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Lewis and Clark Carried an Air Rifle. You Should Too!

Hunters are learning to love air rifles because they offer a low-cost, low-recoil alternative to traditional firearms, and there are more opportunities to hunt with an air rifle than ever before.

Lewis and Clark Carried an Air Rifle. You Should Too!

When most hunters think about air rifles they remember their youthful days spent punching soda cans and ridding the garden and barn lot of vermin with a BB gun. However, modern air rifles are sophisticated weapons capable of firing projectiles as large as a half-inch in diameter with surprising accuracy. In fact, air rifles generate upwards of 700 foot-pounds of muzzle energy (more than a 10mm Auto cartridge) and are legal for hunting big game in many states.


But why airguns? Air rifles offer many advantages over traditional firearms, and one of those is that they do not require owners to fill out a 4473 form at the local gun shop for purchase. This means that, unlike firearms, air rifles and accessories can be shipped directly to your door, and that means you can be in the woods faster.

Many of the reasons that air guns make great firearms for new shooters like reduced recoil and muzzle blast also apply to more experienced shooters. Modern air rifles generate substantially less recoil than traditional firearms which allows shooters to master proper trigger press and helps maintain sight picture. In fact, I find that a session with my air rifles is a great way to prep for hunting season, and a session with an air rifle will likely improve your long-range shooting skills. We’d like to think that the pounding recoil and sharp report of a centerfire rifle doesn’t impact us, but that’s simply not true. Our nervous system is hard-wired to avoid hard hits and loud noises, and the most experienced shooters will tell you that massaging away the urge to flinch requires dedicated training. Air rifles are a great way to do that.

With the exception of some suppressed or subsonic loads all modern centerfire rifles and shotguns produce sound levels at or above 140 decibels, which can cause permanent damage to your hearing. Air rifles do not produce these damaging noise levels, and they also don’t scare game or irritate the neighbors. We’ve had a real problem with invasive starlings destroying items around our house, and these aggressive pests outcompete native bird species like purple martins. I try to keep the starling population down, and although traditional weapons are not banned by law where I live I do have neighbors and try to be respectful. The folks that live around me aren’t anti-gun by any stretch, but when your napping newborn is awaken to the sound of shotgun blasts from next door there’s friction. I don’t worry about that with air rifles. So long as I have a suitable backstop and a clear target I can rid my yards of raiders day or night.

Air rifles can also be fired at indoor ranges without the fears of impacting health. Law enforcement and military professionals who shoot traditional firearms indoors run the risk of being exposed to harmful particulate byproducts if proper air ventilation is not in place.


Lewis and Clark carried a .46-caliber Girandoni air rifle while they explored the western United States during the early nineteenth century. With its removable metal air tank filled the air rifle could fire 22 lead balls in rapid succession. That rifle weighed ten pounds, but its impressive firepower helped protect the Corp of Discovery as the made their way west.

Air Rifles as Hunting Weapons

Most hunters associate air rifles with tasks like dispatching small vermin, but today’s air rifles are capable of cleaning taking much larger quarry. .22 air rifles are a great choice for hunting small game like squirrels and cottontails, and with proper ammunition they can be quite accurate out to 25 yards or even more. Air rifle projectiles don’t expand like many traditional bullets and this helps preserve both the hide and the meat, which is one reason they are popular for use on furbearing animals. Also, air rifle ammunition is affordable and widely available. Recent ammunition shortages have made it difficult to find rimfire and centerfire ammunition and shotgun shells in many areas, but pellets are still broadly available and costs have remained modest. Whereas most rimfire .22 Long Rifle ammunition costs about ten cents per round .22 air rifle pellets cost between two and five cents per round. Even larger pellets like .357s cost about fifty cents per round.

The various .22 air rifles make excellent small game weapons, but you can certainly hunt larger game with these guns. For fox and even coyotes a .25-caliber airgun is a sensible minimum, and many hunters prefer the more power .35-caliber air rifle options. Even larger pellets do not damage hides, and quiet airguns don’t alert wary predators in your hunting area like the crack of a .223 centerfire.

