When it comes to buying your first set up it can be a daunting task, every choice you make can have an impact on your success later on. This is a quick guide to finding the right rifle for you as a newcomer to air rifle shooting.
Important Note: If you have not visited Tawd Vale yet, then do not buy anything. We have club guns and can advise you further on what to look for, we also have many members and some of which will probably be selling guns suitable for a newcomer at a good saving on new prices. Most members will also be happy to let you try their rifles.
The best thing as a newcomer you can do is come down to the club and find out what sort of shooting you would like to do. Many of our members enjoy to plink from a camping chair on our plinking range, others prefer to shoot target disciplines like Field Target (FT) or Hunter Field Target (HFT). Before you go out and buy anything, find out what you want to get into as it will dictate what sort of gear you need.
What do you intend to shoot?
At Tawd Vale we have 3 main disciplines which members enjoy:
- Plinking – This is shooting tin cans and spinning targets from a fixed position.
- Field Target (FT) – This is similar to long range sniping for air rifles.
- Hunter Field Target (HFT) – This is similar to hunting simulation (but is a target sport) involving simpler sporter style guns and sights.
If you’re interested in the differences between HFT and FT shooting, read this article.
Finding a gun and scope combination that can do all 3 disciplines will leave you making compromises somewhere. It doesn’t mean that if you get into the sport and want to plink that you cannot take part in FT or HFT though.
Many of our newcomers start out with very accessible sporter style rifles, move into HFT and then FT later on as they gain experience or upgrade their set up. Some don’t like aspects of HFT (like lying down/getting muddy) so prefer to shoot FT.
For example, this is a typical FT rifle vs a typical HFT rifle.
As you can see the styles are clearly very different and this is due to the requirements and rules of both sports.
In HFT you generally have to shoot prone (lying down) while touching a wooden peg with some part of you or your gun. This can leave you in a wide range of positions depending on the terrain but the benefit is you have a very steady peg to lean your gun against. This means there isn’t much benefit to an adjustable stock as you can’t adjust them to the many positions you will be shooting in. For HFT a regular sporter style PCP such as a S400 or spring rifle like a TX200 will be good enough to take you to national champion if you have the skills.
In FT you’re shooting from a consistent sitting position, this means you’re going to be in the same position each time and this is why shooters will pick target rifles as it allows them adjust the rifle to fit their body and shooting style. FT shooters also require higher magnification scopes for range finding, this is very specialised kit designed for the job and can be more costly.
Think about your budget and weigh it up against what you would like to shoot. Generally, FT rifles are more expensive due to the specialised gear and higher magnification scope but both sports can be shot on a budget.
Once you have decided what direction to focus in lets take a look at some gear that are good choices. Make sure to read the tips and advice at the bottom for some other good information.
Rifles come in all sorts of sizes and styles. The most obvious way to split these guns is by how they work, air rifles come in many different designs such as:
Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP)
These use compressed air to shoot a pellet, this means you have the added complication and expense of needing to buy a diving bottle (or pump) to fill your rifle with compressed air. However, they also have the advantage of having absolutely no recoil when you shoot them making them very forgiving for newcomers and ideal for children.
Most guns you will see at our club are PCP rifles, they are the popular choice. If you want a PCP as a beginner you will not beat an Air Arms S400, they are one of the most popular rifles around and will not let you down.
Spring powered rifles use a large spring and piston to shoot a projectile. They are entirely self powered meaning you do not need a source of compressed air but they do recoil when you shoot them and can be physically hard to load making them a bad choice for a child.
These are not as common as PCP rifles, but many members shoot springers. Some people have even moved to Spring powered rifles after buying PCP gear as they feel it’s more of a challenge, they are correct.
If you want to buy a spring gun, there are lots of models to chose from
You will find lots of cool looking rifles which are military style in gun shops and are typically powered by CO2. These are not really something you should be looking at. CO2 has a bunch of disadvantages like:
- Low power
- They won’t work in cold weather, not good for Northern England…
- CO2 is acidic and eats through seals, making them unreliable
- They use single use CO2 cartridges, this is very expensive
I would advise you to mostly avoid these, but if you’re trying to find a gun for a very young child and a S200 is too big then something like a crosman ratcatcher might do the job. They are incredibly light weight and will hit targets out to 25 yards, but beyond that it can be a struggle.
