Modern Airguns Don't Need Powder To Pack a Punch

Today's modern airguns don't need powder to pack a punch, attract customers or pump up your profits.

Modern Airguns Don't Need Powder To Pack a Punch

Air guns offer numerous positives for retailers and consumers, including no paperwork hassles, a variety of pistols and rifles with realistic features, no noise, training possibilities and more. (Photo: Tom McHale)

Modern airguns aren’t your grandpappy’s Daisy Red Ryder. Sure, that timeless classic is still manufactured, and everybody should own one.  But there’s a whole new era of power, performance and impressive technology in the airgun world. In fact, modern airguns rank right up there with popular centerfires in terms of velocity and muzzle energy.

Airguns and traditional firearms do share some attributes. When push comes to shove, it’s all about air pushing a projectile down the barrel. The only real differences are in how hot that air is and the source. Is there enough in common, both in terms of product and customer interest to warrant your investment of time, money and energy in selling airguns? Maybe. Let’s explore.

Modern Airguns

Before we get into what defines “modern airguns” let’s define the playing field.

You probably see plenty of airguns lining the shelves of local big box general purpose and sporting goods stores. There’s nothing wrong with these pump, piston, CO2 and spring-powered handguns and rifles. They function reliably, shoot readily available .177 and .22 caliber BBs and pellets, can take down small game and recreational targets and offer surprisingly good accuracy at appropriate ranges.

They’re also affordable, usually in the sub $150 price range. And that’s why we’re not going to talk about them here. Let’s all agree up front that competing with the big box chains by trying to discount commodity airguns is not the most effective margin-optimization strategy.

What we’re talking about in the context of this article are the real air guns. Note the space between “air” and “guns.” New-to-air companies like Sig Sauer have entered the market with premium air products and perfect replicas of their centerfire arms. Established high-end companies like FX, AirForce, Daystate and Brocock offer stunning and meticulously engineered air masterpieces that range in price from $300 to $5,000. And do they perform. Even companies that fill the shelves of the big box stores like Gamo and Crosman offer higher-end products that are a match for rimfire and centerfire rifles.


Modern airguns range in caliber from the pervasive .177 all the way up to .50 caliber. In the lower end, you might roughly equate the .25 airgun models to a rimfire .22 Long Rifle firearm. Pellet weight, velocity and foot-pounds of energy are close enough for government work. For example, I’ve been testing two .25s recently: the AirForce Airguns Condor SS and the FX Wildcat Mk II. Both match and even exceed .22LR performance.

The FX Wildcat Mk II .25 caliber is fed by a rotary magazine, so it’s limited to firing standard airgun pellets in the 27-grain range, give or take a few depending on the make and model. As just one power example, the H&N Sport Barracuda Hunter27.47-grain pellet leaves the muzzle at 823.5 fps and delivers 41.37 ft-lbs of kinetic energy. That’s squarely in .22LR territory.

The AirForce Condor SS is a single-shot breech loader, and that opens up a world of possibilities for not only traditional pellets but .25-caliber lead slugs. I’ve fired ammo ranging from 25-grain pellets to 105-grain solid slugs. In the midrange, the Hunters Supply 48-grain bullet leaves this rifle at 889 fps and generates 84.2 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

Those are a couple of impressive examples, but modern airgun technology doesn’t stop there. Consider a big bore like the Gamo TC-45. As the name implies, it fires a true .45-caliber slug. Projectiles I’ve tested range from 138 grains to a whopping 405 grains. That puts us into 300 to 400 foot-pounds territory with ease. If you want to make a good comparison for the hunting market, you might equate a big-bore airgun to a modern muzzleloader. The ballistics and terminal performance on medium to large game is very similar.


Unlike centerfires, where each cartridge generates its own supply of compressed gas, airguns have two basic operational choices. They can generate air for each shot or they can keep an onboard reservoir and release air as needed. The air-per-shot model is often found on big box store rifles, but that technology is also used on premium rifles. The new ASP20 Break-Action Rifle from Sig Sauer feels more like a fine European centerfire with its heavy wood stock and all-steel construction. It’s made in the same factory as all the centerfire Sigs so you’ll get outstanding quality of important components like the barrel.

Premium airguns that store an onboard air reservoir are generally in the pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) category. Airguns like our first two examples (the FX Wildcat Mk II and AirForce Condor SS) have onboard air cylinders that store many shots worth of air in reserve. That means no pumping or air-compression cocking for every shot, so they operate much more like bolt-action centerfires. That also means that the airgun has to meter the right amount of air, at the correct pressure, for each and every shot.

Constant air pressure delivered to the pellet means constant velocity, and that leads to repeatable accuracy. That’s an engineering challenge as the reservoir volume and pressure drops with each shot fired. Some designs like the Umarex Gauntlet solve this air regulation challenge mechanically while others like the Daystate Red Wolf use onboard computers to monitor available air and meter the correct charge for each shot.

The bottom line is this: If you appreciate fine engineering and technology, airguns might be right up your alley.

