Air Rifle 101 for Beginners (Part 1)

  • Written By Eric Crouch on May 4, 2020
    Last Updated: January 31, 2021

Air Rifle 101 is the go-to place for beginners entering the world of air rifles. Whether you are a beginner that is looking to brush up on your skills and knowledge, or the complete newbie looking for guidance on how to select and set up the perfect beginner rifle, this is the guide for you.

In this definitive guide we will provide you with all the information you need to start your shooting journey, taking you through step by step on how to select, sight-in, maintain and shoot your new air rifle.

By the end of this article, you will have the essential knowledge you need to be able to select the perfect rifle and take it to the field for your first serious shots at a target or your first kill on the hunt. If you are a newbie or beginner and are taking your first steps into the world of shooting your mind is probably spinning around and around with questions about guns, pellets, shooting styles and techniques. Not to fear, all your questions will be answered in this guide and by the end of it, you will have a clear picture in your mind of exactly what an air rifle is and how you can become the perfect marksman.

What is an Air Rifle?

An air rifle is a type of firearm that doesn’t use any form of ignition to fire a projectile. They do this by using either the compression of air in a regulated tank, a mechanical spring, or a gas-filled piston (you will learn more about these different mechanisms later on in the guide). The mechanism inside an air rifle pressurizes air or gas and uses the energy from releasing that pressure to launch a projectile. This form of firing is much quieter than a traditional powder-burning firearm and can be great in hunting situations. As well as being quiet, the simple mechanisms used in air rifles provide the user with an easy maintenance weapon that is unlikely to go wrong for many years, making these guns an ideal place for the new shooter to start.

Air rifles may not produce the same power as their powder-burning cousins but what they lack in muzzle energy they make up for in other ways. An air rifle can be used in many situations where a traditional firearm cannot, such as close-range pest control, plinking in small backyards, and hunting situations where a quiet shot is essential. These benefits are what draw the marksman to these air-weapons and what keeps people addicted to shooting air rifles to date.

The first air-rifle was developed in the 1500s. The idea has since been developed to the point where some rifles can now produce incredible power and accuracy, to the point of taking an animal out at over 70 yards. Air rifles now come in a range of stylings, calibers (the size of pellet they can fire), and charging styles (the mechanism used to fire the pellet) but we will get stuck into the details a little further into this guide.

So overall, the air rifle is a quiet, easy maintenance gun that can be of service in many situations, whether that may be hunting, target practice or some simple plinking in your backyard. Owning an air rifle is a great way to get into shooting and this form of firearm is where most experienced marksmen start their career.

What Makes A Good Beginner Rifle?

A good beginner rifle will offer its user an easy to maintain, reliable article that has sufficient power for the newbie but isn’t so over-powered that it is hard to handle. Finding a rifle that fits these needs can be difficult without the right guidance but luckily for you, Air rifle 101 will provide all the information you need to make an educated decision when picking that all-important first gun.

When deciding what type of air rifle is best for you it is important to visualize what exactly you want to use it for. Will you be using your new gun for hunting, pest control, target practice or some casual plinking in the backyard? Once you’ve figured out what it is you want from your air rifle you can begin to explore the different options available to you.

The Differences Between Break-Barrel and Underlever Air Rifles

The main difference between a break-barrel and an underlever rifle is the cocking mechanism. A break-barrel rifle splits at the barrel for loading and cocking whereas an underlever has a separate arm underneath the barrel for cocking and a separate mechanism for loading. Both styles have their benefits and their flaws, this section will outline both and give you an idea of what to expect from each.

Break-barrel air rifles, as the name suggests, break at the barrel. The break is where the pellet is loaded and the action of pulling the barrel down cocks the gun and charges it ready for firing. Break-barrel rifles are powered by either a spring (springer) or a gas-filled piston (gas-ram) and the break-barrel action is what pressurizes either of these systems in order to fire the pellet.

Break-barrels can suffer barrel droop from the constant levering of the barrel to cock and load the gun. Most break barrels are sturdy enough to cope with this, however over the long term, the barrel can slightly warp and affect the power and preciseness of the gun.

An underlever air rifle usually has a bolt action loading mechanism where the pellet can be loaded into a fixed barrel. The underlever sits directly underneath the barrel and is pumped once to charge either a spring mechanism or a gas-piston, this cocks the gun in order to fire the pellet. Underlevers don’t suffer from barrel droop like their break-barrel counterparts because the barrel is of a fixed nature.

