What airgun should I buy first?
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- A common question
- How do you shoot?
- Target shooter
- Scope? Just say no!
- Starting out for less than $300
- How about less than $100?
- A nice multi-pump pneumatic
- Great finds
A common question
“Dear BB, I have been reading about airguns for several years and now I want to get one. After reading your blog, plus some of the comments on the forums, I realize that the guns I see at discount stores are probably not the way to go. I have heard too many horror stories about those guns, and I understand that they are sold on the basis of their low price and nothing more. But now that I’m ready to take the plunge myself, suddenly I find that the world of airguns has grown quite large. What would you recommend I do?
“So far it seems to me like there are two good kinds of guns to get. I either get a spring gun, or take the deep plunge and get a PCP. I know there are good guns in both categories, but I’m overwhelmed with all the choices. Can you make a recommendation?”
How do you shoot?
My answer? Well, price has to enter into the discussion at some point, because ultimately that is where this is headed. But let’s table that for now. I think that’s the wrong way to begin looking at it. Instead, let’s go a different way.
1. How much do you like shooting? Or, how much do you think you might like it, if you aren’t a shooter right now?
2. Is your life so packed with other things (you’re a doctor, attorney, etc.) that you can only carve out 30 minutes here and there perhaps a couple times a week? Or, are you retired and living the dream? Is your biggest decision whether to fire up the bass boat and make a day of it or just drop your line in the water off the end of the dock? (Substitute golf, kayaking, woodworking, etc. as appropriate.)
3. Do you like to hit what you shoot at, hit in the same place every time or see things fall down and go boom?
4. Do you want to shoot with your buddies or just by yourself?
5. How much do you hunt right now? Are you an anxious bird hunter who waits with anticipation for the start of dove/duck season? Do you like getting up at 3 a.m. to drop a few feral hogs on your friend’s farm? Or, are you not a hunter because there is too much to do to go hunting (licenses, gear, time away from home, dealing with the kill etc.)?
Now, we are ready to consider the money. I recommend that your first airgun costs no more than $300. To which you respond, “I only want to spend half that much (or plug in your own number).”
Fine, that’s a path we will explore. But first — to the guy (and it’s always a guy) who wants to spend more than $300 because he saw where folks on the forums are raving about the new .25 caliber Mashemflat Magnum. Its street price is $475, but they say it’s the best thing since sliced bread. To that I say — fine, buy one! Just don’t buy it as your FIRST airgun. You came to me asking what your first airgun should be, so listen to what I’m telling you.
I want you to discover airgunning first before you go off and create a new life for yourself. Doing that is not expensive, nor should it be. In fact, I will even tell you how to get something nice for less than $100. Read on.
The kind of shooter you are, or think you might be if you had the opportunity, is a big determiner of what kind of airgun to buy. Let’s see why.
If you like shooting, or think you might like it, then I recommend you get something that’s easy to shoot a LOT. So — .177 or .22 caliber, only. No .25s because the pellets are too expensive to allow a lot of shooting. No .20s because there just aren’t that many pellets to choose from. So, it’s a.177 or a .22 — period!
If you like shooting with other people, consider getting a gun that repeats. If you like shooting one pellet after another into the same hole DO NOT consider a repeater! Yes, there are accurate repeaters, but they are not first guns!
If you are a guy with just a few precious moments to spare in your busy life, consider a breakbarrel spring-piston rifle. Why? Because that is the kind of rifle that teaches a lot of things.
2. Sight picture
3. Trigger control
Why do I want patience? I’m too busy to bother with patience. That’s why I want a PCP that’s a repeater.
If that is the case you may be too busy to be an airgunner, too. Remember — this is your first airgun. Are you really suited to be a shooter?
Seriously, shooting is not a pastime to be rushed. Most pastimes shouldn’t be rushed if you really want to find out about them, but we are talking about shooting airguns today, so that’s where I’ll stop.
You like hunting a lot? Then let’s get an air rifle that is also a good hunter. For this I would lean more toward the .22 than the .177. We can argue the issue all day but in the end the .22 is the better choice FOR A FIRST AIRGUN that’s going to a hunter. That’s especially true if the muzzle energy is 20 foot-pounds or less, because the .22 causes greater blood loss.
No, an 18 foot-pounds air rifle isn’t for hunting hogs. But it is great for squirrels, rabbits and most small pests. If you are a hunter this should appeal to you.
If you like to shoot targets, go with a .177 and a single shot. The .177 is to save money (pellets are cheaper) and you don’t care how large the holes are. The single shot is for your best chance at accuracy. Get a rifle with good adjustable open sights and a good trigger. Think you can’t do it for under $300? I will prove that you can in just a bit. Hang in there.
Scope? Just say no!
Okay, I’m a dinosaur and everybody knows it. You aren’t going to listen to me on this, and you really don’t have to, but I do believe that it’s best to learn how to shoot before you start shooting. With open sights you are learning to shoot. With a scope you are just playing a mechanical video game.
Don’t listen to me on this, but when you come crying that your scope won’t hold a zero or can’t be sighted in and I explain why, you probably aren’t going to understand my explanation. Why? Because you don’t know how to shoot.
Starting out for less than $300
The operative word here is “used.” I can go to almost any airgun show and come away with several good first airguns for this little money. For starters you can buy a Diana breakbarrel. A very nice 27 will be less than $300 and a 25 with the ball bearing trigger will be a lot less. You get great accuracy, a great trigger and a gun that is ideal as a first airgun. But it doesn’t end there. I have seen good used Diana 48s and Diana 52s go for less than $300 — along with good Beeman R7s, HW30s and so on.
How about less than $100?
Now I am appealing to the guys who are either on a very tight budget or just don’t want to spend that much before discovering whether airgunning is for them. Can you get into airguns with a good one this cheap?
A nice multi-pump pneumatic
Yes you can. Maybe you can’t buy a Sheridan Blue Streak with the rocker safety for this little, but that just keeps you out of the .20-caliber closet I warned about earlier. But I can also tell you that over the years I have bought several, and turned down several more, working Benjamin 397s in used condition for $75 and up, but not over $100. We have not talked about a multi-pump pneumatic as an ideal first airgun, but it really is. Is a 397 the accuracy equal of a Diana 25/27? Pretty much — at least out to 25 yards.
The Benjamin 392 pump-assist rifle is on the left. A modern 397 would look similar. The shorter 397 Carbine that’s no longer made is on the right. Either one would make a good first air rifle. I paid $75 for the 397C.
A Benjamin 397 put 5 RWS Superdomes in 0.24-inches at 25 yards with open sights. Kowabunga!
Does it have adjustable sights? Yes again, though they are quite crude. Is the trigger as good as a Diana ball bearing trigger? Not even close! But a Benjamin 397 trigger can be made very tolerable, and the experience of learning to use one will make you a better shooter.
Today the 392 and 397 seem to be gone from the marketplace, but they have been replaced by the Benjamin Variable Pump that is essentially the same rifle in a synthetic stock — I think! I have to test one to know for sure.
I have purchased fine used airguns over the years. In the 1990s I bought an FWB 124 Sporter for $35. A couple years ago I bought a 124 Deluxe at a gun store for $200 out the door. The great buys are out there; you just have to look for them. If you don’t want to do that I have given you enough information in this report to go the way of purchasing directly.
My advice for a first airgun is to get something that is fundamentally solid with great potential. Don’t chase the power/velocity curve. Chase good accuracy and a good trigger. After you know that you like about airguns you will be far more prepared to select your second one.