Break-barrel air rifles are not only an easy way to get into shooting but they’re great bits of kit in their own right, says Mat Manning
Modern airguns have come a long way over the past couple of decades. Yet despite all their technological advancements, it is still hard to beat the simple pleasure of shooting basic break-barrel air rifles.
Pre-charged powerplants, recoilless firing cycles, multi-shot magazines, adjustable power and even electronic triggers are now considered standard equipment by many airgun shooters. These features can certainly enhance the shooting experience, so why do so many shooters still love no-frills airguns? (Read our list of the best airgunning kit.)
It is something I found myself thinking about when wandering with my Weihrauch HW95K. I have some of the very latest high-powered pre-charged airguns, all of which would have made easy work of a dusk foray in pursuit of rabbits for the pot. So my decision to choose a spring-powered airgun over them seemed a little odd. I expect my choice was partly driven by nostalgia. I used to drool over Weihrauch’s break-barrel air rifles in my teens, and time spent with one now takes me back to when I used to dream of owning one.
Shooting break-barrel air rifles
There is the element of embracing the challenge of shooting a break-barrel. The spring-and-piston action causes quite a kick and most of the shaking comes before the pellet leaves the barrel, so it takes skill to manage the recoil and achieve consistently accurate pellet placement.
I also like the fact that break-barrel airguns, with their spring or gas-ram powerplants, are always ready for action. The fact that they are free from the hassle, and additional expense, of the charging kit needed to refill pre-charged airguns is very appealing. Even before you factor in a pump or scuba tank, pre-charged airguns tend to cost quite a lot more than break-barrels, so there is another tick for the simpler option.
It wasn’t long before I spotted a rabbit out making the most of the evening sun. I could have rolled it over from 60m had I opted to use a high-powered airgun on a bipod. Limited by my ability to shoot accurately with the HW95K, I squirmed along the hedgerow, freezing every time the feeding rabbit raised its head, until I was 25m away.
I had to wait a moment before taking the shot, as the contortions of the stalk had left my pulse thumping, but it calmed down to the point that the sight picture didn’t shake like a ship on a rough sea. I pushed off the Weihrauch’s safety catch, steadied my aim and squeezed through the trigger to make a very satisfying first addition to the evening’s tally.
Reloading the HW95K is now reflex for me. I swung down the barrel, completing the smooth stroke to compress the spring that sits behind the piston, popped a pellet into the breech then snapped the barrel back up into its robust retainer. A quick scan confirmed that there were no more bunnies out further along the hedge, so I strolled over to the shot rabbit and slipped it into my bag.
Much fuss is made about the power output of sub-12ft/lb airguns. Too many shooters wrongly assume they are down on power unless they are kicking out 11.9ft/lb or very close to it. Consistency counts for much more than brute force when it comes to achieving clean kills with any airgun. Pushing a spring or gas-ram airgun too hard usually results in a very harsh firing cycle, with inconsistent output and erratic recoil. I would always choose a consistent, smooth-shooting airgun producing 10ft/lb over a harsh and snappy 11.9ft/lb.
Another mistake a lot of shooters make with recoiling airguns is to try to strangle the recoil out of them with an excessively tight hold. It is far better to cradle the gun gently and allow the recoil to follow its natural course. Let it behave the same way every time you pull the trigger and the pellet should always follow the same path.
Pellet choice can also make or break the downrange performance of any airgun. Don’t be seduced by elaborate designs with pointed noses or so-called expanding hollowpoints. While some of these pellets can work perfectly well with some airguns, a quality domed profile is usually the most reliable for consistent accuracy. Don’t get distracted by elaborate claims about penetration or expansion and focus instead on precision. Hit a rabbit or rat on the side of the head with any airgun pellet fired from 25m away and it is very unlikely to get up again. (Read more on picking the perfect airgun pellet here.)
All airguns shoot better with some pellets than others. Try four or five brands of quality domed pellets and one will inevitably produce tighter groups than the rest. The difference can be remarkable, even if your sample ammo choices all look the same but only have tiny variations in weight or head size.
Frustratingly, airguns that roll off the same production line can favour different pellets, so it’s not a simple matter of asking which one to use. A few hours of experimentation on the garden range is the best way to find the best match for your airgun, and it’s gratifying when you discover a pellet that tightens up the groups.
My break-barrel foray concluded with two hard-earned rabbits. I don’t doubt that I could have made a bigger bag had I chosen one of my more sophisticated, more expensive set-ups, but there is a lot to be said for shooting trips that rely more on fieldcraft than technology. Break-barrel airguns certainly aren’t a compromise and are sometimes the superior choice.
Break-barrel air rifles to consider
Norica Marvic 2.0 Luxe RRP £299
This handsome spring-powered break-barrel features fibre-optic open sights, automatic safety catch and adjustable trigger, and is even equipped with a height-adjustable cheekpiece. It is available in .177 and .22 calibres and has the accuracy to justify purchasing a telescopic sight to attach to its 11mm rail.
The Marvic’s beech stock features some neat chequering and the 48cm barrel makes for a comfortable cocking stroke. At 118cm long and 3.3kg in weight, it is an adult-sized airgun.
BSA Lightning XL SE RRP £349
BSA is a trusted British airgun brand and for good reason: it has been making excellent air rifles for more than 160 years.
Accurate, easy on the eye and very solidly constructed, The Lightning XL SE is everything a modern breakbarrel should be. Features include BSA’s famous cold hammer forged barrel, full length tapered moderator and recoil-dampening scope rail.
The Lightning XL SE is a comparatively compact airgun at 95cm long and weighing 3kg. This modern classic is available in .177 and .22 calibres with beech and black stock options.
Ruger Targis Hunter Kit RRP £274.95
Supplied with 3-9×42 scope, mounts, moderator, sling and fastening swivels, the Ruger Targis Hunter Kit represents excellent value for money. It also comes fitted with fibre-optic sights, which are great fun for backyard tin-toppling.
Available in .177 calibre only, this airgun sits in a tactically styled synthetic stock with grippy inlays on the fore-end and pistol grip. Overall length is 113cm and weight is 3.4kg.
Powered by a gas piston rather than a traditional mainspring, the Targis Hunter should be good for thousands of consistent maintenance free shots.
Cometa Fenix 400 USC LT RRP: £365
This elegant offering from Spanish airgun giant Cometa boasts an eye-catching grey laminate stock with adjustable cheekpiece and some very nice stippling on the fore-end and pistol grip.
The USC suffix stands for Ultra Short Carbine, and this 3.2kg Fenix variant lives up to its name at only 104cm long including the supplied moderator. Available in .177 and .22 calibres, its features include two-stage trigger, auto safety catch and dovetail scope rails.
Aselkon RX1250 RRP: £165
Aselkon is a relatively new kid on the airgun block but is already establishing a loyal following, thanks to competitive prices, innovative design and solid build quality.
The RX1250 is a great option for shooters who want modern styling. Its synthetic thumbhole stock is sculpted for comfort and robust enough to stand up to unforgiving field use.
Available in .177, .22 and .25 calibres and equipped with open sights and a scope mounting rail, the RX1250 is 110cm long and weighs 3.2kg.