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What Is an Air Gun?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 16, 2024
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An air gun can be defined in more than one way, either by standard definition or in legal terms. The standard definition is any gun that requires compressed gas or air to fire a projectile. In legal terms, the definition varies by location.

Many countries consider an air gun to be a firearm. There are different classes of firearms, but in many areas, it is illegal to own an air gun without going through the same processes required to own any other type of firearm. There are usually age restrictions as well. Where guns are prohibited entirely, air guns are generally also banned.

The regulations applied to an air gun usually correspond with the power of the gun. The more powerful it is the more likely it is to be restricted or banned, even though many of the guns available today are not as powerful as those used in the past for defense or hunting. While many people don’t consider an air gun a serious weapon, it can be. Pellet guns and BB guns can cause serious injury. An air gun, like any other gun, must be used responsibly.

There are three basic ways that firearms such as air pistols and air rifles obtain power. They use carbon dioxide, spring pistons, or pneumatics to propel ammunition. Some require cocking or pumping before pulling the trigger, others do not.

The carbon dioxide, or CO2, models do not need to be cocked before pulling the trigger. They do require containers of CO2, which means operating them is somewhat more costly. Because CO2 is sensitive to heat, the containers must be stored at an appropriate temperature, below 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 49 degrees Celsius, but preferably even less. While CO2 designs are not usually as powerful as the other types, they have a simpler construction and can be fired more quickly, storing power to allow repeat firing.

A spring piston air rifle must be cocked before firing. The spring is compressed during cocking and decompressed once the trigger is pulled. This action causes the air behind the projectile to become pressurized, which in turn forcefully ejects the ammunition.

There is more than one type of pneumatic air gun. There is the single stroke design and the multi-stroke. A single stroke air rifle need only be cocked. Multi-stroke styles must be pumped. Minimal pumping allows enough pressure for short-range shoots, while for longer ranges more pumping is required to create enough air pressure.

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Discussion Comments

By emtbasic — On Jul 15, 2011

@Trekker- I feel your pain. I have been shot twice with air guns (the real kind with the metal pellets, not Airsoft), once by accident and once on purpose. I still have the scars years later.

The first time we were kids and my stupid cousin shot me in the arm with a powerful pump-up air rifle, just because he was careless about where he pointed it and he had his finger on the trigger. I had on a shirt and sweater and it went through and stuck in my arm.

Second time I was walking up to the store and some little psychopath was hiding in the bushes in his back yard with another pump gun with a big scope on it and he shot me in the butt. I could hear him laughing and pumping it up for another shot so I ran. He took a couple of more cracks at me but he couldn't hit me on the run. That one didn't stick in me but it felt like the strongest person in the world sneaked up and spanked me.

There is a time and a place for these kinds of air guns. I have had several myself and have managed not to shoot anyone. This was not an accident, I had the proper training and also did not get one until I was old enough to be responsible. It just seems like people give them to kids way too young and then forget about them. Maybe not the smartest move.

By Viktor13 — On Jul 15, 2011

@manykitties2 - I think these days the kid who shot the other kid would end up in the looney bin or arrested, and rightly so. Sounds imbalanced to me.

You hit on the problem, he was "playing" with it. Guns of any kind are not a toy and should never be fired at another person except in self defense (which does not really apply with an air gun anyway and definitely wouldn't have applied in that case).

The big failure was with this kids' parents. They allowed him to have something he was not ready for and then did not supervise him at all. I'm surprised the parents of the kid who got shot didn't sue. I would.

By trekker — On Jul 14, 2011

@wander- Air soft guns should not be given to kids to use without adult supervision. I believe gun safety should be taught for air rifles just as it should be for real guns. These kinds of weapons have absolutely no place in the classroom and should not be used without a measure of responsibility and maturity.

I was shot in the leg with an air soft gun from across a coffee table. I had an instant lump and dark purple bruise. I think the only reason it didn’t do more damage than that because I was wearing jeans.

This was as an adult, so I don’t have the excuse of being a kid playing around. My cousin, also an adult, is the one who shot me. It is quite painful. Air soft guns really should not be treated as toys.

By wander — On Jul 14, 2011

@manykitties2 - You're lucky your only memory of air guns in relation to school was from your childhood. I teach English over in Asia and nearly had a heart attack when one of my kids pulled out what looked like a sniper rifle from his bag.

Apparently identical replicas of assault weapons are popular over here. So not only do you have BB guns but also you have all the fun of kids holding things that look exactly like real weapons.

Does anyone think that having air guns should be given to children as toys? If so, why do you feel that they should be allowed?

By manykitties2 — On Jul 13, 2011

Where I live there doesn't seem to be any restriction on small air guns like BB guns. I always see kids running around with them and shooting at squirrels and pop cans. I honestly am shocked that any parent would let their child play with something so dangerous.

I remember when I was in grade school a boy in my class ended up in the hospital after another kid decided it would be funny to shoot him with some pellets. Apparently sending a classmate to the emergency room was considered hilarious. Those pellets can really dig into the skin, and just pray you don't get one in the face.

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