It’s easy to think of air rifles as little more than toys. However, modern technology has taken the air rifle to all new levels of effectiveness and functionality. Today’s shooters can choose from budget-priced options to high-end models requiring a hefty cash investment. With so many options on the market, it’s impossible to crown a single model as the “best air rifle”.
Whether you’re a beginner looking for a small caliber airgun for fun plinking or a reliable long-range option for hunting or target competition, we’ve got you covered. We’re going to dive deep into the world of air guns. We just need to offer a warning before we get started. Air rifle shooting can be pretty addictive, so proceed with caution.
Choosing The Best Air Rifle
Air rifles have come a long way since the days of the iconic Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. While you can still find the Red Ryder on store shelves, you can also find high-powered precision options perfect for serious long range shooting. Prices range from around $25 to nearly $1000.
With such a wide range of options, finding the right air rifle for your individual needs can feel pretty overwhelming. Understanding air rifle technology, as well as what features you need for specific shooting pursuits, will help you narrow the field. Here are a few key things to consider on your hunt for the perfect air rifle.
All air rifles use some sort of air to propel a projectile down the barrel and toward the target. However, different rifles use different systems to produce the force of air necessary for shooting. The air system is referred to as the rifle’s power plant.
There are five basic types of power plants used in airguns: spring piston, pump pneumatic, CO2 gas, pre-charged pneumatic (PCP), and the traditional BB gun. Here is a quick run-down of each power plant, how they work, as well as the pros and cons of each design.
Spring piston is the most common type of power plant used in air rifles. It is also one of the most affordable. This simple-to-use power plant design involves a spring that is compressed when the shooter cocks the gun. When you press the trigger, the spring drives a piston forward, quickly compressing the air inside to a high pressure. It is that air pressure that drives the pellet forward and out the muzzle of the rifle.
There are several benefits to the spring piston power plant. First, spring pistons are self-contained, meaning you never need a separate air canister. You also never need to recharge or refill the gun with air. Spring pistons also produce the exact same power level every single time you shoot the gun.
However, spring pistons tend to be loud. They also create a lot of vibration, which can make them uncomfortable to shoot.
Pneumatic air rifles contain a reservoir that is filled by pumping the gun. When you press the trigger, the reservoir opens, allowing air to escape quickly. The force of the air escaping propels the projectile forward. You can vary the power of each shot by modifying the number of pumps you use to charge the weapon.
The major drawback of the pump pneumatic power plant is that you must pump the rifle before every single shot. However, these air rifles produce no recoil and can be incredibly accurate. In fact, some of the most accurate air rifles on the market have pump pneumatic power plants.
CO2 power plants use carbon dioxide, usually contained in a cartridge, as a propellant. When pressurized, CO2 is a liquid. Each time you press the trigger, the liquid CO2 in the cartridge is released and converted to gas form. The release of CO2 gas pushes the pellet down the barrel and toward the target.
Each CO2 cartridge will power multiple shots, so you can continue shooting until the cartridge is empty.
Unfortunately, CO2 is extremely sensitive to temperature changes. When the weather is cold, the CO2 tends to remain in liquid form, reducing the amount of pressure generated. This also reduces the power behind your projectile, which affects accuracy and terminal energy.
Conversely, on extremely hot days, the pressure rises and can cause your rifle to malfunction.
Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP)
PCP power plants use a reservoir that stores pressurized air until you make a shot. PCP rifles produce much higher pressures (sometimes as much as 3500 psi) than most other power plant designs. The high pressure makes these air rifles more powerful and more effective at longer ranges. Any air rifle designed to hunt larger game will have a PCP power plant.
PCP air rifles produce virtually zero recoil and are extremely accurate. However, PCP power plants have several disadvantages. You will need an external source of air to fill the reservoir. You will need either a special hand pump or some sort of high-pressure tank like those used by SCUBA divers to fill the reservoir once it is empty.
It can be easy to overfill the reservoir on a PCP air rifle. This can weaken the rifle’s seals and affect the power and velocity of your projectiles. Only fill the reservoir to the manufacturer’s suggested limit.
Traditional BB Guns
The famous Daisy Red Ryder that our parents and grandparents grew up with is considered a traditional BB gun. You can still find plenty of air rifles on the market today that use this tried and true design.
Traditional BB guns use a sort of catapult to start the motion of the BB, and then a light spring piston to increase the projectile’s velocity. These types of air rifles are generally low-powered, very affordable, and make a great introduction to air rifle shooting for youngsters.
Modern air rifles can shoot a wide range of projectile sizes. Here are a few of the most common calibers.
.177 – The smallest pellet size, .117 is the standard projectile used in air gun competition.
.20 – These slightly larger pellets are often used in pneumatic pump air rifles.
.22 – This is the most common pellet size used for hunting. In the right air rifle, .22 pellets can humanely harvest varmints, squirrels, and most other small game animals.
.25 – Pellets of this size work well for larger animals like possums and raccoons, making them a popular choice for pest control.
Larger Hunting Calibers
With the introduction of PCP power plants, air rifles have become more effective for hunting large game. Although the ammunition is considerably more expensive, choosing a big bore air rifle that shoots .357, .45, or even .50 caliber projectiles expands your hunting possibilities.
BBs Vs. Pellets
“BB” stands for “Ball Bearing.” These simple projectiles have been used for generations. They are cheap and easily available. However, because they are round, they are not very aerodynamic, which can result in some major accuracy issues.
BBs are great for casual backyard plinking. However, because they are usually made of steel, there is a ricochet hazard associated with them. For safety, BBs should never be shot at concrete, rocks, or other hard surfaces.
Pellets evolved from BBs and are designed to be more aerodynamic. They come in many sizes and weights. Low-powered air rifles need lighter pellets because they lack the force necessary to propel heavier projectiles effectively.
There are also several pellet shapes you can choose from, including superdome, superpoint, super-h point, and wadcutters.
Usually made from some type of lead alloy, pellets are generally softer than steel BBs. This reduces the chance of ricochet, although it does not completely eliminate it. The softer material also helps them expand in soft tissue, creating a more devastating wound channel when hunting small animals.
Best Air Rifle On The Market Reviews
One of the wonderful things about the world of air rifles is the variety of models available. There is something out there to meet every shooting need and every shooter’s budget. Here are just a few of our favorites to help get you started on your search.
1. Gamo Whisper Fusion Mach 1 Air Rifle – Best For Beginners
We think the Gamo Whisper Fusion break barrel Mach 1 is perfect for newer air rifle shooters. It’s super quiet, easy to use, and is available in the two most common air rifle calibers: .117 and .22.
This model uses a gas-powered piston system that is incredibly reliable, reduces noise and vibration, and allows you to leave the rifle cocked for extended periods of time.
The biggest perk of the inert gas system is an increase in power, penetration, and speed. This rifle sends .177 projectiles zipping from the muzzle at an impressive 1420 fps (feet per second). If you need a larger pellet, the Mach 1 pushes .22 pellets from the muzzle at a velocity of 1020 fps.
This air rifle is definitely whisper quiet. It features Gamo’s famous integrated Whisper technology which works to dampen noise. If you need to control the squirrels in your suburban neighborhood but are concerned about noise ordinances, this rifle is perfect for the job.
The gas piston design of the Mach 1 also keeps the total weight of the rifle low and manageable. The gas piston system, when coupled with the durable, yet lightweight synthetic stock, has the Mach 1 tipping the scales at a mere 8 pounds.
2. Crosman Benjamin Trail NP XL 1500 – Best Entry Level
This entry level air rifle from industry leader Crosman comes with everything you need to get started. The package includes a Centerpoint 3-9x40mm scope with an adjustable objective and a range estimating reticle.
The attractive hardwood stock features installed sling mounts and a convenient thumbhole that youth shooters will find particularly comfortable.
This break barrel air rifle uses Benjamin’s exclusive Nitro Piston power plant. This reliable system produces minimal noise, recoil, and vibration. It also offers smooth, easy cocking which makes for an enjoyable shooting experience. It also makes it easy to make fast, quiet follow-up shots.
The Crosman Benjamin Trail NP XL is available in .117, .22 and .25 caliber options, all of which are reliably accurate out to 100 yards. All of this and a price tag under $300 makes this model perfect for new shooters.
3. Seneca Recluse .357 Caliber PCP Air Rifle – Best For Hunting
This air rifle from Seneca shoots large .357 caliber (9mm) projectiles using a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) system. The high power system produces some serious energy, making this rifle perfect for popping woodchucks, nutria, possums, rats, raccoons, crows and other varmints.
The Seneca Recluse features a hardwood Monte Carlo stock and blued steel components, giving it the look and feel of a traditional hunting rifle.
It also features a dual air reservoir that holds 500cc. A full tank will power 8 to 10 shots. You can choose from two power levels, so you can adjust the pressure of the air output to match your shooting needs. The rifle also features a built-in pressure gauge so you can keep up with the internal pressure.
4. Gamo TC45 PCP Air Rifle – Best Big Bore
With recent improvements in technology, big bore air rifles are reliable and powerful options that offer tons of performance in the field. This one from Gamo is available in a whopping .45 caliber version. There’s also a smaller .35 caliber option that is perfectly practical for varmint hunting or for keeping your predator population in check. It is chock-full of knock-down power, even on those tough long-range shots.
This air rifle has a single shot design that provides maximum ammo flexibility. It also features a two-stage trigger that you can adjust to suit your personal preferences. You can also top this air rifle with your favorite optic using the tactical rail system.
Because this is a big bore rifle, it produces significantly more noise than versions in smaller calibers. It does have a few integrated noise dampening features to try to minimize shot report, including a fully shrouded barrel.
5. Hatsun Hercules Bully – Best Tactical
The Hercules Bully from Hatsun is formatted in the tactical bullpup style. This means the barrel runs most of the length of the weapon, making it highly compact, lightweight, and easily maneuverable, especially in tight spaces. This air rifle is adjustable, and allows for almost limitless customization, so it can be outfitted to suit almost any shooter.
The model features Hatsun’s patented QuietEnergy fully-shrouded barrel and integrated sound moderator, making it at least 50 percent quieter than the competition. The Bully is available in just about every caliber on the market, including .177, .22, .25, .30, .35 and .45.
The rifle comes with high-quality Truglo flip up sights. However, it also features a Weaver rail that will accommodate a magnified scope, red dot, or whatever optic you have in your arsenal.
6. Umarex Legends Lever Action Cowboy Rifle – Best For Youth
This backyard-friendly, quiet shooting CO2 rifle is designed to resemble the Wild West’s iconic WInchester Model 1894 lever action. You load it just like a real cowboy action rifle by inserting up to ten reloadable BB cartridges in the lower tubular magazine. The realistic lever action spits spent cases when you activate the lever. If cowboy action shooting seems exciting, this is the next best thing.
The rifle shoots .117 caliber BBs and is powered by two 12-gram CO2 cartridges that are easily inserted into the gun’s stock. The Legends Lever Action has a sturdy, all-metal action, an adjustable rear sight, and a sturdy fixed front sight. Its quiet shooting makes it perfect for backyard plinking or target shooting. It’s also a terrific option for historic reenactments. We also love the fact that it costs well under $200.
7. Springfield Armory M1 Carbine Air Rifle
Another awesome historic reproduction is this CO2 powered M1 Carbine from Springfield Armory. This semi auto replica shoots .117 caliber BBs from a full metal action. It features your choice of a synthetic stock designed to look like real wood or authentic hardwood for a more historically accurate look and feel.
