As a boy, my closest thing to ‘screen time’ was watching the Saturday matinee movie on TV - there definitely weren’t any personal devices to waste away the hours. But what I did have was air rifles, first a Daisy BB gun and later a break-action BSA Meteor.
For years these kept me entertained for hours on end, targets stapled to last year’s phone book with an old quarter-inch barbecue plate serving as an effective backstop. This was all set up in the backyard and, at a time when firearms ownership and use wasn’t approached with such hyperbolic attitudes as today, was considered both safe and acceptable for an inner Sydney suburb.
In fact an air rifle didn’t even require a licence and a BB gun was more or less considered and sold as a toy. You could buy either at K-Mart with .177 pellets picked up at the corner store, newsagent’s or sports and hobby shop. In the scheme of things this wasn’t all that long ago, being the mid-1980s.
Apart from the backyard, air rifle galleries were standard fare at your local carnival, even at church or school fetes and ever-present at the Sydney Easter Show. As they were cheap, readily available and less restrictive to use, air rifles served as an introduction to shooting and were the basis for developing marksmanship and safe firearms handling.
So having grown up in a time when owning an air rifle was almost a standard rite of passage for a young boy, I’ve often wonder if they still bare the same relevance in an age where they’re treated as no less a firearm than those more powerful, requiring the same licensing, storage and conditions of use as a rimfire or shotgun.
Beretta Australia is distributor for Stoeger air rifles and offered Australian Shooter two types for appraisal - the RX5, a compact, light and easy-to-use model targeted as an entry level air gun, and the RX20 Sport, a more full-sized adult unit offering not only modern features but significantly more power.
Interestingly both models were a combo package, meaning they come boxed including a 4x32 air gun scope and mounts. Many are unaware that spring-powered air guns can be tough on optics and while air rifle felt recoil may be insignificant to the shooter, air gun recoil and vibration can be quite punishing with respect to the scope. Anyway, having the rifle packaged with a scope is a hassle-free and cost-effective way to buy.
Looking at the RX5 and RX20 Sport, both have unique ergonomic styling with black polymer stocks featuring adaptive chequering, providing good gripping surfaces and said to be specifically designed to follow the contours of the shooter’s hand. Stoeger refers to these ergonomic advances as ‘Human Tech Design’. The RX20 Sport also features removable grip panels that can be swapped with coloured versions for individual customisation.
Both rifles are traditional break-action breech-loading style where the barrel is hinged and breaks to act as a cocking lever for a spring piston that powers the unit. Barrels are rifled and chambered in a choice of either .177 or .22 with both test guns supplied in .177. Uniquely, the barrels feature an oversized solid polymer shroud, again shaped as a grip to give extra purchase on the barrel to aid the cocking process. Barrels and other metal surfaces carry a blued finish.
The RX5 measures a compact 1030mm overall with a barrel length of 420mm and weighs 2.4kg without optic. Sighting is provided by a raised front-sight with fibre optic insert and a fully adjustable rear-sight block also with fibre optic insert and there’s an integral dovetail rail for mounting an optic should you desire. The RX5 has a two-stage factory-set trigger which was long, heavy and somewhat spongy but not unusual for an entry level air rifle and it keeps you focused on trigger control, providing a learning curve for the new shooter.
Both rifles have an automatic, ambidextrous, large push-button safety mounted at the receiver butt which automatically activates on cocking and can be easily deactivated with a push of the thumb once on target and ready to fire. Likewise, both come standard with a thick soft rubber recoil pad that features anti-slip chequering.
The RX20 Sport is a full-sized air rifle at 1122mm in length with 462mm barrel, weighing in at a neat 3kg again without the optic. The trigger is a much-improved adjustable unit when compared to the RX5, being lighter and with a lot more feel. Iron sights are similar to the RX5 with the front-sight upgraded to having interchangeable fibre optic inserts. Likewise, the polymer barrel-mounted cocking grip is more substantial on the RX20 Sport and the stock features the interchangeable coloured grip insets referred to by the maker as MGS or Multi Grip System.
