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Published Aug. 12, 2021

In recent years, there’s been significant development focused on airguns for recreational shooting, competition, and — my particular area of interest — hunting. While airguns are most commonly thought of for small-game hunting, they have expanded into predator and big-game hunting. The guns for hunting these varied species include spring piston rifles, Pre-Charged Pneumatic (PCP) powered air rifles in standard calibers, and larger-caliber PCP rifles for predators and big game. I’ve used air rifles to hunt small game, predators, and big game species all across the continent and I’ve shot every major air rifle brand. Using that experience, I’ve selected the best air rifles for small game PCP, cross-over guns that can be used for small game and predators, primary predator guns, crossover guns for predators and big game, and primary big game guns. Within each of these categories, there are several purpose-designed guns for just about any application or budget. 

How to Choose a PCP Air Rifle

The first consideration for choosing a hunting air rifle is deciding what you’d like to hunt. With today’s accurate and powerful air rifles you can hunt squirrels, predators, wild pigs, and deer. Once you’ve decided on the game you’d like to pursue you can narrow down your choices to the proper caliber, power, and features.

Choosing an Air Rifle for Small Game

The rifles I gravitate toward for small game and varmint hunting are primarily .22 and .25 caliber rifles that generate power in the 20 to 40 ft-lb range. This energy output, in conjunction with sub-1-inch accuracy at 50 yards, makes for an ideal flat-shooting, small-game rig. Features that separate the top picks from the rest of the pack are an ergonomic design, fast cycling action, reliable high capacity magazines, large volume air storage with a correspondingly large shot count, shot-to-shot consistency, and a low sound signature.

Choosing an Air Rifle for Predators

For most hunters, it makes sense to choose an air rifle that can take either small-game or predators. The rifles I use for combined small-game and predator hunting are .30 to .35 caliber, and are designed to shoot Diabolo pellets at 50 to 100 ft-lb. These rifles are fine for shooting a coyote or bobcat at closer range (within 50 yards), but not over-the-top to use on smaller-bodied game, such as rabbits or squirrels.

In my opinion, a primary predator gun should be optimized for solid lead slugs, generate 100 to 150 ft-lb, provide at least 10 consistent shots per fill, and print groups under 1 inch at 100 yards. I don’t mind a single shot rifle, but I want a fast-cycling action, easy access to the loading port, and a light, crisp trigger to enhance accuracy.

Choosing an Air Rifle for Big Game

Big bore air rifles — in the .357 to .72 caliber range — represent a growing segment of the airgun market. In addition to the many regions in North America that permit these rifles to be used to hunt hogs and exotics, there are increasing opportunities to hunt deer, elk, pronghorn, bear, and javelina. I hunt in Texas, where there is a minimum power requirement of 215 ft-lb for a gun used to take big game. And for the traveling hunter, African plains game provides one of the ultimate hunts for the big bore airgun. Big bore airguns used for this typically generate from 200 to 800 ft-lb, though some newer guns are driving the power well beyond this.

The Best Small-Game PCP Air Rifle: Brocock Commander

Brocock Commander

The Brocock Commander .25 is my top pick for a small game gun. It’s accurate, powerful, and fast cycling, with a high shot count. Not to mention, it’s consist

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The Brocock Commander has a tactical design that is ergonomic and fits most shooters well. The side lever action is smooth as silk and cycles the 10-shot magazine reliably and quickly. The Commander employs a regulated air delivery system that works with an adjustable hammer and valve to provide a very consistent shot string. Onboard air storage uses either a carbon fiber bottle or aluminum cylinder, and a dual-gauge assembly monitors regulator pressure settings and air supply fill status. 

There is a power adjustment dial located on the right-hand side of the breech that permits external tuning of the rifle. The accuracy is very good, and I feel very comfortable shooting this rifle off sticks at 75-100 yards. When paired with the right pellet, it hits hard with an impressive terminal performance on small- to medium-sized game. The Commander XR is designed to use an AR-15-compatible buttstock and an AK-47 fitted grip. Versions are available with folding or fixed buttstocks in black or tan with a Cerakote or black-action finish. The Commander’s sound signature is reduced by the shrouded barrel, and you can achieve further noise reduction by mounting a third-party suppressor on the 1/2 UNF threaded muzzle. In my opinion, this is the perfect rifle to carry into the woods when heading out on a fall squirrel hunt.

