New to airgunning and wondering what you need to know in order to make an informed choice? Are you wondering, “What’s the difference between PCP airguns and CO2 airguns?”
Both PCP and CO2 airguns use canisters of compressed air, but PCP guns are considerably more powerful. CO2 airguns are easier to use, requiring less external equipment to stay functional. This extra equipment and the upfront cost of PCP’s combine to make them the more expensive option.
The differences between the two guns are telling. We will discuss these differences more in depth and maybe you will learn a thing or two.
How do PCP’s and CO2 Airguns Differ?
In principle, PCP’s and CO2 airguns don’t differ too much. They both use containers of compressed air to move a projectile through the barrel of the gun. In fact, the acronym PCP stands for precharged pneumatic, which basically translates to lay man as already compressed air.
So if you really wanted to, you could call a CO2 powered airgun a PCP, though we would not recommend that, and if you tried to, most people in the community would look at you weird.
I’m sorry for blurring the lines a little bit, but I wanted to talk about that so that we can understand how they are similar, because understanding what makes the two types of guns similar will also help us understand their differences.
The containers of compressed air used by CO2 powered airguns are small and, if you haven’t guessed, filled with carbon dioxide gas. The air pressure inside of the canister also reaches a maximum of about 850 psi at room temperature. If the weather is colder, the pressure drops, and the gun will lose power.
As you shoot your CO2 airgun, you gradually lose more and more gas until there is nothing left. When that happens, you just need to remove the cartridge and replace it with a handy dandy extra cartridge. Sometimes, airguns will use more than one cartridge, but usually only require one.
The quick and easy nature of taking out and replacing the CO2 cartridges is an advantage that CO2 has over PCP’s, though because CO2 is significantly under powered, they do not have the muscle to compete with PCP when measuring only performance.
We’ll talk about this more later, but the 850 or so psi used by a CO2 airgun is much less powerful than what many other airguns are capable of using. Even spring powered airguns, which don’t have any reservoirs of compressed air on them, are capable of making their own compressed air that can come out to be well over 1500 psi.
This under powered nature of CO2 airguns combined with the easier use of the cartridges make them great for beginning or younger marksmen. Carbon dioxide airguns can also be much smaller than PCP airguns are. PCP pistols are sometimes almost the size of my forearm, which makes them incapable of filling a certain niche in the airgunning world.
CO2 airguns are popular in a sport known as replica shooting. The idea behind replica shooting is that someone makes an exact replica of a popular firearm– usually a pistol– but capable of shooting BB’s or lead pellets instead of bullets. The small co2 airguns allow for mimicking of semi auto or automatic fire, and the quick removal and replacement of a magazine.
PCP’s need to be bigger because of the nature of the air tanks that they use. If you examine a PCP closely, you will see what looks like a small scuba tank on the gun, and you will usually find it under the barrel, though it can sometimes be in the stock.
This mini scuba tank is where we store our compressed air. You will also notice that it is considerably bigger than the CO2 cartridges we mentioned earlier. That is why even PCP pistols need to be big.
You might find it interesting that many fully charged PCP airtanks will measure about 3000 psi. Yeah. That’s the reason that, generally, your CO2 airgun will not compete well with a PCP. The considerable muscle mass that PCP’s are able to lord over CO2 guns with is the reason that most serious and professional airgunners will shoot with a PCP.
Where some CO2 airguns are able to produce about one or two foot pounds of muzzle energy, PCP’s are able to reach the eighty or higher range of foot pounds. For those of you who don’t know, foot pounds is a measurement of energy that is useful for understanding the power of a gun.
Just so you can understand kind of the scale we are talking about, one foot pound of energy is needed to break human skin. A lower-powered BB gun will reach this level, while a .22 caliber firearm will reach about 150 foot pounds of energy.
Even though they might have less energy than a .22 caliber powder burner, higher end PCP’s are used to hunt big game, and can be used to take down elk.
