Air Power


Image: Александр Макаров / Adobe Stock

The airgun industry has strong wind in its sails, and its growth appears to have immense potential.

Traditionally, small-bore rifles and pistols dominate the airgun market. These are generally single-shot, piston-powered guns that charge the compression chamber with a pump — usually .177- or .22-caliber.

In recent years, however, big-bore airguns have been ascendant for hunting big game. Worldwide, hunters use airguns with bores as large as .82-cal. to take every major big-game species.

Big Bore Meets Big Game

Airguns are becoming so popular, Safari Club International has added airguns as an independent trophy category. Buckmasters, a leading deer hunting organization, has also added an airgun category for white-tailed deer, as has Airgun Hunting Legion.

Their embrace has helped the industry gain solid traction in the big-game hunting community, according to Brad Webb, Umarex USA VP of sales. Based in Ft. Smith, Ark., Umarex is a top manufacturer of high-end pneumatic rifles and pistols.

“The Safari Club [trophy] book is very thick,” Webb said. “Every category is wide open. People are trying to get in the book with airgun rifles.”

Chad Simon of Harrisonburg, Va., owner of Lethal Air, killed the world-record white-tailed buck in Buckmasters airgun category. It was an 11-point Virginia buck, which scored about 160 on the Buckmasters scale. Simon shot the buck with a specially designed copper jacketed bullet made by Lehigh Defense.

”If you have someone come in off the street who has never shot before, you can put an airsoft or BB gun in their hand and start moving them up the chain.”

Scott Faldon, Marketing Manager Umarex USA

Copper bullets generally don’t work in air rifles, Simon said, because copper is too hard. Airguns don’t produce enough pressure to move it from the barrel. The Lehigh Defense bullet has three small ribs that lightly contact the barrel while preventing air from venting past the bullet.

“It has a hollow point cut into four sections,” Simon informed. “It’s made to break off at 750 fps. When you shoot a deer, the core goes through the deer, but four little broadheads splinter and drive different directions inside the deer. It causes all kinds trauma — exactly what you need. I see copper as the future in airguns once they figure it out.”

So far, 26 states allow hunting with big-bore air rifles. In 2018, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission passed a regulation allowing hunters to use big-bore air rifles for deer hunting. A legal air rifle for deer must be at least .40-cal., and must produce at least 400 foot-pounds of pressure. It must also be charged with an external air tank.

Simon shared West Virginia’s legislature was exceptionally receptive to adding airguns as a legal deer hunting method. Idaho allows big-bore air rifles for all of its big game, including elk, sheep and moose. Alaska allows them for caribou and black-tailed deer.

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Umarex Airjavelin Air Archery Arrows

Other Growth Points

Law enforcement is another fertile airgun market. Many law enforcement agencies use airguns for training because, according to Webb, they’re non-lethal and inexpensive. Umarex is well known for its replica air pistols that resemble many of the service weapons used by agencies.

“We’re a leader in the replica realm,” Webb noted, “and we give people the opportunity to put a replica of their service firearm or their personal carry firearm in their holster and do any kind of training drills. You can train for a penny a round or less, and it gives you a lot more opportunity to practice muscle memory.”

Air rifles have also entered the bench rest competition world. Airgun meets are becoming big events, with prize money that equals or surpasses “powder burn” matches. One such meet is the Rocky Mountain Airgun Challenge in June at Salt Lake City.

This year, several hundred shooters competed in multiple categories. The top prize in the bench rest division was $20,000.

Airguns are increasingly popular because they’re inexpensive to shoot compared to powder burning firearms, and they’re quiet. This allows owners to practice in their homes and backyards, even in densely populated neighborhoods.

Webb suggests they’re also valuable for teaching, because they have almost no recoil or muzzle jump. This reduces flinching and helps instill proper shooting habits.

Traditionally, air rifles are predominantly single-shot units, but repeaters are increasingly popular in the small-bore category.

“You’re seeing break-barrel guns with 10-round cylinders to advance pellets,” Webb relayed. “You get 10 shots before you have to reload the magazine.”

Scott Faldon, marketing manager for Umarex USA, said airguns are excellent portals for traditional gun retailers to access new shooters.

“Airguns are a good way to transition new gun owners or people who are curious about guns,” he provided. “If you have someone come in off the street who has never shot before, you can put an airsoft or BB gun in their hand and start moving them up the chain. They can start shooting BB pistol, move them to airsoft with blowback and then into .22-caliber and bigger.”

“Haven’t Even Scratched The Surface”

Justin Jacobson, owner of Utah Airguns in Orem, Utah, built a highly lucrative niche from ground level. He sold airguns from his convenience store, but it soon proved to be more profitable than gasoline and candy bars.

“After I sold five or six high-end airguns, I thought I should be a dealer for some of these products,” Jacobson recalled.
“I started selling them out of a gas station. They started to get more and more popular with local guys, so I hired a person to do website and graphic design stuff. We put a website together and started selling them online.”

One advantage for airgun sales is the fact a seller can ship it to a buyer without the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles governing firearms commerce.

“Last year we did $20 million in revenue, which was a 30% increase over the previous year,” Jacobson confirmed. “In the four years previous (2016–19), we grew over 100% a year.”

The rapid evolution of airguns suggests such astronomical growth will continue for the foreseeable future.

“Being in the industry’s infancy stages, we haven’t even scratched the surface on what’s to come,” Jacobson proposed. “In two, four, 10 years’ time, it’s evolved leaps and bounds. It’s a fun industry to be in.”

Chad Simon out on a spring turkey hunt in the Virginia wilderness with the Umarex Gauntlet 2.
In .22-caliber, the Gauntlet 2 will shoot lighter lead pellets in the 1,100 fps range. Adept for the
range or woods, the Gauntlet 2 is outfitted with a Picatinny-style scope rail, knurled bolt
handle and a redesigned stock.

Arrow Guns

One development generating great excitement is the air-powered arrow gun. It uses pneumatic power to propel arrows. Virginia allows hunters with orthopedic disabilities to use them for big-game hunting during archery season, but they may be used without restriction during muzzleloading and modern-gun deer seasons.

“My dad is in his 70s. He fell off a ladder and sustained a serious shoulder injury,” Simon said. “He’s been using an Umarex AirSaber for two or three years. He killed a 250-lb. black bear with his.”

Simon used an arrow gun to kill a 7′ alligator in Florida. He also organizes hunts in Florida to kill exotic iguanas, which are an ecological menace.

“Each time we took out three boats, each time in canals,” Simon said. “We killed about 500 iguanas in two days of shooting. I also have some arrow guns rigged up to do some bowfishing trips.”

The Wave Is Just Beginning

Accessories are a big part of the airgun industry, too. Smaller, more efficient air compressors are in high demand to charge high-performance airguns. Airgunners also demand specialized optics. And, of course, airgunners have an insatiable appetite for ammo. This all translates to big sales potential for retailers.

Social media glimpses the airgun market’s potential. Facebook has many airgun groups, some of which contain 10,000–20,000 members.

Retailers who caught the airgun wave early are reaping tremendous benefits, but the wave has a long way to go yet before it hits the shore.

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