Scopes and Mounts
Your scope is just as important as the rifle it sits on. Lots of newcomers will buy a rifle and then put any scope on it and that’s fine to get started but as you progress into Field Target or Hunter Field Target, you will probably want to find something more suitable for your chosen discipline. Even if your goal is to just plink you may want to upgrade later on as you discover other options.
Field Target Scopes
FT and HFT require very different scopes due to the rules of each sports. In Field Target you will be using your scope to range find your target, this needs a very narrow depth of field to do this accurately. To get this depth of field you need high magnification and a large objective lens. This is a unique requirement of FT, which means scope selection is rather limited and costs are high.
A beginner FT scope will be something like a Hawke 8-32×50 which are around £350 new. This will get you started and will range find fine up to around 45 yards but this is not ideal as the max range for FT is 55 yards. To get the last 10 yards you need to upgrade again to something like the Nikko Stirling Diamond 10-50×60 which cost around £800 new.
Second hand options are also available, as well as older models of these scopes which work fine for less.
Field Target Scope Mounts
Scope mounts are what we use to attach the scope to your rifle. Because of the extremes that Field Target shooters shoot at it can sometimes be too much for some gun, scope and mount combinations. This can be seen when shooters run out of scope adjustment on their turrets.
The old school way of dealing with this was shimming their mounts with film negative which changes the angle the scope in relation to the barrel allowing for more adjustment where they need it but this is far from ideal. It also means you’re fractionally bending your scope as you tighten your mounts which is a very stupid thing to do after spending £100’s on a top quality scope.
The modern way to deal with this is adjustable scope mounts that allow you to do the same thing except they use grub screws instead of film negative. This avoids damage to your scope and also gives you the advantage of using the optical centre of your scope where the highest quality and brightest images can be seen.
As you can probably guess, these are more expensive…
Hunter Field Target Scopes
Hunter Field Target is far more accessible due to the rules of the sport. When HFT started in the early 00’s it was in response to Field Target, the creators wanted to start a target sport that anyone could be competitive in for very little money compared to Field Target. One of the rules they invented that allowed this was banning the use of scopes to range find.
In HFT you cannot adjust any setting on your scope from the time the first shot is taken. This gives shooters a number of challenges they have to overcome such as:
- Range finding without using your scope
- Finding a parallax setting that lets you see all the targets
- Finding a magnification that lets you see all the targets
- Using holdover to compensate for pellet drop at different range
These are skills and techniques you will learn. They are not problems that get solved by throwing money at a gun shop employee like you can with Field Target. Scopes you see at HFT competitions are also largely very average run of the mill scopes, they are marketed for hunting and plinking. There is no specialist equipment required here so there are far more options for HFT scopes at very low price points.
A very popular HFT scope at the club is the very first Hawke Airmax scope they fitted with the SR6 reticle. I’ve had one of these since they launched in 2010 and it cost me £120 and I’ve won multiple competition series with it, other people have won World Championships with them too. A modern alternative would be the Hawke Vantage which is probably optically a better scope.
No matter what scope you pick in HFT you will find that your nearer and further targets are blurry when you shoot them. It’s something you have to live with (and can actually be an asset for range finding if you remember what ranges are blurry). It doesn’t matter if you spend £50 or £1500, you not going to get an advantage.
If you’re looking for a HFT scope, I would pick something with these qualities:
- Maximum 45mm objective lens
- Maximum of 16 magnification on it’s highest setting
- Mildot or half mildot reticle (or alternative like an SR6 reticle) for aim points
But do ask a HFT shooter at the club first… They will show you what they use and give you some advice before you part with your cash. The SR6 reticle is well loved because it makes shooting very simple over a HFT course. Every line lands on a critical distance (if set up correctly) and it has extended “windage” lines that makes shooting in wind slightly easier. Hawke also provide free software to help shooters work out trajectory, and if you put the correct data in it’s pretty good.
