For the prepper, air rifles offer quiet shooting that can be done for hunting, pest control, or practice. Quiet is always good. While these guns do make noise, it is a lot less than virtually all non-suppressed firearms. The sound signature is different as well; they sound more like an air nailer or stapler than a gun. They also can cost less to shoot, since you are just buying pellets and not a cartridge case, primer, and powder. There is even a chap in England selling kits to make your own pellets http://airgunpelletmaker.weebly.com/ , if you want more independence.
When most folks think of air rifles, an image of a *Daisy Red Ryder often comes to mind. Red Ryders make great trainers for kids (and grownups), but most people don’t take them seriously, even though they remember the admonitions about how they can put your eye out. Many of us also might remember assassinating the odd bird with them. Despite the dangers they pose to eyes and small birds, with their smooth bores, dainty 5.1 grain .17 caliber steel BB’s, heavy triggers, and rudimentary sights, they only have about 1.4 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle and little accuracy beyond 15 feet. They have enough energy to cause injury but not enough to be reliable killers of small game. Their redeeming feature is that they are fun to shoot for young and old and with only 13 or so pounds of cocking effort, they’re easy to plink with all day.
There are other types of air rifles, however. I first became aware of them when I read Mel Tappan’s influential work Survival Guns published way back in 1977. One type of these guns is used in Olympic target competition and capable of stunning accuracy, though they don’t offer as much power as we might like for hunting. These guns also have astonishing prices. There are, however, other types of air rifles– ones that provide enough power to cleanly kill small game and sufficient accuracy to hit them. They also have prices more of us can afford.
In this realm of air riflery, there are several variants that preppers should be familiar with– spring piston, gas piston, and pneumatic. In the spring piston gun, a powerful spring is compressed and then released when the trigger is pressed. This drives a piston forward that creates a column of compressed air, which propels the pellet to the target. The gas piston is similar, but it uses a gas-filled piston, somewhat like one of the ones that holds up your car’s trunk lid, instead of a spring. An advantage of the gas piston is that it can be left cocked for longer periods without stressing the mechanism. Pneumatic guns have reservoirs that hold compressed air, which is released to shoot the pellet. Some pneumatics have pumps on the gun, while others, called pre-charged pneumatics (PCP), use high pressure tanks to hold the air. These tanks can sometimes be removed from the gun and replaced with a full one. Most folks, using this sort of gun, take them to a dive shop and have them filled there, though there are home pumps available. The joy of this sort of air gun is that it can be fired several times without pumping or cocking, much like a repeating firearm. Lewis and Clark carried this kind of air rifle on their great exploration of the American West in the early 19th century, while the Austrian Army equipped soldiers with them in the same time frame.
One thing that usually surprises people first using a spring or gas piston gun is that they recoil. It is a rather odd recoil impulse in that it usually first goes forward and then backwards. This derives from all the stuff ramming forward to compress the air that drives the pellet and then the release of the air pushing back, unlike the simple rearward push you get from a firearm. This back and forth recoil makes these guns hard on scopes. Some target air guns have parts working in the opposite direction to cancel this recoil. Pneumatics have less recoil, which is an advantage, since recoil can affect accuracy.
You may notice that I’m leaving out CO2 guns. I admit to dearly loving them for their fun and ease of shooting, but the requirement to purchase costly CO2 cartridges leaves me cold. I can see the cartridges being very hard to come by in any sort of crisis. To an extent, the PCP guns can fall victim to this sort of issue, if one doesn’t buy their own pump for their gun. There may not be a SCUBA shop open to refill your tanks if the grid is down. PCP guns are also pricier than a spring or gas piston gun, when you consider the problem of filling the reservoirs with air.
Overall, I like the idea of something that I can power by my own hand, and that pretty much means a spring or gas piston gun. The gun I’m reviewing– the Hatsan Model 125 Sniper Vortex Air Rifle – is a gas piston made in Turkey that goes for $270. When I picked it up from UPS, the first thing that crossed my mind when I grabbed the box was that this thing is heavy. The Hatsan website credits it with nine pounds, which is around the weight of my M1A and quite a bit heavier than the light barrel AR carbine I often shoot. All that weight, however, I was promised a powerful and sturdy air rifle. It didn’t disappoint.
