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Best Air Rifles

Updated September 2018
Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

  • 16 Models Considered
  • 68 Hours Researched
  • 1 Experts Interviewed
  • 101 Consumers Consulted
  • Zero products received from manufacturers.

    We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

    Why trust BestReviews?
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

    Shopping guide for best air rifles

    Last Updated September 2018

    A good air rifle can be used for target practice, vermin control, and small game hunting. It is also an easy-to-learn, affordable, and low-risk introduction to gun sports.

    You have enormous choice when selecting an air rifle – with different styles, calibers and firing mechanisms, it can be tough to make the right buying decision.

    That's where BestReviews can help! Our top five selections offer a variety of performance and value combinations. If you're ready to buy, there are solutions here for the vast majority of shooters, at all experience levels, so check out our recommendations.

    For those who need more help we've compiled the following air rifle buying guide.

    Most people think of air rifles as small-bore guns, yet the largest take a .50 caliber round. There are even "hunter combos" that fire not just pellets, but arrows too!

    Air rifle safety

    Before we look at choosing an air rifle, a quick note about safety.

    Unlike a rifle bullet or shotgun cartridge, an air rifle pellet has no explosive charge. The projectile is propelled by pressurized air or gas. As a result, air rifles are considered much safer. They're not actually categorized as "firearms" at all.

    However, some are capable of muzzle velocities well in excess of 1,000 fps (feet per second). That's roughly the same speed as a 9mm Glock handgun. Although .177 and .22 are common, air rifles can go as large as .50 caliber. That's a 1/2" lump of lead, and it can travel at more than 400 mph!

    Make no mistake, all air rifles – even low-power models – are dangerous. Treat them with the same caution you would any other weapon. There are many pleasures in air rifle shooting. There are none in a visit to the emergency room.

    DID YOU KNOW?

    Some .177 caliber air rifles can shoot BBs, but BB guns cannot shoot air rifle pellets.

    How an air rifle works

    All air rifles work in basically the same way: air (or gas) is pressurized. Pulling the trigger releases pent-up energy, and fires the pellet down the barrel.

    What differentiates each type of air rifle is the way the pressure is provided.

    • Spring-piston air rifles use a lever action. Break-barrel models are very popular because they're easy to use and very repeatable. You “break” the barrel, levering it open so you can put a pellet in the breach. As you close it, you compress a spring. Pull the trigger and the spring releases, pushing a ram that forces high-pressure air behind the pellet, and thus along the barrel.

      Break-barrel is just one piston method. Levers can also be underneath, above, or on the side. It's a simple, reliable system. Springs last a long time, and while they do wear eventually, they're not difficult to replace.
       

    • Gas ram air rifles (also gas piston or IGT – Inert Gas Technology) work on the same principle as spring-piston. Instead of loading up the spring pressure, a piston compresses gas in a cartridge. Pulling the trigger releases the pressure in much the same way. The gas cartridge is a sealed unit, so it never needs refilling. It's not affected by temperature, and it's easier to cock than a spring. There's less recoil, and owners often claim they’re quieter.

      It's relatively new technology, and at the time of writing, not widely used. However, several major manufacturers have announced intentions to make gas ram air rifles, so we're sure to see more of them. With prices only a little above spring-piston models, they're definitely worth considering.
       

    • Pneumatic air rifles (also called variable pump) usually use a manual pump action to compress air in a cylinder. High-end competition rifles compress enough air in a single pump, but more generally available “multi-stroke” models might take half a dozen pumps or more to build up sufficient pressure.

      The major benefit with pneumatic air rifles is very low recoil. They can be compact and lightweight, too.

      The negative aspect is the time it takes to prepare a multi-stroke rifle for a second shot. No problem if you're target shooting, but what if you're hunting? Miss, and by the time you're ready again the quarry will be long gone!

      The solution is pre-charged pneumatics (PCPs). A tank within the gun (looking much like a second or third barrel) is filled at home, from a SCUBA tank. Very high pressures are possible. Rifles can be single-shot or repeaters, and no physical effort is required, beyond squeezing the trigger.

      It's a system often used on large caliber air guns, because it gives you enough pressure to propel those big pellets. Though pressure eventually runs out, you might expect anything between a dozen and forty shots, depending on caliber (bigger pellets are heavier, so you get fewer).
       

