In spite of the age old parental warnings of No, you cant have a BB gun, youll put your eye out! millions of youngsters worldwide have fallen in love with shooting, hunting and eventually with firearms and even wildlife through activities experienced with their first real gun--the BB gun, which is one of many types of guns referred to as air guns. For a large percentage of todays shooting sports enthusiasts, challenging our early shooting skills against targets that ranged from old bottles and cans, to any available leaf or cardboard box, set the stage for a lifetime of learning responsible behavior and of shooting enjoyment.


Air guns have been in use much longer than most of us think, and in a way can be thought of as a combination of a firearm and a blowgun. It comes as a considerable surprise to most present-day gun enthusiasts that shooters have used air guns for hundreds of years. The first air guns were lung-powered blowguns that date back at to 125 AD and probably hundreds, or even thousands of years, before that.

All of the most powerful air guns of yesteryear were pump pneumatics. That is, pumping air into a strong valve reservoir, which was attached to, or made part of, the gun, charged them. The pumps were sometimes built into the gun but were more often separate. Charging a reservoir could take hundreds of stokes of the pump, but the resulting air pressure, below 600 psi, evidently was very efficient.

These old air guns offered numerous advantages. Some could be fired many times per minute. And, although the oft-told tale of their silence is not true, they were a lot quieter than firearms of equivalent power and their lack of smoke and flash did help to make it more difficult to spot the marksmans position. Another especially appealing feature was the great dependability of the air guns. Other advantages included lack of residual sparks, faster shot time, more consistent power, and extremely light barrel fouling.

Even in America, air guns were used earlier than most people realize. Early explorers Lewis and Clark carried one on their 1804 expedition up the Missouri. It was designed and constructed by the same man who fashioned the clock on Independence Hall. The gun had a detachable butt stock reservoir, a European feature that by 1779 had given Austrian troops the advantage of rapid fire, with enough air for up to 40 shots and it cycled 20 times a minute! The 51-caliber round balls hit like modern .45 pistol bullets. The absence of smoke and noise was a huge bonus to hidden soldiers.

Early air rifles were considerably more expensive than firearms and by the end of the 19th century famous British makers were building exquisite air guns for the bird shooter as well as the big game hunter. They also designed air gun canes for self-defense.

About the turn of the century, Frenchman Paul Giffard developed the first CO2-powered rifle and American inventors came up with a spring-powered air gun.

Hunting and military air guns of the 18th and 19th centuries were mainly pump pneumatics that required a reservoir from which air could be metered for each shot. Charging the reservoir took up to 2,000 strokes but could build up a lot of pressure. The locks of these air guns looked like those of ordinary flintlocks.

Great Starter Guns

For many shooters, air guns are still "starter" guns--typically smoothbore (without the rifling inside the barrel that causes the bullet to spin) BB guns with short plastic stocks and sheet-metal sights. Trigger pulls on these inexpensive guns (mistakenly called air rifles by people who don't know about rifling) feel like, according to one veteran shooter of more sophisticated guns, the down stroke on a bumper jack. And while the accuracy cannot be compared to more expensive guns, they serve a definite purpose: their lightweight enables youngsters to learn safe gun handling and shooting fundamentals without tiring. Scaled for short arms, they're easy for children to control and the long trigger pull is a safety device in eager, awkward hands.

But air guns, as a category, include rifles and pistols that are much more powerful and accurate than BB guns. Some, in fact, launch a pellet at over 1,000 feet per second--almost as fast as a .22 rim fire bullet! And they can definitely shoot straight. The most accurate are capable of shooting one-hole groups, which is to say each shot hits the target in pretty much the same place, at 33 feet (10 meters), the official range for paper-target air gun competition. Triggers on some guns, such as those used for competitive matches, can be tuned just like more high-powered competition guns. They're also adjustable for other variables important to top competitors.

Sights for air guns include scopes and precisely-adjustable metal sights--some with replaceable front globe inserts and a rear "iris" you can open or shut down (as does the iris in your eye) to accommodate changing light conditions. Yes, these are serious guns for serious shooters.

Three Basic Types of Air Guns

Besides the question of caliber, modern air guns fit into three basic groups defined by their power plant (means of pushing a pellet out of the barrel).

Pneumatic Powered Guns

Pneumatic air guns use compressed air for power. The way you get the air compressed in the air gun depends on the type of pneumatic it is. The most common pneumatic air gun is the Multi-Stroke or sometimes called Pump-up type pneumatic air gun. To get the tiny bit of air compressed in a multi-stroke pneumatic it takes, as the name implies, between two and ten strokes of the forehand pump lever to get the internal pressure needed to power the pellet out the barrel at a decent pace. Most multi-stroke pneumatic air guns are compact, recoilless and lightweight. Multi-stroke pneumatics are moderate in power.

