With all the buzz about high-power precharged-pneumatic (PCP) airguns these days, some are inclined to discount the time-proven spring-piston airgun. Some airgun hunters have gotten downright dismissive of springers, which is ironic because this is where airgun hunting started, and it remains the largest market segment. While it is true that springers are generally lower powered and harder to shoot accurately than PCPs, it’s equally true that they are self-contained, are less expensive, require no adjunct gear, and produce all the power and accuracy needed for small-game hunting. In the U.K., where legal-limit airguns are less than 12 ft./lbs. of energy, hunters have been using them for years to harvest rabbits, squirrels, crows, and wood pigeons with great success.
In this article I will present some of today’s best spring-piston airguns, but I want to take a moment to explain what I mean by the term “best.” Best means different things to different people. I believe most shooters who are new to airguns are looking for a reasonably priced, reasonably accurate and reasonably powerful gun. I will present a few of the guns coming out of the major manufacturers that are priced under the $300 mark that represent best of breed.
Spring-piston airguns generate power using a compression tube that houses a piston with a spring positioned behind. The forend of the compression chamber is sealed except for a hole in the center of the end cap called the transfer port, which is aligned and directly behind the barrel. In a break-barrel design you can see the transfer port when cocking the gun, and when you place the pellet directly in the barrel’s breech and reset the barrel, a closed circuit is formed from the (now) cocked piston in the compression tube to the muzzle. The small volume of air pushed in front of the piston through the transfer port and behind the pellet is what moves the projectile 35 yards downrange with enough power to drop a jackrabbit!
The three mechanisms for cocking a rifle are the break-barrel (the most common), the under-barrel cocking lever and the side-lever action. Regardless of the cocking action, the principles outlined are the same. And in all these designs, the power is generated by a spring driving the piston forward. At one time all springers used a mechanical spring made of coiled steel, which is compressed during cocking to store energy and released when the trigger is pulled and the sear disengaged, driving the piston forward.
This technology had remained unchanged in production guns for many years, but then a few years back several manufacturers started to build guns using gas pistons. In this design, the piston is housed in a sealed compression cylinder. This cylinder is filled with a volume of compressed air, which when cocked is compressed further. When the sear is released, the highly compressed volume of air expands back to the resting state, propelling the piston forward. From that point on it works in a way analogous to a traditional mechanical spring. Gas pistons have a longer working life than coiled springs, and as a rule have less vibration and are less noisy. I typically find the cocking effort a bit easier in gas-spring guns and conventional-springs a bit more powerful, but not enough to be significant. I have found it easier to be more accurate with the gas rams, less hold sensitive, and better controlled when shooting off sticks or other rests. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t have a strong preference.
A lot of spring-piston airguns on the market today have a sound suppression system, either a shrouded barrel or a permanently affixed moderator, which I find only moderately useful with this type of airgun. Let me explain; the muzzle crack in firearms is related to the fact that the bullets are supersonic when they exit the barrel, thus creating a mini sonic boom. A lot of manufacturers test their rifles with ultralight alloy pellets to get the highest possible velocities (supersonic). In this case, the silencing apparatus does have a noticeable effect. However, ultralight pellets shed velocity quickly and tend to be inaccurate after 30 yards or so, and that extra velocity achieved with a lighter projectile doesn’t translate to significant gains in power. Loss of accuracy, diminished longer-range performance and increased penetration at closer ranges (where it’s not needed) to get a higher velocity, is of limited value in most hunting situations. For this reason I tend to use a heavier pellet in these guns. They are more stable, more accurate, transfer energy on target more efficiently, and tend to drive the pellet at subsonic velocities, which make it quieter. In this case the effect of the shroud is less apparent, not to mention that it is typically the mechanical noise generated by the piston slamming home that is louder, especially for the shooter as their head is resting right next to the source! Still, when guns are shrouded, using a gas ram, depinger or other dampening device, and shooting subsonic velocities, many of the spring-piston airguns are very quiet.
