Modern Airguns Excel Under Pressure

Modern Airguns deliver expanded shooting opportunities, surprising firepower and serious sales potential.

Modern Airguns Excel Under Pressure

Today’s premium airguns are full of innovative technology. Yes, there are dozens of models offered on the shelves of big box stores at sub-$150 price points, but that’s not what we’re going to talk about here.

Modern premium airguns are marvels of engineering that exhibit the very best of design, construction elegance and high-level performance. Better yet, these sophisticated products open up new shooting possibilities thanks to reduced noise levels and lower power for activities like at-home shooting. All of that translates into legitimate sales opportunities for traditional firearms retailers.

Let’s take a closer look at the technology behind modern air products.

Air Power

Airguns are like their fierier cousins in that projectiles are driven through the barrel using air pressure. The only real difference is in how that pressure is created. For traditional firearms, expanding gas is generated “on demand” through the conversion of stored chemical energy. Primer impact creates a flame that ignites propellant. The resulting chemical reaction produces a cloud of high-pressure gas that propels the bullet on its way to the target.

With airguns, the high-pressure air is stored as … high-pressure air. The firing sequence releases that air to the chamber so it can act on the pellet or slug. There are some differences in how compressed air is delivered and stored, so let’s look at the basic types of air actions along with some other airgun vocabulary.

CO2 Power

CO2-powered airguns use disposable cylinders filled with compressed CO2. As they’re inserted into an air rifle or pistol, the seal is pierced so that the contents are available for use. The most common type of CO2 airguns are pistols and rifles that use those 12-gram cartridges you find at big box and sporting goods stores. When shooting BBs or .177 pellets, they’re usually good for 30 to 50 shots.

Here’s the thing about CO2 as a power source. While it’s easy and convenient, power is limited because of the low volume and relatively low pressure. Also, since CO2 cools as it’s released, rapid fire results in each shot being slower than the last. As the contents cool through repeated shots, pressure lowers, hence the slower velocity. If you space out shots by 10 seconds or so, you won’t see any shot-to-shot velocity difference.

While those ubiquitous 12-gram mini-cartridges are fine for light use, the real fun lies in guns designed with the larger 88- and 90-gram CO2 cylinders. Companies like Sig Sauer make serious airguns that make good use of the much larger capacity. For example, the company offers air versions of its MPX and MCX carbines. They’re great for training in the backyard.


The concept behind break-barrel and other types of break-action and pump airguns is to create a supply of compressed air suitable for one shot. Whether spring pistol or gas piston design, the ideas is to convert mechanical energy of the cocking action into stored energy. The cocking action stores more mechanical energy using the spring or gas piston. When you’re ready to shoot, that energy is released, generating a charge of compressed air to drive the pellet.

Yes, break-action airguns line the shelves at the local big box store. No, that’s not where the game stops. As with any other product, there’s the cheap stuff and the premium gear. Take, for example, the Sig Sauer ASP 20 break-barrel air rifle. You won’t find this at the local Wal-Mart. It’s made in the same factory as Sig Sauer centerfire rifles and pistols, using the same machinery, and by the same technicians. It uses dozens of components (like real wood and premium steel) carefully chosen for the specific task based on performance attributes, not cost. It’s a high-end piece of gear.

Pre-charged Pneumatic (PCP)

For multi-shot and raw power capability, PCP airguns lead the way. A PCP rifle or pistol will have an onboard air cylinder capable of packing a large reserve of compressed air. How compressed? Usually on-board supplies in PCP airguns range from 3,000 to 4,500 psi. Considering the average car tire is just 32, that’s a lot.

Engineering of PCP guns is complex because, for maximum accuracy, each and every charge of compressed air released into the chamber has to be the same in terms of volume and pressure. Think about an inflated balloon. If you release air repeatedly, the pressure gradually shrinks because the overall volume and pressure of air inside the balloon diminishes every time you let out some air. This is why higher-end PCP rifles and pistols use devices called regulators.

A regulator is a mechanical device that meters precise dosages of compressed air for each shot. They’re surprisingly effective so long as the pressure in the stored air reservoir is greater than what the regulator delivers. Some regulator systems on high-end airguns, like the Daystate Red Wolf, use onboard electronics to monitor pressures and provide precise air regulation. Yes, a high-end PCP airgun is an engineering marvel.

