Air rifle: The differences between .177 & .22 – and which jobs they do best

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I’ve always believed the popular phrase “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters – but rather the size of the fight in the dog.” But in the air rifle world, it is now clear that both matter. 

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After all, why is there all this debate on the .177 vs .22? Being the most popular air rifle caliber in the world right now, new shooters as well as experienced ones raise many questions regarding the performance of these two calibers. This buying guide helps you explore in detail the differences between these two calibers, the pros and cons of each, and further suggests the jobs best done by each.

What is caliber?

To start us off, a dictionary definition of caliber will suffice: Oxford defines caliber as the internal diameter or bore of a gun barrel. Merriam Webster defines caliber as the diameter of a bullet.

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For the purpose of this guide, both definitions will apply. I bet it is common knowledge that a .177 pellet is fired by a .177 air rifle, and the same applies to the .22. You definitely can’t fire a .177 pellet from a .22 air rifle. The ammo needs to perfectly fit in the barrel of the airgun so that it is forcefully propelled with the pull of the trigger. 

Caliber is generally given inches – such that .177 caliber implies an internal barrel diameter of 0.177 inches. You may state this as 4.5 mm if you so wish – no harm. Just a few basics before diving into the meat of the matter.

.177 Caliber

This is the smallest caliber currently in use. Historians tell us that .177 was widely popular in Europe for many years before 1970 while at the same time most Americans used the .22. The tables turned when American shooters started importing .177 air rifles in the thousands until it gained quite some ground. Currently, the 2 models can be said to be equally popular among hunters worldwide. 

=> For more on best .177 air rifles, see this post

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.22 Caliber

After the .177 caliber comes the .20 caliber, which somehow never got very popular. Not for any technical reason. It does happen with numerous products, a good example being the Amazon Fire Phone. It was great, but it just never caught on. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find .20 models in the market.

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The next in line is the .22 caliber, also referred to as the 5.5/5.6 mm. This has gained special popularity among hunters and is now the most popular caliber in the world. 

There must be solid reasons for this. Read on to find out why.

Power

The power of an air rifle depends on the type of powerplant, quality and length of the barrel, and of course the pellet characteristics. Airgun power is measured in muzzle energy. Tom Gaylord of Pyramid Air provides a simple muzzle energy calculator where you input the pellet weight in grains and muzzle velocity and it gives you the muzzle energy in foot-pounds and joules. Let us experiment with a few hypothetical values and see the results.

Pellet Weight (grain)Velocity (fps)Energy (FPE)Energy (Joules)
10100022.2130.11
15100033.3245.17
1580021.3228.91
2080028.4338.54
2060015.9921.68
2560019.9927.10
3060023.9932.52

From the results, we can conclude that given that the velocity is constant, the heavier the pellet, the higher the muzzle energy. Generally, .22 pellets are heavier than .177 pellets. Below is a side to side comparison of .177 and .22 pellets of different brands.

BrandPellet weight (grain)Head Type
.177 caliber.22 caliber
H&N Field Target Trophy8.6414.66Round
RWS Super H Point6.9014.20Hollow Point
RWS Hobby7.0011.90Wadcutter
H&N Hollow Point7.1012.65Hollow Point
Beeman Silver Bear7.1012.65Hollow Point
Napier Power Hunter7.7215.42Round
JSB Predator8.0016.00Pointed
Beeman H&N Match8.1813.73Wadcutter

We can therefore safely conclude that .22 air rifles are always more powerful than .177 air rifles.

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However, do not forget that the velocity of the pellet likewise changes with the weight of the pellet and the firing capability of the airgun. The greatest muzzle energy is achieved with a good combination of pellet weight, shape, and velocity.

See below some typical muzzle energy values for values obtained by testing the .22 model of Stoeger X50 air rifle with different pellets:

Pellet BrandTypeWeight (grain)Average muzzle velocity (fps)Average muzzle energy (fpe)
The PeakPointed12.190021.8
The PeakDomed13.789024.1
Daisy Max SpeedPointed14.289025.0
Stoeger X-FieldDomed14.786024.1
Crosman PremierDomed14.385023.0
RWS SuperPointPointed14.585023.2
Beeman Model 1249Pointed15.582023.1
Stoeger X-PowerDomed21.169022.3

And now typical muzzle energy values obtained by testing the .177 model of Air Arms Pro Sport Air Rifle:

PelletPellet Weight (grain)Average Muzzle Velocity (fps)Average Muzzle Energy (fpe)
Gamo Raptor Platinum4.71090.7312.42
H&N Field Target Trophy Green5.561100.4314.94
RWS Hobby7.00961.7714.38
Crosman Premier HP7.9909.2014.50
JSB Exact Diabolo8.44830.8412.94
H&N Field Target Trophy8.64846.7713.67
H&N Baracuda Match10.65768.5013.97

Though the above two sets of tests are not from the same air rifle brand, it is highly evident that .22 air rifles are generally more powerful than .177 air rifles.

