A Beginner’s Guide To Airgun Slugs

This is a HAM beginner’s guide to airgun slugs.

For several years, there’s been a big move towards the use of airgun slugs for long-range airgun shooting. Now that’s gathering momentum, as more manufacturers produce an ever-expanding range of products and more shooters discover their benefits. (Just check-out the variety at Pyramyd, for example).

Back in September 2019, HAM carried a story that asked “Airgun Slugs – The Ammunition Of The Future?” Now it’s a Zillion percent clear that airgun slugs are not just a “flash in the pan”. They’re here to stay.

But there’s still many airgunners who have still not tried shooting slugs. This story is for you…


First, What Do We Mean By Slugs?

Simply put, airgun slugs are solid, un-waisted airgun projectiles. Unlike the traditional diabolo pellets which we know and love, slugs are shaped something like firearm bullets. They’re basically cylindrical, with a pointed nose, parallel sides and a flat(-ish) base.

Below. Here’s a range of H&N slugs of different weights. The longer ones (on the left) are heavier.

A Beginner’s Guide To Airgun Slugs

Sometimes they’ve been called bullets, other times shot. But slugs – airgun slugs, not to be confused with shotgun slugs – has now become the de facto standard name.

So slugs it is. But what is leading to their popularity and why now?


PCP Power Drives Slug Use

Basically the popularity of slugs is due to the rapid development of technology and capability in PCP air rifles. Over the past few years, we’ve experienced huge increases in air rifle power as designers perfect valve and regulator systems.

High Pressure Air brings the potential for power and that potential is being used more efficiently than ever before in new air rifle designs.

As the power of PCP air rifles has increased, so have their calibers. Larger calibers are essential to transmit the power inherent in large volumes of High Pressure Air, so no longer is .22 – or even .25 caliber seen as a “large” bore diameter for air rifles. Now we have .30 cal, .375, .50 caliber and above.

Below. For example, the Umarex Gauntlet 2 in .30 caliber offers 110 Ft/Lbs of Muzzle Energy and sells for just $480. It’s a HAM Gold Award winner, too.

Although few PCPs have yet penetrated the “big box” chain sporting goods stores that sell so many airguns across the USA, they are increasingly strong in online sales, where most knowledgeable airgunners make their purchases.


R.I.P. The .177 Caliber PCP

While there’s lots of good news in this beginner’s guide to airgun slugs, there is one casualty…

This drive for increased power means that the .177 PCP air rifle is almost extinct now in the USA for new sales. You’ll see this reflected in the very small number of .177 caliber slugs that are available.

Apart from specific target shooting disciplines, the fact is that no-one is buying .177 caliber PCPs any more! Even .22 caliber is threatened as more and more airgun shooters consider .25 caliber and above to be their “new normal”.

Large caliber PCPs use vast amounts of High Pressure Air. So this demand has been met by a growing number of HPA compressors at ever-lower prices. Lower-priced, more available compressor technology encourages yet more shooters to move to PCPs.

What we have here is a technology-driven “virtuous cycle” of improvement in airgun performance, price and power. With this technology shift has come the desire to use the capability of increasingly-capable PCP air rifles to shoot at ever-increasing distances.


50 Yards Is Now Close Range

Guess what? Not being content just to lob large-calibre pieces of lead downrange, shooters also want to actually hit what they’re aiming at!

So we see competitions such as Airguns of Arizona’s Extreme Benchrest, with airgun target shooting out to 100 Yards for paper both and “knock-down” targets.

Such long range shooting blows the capabilities of .177 caliber completely out of the water. Ditto for springers, of course.

All of which focuses attention on the projectile…


It’s A Question Of Waistline

Continuing this HAM beginner’s guide to airgun slugs, we need to talk ballistics.

As HPA-powered airgun performance becomes ever better, there’s a natural demand for improved ammunition to maximize the capabilities of the hardware.

Basically, the need is for heavier projectiles that can absorb the increasing power available in larger caliber PCPs at velocities that remain subsonic (less than approximately 1,100 FPS).

With this comes demand for a Ballistic Coefficient that’s superior to anything that can be achieved with the traditional wasp-waisted diabolo pellet for long-range accuracy.

A Beginner’s Guide To Airgun Slugs

That is leading to a move towards cylindrical, non-waisted airgun ammunition. Yes, we’re back to slugs!


Should I Shoot Pellets Or Slugs?

That’s a question being asked by many owners of PCP air rifles right now. As with many things in life, the answer is not always clear, however…

One thing that’s apparent is that slugs can be appreciably more accurate at long ranges than diabolo pellets. This is confirmed by the rules for long range benchrest air rifle competitions.

Slugs are not permitted to be used in these competitions – except in special “slugs only” classes.

Below. The massive “in target” expansion of H&N slugs is designed for hunting.

A Beginner’s Guide To Airgun Slugs

The accuracy benefit of slugs is found particularly in their resistance to changing wind conditions. At least compared to a traditional diabolo airgun pellet.

But this improved long-range accuracy potential is not a given for any air rifle. Firstly, you need a powerful air rifle: say 40 Ft/Lbs Muzzle Energy for a minimum. This generally rules-out .177 as a viable slug caliber and further drives the move to larger bores.

Then you need a barrel that works well with airgun slugs.

Being designed for the ballistic characteristics of traditional waisted pellets, it’s hardly surprising to discover that many airgun barrels do not give good performance with the completely different ballistic characteristics of slugs. This means that airgun manufacturers are working on the development of barrel profiles optimized for slug use.

Here we have another technology cycle in the making, based around barrel and slug design.


Hunting Benefits

So far, we’ve talked about airgun slugs in the context of primarily target shooting. But apart from plinking, hunting is the overwhelming use for airguns in the USA today.

Shooters want to take ever-increasing sizes and categories of game with airguns. While everyone is still shooting pesky squirrels (how does that breed manage to survive and multiply so successfully in so many places?) many airgun hunters are looking at far bigger quarry.

For hunters, the overwhelming requirement is to deliver the maximum amount of kinetic energy downrange for an ethical, single-shot knockdown. You can see this from the photograph below of JSB Knock Out 25.39 Grain slugs.

Pinpoint accuracy, while important, is (just) the secondary requirement, particularly if you’re aiming to take down a deer – as is now possible with many powerful PCP air rifles. (Where legal, of course).

In this case, there’s no competition! The Ballistic Coefficient of slugs is far superior to anything that can be achieved with diabolo pellets. That means more energy further downrange, combined with less susceptibility to wind. Providing practical accuracy is acceptable, slugs are the obvious answer.

So, while long range competitive shooting is the headline-grabbing area of slug development and shooting right now, in the long run, it’s the capabilities of slugs for hunting that are driving their broader adoption across the country.


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this HAM beginner’s guide to airgun slugs. They’re here to stay. If you haven’t tried them yet, it’s time you did!