These ain’t your granddaddy’s air rifles. They’ll still shoot your eye out, but they’re also deadly accurate and powerful enough to lay down a squirrel with a single shot every time. They’re quiet, cheap to shoot, and easy to use. If you’re thinking about exploring the small game woods this year, you should know that air rifle technology has advanced enough to rival any rimfire rig.
A kid with a pellet gun is a menace to small woodland creatures, but if you’re looking to get serious about air gun hunting, you should try to select a rifle you know will have enough juice to get the job done.
We reached out to the good folks over at Air Gun Depot and Pyramid Air to get a little expert advice. According to a product specialist we spoke with, hunters targeting squirrel-sized game should look for something with a .22-caliber bore capable of pushing a pellet at least 800 feet-per-second (fps). That’ll give you consistently fatal shots out to about 55 yards and possibly even farther.
Is it possible to kill small game with a .17-caliber pellet or a slower moving .22-caliber pellet? Of course. It’s also possible to kill a whitetail with a .223 Rem. You can do it, but given the availability of other options, why not go with something that will be more reliable?
Even with a .22-caliber air rifle, you won’t be blowing anything away. A 14.3-grain .22-caliber pellet traveling 900 fps delivers 26 foot-pounds of energy. By contrast, a 40-grain .22LR traveling 1070 fps delivers 102 ft.-lbs. of energy. So, even though a .22-cal air rifle is more powerful than a .17, it isn’t anywhere close to the most common small-game cartridge.
Airgun Depot recommends choosing an air rifle that uses either a pre-charge pneumatic (PCP) or spring-loaded (“springer”) power plant. The former uses pre-loaded compressed air (delivered via an electric or hand pump) and the latter uses a big spring to compress air and fire the pellet (not unlike your kid’s Nerf gun).
There are pros and cons to both systems. We’ve chosen three PCP guns and two springers to give you some variety, but our primary goal is to give you a place to start. There are many more options than the five listed below, but these are some of the best and most readily available.
Gamo Swarm Magnum
Umarex Gauntlet 2
Diana 350 Magnum Premium
Air Force Condor SS
Benjamin Trail NP XL
This legendary line of air rifles is available in both bolt-action and semi-automatic varieties and can push a 14.3-grain .22-caliber pellet upwards of 850 fps. The 2-stage trigger is adjustable, the gun can be tuned to different velocities, and the 215cc air reservoir can hold enough air to fire 60 shots on a single tank.
These guns are also super accurate. I used a semi-auto Marauder to hunt squirrels last year, and I had no trouble making headshots at 40 yards. On paper, the gun will produce a one-inch group at 50 yards.
The Marauder is a relatively heavy rifle. The wood stock version weighs over 8 pounds and the synthetic stock only cuts about a pound off that weight. But it’s manageable with a good sling, and I didn’t notice the gun’s weight with a squirrel in the scope.
The Gamo Swarm Magnum is at the other end of the spectrum. Instead of the Marauder’s 10-pellet magazine and large air tank, the Magnum uses a break-barrel design and shoots one pellet at a time.
Why would a hunter choose the Magnum over the Marauder? For one, it’s about $250 cheaper and comes with a Gamo 3-9x scope. It’s also slightly more powerful: it fires a 9.7-grain .22-caliber pellet at 1,300 fps and 14.6-grain pellets over 900 fps.
The break-barrel design is not for children. It requires 41 pounds of force to cock, which while manageable for most adults, isn’t ideal for a kid’s first squirrel gun. But if you can load it, there’s nothing like sniping squirrels from 50 yards with one of these rifles.
The Umarex Gauntlet 2 improves upon the company’s original Gauntlet air rifle by increasing the tank capacity from 13 CI x 3,000 PSI to 24 CI x 4,500 PSI and upping the regulator from 1,100 PSI to 1,900 PSI. This increases velocity by 22% and gives you more than 70 shots on a single tank. That’s among the best shot counts of any PCP .22-caliber air rifle, and it means you won’t have to spend as much time refilling the tank.
The bolt-action design means followup shots won’t be quite as quick as the semi-auto Marauder, but accuracy is just as good–if not better. The Umarex also offers more shots per tank and better velocity than the Marauder, making the Gauntlet 2 one of the best buys in the .22-caliber air rifle world.
Diana air rifles are on the pricey side of spring-piston rifles, but the German-made guns are the best of the best. The Monte Carlo beechwood stock is extremely attractive and gives the gun a more traditional look and feel while the adjustable two-stage trigger is a big help in making awkward shots in the squirrel woods. The 350 comes with adjustable iron sights and the receiver has been fitted with an 11mm scope rail.
The user must load each pellet one at a time, which makes the shooting process slightly more onerous than with the Gamo Swarm’s rotary magazine. The gun is also over a pound heavier than the Swarm, though it’s about an inch shorter. But you don’t buy spring-pistol air rifles for run-and-gun, rapid-fire applications. You buy them for picking off squirrels from 40 yards, which is exactly what the 350 Magnum lets you do.
Clocking in at around $900, the Condor rivals the cost of a quality hunting firearm, but it offers better power and accuracy than most other .22-caliber air rifles on the market.
The Condor weighs less than the Marauder (6.1 lbs.) while firing a .22-caliber projectile about 200 fps faster (1100 fps max velocity). Hunters can adjust power easily using a dial on the side of the rifle, and the tank can power 40-50 shots..
The only downside is the single-shot bolt action design. This is fine for sniping solitary squirrels, but multiple critters in a tree will require some dexterous reloading.
If you’re looking for something with a more traditional look, the Benjamin NP XL is a good choice. The break-barrel design means that, like the Gamo Magnum, you don’t have to worry about filling an air tank to target small game.
The Nitro Piston XL is rated to launch alloy pellets at 1100 fps and standard lead pellets closer to 950 fps, meaning it has more than enough juice to take down squirrels and cottontails.
Like the Marauder, the Nitro Piston XL is a heavy rifle, and the spring imparts more recoil than PCP rifles. But it’s significantly cheaper than its PCP cousins, so you’re getting similar single-shot performance on small game for about half the price.
The Hatsan BullBoss is a bullpup air rifle rated to fire a .22-caliber projectile 1070 fps. It comes with a 10-pellet rotary magazine and uses a side lever action to feed new pellets into the chamber.
It’s about as heavy as the Marauder and the Nitro Piston XL, but its bullpup design makes it much shorter than the other rifles on this list. While the Gamo Magnum is 49 inches and the Nitro Piston is 48, the tactical BullBoss is only 36.
“Seven best” lists can be misleading — there are likely better air rifles out there, but these are no doubt among the best. They combine quality, power, and affordability, and they’re a great place to start.
Some might be more expensive than you’re expecting if you haven’t looked at air rifles since you were 11, but again, these ain’t your granddaddy’s pellet guns. They’ll take small game without breaking a sweat and can be counted on in the woods year after year.