Costs

Starting with the air rifle prices, there is usually not much difference between the .177 and .22 models of different air rifle brands. A random search on Pyramid Air yields the following:

Air Rifle Price of .177 model (USD)Price of .22 model (USD)
Air Arms S510 XS Xtra1199.991199.99
Hatsan BullBoss QE499.99499.99
Airforce Condor PCP744.95744.95
Airforce Talon SS PCP654.95654.95
Beeman R9 Elite Series Combo549.99549.99
Gamo Magnum Air Rifle299.99299.99
Diana 460 Magnum399.99399.99
Evanix Rainstorm II PCP699.99699.99

Surprisingly, all the above-listed air rifles are priced the same for both models. Perhaps other distributors price them differently, but be sure the range is not that significant.

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Regarding .177 pellets vs .22 pellets, the smaller caliber wins. Whatever the standard size of tin a particular brand uses to pack the pellets, the .177 tin will contain more pellets than the .22 tin. 

For instance,  Crosman Premier .177 pellets of 10.5 grain come in a box packed with 1250 pellets and costs 32.95 USD, while if you purchase the .22 version of the same brand you will have only 625 pellets and spend roughly the same amount of money.

Uses

The .177 is highly recommended for target shooting competitions and fun plinking. Experts claim that manufacturers give the .177 air rifles some little more attention so as to achieve accuracy levels that cannot be matched by any .22 model. This is at least logical if you have some understanding of what accuracy of airguns entails.

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Accuracy in air rifles is usually measured by firing a given number of pellets at the same target and analyzing how far from each other the shots hit the target. If the shots are tightly clustered together, this is an indication of high accuracy. If the shots are wide apart, the air rifle is said to be less accurate. 

A number of factors influence the accuracy of airguns. First and foremost is the machining quality of the air rifle. The barrel must be quality enough to ensure it propels the pellet in the intended trajectory. Some manufacturers tackle this by using rifled barrels. 

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Another factor that influences accuracy is the muzzle velocity. An airgun with a higher muzzle velocity is likely to be more accurate than one with a lower muzzle velocity. Of course, the pellet has to move as fast as possible to the target before it is distracted by air resistance.

In line with this is the weight of the pellets. If the pellet being used is very light in weight without sufficient muzzle velocity, it tends to be somewhat overcome by air resistance and drift significantly from the intended trajectory. 

The .22 pellets are generally heavier and less likely to be swayed by the wind. However, their muzzle velocity is generally less than that of .177 air rifles. For this reason, we can conclude that .22 pellets are more accurate than .177 pellets if the target distance is not significantly far. This introduces to us another aspect of air rifles referred to as the range.

The range is basically how far your target is from the point you are shooting from. With a .177 air rifle, you expect the range to be bigger than when using the .22 air rifle.

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Aside from target shooting, the .177 caliber is excellent for fun plinking. It is normally thrilling to hit those soda cans with precise accuracy. And in case you got some nuisance pests lingering around your yard, you can still eliminate them one by one with your .177 airgun. We are talking here of rats, squirrels, and magpies.

On the other hand, the .22 caliber is more suited for small game hunting. As earlier elaborated, the .22 airguns have a generally higher muzzle energy than the .177 models. Muzzle energy is actually the killing power. You don’t want to play around with rabbits or hares once you spot them. 

Air rifle: The differences between .177 & .22 – and which jobs they do best

What you want is one well-placed shot that will instantaneously stop the prey in its tracks without thoughts of escaping. This is more possible with the .22 than with the .177. Very small pellets may simply wound the animals and force them to run for dear life. That is as unethical as it sounds, given that you will force the animal to live wounded until it passes on by other means. 

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One Reddit user recently claimed he only uses the .22 caliber for target shooting. His reason? He simply likes to see actual holes in the target. Punching power! He realized most times the .177 hits the target but leaves no lasting impression. Maybe you are wired similar to this A.D. Hopkins. Feel free to follow your heart. Only ensure you don’t disturb neighbors with too much noise. On that, let’s say something about loudness.

Loudness

The Speed of sound in air is estimated at 1125 fps. Quite a number of air rifles have muzzle velocities that surpass this figure. Science tells us that whenever a moving object surpasses the speed of sound, the result is a loud noise referred to as the sonic boom. 

This said, the .177 caliber is likely to be louder than the .22 caliber, for the basic fact that they are associated with higher muzzle velocities.

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Note however that the loudness of air rifles depends on other factors such as the presence or absence of silencers, machining quality of the barrel, type of powerplant, and recoil effect of the airgun. 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. .22 vs .177 which is larger?