The M1 Carbine Air Rifle operates off a single 12-gram CO2 cartridge that conveniently inserts into a 15-round, drop-free magazine. Each cartridge will allow you to pull off approximately 40 accurate shots before you need to swap out the canister.
With a gas-powered recoil system, this awesome air rifle produces an authentic, semi-automatic shooting experience. It also features a traditional post front sight and windage-adjustable rear sight, just like the real M1 carbines used by the U.S. military from World War II to the 1970s.
8. Ruger Blackhawk Combo Air Rifle – Best Value
This spring piston, break-barrel, single-shot air rifle from Umarex (under license from Sturm, Ruger & Co.), is perfect for small game hunting, pest control, plinking, and target shooting. It shoots .117 caliber alloy pellets with an impressive muzzle velocity of 1200 fps.
The Ruger Blackhawk air rifle features a durable stock made from a lightweight synthetic material that resists bumps, thumps, and wet weather with ease. The stock has the perfect ergonomic design for a repeatable, comfortable cheek weld, which is vital to consistent accuracy.
The Combo also includes a 4x32mm scope and mounting rings for easy installation. The scope is of surprisingly good quality and features a 35-yard set parallax and a 1/4 MOA Duplex reticle. The rifle also has light-collecting fiber optic iron sights that facilitate rapid target acquisition. These sights are also highly visible, even in low light shooting conditions.
9. Daisy 880 Powerline Air Rifle Kit – Best Pump Air Rifle
This variable pump pneumatic rifle from Daisy is the epitome of easy. You simply pump the gun three times for close range plinking or up to ten times for a more powerful shot perfect for pest control.
Built to stand up to rough use and harsh weather, the Daisy Powerline is a great first air rifle for young shooters (when used with adult supervision). It features a durable synthetic, wood grain stock with a raised comb for the perfect cheek weld every time. The foregrip also features some aggressive checkering designed to enhance a solid grip with the non-dominant hand.
Although the rifle is equipped with an easy-to-use blade and ramp sight, the kit also includes a 4x15mm scope. This quality scope is fog proof, shockproof, color corrected, and features a simple crosshair reticle. The kit also includes safety glass, a tin of 500 pellets, and a tin of 750 BBs.
10. Crosman Challenger Competition Air Rifle – Best For Target Competition
If you want to do more than plink soda cans off fence posts, the Crosman Challenger is a serious air rifle for serious shooters. Approved for legal use in Sporter Class air rifle competition, the Crosman Challenger features a free floated barrel, an adjustable two-stage match trigger, and precision sights. The sights include an adjustable aperture front sight and a micro-click rear sight for dependable accuracy. This is the sight you need when fractions of an inch can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The stock’s cheek riser and length of pull are fully adjustable for a truly customized fit. You can also choose between CO2 or Crosman’s efficient PCP platform.
This may not be the most powerful air rifle on our list, but it is definitely the most accurate. If you or your youngster want to get started in air rifle competition, the Crosman Challenger is hard to beat.
Whether you’re interested in an air rifle to help get a youngster interested in shooting, pop groundhogs on the back forty, or engage in some serious target competition, there is a model perfectly suited to meet your needs. While there is no one single best air rifle, all of the options on our list are durable, reliable, and of good quality. Best of all, they are all fun to shoot. What could be better than that?
Alice Jones Webb is a writer, life-long hunter, experienced shooter, and mother of 4 up-and-coming shooting and outdoor enthusiasts. Her opinions are respected around the industry and have been featured on leading firearm publications such as PewPewTactical.com, Recoilweb.com and MuckRack.com, amongst amongst others. She grew up flinging arrows and bullets at Virginia whitetails, turkey, and game birds, but her favorite hunting experience is chasing bull elk in the Colorado backcountry. Never one to sit still and look pretty, Alice is also a self-defense instructor and competitive archer. She currently resides in rural North Carolina with her children, non-hunting husband, and a well-stocked chest freezer. Contact me at: