How to Choose the Best Air Rifle for Hunting?

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Airgun hunting is a rewarding sport. It can be more challenging than hunting with a standard rifle or shotgun, and—depending on which air rifle you get—it can be a low-cost avenue into hunting.

But, air rifles aren’t as powerful as standard hunting rifles. So, you must be much more selective about which rifle you get. Otherwise, your air rifle may not be powerful enough for the game you want to hunt.

Brands aside, there are four types of air rifles:

  • Pre-charged pneumatic
  • Break barrel
  • Underlever
  • Multi-pump

So, which one is best for you?

The air rifle you choose depends on what you intend to hunt and how far you’ll be shooting.

We’ll cover the four air rifle types, and what they’re best for. But first, let’s talk specs. That way you can evaluate any air rifle, and get one that will do everything you need.

Air Rifle Specifications to Consider

You determined what sort of animals you’ll be hunting and how far you’d like to shoot. Now what?

Check air rifle specifications. The air rifle type is important. But, performance varies from rifle to rifle, even within the same air rifle type. So, you must ensure that it delivers the performance you need.

Here’s what to look for.

1. Foot Pounds of Energy

Foot pounds of energy (FPE) is essentially how powerful the rifle is. It measures how much energy the pellet carries as it leaves the barrel.

FPE is a more important specification for hunting than velocity (feet per second). The speed of the pellet doesn’t necessarily mean that it carries a lot of energy with it. So, when you’re checking out rifles, look for the FPE.

This is a general guide for how many FPE you need for each size of game:

  • Birds: 15 FPE
  • Varmints up to the size of a raccoon or possum: 25 FPE
  • Animals the size of a fox or coyote: 50 FPE
  • Small deer and wild pigs: 100 FPE
  • Medium deer: 150 FPE
  • Large deer and wild hogs: 200 FPE

So, check your rifle and make sure that it’s powerful enough for what you’re going to hunt.

2. Caliber

Caliber measures the diameter of the pellet. Caliber has an effect on the FPE of a rifle. But it’s not the only factor.

As a general rule, a larger caliber pellet will deliver more FPE. But, it’s possible for a rifle that fires a smaller pellet to produce more FPE than another rifle that fires a slightly larger pellet.

However, if you’re hunting larger game, you should start by looking at the higher caliber air rifles.

This is a general guide for the caliber you should select for each size of game:

  • Birds and small animals the size of a squirrel or rabbit: up to .22 caliber
  • Animals the size of a raccoon or possum: .25 caliber or larger
  • Animals the size of a fox or coyote: .30 caliber or larger
  • Small deer and wild pigs: .357 caliber or larger
  • Medium deer: .40 caliber or larger
  • Large deer and wild hogs: .45 caliber or larger

If you get a rifle that fires the appropriate caliber, it’s most likely that it will produce enough FPE to be effective. Though, you still need to check the FPE.

3. Max Range

The max range is determined largely by the type of air rifle you get. And, where you hunt and your style of hunting will determine how far you need to shoot.

Most of the time, you’ll need to shoot further if you’re hunting larger game. This works out well because the more powerful rifles have longer max ranges.

But, if you need to shoot small game a longer distances, then you may need to more carefully consider the type of rifle and caliber that you get.

This is a guide to the max range of each air rifle type:

  • Pre-charged pneumatic air rifles: 75 yards
  • Break barrel air rifle: 50 yards
  • Underlever air rifle: 50 yards
  • Multi-pump air rifle: 30 yards

Consider how far you typically shoot. That will give you an idea of which air rifle types will work well for you.

Air Rifle Types

Each air rifle design has some pros and cons. But, there’s some overlap between the air rifle types. So, you can get an air rifle that meets your needs and fits your budget.

Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifles

If you’re planning on hunting large or tough game, like deer or wild hogs, a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air rifle is your best—and only—option.

These rifles are powered by an attached compressed air tank that supplies the air pressure to propel the pellet out the barrel.

PCP air rifles are capable of firing heavier pellets at higher velocities than the other air rifle types. So, this is the only type of air rifle that’s viable for hunting bigger animals.

However, PCP air rifles are also very versatile. You can easily hunt varmints and small game with a PCP air rifle.

A PCP air rifle is capable of firing pellets of any caliber and grain. Additionally, a PCP rifle can produce up to 200-foot pounds of energy and is effective out to 75 yards. So, this model makes a surprisingly effective hunting rifle.

The main downside to PCP air rifles is the cost. The rifle itself can be pricier than other types of air rifles. And, you need a compressed air tank or PCP hand pump. Even though a PCP rifle is the most capable, it’s also going to be the most cost restrictive.

Additionally, PCP air rifles are the least self-sufficient. You always need an external air source to operate a PCP air rifle. So, they can be cumbersome if you often hunt in remote areas or hike a lot.

PCP Air Rifle Capabilities:

  • Largest game: large deer and hogs
  • Max range: 75 yards
  • Calibers: .177, .20, .25, .357, .45, .50
  • FPE: 200

Break Barrel Air Rifles

Break barrel air rifles are probably the most common. They’re popular for small game hunting and varmint control.

These rifles are also called, “springers” because of the mechanism that propels the pellet. Springers are powered by one of two mechanisms: a spring piston or a gas piston.

The spring piston mechanism is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a piston, with a spring around it. When you cock the rifle, the spring is compressed. Pressing the trigger releases the spring tension and punches the pellet out the barrel.

