Capitalizing on the Power and Margins of Airguns

Air rifles have evolved over the years and grown in popularity. We have a conversation about the airgun market with AirForce company founder John McCaslin.
Capitalizing on the Power and Margins of Airguns

Airguns are not the toys we once played with as kids. They have grown in popularity in the U.S. and have become powerful, high-precision hunting tools with power rivaling handgun cartridges.

AirForce was founded in the 1994 and has become well known as the first American manufacturer to offer PCP (Pre-Charged Pneumatic) “professional match grade” air rifles and then was also the first to offer suppressed air rifles to the U.S. market. The company has remained one of the preeminent airgun manufacturers with cutting edge designs featuring calibers ranging from backyard .177 rodent killers, to .20 and .22 small-game hunting calibers, to big powerhouse pellets like .357, .30 and .45 calibers.

AirForce’s ability to adjust power levels and quickly swap calibers and barrel lengths in just a few minutes is even more innovative. The company’s Big Bore line impressively delivers over 500 ft-lbs of energy with .45 caliber 400-plus grain slugs that can humanely take game as large as deer and boars. The company’s PCP rifles are so effective that the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses them extensively for silent rodent control.

We had an opportunity to talk with John McCaslin, the founder of AirForce, about where the company is headed and how dealers can make a little money from just air.

One of the biggest sellers of PCP airgun technology has been delivery of superb power and accuracy compared to most traditional airguns. This AirForce Condor SS is one of several examples. (Photo: AirForce)

SSR - What has driven customers to airguns?

McCaslin - There are a number of factors. There is a large segment of customers who enjoy a really competitive airgun hunt and our Big Bore line of very high-power airguns deliver that challenge. Urbanization has also been a big factor.

One of the biggest sellers of PCP airgun technology has been delivery of superb power and accuracy compared to most traditional airguns. One friend invests in a top-tier PCP airgun and is shooting consistent ¼-inch groups at 25-yards and consistently taking game at 100 yards. That friend’s success sells the concept to a half-dozen more friends. Customers get excited about this kind of accuracy and power. PCPs are usually more accurate due to near recoil-less design and the precision metering of air pressures, but we also feature match grade Lothar Walther barrels in our air rifles.

SSR - Why are Airforce air rifles consistent sellers for dealers?

McCaslin - A lot of dealers are still focused on the sub-$100 airguns, but others see that strategy would be just like only selling the inexpensive firearms without the higher end models. Dealers who consistently stock our models are seeing continual growth because customers know they carry them. Our air rifles are also highly configurable with the ability to swap barrel calibers and lengths within the Talon, TalonSS, Condor and Condor SS product families. For example, if a customer has a TalonSS they can swap out between .177, .20, .22 and .25 calibers in minutes and share that barrel with a Condor.

We also have dealers who are doing really well with the .177 Edge Sport Class competition air rifle. The Edge is designed to have the look and features of extremely expensive precision class airguns, but with a shorter class price. For those shooters and competitors who want full adjustable pull and tuning, the $695 is an easy competitive sell.

The power of the .22 and .25 caliber guns set us apart initially and now with the Big Bore line the power is really incredible. I think the reason dealers continue to do well is that we insist on outstanding support and continue to deliver innovation and excitement in the industry.

SSR - What about the new level of power from PCP airguns?

McCaslin - Most of those old spring and pump-up guns would deliver maybe 10 to15 ft-lbs of energy with just enough accuracy to connect on birds at 25 yards. Today our Airforce rifles are delivering over 500 ft-lbs of energy with a 411-grain slug, which is more power than your average 9mm round, all with single-hole capable accuracy. Even our legacy 12-inch-barreled .22 caliber Talon SS model introduced back in the 1990s delivers a whopping 25 ft-lbs of energy and around 40 ft-lbs in our .25 caliber version.

Our new Big Bore TexanSS line in .308, .357, and .457 is now offered in extended barrel, suppressed and short carbine models and customers love the TexanSS models’ power factor with 100- to 411-grain slugs … it’s something different from the vast majority of airguns on the market. Once customers experience the .30, .357 and .45 caliber Big Bore airgun power they are addicted.

Air compressors provide air rifles with enough power to take down big game such as hogs and deer. (Photo: AirForce)

SSR - How has urbanization pushed sales?

McCaslin - Customers are landlocked and want to shoot, so this gives the retailer a great sales opportunity. There are a lot of annexed lands inside city limits that only allow hunting with non-firearms. This urbanization of hunting has spurred a noticeable growth in archery and airgun segments allowing legal hunting of urbanized areas, and with our Big Bore TexanSS power, hunters can even take invasive hogs inside city limits. With the new suppressed .45 Big Bore TexanSS, dropping hogs in your backyard will likely not even wake the neighbors. Precision airguns have also become a tool serving the urban micro-acreage owners, providing the airgun shooter a lot of target shooting and pest elimination opportunities. With airguns and the right backstop, our little backyards and basements can become safe shooting ranges.

Airguns also deliver more backyard practice time for shooters, but customers are demanding accuracy and want to hit an aspirin 25 yards away and they want to have an airgun capable of doing it every shot. Very early on, we saw an opportunity to deliver a very quiet, baffled, suppressed airgun that minimizes sound disturbance to neighbors.

SSR - As the first U.S. manufacturer of suppressed airguns, what are the BATF regulations of airgun suppressors?

McCaslin - Suppressors on airguns are non-regulated. No ATF Tax stamp is required for purchase of a suppressed airgun. We offer both suppressed and unsuppressed air rifles and can talk retailers through this process if they have concerns. Currently our suppressed air rifles are still our top sellers, especially for the urban shooter.

SSR - Is the sales process different for PCP?

McCaslin - It is an education process. We have found that the simplest explanation and quickest sales cycle is to explain that PCP is very similar to paintball — there is a tank attached to the airgun that needs to be recharged from a larger tank. Most serious paintballers are using scuba tanks for refills just like we do. Most people love the idea of recharging in seconds. Paintball tanks, which we offer adapters for, operate at a lower pressure under 1,000 psi, but our systems run up to 3,000-plus psi. Dealers who sell kits including tanks and refill adapters and have demo tanks in the store have always been our most successful dealers.

Customers can use special PCP high-pressure hand pumps, but common $150 dive-shop scuba tanks are the most popular option for recharging, with full scuba tank refills going for around $5 to $10. Our kits have been extremely popular. They include everything needed, with the exception of buying a tank and refill from a scuba shop.

SSR - What all is included in the kits?

McCaslin - We offer several versions of kits depending on the model. All the kits include the spin lock tanks, optics and rings as part of our base kit. The next two kit versions include all the base kit components plus either a hand pump or tank adapter. There are a lot of customers jumping from $200 air rifles to our $900 to $1,400 kits that include everything needed to go out and shoot. Many customers want to know they are getting an airgun optic and all the bits and pieces they may need in one purchase. It will all work together and they get a little discount on the package. Our base kits and the scuba tank kits are probably our most popular even above just the standalone airguns.

SSR - With the price tag of the premium-tier airguns, are retailers struggling to understand how to sell against an actual firearm?

McCaslin - It really is not a this-or-that decision. Customers are spending money on top-end air rifles and accessories because someone they know has one and they are already hooked. For some retailers, $200 is the top end of airguns, but that is just the top end of entry airguns. Margin-focused retailers are doing very well with both our base rifles and complete AirForce ready-to-shoot packages that include scuba tank adapters, hand pumps and optics.

Airguns can get customers back in the door over and over again. High 25 to 35 percent margin premium match grade pellets sell for around $15 to $20 per tin and most customers will buy three or four tins at a time to find that perfect pellet, usually all at full margins. The vast majority of retailers are only carrying old-technology .177 pellets, which are the equivalent of paper shotgun shells. Tank refills also get customers back in the door often and as you would imagine, compressed air delivers excellent margin once the high-pressure air compressor is paid for. Yes, retailers can make margin from selling air.

SSR - What makes AirForce different?

McCaslin - Our entire line shares our simple and rugged modular barrel and caliber-swappable PCP chassis design. We even offer some models in different anodized colors. We take pride in making what we believe is the finest quality air rifle that can still take the abuse of a hunt. Whether a shooter wants to plink in the backyard with .177 pellets on low power, ground squirrels at 100 yards or drop 300-pound boars with 500 ft-lbs of energy with our .45 caliber Big Bore airguns, we have a model for them.

SSR - Where do you see the airgun market going?

McCaslin - The airgun market has seen a notable jump in the last few years thanks to ammo cost and a lot of new innovative air-powered airguns coming to market. From our perspective, we are still one of the hottest selling premium airguns on the market and we do not see the market slowing at least for the next few years. If a dealer is not selling premium airguns, they are missing an entire market.

Featured image: AirForce Texan SS


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