It is worth noting though that the price range for high end CO2 guns is less than the price range for low end PCP’s. Expensive CO2 guns can come out at about $150. Quality PCP’s can cost about $500, with some high-end guns costing $1000 or more.
At this point, we haven’t really even talked about the extra equipment needed to keep a PCP charged. This equipment can be expensive. We’ll talk about how to use that stuff later, just know that depending on your choice, the upfront cost of keeping your PCP charged can be several hundred dollars. In contrast, you can get a handful of CO2 cartridges for about $5.
What Equipment Do I Need For a PCP that I Won’t Need for a CO2 Airgun?
I’m glad you asked. CO2 powered airguns really only need the ammo and the cartridges. PCP’s will require one or more extra tools that are used to keep the air tank full enough to use. Your gauge will have red, green, and yellow zones on it, and when your meter is in the green, you are ready to shoot.
All of these options have lines that will plug into your PCP and have bleed valves that you should use before disconnecting your line.
The cheapest option is a manual hand pump, which will start at near $100 or more. The appeal to the pump is that it is the cheapest option, bit that is about it. This option will take the most effort, so maybe you can replace your morning workout equipment with this, but expect to fill a PCP airgun in about 40 pumps.
Your next option is a portable tank. These larger tanks usually start at over $350, depending on where you look. These tanks hold either 3000 or 4500 psi (usually 4500), and will plug into your PCP. They also will need extra equipment to refill, unless there is a location near you that will do it for you.
These tanks will fill your PCP much faster than the hand pump will, and coming in at about four pounds, are light enough to be carried with you on an adventure.
Your last option is some kind of mechanical or electrical air pump. Be sure you read your manual, because some of these pumps will only produce 4500 psi, which is enough to lock up your PCP. These particular models you should only plug into one of your portable tanks. Some will fill your tank directly though, and will do so very quick, so watch that pressure gauge.
These last kinds of pumps are by far the most expensive option, but if you look in the right place, they will start at about $350.
A quick note: your garage’s air compressoryou use for your tires will be insufficient. Those often cap out at 150 psi, and you need about 30 times more pressure than that.
What Kinds of Maintenance do CO2 and PCP Airguns Require?
Neither type of airgun require much maintenance. Rarely if ever will you need to clean your gun. Care does need to be taken when storing your airgun, or you risk causing permanent leaks that need to be repaired.
When you use a CO2 airgun, you should apply a small amount of oil to the seal. This provides the seal the moisture it needs to form a proper seal and stay healthy over time. When you are done with your CO2 gun, you also need to take the canisters out of the gun, otherwise you unnecessarily prolong the strain on the seal, and that will damage it.
PCP’s are not like that. When you store your PCP, you need to make sure that it has air in the tank. You don’t need to fill it back up to max capacity, but if you completely empty it, the seals inside the gun will allow dust and other contaminants inside the gun, and that will cause leaks.
Why Do Some People Choose CO2 Airguns over PCP’s?
CO2 airguns are great for simple plinking. The much lower cost of the CO2 guns is great when you just want to set up some soda cans and compete with your friends over who can hit more than the other, but the choice is not binary. Each of these guns will fill the niche they are designed for.
It would be ill advised to use your CO2 gun for hunting, and that is where the PCP will come into play, but if you are not using something that will require the power that a PCP can swing around, then you don’t need the PCP, at least for that activity.
What Kinds of Ammo Will a PCP Shoot and Does that Differ From the CO2 Gun?
CO2 airguns can be designed to shoot with either BB’s or lead pellets. Rarely will a PCP airgun shoot BB’s. Most PCP guns will shoot pellets, which come in much greater variety than BB’s will.
BB’s really only have three flavors: steel ball, round ball, and lead ball. The pellets used in PCP guns can be .50 caliber, they can be .177 caliber, they can be long, they can be short, they can be pointed, flat, blocky. Each pellet is designed to fill a certain niche that BB’s simply cannot. This is another advantage that PCP’s will be able to lend to you.