What is Pre Charged Pneumatic Air Rifles? [Explained]

What Is A Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle

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The allure of a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air rifle is pretty clear: quiet, very little recoil, semi-automatic capabilities, and simple operation. 

The best way to understand what a PCP air rifle starts with picking something to compare it to. If you’re comparing it to a “normal” rifle, then the core difference (the one that all other differences stem from) is that it uses compressed air to propel the projectile instead of burning gunpowder. 

If a PCP air rifle is something you’re interested in, or you want to understand a bit more about this type of firearm, then let’s get going.

What Is A Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle?

A pre-charged pneumatic air rifle is a firearm that uses a pressurized tank of air to propel bullets out of the barrel. It is called “pre-charged” because the tank is pressurized before being used. This method results in less recoil and higher energy than other types of air rifles. 

Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle

An air rifle uses something besides gunpowder to launch the projectile out of the barrel. There are other types of air rifles, like spring-powered, gas piston, variable pump, and CO2-powered air rifles. PCP air rifles offer a lot of advantages over other types of air rifles.

How Does a Pre-Charged Pneumatic Rifle Work: A Detailed Guide

Propulsion

PCP Air Rifles use compressed air in a tank, tube, or cylinder to shoot bullets. With a standard firearm, the bullet is moved forward by expanding gases. These gases come from the gunpowder burning quickly in a compressed casing, one that’s usually made of brass.

Instead of expanding gas, a PCP air rifle uses a spurt of air released from the pressurized tank built into the rifle. The resulting action is much quieter than a typical firearm, and is also quieter than most other types of air rifles. 

Gun Propulsion

The drawback to this type of propulsion is that you only a limited number of shots before you need to refill your air tank. You may also notice that the velocity of each round starts to drop as you get closer to the end of your tank. This happens when you’re shooting an “unregulated PCP”.

A regulated PCP air rifle has essentially a second tank that ensures consistent pressure each time you pull the trigger until there’s no longer enough to fire. Even with that, though, each airgun takes a certain amount of practice and testing to figure out how many shots you’ll get consistent velocity and shot placement out of.

Firing Mechanisms

Since you don’t need a striker or firing pin, the insides of a PCP air rifle look a little different than a standard firearm. When you pull the trigger, you hit a valve that releases air for a split second until the hammer runs out of energy and is pushed back up to where it’s supposed to be.

From the user perspective, it functions very similarly to any other rifle you’re used to, except springers, but the process is quite different. As you fire, your gun may have a pressure gauge on its reservoir of air to let you keep tabs on where the pressure is at any given moment.

The trigger operates the same whether your air rifle is regulated or unregulated, it’s just a question of what the hammer strikes – is it the primary reservoir or the regulator? 

Advantages Over Other Air Rifles

My opinion is that unless you’re interested in a specific, unique type of experience, a good PCP air rifle is better than any other type of air rifle. Its advantages over other types of air rifles depends on what you’re comparing it to, but we’ll just cover them all very quickly here.

A PCP air rifle will give you virtually no recoil, while a spring-powered air rifle will give you not only regular recoil, but reverse recoil as well, which can be murder on your optics unless they were built specifically for it, and makes follow-up shots take a lot longer. Other types of airguns don’t have anywhere near the recoil, either, but PCP’s still beat them for other reasons.

Shooting with Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle

PCP air rifles can give you semi-automatic functionality. Granted, you have to buy one with that feature, but they exist. There is no such thing as a semi-automatic springer or pump air rifle. You can also get high velocities and high-energy projectiles with a PCP, which isn’t really possible even with a gas piston air rifle. 

You can also get PCP air rifles all the way up to large bore sizes. 0.50 PCP air rifles exist, and they are powerful enough that you can hunt wild boar with them. If you combine that with the fact that they’re much less susceptible to problems due to extreme heat or cold, you’ve got an air rifle that (in my very humble opinion) blows the rest of the options out of the water.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, and we’ll get into some of the issues with PCP air rifles later on in the article.

Filling a PCP Air Rifle

PCP air rifles have a tank or reservoir, usually built onto the gun (like a shotgun tube), but not always. This reservoir has to be filled to a certain PSI before it will fire projectiles the way you want it to.

How To Fill a Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle?

This process depends on what make and model of air rifle you have, but generally speaking you’ll have a port on the tank of your firearm that you will need to insert an air-pumping nozzle into. The instructions that came with your air rifle should tell you the name and type of the port your air rifle has.

Depending on what rifle you got and where you got it, it may have come with adapters to fit on standard hand pumps or air compressors so you can plug-and-play. Follow all instructions very carefully, especially if you’re using a SCUBA tank or other already-pressurized tank. 

