What Types of Air Rifle Are There?

Recently, my son and I were in an airgun shop looking at all the varieties of weapons available to us these days. It dawned on me that there are a lot of choices these days and how difficult it must be for someone just getting into the sport to know what type of airguns are available and also what type would be best for them. So I thought I’d make a guide just to help answer the question, ‘What types of airgun can I buy?”

What types of air rifle are there? There are four main different types of airgun which most people will end up considering when looking to purchase. In no particular order, they are:

  • The Spring-Piston airgun
  • The CO2 powered airgun
  • The Pneumatic airgun
  • Gas-Ram airguns

The above gun-types will be explored more in this article, including the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Depending on who the gun is for, how much experience they have and what they want to use it for will ultimately decide on which direction is taken.

What Types of Air Rifle Can I Buy?

Common Terms

If you’re new to airguns (or guns in general) it may be worth just providing you with a few commonly used words that you may not be familiar with and will help you understand this content.

Barrel – The long pointy bit at the front where the pellet is fired from

Breech – A breech-loading airgun is one where the pellet is loaded directly  into the rear of the barrel

Stock – The rear of the gun that is placed into your shoulder when firing

Sear – Part of the trigger mechanism that contains the hammer back until enough pressure is applied to the trigger, at which point the hammer is released.

Spring-Piston Airgun

Possibly, the most traditional of airguns, the sping-piston variety is probably the simplest mechanism used in airguns. They are also the simplest to use and keep in good order. Although there are a few varieties of spring-piston airguns, the most common is probably the break-barrel. You’ll recognise this type of gun most likely, it’s where you seem to break the gun in two by ‘snapping’ the barrel down whilst holding the stock. This process moves the piston back and compresses the spring whilst engaging the trigger sear to lock it into place until you want to fire.

The pellet is inserted straight into the breach before you pull the barrel back up to its original position, locking it in place. Assuming the safety is on you can then just pull the trigger and the piston will be released. The spring and the piston are forced forward which propels the pellet out of the barrel and (hopefully) into your target.

Not all spring-piston airguns are primed by pulling down on the barrel though. Some use a lever (either on the side or top) but they all do fundamentally work the same way.

A bit more detail…

The power required to propel the pellet out of the barrel is produced by a piston that compresses the air in front of it. Typically, a spring is used to force this piston forward when the trigger is pulled, however, a compressed gas canister can serve the same purpose.

When the piston moves backwards, air follows it into a chamber (that sits in front of it) – this is known as the compression chamber and is where the pellet will sit before firing. This pellet, when loaded creates an air-tight seal. The piston, as it moves forward towards the pellet, compresses the air. The air can’t escape as the pellet has formed this air-tight seal. When the trigger is pulled and the piston moves forward the air pressure gets to a point where it overcomes the resistance caused by the pellet. The pellet is then propelled forward by the compressed air at high speed. One thing to bear in mind if you have a springer, you shouldn’t dry-fire it! If you’re not sure what this is or why you shouldn’t, then check out my article here.

Advantages to a Spring-Piston Airgun

There are some great advantages to opting for one of these types:

  • Great longevity, the gun may out-live you – this is due to the low number of moving parts within it
  • Easy to maintain and service
  • Replacement parts are easy to find
  • Very cheap to run, you don’t have to keep buying gas refills all the time
  • Great beginners choice of gun
  • Not affected by changes in temperature as much as gas-powered guns
  • Huge variety of guns to choose from

Disadvantages to a Spring-Piston Airgun

  • Springs can wear out (this is called spring fatigue)
  • Other types of guns can offer more power, although this may not present a problem for the beginner
  • Spring-piston airguns do have a recoil, some more than others which can be a shock for the first-time shooter
  • Can be quite noisy due to the piston moving at high speed and stopping quickly

CO2 Powered Airguns

There are quite a few slightly different guns that fit under this category, however, all of them require a canister of CO2 to power the projectile out of the barrel. There are even different sizes of the CO2 canister that are used although the most popular does seem to be the 12g canister. Alternatively, you can supply gas from a large tank which will store it in a reservoir in the gun itself. Actually, this is how they all work. Even if you use a canister it will supply a reservoir in the gun with a small amount of gas (the liquid turns to a gas on release). This process is actually the same as how PCP guns work in many ways. A spring is first compressed and then when the trigger is pulled it releases a small valve in this CO2 reservoir for a split second. The gas is ejected down the barrel and sends the pellet on its way.

The gas itself is stored as a liquid inside the capsule and depending on the size of the canister, you will get around 60 shots for the typical 12g capsule and around 220 for an 88g size.

CO2 powered airguns have become increasingly popular recently and I think this is mainly due to the type of gun that the power source allows you to use.

