Buying a Hunting Springer
Spring Piston Airguns and the First Time Buyer
I have to admit that I’ve been hunting a lot with precharged pneumatic air rifles lately. But while at the SHOT Show in January I couldn’t help but notice the number of excellent spring piston airguns available today. These springers span the range of standard calibers, from .177 to .25, power from 12 to 30 foot pound energy (fpe), and are priced from a bit over a hundred dollars to whatever you want to spend. In this article I will take a look at the spring powered hunting guns from AirArms, Beeman, RWS and Walther, then discuss where I see these guns fitting into the airgun hunters armament.
A Little Technical Background
Walking through the exhibition floor it was obvious that airguns in general are gaining visibility and market traction. Spring piston airguns are a class of arms that develop power using a piston propelled by a powerful spring under compression. Cocking the rifle causes the piston to be pulled back in a cylinder, drawing air into the cylinder and compressing a coil spring. Pulling the trigger releases the piston, causing the spring to move forward and expel a volume of air through the chamber into the barrel, which in turn propels the pellet down and out the barrel. The majority of the energy moving the pellet forward is transferred in the first few inches of barrel, making shorter barreled guns excellent for field use in my opinion.
Spring powered guns are charged using three different cocking mechanisms; the break barrel (which is the most common), the side lever, and the under lever. I use all three, though my favorite rifles are mostly break barrels (with a couple exceptions). I have read and heard it said that the fixed barrels of side cocking rifles and under lever rifles allow for better accuracy, however I’ve not observed this to be the case with the variety of guns I have shot.
There is a cocking effort associated with each of these mechanisms, which puts another constraint on barrel length in break barrel designs; it has to be long enough to offer adequate cocking leverage. A too short barrel can be a monster to cock, so the design has to strike the right balance. I spend more time carrying my rifle when hunting than shooting it, so the increased cocking effort is less important to me than compactness when in the field. For plinking, target shooting, or for younger/smaller shooters the priority might be different.
When hunting with a spring piston gun, it is necessary to consider how you will bring the gun into action when the time comes. These guns can be left cocked for a short period of time, but if left in a cocked position the spring will take a set and energy output can be significantly reduced. For this reason the gun should be discharged if a shot is not taken within a couple hours. Another solution to this is to swap out the spring piston with a device called a gas ram, which is a sealed compression chamber containing a compressed volume of air that drives the piston rather than the traditional coiled spring. There are positive and negative attributes with this mechanism, but there are many hunters that use and swear by them. As a rule, they will smooth out a guns firing cycle and allow the gun to be left cocked for prolonged periods, though they do not have a significant impact on the guns power. I like this option in a hunting gun primarily due to the fact that it removes problems with leaving the guns cocked for longer periods, which is my only criticism of hunting springers in general, even though it is more of an inconvenience than a real problem.
With respect to carrying a springer in the field, there are a couple items worthy of mention; first is that in general the more powerful a gun the heavier and more difficult it will be to cock. So one shouldn’t be too fixated on the power output, anything that generates 12 - 16 fpe is going to work on most small game and varmint. No doubt higher power guns will let you use larger caliber pellets more effectively, reach out a bit further, and shoot larger game, so think about how you’re going to use the gun before choosing. Another thing to consider is whether to rig a sling to your rifle, and how you’re going to do it. Swivel studs on a side lever guns can be mounted the same as one would do for most sporting firearms. The forward mount on a break barrel can be attached with a barrel band like those used for the tube of a lever action center fire, the rear stock stud and swivel are the same as standard firearms. Under levers can present the greatest challenge as the cocking handle tends to get in the way, but a workable solution can usually be found on most guns.
Shooting a springer is different than almost any other type of airgun, or firearm for that matter. Springers tend to be hold sensitive which means that the shooter needs to practice diligently to achieve a consistent hold under field conditions. As a rule these guns do not like to be tightly gripped or shot off a rest; when I am setting up a new springer I’ll find the optimal hold and mark it with a bit of tape until acclimated to the gun. When sighting off a rest, I lay my hand on the rest and the rifle in my open hand. Rather than firmly laying your cheek on the stock, it works better to lightly rest it on the comb for consistent placement rather than trying to anchor the gun. The magnum springers can generate a substantial bi-directional recoil, that while not difficult to manage, does take a bit of getting used to.