You also want to make sure that you have a gauge to see how much pressure is inside your gun’s reservoir as you pump it. If your rifle has one built-in, great. If not, you must make sure the pump you’re using has a gauge so you don’t over-pressurize the reservoir. Ideally, you’ll have a gauge on both the gun and the pump so you can use both to verify accuracy.

How Long Does the Air Last in A PCP Air Rifle?

Most PCP air rifles will give you between 12 and 60 shots with a single fill of the reservoir. That may not sound like all that much, but if you think about how many shots you’ll actually need to take while hunting, doing pest control, or even plinking at the range, it’s not as bad as it may seem at first.

In terms of how long the tank will stay pressurized if you’re just keeping the air rifle stowed away, it should be a very long time, like months or years unless the rifle has a leak. There isn’t a consensus on whether one “should” leave their air rifle fully-charged while storing it, but for many air rifles it seems to be just fine to do so.

Generally speaking, it’s a safe bet to leave your air rifle at about half-pressure for storage. It should be enough for you to get off some quick shots without pumping in a pinch, but it’s not enough pressure to start compressing the valve over time or putting unnecessary mileage on any of the containment parts.

Disadvantages of a Pre-Charged Pneumatic Air Rifle

As promised, here are the less-than-ideal parts about using a PCP air rifle. 

Frequent Recharges

When you may only have 20-30 shots in each tank, if you don’t have a quick and economical way to recharge the reservoir, it can be an absolute pain to have to do over and over in a single range session.

Filling magazines with ammo is annoying enough with regular firearms, but having to hand-pump to 2k or even 3k PSI every 30 rounds is a pain in the butt. Again, if you have a SCUBA tank or an air compressor then this issue goes away, but it’s something you definitely have to be aware of and prepare for. 

Time/Trouble to Recharge

Honestly it’s a lot like an electric vehicle – it works just as you might expect for the first ~300 miles or so, just like a gas-powered vehicle, but when you need to go significantly over 300 miles all at once (like on a road trip), suddenly you’re stuck waiting hours for a recharge instead of just taking 15 minutes to stop for gas.

It can be similar with a PCP airgun, unless you have made the investment and thought ahead on painless and quick ways to refill the reservoir each time it runs out. The good news is that if you’re taking it hunting then you probably don’t need more shots than a single reservoir will give you.

Accuracy and Long-Range Don’t Compare to Traditional Firearms

This is true of all airguns, and is less true of PCP air rifles than other types, but the fact is that a fantastic airgun can give you < 2-inch groups at 100 yards. That kind of performance is kind’ve bare minimum expectations of just about any standard rifle, and the idea of pushing sub-MOA groups at 200 yards and beyond is just absurd with an air rifle. But for that you will require 200 yard scope.

The technology keeps getting better, and air rifles continually get more and more powerful, but it’s still impossible for them to even come close to matching the kind of power you can get with traditional firearms. 

FAQs

Are Pneumatic Guns Lethal?

Yes, they absolutely can be. The difficulty with this question is that ‘pneumatic guns’ covers everything from the little pump-action bb guns to the massive 50-cal rifles that will bring down a wild boar. Always treat every gun as though it is lethal. Apply the basic safety rules to every firearm you encounter.

What Is Considered a High-Powered Air Rifle?

There is no set standard of what is considered “high-powered”. Some of the numbers you’ll see thrown around are anything about 850 feet-per-second, or more than 200 foot-pounds of energy. Neither of those may seem very high for people used to looking at bullet ballistics for standard firearms, but they’re on the more powerful end of things for air rifles.

What Caliber Air Rifle Is Best?

It depends on what you’re doing. .177 air cliber is a favorite for pest control around the home or ranch, while .45 and .50 are best for hunting medium-to-big game. If you’re shooting at the range, hunting pests, or teaching a child to shoot, I’d first take a look at .177 and decide if that’s going to be enough punch for you.

Conclusion

Pre-charged pneumatic air rifles are a unique type of firearm that offer some pretty awesome benefits when it all comes down to it. They’re great learning rifles, and can be a downright pleasure to shoot, especially if you’re tired of recoil or the massive booms of regular rifles.

One great use-case that I don’t see very often is using air rifles in indoor ranges. If you’re just trying to practice the fundamentals in a cost-effective way and you live pretty far away from any good places to shoot outside, you can pay the fee to shoot at an indoor range and not burn through hundreds of dollars worth of ammo.

Is there anything else you’d like to know about PCP air rifles? Let us know.

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