In the UK, the legal power limit for air rifles is less than 12 ft/lbs though you can own a higher power air rifle if it is registered on your Firearms Certificate (FAC). I’ve held an FAC for ten years, purely for air rifle use. There is a limited use for an ‘on-ticket’ air rifle but if I’m honest, these guns are pretty much surplus to requirements. I own two 26 ft/lb PCP rifles. Both were upgraded for me from ‘legal limit’ rifles by a specialist gunsmith. One is a .22 Webley Venom Sidewinder, the other is a .22 BSA Scorpion SE. The only time these guns see the light of day is when a shooting project comes along that I can’t tackle with a legal limit gun. Culling long distance (fifty / sixty yard) rabbits in a horse paddock , for instance. Burrows can mean broken fetlocks, so it’s ‘needs must’; yet such tasks are rare. In fact, rabbits are the only airgun quarry for which high power air rifles can be justified, in my humble opinion. There are some who shoot hares with FAC rated air rifles but that is a quarry I resist. Like the fox, I think hares deserve a more certain power and calibre than any air rifle can offer. All other quarry is so light that using anything more than a sub 12 ft/lb rifle is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
So why did I opt for ‘ticketed’ air rifles in the first place? Well, I’ll be honest and admit that I was naive enough to think that extra power would bring more long range options and an improved quarry count. Something that farmers and landowners obviously expect. FAC air rifle aficionados have always argued that extra power gives extra range and I won’t dispute that. In my experience though, you get random accuracy in return. Many things effect a small pellets downrange performance, particularly the wind. It didn’t take me long to realise that if you really want to snipe quarry at long distance then the .17 HMR or .22 LR are a wiser choice. Rather than use my FAC guns at sixty yards I found myself preferring to stalk in to within thirty yards (as I had always done before with the legal limit guns) to guarantee accuracy; which brought added problems. Primary zero on a higher power gun is longer, so if your squirrel or rabbit pops up at just ten yards you have to make random decisions on a reticule point before executing the shot. Too often, resulting in ‘staying’ the shot. No, I like things dealt with ‘up close and personal’ where I can see my quarry in more detail and can judge critical factors such as breeze, possible obstructions and backstop. Carrying an FAC rifle as my primary gun opened up these issues and made me appreciate that my fieldcraft and bushcraft is adept enough that most quarry presents between ten and forty yards. Well within the capability of my sub 12 ft/lb rifles and my shooting skills.
The biggest issue for me was quarry penetration. If you use the recommended heavyweight ammo for FAC air rifles (magnums, weighing from 18 to 22 grains) then you dramatically reduce the range you intended to gain in the first place. Using these pellets is like lobbing a cricket ball, under-arm, at your rabbit. Thus many FAC airgun shooters stick to medium weight pellets such as 16 grain roundhead diablos. Which is fine on rabbit and squirrel heads. But with a 26 to 30 ft/lb blast of air behind them at twenty yards they can pass right through a pigeon or corvid like a hot knife through butter. Result? A fatally wounded bird which will fly halfway across the county before plummeting to the ground, dead. I often use engine-room shots on grey squirrels in the same way that deer stalkers would on a broadside buck. Instant, clinical despatch. You can’t do that with FAC powered pellets, within thirty yards. They can go straight through soft flesh and out the other side. Usually resulting in injury, not despatch. A legal limit shot, however, will allow the pellet to blow-out and impart its ballistic shock. Job done, cleanly.
Their are two other distinct disadvantages to the FAC PCP air rifle, when compared to a sub-12 ft/lb PCP. The major one is poor air economy. You are using the same capacity air cylinder in both but to expel air at twice the power (or more) obviously means less shots per charge. If you like to spend your day in the field then you may need to double-back to your vehicle for an air charge. My FAC ‘air-vampires’ only give me about twenty usable shots per charge. That means carrying a divers air bottle in the vehicle, particularly as I always check my scope zero before hunting. If it takes five shots to get on zero, I’ve lost 25% shot capability before I even start hunting. Whereas I can get around forty to fifty useable, flat-line shots from a single charge to my ‘go-to’ sub-12 ft/lb rifle. More than enough for a days hunting.
There are some variable power air rifles on the market where you can change power from anywhere between 10 to 32 ft/lbs to suit your need. Sounds like a good idea doesn’t it? You can’t do that in the field, though. As soon as you ‘wind-up’ the power, your zero shifts and you may even need to change your ammo. Some shooters seem to assume that you can simply crank up the ft/lbs to tackle a long range shot. You will miss, or even worse, injure.
The other major downside of FAC air gunning is an important one for me. Noise. The whole point of using a sound-moderated PCP multi-shot air rifle is to exploit multiple shooting opportunities in a short space of time within a confined area. By that I mean before the majority of local quarry species realise what’s happening. The whiplash crack of even a heavily moderated FAC air rifle negates that advantage. Your quarry, at sixty yards, may not hear it … but every creature local to the shot will. With a gun like this, forget about roost shooting. Airgunners need static targets; not panic stricken evacuees.
At the end of this year I have a decision to make. Do I renew my ticket for another five year tenure or do I sell the two guns and surrender the license. Resale values on FAC air rifles are very poor, due to the reasons stated above. Many air rifle shooters have ‘dabbled’ with high power, then regretted it. Even if I sold the pair together, I doubt I would drum up much more than a deposit on a half-decent .22 LR.
A decent .22 LR? Now … there’s an idea! Or perhaps .17HMR? Maybe I’ll keep that ticket after all.
Post-Script February 2020 – Horses for Courses
This post has had so many ‘hits’ over the past three years that I thought I should add an update. I did add both .22LR and .17HMR rifles to my FAC ticket and the cost of both added together was equal to the cost of an FAC PCP rifle. The .22LR is a superb, flat-line option for rabbits and squirrels out to 80 yards. Of course, you can fire it further. But why would you when you have .17HMR on your ticket too? A calibre which best covers distances from 50 to 200 yards. The problem for the ‘journeyman’ shooter is that there is no perfect solution. I rarely use the .17HMR. It’s both noisy and messy (in terms of meat damage). It has proved itself very capable on fox, adding another dimension to my shooting. I love the .22LR and the muted thud of accurate, subsonic bullets … but with the potential for these to travel close to a mile if you miss, you can’t shoot the roosting pigeon or sentinel crow. So (and you’re probably way ahead of me here) my go-to walkabout rifle will always be the sub 12 ft/lb air rifle. A safe, silent ‘freezer filler’ if you have the fieldcraft skills and accuracy to compliment the tool you hold in your hands.
Post-Script Two, May 2020 – High Power and Slugs
Having been accused recently of being in a ‘time-warp’ regarding FAC air rifles, I just wanted to add a point here. People read this blog because they are trying to decide whether or not to purchase a FAC airgun. My opinion is ‘don’t’. You don’t have to agree with that opinion. If you’re considering an FAC ticket for an air rifle, ask yourself why? Is it because you don’t have the fieldcraft skills to get “up close and personal” with legal-limit quarry? If so, don’t waste your money. Learn the skills. It costs nothing and your quarry won’t suffer from randomly attempted long-shots. 75 ft/lb air rifles with slugs? Now we’re getting desperate aren’t we? They will not achieve anything that a .22LR or .17HMR rimfire can’t. And rimfires are a quarter of the price of a high power FAC air rifle. They don’t need an air supply. Furthermore, the .17HMR has enough power to drop a fox within 100 yards. I bet there isn’t a single FAC air ‘obsessive’ reading this that has fox granted on their ticket with only an air rifle on it? I rest my case. I’ve closed the comments. That’s my advice. Take it or leave it. Thanks for reading.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2020