Easy to handle and quiet to shoot, airguns are a brilliant tool for introducing youngsters to the sport. Indeed, for many of us the first introduction to safe and accurate shooting came courtesy of a basic air rifle on a makeshift garden range.
Airgun shooting is very affordable. You can pick up a reasonable junior-sized air rifle for under £100, and with premium pellets costing around 2p per pop — and plenty of decent brands available at half that price — there’s no excuse for young Shots not to get plenty of practice under close adult supervision.
Take sensible precautions and you can set up an airgun range in even a modestly sized garden. Crucially, you need to have a solid backstop in place because you’ll be breaking the law if one stray pellet passes beyond your boundary. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to stop an airgun pellet: a wall of stone or concrete will obliterate the little lead projectiles, stripping them of their energy and leaving them to fall to the floor as flat, squashed discs
How to create a secure backstop for your airgun
Don’t be tempted to make a backstop from wood. It’s too fibrous and can sometimes bounce pellets back in the shooter’s direction.
Patio slabs work well and provide a large and cheap solution. You can purchase them for a few pounds at a garden centre or builders’ merchant. Prop them up behind a variety of targets and at differing distances to make things interesting. Patio slabs will stop lead pellets in their tracks and are easy to move and store. In addition, metal pellet catchers work brilliantly, and you can buy them from most good gunshops.
Thinking of the neighbours
Although airgun pellets don’t make a lot of noise when they smack into a solid backstop, your neighbours may still not share your appreciation of the sound of shots hitting home. You can easily dampen this noise with some paper baffles. All I do is tape a couple of old telephone directories together, lean them against the backstop and fix paper targets to them with staples or paperclips. This really does muffle the sound of impacting pellets, and it takes quite a few shots before the pellets rip through and begin to strike against the backstop. When that happens, all you need to do is move the target so the bull is in a different place and start again.
Bruce Potts tests three 10-shot repeater pre-charged pneumatic air rifles for around £500.
With the extensive range of airgun pellets now available, how can I find out which would be the most suitable…
Honing shooting skills
Paper-punching is great for zeroing airguns and also for honing your own shooting skills. It’s totally unforgiving, as you can easily see the holes cut by each pellet, along with any discrepancies in accuracy. This enables you to read the grouping of the pellets and judge the influence that stance, wind direction and range have on your performance and that of your airgun.
If you want really to fine-tune your air rifle’s accuracy, you can also study how group size differs when using different brands of pellets, and ultimately find the ammunition that best suits the barrel of your gun.
Paper targets are also a great starting point for beginners, but you can’t expect young Shots to get as excited as you do about an afternoon spent shooting and analysing groups of pellets. Fortunately, there are lots of other practice targets to challenge an aspiring shooter when the novelty of paper-punching eventually wears off.
The best airgun target
The original and still the best – a tin can. Being fairly large, they’re great for helping newcomers to build their confidence by consistently hitting the mark — my son can certainly vouch for the thrill of shooting holes into empty tins snitched from the recycling box. If you’ve got a big enough backstop, you can stack tins up and watch them tumble as you pick them off from the top downwards. And you will need that backstop, because even a relatively lowpowered airgun will send pellets ripping through most tin cans. When using a smaller backstop, prop a tin in front of it with a stick or short piece of cane to prevent it from getting blasted away from your pellet catcher.
A new use for Extra Strong Mints
Another great improvised target – that might surprise you – is the Extra Strong Mint. Hard, flat and brittle, these white discs are about the size of the kill area presented by most airgun quarry species, and explode into a gratifying white cloud of dust when hit squarely — they really are like mini clays for airgun shooters. My son takes great pleasure in obliterating mints at 15m but adult shooters will probably want to push them out to 30m or 40m. I set up these testing little targets by slotting their base into the pages of the phone directories I prop against my backstops. Clasped in this way, they present an almost full circle with a concrete pellet catcher safely behind.
Most gunshops sell a wide variety of airgun targets. These are usually solidly built metal affairs that cost between £15 and £40 and will give years of service. The classic knock-down target remains a firm favourite, and is still the preferred option for many competitive airgun disciplines. Shaped in a variety of outlines, from rats to woodpigeon, knock-down targets usually have a circular kill area of between 15mm and 50mm, and fall over with a satisfying “clack” when you score a direct hit.
Of course, shooting metal is noisier than practising on baffled paper. Plinking didn’t get its name for nothing; the nickname for airgun practice sessions is derived from the “plink” of a lead pellet connecting with a steel target. So if you’re airgunning in a small, built-up area, knock-downs and spinners may not be appropriate as the noise may cause you to fall out with your neighbours.
However, if you think ahead and pay careful attention to safety, airguns are excellent for garden session practice – whether you’re teaching a young Shot to handle a gun responsibily or whether you’re a more experienced shooter wishing to improve your technique.
Safety rules for airgunning in the garden
- Always have a safe backstop in place and ensure that pellets to not travel beyond your boundary
- Supervise young Shots closely at all times
- Tell anybody else who uses the garden that you are shooting
- Keep pets inside
- Ensure your airgun is unloaded and the magazine removed before moving downrange to check targets or move.