The big down side to a multi-stroke pneumatic is all the time and effort needed to get a shot off, and a second shot is near impossible before your quarry runs or flies away. As you pump up the multi-stroke air gun each progressive pump takes more effort. Accuracy from a multi-stroke is just OK. There are too many variable in the pumping procedure to allow for stellar performance aside from the human error.

A more preferable form of pneumatic is the single stroke pneumatic air gun. As the name implies, one motion of the cocking lever is all that is needed to compress the air for propulsion. The single stoke format is used on many high-end 10 meter match air guns. Consistency, accuracy and lack of recoil are the reasons top shooters gravitate to this type of power plant. The downside is lower power, but the tack driving accuracy at close range is the reason 10-meter shooters love them.

The third type of pneumatic air gun is the pre-charged pneumatic. This is the best of both worlds. You can get variable power from low to high if you want it and you get incredible accuracy, easy cocking, no recoil and lots of shots from an air charge. The charge takes little effort on your part because the air is compressed at the dive shop into a SCUBA tank. All you need to do is siphon some of the 3000 psi out of the SCUBA tank and into the air gun via a special hose with a pressure gauge. Pre-charged pneumatics are assembled as competition air guns for the field target set, and lightweight hunters for those so inclined. Some of the pre- charged air guns are multiple shot repeaters so the air gun hunter with poor aim can get a second chance with no pumping.

Spring-Piston Powered Guns

Spring-piston air guns are the easiest air guns to shoot, maintain and own. The spring-piston gun most shooters cut their teeth on is the break barrel type. Holding the stock in one hand and breaking the air gun in half at the breech while holding the barrel with the other hand cocks the break barrel air gun. This action of breaking the air guns moves a piston backward within the receiver as well as compressing a stout spring behind it. The trigger sear clicks into a notch in the piston and holds the whole works in tension.

With a break barrel air gun the pellet is placed directly into the breech and the barrel is tipped back into position. The gun is now you are ready to fire. Take the safety off and put pressure on the trigger. When the sear releases the piston, it moves forward briskly with the power of the big spring behind it. All this action pushes a column of air forward into the rear end of the pellet sitting in the breech. The effect of all this causes the pellet to move briskly out the barrel towards the target of choice.

Spring-piston air guns are cocked by breaking the barrel, cocking an under lever, a side lever, or a top lever (over lever). Inside, the works are basically the same in principle. Things like spring rates, diameter of the compression tube (receiver) and swept area can be different depending on the gun designers ideas. Spring-piston air guns are very reliable and long-lived.

The worst thing you could do to any spring-piston air guns is to "dry fire" it, that is, fire it without a pellet in the breech. When this error occurs, the piston head is smashed into the front of the receiver (compression tube) because the missing pellet cannot offer the needed resistance to the air column. This resistance cushions the piston from the tremendous energy the compressed spring releases to move the air column.

Spring-piston air guns last a long time, but the springs do wear out after a while. Do not worry. A spring piston replacement and piston seal change are relatively cheap and very easy for an air gun smith to accomplish. Most firearms shooters like the recoil sensation felt when shooting a spring air gun. This is a smooth steady push to the shoulder as the spring inside the air gun does its work pushing the pellet out the barrel.

CO2 Powered Guns

CO2 air guns, as their name implies, are powered by cartridges of compressed carbon dioxide, either in the12-gram cartridge form or decanted from a bulk CO2 tank into the air gun reservoir. They have the advantage of not needing to be cocked or pumped up by hand. The use of CO2 as a power plant for an air gun is kind of interesting because it is used in some of the cheapest non-precision air guns along with the highest of the high-tech 10-meter match air guns. Kept at room temperature, CO2 stores at approximately 900-1000 psi and is very consistent, but raise or lower the temperature and the point of impact of a CO2 air gun can and will change.

You might wonder why - with this point of impact change situation - would these serious match shooters choose the CO2 propulsion system to break records. They use it because it is so consistent and they have learned to manage the variables. They bring their CO2 air guns to the range; let the air guns stabilize to the ambient temperature at the range and sight in. Right-left (windage) point of impact will be constant, but up-down (elevation) zero will vary slightly until the gun is sighted in.

The real issue with CO2 as a power plant is for the air gun hunter or plinker. The air gun hunter who sights in on a warm day and goes out to hunt on a cool one or visa-versa will not know where the air gun will hit. A temperature change during the day can also be a problem. CO2 air guns are generally easy to cock and recoilless to shoot. The match CO2 air guns are very consistent and incredibly accurate at 10 meters.

Calibers and Velocity

The standard air gun caliber for target shooters is .177, although .20 caliber is growing increasingly popular for field targets, and .22 and even .25 are made for some high-power hunting air guns. Air gun velocities range from 500-1,000 fps.

For indoor target shooting and all-around plinking, low power, .177 caliber air guns are probably best: less effort to cock; less vibration, noise, and recoil (air guns don't kick, exactly, but they bounce); and cheaper pellets.

For field target, silhouette, and long-range plinking, higher velocity air guns (800 fps and above in .177 or .20) will shoot flatter, buck the wind better, and hit hard enough to knock down metal targets at 50 yards.