Performance-wise Stoeger quotes two sets of figures dependent on the type of pellet used. For the RX5, velocity for .177 lead pellets is 660fps (feet per second) and 810fps for those slippery aerodynamic alloy pellets, while the RX20 Sport will punch out lead pellets at a solid 1000fps and the alloy at 1200fps. From experience with .177 air rifles 600fps is fine for general plinking, target shooting and will even do the job on smaller pest birds and rodents.
For hunting, 800fps-plus with the right pellets will produce enough energy to handle prey such as rabbits as long as you stick to moderate distances. If you plan to hunt small vermin with an air rifle, the .22 calibre would be a better way to go as, although a little slower, the pellet mass in general terms produces more energy. The quoted figures in .22 are 550fps for the RX5 and 800fps for the RX20 Sport.
The scope supplied was a fixed power 4x32 which is plenty of magnification. Heading to the farm I mounted both rifles with the supplied optics and set myself up a range incorporating two saw horses and an old timber plank to place some small wooden blocks and my ‘Zero In’ portable target system to staple some targets on. It didn’t take long to sight in both Stoegers and the scopes seemed to track well when making adjustments.
The RX5 was pleasurable to shoot and had me reminiscing those old days in the backyard. It was simple to operate with only a moderate amount of force required to cock the spring piston for charging. In contrast the more powerful RX20 Sport did require some extra muscle action to make it cocked and ready to go.
You could literally shoot the RX5 all day with little effort though with the RX20 Sport after a good range session you might feel like Popeye looking for a can of spinach to replenish the sagging biceps. If you’re looking for a basic air rifle to start off your son or daughter the RX5 would do the trick nicely, if it’s an adult-sized air gun to take out the odd pest around the barn, the RX20 would be the better option.
Both rifles showed good accuracy with the RX20 cutting the centre out of targets at 10m, my wooden block targets hit with such monotony I ended up turning them on their edge to present more of a challenge.
The automatic safety that activates as soon as the rifle is cocked took a little getting used to as I’ve never used an air rifle with this feature. My standard drill growing up was always that the rifle was never cocked until facing downrange and I was ready to engage a target. I noted there was also a locking lever safety on both rifles meaning they could not discharge once cocked unless the breech was locked up and the safety off. This is another good feature on a spring-powered break-barrel air gun, as an accidental discharge when broken open could have the barrel swinging with significant force to slap shut, potentially causing damage or injury.
I had a couple of sessions with the RX5 and RX20 and really enjoyed shooting them. So are air rifles still relevant? I’d say most definitely yes. Representing the most economical form of trigger time, about $15 will buy you 500 pellets which is about one-quarter the cost of .22 rimfire ammo on average. They’re easy on the ears and you don’t need a large range envelope to stay safe, making them ideal in semi-rural areas with urban encroachment. It’s a wonderfully affordable way to start off a youngster or to build and maintain your shooting and handling skills.
Stoeger is imported and distributed by Beretta Australia, visit berettaaustralia.com.au
Air rifle: Stoeger RX5 combo Stoeger RX20 Sport combo
Action: Break action Break action
Actuation: Spring piston air Spring piston air
Max velocity: 245 m/s (810fps)* 360 m/s (1200fps)*
Trigger: Double stage Double stage
Calibre: .177 tested .22 optional .177 tested .22 optional
Capacity: Single shot Single shot
Barrel: 420mm 462mm
Rear Sights: Fibre optic adjustable Fibre optic adjustable
Front Sights: Fibre optic Fibre optic interchangeable
Combo optic: Stoeger 4x32 scope Stoeger 4x32 scope
Finish: Blued Blued
Stock: Black polymer Black polymer with MGS
Weight: 2.4kg 3kg
Length (overall): 1030mm 1122mm
Price as tested: $340 approx. (combo) $520 approx. (combo)
(*Pellet dependent, see text)