What Does the Caliber of an Air Rifle Mean?

The caliber of your gun is essentially the width of its barrel’s bore, this size effects what caliber pellet they can fire. Pellets for air rifles come in a range of calibers, from as little as .177 all the way up to .50 (big bore). Although you can find air rifles in many different calibers, the two most common are .177 and .22. You will find most commercially built rifles in these two sizes and most people don’t venture too far from these.

What does .177 and .22 mean? Well, as mentioned previously, the caliber defines the size of an air rifles bore and the size of the pellet it fires. .177 or .22 for example, is the measurement used to specify the bore and pellet size of a gun, this measurement is in inches. So, .177 caliber is 0.177 inches (4.5mm) and .22 is 0.22 inches (5.6mm) and so on.

When you are selecting your first beginner air rifle it is important to consider its caliber. The caliber or “gauge” of your air rifle will affect its performance and the uses it best suits. Smaller caliber pellets generally travel at higher velocities and keep a straight trajectory however they tend to be more affected by variable factors such as wind speed. Larger pellets are heavier and are less prone to variable factors however they take more muzzle energy to reach the same velocity and over distance, the trajectory can form an arc.

The 5 Air Rifle Categories (Your Options When Choosing Your First Air Rifle)

Pre-charged Pneumatic Air Rifles (PCP)

The pre-charged pneumatic air rifle (or PCP for short) is a more modern form of air weapon that has grown in popularity in recent years. PCP guns offer the user great accuracy, power, and multiple shots without re-cocking the weapon. They give the user an article that is very capable and ideal for hunting and long-range use.

They get their power from a pre-charged tank that is capable of storing air at high pressure. A small amount of this compressed air is released when the trigger is pulled to send a pellet down the barrel of the gun at great speed. The charging style and function of a PCP rifle make it very reliable and consistent shot to shot when accuracy and power is concerned.

The tank on a pre-charged pneumatic rifle needs to be filled with air before its use, however, once it is filled you can expect at least 20 shots from the tank. There are a few different ways to fill the tank of a PCP rifle with the most popular fill-style being a scuba tank. Scuba tanks can be heavy and bulky so they can be a hassle to carry in the field when out hunting with your rifle. Luckily though most PCP’s (as long as there is some air still in the tank) can be topped up using a high-pressure hand pump.

Spring-powered air rifles

The spring-powered air rifle (or springer) is a classic air rifle and one that new marksmen have started with for years, due to its simplicity and ease of use. Its simple design and mechanics make it a very attractive, hard-wearing air rifle that you can expect to last for years with minimal maintenance. There’s no need to carry a scuba tank or pump to pre-charge these rifles as the spring system is primed for firing by either cocking an underlever or break-barrel.

Springers come in either underlever or break-barrel styles and the mechanism is cocked to compress the spring – creating energy for propulsion. Once the gun is fully cocked and loaded, the trigger is pulled to release the spring and force the pellet down the barrel. The function of this mechanism provides a powerful shot, however, the nature of the spring gives the rifle more recoil than some other air rifle types.

The simplicity of a spring-powered rifle makes it attractive to many and the fact that all you need is your gun and some pellets to go out shooting is enough for some people to favor the springer over other air rifle types. These guns are very cheap to acquire compared to most other air rifle types and they don’t require extra expenses such as an air tank or Co2 cartridges to fire.

Gas-Ram Air Rifles

Gas-ram air rifles function in a similar way to spring-powered rifles however in place of the spring sits a gas-filled piston that is pressurized by a cocking action – either break-barrel or underlever. The nature of the gas-ram gun provides great simplicity without the drawbacks of the springer’s recoil. Much the same as the springer, all you need to head out shooting is a box of pellets and your trusty rifle.

The gas-ram air rifle offers the user great simplicity and reliability for a good budget, making this air rifle type accessible to most beginners. It’s another rifle that requires little maintenance and if looked after can last for years without losing any power. Some gas-ram rifles even offer the user the ability to increase or decrease the pressure in the piston to allow altered power and velocities.

