Pros and cons of high-powered airguns

As demand for super-high-power airguns continues to rocket, Mat Manning explains the advantages and limitations of this specialist hardware

As high-power air rifles become more common, you should be aware of how to use them safely

It may have looked like being a flash in the pan, but the hunger for super-high-power air rifles appears to be here to stay. The trend has been fuelled by shooters from across the pond and their boundless urge to ramp up air rifle output to infinity and beyond.

UK airgunners have picked up on the pursuit of more foot pounds, and are embracing the quest for sky-high power levels, with the result that more and more people are opting for on-ticket air rifles.

Let’s get it clear straight from the start: I don’t think there is a great deal of practical gain when it comes to pushing airgun power to the extreme. Sub-12ft/lb airguns are by far the most versatile, because their low power is a great asset in places where you need to conduct discreet pest control using a quiet gun with minimal risk of carry or ricochet.

I do like to use FAC-rated air rifles and, after trying pretty much everything out there, still believe that a .22 calibre airgun churning out a muzzle energy of around 30ft/lb is about as good as it gets when it comes to the vital combination of precision, flat trajectory, quiet operation and modest muzzle flip. Push up the power much more than that, and you’re probably better off going for a rimfire.

Yankee Doodle

Practicalities seldom stand in the way of fashion, though, and a small detail like making a gun too powerful to perform at its best isn’t going to stop shooters from wanting to mimic their American idols. The fact is that there is tremendous demand for super-high-power airguns, and manufacturers and retailers would be foolish not to indulge it.

In my experience, British gunmaker Daystate and their Swedish counterpart FX Airguns are leading the pack when it comes to pushing the boundaries of airgun power.

I have a .30 calibre Daystate Red Wolf Safari that spits out 44.5-grain pellets at 880fps to return a muzzle energy of over 75ft/lb, and I have a .22 calibre FX Impact MkII that churns out around 49ft/lb with 27-grain slug ammunition.

Both are remarkably accurate out to around 100m, and are quieter than my .22 rimfire running on subsonic ammo, but they do have their limitations. The Daystate has a very curved trajectory, and goes through air like it’s going out of fashion, and the slug-firing FX produces terrifying ricochets with anything but the soundest of backstops in place.

My first piece of advice to anyone selling a high-powered air rifle to somebody is to really stress the safety message. Of course, the buyer should already have a sound understanding of the basics of safe shooting because they will be a firearm certificate holder, but a reminder won’t do them any harm.

Too many experienced shooters seem to adopt the ‘it’s only an airgun’ mentality, even when using FAC-rated models, and I think the lack of noise and recoil leads lots of people to underestimate them.

A high-powered air rifle needs to be shot with the same respect and attention to safety as a powder-burner, especially if you are using slug ammunition, which increases carry and ricochet risk enormously.

Not the death star

The next thing I would recommend to somebody selling an FAC-rated airgun is to manage their customers’ expectations. Just because this hardware has the potential to deliver a projectile with precision and lethal killing force out to 100m, it doesn’t mean that it will do it in the hands of the average shooter.

Most of the impressive things you read about airgun accuracy are based on results achieved when shooting from a bench—a luxury you are not likely to enjoy in the hunting field. And remember, the sort of quarry you are likely to be targeting with a high-power airgun (rabbits, grey squirrels, crows, etc) will still only offer a very small kill zone.

Shooting from sticks, a decent shooter might be able to stretch their striking distance out to 60m, and I’d be surprised if anyone could push it much more than 70m, even in windless conditions and shooting prone with the support of a bipod—I certainly can’t.

There are a number of aspects you need to bear in mind when using high-power air rifles

Another thing that anyone making the move to high-power air rifles needs to be aware of is the fact that these guns require specialist ammunition to get the best from them.

Shooters who want to use slug ammunition are also likely to achieve better results if they opt for a barrel that has been specially designed to shoot these projectiles. Virtually all airguns that produce extremely high muzzle energy need heavier ammunition to maintain any degree of accuracy.

My Red Wolf Safari shoots very precisely with 44.5-grain pellets, but even though they are travelling at around 880fps when they leave the muzzle, they still have a very curved trajectory—average drop from 40m to 60m is 82mm (more than three inches).

This can be compensated for by using holdover, but you have to put in the range time to work out where the pellet is striking at what distance. Then you need a laser rangefinder so you can be sure about your ranges in the field.

Shoot the moon

That loopy trajectory also means that shooters who plan to hurl heavy ammo from FAC-rated airguns are going to need a scope with plenty of aim points on the vertical element of the crosshair.

In many cases, they can expect the exaggerated pellet drop to cause them to run out of upward adjustment on the elevation dial of their optic.

The best remedy for this is to cut a shim from an empty drink can and place it beneath the scope in the bottom section of the rear ring. By raising the back of the scope, this ruse pushes down the crosshairs and gains you more upward clicks on the turret dial.

At the end of the day, the biggest reason for failure in the hunting field is a lack of experience and poor fieldcraft skills. The fact is that sloppy shooters will never be able to simply buy their way out of this conundrum by splashing out on a more powerful airgun, and they need to be made aware of this inconvenient truth.

Shooters who achieve the most from using high-powered air rifles tend to be those who have served a long apprenticeship with sub-12ft/lb airguns and learned how to pre-empt and outwit their quarry in the process.

For those who possess those vital skills, the extra reach and knockdown power can prove to be a real asset in a handful of pest-control scenarios.

More from Mat Manning


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