Alright, so you are probably wondering about safety with an airgun. They are nowhere near as powerful as a firearm, and often can seem like toys, but can they kill people?
Airguns are capable of killing people in rare circumstances where safety rules are ignored. In the United States, three homicides have been committed with an airgun, and numerous accidental deaths have been caused by unlucky hits to the head, neck and eyes. Respect airguns and use them safely, following manufacturer guidelines; however, airguns are used by millions of people world-wide and have proven to be a safe form of recreation.
This is not a light subject, but one that may prove to be a necessary one to talk about. The simple fact of the matter is that people can be killed by airguns, some people have even committed suicide using airguns. Knowing how and why some people are killed by airguns can prevent serious or fatal injury in the future.
How Do Airguns Kill?
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise to learn that airguns can kill people when they are so often used to hunt. Everything that applies to hunting applies to humans as well. Energy, velocity, shot placement, terminal ballistics.
Everything that makes an airgun good enough to tackle a deer, or sometimes even just squirrels can make them lethal to a human.
This unfortunate story can highlight some of the reasons that even low powered BB guns can kill.
At a birthday party, a young man named Emarion was with a friend in a room when the friend pulled the trigger of a BB gun. Apparently an accident, the BB penetrated into Emarion’s chest and broke an artery.
The injury caused slow internal bleeding that ultimately deprived Emarion’s brain of blood, and ended with the boy brain dead on a life support system. The plug was eventually pulled, and he passed.
This unfortunate tale is heart rending, both for Emarion’s family and the young man who had pulled the trigger on the BB gun; he will have to live with that for the rest of his life. But this may prove a cautionary tale for many new airgunners.
I was unable to find the conclusion to the police’s investigation, but they believed at first that this was an accident, and in all likelihood it was. Maybe the young man intentionally shot his friend, but underestimated the power of the BB gun. Whatever happened, Emarion died, and a BB gun was used to kill him.
You might be able to argue that this was a freak accident, and it probably was, but freak accident or not, it was lethal.
In Emarion’s case, the BB almost surgically caused a fatal injury. That’s how bullets and BB’s and pellets kill. They cause an injury to a vital part of the body that ends up in death.
Some can do so by accident, like a BB gun, others surgically, like when a pellet is placed just right in the lethal zone of a bird, or by brute force, like how a shotgun might work.
How a projectile damages these vital parts of the body is called terminal ballistics. Shape, weight, density, energy, size, all of these things can affect the ability of a projectile to wound or kill, with some projectiles designed to expand to cover more area, some designed to break apart in the target.
Firearms wound in spectacular fashion, sometimes having enough energy to not just fatally injure a target, but having enough energy to punch through a person or animal, with airguns rarely, if ever, being able to match that in even small game
So, firearms have a vastly superior amount of energy, but all that needs to happen is for the bullet to hit those vital parts of the body.
It doesn’t take much longer than a quick Google search to find numerous stories of unfortnuately placed BB’s causing a small but serious wound that resulted in death, like this one of a young man who was hit in the eye.
Another unfortunate story can be used to demonstrate the killing ability of an airgun. This time, a homicide, the killer shot his victim with a .177 caliber pellet gun, probably with no more than 15 ft lbs of energy, in the heart.
This of course caused a number of problems that resulted in death, most of those problems being described with big words that I have never seen before, but essentially, the pellet pierced the heart in such a way that it allowed blood to put pressure on the outside of the heart, stopping it and killing him.
These stories just seem to say repeatedly that even if an air rifle does not have a ton of energy, a small amount of force placed in just the wrong spot can kill a man.
All of these factors can make common air rifles lethal if either spectacular malice or spectacular misfortune come to visit.
What Kinds of Airguns Can Kill?
Every type of airgun can kill a human, though it will of course be easier with higher powered airguns. With the lower powered airguns, say ones working at 500 fps or less, you are at risk of serious, but not lethal, injury unless it is placed just right.
It would be difficult for one person to consistently land kill shots on another person with a low powered airgun unless they were like a ninja or something, making them dangerous, but not outrageous.
Higher powered airguns though that are used to hunt pose much more danger to a person as they are well, you know… used to hunt. Most hunting airguns are only suitable for hunting small game and birds, but that is because of the need to be consistently quick with a kill at large ranges.
They are still able to kill larger game with the right shot, those shots are just incredibly difficult to make, and that still applies to humans.
As the gun gets more powerful, the less precise a shot needs to be to be lethal, surprise surprise. So don’t be surprised when I tell you that anything that is used to hunt big game can easily take a person’s life. Take for example, the whitetail deer.
An adult whitetail weighs a little under what an adult person would, with maybe 20 or 30 pounds difference for a healthy human. I hope that it is not a huge stretch for you to imagine that a PCP used to kill these things are able to kill a person.
Some of these higher-powered airguns can put out 400 ft lbs of energy, the energy needed to lift either 1 pound 400 feet into the air, 400 pounds 1 foot in the air, or any combination of those where the math works out. Most hunting PCP’s only do about 200 ft lbs, but some can output 700 ft lbs.
All of these are well past consistently lethal, but the BB guns that were used in the news stories we linked to above were probably only between 1 and 5 ft lbs.
How Dangerous are Airguns Compared to Firearms?
Okay, so we just spent some time talking about how airguns are dangerous if misused, and I want everyone reading this article to understand that. Airguns are dangerous when misused. But just because irresponsible use of an airgun can mean serious injury, does not mean that they are as dangerous as firearms.
The same basic safety rules apply, and we’ll talk about those in a little bit later on in the article, but where the low end of muzzle energy that a firearm could expect is about 100 ft lbs. Your average .22 pistol would output about that much, and so would a good quality precharged pneumatic airgun, and those in the airgunning world know that that is pretty much top of the line.
In fact, where firearms are considered too dangerous because of their excessive power to not be heavily regulated by the local and national governments, airguns are considered a great alternative. Airguns thrive in Europe, as it is one of those places where national and local laws prevent or restrict ownership and use of firearms.
A good rule of thumb used is this: if a projectile can punch through a 1 inch pine board, then it is dangerous enough to consistently kill a person. One of the .22 pistols mentioned a moment ago could punch through about 2 inches of pine board.
Airguns are much easier on the ears. The other day, I was shooting with a colleague of mine. We shot some airguns, and then we shot some firearms, and as you might suspect the firearms were much much louder than the airguns, even with ear protection. I could feel the shock wave in my feet as my colleague pulled the trigger.
How do You Stay Safe While Using an Airgun?
Whether you are using a simple BB gun to make soda cans explode spectacularly or you are using a top of the line precharged pneumatic airgun to hunt a moose (yes, that is a thing), remember to follow the basic firearm safety rules.
- Never point your gun at anything you do not intend to destroy.
- Always treat your airgun like it is loaded, but keeping it unloaded until you are ready to use it.
- Keep your finger off of the trigger until you are ready to shoot, never relying on the safety 100%.
- Be aware of what is behind your target.
Tragedy often strikes when someone lets their guard down. By keeping to the basic ideals of gun safety, you can spare yourself and others a lot of pain.
Many people have been spared injury and death by following the basic safety rules necessary for using anything, whether it be gun accidents or car accidents, so just be conscious of these for your own sake and for the sake of others.
If Airguns Can Kill, Can they be Used for Self Defense?
Airguns are not viable options for self defense since they lack the stopping power of a firearm. While some people may use airguns for self-defense, most experts warn against this practice. Since most airguns resemble firearms, pulling out an airgun could provoke someone with a firearm to return fire.
That goes back to the energy output of these guns. If you were to try to use say a BB gun on an invader in your home, you would need to almost surgically place your BB their neck, exactly over the heart, so on.
If they are wearing thick clothing, the BB will probably just bounce off. Where it becomes more likely, but still not practical would be a more powerful springer. I sure would not want to face one down, but they are almost always single shot, and even if they have a magazine, you still have to cock the gun for every shot.
If you want something for self defense, it would be more practical to get a firearm unless you want to go for a PCP.