Hunting with Spring Piston Airguns
JIm Chapman
With all of the talk about PCP airguns these days, we shouldn't loose sight of the fact that spring piston airguns (springers) provide all the power, accuracy, and self contained performance the small game hunter or varmint hunter requires. Add in the fact that they are economical and are readily available in literally hundreds of models, and you'll understand why so many shooters and hunters swear by them.
Hunting Airguns
The prospective airgun hunter has a couple options when considering an airgun; either a spring piston or a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) power plant being the most widely used. Pre-charged pneumatics are filled from a high pressure air source, such as a SCUBA tank, and offer many advantages to the hunter. They are compact, accurate, powerful, recoilless, and effective with large caliber pellets. The disadvantages are that they are expensive, take additional filling gear, and are reliant on an external power source. The other power plant mentioned is the spring piston airgun; the advantages being that they are fully self-contained, can be quite powerful and accurate, and as a rule cost a lot less than PCPs. The disadvantages are that they tend to be larger and heavier (not always the case though), have more recoil so take a bit more practice to shoot well, and require more effort to cock as a strong spring must be compressed to ready the gun for shooting.

A compelling argument can be made for either of these power plants, and there are strong proponents for both. I think that it depends on your intended use, your specific hunting requirements, personal preferences, and how deep you want to dig into the piggy bank. I have both and use both for hunting a variety of quarry, but in this article weíll take a look at the spring piston power plant. I find the idea of a fully self contained gun very appealing, and will often take a springer along when heading out fishing or camping, anywhere that I donít want to carry along a lot of extra gear or canít be reliant on an external source of power to keep the gun shooting. So letís take a look at what these guns can do with respect to performance, whatís available on the market, and what type of hunting you can use them for.

Spring Piston Performance

The spring piston airgun generates power using a powerful spring-loaded piston that is housed within a compression chamber. Cocking the gun (using a break barrel, side lever, or under lever mechanism) causes the piston assembly to compress the spring. When the spring is released it pushes the piston forward compressing a column of air in the chamber behind the pellet. The spring piston power plant is capable of developing sufficient energy to get a projectile moving at supersonic velocities, though effectiveness as a hunting tool is not solely a function of muzzle velocity. Pellet design is somewhat different than that of a firearm bullet, and many do not perform well at supersonic velocities becoming unstable as they transition across the sound barrier, which can adversely impact accuracy. In addition, a major advantage of airguns is that they are quiet. But once the projectile goes supersonic an audible ďcrackĒ is generated, yet still with a lower sound signature than a .rimfire 22 short. If the projectile is kept subsonic, then any sound from the gun is primarily the mechanical noise generated by the piston slamming home. I donít mean to imply that you disregard muzzle velocity, by all means look for a gun with a higher velocity. But then rather than trying to achieve the highest velocity possible with that gun, which is typically achieved using the lightest pellet available, try a heavier pellet.  A 14 grain pellet moving at 1000 fps yields more power that a 7 grain pellet moving at 1200 fps. The heavy pellet moving at subsonic velocities is generally quieter and more accurate, yielding better terminal performance on game.

Most airguns generate relatively low power compared to even a rimfire. This is not always the case; there are a couple pre-charged pneumatic airguns in my collection that are getting close to 600 fpe. However, most (not all) spring piston guns are limited to under 20 fpe. This is plenty of power for small game out to forty yards, and bigger stuff such as raccoon and woodchucks at 30 yards.

In the United Kingdom, where airgun hunting has a huge following, hunters are limited to 12 fpe guns without a special (and almost impossible to obtain) firearms certificate. They have taken untold numbers of rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, and crows with these guns over the years. The whole objective of airgun hunting is achieving optimal accuracy from both the gun and the hunter. This is the overriding criteria; once a gun is doing 14 fpe any small game animal it connects with is going down cleanly so long as the shot placement is correct. However, once pinpoint accuracy is achieved, more power never hurts, and it will permit the hunter to reach out a bit further! Iíve been using a Beeman C1 (built by Webley & Scott) for well over two decades, and this mid 800 fps carbine in .177 has put more game in the bag than just about any gun Iíve ever owned. If youíll be going after larger quarry such as raccoon, a gun producing 20 fpe or more is a good idea.

