With all the concerns on many folks’ minds regarding potential gun legislation, it’s not surprising that air guns are finding their way into many households. They’re relatively inexpensive, easy to shoot and are legal almost everywhere. With the performance available in better models, some of the technology might seem revolutionary, but it’s been around for quite a while.

When Lewis and Clark embarked on their expedition to the West, they brought along a Girandoni air rifle as one of their main firearms (there are known Girandoni rifles that date back to 1580!). The technology was well-proven by the early 1800s and had even been adopted by several militaries. The specific model Lewis and Clark took with them was a .46-caliber rifle. In fact, many examples of Austrian models could fire up to 1,000 fps (for comparison, a .45 ACP round travels at an average of 1,300 fps).

“A well-built and powerful air rifle has many advantages. It’s not an underpowered ‘toy,’ as many might think.” 

It’s no surprise that air rifles are making a comeback in the modern age—and with many improvements.

Pressurized cylinders are the “powerhouses” of PCP air rifles. Some can be removed from the rifle, while others are firmly fixed. Either way, it’s essential to have a way to measure the pressure.


All air rifles fall into five categories:

  • Pre-charged pneumatic (PCP): Compressed air is held in a tank and used to push the projectile through the barrel.
  • Spring piston (or break barrel): The barrel is manipulated, allowing the spring to be compressed and used to fire the projectile.
  • Gas piston (or pump): This type is much like the PCP and spring piston versions. When the pump is manipulated, it pressurizes gas into a cylinder via a ram that’s used to propel the projectile with compressed air.
  • CO2: A removable cylinder of compressed gas is used to fire the air rifle. It’s not as powerful or long-lasting as a PCP option.
  • Variable pump: Much as with a gas piston, the operator manipulates the rifle to pressurize an integrated cylinder used to fire the pellet.
One of the more important parts of a PCP air rifle is the fill probe. This connects the pump to the rifle when it’s time to add air pressure to the tank.


A well-built and powerful air rifle has many advantages. It’s not an underpowered “toy,” as many might think.

“When Lewis and Clark embarked on their expedition to the West, they brought along a Girandoni air rifle as one of their main firearms.”

For example, the Hatsan MOD 125 Sniper Vortex QE—which uses a gas piston system—can fire a .22 pellet at up to 1,000 fps. The Hatsan BT65SB—a PCP system—can fire a .22 pellet at 1,180 fps. For comparison, a standard-velocity CCI .22LR averages 1,070 fps. That’s more than enough velocity for most .22 applications. As you can imagine, .177 pellets will move much faster, because they’re lightweight, and anything larger than .22 will move more slowly but with more energy.

Compared to this Winchester 94 30/30 carbine lever action (bottom), air rifles are dramatically larger and heavier.

This is an enormous benefit to overall ammunition weight for hunters or survival-minded individuals. A container of pellets comprises significantly less weight than cased ammunition—a huge potential weight-saving option. A full container of 500 .22 pellets weighs just over a pound and takes up no more than 3 cubic inches. That boils down to the ability to carry 1,200 rounds of ammunition for what two loaded standard magazines would run in a modern sporting rifle. In a survival situation, or for a hunting cabin, that can mean storing tins of pellets without them taking up much space.

“ … the regulation of air rifles is pretty lax, comparatively speaking. While there’s uncertainty about the possibility of new firearms regulation, air rifles are unregulated in the majority of U.S. states.”

There are plenty of options for the discerning user. From target-shooting to hunting, companies such as Hatsan and H&N Sport offer a broad range of projectiles. There are target pellets that can cover most uses; but there are also some specific hunting pellets that make easy work of small game. The price isn’t bad either, compared with loaded ammunition. As with pellet options, there are also readily available caliber choices. However, keep in mind that calibers start at .177 and can be as large as 12-gauge!

Break actions are the author’s preferred air gun style. Not only are they difficult for children to use—and are thus safer to have in the home— they’re also completely self-contained.

Above all, the regulation of air rifles is pretty lax, comparatively speaking. While there’s uncertainty about the possibility of new firearms regulation, air rifles are unregulated in the majority of U.S. states. Canada does consider anything firing a projectile of more than 500 fps a firearm, while Mexico only regulates the importation and specific types of air-compression systems associated with air guns.

“From target-shooting to hunting, There are plenty of options for the discerning user. companies such as Hatsan and H&N Sport offer a broad range of projectiles.”