Several states allow air rifles to be used for medium game like feral hogs and deer. Over half the states allow the use of air rifles for whitetails, and this list includes all the southeastern states as well as several western states like Idaho, Utah and Arizona also allow the use of air guns for big game. Each state has minimum requirements for caliber for big game hunting with air rifles, so check your local regulations. Pyramyd Air has developed an easy-to-use interactive map that explains air gun regulations in every state, so that’s your best resource if you’re considering buying an air rifle but aren’t sure if they’re legal for all game in your state.


Air rifles may have saved Federal Ammunition. Federal’s Anoka, Minnesota ammunition plant was built in 1916, but poor management led the company to close its doors by 1920. Shortly thereafter, a Minneapolis businessman named Charles Horn was searching for a company to make BB tubes and he stumbled upon the shuddered Federal plant, which Horn purchased. Federal recently celebrated 100 years in business. The company sold BBs in Horn’s patented paper tubes for many years.

Types of Air Rifles

Every air rifle uses compressed air to fire a projectile, but not all air guns operate in the same manner. The most popular and affordable options are variable pump air rifles that require the shooter to “pump” air into a chamber to act as a propellant. These rifles are available at many local sporting goods and hardware stores and are simple to operate. However, it can be time consuming to load and pump these guns, and they are generally chambered for .177 or .22-inch pellets, making them suitable for small game and pests.

CO2 air rifles use compressed air in CO2 cartridges to fire pellets, and most of these rifles shoot either .177 or .22-inch pellets. These rifles are affordable and popular, and CO2 cartridges are widely available. However, these cartridges run out of air rather quickly and that can lead to irregular points of impact. But if you’re looking for a small game and pest rifle and don’t mind carrying extra cartridges along with you in the field these guns work well for their intended purpose.



Break-action air rifles are another popular option. A spring piston in the rifle is compressed to provide the energy needed to fire the pellet, and this is often accomplished by “breaking” or cocking the barrel (the Beeman R9 I used for field testing later in this article is an example of a .22 break-action air rifle). Such rifles are much faster to load than variable pumps, and they provide consistent accuracy. While most air rifles use a break-barrel design like the R9, some have other external cocking devices.

For big game most air rifle hunters use PCP or pre-charged pneumatic air rifles. PCP rifles utilize compressed air in a tank that must be refilled, but they offer lots of power and superb accuracy for hunting large game at extended distances (which is why many states require the use of PCP rifles for hunting big game). PCP rifles aren’t cheap, but they make air rifles deadly and efficient weapons for hunting game like hogs, deer, sheep, and exotics.

In The Field

The Beeman R9 break-action .22 that I tested proved to be loads of fun to shoot, especially since I evaluated it after spending time on the range with a .300 Winchester Magnum. The R9 comes with a well-designed Monte Carlo hardwood stock that’s well contoured and comfortable, and it even features a soft rubber recoil pad, and the stock design makes it ambidextrous.


All R9 rifles are made in Germany and come with a hooded blade front sight and adjustable rear sight, but they also feature an 11mm dovetail for mounting optics. The rifle I ordered was the Elite version which comes with a Mantis 4-12x40 scope pre-mounted. At 25 yards the point of impact was only two inches from the bullseye straight out of the box. A Rekord two-stage adjustable trigger comes with every R9, and the test trigger broke at two pounds. There’s an automatic crossbolt safety located at the rear of the receiver portion of the rifle that must be pressed to the right to disengage.

Accuracy proved to be very good at 25 yards with ten-shot groups measuring about three inches. That’s certainly accurate enough for hunting at modest ranges, and the Mantis scope comes with stadia lines on the reticle for making rapid holdover and windage adjustments in the field.


As-tested the Beeman R9 Elite carries an MSRP of $629 at Pyramyd Air, which includes the Mantis scope. Without the optic the Beeman R9 costs $559.99.

Air Time

Odds are you started your shooting career behind an air rifle, but there’s no need to leave the fun of air guns behind. Many people underestimate the accuracy and quality of modern air rifles, but it’s impressive to see how far air power has come in recent years. Whether you’re buying an air rifle for target shooting, training, small or big game hunting (or all of the above) you’ll find the guns and all the accessories you need at

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