This post may contain affiliate links. Buying something through these links doesn't cost you anything and helps support Know Prepare Survive. For some light reading, check out our affiliate disclosure.
When you’re starting to learn about the world of air rifles, you may find conflicting terminology.
Many people research which air rifle they should buy and discover that there are many types of air rifle ammo to choose from (as well as many types of air guns).
Read on to learn the differences between the BBs, pellets, and all the different variations of each.
You might discover a new kind of ammo that saves you time and money.
The Difference Between BBs and Pellets
There are a few main differences between ball bearings (BBs) and pellets.
The first is that they look different.
BBs are small spheres that typically measure around .18 inches across. Pellets come in many different shapes, each for their own purposes.
BBs are most often made with steel, which causes them to ricochet more than pellets. They’re intended for low-cost recreational shooting and target practice.
Pellets contain lead and other metals, depending on the purpose of the pellet.
The metal is much softer, which reduces the chances of ricocheting. They’re also more accurate because they have an aerodynamic shape, compared to the round sphere of a BB.
Air rifles which fire pellets are also rifled, which spins the pellet to minimize ballistic deviations. BBs cannot take advantage of rifling.
Most air guns fire either pellets or BBs, though some are capable of using either ammo type.
Although they’re small, air rifle pellets actually come in a variety of shapes.
You’ll know which kind to purchase once you know what you’ll use them for.
Pellet Head Shapes
Most of the time, the type of pellet refers to the tip or the head, which is the part which hits the target and affects terminal performance.
Anyone interested in target practice and competitions will want to invest in wadcutter pellets.
They’re designed with a flat head so when they puncture paper targets, they leave a clean hole that’s easy to score.
- Short distance shooting
- Pest control
If you intend to own a mix of medium and light powered air rifles, you’ll want to stock up on pointed pellets.
Like the name suggests, the pellets have a pointed head that help them penetrate thick hides.
Their shape also helps them retain velocity because their pointed tips make them aerodynamic.
- Small prey
- Mid-sized prey
- Long distance shots
Hollow Point Pellets
Although you may not think there’s a difference, hollow point pellets make the most impact compared to other air rifle pellets.
They have a rounded head with a caved-in point, which allows them to expand after hitting a target.
- Close distance hunting
- Small game, such as rabbits
- Mid-sized prey less than 25 yards away
Round headed pellets — also known as domed pellets — are multipurpose ammo.
The rounded head allows them to cut through wind better and maintain a high ballistic coefficient for more impact.
- Small prey
- High powered air rifles
- Long-distance hunting
You’ll find high-velocity pellets in many different shapes, but they’re most commonly found with pointed heads.
The defining feature is a plastic jacket, or sabot, which minimizes the projectile’s mass and might falls away once the pellet leaves the air gun’s bore depending on the design.
They’re made for high-velocity airguns and can reach supersonic speeds of up to 1,200 feet per second (fps).
Though, a supersonic crack isn’t a good idea when using one of the quietest air guns! However, not all HV pellets will fly this fast.
- Pest control
- Small game
- Long-distance hunting
Pellet Body Shapes
The rest of the pellet, the body, can take several forms.
Diabolo pellets are the traditional pellet shape that narrows partway up the pellet and flares out for the tip. They’re also called wasp waist pellets.
The pellet only touches the bore at the head and the skirt (the bottom portion), which minimizes friction and improves initial velocity.
Although they provide a greater effective range, they can also become deformed if used at anything higher than subsonic velocities.
- Target practice
- Small-game hunting
Slugs are the heavyweight alternative to diabolo pellets.
They maintain their accuracy when used at long ranges due to their higher mass and have a higher ballistic coefficient that gives them greater impact, though they have a slower starting velocity.
They’re different from most other pellets because they have no traditional waist, resembling the bullets used in firearms.
- Long-distance shooting
- Large-game hunting
- Shooting competitions
Modified Bullet Pellets
The only time you’ll need to get modified bullet pellets is if you invest in a high-caliber, powerful air rifle.
They’re the closest a pellet can get to a firearm bullet because they have more mass and the best aerodynamics.
Note that these pellets aren’t legal in many places because they’re so lethal, so check your local firearms policies and laws to ensure you’re using legal pellets.
- Professional shooting
- Large game
- Shooting competitions
As you browse the many different pellet varieties available, you’ll find that they’re made with these common materials.
Lead is one of the most common materials used in air rifle pellets.
It’s known as a soft metal because it’s easily malleable.
Companies can quickly produce lead pellets because it’s a cheap metal that bends to any shape.
Lead is also more dense than other pellet materials, making it good for hunting air rifles such as the Benjamin Marauder.
- Lead pellets are budget-friendly because the metal is affordable
- Lead is less likely to ricochet because the pellets flatten and lost their shape upon impact
- Lead is denser than other pellet materials so it carries more momentum when it strikes game
- Lead has potential negative ecological effects, unlike other pellet metals
An alloy is a combination of two or more metals.
Pellet manufacturers use alloys to enhance the structure of a traditional lead pellet or to provide lead-free ammunition options.
Depending on the metals used, an alloy pellet is typically faster and lighter than other types of ammo.
Some manufacturers use the term PBA, or Performance Ballistic Alloy, for their alloy pellets.
- Alloy is super light, giving the pellets more speed
- The lighter weight also reduces the pellet’s momentum, which makes it less likely that the pellet will penetrate prey
- Some hollow alloy pellets may fill with air and expand when fired at too high of a velocity, damaging the barrel
You can also find pellets that are copper plated, which means they have a coat of copper covering the lead or steel underneath.
Copper gives any pellet the added advantage of a tough exterior coat, which makes it less likely that the pellet will flatten or lose shape on impact.
It also reduces lead fouling so you don’t have to clean your barrel as often.
- Copper is a tough metal, so it leaves little material behind in the barrel
- Copper pellets may be slower than alloy ammo
- If you leave copper coated pellets shelved for too long, they’ll corrode and acquire a rust-colored dust which isn’t great for the barrel of an air rifle
Some pellets are made with a lead or alloy body and polymer head.
This keeps the center of balance back for improved ballistics while allowing for the advantages of a sharp point.
You can even find pellets made entirely of plastic.
This type of ammo has the least mass, so it will bleed velocity quickly, making plastic pellets only good for cheap short-range practice.
- High initial velocity
- Good for cheap trigger time
- All-plastic pellets are only good for short ranges against paper
Choosing Pellet Weights
Depending on which air rifle or gun you shoot with, you’ll need to know which pellet weight to use.
The weight will affect crucial factors like the pellet’s velocity, trajectory and impact.
A great example is how heavy pellets will maintain their aerodynamic ability better in windy environments than light pellets that are easily affected by a breeze.
The standard pellet weight is around 6.7 grains for a .177 caliber pellet.
Anything heavier than 10 grains is known as a heavy-type pellet.
You’ll have to choose your pellet weight based on the type of gun you’re using, the environment where you’ll shoot and what target you have.
Typically, you’d want a lighter pellet for target practice and something heavier for hunting prey.
Related: .22 vs .177 Air Rifles: Which is Best?
Now that you know the difference between BBs and pellets and about the different types of pellets, you can make an informed choice for what kind of ammo to buy for the air rifle or gun you have in mind.
Each come with their own pros and cons, so research any pellet product you’re interested in to ensure that it’s the best for your needs.
You may have to experiment with several different pellet types in order to find the most accurate ammo for your air gun, too.