What is an Air Rifle?

24 October 2023  |  Air Arms

What is an Air Rifle?

If you've clicked on this article, it's most likely because you're asking yourself, 'What is an Air Rifle?' For many experts and enthusiasts, the answer is a relatively simple one. However, for us newbies, it might not be a topic we find ourselves familiar with, so I've done my research and discovered some exciting things.

To answer the burning question, an air rifle is a type of air gun that uses energy from compressed air (or other gases, depending on the kind of air gun) that is mechanically pressurised and released as a propellant for the chosen projectiles. In simpler terms, an air gun uses air pressure to fire a pellet, unlike a firearm, which uses powder (gunpowder).

A bit of air gun history

The oldest air gun that we know in existence dates back to around 1580 and can be seen in the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm. Air guns are the oldest type of pneumatic technology, and just knowing how long they've been around solidifies how revolutionary they were in the hunting and shooting world.

A long time has passed since then and now, and it's incredible to see how they have developed and changed over the years. Back then, the primary concern for air rifles was to ensure they worked. It was a necessity that the air guns were safe, reliable and didn't leak when fired, so things like accuracy and velocity were very much secondary in priority. 

Now we know that there is no 'one rifle fits all', and thanks to modern technology advances, we can hone in on specifics to understand what makes an air rifle work to the best of its ability and what types of air rifles are best for what occasion. 

Let's take a look at the key components of air rifles so we can better understand the principles of their operation. 

What are the components of an air rifle?

Air Arms S510 Ultimate Sporter XS

Butt Pad

The butt pad is the piece of the stock on an air rifle that connects with your armpit when shooting. The butt pad allows for comfort during prolonged shooting periods and can help absorb recoil (especially with more powerful air rifles). 


The stock is the main rear component of an air rifle. Typically, the stock is made of wood, polymer or plastic. This part of the rifle helps with stabilisation and aim. Similarly to the butt pad, the stock also helps absorb some of the aftershocks from shooting air rifles.


The job of the action is to push a pellet into the breech or sometimes act as a conduit for the compressed gas that fires the pellet into the barrel.

Safety Mechanism

The safety mechanism is a mechanism that is typically located on or near the trigger to help prevent the trigger from being pulled when it is engaged. This mechanism is crucial on any gun or rifle and helps prevent accidental shootings.

Scope Mount

The scope mount is the piece of metal on the rear end of the barrel that is used to mount a scope. These mounts can come in different shapes and sizes and help with sighting assistance. 


The Pistol grip is the part you hold when pulling the trigger of your rifle. The grip is part of the stock and can come in different textures and sizes to accommodate the shooter's comfort. Some examples of a grip are Thumbhole and Pistol. 


The magazine holds multiple pellets that can be fired one after another. A magazine can take many shots and is essential for pest control.


The barrel of an air rifle is the long cylinder the projectiles shoot out of. Barrels come in many lengths and materials and determine the accuracy and longevity of a rifle. 

Air Cylinder

The air cylinder is a mechanical device that uses the power of compressed air or gas to force a piston to move in a particular direction.

We know the parts, what about the power sources?

There is a selection of air guns you can choose from, whether you're just starting out or wanting to be a pro in accuracy. Let's take a look at these different types of air guns and see how they work.

Air Arms TX200 Ultimate Springer

Spring Air Rifles

Spring powered air guns are types of air guns that use a coil spring and a piston to compress the air inside of its chamber. When the trigger is squeezed, the spring decompresses and forces the piston forward, releasing the pellet. 

These spring air rifles have a break-barrel which requires the shooter to cock the air rifle by breaking the barrel at the hinge point. This means that a lot of effort may be required for these types of air guns, making it difficult for people with mobility issues.

However, spring air rifles are the most common type of air rifles in the UK. They are usually one of the cheaper options - making them more widely available for people to buy.

Gas Ram Air Rifles

A gas ram air rifle is similar to a spring air rifle, but the main difference is that the rifle uses a gas-filled cylinder instead of a spring. In comparison to spring air rifles, gas ram air guns tend to last a lot longer and rarely leak - so they retain all their power. 

They're also lighter and faster than a spring air rifle, making the shooter more comfortable. However, they can be harder to cock than a conventional spring piston air rifle, typically increasing the effort time by 50%. They also do not vibrate like the Spring pistol, making for a harsher firing behaviour that might not favour beginners.

Pre Charged Pneumatic Air Rifles (PCP Air Rifles)


Air Arms S510 Ultimate Sporter

PCP air guns are air guns that use a built-in tank to store compressed air that uses the propellant to fire its projectiles. This air can be compressed by using a hand pump or fill bottle, and when it is filled to the correct pressure, it is ready to shoot.

PCP air rifles are often the best option for sportsmen who want quiet, comfortable and accurate shooting. Though pre charged pneumatic airguns have a greater cost, because of their ease of use, a PCP air rifle would be an excellent option for anyone - regardless of experience. 

CO2 Air Rifles

CO2 Rifles are similar to the PCP air rifles, but instead of using normal air, they use carbon dioxide. While you can get a good amount of shots per capsule, it is worth noting that the capsules are not refillable and have to be thrown away after use.

You can truly see how possible it is to create the perfect air rifle for your needs when you can not only choose the specific components but also the best power source for your requirements. Whether you want to focus on accuracy, speed or cost, the possibilities are impressive.

Let’s not forget about ammunition

What are air guns without their ammunition? Whether you’re looking for lead, copper-coated or non-toxic pellets, the specific type of pellet can give a different type of effect when shooting.

Air Arms Diablo Field Pellets

Domed Pellets 

Domed pellets are pellets with a rounded head. They are known for being great for general use of air guns and most types of shooting. Because of their shape, they lose less energy and can reach the target faster. 

Pointed Pellets

Pointed pellets are pellets with a pointed head. These pellets can either be a single-piece - great for superior penetration, or a two-piece - where the pointed tip is designed to break away on impact (which allows for a hollow-point body of the main section. This type offers great ballistic damage for air guns.

Hollow Points

Hollow point pellets are pellets with a hollow point engraved at the tip. These types of pellets offer very high ballistic damage to the target. They’re not very accurate but these kinds of pellets can come in designs that have some higher accuracy levels than others which are great for some air guns.

Flat-headed Pellets

Flat-headed pellets (also known as wadcutters) are flat-headed pellets that are mainly used for target shooting. This is because the flat head allows for a clean hole in a paper target. While they are inaccurate over longer distances - these pellets can be a great choice for air guns that are used for close-range pest control. 

Safety first

While it's good to know what the best air rifle for specific scenarios would be, it's important to understand the safety precautions and handling of air guns in order to use them responsibly and correctly. 

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation have estimated that there are over 6 million air rifles in England and Wales. Hence, the standards must be high to deliver sustainable and safe shooting. They have outlined five golden rules that all shooters need to understand and live and practice in order to uphold public and political support for shooting.

  • Rule 1) You must always know where the muzzle on your air rifle is and never point your air rifle in an unsafe direction,

  • Rule 2) You must meet and understand the codes of conduct in air rifles and show respect to both the countryside and the health and safety of others around you.

  • Rule 3) Before shooting your air rifle, make sure that a safe backstop is present to capture the pellet

  • Rule 4) All live quarry needs to be considered. Know what you're legally allowed to shoot, and do not shoot beyond your abilities.

  • Rule 5) If you're in doubt about any rules or conduct, always ask. Ignorance is never an excuse.

You must follow sensible behaviour when shooting - you cannot just shoot willy-nilly. Another rule is to always check with any landowner if you want to go shooting on their land. It is essential to confirm with them what quarry you may shoot. 

If you want to shoot on your own land, you are required to have an adequate backstock. Be aware that you can be prosecuted if any pellet goes beyond your land. 

And lastly (but certainly not least), you must respect the quarry. Never shoot outside of your possibilities, and never practice on live quarry. Know the law and recognise which species are protected and which are acceptable targets. You are responsible for choosing the correct kind of air rifle and pellets that are powerful enough to achieve a clean kill and designed for hunting. 

Always check the law

Always make sure you check the law and understand what licences are needed for what you want to do. You have to meet the age requirements for shooting, and if you are under 18 years of age, you need to know what supervision requirements you must abide by in order to use an air rifle.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has a simple assessment that you can carry out to know if you're shooting safely. This is advisable, especially for newbies - as well as ensuring you have adequate legal liability insurance when shooting. 

Muzzle power laws

It is important to know the muzzle energy variants of Air weapons in the UK in regards to the law. Any air rifle with a muzzle energy higher than 12 foot/lb requires a firearm certificate as they're regarded as a section 1 firearm.

Air pistols with a muzzle energy greater than 6 foot/lb are prohibited in the UK and require authorisation of the Home Secretary. You can check out more details on the legality of all air weapons (air pistol, bb guns etc) here.

Now for the fun stuff

Now that we know all we need to know about getting started, what can we do with an air rifle? 

Whether you're just looking at buying your first air rifle or you're an experienced shooter, it's ideal to know what kinds of activities you can do with your newfound skills. Whether you're interested in hunting and pest control or want to join in on some competitions and target shooting, a huge community will welcome you with open arms.


Whether you're looking at hunting for sport or fresh meat and feathers, you must make sure that you know the laws in the country you're in. As long as you can justify your hunt, then you're good to go.

Air guns can be very advantageous in dealing with pest control. Typically, a good time to start this is in the spring before the new season starts, but this can vary on different factors. 

Air rifles are very quiet, so the disturbance around your targeted area will be kept to a minimum, which is ideal for this type of use. Modern air rifles are also very accurate, so with the right gear and the right amount of practice, you should be able to humanely dispose of pests such as rats, rabbits, grey squirrels and magpies. 

When hunting, it is very important to choose the best air rifle and ammunition for your goal. Every shot counts, so you want to find the best options to increase time in the field as well as power and accuracy. 


No matter what your ability is, there are an array of options that will cater to your levels and interests. Competitions, like the air rifles themselves, come in all shapes and sizes. All competitions carry unique rules and parameters that look at different environments (both indoor and outdoor) to reflect the sheer diversity of the sport. 

Some options are more active than others. You can enter bell target competitions, hunter field target competitions and target sprint competitions in the UK to compete and develop your skills. 

You can even stick to plinking in your garden with your own target shooting. Getting started with competitive shooting may seem a little daunting initially, but as long as you find a good local airgun club or centre, you'll rank in the medals swiftly. 

So, what are the final thoughts?

Now that we've gone through the basics of air rifles, how they work and how you can legally and safely use them, what's there to consider?

Before you can start thinking of the sports, clubs competitions and small game hunting, the first thing you need to do is sit down and think about what it is you want out of an airgun. Look a little into the different power sources and components you can get to personalise the rifle to best suit your needs - you want to get it right. 

Whether it's the spring air rifles that suits your fancy or the PCP air rifle, there is no right or wrong answer. Research the leading manufacturers to find the perfect air rifle for you. Mastering your shots and positions will come with time. You only have one shot to choose your first air rifle.

Please contact us with any queries or questions. We would love to help.