These are just my thoughts on the subject so take them with a pinch of salt. Maybe take this as a starting point, but ask around and always pick up as many guns as you can before making a decision.
If you have never tried HFT before, and you own a sub 12ft-lb air rifle my answer is simple. Just use that. You will be able to get a taste for the sport without spending any money beyond some pellets and £4 or £5 club entry.
However if you don’t own an airgun (or you do and it is truly terrible), you might be on the lookout for something to get you started, and there will be a couple of key questions you need to ask yourself:
- How much do I need to spend
- Springer vs PCP
- .177 or .22
- What scope should I get
The first question I will try to answer quickly but it really is up to you to decide. Your budget will be influenced by your income, your other hobbies and how serious you are about airgunning.
There are three types of people you might come across when it comes to how much you have spent:
- You haven’t spent enough, you will never hit anything
- You’ve spend too much, you haven’t learn any skills
- Are you having a good time?
Fortunately most people are a number 3 and generally great people to be around. However the number 1’s do have a bit of a point. A really crap gun won’t group properly with any pellets, and worst case could put you off for good.
An example from me:
Just over a year ago I bought a second hand Air Arms TX200 for £260, from a shop with a 3 month guarantee. This gun (not mine specifically!) has won World Championships in the right hands, so is definitely more accurate than I am ever likely to be! That wasn’t a lot of money really.
Alternatively you can spend thousands on a top of the range Steyr or limited edition Daystate. There’s nothing wrong with this either. If I could afford to commute to work in a Ferrari, would I chose a Focus instead? No Chance!
What I’m trying to say is you don’t need to spend a fortune, but feel free to do so. As long as you look after it and enjoy using it, it will be money well spent. At the moment I am bedding in a Hatsan Dominator 200W that I bought (new old stock) for £150. Once it’s ready I’m planning to use this for a couple of weeks so I can do some work on my Prosport. I’ll let you know how it goes.
The other question for this post is springer vs PCP.
Spring powered air rifles basically consist of a piston with a seal at one end and a spring at the other. Cocking the gun pushes the piston back until it engages with the trigger and locks in place. The spring is now compressed. Pulling the trigger releases the piston and the force of the spring accelerates it forwards. This compresses the air in front of the piston until the pellet is forced out of the barrel.
Typically this results in recoil that can be felt by the shooter and can affect the shot. This is due to the mass of the piston flying forwards at high speed, then suddenly stopping and reversing direction again. The piston can actually move backwards and forwards a couple of times.
This recoil is the main thing that makes springers a bit harder to master than PCP’s. Often on the high end guns this recoil is deadened by weight. One of the reasons you may see HFT or FT springers with very large heavy stocks.
There are a few examples of spingers with no recoil, but using one will usually put you in the same category as the PCP’s so there isn’t much of an advantage.
Springers also tend to be the cheaper end of the market with prices ranging from £60 up to around £500. Generally the price reflects the quality and potential accuracy but you don’t need to pay the full £500 for a gun that will outshoot all but the best of us.
There are also a few styles to consider.
- Break barrel
- The whole barrel is on a hinge and is pulled downwards towards the stock which cocks the gun. The pellet is inserted into the end of the barrel and then it is returned to its starting position.
- Accuracy can rely heavily on the design of the hinge and how consistently it returns to its default position
- Under lever
- The barrel is always fixed in the same position. This helps accuracy as it is pretty much guaranteed to stay in the same position, relative to the scope, for every shot
- The lever runs parallel to the barrel and underneath it. The lever is pulled down towards the stock which simultaneously cocks the gun, and opens the breech where the pellet is loaded. (Breech designs may vary).
- Some levers run under the barrel and give the look of an over/under shotgun, and some are hidden in the stock. The only functional difference is the cocking effort required
- Side lever
- See above, except the lever is to one side of the gun and not underneath
- See above, except the lever is to one side of the gun and not underneath
These days in the world of HFT, springers tend to be less popular than PCP’s. At a shoot last week I was the only springer out of almost 40 shooters. There is usually a springer class at most competitions, but the main ‘Open Class’ is dominated by PCP’s.
Pre Charged Pheumatic air rifles consist of a source of compressed air (usually a cylinder or bottle) which is charged up to around 180 – 230 bar depending on the make and model. They are cocked by a small bolt or lever at the rear of the gun above the trigger. This is much lighter and easier than a springer because it is compressing a much smaller spring, called the hammer spring. When the trigger is pulled, this spring forces the ‘hammer’ forward which strikes a release valve. This allows a certain amount of air to be released which then propels the pellet out of the barrel.
This system has very little moving mass so there is virtually no recoil. For this reason the guns can be much lighter without affecting accuracy. Although some people still prefer a heavy gun as it can help stabilise free-standing shots.
PCP’s are all a fixed barrel design, and because they don’t have a large spring and piston inside, can come in a broader range of sizes. From full length rifles, to shorter carbine versions, and even shorter ‘bull pup’ designs which are becoming more popular.
The amount of shots you can expect ranges from 30 or 40 for smaller guns with small air chambers, to over 200 for those with large bottles. Re-charging can be done with a special high pressure stirrup pump (similar to a bike pump in looks) or with diving bottles that can be filled from diving shops, some gun shops and some clubs.
They can come in single shot or multi-shot, where a self indexing magazine allows you to take multiple shots very quickly. If you are only interested in HFT or other target shooting I wouldn’t bother with a multi-shot. Partly because you have to take the magazine out between each lane so it ends up being slower than a single shot. Also there have been a few cases where the magazines have fouled the pellet in some way and accuracy has suffered.
Prices can range from anywhere £200 up to £2000. Based on my experience, around £500 will get you a very accurate PCP that is also very reliable. Hopefully in the future I will get to test a cheaper model but I will withhold judgement until then.
If you are a beginner in HFT, either type of airgun will be capable of knocking over the targets (with correct technique and enough practice).
Personally though, I would urge a beginner to buy a springer. I own both and always find the PCP much easier to shoot. However I think a good quality springer is much better for learning technique, such as proper trigger control, follow through and consistent hand placement.
There are a few things that can’t be learnt by reading articles on the internet. How an air rifle balances in your hands, fits your body shape, or the weight of it can only be experienced by trying as many as you can before you buy. Any shop will let you hold the guns they have in stock. But if you go to a club there is a very good chance of shooting them as well. I’ve found air gun owners very generous in letting people have a go.
[P.S My current favourite gun is my Air Arms Prosport (springer), and my girlfriend always beats me with her Air Arms S400 (PCP)]
[P.P.S You may have noticed I didn’t mention CO2 rifles. They are great for general plinking and indoor use but in my experience they struggle for HFT type events. The ambient temperature has a big effect on the pellet velocity and therefore your aim points. And full power CO2 guns struggle to get very good shot count. I’ve yet to see one being used for HFT]