Beginner’s Guide to Small Game Airguns

If you hunt, you’ve owned an air rifle or two at some point. I still have a handful and even pull them out from time to time in case a cottontail wanders into the garden or the crows get too fond of my wife’s Royal Anne cherries.

But pellet guns have come a long way from the Daisy Red Ryders, Crosman 760 Pumpmasters, and Benjamin Model 392 we packed in the past. Today they shoot at higher velocities, use designer pellets and have different scopes than the Tasco straight 4 power tubes we had. Acronyms like PCP, which stands for “Pre-charged Pneumatic,” have become commonplace among the airgun crowd. And most of today’s air rifles look like something out of Star Wars—and not issue 4 released in ’76, but one of the last ones with all the great CGI.

So where does a guy like me, a 50-year-old hunter but admittedly stuck in the world of airguns in the mid-70s, start if he wants to practice vermin eradication on the farm?

Fortunately, there are guys like Lawrence “LT” Taylor and Eydin Hansen to answer that. Taylor is a PR/Social Media Representative for GAMO USA, and Hansen is a professional shooter for Umarex USA. This is what they have to say.

1) Is there an entry level air rifle? And if so, what am I looking for?

Taylor and Hansen suggest a spring- or gas-piston-operated airgun for small game hunters. “What you’re looking for is a rifle that will produce the velocity needed to ethically harvest a small game animal,” says Taylor. “Anything that produces 900 to 1,000 feet per second will do the job at 40 yards.”

So what is the difference between springs and gas pistons? Both systems work essentially the same way, but one works by means of a strong spring, while the other, when cocked, uses a gas piston (which is similar to a gas strut in a car) to force air , along with the projectile, low range These weapons are cocked by breaking the barrel or with a bottom lever design.

“Spring power plants are fine for the guy looking to hunt cottontail rabbits and squirrels, but the gas springs in our high-velocity guns would work even better,” says Taylor. “Still, I’m not going to insult the jumpers. It’s just that gas piston pistols produce a little more velocity and will be easier to cock.”

Hunter holding a dead rabbit and a BB gun.
Make sure your airgun has enough power to hunt small game before you go hunting. Range

Spring-piston guns are easy to operate and don’t require as many accessories as PCP airguns. “If you don’t have an air compressor or a way to fill a scuba tank, I’d start with a break barrel or bottom lever,” says Hansen. “You can get into a break-barrel for less than $200. And it’s self-contained.”

While we’re looking for entry-level and simple here, there are advantages to the PCP OS that you might want to consider. PCP rifles require a separate tank that you use to load the rifle, giving you multiple shots before it’s time to refill. PCP rifles are more expensive, but can be easier to shoot and more comfortable to sight.

“PCP guns tend to be more accurate, quieter, and easier to use once you know all the necessary equipment,” says Taylor. He also says you can find a used scuba tank to fill a PCP pistol for around $100 and an adapter for $30 to charge the rifle.

2) What is the best airgun caliber for hunting small game?

There are pellets for large caliber airguns, but the most common pellets you’ll find at your local sporting goods store are the .177 and the .22. Regardless of caliber, there are radical variations in appearance, design, function, accuracy, and on-target performance between different brands of shot; however, most .177 pellets weigh 8.5 grains, while .22 pellets weigh about 15.5 grains, or about twice as much. that of the .177 projectiles.

Which is better for small game? Lighter pellets generally mean higher speeds, but less energy retention or energy transfer at impact. Heavier pellets give more retained energy, but require more power, whether it be a spring, gas piston, or PCP, to get them up to acceptable speeds to kill game.

“For small game, you definitely want to start with the .22,” says Taylor. “It provides more power than the .177. It’s just accepted as the minimum for small game.”

Hansen goes a little out of the box and prefers to go even higher in caliber. “If you can, go for the .25 for small game,” he says. “Most of your springs and gas pistons are going to be .22, but if you can get into the .25, it hits harder, allows for more ethical shooting, and isn’t affected by the wind as much.” For those wondering, .25 pellets weigh about 25 grains; however, some high-tech hunting shells can exceed 40. They are a little harder to find than .22 or .177 pellets, but if you shop online, you can buy a brand that will work well in your gun.

Can of compressed air shot on a stump.
It is important to find the right pellet for your gun. Umarex

3) What type of optic works best on an airgun?

Spring and gas piston rifles, by virtue of the violent nature of their actions, hit scopes a lot. Pick the wrong optic and you could fire your reticle, leaving you unable to hit either side of any barn.

“A lot of people don’t anticipate problems with their scope when using airsoft guns,” says Taylor. “You can’t put just any scope on a spring-loaded or gas-piston barrel. They produce a ‘recoil’ that is different from that of a firearm. The recoil is both forwards and backwards, so if you put a regular scope on top of a high-powered piston or BB gun, it would probably break pretty quickly.”

Fortunately, optics designed to resist the unique recoil pattern of airguns are available, thanks to rifle/scope combinations offered by GAMO, Umarex, and other companies. GAMO’s sister company, BSA Optics, makes a trio of air-specific scopes in a variety of configurations, all of which retail for a C-bill.

Read Next: Can’t find any .22 ammo? These are the best air rifles for hunting squirrels

4) What is the best way to aim an air rifle?

When I first started shooting air rifles, the sighting process was simple: a handful of buckshot, some kind of rest, and a paper plate, with or without a black dot in the center. But the sighting process is a bit more serious today.

“With BB guns and sighting, you really want to use the ordnance bay,” says Taylor. The artillery grip is a loose grip on the rifle. The forearm rests and the rifle is balanced on the open palm, with the butt held lightly against the cheek and shoulder. This allows the rifle to recoil unrestricted and gives you a consistent point of impact.

As for the range, Taylor and his colleagues start their work at 15 yards and only extend that range to 25 after the rifle has been aimed.

Hansen digs a little deeper in terms of the observation process. “I start with the heaviest granule available,” he says. “You may need to try a couple of different weights to find which one works best on your rifle.” Hansen looks at 10 yards, which he says will get him closer to 40 because of the arcing path of a pellet. “It’s like aiming a rifle at 25 yards. At 100 yards, you’ll be pretty close.”