A bigger problem with springer recoil is that this back and forth jolt can destroy a scope not rated for spring piston airguns. Most of the big optics companies have a couple models in their lines that are thus rated, and some companies have extensive lines of purpose designed airgun scopes. I’ve been using the Hawke airgun scopes on my certified “scope eater” magnum rifles for about a year now, and they are surviving just fine. Twenty years ago I was going through scopes left and right, but the robustness of design and quality of construction on many of today’s optics make them a much better investment. The problem of the scope “walking” back on the dovetails due to recoil is still a problem; some springers have an integrated scope stop, and almost all can be fitted with proprietary or third party stops. These are small blocks that fit on the dovetail behind the mount, and are sometimes equipped with a screw that fits into an indentation in the base to prevent rearward movement.
OK, so we touched on how these guns work and how to shoot them; but why use them for hunting rather than a PCP? There are proponents for both types of guns, and while I shoot more with PCPs these days, I still enjoy springers and use them in the field for small game and varmint hunting. The advantages of springers are; they’re fully self contained and require no external charging gear, they can be very accurate, they are the perfect power for most small game hunting, tend to be less expensive, and the variety of guns in .177, .20, .22, and .25 calibers is mind boggling.
I appreciate the fact that no filling gear is required in general, but especially when I am traveling to hunt or when plans call for hiking long distances away from an air source. I’ll often carry a springer with me when heading out for back country hiking or fishing trips, and keep one stowed in the hold of my fishing kayak for impromptu hunts.
Feeding Your Spring Piston Airgun
For most hunting applications with most spring piston airguns, I prefer a medium weight round nose pellet. As with all airguns you’ll have to shoot several brands to find what works best with a particular gun. Very heavy pellets don’t give any advantage at the power levels generated by the spring piston power plants. I am of the opinion that the reduction in velocity and concurrent impact on trajectory outweigh the minimal improvement if terminal performance. For the most part it is the ability to deliver the pellet directly on target, and not a modest increase in energy delivered, that determines the effectiveness of a hunting gun. This is why I believe hyper light pellets are next to useless for hunting, but I’ll come back to this after discussing the characteristics of a good hunting projectile.
I believe that the medium weight round nose is the best pellet for spring piston airguns because out of a gun generating 800 to 1000 feet they offer the right combination of accuracy (in most guns), penetration (not too much or too little), and terminal performance on game. Killing game with an airgun is a matter of precisely punching a hole through a vital organ, there is no hydrostatic shock yielding the knockdown factor of a fire arm projectile. It doesn’t take a lot of power to do this, but it does take precision. This is why I advise against using the hyper light alloy pellets; they offer no real advantage in terms of penetration (as it’s unnecessary). Muzzle velocity is increased, but to what purpose? These light pellets do not conserve energy down range, shedding it so quickly that by the time they hit thirty or forty yards they are actually moving slower than a heavier pellet with a lower muzzle velocity. At closer ranges there is no practical advantage to the increased penetration provided by the hard lightweight alloys used, as this is not a problem on any game you should be shooting with a springer. The big disadvantage is, and it is one I can’t get past, is that these are the most inaccurate pellets I’ve tested out of my extensive collection of springers. In a game that is all about accuracy, trying to pump up the velocity in your springer by shooting an inaccurate pellet does not make sense. The reason I make such an issue out of this, is that it is easy for the new air gunner to be distracted by claims of the extreme velocities a certain gun can achieve when it really doesn’t matter that much. The advantage of a powerful gun is not a higher velocity per se, it is that it can drive a heavier pellet allowing you to reach out a little further in practical hunting situations.
Selecting which gun to buy can get confusing when you start looking at the extensive range of spring piston airguns available, and there is no way I could touch on them all in a single article. There are a group of classic guns still in production that I’ve used and hunted with over years, and a few of the newer guns that have shown a lot of promise.
