Getting into airgun shooting – Mat Manning discusses support for new shooters

New recruits represent the future of our sport and our businesses. Mat Manning reminds retailers of their responsibility to set them off on the right track.

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It is a very pleasing fact that sales of airguns and related accessories appear to have gone through the roof over the past year. Much of the boost to trade can be attributed to the initial coronavirus lockdown, which in some cases saw people literally panic-buying airguns to ensure that they had something entertaining to do in the garden while confined to their homes. There were, no doubt, other reasons too, but the upshot was that trade was good for many and we experienced a significant and very welcome influx of newcomers.

Less pleasing is the fact that many of these new shooters don’t appear to have had the best start in our sport, and much of that is down to bad advice from retailers. I get inundated with questions through the various social media channels, and way too many of them are coming from people who have been ripped off or misled when buying airguns from so-called reputable gun shops.

There are lots of excellent airgun retailers out there, and most of them employ staff with specialist knowledge so they are able to ensure that customers have the best possible experience, and end up with the right kit, when buying air rifles. 

There are others who think they know what they are talking about but spout the usual received wisdom when it comes to airguns, and there is another, and thankfully rarer, breed of retailer who just sees airguns as a way to make a quick buck; these are the rogues who will sell unsuspecting punters any old junk just to keep the tills ringing. While getting shot of gear might seem like the be all and end all of retail, it’s extremely counterproductive if it isn’t the right gear – because customers who have had a bad experience won’t come back.

To help retailers who may unwittingly fall into the latter two groups, here are five of the main gripes that I find myself having to deal with when miffed punters get in touch.

Wrong Gun For The Job

The possibilities are endless for this one but way too many newbies are being sold airguns that are completely inappropriate for their requirements. Cases in point include juniors being recommended hefty adult-sized air rifles that are impossible for them to shoulder properly and gullible shoppers with more money than sense going home with high-end airguns when all they wanted was something for a bit of backyard plinking.

I know it goes against a salesman’s instincts but if a punter says he or she has a maximum budget of say £2,000, please don’t simply set yourself the challenge of extracting the full sum from them before they walk out the door. Instead, take the time to talk with them and listen to them in order to understand what they have in mind and what would best suit their needs. People who are sold the right kit will have a good experience, will very likely come back and will probably tell their friends about the great service they received. 

Those who have a bad experience won’t return (unless it is to demand a refund) and will almost certainly tell their friends and as many people as they can reach on social media (and that’s quite a few given bad news’s enviable reputation for travelling fast) about how displeased they are.

Substandard Pellets 

I find it staggering that so many retailers still stock poor quality airgun ammo given the relative affordability of the best brands. The finest airguns in the world will shoot very badly with poor ammo, and budget airguns can shoot surprisingly well when fed decent pellets. 

This should be common knowledge by now but not only are retailers still selling the rubbish stuff, some are actually daft enough to include them as freebies with new guns. It’s like selling a perfectly good car and throwing in a free tank of dirty water—don’t do it.

On the subject of ammo, please also avoid perpetuating the myth that some calibres are better for fur and some for feather, the howler that pointed pellets penetrate deeper than domed ones, and the laughable theory that flathead and hollow-point pellets mushroom on impact when fired from a sub-12ft/lb airgun. 

Whether customers want to punch paper, topple tins or slay squirrels, they’ll do it better if they focus on precision rather than unfounded theories of terminal ballistics. The most accurate pellet designs are the ones that serious target shooters gravitate towards—steer newcomers in the direction of these and they will find it much easier to hit the bullseye.

Wonky Scope Setup

The offer of having a telescopic sight set up by an expert is too good for most newcomers to resist, and rightly so. The problem is that some “experts” don’t appear to have a clue what a proper scope setup should look like.

I have been to ranges where shooters have asked me to help them zero their new combo only to be confronted with a scope that looks like it was mounted by someone with one leg much longer than the other. Nobody who sells guns should have to be told that the horizontal element of a scope reticle should be just that, and not on the skew. 

The bolts on the top ring section should be nipped in evenly on both sides and not graunched up to the point of being tube-crushingly tight, and try to get the eye relief close to being correct when you’re at it. If you don’t know how to mount a scope properly, have a look on YouTube, there are loads of easy-to-follow tutorial videos on there.

Also, think twice about cheap scope mounts. These may seem like a good option for customers who are on a tight budget but my feeling is that it’s better to help them settle on a scope with a few less whistles and bells (most people can live without an illuminated reticle or bubble level) and guide them towards a quality set of mounts. Scope mounts form the critical link between the gun and the sighting system, and accuracy will prove very elusive if they aren’t up to scratch.

Pointless Accessories

Newcomers to airgun shooting are easily seduced by random accessories and often seem to end up buying the wrong ones. For instance, backyard shooters who are purchasing their first airgun shouldn’t consider night vision optics as a must-have item, and the bloke who wants to bag a few bunnies on his friend’s farm probably doesn’t need a set of pellet scales. Scuba tanks are another bone of contention. 

In my opinion, they are the best means of refilling a pre-charged airgun but, for customers who live in remote places miles from anywhere that offers a bottle-filling service, a manual pump is a far better choice. When they are really hooked on the sport and tired of toiling away over a stiff pump, they may even come back and buy their own compact compressor.

Lots of people starting up airgun shooting will be very eager to indulge themselves in some accessories to use alongside their new gun and of course they shouldn’t be discouraged. Really useful extras for starting out include gun bags, bipods, knockdown targets and, for those who want to take it a little more seriously, laser rangefinders.

Inflated Expectations

Even shooters who have a very positive experience with the many excellent airgun retailers out there can end up feeling slightly deflated, and that is usually because their expectations have been built up too high. The various forms of shooting media are a guilty party in this instance but I think it’s important to let newcomers know that it takes a long time to be able to get the best from their gear.

It isn’t just the magazines and videos, though, and I have on numerous occasions heard gun shop staff telling wide-eyed punters that the airgun they are about to receive in exchange for their hard-earned cash can easily kill a rabbit at 50m. 

That is quite true: the gun has the power to do it but people often forget to point out the fact that it hinges on the pellet striking an area about the size of a 10p coin. Newcomers need to be made very aware of these limitations and understand that a lot of time needs to be spent punching paper before you turn your attention to live quarry.

Thankfully, most retailers are getting it right and many of them go way beyond the extra mile when it comes to looking after their customers. 

It isn’t complicated stuff, and everyone in the trade should be committed to ensuring that all their customers have a positive experience. Afterall, our sport and our businesses depend on them.

More from Mat Manning on Gun Trade News


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