Price Point

From a retail perspective, a good air rifle may offer some margin and profit benefits. As long as you’re not competing with the local Wally World on volume mass-market models, you’re looking at price points for a rifle starting at $300 and going up as you add quality and features. Moving up the feature scale, a backyard plinker and solid small game hunter, the Gamo Urban .22 PCP carries an MSRP of $499. If you want to go big bore, you will lean on the four-figure price point. That Gamo TC-45 mentioned earlier lists for $999.

As with the centerfire rifle market, you’ll pay for quality and precision. Sticking with our example rifles, that FX Wildcat Mk II pushes $1,500 while the electronic Daystate Red Wolf will set one back a cool $2,400 give or take. Here’s the good news. Passionate airgunners are happy to pay premium prices for premium gear.

Reasons to Believe

The new crop of airgun products offer more flexibility for the end user than centerfire guns. Here are a few benefits.

No Range Required — Yes, airguns still fire projectiles, so all safety rules apply. However, the dramatically reduced noise, lower velocities and lighter projectiles allow them to be used safely in many more environments than centerfires. The smaller versions in .177 and .22-caliber are backyard and even garage friendly with the right backstops. Moving up to .25s and larger, you’ll want more space, but even these don’t penetrate as much or travel as far as a centerfire rifle projectile. These attributes also translate to less ricochet. You can safely shoot airguns in more places than centerfires, so, in theory, they may appeal to those living in more urban areas.

Less Noise — Airguns are quieter than centerfires. A lot quieter. In fact, I’ve not yet encountered an airgun that requires hearing protection for safe operation. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not silent in the Hollywood movie sense. After all, there’s still a pressure blast of air coming out of the muzzle, and just as with a balloon popping, you’ll hear that. What you won’t hear is an ear-shattering 160 decibels of noise. Refer back to the first benefit — you can shoot them in more places without ticking off the neighbors (as much.)

Hassle-Free Suppression — Here’s a fun one. Airgun suppressors aren’t part of the National Firearms Act, so not only do you avoid filling out forms and paying Uncle Spendy $200 to buy one, you can sell them over the counter. Practically speaking, most premium airguns come with either integrally suppressed barrels or a suppressor in place, but aftermarket versions are available and perfectly legal.

No Paperwork — As a retailer, I can’t imagine you’ll complain about not having to complete forms and background checks and store all that paper forever. Regardless of caliber, airguns are over-the-counter products. We can’t keep up with all the state and local laws, so check your locale, but in general, there are few if any restrictions on airguns.

Built-in Accessory Sales — Last, but certainly not least, airguns are accessory friendly. In the centerfire world, all you need to buy is a firearm and ammunition. Sometimes, an optic or scope may be required, but most everything else is optional. Assuming you’re selling a PCP rifle, you’ll also need to sell your new airgun owner a way to charge the onboard air reservoir with 3,000 or 4,500 psi of compressed air.

There are three ways to do this. First, you can provide an air compressor. No, the home store versions won’t do. An airgun compressor generally outputs 4,500 psi of very dry air. Prices are coming down, but even a portable model like the Benjamin Traveler lists for about $650. If you don’t want to compress your own air, you can opt for a high-capacity carbon fiber air cylinder. These units, like those used by firefighters, hold many recharges for a rifle and are themselves filled at dive shops and paintball centers. Last but not least, one can go with a hand-operated air pump. Again, your standard bicycle pump won’t do. These $150 to $200 units deliver dried air in the 4,500 psi range.

Marketing and Merchandizing

The most important tip for the airgun market is to get serious. By that I mean consider products that appeal to someone who wants more than the $129.99 big box store special. There’s nothing wrong with those products, and they certainly are fun. It just doesn’t make sense to compete in that market.

Consider some starter PCP air rifle “kits.” Rifles like the Umarex Gauntlet and Gamo Urban 22 are affordable and simple. They’re also surprisingly great performers considering the $300 to $400 price points. The best part is that you can sell these with simple hand pumps for the air supply. The smaller calibers and reasonable air reservoir sizes make them “feasible” to keep filled with a manually operated pump. Larger-caliber rifles simply suck too much air. You can use them with a hand pump, but you’ll burn plenty of calories pumping them up every handful of shots.

Consider stocking products complementary to centerfire guns. Over the past two years, the market for “identical” airguns for training has exploded. Sig Sauer produces air pistols and carbines that mimic centerfire classics like their 1911, P229, P226, M17 / P320, MCX and MPX. We’re not talking about toys here. These are steel guns that will fit in your customers’ holsters, share the same accessories like lights and lasers and provide safe at-home training options. The best part is that they’re simple to operate and keep running. Unlike the dedicated PCP air rifles, these run on disposable CO2 cartridges and shoot readily available BBs and pellets.

If you want to promote the value of airgunning, consider setting up a test range. All you need is 10 yards and it can even be indoors if you have a safe space. If not, perhaps a back parking lot test area might be feasible? Just be sure to follow any local regulations if applicable.

The Bottom Line

While aficionados have always appreciated the elegance of airgunning, centerfire folks have looked down their nose at those “puny BB guns.”

No more.

Advanced manufacturing techniques, some creative design work and technological breakthroughs have created a whole new market with a big revenue upside. While controversy abounds about fire and brimstone firearms, hardly anyone bats an eye over “BB gun” ownership and use.

Give the new guns a look. They might represent a new business opportunity.


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