Hunter Field Target Scope Mounts
HFT shooters have no real advantage from buying adjustable scope mounts, this is because:
- HFT is shot to 45 yards only so extreme adjustment is not needed
- Most of our targets will be blurry to some degree, so there’s no point of looking through the optical centre…
- HFT scopes are typically lower optical quality compared to FT scopes, the optical centre is not going to be noticeable.
For HFT regular scope mounts are fine. The only things you have to worry about is how the height of your scope impacts your aim points as well as stock fitment.
If you use high scope mounts your face may not be touching the cheek piece of your rifle (very common with Daystates). This means your head will be floating around during a shot which can give you parallax error. This will make you miss targets and you probably won’t even notice yourself doing it.
This can be solved with an adjustable target stock, but you don’t need that. Just get the correct height scope mounts.
The height of your scope can also impact your aim points. The higher you mount your scope the closer together your longer distance aim points will be but it will make closer targets difficult to shoot (and visa-versa). Some HFT shooters prefer low mounts, some like high mounts. It all depends on your set up and how you intend to shoot, in my opinion when choosing scope mounts pick the right height that allows you to rest your cheek on the stock. This is far more important than aim points.
Pellets is quite simple, no matter what you shoot. Find the best pellet for your rifle and use those ones. We do this by shooting groups with various brands/batches and sizes of pellets on cardboard. It’s best done off a bench and at long range to try and remove shooter error.
You shoot a group by aiming at the same place and shooting 5 (or however many) pellets at it. In a perfect world all you would see is a single hole where all the pellets impacted, but with so many variables like pellet size, weight and barrel harmonics that isn’t always the case. Through trial and error you will find a pellet that works well in your gun and then you buy lots of those pellets and just use them.
An easy way to do this is just ask some people what pellets they use and scrounge 10 pellets from them for you to try. This saves you buying multiple types, you can also buy pellet testing packs which are a good idea.
Most people use Air Arms 4.52 or JSB Exact 4.52, they are both the same pellet made in the same factory. They are a good place to start but do test other brands, if you don’t then you might be paying money to buy pellets that make you shoot poorly. That’s not fun.
Filling Gear and Equipment
If you bought a PCP you will need a way to put compressed air into it. If you bought a spring gun you can skip this section.
There are three methods of doing this;
A Diving Tank
Most shooters will buy a refillable dive bottle and fill their gun from this. They can be found in gun shops from £120 and are refilled with an electric compressor, most gun shops do this for £5. Diving shops will also do this for a similar price.
These tanks last quite a while before needing to be refilled, my 12L 300bar tank lasts 6 months between refills. Smaller tanks will need refilling more often. If you do buy a bottle then spend the extra and get a 300 bar bottle (not a 232bar or 207 bar). These hold FAR more air.
On top of this you will need a gauge assembly which will probably come with the bottle. Just screw in your PCP rifle fill fitting and you’re good to go.
Note: It’s worth keeping in mind that these are metal bottles with immense air pressure within them (4500PSI). Do not take risks, treat them with respect. Tawd Vale rules mean your bottle will need to be tied to a bench or post to avoid knocking these over, use a bungee cord or length of rope to do this. It’s also advisable that you create something so your bottle is not bouncing around your car as you drive.
You can also fill your gun with a pump, these are similar to track stand cycle pumps but work to a much higher pressure. These can be bought for £30 online but if you’re going to do this keep in mind that it’s physically exhausting (some shooters call them a heart attack machine) and the cheaper pumps do not filter the air, meaning moisture and dirt will get inside your gun causing problems later on.
The only pump that filters out moisture properly (because they patented that) is the Hills MK4, these are £170+. You can get a bottle for the same price that won’t require the physical side of pumping up your airgun, most people who buy a pump end up buying a bottle within 3 months.
Pumps are good if you don’t live near a place to fill your diving bottle, we don’t have that problem in NW England.
Thanks to China there are a number of electric compressors available for around £300 that will compress air for airguns.
They seem like a popular option in the USA where refilling diving bottles is a challenge, but you have the same problem as the pump (proper moisture and dirt filtration) with the fact that even a cheap Chinese compressor costs twice as much as a bottle. It doesn’t make much sense for us.