In reference to the pellets, the .22 pellets are definitely larger than the .177 pellets. The same applies to the barrel of the air rifle. However, regarding the size of the whole air rifle, you’ll be surprised that a majority of the rifles have the same weight and length for the different models. See the manufacturer’s specifications below for some of the most popular air rifles.

Air Rifle .177 model .22 model
Barrel Length  (inches)Overall Length (inches)Weight (lbs)Barrel Length (inches)Overall length (inches)Weight (lbs)
Air Arms S510 XS Xtra19.75”43.5”7.2 lbs19.75”43.5”7.2 lbs
Hatsan BullBoss QE23.036.88.623.036.88.6
Airforce Condor PCP24.038.756.124.038.756.1
Airforce Talon SS PCP12.032.755.2512.032.755.25
Beeman R9 Elite Series Combo16.543.258.516.543.258.5
Gamo Magnum Air Rifle21.348.06.8821.348.06.88
Diana 460 Magnum18.4445.08.318.4445.08.3
Evanix Rainstorm II PCP17.039.07.217.039.07.2

2. How far will a .177 pellet travel

This information is very crucial as you need to know how far you need to stand away from the target. There are a number of factors that affect the distance of travel of the pellet.

The first factor is the angle with which you shoot. If you shoot downwards from your position, the pellet will soon be stopped by the ground or vegetation. If you shoot in an upward trajectory, the pellet may go further than the intended distance as there may be no obstacle to stop it. The maximum distance is usually achieved when the pellet is shot at an upward angle of 45 degrees. 

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The second factor is the muzzle velocity. Obviously, the higher the muzzle velocity the further the pellet will travel. 

Next is the pellet shape. The more streamlined the pellet is, the farther it will travel as the air resistance will be minimal. Think of the general shape of the front of cars. No high-speed vehicle is designed with a square front. Pellets come in different shapes, the most popular being wadcutter, pointed, domed, and hollow point. Still on pellets, the weight matters. Lighter pellets are more likely to be swayed by the wind so that they often don’t reach their maximum possible distance.  

Did you know that pellets travel further in hot weather than in cold weather? Hot air is less dense, and therefore the pellet easily penetrates, as opposed to cold air which is denser. 

Speaking generally, most airguns have a maximum range of 400-500 yards when the pellet is shot at an angle of 30 degrees to the horizon. 

3. What .177 pellets are best for hunting?

We already established that with .177 pellets, you are looking to hunt animals such as birds, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, and rats. These are the top 5 .177 pellets I recommend for small game hunting:

  • Gamo red fire – 7.8 grain – these have a diamond-shaped polymer tip that easily penetrates the target. 
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  • Crosman hollow point pellets – the hollow pointed gives a greater impact than the pointed pellets, and this has a devastating effect on the vermin.
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  • JSB EXACT – The diabolo shape adds more weight to the pellet compared to the hollow point pellets, and the result is higher impact energy on the prey.
  • Crosman field hunting pointed pellets – Made of the finest quality lead but still priced fairly
  • Hatsan H&N terminator HP pellets – It combines a hollow point shape with a sharp raised tip at the center of the hollow for deeper penetration and high impact. 
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  • Haendler & Natermann H&N Baracuda Hunter Extreme hollow point airgun pellets – With a 9.57-grain weight and consistent quality, these are perfect pellets for both target practice and small game hunting

4. How lethal is a .177 air rifle?

It was just last year that Stanley Metcalf, a six-year-old boy from Sproatley, was shot in the abdomen by his grandfather, Albert Grannon. The kid died hours later in the hospital while undergoing treatment. 

Back in 2000, one rooftop sniper in the East New York section of Brooklyn used a pellet rifle to kill 30-year-old Joffre Cedeno and severely wound four others. 

This list of airgun fatalities can go on and on, but the bottom line is that air rifles are dangerous, period. Never play around with them like toys, be it a .177 or .50 caliber. Carefully follow all safety precautions required when handling weapons. 

5. What is more powerful, .17 or .22?

As earlier elaborated, the .22 air rifles generally have more killing power than .177 airguns. This is because of the heavier pellets they use.  

=> For more on the best .22 air rifles in the market, see this post

Conclusion

Up to this point, I do hope you have all the information you need on the differences between .177 and .22 caliber air rifles. This will guide you in your choice of an air rifle. You don’t want to go to the air rifle store blindly and pick a weapon you know so little about. Chances are that it may not effectively serve your intended purpose.

What you need to do is first determine the exact activity you intend to perform with the air rifle. Have an idea of how much power you need, the accuracy requirements, and the typical range for the activity. Use these details to settle for the .177 or .22 air rifle. 

Of course, there are quite a number of brands you can choose from. Make sure to read some of my air rifle reviews to be able to make more informed decisions. 

Personally, I prefer the .22. I see it as a more versatile airgun that can meet both my hunting needs and target practice. What is your preferred caliber? Share your thoughts below.   

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