The rifle comes with a 3-9x scope made in China. I would probably want to spring for a better scope. All the years I spent using Leica, Canon, and Nikon cameras left me pretty picky about optics, and this is a bargain scope. It is actually reasonably clear; the key drawback is that it can’t be adjusted for parallax. If you are using a scope at a different range than it is set for parallax, any shift in your eye position will affect where the reticle appears to be aimed at. The higher the magnification, the greater the problem is. Scopes for centerfire rifles are usually set for 100 yards, which is an excellent compromise. Rimfire scopes are usually set for 50 yards, and again that works out okay for the most part. Air rifles, in my view, are best served with a scope that can be adjusted for distance, especially if it is capable of higher power settings, because they are shot at closer ranges, which seems to make the adjustment pickier. This scope is not adjustable, and while I’ve read that you can unscrew the front element to adjust it, that voids the warranty. Also, I fear that might let moisture into the scope. I view this scope as something to enjoy using until I could afford a better one. A scope is far easier to use than iron sights, so it is a definite plus to get it as part of the package.
The rifle has iron sights with bright fiber optic inserts. The rear sight is an open notch and adjustable for elevation and windage. They provide a good sight picture, and the adjustability is welcome on an air rifle, as the trajectory can vary significantly with different pellets.
The Hatsan shoots the included .22 caliber 14.66 grain lead pellets at more than 900 feet per second. This is approaching the power of a standard velocity .22 short, which has killed many a squirrel. At point blank range, it had no problem shooting cleanly through 3/8” plywood. It also managed to get about half its pellets through the plywood at 20 yards. This puppy has serious power. It clearly exceeds the .22 Aguila Colibri and Super Colibri rounds I often use for rodent extermination around the chicken coop.
Just for a point of reference, here are some energy levels:
28 foot pounds .22 caliber 14.66 pellet from Hatsan .22 air rifle
8 foot pounds .22 caliber 20 grain Aguila Colibri
16 foot pounds .22 caliber 20 grain Aguila Super Colibri
32 foot pounds .22 caliber 29 grain CCI CB Long
44 foot pounds .22 caliber 29 grain CCI Short Target
The Colibris often will not exit a larger rodent, while the Super Colibris usually goes through one. I haven’t had a chance to take any with the Hatsan, but I have no doubt they would do an impressive job.
The energy levels for the firearms ammunition were taken from the ammunition manufacturers’ sites. The energy for the Hatsan was computed from the average of 10 shots fired over a chronograph, using this calculator. I could have done the math myself, but this was easier.
Hatsan claims 1,000 fps with this gun, but they don’t specify what pellet they are using for the measurement. I didn’t get that high a velocity, but they may have had lighter pellets. The best velocity I saw was about 930 fps, which thankfully was with one of the most accurate pellets. I was clearly getting enough power out of it to easily do in squirrels or other rodents and most types of birds.
The noise levels were interesting. The Hatsan actually has a noise suppressor on it. While I don’t have a meter for sound levels, I found that the .22 Colibris seemed slightly quieter out of a rifle with an 18 inch barrel, but they had a gun sound. The Hatsan seemed slightly louder but, as mentioned before, made a sound that was more like that of a pneumatic nail gun. If I heard it, in other words, I wouldn’t think “gun”, but I might be curious about what it was. In either case, you wouldn’t hear either of them very far. My son had trouble hearing them fired immediately outside the house or in the garage through one wall. The Hatsan was definitely quieter than the CCI CB Long or a .22 short. I don’t have a suppressed .22 to compare, but I suspect that would have been quieter than the air rifle.
This style gas piston gun is operated by breaking the barrel open and inserting a pellet in the chamber. It is kind of like a double barrel shotgun, though it swings 135 degrees, which is quite a bit further than your scattergun. It takes considerable force, around 45 foot pounds to be precise, to operate the action. This compresses the gas piston and resets the trigger. The safety is set “on” when the barrel is opened. The effort it takes to cock it is the flip side of all that power. My nine-year-old son could do it, but he had to work at it. The effort makes you consider the purpose of this rifle, and I think of it as more of a hunting or pest control rifle rather than a high volume plinker. It is certainly fun to plink with it, but after 20 or so rounds, it starts to wear most of us down a bit and shooting begins to lose its appeal. I found a 50-round string for testing to be pretty tiring, in fact.
This model Hatsan has a synthetic stock that seems quite sturdy. It has an adjustable cheek piece that is very nice for lining yourself up with the iron sights or a scope. The stock has rubber-like inserts to improve your grip, and there are some spacers you can install to lengthen the adult-sized stock. It has ¾” wide sling swivels. The front one is mounted on the left side of the fore arm; the rear one is mounted on the toe of the stock. I feel that the sling mounting could be improved. This is a heavy rifle, so I would prefer a 1¼” sling. It is hard to mount the forward swivel since the barrel has to break, so it is on the side of the fore arm. Since I’m left-handed, it would have been nice to have a mount available on both sides.