Stocks come in all shapes and are fabricated from an array of materials. While my aesthetics run toward classic hardwood stocks with well-cut checkering and finely figured grain, many of the synthetic stocks are lighter, more rugged and more ergonomically designed. This is especially true when considering some of the more moderately priced guns; many of the synthetic stocks being used today are ergonomic and very shootable. I’d have to say this is probably a more functional option in a gun intended for heavy field use.
I prefer the .25 caliber in most of my PCP rifles, as larger calibers are more efficient with this power plant, and the terminal performance can be stellar. While some of my springers are in quarter bore, these guns are heavier, harder to cock and harder to shoot accurately. The recoil tends to be harsher, and because the velocities are lower, the trajectory is more pronounced. Guns in .177 can generate higher velocities at the muzzle, but at closer ranges they can over-penetrate on game and create a smaller wound channel, while at longer range they shed velocity at a more rapid rate. Both of these are legitimate hunting calibers, but overall in my 14-20 fpe springers the .22 roundnose pellet is my caliber and pellet configuration of choice. Accurate, good downrange retention of energy, and good terminal performance provides what’s needed in a small game gun.
As mentioned, if the metric for determining the “best” springers are affordability, accuracy, availability, shootability, reliability and ruggedness, there are a few examples that I’ve been shooting and feel represent the best in this class.
Umarex has a break-barrel gun called the Octane, which is housed in an ergonomic synthetic thumbhole stock, generates about 28 ft./lbs. of energy in .22, is fairly compact, is easy to shoot and has a two-stage trigger that breaks crisply at 3½ pounds. The Octane is powered by the proprietary ReAxis gas ram technology, which provides a smooth firing cycle, making this one of the guns that does well shooting off sticks. I’ve been having great success with it in the squirrel woods this season.
Gamo’s Fusion Whisper is another gun that is available in the big box stores, which impressed me with its intrinsic accuracy and power levels with hunting pellets in the 16 ft./lbs. range, and though it’s only available in .177, it is a solid performer on small game. I have to say, that the new SAT trigger design used in this rifle is crisp and moderately light (3.3 pounds) out of the box, and is the best trigger from Gamo yet.
The Hatsan Sniper is a gun I’ve been using in .25 caliber, and it’s a hammer! It also has fairly tame shooting characteristics for a gun generating over 30 ft./lbs. No doubt it is a big gun, but a large compression chamber is required, and I think it’s the weight in addition to the ergonomic synthetic stock that tames this rifle into a smooth-shooting machine. If you want a larger caliber springer, this one is worth a look.
The Walther LGV has been touted as having one of the smoothest firing cycles out of the box of any springer at any price point.This is a break-barrel rifle that, besides the standard barrel detent, is reinforced with a latch to further secure the barrel. This creates an additional brace to hold the breech firmly in place, essentially resulting in a fixed-barrel rifle, which contributes to the great intrinsic accuracy of this rifle. The trigger is very nice with the factory-set pull weight of 3 pounds, which is about right for a field gun, but you can adjust it much lighter. The rifle is shrouded and very quiet, which combined with all the other attributes makes for a very nice hunting rifle.
There are many rifles worth looking at from Crosman, Stoeger, Mendoza, Webley and others, but the ones I’ve presented are ones I’m out there hunting small game with right now. If you want to open the discussion up to include guns where price is not an issue, legendary guns such as the AA TX 200, Weihrauch HW 80, RWS 34, 350, and 460 Magnum underlever have to be considered. These guns are finely crafted, with nicely styled hardwood stocks, tuned to reduce any extraneous noise and recoil, and are all stellar performers!
No matter which of these guns you choose, they provide a cost-effective self-contained rig that will allow you to effectively hunt just about any small game. I believe that a shooter trained on a springer can shoot any gun well. To excel with a springer, the shooter must be consistent with their hold on the gun, the trigger squeeze needs to be smooth, and follow-through on each shot is a must. And since the ammo is inexpensive and you can shoot these guns just about anywhere, inside or out, it is possible to fire literally hundreds of shots over the snowy winters after hunting season ends. I believe that every shooter or hunter would benefit from using a springer, regardless of whether they want to just practice on targets in their basements, or go out to the local woods to hunt squirrels. Try one of the guns mentioned and I think you’ll probably agree with me.