How Does an Air Gun Work? Air Gunning 101

So you think you want to be an air gunner? Well, you’ve come to the right spot. Here we break down the basics of air gunning to set you on the right path — think “air gunning for dummies” — but with a whole lot more radness.

No matter whether you’re interested in air gun hunting or just want to get some target practice in, having a good understanding of your air gun is critical. So how does an air gun work, and what are the different kinds? Let’s dive into the basics of air guns.

Let’s start by breaking down the SIX main types of air guns

How an air gun works depends on its powerplant, or the mechanism that there are multiple types of air guns out there, each of which is powered by a different powerplant. Here’s how they function:

Pre-charged Pneumatic (PCP)

PCP air rifles work by pumping air into a reservoir and only tapping into a small amount of this reserve each time a shot is fired. This air gun working mechanism offers quick reloading, multiple shots without recharging, quiet operation, and the ability to leave your air gun filled. These types of air guns are powerful, making them perfect for hunting. 

Pump-Powered Air Guns

How pump-powered air guns work is simple: an attached hand pump, usually built into a hinged foregrip, is used to fill an air reservoir. The air reservoir stores this pressurized air until the trigger is pulled, which releases the air to launch your ammo. These traditional style air rifles tend to be lightweight, but they need to be pumped up prior to every shot.

There are two types of pump-powered air guns: single pump and variable pump. The difference in how these two air guns work is simple: single pump air guns are primed with one pump and always fire at the same speed. Variable pump air guns can pump multiple times to charge the air gun. You can control the power with the number of pumps. Typically, they require a minimum of three pumps to shoot and up to 12 pumps for a full power shot.

Spring Piston

How a spring piston air gun works is genius in its simplicity. This platform is commonly used in low-power air pistols and lever action air rifles that shoot BBs or high-power break barrels that shoot pellets. Behind the main chamber that the main BB is loaded into is a cylindrical compression chamber with a spring and retracting piston. When the air gun is cocked, it retracts the piston, compressing the coil spring until the piston engages the sear. When the trigger is pulled, the piston is released, quickly compressing the air in the compression chamber and forcing it through the transfer port, which launches the BB or pellet.

Spring piston air guns are generally more affordable than alternatives. However, the spring does degrade over time. The decompression of the spring can also make shooting one of these louder than other types of air guns.

Nitro Piston & Nitro Piston 2 (Gas Piston)

Nitro Piston is proprietary cutting-edge Crosman technology that builds on the gas piston air gun design. Nitro Piston air guns work like how spring piston air guns function. Like a spring piston air gun, it has a compression chamber. When the air gun is cocked, the piston in the compression chamber retracts — but instead of compressing a coil spring, it compresses nitrogen gas. When the trigger is pulled, the piston flies forward, pushing air through the transfer port and shooting the pellet.

The advantages of this include quieter shots, drastically reduced vibration, the ability to leave your rifle cocked without worrying about wearing out your spring, and a lighter design. Nitro Piston 2 takes this technology to the next level with design improvements that make Nitro Piston-powered air guns even quieter and shoot faster. 

Break Barrel

Break barrel air guns are unique, because they aren’t so much a powerplant as much as they are a cocking method for spring and gas piston air guns. So how does a break barrel air gun work?

Well, you bend the barrel forward on a hinge (“breaking” it), place your pellet inside the chamber, then lift it back up into place. This process retracts the piston in the compression chamber of the air gun. Like any other spring or gas piston air gun, pulling the trigger releases the piston and launches the pellet.

CO2 Air Rifles

CO2 has been used to power air guns for over a century. How CO2 air guns work is by releasing a small burst of compressed gas from a reservoir into the chamber to shoot a pellet or BB. It’s like a PCP air gun, but with CO2 instead of air!

Originally, CO2 air guns were hooked up to a tank with a hose, but those are rarely seen today. So how does a modern CO2 air gun work? With cartridges — and it was Crosman that designed the first cartridges for use in air guns, providing the same power without the bulk of a tank! Modern Crosman PowerletsTM are tiny 12g cartridges that can be quickly swapped into any CO2 air gun, eliminating the time and effort that comes with how .

air pistol leaned up against log with targets on top

Once you’ve settled on the air gun platform that speaks to you, there are a few things required before you hit the range or field.

If you opt for a spring, Nitro Piston, or pump-powered air gun, all you need is the air gun and either BBs or pellets in the caliber of your air gun. Easy.

For a CO2 air gun, don’t forget to add Crosman Powerlet CO2 Cartridges to your cart.

Due to how PCP air guns work, you’ll need a filling solution if you want to use one. Something important to note if you go the PCP route is that most PCP air gun reservoirs need to be filled to between 2000 and 4500 PSI (pounds per square inch). This is something that you can have done at a local dive shop. Depending on your budget, this can also be done at home with the purchase of either a hand pump (for those that love DIY) or high-pressure air compressors.

So, which speaks to your inner adventure seeker? Are you more of a sports-minded shooter that’s aching to shred paper targets, send spinners spinning, or eliminate pests? If so, shop the Air Powered Sport collection which has a comprehensive lineup of air guns for every experience level from novice to highly skilled. Or, are you a hunter-at-heart seeking to take down medium game or varmints? Then shop the Crosman Air Powered Hunt line for a selection of air guns that pack the punch you need.

Now that you’ve made your choice of air gun and know how it works, you’re well on your way to becoming the skilled air gunner you’ve always aspired to be! But like everything in life, practice makes perfect, so be sure to check our blog post on Practice tips and tricks to elevate your game and make you the best in class.

man holding an air rifle side view

Here are a few pump, CO2, PCP, and break barrel rifle and pistol models to get you started: 

Crosman Freestyle 1077: Multi-Shot, Semi-Auto CO₂ Rifle

Crosman C11: CO₂ Powered, Semi-Auto BB Air Pistol 

Crosman 362: Single-Shot, Variable Pump BB/ Pellet Rifle

Crosman American Classic: Variable Pump, Single-Shot Air Pistol

Crosman Mag-Fire Mission: Multi-Shot, Auto-Loading Break Barrel Rifle

Crosman Icon: PCP Powered. Bolt-Action Hunting Rifle

man setting air rifle on table


Set Your Sights on Fun With Crosman Airguns

Crosman Airguns has been innovating the air gun experience since 1923. We are passionate about teaching beginners how air guns work and designing products that allow you to experience the joy of shooting for yourself. Even better, we have bundle offerings available to help you get started with ease and free shipping for orders over $99. 

Find your target with Crosman Airguns! Or for questions that go beyond “how does an air gun work?”, reach out to our customer service team!