Top Tips for Airgun Hunting and Why It’s So Effective
If you are a hunter, there is a pretty good chance you grew up shooting some kind of BB gun or pellet gun behind the house before you took up more serious firearms. Maybe you simply used it for target practice, taking aim at an unfathomable number of soda cans and paper targets. But maybe you also hunted with it. Airguns have come a long way since then, and yet many people still overlook the value and efficiency of airgun hunting. The fact is that they can be very lethal when matched to the right purpose and hunting scenario. More states are making hunting with airguns legal for different species and there are new big bore airguns coming on the market all the time. In fact, there’s even a fair amount of airgun hunter recruitment coming in from those who bow hunt – that makes sense considering both options are quiet, require your target to be very close, and require a lot of skill and patience to accurately put the shot where it needs to be. If you’ve been dabbling with the idea of hunting with an air gun, here are some things to think about first.
Advantages of Airguns vs. Traditional Firearms
While there may be certain disadvantages with airgun hunting – such as shorter shot distances or having to re-pressurize after each shot – there are a few major advantages over traditional rimfire or centerfire rifles too that many people don’t think about.
- First, airguns are much quieter than their gunpowder-powered counterparts. The sudden release of pressurized air still makes sound, make no mistake about it. Each brand, model, and caliber produces different sound levels. But it is generally a loud pop or “pssst” sound instead of a crack or bang often heard from a traditional rifle. Many game animals will stand in place after hearing a shot from an airgun as they try to figure out the source of the sound. This helps when trying to remove nuisance animals from your property.
- Because they are quieter, you can also use some lower caliber airguns in many backyard settings without upsetting neighbors. This allows you to get some extra practice in throughout the week by popping a few shots off each night and not having to go to a shooting range.
- Since there’s no powder being burned in airgun hunting, you don’t have to worry about all the chemical residue building up inside your gun, which makes cleaning a breeze.
Choosing an Airgun Caliber for Your Targeted Species
Once you’re convinced you’d like to try airgun hunting, you will need to decide on a specific gun and caliber. There are many more models available today than there used to be, including a wide range of calibers that are suitable for hunting many kinds of animals. From the smallest of varmint animals to some of the biggest mammals in North America, there is an airgun capable of quickly and ethically harvesting them. The best airgun caliber for hunting depends on the species being hunted and your own preferences. Check out the video and sections below for more information.
Small Bore Airguns
When we say small bore, we mean the smaller caliber guns that are useful for plinking or hunting small game animals. For example, you’re no doubt familiar with the .177 or .22 calibers when it comes to airgun hunting. But there’s also a .20 and .25 caliber airgun, which pretty much tops the small bore category.
Best Airgun Calibers for Small Game Hunting
Small game animals can vary widely by region, depending on what animals live there. But when it comes to airgun hunting, it generally includes rats, squirrels, rabbits, or birds. Just like traditional firearms, small bore airguns are more than capable of killing these animals provided you have enough practice and experience under your belt. For example, a .177 or .22 caliber air gun is plenty strong enough to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and many birds (e.g., grouse, crows, etc.). With proper shot placement on the head or vital chest area, you should have no problem hunting small game animals with an air gun. In fact, hunting rabbits with an air gun are easily accomplished with either, and you could push it to woodchuck-sized animals without much trouble. The biggest trick with small game air rifle hunting is getting close enough to make the shot. In a backyard setting, it’s usually easy to get within 20 yards of a rabbit or squirrel, but sneaking that close in a wild setting makes it much more likely the animal will bolt before you get the opportunity. Taking shots beyond 20-30 yards gets more difficult and will depend largely on how accurate your pellets are
Big Bore Airguns
Big bore airguns are obviously on the other end of the spectrum and can be used to hunt larger animals. Most people define the big bore calibers starting at the .30 caliber range, and then move on up the chain from there. For example, .308, .357, .45, and .50 caliber airguns are all available for hunting larger animals.
