April 2, 2020
22 Air Rifle

.22 Air rifle vs. .22LR

Is a .22 caliber air rifle an acceptable alternative to a traditional .22 rifle?  Can a rifle powered by muscle and air take the place of all that .22 rimfire goodness? I have to admit I had never given it much thought but I see it is time that I did.

I had BB and pellet guns as a kid but my recollection of shooting them consists of some furious pumping or half depleted C02 canisters and projectiles that I could actually see flying in the general direction of their target as they were moving so leisurely. Once I reached the age where “actual” firearms were an option I soon forgot about them entirely. This isn’t a knock on gas powered guns, they just weren’t on my radar.

Fate

During a recent visit to an outdoor mega store I happened to walk by some air rifles and a box caught my eye leaning off the shelf. This particular .22 air rifle advertised an impressive muzzle velocity of 1100 fps. My gait slowed and with a raised eyebrow I started to do the math on the potential energy delivered by its pellet vs. a traditional 22LR bullet…

“You know, that isn’t half bad”.

Simpsons Blackboard

You folks that are air gun aficionados or experts will scoff at my ignorance but it was something of a revelation for me.  Yes, I knew there were serious air or gas guns out there with equally serious performance. I did however have something like tunnel vision with regard to them until I tripped over something on sale for a little over $100 that might challenge my trusty .22 for plinking and pest duties.

In addition, the box touted the inclusion of “SBD gold”.  SBD you say? Why that could only mean, yes – a “Silencing Barrel Device”.  A silencer. Suppressor. Moderator. Can. Muffler. Biscuit buster. Cork.

You get the picture…  SBD. How about that? I sure didn’t get one of those on my Savage 22.

So, always keen for another research project, let’s just say the aforementioned .22 air rifle found its way to the checkout counter and home on to my workbench.  The challenge was on. “22 vs. 22.”  Epic.

Apples to apples

Now let me just preface, this is not really a comparison between the two rifles used, as the competitors were chosen totally at random.  That’s not really fair. My traditional .22 is a Savage MK II FVXP that I’ve had for five years or so. It was modestly priced but it’s a tack driver and unless I was a competitive shooter (which I’m not) I don’t think I could ask much more of it. The .22 air rifle here is a Crosman Valiant SBD 22 and was chosen solely because I nearly tripped over it.  Sometimes that’s just how these things work. It was fate, you know.

22 air rifle vs. 22lr

What I really wanted to do was compare the capabilities and performance of the caliber and platform.  Can a .22 air rifle perform as well or better for some uses than a powder burning .22LR? Just for comparison let’s look at the two rifle’s basic stats and then move on to their “ammo”.

Savage MK II FVXP

  • Caliber: .22 long rifle
  • Action:  Bolt
  • Capacity: 5+1 (10+1)
  • Barrel length: 21” (1:16 twist)
  • OAL: 39.5”
  • Stock: Synthetic
  • Weight 6 lbs.
  • MSRP:  $315

Crosman Valiant SBD 22

  • Caliber: .22
  • Action: Break Barrel
  • Capacity: 1
  • Barrel Length: 15.75”
  • OAL: 46”
  • Stock: Hardwood
  • Weight: 7.95 lbs.
  • MSRP: $219

They’re both solid feeling guns with the air rifle outweighing the Savage by just shy of two pounds. The air rifle is substantially longer and the “SBD” on the barrel make it look even more so. Both rifles came bundled with scopes.  The Savage shipped with a very serviceable Bushnell 3-9×40 scope.

The Crosman scope, well – about all you can say is that it’s a scope. It’s a cheap scope. If the rifle is a keeper, the scope is not and that’s enough said about that. At our test distances though it should not really be an issue.

The Ammo (A.K.A. small soldiers)

When I saw the advertised muzzle velocity of 1100 fps on the air rifle box and the wheels started turning on ammo choices, I figured I might need to try something other than my standard .22’s diet for an “apples to apples” comparison. I knew I had some Remington Subsonic available and with a listed muzzle velocity of 1050 fps that would fit the bill nicely.

22 ammo

Staying subsonic would also make for a fair comparison of sound levels with the “suppressed” Crosman rifle. I grabbed a tin of Crosman branded pointed lead pellets for baseline ammo and (optimistically) calculated the two rifle’s performance with these choices as follows:

RifleAmmoBullet Weight (GR)Muzzle VelocityEnergy (Ft-lb)
Savage MK II FVXPRemington Subsonic38105093
Crosman Valiant 22 SBDCrosman pointed lead14.3110038.4

As you can see the .22 LR has a distinct advantage of “throw weight” (something I’ve never said in reference to .22 before) and terminal energy over the air driven pellet even if the muzzle velocities are pretty close.  For target shooting that’s of no real consequence but certainly does factor in if varmints are to be on the receiving end of your projectiles. Even though substantially lower, the net energy number on the air delivered pellet is respectable nonetheless.