Air Gun Projectiles (Ammunition)

Air gun projectiles vary widely. Inexpensive BB guns shoot copper-plated steel balls (BBs) from a smooth bore. Not the best combination of materials and engineering for shooting accuracy, but, as already mentioned, still plenty good to provide untold hours of recreational shooting and enjoyment.

Hollow-base lead pellets in rifled bores perform much better and most shooters prefer the hourglass-shaped "diabolo" pellet with its solid head and hollow base. The base expands under air pressure to seal the bore and ensure full rifling contact. These pellets come in .177, .20, .22 and .25 diameters. The .177 and .22 are most popular - .177 for target shooting, .22 for hunting. A traditional steel BB, incidentally, measures .162 to .175 in diameter. New lead BBs, at .177, are more efficient because of their weight and a closer fit to the bore. But, overall, pellets are still far more accurate. There are different pellet head designs you can choose according to your intended use.

Equipment Costs

Because they use no powder or brass cases, air guns are inexpensive to shoot. A packet of 500 pellets retails for as little as $7.50. The price of a high-quality air gun, however, can startle those of us who remember lever-action Daisys at $6.50. For youngsters starting out, a BB gun may still be a good investment and remain reasonably priced even now.

But with increasing skill comes the need for better equipment. Mid-level pellet rifles list for between $300 and $600. Pistols are about $100 less. Competition-class rifles and pistols cost as much as rim fire match guns: $1,100 and up. Modern air guns are real guns, capable of better accuracy than some firearms. They may lack the power and reach of cartridge guns, but they don't kick and bellow either. Adult air rifles and pistols handle like firearms and last as long.


Whether you hunt, plink or shoot paper, scopes can help you score. Ordinary riflescopes are not manufactured for use on air guns, but special air gun scopes are made for short range shooting and have great internal strength to withstand the recoil of potent spring-piston guns. (Their peculiar two-way "kick" can strain a scope's innards more severely than even the recoil of a magnum center fire rifle!) For all-around plinking and hunting a 4x scope is ideal, but silhouette shooters prefer higher magnification.

Cleaning Air Guns

Because they accumulate no powder or copper residue, air guns require minimal cleaning. In fact, the bore of a pellet rifle or pistol should remain in good condition without any cleaning at all. But clean bores produce better accuracy and can even give you higher velocities, so be sure to follow the manufacturers recommendations. If you think the gun is losing power or may have been damaged, take it to a repair shop--just like any other firearm. You should not dry-fire spring-piston air guns! Without a pellet to build resistance, the air column provides no cushion for the plunger, which can cause damage as it slams home. Store all air guns uncocked. Pneumatic guns are best left with one pump in the reservoir to hold seals in place.


Because air guns dont pack a big kick and dont make a lot of noise when theyre fired, some shooters don't take them seriously. That's a big mistake! A steel BB loafing along so slowly as to be visible can still put out an eye. A hunting-style lead pellet moving fast enough to zip through a rabbit can injure, even kill a person. So all the shooting safety rules apply when you handle and shoot air guns. The main rule to remember is this: Never allow the muzzle to point at anything you would regret shooting. Its one rule you can't afford to break!

  • You must always follow the rules of safe gun handling. Always be aware of the surroundings, and the people around you.
  • Always treat an air gun as if it were loaded.
  • Always aim an air gun in a safe direction and always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
  • Always keep an air gun on safe until you are ready to shoot.
  • Always wear shooting glasses and make sure those with you wear them too.
  • Always use the proper caliber ammunition and never reuse ammunition.
  • Always place your backstop in a location that will be safe should the backstop fail.
  • Always check to see if the air gun is on safe and unloaded when getting it from another person or from storage.
  • Always read and follow the owners manual and all instructions and know how the air gun works before using it.
  • Always keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you are aiming at your target and are ready to shoot.
  • Always store an air gun in a safe place so that it cannot be used by anyone who is unauthorized to use it.
  • Never point an air gun at any person.
  • Never load an air gun until you are ready to shoot.
  • Never put an air gun away loaded.
  • You must also follow the state and local laws about the purchase, ownership, and use of air guns. An adult should supervise minors. And remember, misuses or careless use of air guns may cause serious injury or death.

    Where to Learn to Shoot

    The National Rifle Association (NRA) sponsors some quality youth and adult programs that can help individuals learn to shoot safely. Or you may consider joining a shooting sports club or Camp. Camps offer thorough training in competition, safety, hunting and special interests. For further information contact:

    11250 Waples Mill Road
    Fairfax, VA 22030
    (800) 672-3888

    Club Membership

    If you belong to an air gun club, your club can become a member of the American Air gun Field Target Association (AAFTA). This national organization puts out a monthly newsletter with matches, scores and club news.

    Further Information

    P.O.Box 218
    Hernando, MS 38632
    (662) 429-4663

    (Material courtesy of National Shooting Sports Foundation)