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Hunting with an Air Rifle

PhotoBy James E. House

Scads of hunters turn to primitive weapons like bows, muzzloaders and even spears to add spice to their favorite pastime. Yet few remember the satisfaction that came with dropping small game with their first gun, the one that worried their mothers.

Before most of us shot or owned a centerfire hunting rifle, we gained experience and learned safe gun-handling procedures with an airgun. Most of today’s hunters learned early on from their fathers how to safely shoot a BB gun (and from their mothers, “Don’t shoot your eye out!”). Many graduated to hunting small game with a more powerful pellet gun before turning to rimfire and centerfire rifles.

Isn’t it time to rediscover the challenge and joy of prowling the woods with a modern “primitive” weapon?

Air rifles suitable for small game hunting are inexpensive to buy and shoot. They produce almost no noise and little recoil. They also can be fired safely in places where it would be inappropriate to use a rimfire or centerfire gun. This makes frequent practice possible.

Among the different types of airguns, the multi-pump rifle of moderate cost, weight and power is the best choice for small game hunting. Break-action (also known as spring piston) air rifles tend to be long and heavy. They also are inherently less accurate than pump guns. Since CO2-powered rifles lose velocity at lower temperatures, they’re not always the most effective gun to carry.

Airgun hunters should be particular about the ammo they use. Virtually all airgun pellets have a “diabolo” shape, meaning a pellet with a smaller waist than the head or skirt. The four most popular types of pellets are wadcutter (flat nose), dome (round nose), pointed and hollowpoint.

Not all pellets are created equal. Some have smaller internal cavities, which make them more rigid. Pellets with large internal cavities tend to flatten or rivet on impact, limiting penetration. This is not a problem when the target is a crow or a pigeon, but it is a concern when the target is a squirrel. Bushytails are tough, and it takes a strongly constructed pellet to penetrate their hides and well-toned muscles.

Subscribe Today!Accuracy is the No. 1 consideration when choosing an air rifle to hunt small game. Because an air rifle might produce a muzzle energy of only 8 to 12 foot-pounds, the pellet must be placed precisely in a lethal zone, usually the brain or the upper chest cavity. Your air rifle/pellet combination must be capable of hitting a penny-sized target at the range you expect to encounter squirrels or other small game.

For many rifles, this level of accuracy limits you to shots of 25 yards or less. I have air rifles that consistently group within 3Ú4 inch at 30 yards, but hitting targets of that size requires the use of a scope. To find out how accurate your rifle is with a particular pellet, you need to fire it from a rest.

One pellet that has a reputation for outstanding accuracy and lethality on game is the Crosman Premier. It is probably the most widely used hunting pellet in .177 caliber. The domed pellet is available in two weights: 7.9 and 10.5 grains. Velocities are considerably lower with the heavier version, but it gives outstanding penetration.

In .20 caliber, the Crosman Premier and Sheridan cylindrical pellets both weigh 14.3 grains and have very solid construction. They are excellent choices when penetration is required. In .22 caliber, the Crosman Premier weighs 14.3 grains.

Wadcutter and hollowpoint pellets give less penetration than do pointed or domed ones when fired into the same medium. In one test, I fired the 14.3-grain .22-caliber Crosman wadcutter, domed and pointed pellets at approximately 600 fps into bars of soap. Penetration was 1.97, 2.47 and 2.52 inches for the wadcutter, domed and pointed pellets, respectively.

While the penetration given by any of these pellets might be sufficient for small game, it is clear that pointed and round-nosed pellets provide deeper penetration. I have conducted tests with .177 and .20 calibers with similar results.

But penetration is only one aspect of pellet effectiveness. Penetration comes at the expense of rapid transfer of energy that results in a wider wound channel.

Pellets come in a wide variety of point styles. Test several types in your rifle before you make a selection for hunting.

The holes in soap reveal differences in the effects of different types of pellets. The channel produced by the hollow-pointed Beeman Crow Magnum widens after initial entry due to pellet expansion. Wadcutter pellets give large entrance holes as the soap is forced outward around the advancing flat point. That is what I refer to as “smash.”

There is a tradeoff between penetration and smash delivered by a pellet. My advice is to select a pellet that gives smash if the target is fragile (starlings, crows or pigeons) and one that gives penetration if the game is tough (squirrels). My favorite smash pellets include the Crosman wadcutter, Beeman Crow Magnum, and the Dynamit Nobel Supermag wadcutter.

Pellets that provide good penetration include the Crosman Premier (dome and pointed), Beeman Kodiak (round nose) and Silver Sting (pointed).

Some pellets do not give the greatest penetration or smash but are adequate in both attributes. Two such pellets are the Winchester Hunting pellet marketed by Daisy Outdoor Products and the Dynamit Nobel Superdome (both are round-nosed).

Read More Stories From GunHunter MagazineAir rifles of the past were not as effective on game as they are today because the ammo was inferior. Modern pellets are much more uniform and give better accuracy. With the dozens of types of pellets available, hunting with air rifles is entering a whole new era.  

James E. House is an avid airgun shooter and the author of “American Air Rifles,” a 208-page book available from Krause Publications.

-- Reprinted from the premier issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine in 2003

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