angle and make it a game animal. Responsibly, we’d have tracked an animal we fired on in a hunting situation (and been aiming), but how far without a blood trail? Would our game animal run or dive and die wasted? Also, how unlucky/lucky (and at what range and velocity) was it that the key deer-sized or coyote-sized animal didn’t get hit in a rib instead?

    Just things to consider, along with the fact that they’re not toys.
    🙂

    • BHill

      I think head shots are key!!!
      I’ve wounded some small game with excellent body shots early on and consequently learned from those mistakes. Ie
      Head shoot or bust.

  • Daniel Hirschberg

    Good Article. For an all-around gun that can handle anything from Squirrels to wild boar, and is post-apocalypse friendly, I stand STRONGLY behind the Airforce TalonP in .25 caliber. It is charged with a 3-stage hand pump, can accept a barrel shroud, (reduces noise to a mouse fart, from what was previously louder than a Ruger 10/22) and packs a ton of power. I am capable of hitting a pop can out to around 75 yards with it. For all possible reasons, look into this gun as a capable provider.

  • Apophasis

    If you can afford it, get a Benjamin Marauder, a decent scope, a good, rebuildable hand pump like the Hill Mark IV, (not the Benjamin pump!) and ten thousand high quality pellets, along with a chronograph. You’ll spend a bit over a grand, but it’s so worth it, and actually a pretty reasonable value if you shoot it a lot, not to mention a lot of fun. The Marauder is the best cheapest PCP repeater out there, very quiet and very accurate, especially once tuned. You’ll have to choose between .177, .22, and .25 caliber, or maybe buy more than one, if you’re feeling rich; the .177 is super quiet and cheapest to shoot, but least powerful, while the .25 is louder, more expensive to buy and to shoot, and better for larger game. The .22 may be ideal, had early accuracy problems which are now supposedly resolved… I believe you get ten shots of .177 or .22, eight of .25 per rotary mag, and about 40 shots per fill. Any of them will provide meat and practice for a very long time, possibly forever if you keep some spare parts around. But the hand pump is expensive at over $300, and electric 3000 psi pumps are even more expensive.

    If you can’t afford a Marauder, maybe look at a Discovery, a single-shot PCP. You’ll still need a pump of some sort, for self-sufficiency. Not super cheap, but probably worth it.

    After that, on a budget, a springer or gas-piston springer makes sense, and if you’re going cheap, a Gamo Silent Cat or similar is okay. Beware; springers like to break scopes, and are way harder on optics than even high caliber firearms, FYI. That can be a bit of a gotcha, as a scope capable of standing up to a powerful springer is not cheap. I’d rather have a PCP with a decent scope and nice pump, for a couple bucks more than a decent springer and beefy scope… Since PCP’s don’t recoil, you don’t need an expensive scope. But yeah, one way or another, have a pellet gun or two; at a minimum, they’re great for training.