Multi-Pump Air Rifles

The multi-pump air rifle offers the user an article that has fully adjustable power output. Multi-pump (or variable pump) rifles are pneumatic, meaning they have an air tank that is charged in order to propel a pellet. Unlike a PCP air rifle, these guns don’t need charging from a separate source as the pump is featured as part of the gun’s design. They only offer the user a single shot from one fill of the tank, so these rifles must be pumped multiple times between shots.

How many times you pump this rifle will affect how much pressure is built up in the tank. The number of pumps needed to power up the gun will depend on the make and model, however, as a general rule 3 – 4 pumps will give you light power for backyard use and 8+ pumps will power the rifle to its max energy.

Just like the spring-powered and gas-ram air rifles these guns are attractive because you can get shooting with a simple pack of pellets and your gun. The pump is built into the gun, so no extra tanks are needed for filling and the variable power makes this an extremely durable rifle whether shooting in the backyard or hunting in the field.

Co2 Air Rifles

Co2 powered air rifles require the use of Co2 cartridges to power the gun. A pressurized cartridge is inserted and upon each pull of the trigger, a small amount of the compressed gas is released, forcing a pellet down the barrel of the gun. Some Co2 powered rifles have an incorporated magazine so the user can fire multiple shots without reloading and each cartridge has enough gas to fire many times. Other types of Co2 air rifles have a bolt action, therefore, they are restricted to one shot per reload however the cartridge still offers a charge-free reload.

Unlike the springer, gas-ram and multi-pump rifles, Co2 powered rifles require an external source to power the gun. This means you will have to carry multiple Co2 cartridges along with your pellets to use your gun. Most cartridges are only 12g and aren’t too heavy or bulky to carry with you when out in the field. Some Co2 air rifles require larger 88g capsules, although these are slightly bulkier and weigh more, they do offer a greater shot count per cartridge so less of these are needed when out in the field.

The Benefits of Each Air Rifle type

Each of the air rifle types have their pros and their cons. In this section, we will describe what each rifle performs well at and some drawbacks related to each. This should help guide you if you’re looking at purchasing your first beginner rifle.

Pre-charged Pneumatic Air Rifles (PCP)

The Pre-charged pneumatic rifle has its advantages and disadvantages. First, we will start with the good points and why PCP rifles are attractive to so many marksmen firing air rifles today.

The PCP rifle offers the user a great opportunity to shoot a high-powered rifle without having to pump or cock the gun upon each reload. Along with fantastic power, the PCP offers precise and consistent accuracy due to the minimal recoil produced during pressure release for firing. These rifles are ideal for anyone that wants a high-powered article with great accuracy and preciseness for long-distance shooting.

The PCP air rifle is also ideal for hunting because you have an excellent powerhouse under your arm that has a precise shot with minimal recoil. The consistent, powerful shot that can be produced from PCP rifles provides quick kills from distance and in big bore calibers such as .50 this type of air rifle can even be used to take down small boar and deer.

So now for the drawbacks relating to this style of air rifle. The nature of the pre-charged pneumatic makes it inconvenient for roaming long distances in the field when you need to take multiple shots. The fact that you either need to carry an air tank or high-pressure hand pump with you to recharge your rifle can be a big disadvantage to this type.

If you are looking for a rifle that you can grab in a rush with a handful of pellets to get out shooting as quickly as possible then perhaps the PCP isn’t the gun for you. Its charging style offers great power and accuracy but is not without its drawback. More high maintenance than other rifle types, the PCP can be problematic to the inexperienced user and charging the rifle before each shooting session can put some people off.

If you can get over the drawbacks of the PCP and deal with having an air tank or pump on hand when you need to refill the tank, then this rifle will provide you with all the power and accuracy you could ever need. Perhaps not the best place to start for a beginner though, with its high power, maintenance, and more complex charging system.

Spring-powered air rifles

The spring-powered air rifle is a great place to start for the beginner, its simplicity and durability has been loved by many for years. This simple, easy-maintenance rifle is extremely popular for many reasons however it isn’t without its drawbacks. First, we will start with the good points.

The springer offers the user a powerful break-barrel or underlever that is durable, cheap, and easy to use. This rifle is a great place to start as a beginner and can be used to build up your skills when shooting, it’s easy to load and cock but shooting takes some level of skill to produce accurate shots. The amount of skill needed to produce consistently accurate shots with this rifle can both be considered a pro and a con. For the beginner however, it provides an excellent learning curve and a brilliant way to get into the world of shooting.

What most people enjoy about the springer is its simplicity. The mechanics of this gun are so robust and easily maintained, a little clean and a bit of lubrication every now and then is all you need to ensure this rifle lasts year after year. A good quality, high-performance spring-powered rifle can be picked up relatively cheaply too – a great point to consider when beginning. Overall, the springer is a robust, durable article that can be picked up for a very reasonable price.

Now for the bad points. The nature of the spring-powered mechanism inside a springer can cause some issues for the user. Firstly, once the pressure of the coiled spring is released it causes quite a dramatic recoil compared to other air rifle types. This recoil is what makes firing a springer a bit more of a challenge. Once you understand the gun and how it feels to fire, you will overcome this and adjust your shooting style to suit however this can be off-putting for some.

The second disadvantage to consider when thinking about spring-powered rifles also comes down to its firing mechanism. When a spring is coiled for a long period of time it loses some of its energy (spring fatigue) therefor if you leave a springer cocked for too long you will notice a compromise in power. When using a spring-powered rifle, you must be sure to only cock it when absolutely necessary and never store it away cocked to reduce the chances of premature spring fatigue.

Spring fatigue happens over time and even if you only cock your gun when necessary over the years you will notice your rifle lose power as a result of this. Your mainspring will need replacing at different intervals of your rifle’s life depending on how much you shoot it. This is the nature of spring-powered rifles and something you should consider if you have one, just keep an eye on your rifles power outputs and be ready to get the spring changed when you notice a significant power loss.

Other than the drawbacks related to the spring mechanism in these rifles they still offer the user a massively fun, reliable article for use in a range of situations. Even though you may need to replace your mainspring every now and then to keep your rifle performing at its best, it doesn’t cost too much to do so and is quite a common part of springer ownership.

Gas-Ram Air Rifles

Gas-ram air rifles are very similar in function to spring-powered rifles however a gas filled-piston acts in place of the spring. The gas-ram, like the springer, is a great place to start for the beginner as the mechanics are extremely simple and easily maintained.

The gas-ram air rifle has many benefits and very few drawbacks compared to spring-powered rifles, however, both types have their place in the world of air weapons. Gas-ram rifles offer the same single cock action in either break-barrel or underlever movements. The main benefit of a gas-piston over a spring is the lack of recoil when firing. There is less “bounce back” when the gas-filled piston recoils thus creating a shot with less vibration and jump, this makes it easier to produce accurate shots consistently.

The other bonus with gas-ram guns is the lack of spring fatigue. These air rifles don’t fatigue at all and can be left cocked and loaded for long periods of time, making the gas-ram rifle ideal for hunting situations when waiting for quarry to come into sight. This factor along with the lack of recoil produced by the gun is enough for some people to favor gas-ram rifles over springers. These rifles are usually lighter than their spring-powered cousins as well, making them a little more comfortable to hold over long periods.

There are few drawbacks to owning a gas-ram gun as they are so durable and don’t suffer from the same ailments as the springer. They are long-lasting, however, if the gas does leak from the piston then the gun will cease to work completely. If you do have any problems with a gas-ram gun they are also harder to fix and depending on the model you own finding replacement parts can be quite a mission.

Multi-Pump Air Rifles

Multi-pump air rifles are in a world of there own and offer the user a different functionality entirely. The variable-pump charging mechanism offers something the other air rifle types don’t. This difference is the ability to adjust the power output to suit different shooting situations. Multi pumps have their pros and their cons, we will start with the good points.

The biggest benefit of owning a multi-pump air rifle is, of course, the ability to adjust the rifle’s power depending on the number of pumps applied. The multi-pump is a great place for beginners to start because the user can start off pumping the gun 3 or 4 times for low powered shooting and increase the pumps as confidence grows. These rifles are adaptable and are ideal for someone looking for an article to use in the backyard at low power or take into the field at high-power to hunt or shoot targets. This rifle type wins in adaptability.

The main flaw of the multi-pump rifle is the fact you have to pump it many times between each shot. This can put some people off as if you want to shoot at high power over multiple shots you will find your self pumping the gun 8 or more times between each shot. If you don’t mind a bit of an arm workout when you’re out shooting, then this is the ideal air rifle for you and you will reap the benefits that this type brings to the table.

Co2 Air Rifles

Co2 rifles offer multiple shots without cocking the gun each time you reload. There are many benefits and drawbacks to owning one of these guns and shooting Co2 definitely isn’t for everyone. We will start with the benefits.

They offer all the benefits of a pneumatic rifle without the drawbacks of a PCP. The small Co2 cartridges are light and there is no need to carry around a large fill tank or pump to charge these guns. You don’t need to charge a separate tank on the air rifle because the tank fits directly into the gun and acts as a direct power source.

Co2 rifles are highly accurate and consistent on a shot-to-shot basis, much the same as a PCP rifle. They are also extremely easy to cock because during the cocking movement you aren’t actively pressurizing a spring or piston in any way. As well as being consistent and accurate, Co2 air rifles are practically recoilless and don’t jump around in the same way as some other gun types.

Co2 guns aren’t very powerful because they are limited to the pressure of the Co2 inside the canister. Along with this, Co2 can be very volatile and is greatly affected by the weather since the state of the gas changes at different temperatures. It is not possible to use a Co2 gun in any temperatures lower than 15 degrees Celsius, this is a huge pain for winter use and these guns are practically useless to anyone living in colder climates.

If you want a gun that you can take out with just a handful of pellets, then a Co2 gun isn’t the right choice for you. You must carry extra cartridges with you when heading out into the field to shoot this isn’t cost effective and can certainly add up over time. If you are heading into the field with a Co2 air gun don’t expect to take out any game with it either, Co2 guns just aren’t powerful enough to make humane kills. Overall, the Co2 gun is best kept for a bit of fun in the summer, plinking cans or shooting targets in the backyard.

What is the Best Air Rifle Choice for You?

Choosing the ideal beginner rifle is down to your personal preference and what you expect to use the rifle for. If you want something to control a pest problem on your property or hunt game, then your choice will be different from someone that wants an article for some backyard plinking. We believe the best beginner rifle will suit the user’s needs while being safe, easy to use, and relatively low maintenance.

Although a beginner can start with any air rifle type, we recommend that the new marksman should start with one of three types. These are the spring-powered air rifle, the gas-ram air rifle, and the Multi-pump air rifle. These three types offer simplicity, usability, and durability in a form that is easy for the beginner to get accustomed to. We have left out the PCP and the Co2 powered air rifle types as both can be problematic for the new user and the PCP can be a little overpowered. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with one of these guns, but we highly recommend starting with a simpler and cheaper article.

If you’re looking for a great beginner rifle that can serve you well a pest controller, backyard plinker and a target shooter then the multi-pump rifle is the gun for you. Its excellent adaptability and power control allow you to adjust to multiple situations. This is the best all-rounder for the beginner and it offers the user a way to build up power output as skill and confidence grows.

If you’re looking for a classic rifle that requires some skill to master but is simple enough to use and maintain, then the spring-powered air rifle is the gun for you. Great as a target shooter and ideal for most hunting situations the springer brings power, easy maintenance, and simplicity to the table. The springer has more than enough power to take down small to medium game at close to mid-range and provides an accurate enough shot to be enjoyable when shooting targets.

The gas-ram gun is ideal for someone looking for an air rifle that has outstanding accuracy and ease of use. With very little recoil, a beginner can master shooting a gas-ram gun very quickly and be shooting close groups at long range in a matter of weeks. This air rifle type is ideal for someone looking for an easy maintenance gun to use for hunting or target practice. Most gas-ram rifles have plenty of power to take down small to mid-sized quarry humanely and with less recoil than the springer it’s easier to get the kill shot first time.

Choosing Your Ammunition

Choosing the right ammunition for your air rifle is just as important as choosing the right air rifle for your purpose. You can have the best air rifle on the market and still have it shooting poorly if you’re running rough, cheap pellets through it. Not only should you be using the correct caliber for your gun, but you should also find the make and shape of pellet that works best in your gun. This is a game of trial and error and the only way to find a pellet that works for you and your rifle is to buy a range of different types and shoot a few rounds of each to see what’s giving you the best results.

The Caliber of your Pellet

.177 (4.5mm)

.177 caliber pellets are great all-rounders and are the most popular pellet across Europe. The .177 started off as the standard caliber in the United Kingdom and most of Europe, it was only around 50 years ago that it started to become popular in the US when rifles started getting imported from overseas.

The .177 is great at long distances because it has good velocity and carries a straight trajectory. They are ideal for target practice at long range however they can be affected by headwinds and side winds quite easily due to their lack of weight. This caliber will kill pests and small game, however, for slightly larger game and anything at distance they don’t pack enough punch whereas some of the larger calibers do.

.177 pellets are cheaper than larger calibers and you get far more pellets in a tin, around 25% more to be precise. There is also a huge range of different pellet types in this size which gives anyone using a .177 rifle a good choice of ammunition.

.22 (5.6mm)

.22 pellets have been very popular in the US for many years and it was only 40 or 50 years ago that .177 came on the scene and overtook the .22’s usage. This size of pellet has more mass and is commonly used for hunting purposes because its added weight provides better stopping power upon impact. This ammunition weighs almost twice as much as the smaller .177 caliber and requires a rifle with a higher muzzle energy to accommodate for this.

The trajectory of a .22 pellet can be quite arced over longer distances therefore the marksmen must consider this “curved trajectory” when sighting in their rifle. Don’t let trajectory put you off though, this is the most common size for use in the field when hunting and makes the .177 obsolete.

If you want to get into hunting as a beginner then .22 is the way to go. There is a wide range of pellet styles in this caliber and they pack enough of a punch to knock your prey down instantly. This size will give you all you need to start your hunting career and you shouldn’t need to move up any further from this caliber unless you’re keen on taking out big game with an air rifle.

.25 and Above

.25 caliber and above are considered “big bore” calibers. There are limited choices of pellet type in these calibers as they are not as commonly used as .177 and .22. If you’re looking for something this big then you obviously have a keen interest in taking down bigger game. Big bore sizes definitely have their place in the air rifle world however for the beginner they are unnecessary. If you want to get into hunting, then we recommend starting with .22, if you progress and want to hunt bigger game without a powder burning firearm then perhaps start thinking about these larger calibers.

The Different Pellet Types and Their Advantages

So, we have discussed the different calibers but there are many different shapes and styles to choose from within them that affect your shot greatly. Each pellet type functions in different ways and each style is suited to their own separate purposes. Here is an overview of the 5 main pellet types.

Domed Pellets

Domed pellets are the most aerodynamic of the ammunition types and are great for long-distance uses, they hold their speed well and hit hard on impact. They are ideal for long-distance situations because the domed tip is heavier than the tail which allows the pellet to hold power at range. They work well if your rifle is high-powered and will work in mid-range hunting situations, however, they don’t penetrate flesh as well as pointed pellets.

Wadcutter Pellets

Wadcutter pellets are the go-to choice for anyone wanting to shoot targets. They have a wide flat head that cuts large holes in paper targets making it easier to see the exact point of impact. They are great for a bit of casual plinking or target practice and ideal for more serious events as well. They don’t have a particularly aerodynamic shape, so the wadcutter drops faster than other pellet types when shooting at range.

Pointed Pellets

Pointed pellets are designed for hunting situations. The pointed tip and longer skirt allow the projectile to cut through hair and flesh much better than domed pellets. Although not as aerodynamic as the domed pellet they are still better over distance than the wadcutter. Pointed pellets promise a clean kill even at range with a lower-powered rifle, this makes them a must-have in your ammo pouch when out in the field.

Hollowpoint Pellets

Hollowpoint pellets have one main purpose and that is to kill. The hollowpoint pellet is designed to expand on impact to cause maximum damage to your quarry. They are a great pellet to have in your pouch as long as your rifle has enough power. If your air rifle is underpowered the hollowpoint is pointless (excuse the pun) because if the pellet hits with low energy it won’t expand at all. If your rifle is rated at over 1000FPS then hollowpoints are a good option, if it’s lower than this then it is best to stick to pointed pellets.

High-velocity Pellets

High-velocity pellets are built for speed. They are designed to get the maximum velocity from your air rifle and penetrate well over distance. This pellet style is ideal for the user looking to shoot targets long-range but make sure you buy this style from a reputable brand, cheaper high-velocity pellets can tend to tumble in flight giving you awful accuracy.

Air Rifle 101 for Beginners (Part 2)

Air Rifle 101 for Beginners (Part 3)

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