Air Supply

PCP airguns require lots of compressed air and not just any source will do. Compressors from the local building supply store won’t come close to delivering the required pressure.

Hand Pumps

The simple and inexpensive solution is a hand pump. Priced in the $100 to $200 range, these manual pumps look similar to a bike pump but can deliver 4,500 psi. Filling an air rifle the first time will require a couple hundred pumps and some serious physical exertion, but from that point on, the topping off effort is significantly easier.

Air Cylinders

The next solution is a high-capacity air cylinder, much like the ones firefighters and divers use. These tanks may carry 10 to 100 cubic feet of air compressed at 3,000 or 4,500 psi depending on the tank design. They serve as bulk storage for your airguns. Now and then you’ll need to bring the air cylinder to a local dive shop or paintball center to get it filled so you can use the cylinder to recharge your airguns. Results vary widely with tank and airgun capacity, but you’ll get many airgun charges from a large cylinder.


Serious airgunners will invest in their own compressor. Not long ago, home units capable of producing clean, dry and highly compressed air cost between $1,500 and $3,000. Today, manufacturers like Crosman/Benjamin and Air Venturi are designing portable compressors that run on AC or 12-volt systems and cost well under $1,000.


Airgun “ammo” refers only to projectiles. Cartridge cases, primers and propellants don’t exist in this word. Historically referred to as pellets, the term is becoming less relevant in recent years. Sure, there are still plenty of traditional pellet designs where a soft, open skirt behind the projectile head “catches” the air charge and expands to fill the barrel and engage the rifling. The smallest common calibers, .177 and .22, use traditional pellet designs almost exclusively.

With the advent of serious PCP airguns in larger calibers, the projectile universe has expanded. You can still get traditional pellets for bigger air calibers like .30, .45 and even .50, although they’re a lot bigger and heavier. Those big bore offerings also shoot solid projectiles with great effect. Companies like Hunters Supply make a wide variety of solid projectiles with all the normal centerfire bullet design features including flat points, round balls and even hollow points.


So, what can a modern airgun do? Are they as powerful as traditional firearms? In some ways, yes. For example, a .25-caliber air rifle like the AirForce Airguns CondorSS can launch a solid slug weighing 48 grains at a velocity of just under 900 fps. That translates to 85 ft-lbs of kinetic energy. A standard 40-grain .22LR projectile delivers about 120, give or take.

On the larger end of the caliber spectrum, the best comparison between traditional firearms and airguns is the muzzleloader realm. Due to design constraints, an airgun won’t be delivering 2,500 fps velocities anytime soon, but they do a great job of flinging heavy projectiles in the 800 to 1,000-fps velocity band. For example, I’ve tested a Gamo TC45 rifle with slugs in the 138- to 411-grain weight range. Resulting energy levels range from 176 to 370 ft-lbs. That’s enough oomph to hunt most game in North America. And it doesn’t stop there. The new Umarex Hammer launches a 550-grain, .50-caliber slug at 760 fps and delivers a whopping 705 ft-lbs of energy.

Are Airguns for You?

Unless you do a high-volume business, it’s doubtful that trying to compete with the local big box stores for commodity airguns in the sub $200 price range will be a profitable strategy. Then again, the way retailers are jumping on the gun control bandwagon, they may stop selling them altogether before too long, so maybe you’ll have a unique market opportunity.

One potential niche that makes a lot of sense for firearms retailers is the “air training” product universe. Companies like Sig Sauer, Umarex and Air Venturi are producing outstanding replicas of modern centerfire pistols and rifles. Carry a Sig Sauer P320? No worries, you can pick up an air version that allows you to train in your backyard or basement using safer — and less expensive — pellets. These training pistols are so true-to-form that you can share holsters and other accessories with the centerfire versions.

What also might warrant further exploration is the higher-end market. Customers who appreciate the performance of a fine traditional firearm also tend to value a quality airgun. High-end brands like FX, DayState, Brocock and others produce exceptional products that compare to the finest traditional firearms brands. It’s worth a look.

While shooting standard firearms at home isn’t an option for most people, airguns open up a whole new universe of accessible “shooting ranges.”


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