Gas piston air rifles function similarly. However, instead of a spring, they use compressed gas inside the piston. When you cock the rifle, it compresses the gas inside the piston. Pressing the trigger releases the piston, allowing the gas to expand and push the pellet out the barrel.

Both mechanisms are equally capable. However, the spring on a spring piston rifle will compress and wear down over time. This causes the rifle to lose its power as it ages. On the other hand, a gas piston rifle retains consistent performance throughout its lifespan.

Break barrel air rifles are quite capable, and can be powerful. They are available in most calibers. And break barrel rifles are effective out to about 50 yards. Springers are also affordable.

Just remember that you have to manually cock a springer air rifle. The more powerful the rifle, the more difficult it will be to cock. So, you could get a decent workout if you shoot a lot. And, it may be difficult for some shooters to work a springer air rifle.

The main drawback of this design is that it takes practice to shoot them accurately. Since the barrel essentially gets removed every time you cock the gun, these rifles are very sensitive to outside forces from how you hold the rifle.

Most hunters use an “artillery hold” for break barrel air rifles. This just means that you just rest the rifle on your forward hand, leaving your hand open, without gripping the rifle. The artillery hold minimizes the force you apply to the front end of your air rifle.

One last thing to consider with break barrel air rifles: the recoil impulse (video on Youtube). The spring mechanism produces a non-standard recoil impulse. So, if you plan on using a scope, you need to use one that’s built for air rifles. It seems odd. But, the recoil impulse of a piston air rifle can break a standard rifle scope.

Despite the trickiness of shooting a break barrel air rifle, they are self-sufficient. So, they’re a good option if you hike a lot or want a rifle that takes up very little space.

If you’re hunting raccoon or possum-sized game or doing varmint control, a break barrel air rifle is an excellent option.

Break Barrel Air Rifle Capabilities:

  • Largest game: raccoon or possum-size game.
  • Max range: 50 yards
  • Calibers: .177, .20, .22, .25
  • FPE: 25

Underlever Air Rifles

An underlever air rifle is very similar to a break barrel. They use the same spring or gas piston system to propel the pellet.

However, underlever air rifles tend to be more accurate. The rifle is cocked with a lever underneath the barrel. Since the barrel is fixed, this design offers a tad more accuracy. But, the recoil impulse is such that you still need to practice quite a bit to shoot an underlever rifle accurately.

Speaking of recoil impulse, you’ll need an air rifle specific scope for an underlever air rifle as well. The spring action can tear up the internals of many standard rifle scopes. Even a high-quality optic may not be safe for air rifle use.

Underlever air rifles are also nice, self-sufficient guns that require no supporting equipment. So, they’re popular house and vehicle guns for those who need quick access for varmint control.

Since the firing mechanism is the same, underlever rifles are just as powerful as break barrel rifles. They’re capable of firing most calibers, and are effective out to about 50 yards.

Underlever Air Rifle Capabilities:

  • Largest game: raccoon or possum-size game
  • Max range: 50 yards
  • Calibers: .177, .20, .22, .25
  • FPE: 25

Multi-Pump Air Rifles

Interestingly, multi-pump air rifles (video on Youtube) are somewhat similar to PCP air rifles. There’s an air chamber in the gun, which you force air into using a hand pump that’s integrated into the rifle stock. Pumping the rifle charges the air chamber with compressed air, which then propels the pellet.

So, you can pre-charge a multi-pump air rifle. But, it’s not as powerful as a PCP rifle.

And, the power is the biggest limiting factor of multi-pump air rifles. Since they run on hand-compressed air, they’re usually only good for about 15 FPE.

However, they’re very affordable. There are also a lot of upgrades available for multi-pump air rifles that enhance the power. So, you can get a fairly capable air rifle at a great price with a multi-pump rifle.

Another benefit of multi-pump rifles is that they’re very accurate. So, they make excellent varmint guns. Multi-pump air rifles are also very light, and make excellent pack guns for those who want a lightweight hunting rig that they can carry easily.  

However, they’re limited in terms of what calibers they can fire. Since multi-pump air rifles aren’t super powerful, they just can’t shoot larger caliber pellets.

But, if you’re on a budget, a multi-pump air rifle might be the way to go.

Multi-Pump Air Rifle Capabilities:

  • Largest game: rabbit-size game
  • Max range: 30 yards
  • Calibers: .177 and .22
  • FPE: 15

How to choose the best hunting scope?

CO2 and Single Stroke Pneumatic Air Rifles

The four air rifle types we’ve discussed aren’t the only ones available. There are also CO2 and single stroke pneumatic air rifles.

However, CO2 and single stroke pneumatic air rifles are not powerful enough for hunting. These air rifle types are best for target shooting and plinking.

Please don’t attempt to hunt even the smallest game with a CO2 or single stroke pneumatic air rifle as you’ll only wound the animal.

Heading Out

Air rifles are a great option for a wide variety of game hunting and can be much more affordable than standard hunting rifles. Also, the regulations around air rifles are much less intense. So, air rifles make hunting easier for many people.

But, if you’re looking to get into air rifle hunting, consider all these things before you buy. That way, you’ll get the best air rifle for all your hunting expeditions.

Also, if you decide to go out hunting, you may want to have a tactical knife with you as well as master the skill of creating a perfect campfire.

About Author

I get excited about efficient gear that fulfills multiple roles, and I’ve taken my love of hunting, military equipment, and survival tactics to create RLG. There was so much I didn’t know when I got started, and my goal with this site is to pose you for the very best hunt, the best fishing trips, and teach you how to discern good gear from bottom barrel junk. Together, we’re going to gear up and get ready for anything the world throws our way.