Another consideration when choosing a hunting springer is the cocking effort. It only takes a single cocking motion to prepare the gun for shooting, but the effort can be substantial. As a rule of thumb, the more powerful the gun the more effort will go into cocking it.  Thatís why my 30 fpe .25 caliber Webley Patriot is not the first choice when plinking. The 40 lb cocking effort is very manageable for a days hunting, but is less ideal if the intention is to shoot a couple tins of pellets during a range session! I think finding the right balance of accuracy, power, cocking effort, and field attributes (size, weight, fit) is key to selecting the right gun.

Example Of Hunting Springers

So what guns are available and where do you get them? It is possible to find a limited selection of spring piston airguns at the local discount chain or sporting goods stores. If you live by one of the big hunting specialty stores, the selection increases. But these only represent the tip of the iceberg; to see the wide variety of springers available you need to go to one of the virtual airgun stores. The biggest of these online shops carries a selection of models from RWS/Diana, BSA, Webley, AirArms, Gamo, Beeman, Weihrauch and others. I have about fifty springers in my collection, and have had literally hundreds of others over the years.  As an example Iíll discuss three rifles Iíve been hunting with a lot recently; the Webley Patriot, Gamo CFX, and the Beeman R9. There are many other great rifles, but these three are guns that fit a range of hunting needs.

The uber-magnum in the spring piston class is the Webley Patriot, a beautifully crafted high powered break barrel air rifle. It is available in .177, .20, .22, and .25 calibers, though I consider the Patriots primary mission to be the delivery of a big .25 caliber pellet with authority! This is a full sized gun; weighing in at a little over 9 lbs the overall length is 45.6 inches with a 17.5 inch barrel. The one I hunt with is a .25 caliber and is set up for shooting the Beeman Ram Jet 24.18 grain roundnose pellet. The gun has a substantial cocking effort, and produces velocities in the 800 m/s range for a power output in excess of 30 fpe. This is the rifle I turn to for bigger animals, such as raccoon, skunks, and fox. On one outing with the Patriot, a coyote sneaked up to a dilapidated outbuilding where I was setting up to ambush crows. Taking advantage of this unexpected opportunity, I anchored him at 20 yards with a single head shot. I believe this is the most powerful spring piston airgun made, and while there is significant bidirectional recoil it isnít too difficult to get acclimated to.

The Spanish airgun giant Gamo produces an extensive line of spring piston airguns, and one that I have enjoyed hunting with is their CFX model. This is a high power rifle with a nicely designed synthetic stock that uses an under barrel cocking lever and has a fixed barrel. It is available in .177 and .22 calibers. My rifle is a .177 and is set up to shoot the inexpensive Gamo Hunter 8.3 grain roundnose pellet. The CFX has a low cocking effort, and produces velocities in the 980 m/s range. Iíve used this gun on everything from rats to jackrabbits, and have been favorably impressed with the accuracy it provides. I used the CFX to shoot pest birds at a local industrial area where they have a problem with starlings, pigeons, and grackles fouling the equipment and facilities. I was able to pick these critters off with almost surgical precision out to 50 yards, with every pellet dropping right on target. The great thing was that outside of the facility manager that granted me access to the property and permission to shoot, nobody else even noticed that I was tucked away out back stacking up the pest! This quiet efficiency is the reason so many new hunting opportunities are opened up in urban areas.

The Beeman R9 is a very well made German gun based on a traditional break barrel design. It is a medium powered air rifle available in .177 and .20 calibers. This compact rifle comes standard with a Rekord trigger and a nicely checkered hardwood stock. My gun is a .177 and is set up to shoot the inexpensive yet very effective Crosman Premier 7.3 grain roundnose pellet. The gun has a low cocking effort and produces velocities in the 900 m/s range. This is an excellent rifle for pest control duty on starlings and pigeons, but itís also yielded up good results as a thirty yard squirrel and rabbit gun. A few months ago I stopped by a friendís farm to scout the area where Iíd planned to set up my deer stand, and while we were talking he mentioned that the farm had been inundated with starlings. They were in the trees, in the barn, in every nook and cranny of several sheds. Using the R9 I moved around the shed cutting through these winged vermin, achieving great accuracy with enough power to get the job done without worrying about damage to the buildings caused by the (occasional) missed shot.

What Caliber Is Best?