    • CO2 air rifles are powered either by a pre-charged canister, or by filling from a tank, like with pre-charged pneumatics. This type of rifle is popular with competitive shooters because the gas pressure can be very stable, and thus more predictable than compressed air.

      The disadvantage for the recreational shooter is that CO2 pressure can vary dramatically with temperature. On a cold day your rifle will have much less power than on a hot day. It's not a problem for the target shooter who has time to let his or her rifle acclimate, and then has more time to sight in. For the “ordinary” shooter that's just impractical, so while some CO2 air rifles can be quite cheap, their inconsistency is likely to be frustrating.

    EXPERT TIP

    Left-handed shooters will find many air rifles have ambidextrous stocks. Not all do though, so be sure to check before buying.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Choosing the right air rifle

    The choice of air rifles is vast. As we've seen, there are four basic power types. Then there are seven different calibers (from .177 right up to .50). We looked at more than a dozen brands, each of whom offer a massive selection of different sizes and styles.

    It's not practical, or even sensible, to compare a low-power .177 pump-action with a .45 caliber PCP hunting model capable of taking down a wild boar. They’re designed for very different users. Therefore, within the space we have available, we're concentrating on the two most popular air rifle calibers: .177 and .22. Many of the principles in choosing the best air rifle of this kind are equally valid for other models.

    Primary characteristics to consider include:

    • Muzzle velocity and range

    • Cocking force and trigger pull

    • Length and weight

    • Sights or scope

    • Stock

    • Style
       

    Muzzle velocity is measured in fps (feet per second). The higher the figure, the further the pellet will be fired. A .177 bore is smaller than a .22, and the pellet lighter. So, if both rifles apply the same pressure, the .177 will have a higher muzzle velocity and therefore a greater range. Of course, different air rifles apply different amounts of pressure, hence the variations you see in muzzle velocity. In terms of the numbers, higher is always better.

    One note of caution. Some manufacturers quote muzzle velocity using special non-lead alloy pellets (PBA is a popular brand.) These fly considerably faster than standard lead-alloy pellets. They are readily available, so it's not a problem, but if you use “ordinary” ammo you won't achieve the same figures.

    A few makers quote muzzle energy in fpe (foot pounds of energy). It's a calculation that takes into account the weight of the ammunition and should, therefore, offer more accurate numbers. The problem is, only a few quote it, so comparisons are practically impossible.

    Cocking force has a number of different names. Essentially, it's the amount of physical effort required to cock a break-barrel rifle, or get a variable pump air rifle up to firing pressure. While it's not a major factor for a fit adult, it can be for younger people, or those with restricted strength. The same goes for trigger pull. Better manufacturers provide this figure, but many do not.

    For casual shooters, length and weight are not significant considerations. However, a gun that's too long or too short can be uncomfortable. That's important if you're concerned about a high degree of accuracy, particularly if target shooting from a prone position. Too long an air rifle can also be a problem for younger shooters. Air rifle weight can vary by a couple of pounds or more. It may not seem a lot, but again, comfort depends on the physical attributes of the shooter.

    Your air rifle's sights are obviously vital to accuracy. You'll have a fixed front sight and an adjustable rear, which should offer windage and elevation. On occasions, we found manufacturing faults with sights. They just couldn't be adjusted properly. It's unusual, but if it happens you need to return your rifle for an exchange.

    Some air rifles come with scopes pre-fitted, others have the option to add one. The majority of those supplied with a rifle are 4x32, meaning they magnify four times normal view. That's a good choice for a general-purpose .177 or .22 air rifle. Coated lenses are a benefit. They reduce glare and can enhance your view.

    Small caliber air rifles produce less recoil than firearms, and traditional hardwood stock looks great, but it will still wear on your shoulder after a while. A rubber bump pad or recoil pad adds long-term comfort.

    Although the style of air rifle you choose has negligible impact on accuracy, it's still an important personal consideration. The variety is huge. There are traditional hunting rifle styles, others that mimic a suppressed sniper rifle, or other military or tactical styles. The choice is yours!

    We didn't mention accuracy – which you might expect to be a high priority. It is, but there are many variables. Not least of these is the shooter. No two people shoot the same air rifle with the same degree of precision.

    Of course some air rifles are inherently better than others. In general, you pay more for quality components and build, each of which improves performance. In all likelihood, the more you can afford to spend, the more accurate the air rifle you'll get.

