Firearms safety advocates long have discouraged the term "toy" when talking about air rifles that fire BBs or pellets. While you still can find inexpensive, low-power rifles for kids, the new breeds of powerful pellet guns are anything but child's play.
Our panel tested five of the newest products available; four break-action, piston-driven guns and one semi-automatic CO2 cartridge gun. The break-action guns are single-shot, with a pellet inserted into the end of the barrel at the break point.
Rifles shooting .177 diameter pellets were tested with Crosman lead pellets weighing 10.5 grains. The .22s were tested using Hatsan's 13.12-grain Vortex lead pellets. "Pellet velocity" and "Energy downrange" refer to the tests using this ammo.
Given that the kill zone on animals such as squirrels is about an inch, more accurate, slower lead pellets are likely your best option for hunting or pest control.
The break-action rifles maintained good consistency in terms of velocity, within 25 feet per second shot-to-shot.
The factory trigger setting on all the rifles basically sucked — much too hard to pull with too much creep/travel before getting to the break point. The good news is that four of the five guns tested had easily adjustable triggers, including a couple with both break poundage and travel adjustments. Shot groups improved by about 30 percent after adjustments.
The products and how they performed in our test:
One of two military-styled rifles tested, this .177 beauty looks so realistic you may want to add a strip of orange tape around the muzzle so wary neighbors don't think you're walking around the backyard with a real, centerfire rifle.
Features: Break-barrel action with "Power Source Nitro Piston." Rear peep sight in carry handle and adjustable/removable front sight. Synthetic black stock; non-collapsible. Hollow false magazine can be used for storage space. Nice sling mounts. Advertised velocity up to 1,000 FPS for lead pellets and 1,200 for alloy. Made in China.
Weight: 5.8 pounds
Length: 40 inches
Length of pull: 13.75 inches
Recommended price: $190; found at retail for $142-$170
Pellet velocity: 807 FPS
Energy downrange: 15.15 FPE
5-shot group: 3.5 inches
Observations: It took an estimated 45 pounds of pressure to completely cock the rifle, which is well beyond the capability of most youngsters and many women. This may be due to the shorter barrel yielding less leverage.
For open peep sights, the rifle grouped well, but in rigorous individual testing, panelist Sgt. 1st Class Justin Talbert couldn't get the adjustable sights dialed in to the bullseye, with the rifle consistently grouping low and right. If the rifle is used for hunting, he recommends removing the rear sight and mounting a red-dot or similar sight on the Picatinny-style optics rail.
The safety position, just ahead of the trigger and inside the trigger guard, concerned some reviewers. The rifle automatically set itself into the "fire" position upon cocking and loading. If you want to "safe" the rifle, you have to pull the safety back toward the trigger. Same for the Gamo rifle tested.
The rifle has a solid feel and, properly dialed in, could be a fun-to-shoot squirrel reaper.
Gamo Whisper Fusion Pro
Like Crosman, Gamo is a big name internationally in air rifles.
Features: The break-action, spring-piston, single-shot model firing .177 pellets has an all-weather molded synthetic stock with rubberized, textured pistol grip and forearm. "Shock Wave Absorber" recoil pad is touted to absorb up to 74 percent of the recoil. Also: thin ambidexrous cheek pad; noise dampening muffler; advertised pellet speeds up to 1,500 FPS with lightweight alloy pellets; two-stage, adjustable SAT (smooth action trigger) initially set at 4 pounds; 3-9x40 scope with adjustable objective that mounts on a raised rail; fiber-optic sights if you wanted to remove the scope. Made in Spain.
Weight: 8 pounds
Length: 46.5 inches
Length of pull: 14 inches
Recommended price: $330; seen at $319 retail. Military members are eligible for a 30 percent discount off suggested retail plus free shipping for orders placed online or via telephone with Gamo customer service. Proof of eligibility required.
Pellet velocity: 806 FPS
Energy downrange: 15.11 FPE
5-shot group: 1.5 inches
Observations: It took an estimated 41 pounds of pressure to cock the rifle. Even with Gamo's own PBA Platinum pellets weighing just 4.7 grains, the best velocity we could get was 1,310 FPS. The 5-shot average velocity with the lightweight rounds was 1,304, which translated into 17.75 FPE. But, we couldn't put together a consistently tight shot group with the light pellets.
Most impressive was the grouping with Gamo's new 5.56-grain "Lethal" pellets, which feature a copper dome in a polymer casing. Aptly named, these pellets achieved velocities of 1,176 FPS, delivering 17.08 FPE and a three-quarter-inch shot group.
The rifle feels exceptionally balanced and easy to handle when shooting offhand. It shoots like a fine hunting rifle and should easily handle small game out to about 30 yards.
Sling swivels are a recommended enhancement.
Hatsan Mod 85 Sniper .22 Combo
This .22-caliber model certainly came with the most accessories.
Features: Single-shot, break-action, spring-piston-driven; comfortable sling, removable plastic bipod, 3-9x40 non-adjustable objective Optima scope, micro-adjustable rear and front TruGlo fiber-optic sights. Two-stage match trigger dubbed "Quattro Trigger" offers adjustment points for trigger load, position of first and second stages of the firing cycle, and length of trigger travel. Also: rifled-steel barrel with sound moderating muzzle break; right-handed synthetic stock with Monte Carlo raised cheek piece and textured pistol grip and forearm. Comes with three stock spacers to allow length-of-pull adjustments. Made in Turkey.