Interesting fact coming up – did you know that carbon dioxide has been used to power airguns since the latter part of the 19th century? No, nor did I. There’s something to amuse your friends with over dinner next time there’s an awkward silence in the conversation.

Advantages to CO2 Powered Airguns

  • Consistent power delivery
  • Able to provide a fast rate-of-fire
  • Hardly any recoil when firing

Disadvantages to CO2 Powered Airguns

  • Accuracy can be impacted by temperature fluctuations when shooting rapidly
  • It’s a bit of a pain when you run out of CO2 and have to keep re-supplying
  • The CO2 canisters can become expensive over time

Anyway, I recently bought a Sig MPX Semi-Automatic that is powered by the 88g CO2 containers. It’s only a short-video but you can check it out here over short-range:

Pneumatic Airguns

Simply put, these guns will use compressed air to fire the pellet. Now, there are a few different types of pneumatic out there and it is this that depends on how the air is actually compressed. I believe the most common is known as the multi-stroke. To get the air to be compressed you need to pump a lever several times to increase the pressure to the required amount. Each pump of the lever is slightly harder than the last and this makes it not the greatest gun for the younger shooter.

There are other types as well, such as the single-stroke pneumatic airgun. As you can probably gather from the name, this gun requires just one pump to compress the air required for shooting. Although some people find this type of gun more favourable to the multi-stroke, there are problems with accuracy and poor power – although over short-ranges (such as 10 metres) it’s actually quite acceptable.

The third form of the pneumatic gun is known as the Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP). This gun gives you the ability to control the amount of power you want to be delivered. Although accurate, you need to get the air pressurised in them using a separate tank, like a tank that a scuba diver would wear for instance. Or, you can use a hand or foot pump. This air is then collected into a reservoir within the airgun itself until a tiny amount is required when you pull the trigger. Bear in mind that to get the psi up to around 2000, you’ll need around 40 pumps of your average hand pump, that’s quite a bit. Although you’ll have a psi gauge on the pump itself, there will also be one on the gun itself, which you should double check. If you’re in any doubt how much effort this requires, do take a look here (the video also shows how to fill from a tank):

Advantages of pneumatic Airguns (Multi-stroke)

  • Usually quite light
  • Next to no recoil
  • Low ongoing costs over CO2 powered airguns

Disadvantages of pneumatic Airguns (Multi-stroke)

  • Needs some time to get the air to the required pressure using pumping before you can actually shoot
  • Some strength required to pump the gun to the required pressure
  • the PCP gun may not be an ideal gun for the young beginner as the continual pumping may simply put them off!

Advantages of PCP Airguns

  • High-rate of fire and high velocity
  • Next to no recoil
  • Much better down-range accuracy
  • Due to consistent, high-power it’s very versatile and can be used with high caliber rounds.
  • An advantage over CO2 is that these use compressed air so you don’t have the ongoing costs (if you’re okay with putting in the physical effort) that the CO2 canisters bring you.
  • Not impacted by temperature like the CO2 airguns are

Disadvantages of PCP Airguns

  • You need to be fit if you’re going to pump them up manually!
  • If you can’t or don’t want to pump them manually then you’ll need to either purchase an air compressor or get a scuba tank from somewhere.

Gas-Ram Airguns

These airguns are actually quite similar to the spring-action airguns. The gas-ram works slightly different though as it not only compresses a piston but also an amount of compressed air that is contained in a cylinder. When the trigger is pulled, this compressed air expands back to its original volume which in-turn forces the piston forward and then forces the air forward into the compression chamber. This, finally, ejects the pellet down the barrel. The compressed air though isn’t lost and actually remains in the gas-ram which can be used continually.

Advantages of Gas-Ram Airguns

  • A fully self-contained gun (unlike PCP’s that require re-filling)
  • The Gas-Ram will last years using the same air
  • No recoil so very smooth
  • Far less fatigue than a Spring-Piston

Disadvantages of Gas-Ram Airguns

  • More difficult to make modifications on a gas-ram airgun than other types
  • Still requires cocking (‘breaking’ the barrel down) but this is a lot easier than having to do it on a Spring-Piston airgun
  • When things go wrong they often require replacing

So, you may gather from the above that there are very few disadvantages to a gas ram airgun. In fact, the disadvantages I’ve mentioned above aren’t major. There’s no doubt really that the Gas-Ram is a very attractive airgun, with so many advantages over the other types it could well be my choice for the beginner.

If you have any comments about the above opinion I’d genuinely love to hear from you. I appreciate that different people will have different priorities in their gun so if you have a different view then let’s discuss below!

Finally, if you’re after a new Air Gun or perhaps some accessories, then check out my recommended gear page here. Lastly, if you’re not sure what type of pellets you should be using, then check out the article here that will tell you eveything you need to know!