    We're also great believers in checking customer feedback. If several dozen different people praise (or criticize) an air rifle's accuracy, it's a good bet you'll get similar results.

    Air rifle scopes are not interchangeable with firearm rifle scopes. Spring-piston air rifles generate a double recoil. Their scopes are built to handle the twin shocks. The same forces can break a standard rifle scope.

    What does a good air rifle cost?

    There are some very cheap air rifles around, but please don't be tempted. Even if you're buying for a beginner, you need adequate performance. If they can't hit the side of the proverbial barn, they'll soon get put off – even if it's not their fault.

    A decent, entry-level air rifle can be found for around sixty bucks. Between there and two hundred dollars you have a staggering amount of choice. All of our top five fall within that bracket.

    You can spend a lot more, of course. More power and larger caliber will add to the bill. The most expensive air rifle we looked at cost just over two thousand dollars. If you're passionate about air rifle shooting, as many people are, there are some fabulous guns available.

    Tips for better air gun accuracy

    • The most important element in the accuracy of your air gun is you – and there's no substitute for practice. Even if you shoot regularly, it takes time to acclimate to a new rifle. Consistency is key.

    • Inadequate maintenance is a common problem. Clean the bore periodically, following manufacturer instructions. Screws and bolts can loosen over time. Check sites or scope are secure. The same for hinge bolt and stock screws.

    • Try different brands of air gun pellet. Some gun/pellet combinations work better than others. If you have a PCP air rifle, experts recommend lubricating pellets, because the compressed gas contains a small amount of moisture that can cause drag, and eventually rust your barrel. You should never lube pellets for use in a spring-operated or gas ram air rifles.

    An air rifle takes time to "bed in." Make sure you read the manufacturer's instructions and follow them carefully. Be patient. Lack of attention at this point can do permanent damage.

    FAQ

    Q. Do I need a license for an air gun?

    A. Under federal law, an air gun is not classed as a firearm, because it does no use an explosive charge to expel a projectile. However, many states do regulate air rifles in some way, depending on factors like the owner's age and the rifle’s power. Individual county laws or ordinances may also apply.

    The only way to be sure is to check with your local administration. Different rules apply to hunting with air guns (rather than target shooting), so you need to check that with your state's game and fish authority.

    Q. Which is best, a .177 or .22 caliber air rifle?

    A. This is one of the most common questions when choosing an air rifle. We surveyed a number of experts, and the answer is invariably, "It depends..."

    .177 pellets are smaller. Velocity is higher, so trajectory is flatter. If everything else is the same, a .177 is more accurate over distance. Ammo is usually cheaper. If you like shooting tin cans in the yard, or paper targets at the range, we recommend a .177. They are also popular for vermin control, making them an excellent all-rounder.

    A .22 rifle is more powerful. If you're hunting, the larger pellet has considerably more stopping power. With small game, you're not likely to be shooting at much distance, so projectile trajectory is less important. If hunting is your thing, with occasional target shooting thrown in for practice, a .22 air rifle will suit you better.

    Those are our opinions, but we guarantee you'll find just as many experts disagree as those that agree!

    Q. Should I use a particular type of air rifle pellet?

    A. There could actually be two questions here: which brand of pellet, or which physical type.

    The answer to the first is that you can't really expect accuracy if you use cheap air gun pellets. Budget pellets often have inconsistent shape and weight, so no two shots are the same. Quality pellets deliver the consistency you need. We can't recommend a particular brand because every rifle and pellet combination delivers different performance. It pays to try different ones until you develop a preference. Small sample packs are available from some suppliers.

    As for type, there are three different shapes generally available:

    • Hollow points expand on contact, and are generally used for hunting.

    • Wadcutters have a flat tip, so they make a clean hole in target paper. Ten meter competition shooters invariably use them. They're also effective when hunting at distances up to 25 yards.

    • Domed pellets (also called round-nosed) have better aerodynamics than the other types, and are an excellent general-purpose choice – good for casual target shooting, pests and small game.

    The team that worked on this review
    • Bob
      Bob
      Writer
    • Devangana
      Devangana
      Web Producer
    • Eliza
      Eliza
      Production Manager
    • Jeff
      Jeff
      Editor
    • Katie
      Katie
      Editorial Director
    • Kyle
      Kyle
      Writer

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