Airguns, BB guns, and Airsoft

By Kevin Wilmeth – Rifleman Savant

Airguns, BB guns, and Airsoft guns are each very different things.  The three types can sometimes use the same “powerplant” for propelling their ammunition (e.g., CO2, spring-piston) but the ammunition is fundamentally different in a non-trivial way.  To wit:

“Airgun” is sometimes used as an enveloping term, but what is usually meant is a smallbore “pellet gun”, which fires a lead diabolo-shaped pellet out of a (usually) rifled barrel.  Smallbore pellets come in .177, .20, .22, and .25 calibers, and can range in power from nearly nothing to almost 100 foot-pounds.  When people talk about airgun hunting, they are referring only to this type of piece;  most folks consider the minimum power for small-game hunting to be about 12 foot pounds of kinetic energy at the muzzle, and a range of no more than 30 yards or so.  Guns for these pellets often have their own unique designs that do not resemble firearms at all, but occasionally they do borrow design ideas.

A BB gun is different in that it fires a steel (not lead) BB of .177″ diameter, out of a smoothbore barrel.  Power is very minimal;  in general BB guns are not about power, just about plinking, and although steel BBs certainly can be lethal to critters and harmful to humans sometimes, people talk about hunting small game with BBs in the same way that people talk about hunting deer with .22LR.  (Not a recommended procedure!)  Ironically, one thing that BBs are well-known for is vicious ricochet;  a steel BB on a steel target can come back with nearly the same velocity it departed with.  Note that these guns often replicate or are visually styled like firearm counterparts;  if it’s about plinking, it’s about making your plinking feel more like “the real deal”.

Airsoft also shoots a round ball out of a smoothbore barrel, but the Airsoft “BB” is a 6mm (not .177″) projectile, and it is made of plastic.  There is almost no power here whatever, and nobody hunts with an actual Airsoft gun.

The reason we have Airsoft in the first place is because people in the Far East, officially denied access to firearms, wanted to be able to play games and buy things like they saw in movies, and an entire industry popped up that replicated real firearms (unlike BB guns, this “replicate a firearm” thing was the whole point in the first place), often with very faithful designs and operating techniques.  By and large, they’ve done a good job with a lot of the details, and Airsoft made its way across the water here originally as an alternative to paintball skirmishers, who with Airsoft can do the full-on Walter Mitty thing with guns that look and operate like their firearm counterparts.

And so, I am indeed tracking an interest and learning about two of these three things:  pellet guns, for hunting and marksmanship training, and Airsoft, for gunhandling and defensive training.  (I’ve got little interest in BB guns;  they are not as accurate nor as powerful as pellet guns, and there is no BB gun design that I would want to train seriously with that I cannot also get in Airsoft form.)  My new AirForce TalonP is most definitely not an Airsoft gun, but rather a rifled pellet gun capable of precision accuracy and enough power for hunting.

Now…as to the cold weather topic, I can speak to that with a little confidence now, but keep in mind I’m still learning too.  (And BTW, I suspect you have harsher winters than I do, as a rule.  Where I’m at, both winters and summers are highly moderated by the maritime influence of the waters of Cook Inlet.)  The different “powerplants” of various airguns/BB guns/Airsoft guns do handle the cold differently, and not all of them well.  The power source that is least cold-friendly is CO2;  its vapor pressure is such that below 40 degrees or so, its capacity is radically reduced over its optimum operating range, which is 70 degrees and up.  (CO2 essentially depends on rapid cooling, which doesn’t work if it’s…already cold.)  The “green gas” powerplant used specifically in Airsoft guns, also known as camping propane with added silicone oil, is much friendlier to cold temperatures than CO2, but it too starts to give out somewhere around 0-20 degrees;  I’ve got more testing to do this winter but this seems to be pretty repeatable.  By contrast, the “spring-piston” single-shot designs are far less affected by cold, and they are also much less expensive in general than the repeaters.  (Then again, if limited to single shots, I often prefer the dry-fire of my firearms, or a pellet rifle which I can use for precision marksmanship training.)

In pellet guns, the best cold-weather powerplants are the precharged pneumatic (PCP) and multi-pump pneumatic designs, followed by the gas- and spring-piston designs.  High pressure air (or the dry nitrogen in the gas pistons) is essentially unaffected, in any field-detectable sense, by heavy cold.  Moving toward Airsoft powerplants, some of which are spring-piston single shots, then come the battery-powered spring-piston designs, and finally the “green gas” designs and distinctly at the bottom of the performance scale, CO2.

For me, the big thing is to get out there and do it.  Understanding what to do when you’ve got heavy clothing and gloves on is probably the most important part of winter training.  It’s not going to be optimum, and everyone’s plan may be different, but you should know what it’s going to be for you.  What I have found for pistol shooting, is that most gloves impair me significantly enough that my first plan is to get them off!  And so I wind up wearing gloves that I can essentially shake off with one flick of my arm.  In really deep cold (not that common around here) I instead go with very lightweight glove liners inside loose-fitting mittens;  in an emergency the mitten comes off, and the liner glove gives short-term protection for bare skin while retaining the dexterity I need.  And since I carry my defensive pieces concealed, I know the gun is going to be near body-temperature when the action starts.  (For rifles, the options for my hands are a little broader, and the biggest consideration is instead the length of pull on the stock.  One of the reasons that I love a very short–between 12″ and 12.5″–length of pull on all my long guns, is that I spend so much time in parkas.  With that LOP I can go prone, and be looped up, in a parka, and still shoot effectively.  That just ain’t gonna happen with that “perfect fit” long stock everyone talks about in the store, and I take pains to cut it down.  🙂

If anyone wants to look at Rifleman Savant for resources, the best way is probably to use the “Airguns” and “Airsoft” tags, to wit:

Two articles on the “why airguns” topic might be more specifically useful:

And I do imagine there will be more.  I intend to post findings as they come–if for no other reason than so I don’t lose track;  there is so much new here that it can be a bit overwhelming at times;  one can be a firearm shooter for his whole life and still feel like a complete noob in this world.  Well, good!  I could probably use the education!  🙂

Mama’s Note: Thank you, Kevin, for all that great information and for sharing your own experience. Even with the ammunition situation getting better, I suspect that some sort of pellet or airgun will become a welcome addition to our shooting experience, especially as the market expands and the options improve – giving us ever more opportunities to have fun and build our firearms skills.

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1 Response to Airguns, BB guns, and Airsoft

  1. Pingback: Airguns, BB guns, and Airsoft | Pro 2nd Amendment Boycott – P2AB

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