Air rifles aren’t regulated or considered firearms in most states, so it’s 100 percent legal to keep those with built-in “quiet” technology or integrated suppressor barrels. On top of that, automatic fire is well within reach for certain manufacturers.

PCP rifles can be fired by loading pellets by hand, but it’s much easier to use a cylinder magazine.

Once you find an air rifle that works well for your needs, you need to consider optics. Standard rifle optics won’t work well, but other alternatives are quite affordable. Hatsan uses its Optima line for most, if not all, its optics. This company’s Optima high-end optics only max out around $200. And, there are some great options in the $20-to-$70 range. Now, that’s a good deal!

At its heart, a PCP air rifle is a semi-automatic—or, more often, a bolt action. That suggests magazine-capable air guns, meaning that good follow-up shots are easily achievable (this is different from those air guns and Red Rider BB guns you might have used as a kid). With a quick lever pull, most of the Hatsan models can rotate a magazine as a revolver cylinder does and load up the next pellet. Yes, there are single-shot options, and those are also great ballistically, but there’s something to be said for quick-change magazines.

Attaching cylinder magazines is relatively easy; and they’re held in place by a small bar that runs through the magazine.


Weight: Oh boy! Weight is a huge concern with air guns. While they might not be as powerful as many standard firearms, they can weigh just as much—if not more. Yes, there are savings in weight with ammunition, but the rifle, itself, is going to be a burden.

With PCP air rifles, there’s an air tank attached that needs to be filled. It can be filled from a compressor, but some companies do adapt specialized hand pumps that can bring the pressure up. They’re great for self-sufficiency, but they add even more weight.

“What’s really unique about the Hydra is its arrow upper. Not only can it fire pellets, it can also fire an arrow using compressed air.”

Consistency: This is also an issue, and it’s one that can affect overall accuracy. A spring-propelled air rifle will always be the most consistent in both velocity and accuracy, because it eliminates many variables. However, as a PCP rifle loses pressure, velocity begins dropping—and that can make or break hunting at more than 40 yards.

The hand pump that Hatsan offers is one of the best in the business. It pressurizes up to 200 bar (2,900 psi), which is more than adequate for most needs.

Anything containing a spring does have a unique recoil. It’s not uncommon to have air rifles destroy scopes designed for extremely powerful powdered calibers. Vibrations can wreck the inside of scopes (but there are optics specially designed for air rifles).

Reloading: Depending on the model, reloading can be problematic. For break barrel spring and gas piston systems, a lot of effort needs to be exerted to cock the action. With the overall length of an air gun, it can be problematic too: Many of these rifles are considerably longer than standard rifles of the same, or similar, calibers.

Legality: Not all states treat air guns the same way when it comes to legalities. New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only two states that regulate them just as they do standard firearms. New Jersey considers any item that can propel a solid projectile to be a firearm. Therefore, airsoft and paintball guns, which use projectiles that aren’t solid, are exempt. Rhode Island considers anything that propels a metal projectile as a firearm.

Pellets come in all shapes, materials and sizes, even in the same caliber.


Hydra: Hatsan USA has released a unique PCP air rifle called the “Hydra.” It’s modular and can accept different barrel modules in order to change the caliber. Effectively, anyone can have on hand three different pellet barrels (.177, .22 and .25).

“Without as many caliber restrictions as there once were, thanks to the advancement in pellet design, there are more choices for the discerning marksman.”

What’s really unique about the Hydra is its arrow upper. Not only can it fire pellets, it can also fire an arrow using compressed air. It’s not fast, but 170 to 220 fps can still take out some pretty significant game at close range. Add in the ability to use a high-end hand pump, and you can handle almost anything an air rifle would encounter in the field. The Hydra with one barrel runs $400. Each barrel module is another $190.

Pellets are the only consumables, besides air, in any air rifle. Lead and lead-free options are available for all calibers.

MOD 125 Sniper Vortex QE: If a whole system isn’t for you, Hatsan’s MOD 125 Sniper Vortex QE is a reliable break-action system. Unless it’s just a spring, there isn’t much that’s simpler than this air rifle style. This rifle in .22 can still produce velocities of 1,000 fps. For the survivalist or person withstanding an extended period of time in the bush, this can be a reliable game-getting option.

