Mat Manning looks into FAC-rated air rifles and explains why novice airgunners should concentrate on fieldcraft instead of raw power
Of all the many questions I get asked about airguns and airgun shooting, a huge number relate to high-powered airguns.
Most people who wish to know more about the subject are relative newcomers to airgun shooting. It is natural to want an advantage to give your results a boost when you are getting to grips with a new challenge, and it seems that many aspiring airgunners believe that more power will put them on the fast-track to shooting success.
Power of FAC air rifles
There is no denying that the increased range and knockdown power of an FAC-rated airgun can help to put more in the bag but there are plenty of disadvantages associated with beefed-up air rifles.
One of the big attractions of airgun shooting is its accessibility — particularly in England and Wales where the ownership of sub-12ft/lb airguns remains free from licensing. If you want anything more powerful than that, you will need a firearms certificate (FAC). Apart from the bureaucracy and expense of the initial grant of the licence — assuming your application is successful — you then have the added cost and hassle of renewal every five years, to which you can also add the price of a secure cabinet in which to store your high-powered airgun.
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The restrictions of ownership relating to high-powered air rifles, combined with the practicalities and legalities of where you can and can’t use them — the increased carry and risk of ricochet can be very limiting — emphasise the relative freedom enjoyed by sub- 12ft/lb airgun shooters.
High powered airguns can be pellet-fussy
For those who are prepared to go through the licensing process, or perhaps add an air rifle to their existing FAC, there are plenty of other hurdles to overcome: not least the fact that high-powered airguns can be extremely pellet-fussy. Though legal-limit air rifles usually show a preference for some pellet brands over others, they are pretty forgiving compared with their FAC-rated counterparts.
The added velocity can really affect the stability of an airgun pellet, and the usual way around it is to opt for heavier ammunition. Pellet manufacturers have come up with a raft of designs and weights to cover pretty much all power levels up to well over 100ft/lb; find the one that suits your airgun and it should turn out consistent accuracy. The problem is that switching to heavier pellets brings you back to the curvy downrange trajectory that makes legal-limit airguns so tricky to master.
Even when you find the right pellet, the extra velocity can still result in inconsistent shooting if pellets are damaged; even by blemishes caused by a standard magazine-fed loading system. I have had several FAC-rated airguns that have produced excellent accuracy with a single-shot tray but grouped poorly when loaded via the magazine.
Most pre-charged airguns are virtually recoil-less in sub-12ft/lb guise but you will soon notice muzzle flip creeping in as you ramp up the power, which can compromise accuracy. You will also have to be prepared for a slight compromise in stealth, as the increased air blast makes quite a crack when it exits the muzzle. This can be tamed with a decent moderator, keeping FAC-rated airguns comparatively quiet.
Another factor that has to be taken into account is just how much air these guns can get through. I recall my first FAC air range session after getting a 30ft/lb airgun with a high-capacity buddy bottle. This was before I had invested in a scuba tank but I thought I’d cracked the problem of stirrup-pump fatigue by opting for regular top-up charges rather than attempting to pump up from empty.
After unleashing 35 shots on to my paper targets, the bottle had all but run dry and I was left with no option but to replenish its hefty tank all the way back up to 230 bar. It was quite a workout — my pulse was still pounding far too hard to take steady shots five minutes later. I spent the remainder of the afternoon cranking top-up charges into the gun’s reservoir after every 10 shots, but my recovery time wasn’t much shorter.
Hitting a snag
The biggest snag of an FAC-rated airgun doesn’t really hit home until you get out in the field.
High-powered airguns can deliver clean kills at considerable range. The problem is that the target is just as small as it ever was, and it is a lot harder to hit now that it is so much further away. As with a 12ft/lb airgun, your maximum shooting range is governed by your ability to land the pellet on a very small mark. For most shooters that is roughly the same distance, whatever power level your airgun is turning out.
Having possibly discouraged you from ever considering a high-powered airgun, I will say that they are useful tools. After about a decade of shooting with FAC-powered airguns, I have settled on a .22-calibre gun turning out 28ft/lb. It gives a fairly smooth firing cycle and keeps muzzle velocity slow enough for me to be able to get away with standard 16-gr Air Arms Diabolo Field pellets. The setup prints tight groups at 50m while maintaining a reasonably flat trajectory.
My self-imposed maximum range is 60m. That is shooting off a bipod
in calm conditions, and the majority of the shots I take with it are at less than 40m, within what most experienced shooters regard as
the ceiling for a legal-limit airgun.
Though the limitations of accuracy (mostly on my part) mean the extra power doesn’t extend my effective range by a great deal, it puts more pests in the bag by offering me a wider choice of kill areas.
I restrict myself to head shots when tackling live quarry with a sub-12ft/lb airgun, but my 28ft/lb gun will deliver clean kills with a strike to the heart/lung area. Shots that would have been left because my target’s brainbox was obstructed are now on if I can get a pellet to its heart or lungs. It is surprising what a difference that makes, especially in scenarios where a rimfire would be too much gun.
FAC-rated airguns also perform a lot better in the wind than legal-limit models, which can easily have their pellets blown off the mark by an unexpected gust.
Though I frequently use high-powered air rifles on my pest control rounds, the extra power is no substitute for fieldcraft. They don’t offer a magic solution to someone who is struggling to get results with a sub-12ft/lb airgun. My advice is to start out with legal-limit power, learn to shoot with precision, understand the ways of your quarry and master the skills of stalking, hide-building and decoying. Those skills will make you a far more effective shooter if you do make the move to FAC air rifles.