So let’s now compare the two platforms with some “objective” analysis.

Ammo Cost

Well the good news is both of these platforms are extremely economical to shoot. As we did our testing with the Remington Subsonic ammo we’ll use that price for comparison to the Crosman pellet’s cost. The subsonic ammo ran $3.99 for 50 rounds or $0.08 per round. The Crosman pellets were $6.99 for 175 rounds or just under $0.04 per round (about equal to Standard Velocity bulk 22 rimfire). Either way, it’s cheap fun all day.

Advantage: Crosman Air rifle.

25 Yard Accuracy

We tested only out to 25 yards because we figured that is about the practical range for the air rifle. The rimfire obviously can be accurate much further out even with the substantial drop of the subsonic round, but we had to draw the line somewhere.

crosman 22 air

The results were surprisingly close. In fact, if both rifles had the same glass on them it might have gone the other way but I’m pretty confident with a steady hand the Savage wins this one most every time.

Advantage: Savage 22

Rate of Fire

I included this item really in the context of getting off second shots if critters are the focus of your shooting.  The Crosman is a break-barrel action rifle which requires you elevate the barrel, “break” it down and compress the piston, load the pellet, return the barrel to firing position then aim and fire.

I’m sure with practice you might economize those motions down to a few seconds but it’s just never going to be as fast as cycling the bolt on the magazine fed Savage 22 (which can easily be done in a second). I would suggest if critters are your focus you only take sure shots.  You might not get a second one off in time.

Advantage: Savage 22

Muzzle energy

Now we previewed this in the comparison table earlier and the “calculated” numbers gave a clear win to the 22 rimfire projectile.  However, that was before we took out the trusty chronograph. Now to be fair, I am told there is a considerable break in period with the air rifle and performance may yet improve, but let’s just say we were pretty disappointed with the measured numbers on the Crosman.

RifleAmmoBullet Weight (GR)Muzzle VelocityEnergy (Ft-lb)
Savage MK II FVXPRemington Subsonic38104091.2
Crosman Valiant 22 SBDCrosman pointed lead14.379620.1
Chronograph 768

OK, maybe you can approach 1100 fps velocity with a light enough alloy pellet but the total energy delivered won’t be materially different. I guess we need to put a big ol’ asterisk next to that 1100 fps number, eh? If you are hunting any sort of varmint this limits the humane range of the air rifle to “inside the yard” distances. The rimfire, even with the subsonic ammo, still gives you almost 70 Ft-lbs of energy out to 100 yards so you’ve got options.

Advantage: Savage 22

Sound Level

With the integrated “SBD” you would expect the Crosman Air Rifle to shine here and you would be right. In our testing the Crosman averaged just under 103dBA as measured from the shooter’s position. That is extremely quiet, pretty much hearing safe and not bound to bother the neighbors. The “un-suppressed” subsonic 22 LR gave us a reading of just 111 dBA from the shooters position.  Staying subsonic, you miss the distinctive sound barrier “crack” which helps, but it is still not hearing safe. Please keep the ear protection on when firing your rimfire 22. It’s not a 12 gauge blast but over time it adds up.

Crosman SBD
Crosman SBD
Savage Subsonic
Savage Subsonic

Advantage: Crosman Air rifle

Practicality

Now this is a little fuzzy and depends on where you live and where you shoot. In many places but not all, air rifles are treated differently than actual firearms when it comes to discharging them. Often you can shoot them in your yard where, unless you have a really big yard, a traditional rifle just won’t fly. State and Local ordinances vary widely but I think it is safe to say that you can shoot an air rifle anywhere you can shoot a firearm but the reverse is not true. That flexibility and convenience favors the air rifle.

Once you’ve found a place to shoot, the ballistics all favor the traditional rimfire. The energy delivered and the effective range are most decidedly in the powder powered rifle’s favor.

Advantage: Crosman Air

Having set the parameters of the test as we have, overall I am calling this one a draw. The rimfire may be able to shoot faster, further and with more impact but the air rifle can do it quieter, cheaper and in in places where the rimfire just isn’t welcome. As often happens in close competitions, I find the only right thing to do is own them both.

With these two rifles you’ve got most every possible plinking and varmint situation covered and you can shoot all day for short money. Would I give up my rimfire for an air rifle? No, I couldn’t say that I would. But I may have opened the door to another facet of the sport that deserves a closer look and that’s always exciting.