Weight: 7.2 pounds without scope
Length: 44.5 inches
Length of pull: 13.5 inches
Recommended price: $267; $220-$240 from online retailers
Pellet velocity: 797 FPS
Energy downrange: 18.51 FPE
5-shot group: 2.5 inches
Observations: Panelist Frank Spuchesi, senior conservation police officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, used the rifle to smack down several squirrels during Virginia's early summer squirrel season.
Hatsan advertises up to 800 FPS with lead pellets, and it's nice to see performance as advertised.
Panelists also liked the trigger and the safety position, located at the back of the receiver just under the scope. You pull the safety back, similar to a small hammer, to put the gun in "fire" mode. Air rifles in the .22-caliber range had noticeably more recoil and "jump" than .177-caliber models. An adjustable soft butt pad on the stock and an internal "Shock Absorber System" mitigated the kick. The rifle did develop, though, an apparent small stress crack at the top of the forearm. Although we aren't certain, this may have happened as the rifle recoiled in a lead sled shooting rest during range testing.
Another .22-caliber gun, at 50 inches long, the X50 was the biggest rifle tested.
Features: Single-shot, break-action, spring-piston model; black synthetic stock with ambidextrous cheek piece; 3-9x40 adjustable objective scope mounted on a dovetail rail. Also equipped with fiber-optic sights. Advertised pellet speeds up to 1,200 FPS with lightweight alloy pellets. Two-stage, adjustable trigger. Made in China.
Weight: Almost 10 pounds with scope
Length: 50 inches
Length of pull: 15 inches
Recommended price: $319; found online for $249-$264
Pellet velocity: 833 FPS
Energy downrange: 20.22 FPE
5-shot group: 2.5 inches
Observations: Cocking the gun with the estimated 40 pounds of pressure seemed a little easier than other models. However, while grasping the "ergonomic cocking grip" — the plastic covering which also holds the front sight — the piece slipped on the barrel as Thomas Burke's hand torqued downward while cocking.
The rifle had an incredibly long 15-inch length of pull, which had shooters with shorter arms awkwardly placing their hand on the pistol grip and stretching to reach the trigger. Some panelists felt the rifle was much too long to be used by smaller-stature shooters.
Burke shot the rifle off the bench and offhand, finding he could get similar groups either way. Plenty of power to take small game. Panelists liked the automatic, ambidextrous safety on the receiver rear.
Sling swivels are a recommended enhancement.
Winchester Semi-Auto MP4
This .177-caliber air gun was powered by two 12-gram CO2 cartridges.
Features: Collapsible composite stock, rifled steel barrel, metal receiver and manual safety located in the same position found on high-powered real deals. Removable magazine houses CO2 cartridges and two 8-round rotary cylinders that accept BBs or .177-cal. pellets. Advertised maximum velocity of 700 FPS. Sights fold down. Bling can be mounted to integral rail system. Stock and tactical forearm have sling swivels. Made in Japan.
Weight: 5.8 pounds
Length: 46.5 inches with stock extended
Length of pull: N/A
Recommended price: $199.99; found online at $170
Pellet velocity: 481 FPS
Energy downrange: 5.39 FPE
5-shot group: 5.25 inches
Observations: It's hard to take this rifle seriously for any ethical hunting scenarios, although it could harass squirrels and other critters away from bird feeders. The first measured shot with fresh CO2 cartridges recorded 553 FPS. Velocity rapidly tailed off to 446 FPS before rebounding slightly on a sixth shot.
This rifle is a fun gun, a fast-shooting semi-automatic plinker that looks authentically cool — realistic enough to fool people. The MP4 feels durably made and is comfortable to shoot.
Reviewers agreed the trigger pull is too hefty with no easy adjustment possible short of disassembly. During range testing, Spuchesi's 9-year-old daughter Katelyn tried shooting and had to use two fingers to successfully squeeze the trigger.
Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoors writer.
The panel evaluated rifles for amenities such as sling swivel studs, slings, scopes, scope quality, recoil pads, scope-mounting options, bipods, cases, and ergonomics such as weight, length, balance, length of pull, pistol grip and trigger. During the range test, a chronograph measured pellet velocity in feet per second (FPS) at the muzzle. We fired five-shot groups at targets 25 yards away. That is about the maximum effective range if the guns are used for hunting or pest/varmint control. Foot pounds of energy (FPE) were calculated using a formula that considered velocity and projectile weight. Range test day temperature was 81 degrees, with 53 percent humidity at an altitude of 315 feet above sea level. Rifles shooting .177 diameter pellets were tested with Crosman lead pellets weighing 10.5 grains. The .22s were tested using Hatsan's 13.12-grain Vortex lead pellets.
Sgt. 1st Class Justin Talbert and Sgt. 1st Class David White, both instructors with the Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal School Training Facility; Frank Spuchesi, senior conservation police officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; Thomas Burke, a 50-year-plus hunter, shooter and firearms expert; and the author.