Many consider the FAC air rifle to be unnecessary compared to a rimfire, but there is a place for both guns, says Patrick Hook
One of the perennial issues facing the air gunner who wants to move up to something bigger is where to go next. Likewise, there are also shooters who already have large centrefires, but find that they need to shoot in places where they are way too powerful.
In both situations, the question is whether it’d be better to buy an FAC air rifle or a rimfire of some kind. Many consider the former to be unnecessary, and that the latter will do everything they can do. My personal opinion is that there’s a place for both – I have FAC air rifles in both .22 and .25, as well as a .17 HMR in my cabinets.
One of the benefits of going for an FAC air rifle is that they can often be bought second-hand very reasonably, simply because not many people have a suitable open slot on their firearms tickets. Some people like to have their existing air rifles uprated to FAC spec – while this can be done, the process will seriously devalue it. So, let’s look at the typical range of rifles in question – these fall into three categories:
Conventional air rifles
In the UK these are limited by law to under 12 ft/lb of muzzle energy, and can be spring, gas or air-powered. They typically come in four calibres – .177; .20; .22 and .25. There are others, of course, but they’re much more rarely encountered.
FAC air rifles
Once these are on your firearms licence they can be of any power level you want. In reality, most are in the 30 to 50 ft/lb range. Although any of the above calibres can theoretically be used, you can pretty well discount .177 and .20. This is because the limit to how much power can be generated is the speed of sound – as a pellet nears this it is said to go “transonic” and loses all accuracy. Unless you can get well clear of this figure you won’t be able to hit anything. The bottom line is that .22 works well up to about 30 ft/lb, while .25 can reach about 50 ft/lb. There are bigger calibres but they are rather specialist and are little used in this country.
The most common rimfires are either .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire) or .22 LR (Long Rifle), but there are several others too, such as the .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire), the .17 Mach 2, and the relatively new .17 WSM (Winchester Super Magnum). The laws governing rimfires in this country are bizarre to say the least – although you are allowed to own a .22 semi-automatic, such as the ever-popular Ruger 10/22, you are not permitted to own a self-loading rifle in the smaller .17 calibre. No – it doesn’t make sense to me either!
In the larger .22 calibre, ammo is available in wide variety of formats from solid to shot as well as in both sub-sonic and supersonic forms – few people use anything but conventional one-piece lead bullets, though. The real advantage of the slower round is that it is much quieter – with a decent moderator the discharge can be almost silent. The disadvantage is that it is not very powerful. Most makes, based on 40 grain bullet running at around 1,080 fps (330 m/s), produce just over 100 ft/lb (135J). The high velocity rounds are better, but still only produce around 140 ft/lb when running at 1,328 fps (405 m/s). They have the disadvantage that they make a loud supersonic crack when fired. On the positive side they are cheap, which is obviously really important if you’re culling large numbers of bunnies or rats.
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For me the worst thing about .22 rimfires, especially those in the subsonic form, is that they suffer from a very loopy trajectory. This is fine if you know what the range of your target is, but it’s a significant problem if you don’t. In daylight, you can always ping the distance with a rangefinder, but this is much harder at night when using nightvision (NV). I once fired almost a whole 10-round magazine at a rabbit sitting out in a big flat field. In the end it got bored and walked off! I went back the next day and I realised that it had actually been about 175 yards away! It’d obviously been a much bigger in than I’d realised, but through the NV it looked much closer – I’ve not used the .22 LR plus NV combo since.
The .17 HMR is, in my opinion, an excellent round for both daylight and NV purposes. It will take rabbits or corvids to around 175 yards, and for some unknown reason, it often spooks rabbits less than the quieter .22. The ammo is more expensive though, and its availability seems to go through fits and starts.
Fits the picture
Now we’ve looked at the options available we need to examine where the FAC air rifle fits into the picture. Let’s start with a few example scenarios. Imagine, for instance, that you have to deal with either squirrels or corvids/pigeons at the top of some tall trees. While a lower power air rifle could be ideal closer in, such quarry can take some reaching. Rimfires are immediately out of the picture – anyone who fires one upwards into a tree deserves to lose their licence as the bullet can still kill when it comes back to earth up to a mile later.
Likewise, many people will tell you that a conventional air rifle is perfectly adequate for shooting – that’s true as long as you can get close enough. However, this only works if both the terrain and quarry are suitable. If the bunnies are particularly nervous you’ll really struggle to get within the necessary 40 yards. If you’re pushed for time and need to produce results, being able to shoot to 70 yards is extremely useful.
Likewise, although rats can be taken very successfully with a sub-12 ft/lb air rifle at short distances, they are tough creatures and when the ranges are extended I like to use a much more powerful tool. Whenever I’m asked to sort out these destructive rodents, I reach for my dedicated rat cannon – an old .25 calibre Theoben 12-250 that runs at about 50 ft/lb. It’s heavy and uses quite a lot of air, but I’ve fitted a quick-fill port so that I can top the bottle up in seconds. It is quite literally devastating on them!
So, in summary, I find FAC air rifles tick lots of boxes. They’re quiet, relatively cheap to buy and to run, accurate to 70 yards or so, and can be safely used in places where bigger guns would impose a significant risk. They’re also fun to use and have the advantage that most police forces rarely bat an eyelid when asked for permission to own one. What’s not to like?