We talk a lot about rifles themselves on this page, but the pellet you choose can be just as important to how and what you shoot. Not every pellet works with every rifle and not every pellet is good for every task. Like with choosing your rifle, though, understanding what you want to do is the first step toward getting what you’re going to need.
First Let’s Talk About What You Want to Do With Your Air Rifle
For many people, they get their air rifles because they want to get involved in shoot competitions. The air rifle competition circuit can be a lot of fun for people who enjoy precision shooting, especially those who like to work out problems such as how to get a little more accuracy from their shots. Competitors often go through a number of different types of pellet that we’ll get into in a little bit, but many find that certain ones tend to work best.
When considering pellets for competition, in most cases you want ones that won’t break the sound barrier. If you haven’t heard this before, it might sound counterintuitive, but think a little bit about aerodynamics. Air isn’t non-existent, so when you move through it, you push it out of the way. When you break the sound barrier, however, you’re moving so fast that the air doesn’t have time to move around most objects and compresses in front, causing the pellet to vibrate, spin, and start to go off course.
The way pellets handle this is with what is called the “Diabolo design.” For competition they are usually flat-headed (not all Diabolos are and we’ll cover that in a bit), wasp-waisted rounds that are also hollow on the inside. The empty interior slows down the spin and the flared back creates a low pressure area behind the pellet that drags it back and keeps it pointed in the right direction.
Another consideration of great importance to accuracy is consistency. Most pellets vary from one to another in size, shape, and weight, and while this variance is extremely small, it can mean the difference between first and tenth place in a competition. There are specially manufactured pellets such as the Umarex RWS R10 Match Lite Pellets that are manufactured and tested for consistency. Not only are these pellets closely matched, they are packaged in a special foam holder to make sue they do not rub against each other during storage and handling. In fact, some users have commented that the packaging was so nice they weren’t sure whether to use them or display them in their gun cabinet. While I would not recommend these for anything except competition, as they are very expensive, there are others matched pellets that do very well for much less.
If you’re serious about competition, take a look at the Crossman Competition Pellets, which were a standard for a very long time, or the Gamo Match Pellet for a good start. Beeman Wadcutters are also a remarkably accurate pellet.
If you’re not as concerned with accuracy and just want to fire off a few pellets to relax or enjoy yourself, you have a much wider range of options. This is what a lot of air rifle users are actually looking for when they get into the sport, largely because it takes skill, but not the dedication that competition shooters have to have.
When it comes to regular plinking, you can’t go wrong with a quality round-nosed pellet such as the Crosman Domed Premier Pellets. A lot of people will suggest wadcutters, and they aren’t bad for closer ranges — at 10 meters, you have very little to worry about, accuracy-wise — however, when you start backing up, the shape of the wadcutters reduces your velocity very, very quickly, and it’s not uncommon for pellets to either drop suddenly at the end of the shot or start flipping in mid-air. Either way, even shooting for fun, you’re not going to hit your target as much.
Here’s where a lot of air rifle shooters get tripped up. Part of what causes problems is that they seem to think that the more speed you have, the better chance you have of getting a clean kill. Stop that thinking right now.
The fact of the matter is, you’re not looking for speed when it comes to hunting. More than anything, you want accuracy. Doesn’t matter how quick the pellet is if it doesn’t hit what you’re aiming at.
So, how do you get the most accuracy out of a pellet? Well, that’s a loaded question, but in my experience heavier pellets tend to fly straighter. I prefer the JSB Diabolo Jumbo Exact Heavy pellet. At 18.13 grains it is one of the heaviest pellets out there, and the consistent weight of each pellet means you get better consistency from shot to shot. However, for some the lower powered rifles a lighter pellet such as the 14.5 grain Umarex Superdome Field Line pellet might work a bit better. If your looking for a decent bargain priced pellet I would take a look at Crosman Domed Premiers for quality round-nosed pellets that are heavy enough to provide you the accuracy that you need. If you hunt with a .177 rifle I would suggest the H&N Baracuda Match 10.65 gr pellets. You can check out VA Mark’s story for an interesting take on their accuracy. He paints a vivid picture on their effectiveness against an invading army of squirrels. Whichever pellet you choose just keep in mind that you are going to get what you pay for, so its usually worth shelling out the few extra bucks for the better quality ammunition.
What Types of Pellets Are Available, and What Are They Best Suited For?
I mentioned these above, but to clarify a wadcutter is a shape of pellet with a flat head and a slightly beveled edge. They can reach very high velocities, tend to be cheaper than other shapes, and are often preferred in competition because they make a clear, obvious hole in the target for accurate scoring.
Domed or “round-nosed” pellets have a protruding head right after the driving band that adds weight to the round, giving it both more power and additional accuracy. These are excellent at long ranges and great for hunting if you want to make sure that you take down your prey quickly and humanely. They are generally best for magnum-powered rifles. Domed pellets are pretty much all I hunt with, and as I stated above I really like the JSB Diabolo Jumbo Exact Heavy pellet. Crosman also has a decent domed pellet that is priced very reasonably.
The hollowpoint design is similar to the domed head except with the addition of a hollow in the front that expands when it hits, drastically improving the chances of a one-shot kill at close range. The hollow point causes the head to expand on impact thereby spreading the impact over a greater area while reducing penetration. It is in many respects a compromise between the wadcutter and the domed styles, providing the stability and the stopping power of the round-nose with speed approaching the wadcutter’s, though not quite getting there. A good example is the Benjamin 14.3 gr .22 pellet.
Pointed pellets were designed specifically for hunting because the sharp tip can more effectively penetrate prey. They might have forward driving bands at the front to encourage rifling, though that’s not always a good thing because of the risk to velocity. This is best if you’re in the field, but not a great option if you’re indoors or at short ranges. The increased penetration may be helpful for lower powered rifles or longer distance shots, but I still prefer the domed pellet for hunting as they tend to have a bit more knock down power.
