What sport offers scholarships from nearly 100 colleges to high school students who can’t dunk a basketball, run a six-second 100-yard dash or play hockey? What sport also offers the chance for an all-expense paid trip to the Olympics? What sport can you join for less than $50? The answer to all of these questions is…the sport of air rifle!
History Air rifles date back to the sixteenth century—actually much earlier, if you include blow guns in the “air rifle” category. Captain Meriwether Lewis carried an American air rifle on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806. (The rifle is on display in the NRA’s National Firearms Museum.) The popularity of air rifles grew in Europe after the armistice agreements following World War II. When the war ended, several European countries were restricted from manufacturing firearms. So, German engineers focused their skills and love of shooting sports on manufacturing “non-firearms,” or air guns. In 1984, air-rifle shooting became an Olympic program with separate events for women and men. Using extremely accurate air guns, competitors stand and shoot .177 caliber lead pellets over 500 feet per second (fps) at targets that are 10 meters (32.8 feet) away. Other air rifle competitions include 3-position (3-POS) and 4-position (4-POS) shooting events that add prone, sitting and kneeling positions.
Levels of Participation
Level (Air Rifle)
Rifle .177 caliber
Course of Fire
Marksmanship Qualification Program
$45-$150 BB gun, but also allows Sporter & Precision rifles. Any sights.
Benchrest, Prone, Sitting, Kneeling or Standing.
Beginning backyard events, using simple targets and 9-inch paper plates.
(Costs are only estimates)
Sporter - $70-$450. No more than 7.5 lbs. Metallic sights.
Shooting jackets or trousers are not permitted. Gloves are permitted. Normal street shoes.
Prone, Sitting, Kneeling & Standing.
Most of the country is shooting 3-position, eliminating the sitting position. NRA AR-5 target with “pin-head” ten ring.
Precision Class (Costs are only estimates)
$800 - $3400. No more than 12.12 lbs. Any sight, but no lenses or scopes. Can use the same rifle as used in the Olympics.
Shooting jackets, trousers & shoes are permitted. Check with your coach before purchasing since there are rules for fit, fasteners, etc.
Prone, Kneeling & Standing.
The tournament program determines the course of fire as10, 20 or 40 shots in each position. NRA AR-5 target.
The Guns We’re talking seriously accurate guns. Technically, these air guns are not classified as “firearms” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), because they do not use an explosive powder charge. Some competition air rifle targets use a bullseye or “10 ring” that is only ½ millimeter wide—the size of a pinhead. Other events use targets as large as a nine-inch paper plate. Industry reports show that over three million air guns are sold annually in the United States. Competition air rifles weigh up to 12.12 pounds by international regulation, or 7.5 pounds for NRA “Sporter” rules.
Course of Fire Some matches require the men to fire 60 shots in one hour and 45 minutes, while women have one hour and 15 minutes for 40 shots.
Perfect Match Score For international matches, 600 is a perfect score for men and a score of 590 is world-class. For women, 400 is perfect and 390 is world-class.
What events are available? As shown below, youth and adult sports competitions include 3-Position and 4-Position events, while international rules are typically for standing only. Some local club matches are less restrictive, to allow more people to participate. If it’s a registered match, however, the rules are the same everywhere, which helps to create a level playing field. Your “classification,” or handicap, allows you to shoot next to someone close to your own experience level. This makes it more fun for everyone.
Types of Matches (See Rule Books for Details)
Marksmanship Qualification Program
Honor system. Courses of fire can be fired in your back yard or at a local range. No team affiliation required.
Organized by the NRA through local clubs. Honor system course of fire; results submitted through the mail; national scores published each year.
NRA sanctioned local “intramurals.”
Various Club-level competitions for fun and state team selection.
More regulated that “Approved” tournaments since record scores can be recorded.
Annual tournaments authorized and/or conducted by state associations affiliated with the NRA.
Organized by the NRA and associated partners.
Organized by USA Shooting with the recognized national shooting organizations of the countries concerned.
Where can I meet a local team? Boy Scouts, Venturers, Law Enforcement Explorers, 4-H, Royal Rangers, DeMolay, FFA, Veterans of Foreign Wars, JROTC, National High School Rodeo and private shooting clubs often have a shooting sports program that you can join. What makes the sport of Air Rifle so easy to participate in is that you can shoot in your basement or back yard. High school teams often convert their school’s cafeteria into a safe air range for after-school practice. And for a $5 tin of 500 pellets and a $45 air gun, you can practice shooting at a paper-filled box with a target taped to the front for the same marksmanship challenge as a high-power rifle shooter at the Camp Perry Nationals.
What equipment will I need? You can start with a $45 BB gun in your backyard and follow the rules in the Winchester-NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program. This is a good way to learn if you really enjoy the shooting sports before you spend a lot of money on more high-tech equipment. Keep in mind that if you locate a local club, they will probably have used team guns and equipment for your use. We’ll cover some of the different types of rifles and equipment in Part II of this series.