Paul Austin debunks some myths

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The airgun industry, like any business has to reinvent itself on a regular basis. Styles come and go, upgrades are introduced and so called ‘game changing’ enhancements announce. Recently all it’s been about bullpups and tacticool design, next year it will be something else in the endless effort to keep hitting those sales targets.

There’s nothing wrong with that, everything from cars to razors are all on the same treadmill and on occasion genuine progress is made. However new designs or styles don’t necessarily mean improved performance. The bullpup air rifle being a classic example.

Bullpup air rifle

The bullpup has been embraced by the military for very specific reasons. It’s much shorter than a conventional rifle, making it ideal for CQB and urban combat. With the action essentially in the butt of the rifle it can still maintain great -long range accuracy as the barrel length is essentially the same.

Another huge bonus, especially for auto/semi auto weapons, is that the recoil is sent directly back into the shoulder, vastly reducing muzzle flip, especially when multiple rounds are fired in quick succession. All very appealing features in a centrefire combat rifle. As there’s no recoil with an air rifle this particular asset doesn’t translate.

Getting scope close to barrel

Getting the scope as close to the barrel as possible is a key factor in achieving muti-range accuracy

However there’s one unavoidable downside when the bullpup design is applied to an air rifle. With no curve in the stock the scope inevitably ends up way above the barrel and that’s their Achilles’ heel. When shooting the rainbow ballistics of an air rifle, getting your scope as close to the barrel as possible is a major advantage. If its way above the ballistic curve the pellet gets magnified dramatically.

FAC Airwolf

12 ftlbs S410 in .177, ideal around the yard and my trusty FAC Airwolf for anything up a tree

Are bullpups less accurate than conventionally stocked rifles?

No not at all, they’re simply far less forgiving and therefore harder to aim over a variety of ranges. You need to be spot on for distance and you also need to know your rifle intimately to make the larger adjustments required whenever you wander away from your zero.

So who should we blame for this seemingly retrograde step and a victory of style over substance, the manufacturers? Nope, It’s all down to us… the rifle buying public. You can’t blame manufacturers for making sexy stuff that sells. What’s required is for shooters to do their homework, ignore the efforts of the marketing department, accept that looks aren’t everything and make educated decisions before handing over their hard earned.

Classic sporter stock

The Classic sporter stock even with this modern styling is still the choice of champions

Air Innovations

I’m all for innovations but change has to be positive, not simply cosmetic. I own and love an FAC Airwolf in .22. The electronic trigger system is superb, with superior lock times to any conventional trigger, utterly predictable. The Minelli stock is the best on any air rifle I’ve ever shot. It’s hardly what you’d call traditional.

Keep the scope down and you’ll keep hitting the target regardless of the range

Having said that Daystate definitely sailed close to the wind in terms of power. With 40 ftlbs 21 grain pellets are the only rounds that guarantee optimum performance. Why not opt for 30 ftlbs? Because if you offer most shooters (myself included at the time) a choice between 30 and 40 they’ll invariably go for the bigger number, even if that limits their choice of pellets.

I also owned a Wolverine in 303. Daystates’ marketing department had a field day with their… “World’s first 100 ftlbs air rifle” campaign. It is indeed a 100 ftlbs rifle but in order to make it shoot straight huge 51 grain pellets are required to keep the speed down and the pellets on the paper.

I’m sure they’d have loved to splash “1000 feet per second muzzle velocity” all over the packaging but stray much beyond 900 fps with any air rifle and you’re heading for trouble. In my opinion the 945 fps this rifle delivers is still too high and I’m certain accuracy would have been improved by adding even more weight to the already massive pellets.

airgun pellet spiral

Too much power and pellets start spiralling and all hope of accuracy goes out the window

Speed kills

This brings us nicely on to another point often ignored by air rifle shooters. There definitely is ‘too much of a good thing’ and when it comes to air rifles the ‘thing’ in question is speed. I remember watching incredulously as a well-known South African YouTuber explained that his clearly over-powered .177 FAC rifle’s spiralling shots were fine because they stopped orbiting the aim point eventually and after that they were fine. What?

It didn’t seem to bother him that anything before that point would be at best a clean miss or at worst an agonising wound and slow death for the unfortunate critter he was shooting at. Please, do not make the mistake of thinking extra power is always a good thing – it ain’t.

Over-powering can also prove to be an expensive mistake as a previously trusted pellet suddenly seems to be shooting left, right, low or high at a variety of distances. Rifles are blamed, scopes are swapped, mounts replaced, the list goes on… All because there’s too much power behind the pellet and their spiralling trajectory throws everything into doubt.

Optimum performance is the key. The ideal fps for any air rifle is around the 900 fps mark. At 800fps a sub 12ftlbs .177 is pretty damn close, especially when you consider you don’t need a license to buy one or land cleared by the police to shoot over. That’s why I always recommend .177 for sub 12ftlbs general purpose shooting. Accuracy is the key and over powering a pellet/rifle is guaranteed to kill any hope of achieving it.

Airgun pellets

Bigger calibres are great but you do have to have the correct amount of power behind them

Pellet selection

What I’d describe as comedy pellets are yet another sure-fire way of avoiding accuracy. There’s pellets with points, pellets with crosses, dumb-dumb pellets, others with weird plastic protrusions the list goes on but it’s pretty much guaranteed the weirder they get the worse they’ll be at distance. Fun perhaps but don’t believe the hype, the classic diablo outstrips them all.

The air rifle pellet is subsonic by design with a smooth round head stabilised by a traditional skirt they’re superbly consistent with ideal aerodynamics at the correct velocity. However the design fails completely for transonic shooting, so any attempt to push them beyond their limits is always going to end badly.

Slug style FAC rifle pellets

Slug style pellets can have their place in an FAC rifle but they’re to be avoided in a sub 12 ftlb

The bottom line

When you’re selecting a rifle you don’t need to limit yourself to a classic sporter. However you definitely should be looking for classic elements within the overall design. If you’re in the market for a sub 12 ftlbs rifle it makes life much easier if you can get the scope as close to the barrel as possible. Something in .177 would be my choice, delivering a flatter trajectory and much more latitude when it comes to range estimation.

For FAC rifles I’d opt for either .22 or .25. A ‘30 cal’ sounds cool but the shot count is poor and to be honest they don’t really offer any advantage in terms of performance. The scope height advice still applies but perhaps slightly less important with an FAC rifle, as they tend to be used at longer range. By all means look for innovation but make sure the latest ‘game changing’ feature actual improves the shooting experience rather than just impresses your friends.