Best Airgun Calibers for Big Game Hunting
This is where most people get thrown off with air rifle hunting because nobody really expects you to be able to hunt a large animal (e.g., feral hogs, deer, bears, bison, etc.) with an airgun. But we’re not talking about using that same .22 caliber air rifle from above on a deer. We might be talking about a .50 caliber air rifle, which is more than enough to take down some really impressive animals, such as a bison! That sounds pretty exotic and intense, but hunters also routinely use an airgun for hunting deer or feral hogs if that sounds more attainable. With these higher powered calibers, there’s no hand pumping of the airgun. Instead, precharged pneumatic (PCP) rifles need to be pressurized with an air compressor before the hunt, and you might get a few shots from them before you need to recharge them. Depending on what big game animal you want to hunt and your own personal preferences, the caliber might change a bit. Each state may have different laws and regulations that dictate which caliber you can use as a minimum on big game species. Overall, the .45 family of airgun ammunition is commonly used on many big game species. But the .50 caliber can be deadly even up to American bison!
Predator Hunting Airgun Calibers
In between the small bore and big bore options, there’s a little variability depending on who you talk to. Some experts believe the .25 and .30 caliber options are a good mid-range option that can be used on predators or for varmint hunting. For example, the .357 is a popular choice for predator (e.g., coyote, bobcat, etc.) or varmint (e.g., woodchuck, raccoons, prairie dogs, etc.) hunts.
Best Airgun Ammo for Hunting
Probably just as important as the caliber discussion, your choice of ammunition for an airgun is critical to making the best, most lethal shot possible. There are a couple of different types of projectile types available on the market today. Each one has its own specific best use and may not be suitable for all or any airgun hunting.
Shapes of Airgun Pellets/Ammo
For the basic small bore airguns (e.g., .177, .20, .22, and .25 caliber), you will find roughly four types or shapes of airgun ammunition. The best pellet for small game hunting is the domed/round nose pellet, which is accurate out of most airguns. But each airgun tends to shoot more or less accurate depending on the type and brand of pellets, so take time to shoot a variety and find the best option.
- Domed/round nose
- Flat pellets/wadcutters
- Hollow points
In addition to these ammunition shapes, there is big bore airgun ammunition as well. Hollow points tend to not be necessary given the ballistics of higher calibers, but they do also cut cleaner wound channels. Heavier ammunition is generally only used by precharged pneumatic airguns. Round ball ammunition will get better penetration on larger animals, but they tend to be less accurate than cast bullets because they don’t fly as efficiently.
- Round ball
- Cast bullet
- Hollow points
Small Game Ammunition
Ammunition used for small game airgun hunting is almost universally a pellet with one of the four shapes mentioned above (i.e., domed/round nose, pointed, flat pellets/wadcutters, and hollow points). These airgun pellets tend to fly very fast and very accurately, which also allows them to shoot flat trajectories. However, they slow down faster as the distance increases. Because they slow down faster, they are less likely to do damage if they miss their mark, which makes them great for use in suburban areas.
Big Game Ammunition
On the other hand, big game animals require a different approach. Round balls or cast bullets are better options for larger animals. Round balls and cast bullets both keep their velocity better than pellets, which makes them a better choice for big game hunts.
Best Airguns for Hunting
Everyone has their own personal preferences when it comes to any firearm, including airguns. But there are a few choices that we have tested and that you should love too.
- Umarex Hammer .50 caliber – this PCP is probably the best airgun for big game hunting. It is heavy-duty enough to hunt bears and bison when shooting up to 550-grain slug bullets, yet not too much to handle deer, hogs, or other similar big game species.
- AirForce Texan .457 caliber – this powerful air rifle is capable of producing over 500 foot-pounds of energy to take down some big game animals easily using cast bullets.
- Ataman M2R Tact Carbine Type 4 .357 caliber – this PCP can produce 144-foot-pounds of energy in a 7 shot magazine and can be fired 11 times without losing that energy. Firing 80-grain domed pellets, it would be deadly on predators and larger varmint animals.