When I think of a classic hunting springer, the guns that come to mind are the AirArms TX 200, the Beeman C1, R9, and RX2 models, and the RWS Model 34. The British built TX 200 has been around for several years and is still a favorite of many air gunners. It is an under lever cocking action with a really nice two step adjustable trigger, and while a bit on the heavy side it is extremely accurate and easy to shoot. This is a gun much favored by the Field Target competition crowd, and as such there are a number of tuners well versed in tweaking the TX200 to perfection for shooters desiring a gun that cycles and shoots smooth as silk. I carried one of these rifles for several years, using it to cleanly harvest rabbits, ground squirrels, and other small game.
Nobody offers a wider range of great hunting springers than Beeman; having said this it should be noted that Beeman has guns built for them by the leading British and German manufacturers, and that they have had a focus on spring piston airguns for many years. The C1 is a medium powered gun that has been out of production for a few years, but is probably my all time favorite hunting springer. It is lightweight, compact, easy to cock and load, and accurate; this is the gun that illustrates you don’t need to go supersonic to get great field performance. At around 850 fps in .177, this gun has been responsible for more game in the bag than any other single rifle I‘ve owned. The R9 is the gun in production, that while more elegant in design and finish, most closely approximates the performance of my beloved C1. The RX2 is a gas strut (gas ram) powerhouse of the Beeman collection that comes in all the standard calibers, but in my view the .25 caliber in this gun is the epitome of what an uber-magnum spring piston airgun should be. Generating around 30 fpe it is one of a handful of springers that can live up to the largest of standard calibers. The fact that every aspect of the craftsmanship and performance is superb, mitigates the fact that the gun is large and heavy. This is the gun I’ll take when setting up an ambush for a woodchuck or raccoon, not a day of hiking through the mountains.
The German built RWS line offers many great rifles, but the one I particularly like is the Model 34. The gun is fairly light weight, has a smooth cocking action, and a nice two stage adjustable trigger; but it is the tack driving accuracy that made a fan out of me. After shooting many hundreds of jackrabbits over the years, I still remember threading a pellet through dense spring desert foliage to drop a rabbit at 40 yards offhand with this gun as one of my best shots. As with all of the guns discussed thus far, they have stayed in production (with the exception of the C1) while others went by the wayside. Why? Because they focused on great accuracy with adequate power, rock solid smooth operating actions, excellent triggers, and ergonomic designs.
Many of the newer gun designs entering the market are quite interesting, with the Walther Falcon coming in as an excellent platform for hunters wanting a .25 caliber. The Tech Force, BAM, and other Chinese brands of guns are lower priced no frills performance, as are a number of newer guns being brought out by Crosman. I’ve also enjoyed shooting and hunting with some of the newer guns from Hammerli and Mendoza. These newer designs and models are also generally aimed at the more price sensitive segment of buyers, but there are some real winners in the mix. My advice for the first time buyer; look for a gun that a) fits your body, b) fits your intended use, and c) fits your wallet. If you are five feet tall and weigh a hundred pounds, you probably don’t want a nine pound rifle that takes 40 lb of cocking effort. Some of the newer guns such as the Walthers come with stocks that can be adjusted for the shooter, which is an excellent feature for growing outdoorsman. Remember that the use for which most of us will use an airgun is to hunt small game and varmint. Accuracy is the goal, don’t make your decision on a manufacturers claim that their guns are the fastest ride in town, it doesn’t really matter much once you get a .22 moving around 750 fps (900 fps for a .177). Do look at the things that matter; that you are able to bring the gun quickly into action, that you can hit a half dollar sized target at 35 - 40 yards every time you shoot at it, that the gun has a quality trigger you can adjust to your liking, and that the gun meets your personal sense of aesthetics. if you can afford to invest in one of the classic guns do it, very few hunters that buy one of the guns mentioned feel a pressing need to replace it any time soon. But if you don’t want to spend the money for one of these, by all means look at the lower priced models mentioned, there are some excellent ones out there. But stay focused on accuracy, quality of build, and fit; don’t base your decisions solely on claims of extreme velocity using extremely light weight pellets. And my last bit of advice; do your home work and find a gun that you’ll shoot a lot, with the right gun and plenty of practice you’ll be amazed at how effective spring piston airguns can be for small game hunting.