There are compressors which I would trust from brands like Nomad, but these do cost far more.
There’s also a bunch of other gear you will need but no special care needs to be applied here.
Something to shoot from
People who plink can do whatever they like, some use tripods with camping chairs. Some use fancy shooting chairs with built in rests. Do whatever you want or what you find is comfortable.
People shooting FT will require a shooting cushion, there are some rules about cushion size but most of them fit within these rules.
HFT shooters cannot sit due to the rules, so have to shoot prone. You may want to use a HFT shooting mat to keep yourself out of the mud. Some alternative options are yoga mats, carp landing mats or just a normal tarp will do it.
A Gun Case
Your gun cannot legally be transported unless it’s in a case. A gun shop will have a bunch of these from about £15, make sure that it has enough room for your rifle and scope combo and buy it.
Carrying your pellets around a course in a tin will result in lots of spilled pellets. A pellet pouch is a small pouch worn around your neck that will do a great job of carrying pellets. Some members sell these, but they are simple to make, just sew a length of paracord into a cheap purse.
Tips Before You Buy
Once you have decided what type of shooting you want to do, here are some tips that will help in your journey of buying things.
Tip #1: All rifles are as accurate as each other
Generally speaking, if you buy a rifle from a half decent manufacturer it will be just as accurate as any other rifle on the market. An Air Arms S400 is just as accurate as any other gun you will see at Tawd Vale. If you’re upgrading your gun as you think it will make you hit more targets, you’re going to be disappointed.
This doesn’t mean all rifles are created equal. If you spend more you can expect:
- Adjustable stocks
- Better triggers
- Regulators (more shots and more consistency per air fill)
- Blingy bits such as butt hooks, hamsters, palm shelves and more
- Better barrels
These things are nice to have and can make shooting easier, but you can’t buy magic devices to make up for lack of skill.
Tip #2: Multi-shot rifles are a pain
Lots of newcomers like to buy magazine fed, multi-shot rifles. We can all see why… They sound like a good idea.
However, in a club environment the magazine will quickly annoy you. Due to safety rules rifles cannot be moved around the club unless they are unloaded, this means magazine fed rifles need to have the magazine removed between lanes which (depending on the gun) can be very annoying and fiddly. Even if this doesn’t bother you, constantly reloading your magazine probably will become a hassle.
Some magazines can also damage the pellet as it is loaded in through the indexing system of the rifle that ruins the accuracy of the rifle. This is especially true with Daystate rifles in my experience, for target shooting this is not good.
Buy a single shot gun, or buy a rifle with a single shot adaptor which will allow you to use a magazine fed rifle in a single shot mode. Magazine fed rifles are typically for hunting, in a club environment they will annoy you.
Tip #3: Do not buy a .22 rifle, always stick to .177
Calibre for guns is displayed as decimals of an inch, “.177” is 0.177 of an inch. Obviously the small the calibre, the smaller the bullet (pellet in our case) is. Air rifles come in many calibres, but I’m going to make this extremely easy… You need a .177, do not let a shop bully you into buying a .22 rifle.
Unless you are hunting at short range, .177 calibre wins in every test. To keep this short the advantages are:
- Faster pellet velocity
- Less impact from wind
- Flatter trajectory
- Lower cost pellets
Tip 4#: Secondhand rifles can save you money
You can save money by buying secondhand guns, this is hardly surprising. But you can also not lose money by buying second hand guns…
If you buy a beginner friendly gun (like the Air Arms S400) secondhand demand will always be there when you come to sell it. They are a highly sought after gun that don’t really lose value. It’s entirely possible to buy one of these for about £350 second hand, shoot it for 2 years and sell it for the same price.
Keep this in mind when buying gear, it’s also true for some scopes and other rifles. While buying new is nice, this can be a great way to trade your way up to buying an FT rifle a step at a time.
Tip 5#: There are no stupid questions
If you are ever confused, just ask a member of our club. Shooting has a steep learning curve and buying the wrong gear can be a costly mistake.
We were all newcomers once, any member of Tawd Vale will be happy to help out with any query you have.