Mat Manning takes an inexpensive air rifle to task
I like to invest in the best shooting kit that I can afford but that doesn’t necessarily mean dismissing a budget air-rifle. You should always use the right tool for the job but sometimes an inexpensive airgun will do just fine.
After all, not everyone can justify forking out several hundred or thousands, of pounds on an air rifle. High-end kit can also overcomplicate things. It was affordability and simplicity which attracted me to airgunning in the first place, so I make a point of paring down my gear every so often.
In fact my very first airgun was a budget air-rifle, a cheap hand-me-down my uncle passed on to me. It couldn’t group pellets with any sort of consistency at ranges much beyond 20m but that in fact improved my technique. As I was limited to close-range shots, and without any hi-tech accessories to help me to outsmart my quarry, I soon learned how important stealth was when it came to filling the bag.
Reliable, affordable air rifles
I was reminded of the joy of shooting with less sophisticated airguns when the Editor asked me to compile a round-up of reliable air rifles that cost less than £500. All the airguns featured are ones that I either own or have reviewed in the past, but I made a point of shooting them again in order to refresh my memory in terms of their handling and performance. That reacquaintance session set me thinking.
It is all very well printing small groups on target cards when shooting from the comfort of a bench, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could still cut it in the field with a very basic airgun. I decided then and there that I would use a budget air-rifle from the roundup during my next outing.
Don’t cut corners on ammo
- I decided to use the Hatsan Breaker 900X; a Turkish spring-gun with a break-barrel action and a £120 price tag — around a 10th of the price of my usual go-to airguns. Though it was the cheapest of the bunch, the Hatsan had so far given a respectable account of itself, knocking out five-shot groups comfortably within the size of a 2p piece at 25m. I was keen to discover how this budget air-rifle performed further.
- The Hatsan’s solid performance is due to several factors: it has a well-proportioned stock, its firing cycle is smooth and consistent with modest recoil, and it has a reasonably predictable two-stage trigger.
- Cutting corners on airgun ammunition is a false economy. (Read our list of best air rifle pellets). It introduces a weak link at the most important end of the accuracy chain, and will trash any chance of consistent pellet grouping.
- The .22-calibre Hatsan Breaker that Edgar Brothers sent me showed a distinct liking for Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign ammo. These pellets are very well made, consistent in weight and cost around £15 for a tin of 500. That is about three times the price of cheap airgun ammo, but it still only amounts to 3p per pop and I think that’s great value, especially having seen the difference it makes to downrange grouping.
- My own spring-powered airguns are fitted with telescopic sights and, while I was tempted to mount a scope to the Breaker, I decided against it. The cylinder of the little break-barrel is machined with dovetail rails to accept a set of mounts — and even has an adjustable arrester plate to prevent recoil from causing them to creep — but I was pleased enough with the results I’d been achieving with the Breaker’s fibre-optic open sights.
- Aside from using the right pellets, there is another important rule that I try to stick to, and that is to manage my expectations from the outset. In fact, it is important to apply this to all forms of shooting, not just with a budget air-rifle. On the garden range, I had been able to shoot accurately at 25m, so I knew that things should go well as long as I kept within that limit. The Hatsan has sufficient power to deliver clean kills at greater distance, but its lack of long-range precision makes the risk of wounding too great to push it much further than that. (Read more about garden airgunning here.)
Ambushing grain-raiding squirrels
I decided that the best way to orchestrate a close-range shot was to ambush grain-raiding squirrels, so I headed to the woods to stake out a pheasant feeder. I tucked myself against the trunk of a beech tree not more than 20m from a likely looking hopper, put on a camouflage headnet to make myself less conspicuous and settled down to wait.
About half an hour passed before a squirrel finally came clambering through the branches. I could tell from its course that it was heading straight for the feeder, so I lined up the gun in readiness to save me from having to move when it was at close quarters. The squirrel did exactly as I had hoped, scuttling across to the feeder and beginning to scratch up morsels of grain from the woodland floor.
Its head seemed to offer a tiny target compared with the magnified image I have grown accustomed to seeing through my telescopic sights, but the fibre-optic elements quickly aligned and came to rest on the unsuspecting creature’s skull. I pushed through the trigger and the twang of the Breaker’s spring-and-piston action was immediately followed by the crack of a solid head shot. The squirrel rolled over and I sat and stared, reliving the almost-forgotten satisfaction of pulling off a clean kill with open sights.
The irritated call of a nearby cock pheasant soon snapped me back to reality and I reloaded in case another opportunity should come along. The large sound moderator at the end of the Breaker’s barrel also serves as a useful grip for cocking, making easy work of the surprisingly smooth stroke. With the gun broken, it is simply a matter of popping a pellet straight into the breech before snapping the barrel back up into its secure lock-up.
I’d like to be able to say that I went on to add several more squirrels to the tally but I did not. The day’s meagre bag was not down to the budget air-rifle but the weather, which turned very wet not long after that first shot. I still felt pleased with myself, though. The humble Hatsan had delivered the goods and I had nailed my first squirrel with open sights since I can’t remember when.
This article was first published in 2018 and has been updated.