An air rifle or air pistol can be a really useful tool for anyone who needs to collect game unobtrusively while trying to survive.
I write a regular blog on airguns for www.airgunsofarizona.com . So here’s “Uncle Jock’s” take on why you might want to include an airgun in your survival kit.
Here’s a quick summary of the key advantages of airguns:
Tack-driving accuracy – High-end air rifles are among the most accurate projectile launchers on the planet. For example, Olympic match air rifles can literally put pellet after pellet through the same hole at 10 meters, and field target airgunners can routinely hit a dime at 50 yards with their air rifles. Some dedicated long-range airgunners report shooting sub-MOA groups at 100 yards and beyond.
Low shooting expense – Once you purchase your air rifle or air pistol, it will be superbly kind to your wallet. Depending upon which pellet your airgun “likes,” you’ll find typical shooting costs on the order of 1-3 cents per shot for ammunition. A sleeve (10 500-pellet tins) of high quality pellets will typically run around $120 plus shipping
Convenience and accessibility – Airguns can be legally shot in many places where it is absolutely forbidden to discharge a firearm. Check with your local authorities, but in many places, you can shoot an airgun in your backyard, basement or garage without running afoul of the law. That means you should be able to get in lots of practice at relatively low cost.
A neighbor-friendly report – Virtually all airguns are quieter than firearms (with the possible exception of some big-bore hunting models). In addition, it is rare for airguns to launch pellets faster than the sound barrier. Some airguns are inherently very quiet, and there are models that are virtually silent.
Some other considerations – You can spend as little or as much as you like, depending upon your tastes and your wallet. You can pick up a utilitarian air pistol or air rifle capable of bouncing soda cans around the back yard for under $50. Or you can spend thousands of dollars on the most sophisticated air rifles on the planet.
Before you select an air rifle or air pistol, you need to understand the several different powerplants used in airguns to send the pellet downrange. Here’s an overview.
Multi-stroke pneumatic (MSP or pump-up) airguns require 2-8 strokes of an on-board lever (usually the forestock) to store compressed air in the powerplant. This is the powerplant of classic Benjamin and Sheridan air riles. They are virtually recoilless and completely self-contained, so all you need for a day afield is the gun and a tin of pellets. The power can be adjusted by the number of strokes, but once the gun has been fired, it must be pumped up all over again. Another consideration: when pumped up to the max, a multi-stroke pneumatic can be loud.
Single-stroke pneumatic (SSP) airguns also use a lever to compress air in the powerplant, but – as the name implies – require only a single stroke to fully charge the gun. This is the powerplant that was used on many older Olympic 10-meter match guns. SSPs are fully self-contained, easy to cock, highly consistent and often incredibly accurate. The power and speed of these guns is usually low, shooting relatively light match-grade .177 pellets at 500-600 fps.
Spring-piston airguns – also called “springers” – use a lever (normally the barrel or a side- or under-lever) to cock a spring and piston. When the trigger is pulled, the spring is released, pushing the piston forward and compressing a powerful blast of air that sends the pellet down the barrel. Springers are self-contained, often relatively quiet and can be very accurate, but the movement of the spring and piston within the gun before the pellet leaves the muzzle makes them the most difficult airgun type to shoot with high accuracy. Nevertheless, many riflemen can and do master shooting springers.
CO2 airguns use 12-gram cartridges, 88-gram cartridges or CO2 transferred from a bulk tank to launch the pellet. CO2 airguns are recoilless, convenient, and (in target models, increasingly replaced by PCP target models) extremely accurate. Noise levels vary from model to model. Cocking effort is usually very low, making these guns a favorite for family shooting. CO2 airguns require periodic refilling and performance can vary with temperature. Velocity will drop in wintry conditions, and rise in very warm conditions.
Precharged pneumatic airguns (PCPs) are charged with air from a SCUBA tank or high-pressure pump. This is powerplant of choice for high-energy hunting guns, Olympic 10-meter rifles and pistols, and top-echelon field target rifles. PCPs are virtually recoil-free, very consistent, and often superbly accurate. But they are not self-contained – you need a SCUBA tank or high-pressure hand pump available to recharge them, and they can be noisy.
When I think about survival airguns, here are the characteristics that I would prefer (and, as you will see, they don’t always work together, so you’ll need to pick the characteristics that are most important to you):
1. Portability. That means either a pistol or a rifle than can be readily broken down. That eliminates many air rifles.
2. Self-contained. I want to reduce the need for ancillary equipment and consumables. That eliminates all CO2 airguns (which don't work well in cold weather) and pre-charged airguns which require a tank or pump for recharging.
3. Sufficient power for taking small game. Target air pistols won't get it done. Some springer pistols make 6 foot-pounds of energy, which is sufficient if you skills allow to stalk within 10-15 yards on small game. Some multi-stroke pneumatic pistols make 8-10 foot pounds of energy. Most air rifles generate enough energy to do the job. I have reliable reports of one shooter killing a feral goat with a multi-stroke pneumatic rifle, and another shooter inadvertently killing a deer with a cheap Chinese spring-piston rifle (he was trying to chase it away from the plants in his yard and caused a pneumo-thorax).
4. Stealthy report. I don't want to be noticed. Spring-piston powerplants are inherently quieter than most others because of the smaller quantity of air used to drive the pellet. Multi-stroke pneumatics tend to generate more noise than springers, but can be quieted with barrel shrouds or by reducing the number of pumps (which reduces the power).
5. Easy to shoot well. Spring-piston powerplants are the hardest to shoot well because of their whiplash forward and back recoil. Multi-stroke pneumatics are easy to shoot well.
6. Reliability. Airguns dealers tell me that springers are the most reliable powerplant. You can usually put at least a couple of thousand rounds through one before a rebuild is needed, and some are far more reliable.
7. Ease of maintenance. Spring piston powerplants usually require a spring compressor for assembly and disassembly. MSPs usually can be taken apart with hand tools.
Specific recommendations. The Mac-1 Steroid Benjamin or Steroid Sheridan is a dead reliable MSP rifle that can easily take small game out to 30 yards, is easily broken down, but is loud at full power and very difficult to silence. A modified 1377 pistol can be built up into a small, easy take-down .22 MSP rifle. It makes a bit less power than a Steroid MSP, and can be readily silenced.
The Diana/RWS LP8, Beeman P1, Browning 800, and Weihrauch HW45 are spring-piston pistols that make around 6 foot-pounds of energy, are inherently fairly quiet (but not dead quiet) and require some dedication to shoot with high precision. Nevertheless, small game has been taken with them, especially at closer ranges.
Jock Elliott, Airgun Correspondent, Precision Shooting Magazine, and author of Elliott on Airguns.