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Air Guns: Do’s and Don’ts for using Air Guns in South Africa

Air gun

Table of Contents


Many boys dream about the day they can own or handle their own air gun and even adults still like to use this kind of gun for target shooting.

Before you go and buy, or start using your air gun however, you should familiarise yourself with the rules and regulations around its use as set out in the Firearms Control Act (Act 60 of 2000, as amended up to 31 January 2015) (FCA).

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The term ‘air gun’ may include air pistols, air rifles, air bows and so-called BB guns, whether they are powered by gas ram, spring or compressed gasses.

Of course it is wise to first find out how many different types of air guns there are, which type of air gun will be best for you and compare detailed information about all types of air guns and each type’s advantages and disadvantages before you start searching for the best air gun for your needs that you can find on the local market.


Definition of an Air gun in terms of the Firearms Control Act

In Terms of the Law – the Firearms Control Act, an air gun is any air gun with a calibre of below 5.6mm regardless of its power or energy at the muzzle.

It can also be any air gun with a calibre of 5.6mm and above but which is manufactured to be incapable of shooting at powers or energy of no more than 8 joules or 6 foot pounds at the muzzle.

In South Africa, in terms of the FCA, any air gun that exceeds both the 5.6mm calibre and muzzle energy of 8 joules or 6 foot pounds, is classified as a firearm and a firearms licence is required to own and operate such a Large Calibre Airgun (LCA) class air gun.


Types of air guns

There are basically five types of air guns: spring powered, gas piston, pre-charged pneumatic (PCP), variable pump and CO2 air guns. Each type has unique characteristics, but they all are named according to the way they operate.


Spring Powered Air Guns

In a spring air gun there is a piston and a coiled spring inside the chamber. When you cock the gun, the spring is compressed and when you pull the trigger, the spring gets decompressed and causes the piston to move forward.

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The piston movement compresses the air and the force from the pressurised air propels the pellet out of the muzzle.

Pros and Cons of Spring Powered Air Guns
Pros Cons
Cheap to buy Requires practice to cock and shoot properly
Simple to use More recoil than the other types
Is self-contained, no need for pumping equipment or CO2 cartridges Should never be left cocked since the spring will be fatigued and might not function properly
Helps sharpen your shooting skills as a springer usually has lots of recoil Gets weaker if you use it for several years, and needs to be modified for better performance
Accurate, powerful and consistent
Gun parts are easily available
Easy to service, modify or tweak for better performance

Gas Piston Air Guns

A gas piston air gun, also called gas strut or gas ram, has a mechanism similar to the spring-piston gun, but with a gas-filled cylinder instead of a coiled spring. The air in the cylinder is already compressed and when you cock the gun, you just apply more pressure to it.

The pressurised air is kept under tension and when you release the trigger, the pellet is discharged out of the barrel due to propellant force of pressurised air.

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Gas piston air rifles have many advantages over a spring air rifle and are very popular for informal target shooting.

Cheap to buy and easy to useMore recoil compared to other types
Accurate, powerful, consistent on a shot-to-shot basisGets weaker if you shoot for several years
No need for CO2 cartridges or pumping equipmentCannot be left cocked since the spring will be fatigued
Helps you sharpen your shooting skills due to lots of recoilRequires practice to cock and shoot properly
Gun parts are it is abundantly available 

Pre-charged Pneumatic Air guns

PCP air guns use high-pressurised air in their chambers as the propellant force to discharge a pellet. The pressurised air is compressed by using scuba tanks or hand pumps and once the desired pressure level is reached, the gun is ready to use. PCP air guns are popular as a next level for collectors, due to many benefits for serious shooters.

Virtually no recoilMore expensive than other types
Highly effective with large calibre pelletsNot self-contained
Compact, high power, high accuracyNeed extra charging equipment at extra cost
Very little cocking effort needed 

Variable Pump Air Gun

A variable pump gun has a piston and a pressure cylinder in the chamber. When the gun is cocked, the air between the piston and cylinder is compressed and forced into the cylinder. The cylinder has a lock valve that allows the air in and keeps it there until the trigger is pulled and the pellet is then propelled due to the force of the compressed air.

Compact, lightweight, without recoilRequires time and effort to cock
Gives you control over the power of each shotRequires practice to master the cocking action
Have medium powerPumping action can be tedious
Self-contained, no pumping equipment needed 

CO2 Powered

CO2 air guns work in the same way as a PCP air gun but uses carbon dioxide (CO2) cartridges instead of pressurised gas as power source. When you pull the trigger, the compressed CO2 is released and causes the pellet to move forward inside the barrel.

Easy to cockNot very powerful
Recoilless to shootPower and accuracy are affected by weather
Very accurateThe expansion of C02 is different at various temperatures
Consistent on a shot-to-shot basisThe cost of CO2 cartridges can be high if you shoot often
Convenient for repeated shooting 
Can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger 

Popular Uses of an Airgun

You can use an air gun for many purposes including target shooting, plinking (informal target shooting), pest control and hunting small game.

Target shooting should provide more than enough challenges, but if you want to use it for hunting, you must be careful to only do so on private property and with written permission to shoot.

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You must also adhere to any legislated game species lists, open hunting seasons and other regulations contained in the FCA.

Don’t shoot air guns in your yard if you live in a built up suburb and all safety procedures must be adhered to.

Offences in Terms of the FCA

Although air guns do not require a firearm licence in South Africa certain provisions in the FCA treat the use and ownership of air guns the same as for firearms. Some of these offences listed in the FCA which apply to air guns include:

Causing bodily injury to any person or damage to property by negligently using an air gun.

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Discharging or otherwise handling an air gun in a manner with reckless disregard or likely to injure or endanger the safety or property of any person.

Having control of a loaded air gun in circumstances where it creates a risk to the safety or property of any person.

Handling an air gun while under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or a narcotic effect.

Giving control of an air gun to a person known to be mentally ill or under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or narcotic effect.

Point an air gun, whether or not it is loaded or capable of being discharged, at any other person, without good reason.

Discharge an air gun in a built up area or public place.

Air gun Safety

Air guns are not toys and should be treated with the same respect as any dangerous firearm, used responsibly and by following the common-sense rules set out below:

  • Never handle or operate an unfamiliar air gun without first reading its manual or ask the owner how to operate it safely.
  • Never let a child handle or operate an air gun without direct adult supervision.
  • Treat an air gun as though it is loaded and don’t take anyone’s word that an air gun is unloaded but check it yourself.
  • Always point an air gun in a safe direction, preferably at the ground.
  • Never load an air gun until you are ready to fire it.
  • Don’t rely on a safety mechanism to make an air gun
  • Never fire an air gun unless you are certain that the shot will be safe and check that there is nothing and nobody nearby who might be endangered by the shot.
  • Ensure that there is a suitable backstop or pellet catcher to prevent ricochets.
  • If possible, wear shooting eyewear to protect your eyes from ricocheting pellet fragments.
  • Never put a loaded air gun down but safely discharge or unload and uncocks it first.
  • Never store a loaded air gun.
  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs prior to and while handling air gun
  • Don’t climb over fences or other obstacles with a loaded air gun.
  • Airguns must be stored out of sight and separately from pellets.
  • Airguns must be covered or kept in a gun case, when being transported.
  • Airguns must not be stored where unauthorised people might gain access to them.
  • Contemplate ways of rendering a stored air gun incapable of being fired by using a trigger lock or something similar.


Choosing the best air rifle is easier when you know which type of air guns are available in the market. Each different type of air gun has both advantages and disadvantages; therefore it all comes down to your choice and preference.

Your choice will also depend on your budget and the type of shooting you are planning – whether you are considering informal target shooting (plinking) or more formal target shooting, or you are looking for an air gun for pest control.

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Whatever type of shooting you want an air gun for, you should first make sure whether you need a licence for it, if you have a safe storage place to keep it away from children and unauthorised people and that you may legally use it in your surroundings.

Even if you don’t need a licence to possess the air gun, make sure that you are acquainted of any transgressions according to the FCA to be able to adhere to legal use of your air gun.


What is the legal definition of firearms?

A firearm is any type of gun designed to be readily carried and used by an individual. The term is legally defined further in different countries. In South Africa it is described in Section 1 to the Firearms Control Act, Act 60 of 2000.

Is a rifle and a gun the same thing?

Although the term “firearm” is used as synonym for the term “gun,” only those high-muzzle velocity firearms which need a crew to handle such as field guns, tank guns, and artillery guns like cannons and howitzers are referred to as guns. The difference between guns and rifles is that guns are made up of a tubed body and fire on the target with the help of pneumatic force, while rifles are made up of helical loops inside, which are responsible for the stable release of the bullet into the target.

Are air guns considered firearms?

Airguns still count as firearms if used in a crime and can’t be fired in public areas. Airguns may be carried on one’s person concealed or openly. It is an offense to shoot animals and human beings, except criminals and animals which are attacking you.

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