There are four standard airgun calibers; the.177, .20, .22, and .25, with the .177 and .22 by far the most common. An old adage Iíve heard repeated by many British airgunners is; .177 for feathers and .22 for fur. I donít think it is quite so simple, and believe that the best caliber depends on what projectile will be used, what ranges will be encountered, how large the quarry is, and the hunters ability to deliver precise shot placement with a particular gun. When comparing the .177 and .22 for instance, both can be effective; the point is that due to the lower velocities achieved with the .22 (in the same model gun) the trajectory will be more arced while the .177 will shoot flatter and require less holdover. On the other hand, shooters that donít have a problem judging holdover will be able to deliver higher impact energy on target with the .22 caliber.

Pre-charged pneumatics airguns work more efficiently with larger caliber pellets, so Iíll usually opt for a .22 or larger. With springers on the other hand, I donít have a strong preference and use the .177 on most small game without reservation. The .20 caliber is a good trade off between the advantages and limitations of the two more common calibers, but both guns and ammo are a bit limited in availability and selection, yet still worth consideration. The .25 is the big kahuna when it comes to spring piston air rifles, and can generate upwards of 30 fpe. There are only a handful of guns that are chambered for the largest conventional caliber, but it is a very effective for medium sized game.

An in-depth discussion on projectile styles is out of the scope of this article, but I will say that a wide selection is available. There is a pellet style and specification for virtually any hunting application; wadcutters and hollowpoints that limit penetration, roundnose and hunting points that increase it, and specialty polymer tipped pellets that optimize the tradeoff between penetration and expansion. There are light alloy pellets that allow lower power guns to increase velocity, and heavier pellets that allow more powerful guns to deliver greater energy at longer distances. The typical cost for a tin of high quality .177 roundnose pellets is around $6.00 for 500 pellets; though you can spend half that or twice as much depending on what you want, inexpensive any way you look at it.

Increased Hunting Opportunity
There are many options available when it comes to the selection of a spring piston air rifle for hunting. The one that is best suited for you depends on what you want to hunt, where you will hunt, what ranges youíll shoot at, and of course, which rifle appeals to your sense of aesthetics. Many of the newer spring piston airgun designs are capable of supersonic velocities. But as discussed, there is more to it than simply getting the highest muzzle velocity; itís picking a gun that yields adequate power and exceptional accuracy. When you hit a small game animal with a head shot at 35 yards, it doesnít really matter if the muzzle velocity was 900 fps or 1130 fps. Itís all about shot placement! When making your rifle and pellet selection, keep in mind that once the pellet goes supersonic there may be some degradation in accuracy depending on pellet design, and it will be louder. With the right gun and pellet combination, a spring piston airgun provides more than enough power to cleanly and efficiently kill just about any small game or pest species found in North America. And because they are quiet and have limited range, they are practical for use in more built up areas. This can result in more hunting opportunities closer to home, and opens up otherwise inaccessible areas where even a rimfire is too loud and carries too far be practical.
One of my all time favorite break barrel spring piston airguns in the Beeman C1, a light, compact mid powered carbine that I've hunted with for 30 years (the same one).
A more recent favorite is the Walther Falcon .25 caliber rifle, which is one of the most powerful springers in the world, generating approximately 30 fpe.
I scope most of my hunting springers, but like to keep a couple around with open sights for hunting in thick bush.
If you scope a springer, make sure it's with optics that can stand up to the bidirectional recoil. There are several good airgun scopes available from Hawke, Leapers, BSA, and Crosman, that can stand up to known scope eaters like this BAM B40..
Another one of the bigger bore springers, the Webley Patriot .25. This gun in this caliber has proven devastating on everything from rabbits to woodchuck.
A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in the Mojave hunting soley with Chinese springers to see how they stood up to rough usage. Proved to me a gun doesn't have to cost a lot to be effective, and these days there are several reasonably priced guns from the USA and Spain available.
The Gamo CFX was an under barrel cocking gun that I used for long range pest control, finding it accurate and shootable.
I often use lower power guns in the 10-12 fpe range to hunt small game and pest in areas where buildings or equipment mustn't be damaged.
A low power springer with scope mounted lights is a great pest control setup for rabbits or rats at night.
I used a Gamo CFX to take a muskrat that was digging out the banks of our pond, which waqs underlining our lawn. A on shot kill at 45 yards.