The Best Air Rifle for Small Game and Predators: FX Impact

FX Impact

The FX Impact is my favorite crossover gun. With the interchangeable barrel system, it’s probably the most versatile gun on the market.

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My top pick for a crossover rifle that performs well for both small-game and predator hunting is the FX Impact air rifle. This bullpup design has a lot going for it, and the frame is rugged and lightweight, with an adjustable buttstock that accepts standard AR-15 pistol grips: a very comfortable fit. The air storage is a 480cc removable carbon fiber tank that can be charged to 3600 psi, and the design allows extra bottles to be packed and changed in the field. 

The sidelever action is one of the quickest, most tactile, and smoothest cycling that I have used, and reliably indexes the magazines every time. What really seals the deal for me though, is that the modular design lets the shooter swap out barrels, magazines, and probes to optimize the gun for different types of hunting. The hunter can use the .22 barrel for a rabbit hunt, then swap to a .25 barrel that has a liner optimized for slugs to do a long-range prairie dog shoot, then swap again for the .30 caliber barrel to hunt predators.

The Best Predator Hunting Air Rifle: AirForce Texan .308 Caliber

AirForce Texan .308 Calber

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The AirForce Texan lineup spans several calibers — from .257 to .50 — and all the guns are powerhouses. One of my favorites is the .308 caliber Texan, which has become my go-to predator hunting rifle. This configuration of the Texan can launch a .308 caliber bullet at over 1000 fps, which is very impressive for this caliber in an air rifle. Like all of the Texans, this single shot rifle is easy to cycle and load using the side lever cocking and accessible loading port. The auto-deployed safety can be reached without moving the hand off the pistol grip, and the rifle features a nice, crisp, two-stage trigger. There is both a rifle and a carbine version, and though I generally prefer a carbine, in this caliber, I like both equally. The 490cc onboard air tank is used as the buttstock and provides around 10 shots per fill depending on power adjustment. The Texan is light, the carbine version is compact, and it works well for a gun that might be carried with a lot of additional lights and calling gear. I’ve also been using the .257 caliber rifle version as a long range varmint and predator gun, and believe this is another interesting option for a hunter looking for a primary predator gun.

The Best Air Rifle for Predators and Big Game: AirForce Texan .357 Caliber

AirForce Texan air rifles

The AirForce Texan .308 and .357 carbines. The Texans are great field guns and have the widest selection of big bore calibers available.

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The AirForce Texan makes my list of best air rifles again, this time with the .357 version. All of the dimensions, controls, and features are the same as described for the .308 version. Again, what makes this rifle a top pick for me is the power achieved in a mid-caliber gun. I have a few .357s in my collection that generate between 125 – 175 ft-lb, but with the gun optimized for the 145 grain bullets I’m using, the Texan is generating about 300 ft-lb. In my experience the Texan .357 stands apart from other .357s and provides the flat shooting accuracy I want for predators out past 100 yards but can also reach out and deliver enough energy to drop a buck on the spot.

The Best Big Bore Rifle: Hatsan PileDriver

Hatsan PileDriver

The Hatsan PileDriver .50 is accurate, powerful, and ergonomic, and puts more game on the ground than any other rifle I hunted with last season.

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The Hatsan PileDriver is a single shot bullpup configured big bore PCP, built on an ergonomic synthetic polymer thumbhole stock with an integrated pistol grip. The stock features an adjustable buttpad with an adjustable locking cheek piece that provides comfort and a consistent sight alignment. The PileDriver delivers over 700 ft-lb in .45 caliber and over 800 ft-lb in .50 caliber, making it one of the more powerful air rifles on the market. This Hatsan air rifle generates enough power in either caliber, to anchor any big game animal in North America. The accessible loading port accepts ammo up to 34mm long and is easy to cycle using a side lever cocking mechanism. This rifle incorporates a 480cc carbon fiber tank that fills to 300 BAR, yielding 4 to 6 shots in the .45 caliber and three to five shots in the .50 caliber. Power is all well and good, but what I like about this big bore is the inherent accuracy, and even though it is fairly heavy at 10 pounds, it is comfortable to shoot offhand. I used this rifle to take deer, hogs, and javelina last season and it did an outstanding job every time.

More of the Best Air Rifles

There are several other rifles that were barely nudged out of the running of best air rifle or had features that didn’t exactly align with my judging criteria. In no specific order, I will list a few additional rifles that I feel are of note.