Round Lead Ball
Before even considering this type of round, make sure that your air rifle can handle it. Also, don’t confuse a round lead ball with a BB. Most BBs are advertised as .177, but are actually closer to .172. They aren’t meant to be fired from a high powered air rifle. Round lead balls are true .177, .22, or .25 diameters, and seeing as how they must be an exact size and are solid they are only available in a single weight for each size. 8.2 gr, 15.43 gr, 23.6 gr respectively. Do not even think about firing a round lead ball from your air rifle if it is not of the proper weight.
The advantage of a round ball is penetrative power. This is not a pellet and not Diabolo shaped, it is what it sounds like. For the most part, round lead balls are about as accurate as pointed or domed pellets in most guns at close range, but the additional penetrative power makes them excellent for hard target shooting. They also should work for pest control, but probably aren’t a good idea if you want to shoot something bigger or further away. They aren’t very popular so the selection is limited, but if you want to give them a shot Gamo has them in .177 and .22 calibers.
The last type of pellet I am going to discuss is the PBA pellet. This is not a specific shape of pellet, but rather a lightweight, non-lead pellet. PBA stands for Performance Ballistic Alloy. These are very lightweight pellets, and in my opinion they are only good for air rifle manufacturers to boast about how fast their rifle shoots. The only reason I’m even giving them a mention is to say that they are worthless for anything but firing fast and breaking the sound barrier. As I discussed earlier the two main considerations for an accurate shot with an air rifle are weight and keeping the pellet below the speed of sound. These pellets are the opposite of both. Still, if you’re interested in hearing the loud crack of your pellet breaking the sound barrier and seeing how fast you can get it to the target then you can check out Gamo’s Raptor PBA pellets. They come in .177, .22, and .25 calibers. Oh, and did I mention they are expensive???
But What About Weight? How Do You Know Whether to Use a 14.3 Grain or an 18 Grain Pellet for Example?
We’ve touched on weight already, but let’s take a moment to really delve into it.
People who are new to the sport will probably think of their rifle’s velocity in terms of feet per second (FPS). The reason why is obvious: that’s how manufacturers generally list the speeds their rifles can get. While this isn’t a bad measure, per se, it’s not the most useful one.
Instead, you want to know about Foot-Pounds of Energy (FPE).
FPE is measuring, specifically, the muzzle energy of each shot from that particular weapon or the number of foot-pounds of kinetic energy a pellet has as it’s expelled from the barrel. The difference between FPS and FPE is that the number of feet that a pellet travels doesn’t necessarily equate to its stopping power when you consider that pellets have different weights. A heavily pellet moving more slowly can still take down game that a lighter pellet at enormous speed can’t.
Calculating FPE is pretty easy if you know the FPS of your rifle. Start with the weight of your pellet, let’s say 14 grains, and multiply it by the velocity of your rifle squared. So a rifle that shoot at 1000 FPS firing that pellet gives you a total of 14,000,000. This isn’t your FPE yet, though. Now you take that result and divide it by 450240. You’re shooting at roughly 31.1 FPE which is not that bad at all. For simplicity, that equation is : (Pellet weight x velocity^2)/450240=X ft/lbs
As stated above, heavier pellets are going to be more useful for hunting or for firing at longer ranges. The heavier ammo will not only travel further while staying on course, but it will stay below the sound barrier or trans-sonic region where compressed air will throw off the accuracy. More than even competition shooting, accuracy is crucial to hunting since you’re not only firing at a target that can move at the last moment, but you also have an obligation to strive for humane kills. Pellets that go wild and wound an animal without killing it can lead to a slow and agonizing death, something that we should try to avoid whenever possible.
Lighter pellets are better for close ranges and when you want to fire more quickly, though you should still attempt to stay below the sound barrier if you’re doing more than just casually shooting at soda cans or Shatterblast targets. Lighter Diabolo rounds can reach the target before losing too much energy and starting to drop, and wadcutters are excellent for competition or serious target shooting.
What’s the Best Pellet for My Air Gun?
Here’s where a lot of people make a mistake: they assume that I can tell them what pellet they should use. Even after you’ve gone through everything I’ve talked about, decided what you want to do with your air rifle, and determined how much power you need in every shot, you still have to take into consideration that different rifles fire different ammo in different ways.
My Benjamin Marauder fires differently than a Crosman Nitro Venom break barrel, so they will propel different pellets in unique arcs. Even that Crosman fires differently from a comparable break barrel like a Beeman RS1. What you need to do is start trying out different types of ammo to see which ones work the best with your particular rifle.
Start with some of the cheaper ones like the Beeman or Gamo pellets mentioned above. In some rifles, those can fire dime-sized groupings at 10 meters with no problem, so maybe you’re lucky and the best ammo for you is also the least expensive. For other weapons, you may need something a little more pricey that is designed to take advantage of the way that you shoot.
You should also not be afraid to ask experts what they think. The guy at your local shop or range probably has a pretty good idea of what kind of pellet is going to be the most accurate in your rifle, and many of them will let you try some of the range ammo. Keep in mind that a lot of ranges will only use one type of pellet that is pretty good with a wide range of weapons, so take what you’re being told with a grain of salt.
Finally, don’t restrict yourself to one kind of pellet. If you’ve learned nothing else from this article, understand that different pellets are used for different purposes, so keep a wide variety of them to meet all of your needs.
Getting the right type of pellet can really improve your shooting. It takes a little trial and error, but if you make the effort to really look into what’s available, you’ll be able to find the ammo that works with your gun, your circumstances, and your purpose so that every shot has the best chance of hitting what you’re aiming at.