Pellet plinking is a great winter pastime

Bill Graves, Special to The County
3 years ago

Maine outdoor sports enthusiasts endure long, frigid winters with limited hunting and fishing opportunities, with Aroostook folks particularly affected. Pastimes can fight cabin fever and perhaps even benefit our endeavors when the snow and ice disappear.

Tying flies, reloading shells, carving decoys, building fishing rods, constructing a canoe and woodworking paddles and landing nets are all great cold-weather hobbies.

At least half of those crafts have kept me occupied each winter for decades, and then several years ago I adopted a new diversion that’s a bit more interactive and exciting. I began shooting pellet guns at my improvised home indoor target range. My penchant for inside shooting actually started when the Queen of my realm got me a projector display skeet shooting game for Christmas. Years before PlayStation and XBox existed, this holographic skeet thrower came with two fake, plastic shotguns and a dozen programmed shooting competitions. 

I still have that game, it still works and it’s still fun, but indoor pellet plinking is far more challenging and really helps hunters and target shooters keep sharp during a long winter. 

Modern, high-tech air rifles are a far cry from the Red Rider and Daisy BB guns of my youth. When I was deemed old enough, like most Maine youngsters, my first shooting sessions were with a .22 rifle. After business hours at the local town dump, I became a veritable exterminator on the ample rat population. I’m having just as much fun shooting spinning discs, knockdown silhouettes and moving targets at my indoor range as I did at the dump, and I can shoot every day, any time, any weather.

The first BB rifle was invented in 1886. It used a spring piston for power and a round steel pellet 0.180 inches in diameter, referred to in shotgun loads as a BB. Daisy Company patented and produced its first model in 1888, and while improvements occurred regularly over the next century and more companies manufactured their own brands of air guns, vast enhancements and technical leaps in style, accuracy, propulsion and projectiles have occurred the last decade or so. 

Pellet guns have four main applications: recreational target shooting, hunting, pest control, and sanctioned competitions.  These rifles and pistols offer four different propulsion methods, four popular sizes of projectiles, and are manufactured by more than a dozen well-known companies.

Shown ate four pellet rifles by various manufacturers that feature three different types of propulsion to fire pellets, there’s a gun, style and pellet size for indoor shooting as well as outside plinking and pest control during warm weather months. (Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Selecting the right pellet gun is no simple chore, and one air gun won’t fit all shooting options. There are five specific mechanisms that produce the pressurized air for a pellet gun: spring power, variable pump, gas piston, compressed CO2 cartridge and compressed air (PCP) pre-charged pneumatic. Break-barrel actions are popular for hunting and pest control. A strong hinge attaches barrel to receiver, and when the muzzle end of the barrel is gripped and forced downward to a 90-degree angle, a powerful piston pushes rearward. The piston compresses the sear pin, the piston drives quickly forward, forcing compressed air through the cylinder. The high-pressure air flow can only release through the chamber behind the seated pellet, which in top-quality, break action rifles can produce velocities of 1,000 feet per second or more.  

Multi-pump air guns utilize a levered fore-end grip to activate a piston to force and hold air into a chamber. Increasing the number of lever strokes forces more air into a set space, increasing pressure and thereby producing higher projectile speed. There is a set limit to how many times a model can be pumped effectively and each additional pump requires a bit more effort. Average pellet velocities from pump-action rifles run 500-800 feet per second. High quality pumps and air reservoirs in some more expensive models deliver notably faster speeds and accuracy so fine that they are prime pest and small-game guns.

The final choice in propulsion systems actually consists of two variants. One is a compact, preloaded CO2 cartridge which must be changed out after about 75 shots, while the second is a small, rechargeable air tank(PCP) integrated into the handgrip or stock. Compressed gas guns need no pumping or barrel manipulation each shot, which is very convenient , but of course there is the extra, albeit fairly inexpensive CO2 cartridge cost to consider. Also cold temperatures will notably lower gas pressure and result in reduced pellet velocity. Indoor shooting yields speeds of 600-800 FPS, and although there are a handful of very good CO2 rifles, the most prevalent use of CO2 is in pellet pistols.

Over the years I’ve used Gamo. Daisy, Winchester and Crossman pellet guns with excellent results indoors and out. Other names to research include Beeman, Benjamin, Airforce, Ruger, Hatsan, Air Arms and Umares.  Air gun technology seems to upgrade almost yearly and there are a lot of features to consider since each individual shooter has specific needs and goals. My current personal favorite for a long gun is the Swarm Whisper 10X by Gamo; featuring a 10-shot, auto-loading magazine and mounted 4-by-32 scope. This super quiet rifle shoots size .22 pellets.

My pair of pellet pistols includes a Winchester Model 11, 16 shot .177 caliber semi-automatic. The CO2 charged gun looks and feels like a real .45 pistol with great accuracy and none of the noise or recoil. The second is a longer barrel target pistol, .177 caliber, manufactured by Gamo. It’s a break barrel model P900IGT with fiber optic sights and the pneumatic cylinder yields less vibration and more precision.

I can’t tell you how much fun my friends and I are having with our new indoor shooting hobby. Our pellet gun practice has not only helped us endure a longer than normal winter, but we have enjoyed some great competition and become better all-around shooters. There’s an air rifle out there for everyone, ranging from a $40 Daisy to a single shot, European-made, Olympic-style competition gun that sells for more than $2000. 

Look into a pellet gun for yourself, and shoot inside regardless of weather. It’s not your father’s BB gun.