The Brocker Ranger XR is our pick for best air rifle.
Brocock Ranger XR

Best Compact Air Rifle: Ranger XR

My top pick based on a compact design is the Brocock Ranger XR, a compact little air rifle hunting rig that weighs 5.5 pounds, has an overall length of 28 inches, and is equipped with an AR-compatible buffer tube and folding stock mount that allows the gun to fold down to 14.5 inches. The muzzle is threaded and accepts a compact DonnyFL suppressor that matches the gun’s dimensions. The Ranger has a small diameter air reservoir that fills to 200 BAR and generates about 25 to 30 shots per fill.  Multiple power and tuning adjustments permit the shooter to set the rifle up to meet their specific requirements. The integrated regulator can be adjusted to further optimize performance for a specific projectile or a specific application. The .22 caliber version I’ve been using is generating about 20 ft-lb. I think this is a perfect gun for the backpacker, urban hunter, or any other application demanding portability and stealth.

Most Powerful Production Air Rifle: AEA Zeus

The AEA Zeus is a recently-introduced rifle that has pushed airgun power well above the 1000 ft-lb mark. The Zeus is a .72 caliber pcp air rifle that can generate over 1500 ft-lb, which is close to double the power output of the next most powerful production guns on the market. The Zeus is a big rifle, but there are other configurations being offered — with a 24 inch and a 16 inch barrel. As a matter of fact, I am currently shooting the 16 inch carbine, and this compact rifle is a monster. The 650cc air bottle fills to a maximum pressure of 4500 psi and generates three full powered shots per charge. The rifle is not regulated, but the shot-to-shot consistency across the shot string is good. This is a rifle for airgun hunters going after really big game, and should be ideal for my upcoming hog hunts.

Best Budget Air Rifle Value: Air Venturi Avenger

Air Venturi Avenger

The Air Venturi Avenger is a great value and punches way above its price point. It offers excellent performance and is rich with features.

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Air Venturi Avenger is a budget-friendly rifle available in several calibers and wears an ambidextrous synthetic black stock, with an option for a hardwood stock recently released. There are combined 11mm and Weaver-style rails for mounting a scope, and another rail at the fore stock for mounting accessories. It’s a fairly large rifle, but with the synthetic stock only weighs about 6 pounds. The Avenger is cycled with a side-lever cocking action that auto indexes a ten-shot, in .25 caliber, rotary magazine. The trigger is an adjustable two-stage that has a tactile feel, minimal travel, and breaks crisply. The air reservoir fills to 300 BAR, using a quick release fitting and is regulated via an external adjustment, up to 210 BAR, so actual shot count is dependent on how you have this set. All this functionality in a sub-$300 rifle is impressive, and the Avenger is a great platform for new shooters as well as experienced shooters that intend to use it as a platform for building up a custom rifle.

FAQs

Q: What distance should I zero my .22 air rifle? 

In general, I like to zero my .22 spring piston rifles at 35 yards and my .22 PCP rifles at 50 yards. If planning to shoot long range at prairie dogs, I’ll zero at 100 yards (PCP only). For the best answer, though, i test how far you can shoot while keeping inside the kill zone of your quarry, and make that your maximum range.

Q: Which is better, a .22 or .177 air rifle? 

It depends on what it’s being used for, and whether it’s a spring piston or a PCP rifle. For hunting, I prefer .22, in most cases. PCPs are more efficient with larger calibers, so I’d opt for a .22 when using a PCP, and .177 for lower power springers.

How far can a .22 air rifle shoot? 

It depends on the gun more than the ammo, because the same .22 pellet will have vastly different performance when shot from a 12 ft-lb springer or a 40 ft-lb PCP. As a general rule, I’d say 50 yards for a springer and 100 yards for a PCP.

Final Thoughts

Top picks are definitely difficult to write about. While there are pretty straightforward, objective measures — such as dimensions, power output, and accuracy — there are other, more subjective, ones such as fit, shootability, aesthetics, and perceived value. It can also be hard to obtain certain information, such as failure rates, customer satisfaction, etc. Every individual’s priority list is very subjective, so in this article, I have identified a number of airguns that have impressed me with their design, performance, ergonomics, dependability, build quality, and aesthetic appeal. I do believe that if you are looking for an air rifle in one of the above categories, any of my suggestions for the best air rifle would be a fine choice and should be on your shortlist.

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