Summer is a perfect time to enjoy some airgunning fun in the garden. Mat Manning explains how to do it safely — and without upsetting the neighbours
Anyone who has a moderate sized garden probably has sufficient space to set up a shooting range for an air rifle, and there is no better time to do it than in the summer. Provided the weather plays ball, long warm evenings mean there is often time to sneak in the odd session after work, which is very handy whether you want to brush up your marksmanship ready to tackle live quarry or if you are introducing a youngster to the sport.
As with any type of shooting, safety is of paramount importance, especially given the likelihood of other people being in close proximity when you are in the garden. Airguns are relatively low-powered compared with other guns, which is one of the reasons they lend themselves to backyard practice, but they still have the potential to cause a life-wrecking accident, so there is no excuse for any lapse in safety awareness. Nonetheless, by following a few simple guidelines and exercising common sense at all times, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot enjoy safe airgun shooting in your garden.
Unless you are fortunate enough to live on an isolated spot in the middle of nowhere, you will need to consider any neighbours or any unexpected visitors.
Whether your garden is in a remote and well-enclosed location or, like mine, behind a row of terraced houses and separated from neighbours by little more than flimsy fencing panels, you will be breaking the law if a single pellet strays beyond your boundary. It is therefore essential that appropriate measures are taken to eliminate any risk of this happening.
It is also important to make sure that your informal target shooting, or “plinking”, sessions do not cause a noise nuisance. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reduce the disturbance caused by your shooting activities — take the right steps, and it should certainly be less disruptive than the noise of someone mowing their lawn.
Explain your intentions
The best way to minimise conflict with neighbours is to tell them what you are doing before you start shooting, and outline the precautions you will be taking. Offer to show them the set-up. You could even ask them if they would like to have a go. I once visited a new neighbour to tell her I would be shooting in my garden and ended up spending the rest of the afternoon toppling targets with her and her grandson. Admittedly, not everyone is going to be that reasonable, and you will have to adapt your approach accordingly.
Range layout and safety
Ensure that shots are taken in the safest possible direction and avoid setting up anywhere that features an unlocked downrange access point.
Before you start shooting, make sure that everyone in your home knows that the garden is a no-go area until you have finished. Children and dogs need to be kept safely out of the way. Most airgun shooters use telescopic sights, which can have a blinkering effect at what is potentially the most dangerous time, so it is vital to eliminate all risk of people or pets straying in front of the gun.
It’s also sensible to make a sign, stating something like “Shooting in Progress”, and hang it securely on the gate that leads to your garden. This serves as a clear warning to anyone, including unexpected visitors, who may otherwise wander on to the range.
Types of target
Airgun shooters are spoilt for choice when it comes to interesting and challenging targets. For zeroing and working out the downrange performance of pellets, card and paper targets are best as they give a clear indication of where pellets are striking and how they are grouping. If you can get away with making a bit of noise, knockdown targets are great fun, as a direct hit causes the target to topple over, often with a gratifying clang. Most knockdown targets reset by means of a long cord, though you can also get models that automatically pop back up when you land the next shot on their reset disc. Spinning targets are another option; hit the kill area to send them whirring around before they are automatically reset by gravity.
There are some excellent reactive targets available, some of which go off with a bang and a flash of sparks when hit. You have to show consideration when using these noisy targets, though, and they are really not suited to built-up areas.
As an alternative, if slightly unusual option, Extra Strong Mints make for cheap reactive targets. There is no bang to upset your neighbours but they shatter with a pleasing puff of white dust, like mini clays, when struck by an airgun pellet! As with any target, though, be sure to have a sound backstop in place before taking shots.
Enjoy and stay safe while garden airgunning
Shooting an airgun in your garden should be enjoyable and rewarding but safety needs to be at the forefront of your mind at all times. Whether shooting on your own, with an experienced friend or complete newcomer, there is no excuse for lapses, and at no point should the gun be left unattended — even if it is unloaded and deemed to be safe.
Make a safe backstop
Stopping pellets from travelling beyond the intended target is vital when it comes to safe and legal shooting in the garden. Wood is one of the worst materials you can use as a backstop. Even if the piece of timber you are using is tough enough to remain intact after a barrage of pellets, its fibrous nature means it can cause dangerous and unpredictable ricochets, often sending pellets back in the direction of the shooter.
The best backstop to halt airgun pellets without risk of ricochet is a wall of brick, stone or concrete. On meeting with solid resistance, lead pellets are left with scant energy to bounce even a foot or two. This will keep spent pellets within the confines of your boundary, and keep you on the right side of the law.
If you do not have a wall in the right place, large paving slabs can be used to create the same effect. Slabs can be cheaply acquired from a DIY store or garden centre and are relatively easy to move if you want to change the range to your target.
Thick steel also makes for a good backstop, and there are some excellent combined target holders and pellet catchers on the market. The only drawback is that pellets can make quite a clang when they hit a metal backstop, and this noise could be an issue, particularly with your neighbours.
It is true that the sound of pellets striking a backdrop of stone or concrete may be enough to be deemed problematic, but fortunately it is easily remedied. I simply take an old phone book, tape it up to prevent it from flapping open, then use paperclips to fasten target cards to it. The paper does a great job of muffling the sound of impacting pellets. If you do not have an old directory to hand, a cardboard box stuffed with rags creates a similar effect. Just remember that you will still need a solid backstop behind, because shots will eventually pass through.
Shooting in company
Practice is always more interesting with a friend, as an element of competitiveness adds to the enjoyment, but safety should never be compromised by fun. With more than one shooter on the range, it is essential to establish exactly who will be shooting when. Keep your firing points close together, preferably from the same bench, so communication is as clear as possible.
If one of you needs to walk downrange to check or adjust the targets make sure it is clear and understood by your companion, and stay put until they have acknowledged you. Before anyone leaves their position, ensure that all guns are unloaded and uncocked, pointing in a safe direction, with magazines removed and safety catches set. Guns should not be reloaded until you are back safely in position and the all-clear has been given.
The garden range is an excellent place to introduce young people to airgun shooting. In this situation, you should exercise control over the gun at all times, and make certain that a safe code of conduct is explained and understood before any shots are taken.