One of the interesting things about this sort of air gun is that you need to hold it lightly. With firearms, we usually pull them back into the shoulder snugly to control recoil. Since the recoil is simpler with a firearm, just a push back, we can get pretty good accuracy with a tight hold. With a spring or gas piston air gun, more is going on. The piston rams forward making the gun jump before the pellet can clear the barrel. We then get backward recoil from the blast of air released. There simply isn’t much way we can control all that. Trying to do so can cause problems, because it is so hard to do it the same way for each shot. Many air gun experts recommend that we should use a very light hold that allows the gun to recoil freely. This means simply letting the fore end rest on your open hand while only exerting light pull on the pistol grip. I’ve had trouble doing this, as I am so used to using more power in my hold. I have had to make an effort to give it a chance, and it seems to work.
The trigger on the rifle is adjustable. It came set at 5.5 pounds and is reasonably crisp. I decided to leave it as is because my son has been shooting it and I think making it too light is not a great idea for young shooters.
Air rifles do need maintenance. A Hatsan spokesperson suggested cleaning the bore about every 500 rounds and that they really like Ballistol for the cleaner. While there is obviously no powder or copper fouling going on, the barrel can lead up in a high velocity gun, like the Hatsan, and that will affect accuracy.
I liked the fact that Hatsan says that you should get at least 20,000 rounds from this gun before needing service and that it can be rebuilt, as needed.
I wound up with two of these rifles. The first one was disappointing in accuracy. It initially had about a 40 fps variation in a 10-shot string and averaged about 850 fps with the 14.66 pellets supplied with the rifle. Air rifles need a break-in period, so I wanted to shoot it some and see what happened. Hatsan said to give it 500 shots before making a final judgment. The velocity variation dropped to 20 fps at around shot 500 and accuracy improved. However, it then got worse, and after a few more shots, the velocity suddenly fell off by 200 fps and accuracy and velocity became very erratic. I contacted Hatsan and they replaced the rifle.
The second rifle showed far more consistent velocities from the start with only a 16 fps variation in the first 10 shots, which averaged 930 fps with 14.66 grain pellets. Accuracy was far better from the start; it was possible to consistently hit a quarter at 25 feet, which is pretty good in my book. By 200 rounds, I was getting a 10 fps variation in a ten-shot string, which is quite acceptable and what Hatsan told me to expect. Accuracy also improved a bit while the velocity stayed at an average of 927 fps in a ten-round string, again with the supplied pellets.
I suspect there was some issue with the piston seal from the start with the first gun. I was very happy that Hatsan was willing to replace it.
Accuracy is a key issue with air guns. While air guns like this one are quite powerful for what they are, they are still limited in muscle. When you don’t have much power to apply, it needs to be applied precisely to a key spot. Pellet guns tend to be somewhat sensitive to pellets, and I found that to be true of the Hatsan. Interestingly, the first one didn’t like the ones that came with it, but the second one shot them extremely well. I tried a range of American, German, Spanish, and Czech pellets ranging from a bit over 13 grains all the way up to 25.39 grains. Both rifles I tested did well with the Czech JSP pellets, while the second one also did extremely well with the Hatsan Vortex 14.66 grain pellet. I’m sure that the second rifle could hit a quarter with every shot at 25 feet using these pellets if I did my part.
I would be happy to have more information about caring for the rifle in the instructions. There isn’t much about maintenance. In the old days, you were expected to follow a rather specialized maintenance schedule on some air rifles using special lubes on springs and piston seals. I didn’t see any recommendations for any of that. I also didn’t see any dire warning about firing it without pellets, which is something that devastates the seals in an old German gun I own. I would presume that dry firing is not good, as it means slamming the piston forward without resistance, much like dropping the slide on an empty chamber with a match tuned 1911.
I like the rifle quite a bit and see a real use for it in a prepping situation. It has a very respectable price to performance value point. While I’m not a fan of the scope, it is great to get it with the rifle to tide you over until you can get a better one. If I decided to add one to my battery, and I think I will, I would spend time with it to determine the most accurate pellet and then lay in a good supply. Air rifles tend to be a bit picky with pellets, and the one I tested might have different tastes from the one you get. The idea of making my own is appealing, but the manufactured ones are not really expensive. You could buy a lot for $100.00. One thing I did discover, however, when I dug up some old pellets from the early 1980’s is that many of them had oxidized to the point I won’t use them. If you buy a bunch, it might be smart to vacuum pack them or seal them up with some oxygen absorbers to be sure they would still be usable years down the line. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie