Whether for realistic practice at home, reaching out to surprisingly far distances or even harvesting game, air-powered guns are hardly toys.
Mention air guns at the range and shooters nearby will eagerly volunteer the precise day they took ownership of their first Daisy Red Ryder. You can expect a range safety officer to recite Hollywood’s classic and dire “A Christmas Story” warning that, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” The safety and discipline instilled with any BB or pellet gun serves enthusiasts well, but don’t underestimate the performance and utility of modern versions.
The .51-caliber Girardoni air rifles issued to select Austrian troops in 1780 featured interchangeable, buttstock-mounted air canisters and 20-round magazines. Their performance shined in conflicts with Prussia and Turkey—near the end of the 18th century. “These weapons were really accurate and effective,” MAJ John Plaster notes in his book, “The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting.”
In 1804, Lewis and Clark embarked on the Corps of Discovery expedition. Their boats launched in Missouri, mapped a route to Oregon, then made the return trip. Finding food for that 1,228-day trip was a challenge. Hunting provided the answer, and rather than hauling barrels of moisture-susceptible gunpowder in bulk, they carried a Girardoni.
The .51-caliber, 201.5-grain lead balls launched from a Girardoni left the barrel at around 500 fps. That’s 112 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Today’s CCI Green Label, 40-grain .22 LR cartridge generates 102—and that load’s no slouch when it comes to putting small game on the table.
Every air gun, regardless of make, is not a toy. All firearm-safety rules apply, and you should never underestimate the performance, particularly in today’s versions.
In 2016 Gamo, a relative newcomer that hit the market in 1958 with its spring-action, .177-caliber Model 45, purchased Daisy, which was established in 1895. Since then, the duo has been pushing the performance envelope.
One of Gamo’s best models illustrates the performance in this new generation of air rifles. “Our top-end, small-game rifle is the Swarm Magnum,” said Lawrence Taylor, Public Relations manager for Daisy/Gamo/BSA Optics. “This powerful air rifle sends a .22-caliber pellet downrange at more than 1,000 fps while providing the accuracy required to take squirrels and rabbits out to 40 to 50 yards.”
Don’t want to have to wrestle with a pellet after every pull of the trigger? “This version of the Magnum has been in our line since 2018 and features Gamo’s industry-leading Swarm 10X Technology, which gives you 10 shots just by breaking the barrel,” Taylor said. “Prior to 2017, all break-barrel air rifles were single shots, so you had to fumble for another pellet between shots.”
Gamo and Daisy don’t hold an exclusive on tiny groups, though. Umarex, founded in 1972, also has a sterling reputation for precision. Justin Biddle, vice president of Marketing at Umarex USA, said one of its top rifles delivers at distances that routinely challenge rimfires. “The Gauntlet 30 has been used to shoot in 100-yard air gun benchrest competitions,” he said. “This may not sound like much distance to a firearm shooter, but wind is much more of a factor on a pellets traveling less than 1,000 fps. With the right pellet for the rifle’s barrel, just like any other gun with a rifled barrel, sub-3/8-inch groups have been reported.”
SIG Sauer introduced its first air pistol in 2015—a P226 lookalike—with an entirely different mission. It, and the models that followed, closely emulate the size, feel and fire controls of its similarly named centerfire siblings. The approach means owners of the latter can use the former to build familiarity from the comfort of home.
There’s more to the company’s entry in the market, though. “It was decided that air guns offer two great opportunities for customers,” explained Tom Taylor, SIG Sauer chief marketing officer and executive vice president of Commercial Sales. “One was that air guns can be used for training. In fact, SIG has been awarded professional contracts for our air product as a training platform. Second, since SIG products are typically one of the higher-priced products in the market, the company thought air guns were a great opportunity to introduce new customers to SIG products.”
There’s no denying the simple pleasure of getting behind any trigger, but doing so on a classic-looking platform makes it all the more fun. Biddle explained, “Umarex is known as the ‘King of Replicas’ worldwide. Its first license agreement was in 1978. Today all of our firearm-branded air guns are very popular sellers such as Beretta, Colt, Glock, H&K, Ruger, Smith & Wesson and Walther, just to name a few. Of course, full-automatic BB guns remain sought after and one should not overlook the Legends offered by Umarex like the M1A1 or M3 Grease Gun, either.”