I grew up in a very rural New England seacoast area. For a young Tom Sawyer-type boy who loved both the water and the woods, it was pretty much ideal. When Christmas came the year I was 7 or 8, under the tree was a brand-new shiny BB gun. This was beyond a doubt one of the happiest moments of my childhood.
I can’t remember for sure (these things happen when you get to be my age), but I think it was a Daisy Red Ryder or something very like that. It was spring-powered and nothing fancy. You fed the BBs in a tube, cocked the lever, took one shot and then cocked it again. It had peep sights and, as far as power, it would knock over a beer can and sometimes maybe penetrate one side. That was OK for me — in my mind, it seemed like Chris Kyle’s .300 Win Mag.
In need of ammo, I sold old Willie Stockbridge a couple of muskrat pelts. The junk guy came by the house once a month, and I had some old copper wire and a couple of dead car batteries. That produced enough money to go to the local Hilltop (service station, gun shop, etc.) and buy me a couple of packs of BBs. I was off and running and felt like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett.
Mom didn’t like me killing birds unless we could eat them, but rats were definitely OK especially on my father, My weekly trips to the town dump sent a lot of rodents to rat heaven. Of course, safety and safe gun handling had already been hammered into my head (quite literally) by three brothers fresh back from combat in Europe in WWII so neighbor windows and other property were for sure off limits.
Well, as the song goes, dragons live forever, but not so little boys. As I grew older, bigger and more powerful guns replaced the old Red Ryder and time marched on — but I never forgot the feeling of that first gun and what it felt like when my dog Sam and I walked the woods or ran my trap line with it.
They still make the old Red Ryder, but most BB guns have now evolved air rifles and pistols. Technology has made them better, more reliable and a whole lot more powerful. Some are powered by CO2 cartridges, but a lot are still spring-powered.
In my neighborhood of East Englewood, we used to hunt quail and hogs and just about anything else right in our backyards. Can’t do that any more. Too many houses. Armadillos are a real problem and can really destroy a lawn trying to dig up grubs and worms to eat. I know they have to eat, but they have square miles of other than my yard to dig 50 holes in one night.
Well, can’t legally use my .22 in the neighborhood anymore because it is firearm under the state statutes. The definition of a firearm by the state is any weapon that discharges a projectile by the use of an explosive charge, or is designed or readily convertible to such. A BB gun or air rifle is not a firearm.
Now, you can still find a way to use it illegally if you try. It’s not illegal to safely discharge it in a populated area as a subdivision — but when used to commit a crime or point it at another person, it might as well be a Glock or AR-15. In the commission of a crime, if it looks like a firearm (and they all do), it is considered one in the eyes of the law and the same penalties apply. In a courtroom it can get really complicated, so very careful discretion is still a must.
Air guns and BB guns are not considered firearms under Florida law, but could be considered “deadly weapons” if used in such a way. Basically, you can kill all the armadillos you want in your backyard with your air rifle, just make sure that you don’t put a round through your neighbor’s window and shatter his coffee cup while he’s sipping his morning brew reading my column. The federal definition gets more involved, but for our purposes in this we really don’t need to go there.
When you start looking for an air rifle, everyone except me will go to the internet probably except me. I hate buying stuff online, and as far as I can see it has just about ruined small business as we knew it. Every shop owner has heard, “I can get the same gun on the internet for 50 bucks less.” Yes, you probably can — but by the time you pay transfer fee and shipping, the cost gets a lot closer to shelf price. And if it isn’t perfect or breaks, who ya gonna call? But int today’s market, most shops are forced to come close to internet price or they won’t stay in business too long.
I did a lot of comparison shopping, trying to find the right model. In most cases, you can’t shoot it to try it, so it’s “pig in a poke” time. I thought the CO2 guns would be a lot more powerful but not so. I picked a Gamo spring-operated gun. Thinking back to my Red Ryder, I first thought it was not going to have a lot of punch. Wrong! That thing shoots a pellet that leaves the barrel at 1,400 feet per second — and no cartridge to change.
Gamo has three versions to choose from. The basic one is pretty plain-Jane and a little lower velocity with peep sights. I chose the better of the three at around $200, which comes with a nice scope already mounted. It has a 10-shot circular marked magazine.
Cocking demands a pretty stiff push. You aren’t going to do it one-handed (at least I can’t). It takes a little practice to get accurate with the gun. It has a safety lever ahead of the trigger that makes it almost impossible to get your finger on the trigger while its engaged. Nice and simple.
It’s easy to just set up some targets or cans in the backyard, but even with an air rifle or BB gun, be mindful of what’s beyond your target. Gun basics always apply. After a while I got the handle of it and got pretty accurate out to 30 or 40 yards. One thing I found out: There are several different kinds of pellets, and some work way better than others in my particular gun. I think that is a major factor so try some different ones (they’re cheap).
Modern airguns are really much improved over the old ones and really a heck of a lot of fun for everyone to shoot. Almost no noise, no recoil, cheap and cheap to shoot. Seems like a great Christmas gift for the kids if they show an interest in guns. They’re a good start and a way to teach gun safety in your own backyard.
Remember the law still applies, and it is illegal for anyone under the age of 16 to use any firearm, BB gun, air rifle or electric weapon except under the attending supervision of an adult who is acting with consent of the parent. This legal stuff can get to be a pain — like what if one parent likes the idea but the other doesn’t? Legalities! I’ve covered the law for you as deep as I’m gonna go, so be careful and err on the safe side as always.
One last thing in closing: Many of you regular shooters know that there an assortment of extremely powerful big-bore air rifles that are off the scale as far as power is concerned, but let’s leave them for a future column. This column is about nostalgia and maybe getting the kids started off on the right foot, not shooting an air rifle that could kill a grizzly bear.
Safe shooting, and happy and fun holidays.
Billy Carl is an NRA-certified firearms instructor and is available for individual instruction in firearms safety and concealed carry classes. Contact him at 941-769-0767 or through J&J One Stop Gun Shop at 2324 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte.