by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Yesterday, I told blog reader Victor that this report was for him, but I think it’s for a lot of folks who are relatively new to this blog. Here’s the premise of the report: Airguns are usually advertised with their expected top velocities. What do those numbers represent? Today, I’ll attempt to explain this as clearly as I can.

The numbers are just lies!
Let’s get this one out of the way first because it seems to be the prevailing belief that advertised velocities are nothing but lies put forth by marketing departments to sell more guns. There’s some truth to this belief, but it isn’t 100 percent by any means. Here’s what’s going on with the lies.

In the 1970s, spring-piston air rifles broke the 800 f.p.s. “barrier” for the first time. Three guns — the BSF S55/60/70, the Diana 45 and the FWB 124 all topped 800 f.p.s. in .177 caliber…and the HW 35 came very close to 800. That started the velocity wars that are still with us today. In 1981/82, the Beeman R1, which was also produced as the HW 80, hit 940 f.p.s. in .177. A year later, it was hitting 1,000 f.p.s. right out of the box, and that became the new standard for magnum airguns.

A couple years after that, Diana offered 1,100 f.p.s. with their sidelever models 48 and 52, and from that point on it was necessary to go even faster to gain recognition in the air rifle class. A thousand feet per second was now considered the lowest velocity a magnum airgun should achieve in .177 caliber.

Then, Gamo upped the ante with their 1200 Hunter Magnum that became the 1250 a year after it was introduced. This was in the late 1990s, and I was writing The Airgun Letter, so I obtained a 1250 from Gamo and tested it for myself. To my utter surprise, that test rifle achieved 1,257 f.p.s. with an RWS Hobby pellet. I thought the game was finally over. Boy, was I mistaken.

Within five years, air rifles started hitting the market with claims of over 1,300 f.p.s. And then they bumped up to 1,350 f.p.s. You could almost hear the various marketing departments discussing what they had to say in order to sell their next new magnum air rifle. But when I tested these guns, they fell short of their advertised marks. I was not quiet about that fact; but when the box on the store shelf says one thing and I say another, guess which one people believe?

The numbers kept right on climbing — up past 1,400 f.p.s., then 1,500 f.p.s. and finally stopping at 1,650 f.p.s. I’ve also tested many of these newer rifles; and while they often do achieve velocities that used to be impossible, like over 1,300 f.p.s., none has ever hit 1,500 f.p.s. without some kind of fuel-air explosion being involved. The fastest velocity I’ve ever recorded from a spring-piston air rifle was just at or under 1,400 f.p.s., and one person reported he had achieved a legitimate velocity of 1,425 f.p.s. I’m talking only about spring-piston air rifles now, because a .177 AirForce Condor has hit 1,486 f.p.s. in one of my tests.

Non-lead pellets
While all these velocity claims were stacking up, the market was also flooded with lead-free pellets. Being lighter than lead pellets, these pellets went faster at the muzzle. The fact that they could not carry that velocity very far downrange was lost on the majority of people. One ambulance-chaser “expert” witness in a wrongful airgun death lawsuit went so far as to compare a magnum air rifle pellet to a .22 rimfire bullet fired from a handgun. He “demonstrated” on television that the airgun was faster than the firearm with no mention of the effects of a lightweight pellet compared to a 40-grain bullet. Well, a neutrino travels at nearly the speed of light and passes through the earth unresisted; but since it has almost no mass, it doesn’t do any damage. Velocity alone means little.

That is the story of the velocity claims for pellet guns that are either outright lies (where the actual number you can achieve without resorting to some trickery is lower than the claimed velocity) or are stretching the truth beyond credibility (where ultra-lightweight pellets are used to obtain the number).

Legal concerns
This issue is the one I believe many folks do not consider when they focus on velocity claims that seem unrealistic. While we would never consider shooting a lead-free 5-grain pellet in a magnum air rifle, or in almost any air rifle, for that matter, there’s a reason to do it. Some communities and states have laws specifying the maximum velocity an airgun can legally achieve. If it exceeds that — well, the outcome isn’t clear because these laws are written in many different ways.

In one jurisdiction, the law may set an absolute maximum velocity for the airgun. No projectile weight is usually given in such a law, so if any pellet can exceed the maximum, the gun is not legal there. Working against such laws are the companies that make plastic airgun pellets weighing 3 grains or less. They will scream out of the muzzle and through the chronograph before slowing down as though they are tethered to the gun! Such pellets may bring a smile in certain places, but they can bring down the law in other places that have maximum velocity laws. The only thing that has kept many airguns safe so far is the general lack of knowledge that such pellets exist.

In another community, the law may include both a velocity maximum and a maximum muzzle energy. This law can be written two different ways. One is if the airgun surpasses either maximum it violates the law. The other way the law can be written is that the airgun must surpass both criteria before it violates the law.

Airgun manufacturers do not know all the laws that are in force. There’s no way they can because new laws are written all the time, and existing laws are modified or clarified to change their impact. In a country like the United Kingdom, where the law is relatively straightforward — keep the muzzle energy under 12 foot-pounds to stay legal as an airgun, the manufacturers have a parameter they can build to. But in a country like the United States — where airguns are totally unregulated in some places and highly regulated in others, a manufacturer stands little chance of remaining abreast of the law.

They do their best to comply with the laws they know and hope that companies like Pyramyd Air, who sell their products, will stay on top of things, too. They (the manufacturers) watch the big trends and try to tailor their products to those, and they trust their dealers to know the market they sell to.

Edith serves in this capacity for Pyramyd Air. She monitors state and local laws, and she calls the attorney general of any jurisdiction or state authorities if she finds the laws have changed or are going to change. Sometimes, she gets solid answers that can be trusted, but other times she discovers that the people in charge are not aware of how to interpret their own laws.

One example of this was in a Midwestern state that we won’t name to spare them embarrassment. Edith was unable to get an answer to a question about a law. She spoke to person after person in that state’s division that regulates guns. One time, she ended up speaking to a woman who was the head of the entire division because she’d gotten 5 different interpretations from 5 different officers. During the conversation, the head of the division mentioned that the ATF regulates all .50-caliber guns so the state didn’t have to regulate .50-caliber airguns. Of course, Edith explained that .50-caliber airguns are sold coast to coast in the U.S. and, except for a few states, are totally unregulated. Nothing she said could convince this woman. After all, Edith was just some person calling this police authority, so how could she know better. Sometimes, it’s impossible to counter ignorance.

Company velocity criteria
Some airgun manufacturers categorize their guns by the velocity they produce. Daisy is one that does. They have youth products separate from their Powerline products. They recommend their Powerline products for shooters 16 years and older. I searched the Daisy website looking for the velocity break between a youth gun and a Powerline gun but didn’t find a number. But looking at what the Powerline models deliver, it looks like it’s any gun capable of shooting faster than 600 f.p.s. in a long gun and all handguns. There’s also the Avanti line, which is for target shooting; and, while all the long guns shoot under 600 f.p.s. and are considered youth models, there are 2 pistols in the Avanti line and the Powerline designation is in their model names.

What does this mean to an airgunner?
An airgunner has no way of knowing the meaning of the velocity number that’s given with a particular airgun. It could be for bragging rights, or it could be the fastest velocity the company engineers were able to obtain from the gun under controlled conditions. They could be using the number to sell more guns to uneducated shooters, or they could be using it to segregate their products for sales to different jurisdictions.

Company A tests all their guns with real-world lead pellets that shooters might also use. AirForce Airguns is one such company, and they even tell you what the test pellet is (a Crosman Premier pellet of the appropriate caliber, by the way). Company B is run by the marketing department, and they inflate the velocities of their magnum line of rifles and pistols by 10 percent. I’ve had executives in these companies tell me they did this because — to use their own words — “Everyone else does it, so why shouldn’t we?”

Company C uses the lightest pellets they can find to test their guns, so they don’t run afoul of those places where velocity, alone, is the criteria. And so it goes. This is why it’s impossible to know what the velocity figures mean unless you know the company that publishes them and their policies.

And the answer is…
The answer is — there is no one answer. Airgun velocity is a complex topic that’s driven by forces both within and outside the company making the guns. This is where the budding airgunner has to become a thoughtful researcher when looking for a certain gun. Pyramyd Air tries to post the most correct velocity for each model, but they’re at the mercy of both the airgun manufacturers as well as the makers of pellets.

Experience is the best guide when it comes to this topic. With experience, you’ll know what the limits are, which companies do what with their numbers and so on. But never think for a moment that all published velocities are incorrect.