Professional Big Bore Airguns: With a dependable source of power and compression, you’re not limited to how large a projectile you can use. Professional Big Bore Airguns manufactures a 20-gauge air rifle with a .45-caliber insert. It’s not incredibly fast, but it has the capability of firing a 700-grain, .457-inch-diameter projectile. Because it offers the versatility of a small shotgun and a large rifle, it’s the best of both worlds. It does come with a pretty hefty price tag, but it’s one of the most realistic options for replacing or augmenting a standard rifle setup.

Air-powered arrows are unique. Hatsan has several arrow air rifles, including the Hydra.

An air rifle isn’t, and never will be, an end-all replacement for a standard rifle or pistol. It can, however, be a great alternative in many situations. With its ability to compress air and availability in almost every part of the United States, it’s a reasonable option for many people who might be seeking something with less recoil and/or that uses inexpensive ammunition.

In a survival situation, an air gun might be one of the greatest advantages someone can have: It offers quiet firepower for hunting and doesn’t weigh much more than a standard rifle (much less than a standard rifle with loaded ammunition). From the political perspective, it could be something that’ll become more normal.

Hatsan Optima optics are great options for air rifles. They can handle the vibrations that tend to destroy some high-end rifle optics.

If you hadn’t considered air guns before, consider them now. Take a look at the options for air rifles and see what might work well for you. Without as many caliber restrictions as there once were, thanks to the advancement in pellet design, there are more choices for the discerning marksman. For instance, companies such as Hatsan and Professional Big Bore Airguns have spent decades perfecting the art of air-powered rifles. It’s their experience that’s driven air gun manufacturing and capabilities to where they are today.

Professional Big Bore Airguns manufactures an outstanding, 20-gauge equivalent with a .45-caliber insert for big-game hunting. (Photo: Professional Big Bore Airguns)
A former employee of Professional Big Bore Airguns poses with the hog she killed using a Professional Big Bore air gun. (Photo: Professional Big Bore Airguns)
The Hatsan Hydra is an all-in-four option that swaps a barrel assembly to change caliber or add an arrow system.
Different calibers would be used for different things, and this is one time that size does matter.
Bolt-action systems are some of the most common action types found in PCP air rifles.
Some air cylinders that are built into the air rifle are removable, but it’s an uncommon feature.

PCP Air Gun Considerations

PCP air guns are some of the more-complex air rifles available. Where this system stands out is the large air tank that’s attached to the rifle itself. This can be a bit of a problem when you need to refill the tank after it runs low. The lower the pressure, the slower the pellet will travel, so frequent refills are a must.

There aren’t many issues when refilling at home, where an air compressor is available. In fact, that’s the easiest overall solution. When you’re not at home or in a convenient location, such as at a range or when out hunting, air compressors aren’t readily available. However, pre-filled scuba tanks can carry enough pressure to refill even the most stubborn PCP tanks, but that’s a heavy solution.

Another alternative that greatly increases portability is a hand pump. It takes a lot of muscle and grit to completely fill an empty or low tank to acceptable pressures such as 200 bar (2,900 psi). Granted, the additional 3 or 4 pounds for a pump doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up when you’re already carrying a 6.5- to 8-pound rifle. (Hatsan offers a great hand pump and a portable tank system that can be adapted to AC or DC power.)

Break-Barrel Simplicity

While all the air rifle models will be adequate for survival situations, the break barrel/gas piston might be one of the best choices for this purpose. This style of air rifle requires absolutely no peripheral equipment in order to be used. The rifle, pellets and optics are the only needs. Accuracy is also pretty consistent, because the tank is filled to the same pressures every time.

The cost for simplicity means needing the strength to exert a significant amount of force to charge the piston. This would be extremely problematic for children and many adults.

A little extra barrel length is usually required when manufacturing this type of rifle to provide added leverage when charging the piston.

Another downside is the number of shots available. Air guns are essentially single-shot rifles. In a hunting situation, with such a small caliber (.22, .25 and .30), follow-up shots will be impossible, making it more challenging to take down larger game. It might be a good idea to stock up on hunting-specific pellets.

Hatsan USA

Hatsan is a Turkish manufacturer that’s been in business since 1976. Surprisingly, it exports nearly all of its manufactured guns (Hatsan air rifles and Escort shotguns).

What’s most impressive is that it’s a “vertical” manufacturer: It starts with the raw materials and does the complete manufacturing in house. It casts and mills the steel, builds the stocks from raw blocks and even manufactures all its own barrels. That’s practically unheard of for most manufacturers!

From a quality perspective, it’s good to know that if something goes wrong, there’s only one manufacturer responsible.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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