- Ataman M2R Tact Carbine Type 4 Compact.30 caliber – similarly, this PCP has an 8 shot magazine and can fire 50-grain domed pellets at about 96-foot-pounds of energy. The shrouded barrel makes it quiet to shoot and great for small game species.
- AirForce International 94 Spring .22 caliber – this break barrel air rifle is super accurate and consistently shoots 18-grain domed pellets about 700 feet per second. It’s great for small game species like squirrels or rabbits.
- Umarex Hammer .50 caliber – As soon as this PCP is released, it will be a great gun for big game hunting. We have had the opportunity to hunt with is for the past 2 years while it is being perfected and it has delivered results. It is heavy-duty enough to hunt bears and bison when shooting up to 550-grain slug bullets, yet not too much to handle deer, hogs, or other similar big game species.
- AirForce Texan .457 caliber – this is the most powerful air rifle in production right now. It is capable of producing over 500 foot-pounds of energy to take down some big game animals easily using cast bullets.
- Seneca Recluse 500cc Ultimate Hunters Combo – .357 caliber PCP- This is a great hunting rifle that can shoot Slugs or .357 Airbolts. It has plenty of power to take down medium-sized game with the slug and when you combine it with the airbolt…you are ready to go after anything up to White Tail deer.
- FX Impact X MKII, Silver PCP Air Rifle – 30 caliber PCP – The FX Impact is the perfect compact airgun to take hunting. You can shoot multiple pellet grains, but you can also upgrade to a Slug Barrel and turn this gun into a lethal hunting machine. With the slug barrel and the right grain slug, you could go after any medium game and some smaller sized large game.
- Air Arms S510 XS Ultimate Sporter Xtra FAC, Walnut – 25 caliber PCP – The Air Arms S510 out of the UK is the perfect hunting rifle for small to medium-sized game. It’s regulated and gives you a high number of consistent shots and also deadly accurate. It also comes in a TDR (Take Down Rifle) version that allows you to take is apart quick and throw it in your backpack.
- AirForce International 94 Spring .25 caliber – this break barrel air rifle is super accurate and consistently shoots 18-grain domed pellets about 700 feet per second. It’s great for small game species like squirrels or rabbits. You can also buy different barrels for it in .22 and .177.
- When it comes to .22 Caliber airguns the selection gets a LOT bigger. It is by far the most popular caliber and just about every gun mentioned above come in a .22 cal version. You can spend over $2000 on a RAW HM1000x LRT Air Rifle or for a great entry-level regulated PCP, a Umarex Gauntlet PCP Air Rifle for $300 bucks and everything in between. There are long barrels and short barrels, standard rifle and bullpups and now semi-Bullpups. There’s Bolt-Action, Sidelever, and Semiautomatics and you can get them in a single load, multi-shot and even up to a 28 round side shot mag on the FX Impact Side-Shot Magazine Upgrade Kit .22. Not to mention a whole slew of Break Barrels, Sidelever, Underlevers, and even a few with 10 shot Magazines. so with all that said…here are a few of my other favorites.
- SIG Sauer ASP20 Gas-Piston Breakbarrel Air Rifle, Beech
- Air Arms Galahad Rifle, REG FAC Walnut Stock
- FX Dreamline, DreamLite, w/ Moderator
- AirForce Talon SS PCP Air Rifle, Spin-Loc, Red
- Air Arms S510 XS TDR Regulated, Walnut, Air Rifle
- Seneca Aspen PCP Air Rifle, Multi-Pump PCP
- Walther LGU Varmint Air Rifle
- Gamo Swarm Maxxim Multi-shot Air Rifle
Airgun Hunting Gear
Of course, with any kind of hunting, you will need specific gear to go along with your new airgun hunting obsession. Here are some things to keep in mind before you start buying anything, and a few things to remember afterward too.
8 Things You’ll Need Before Airgun Hunting
Below is a list of the basic gear you will need to go hunting with an airgun, particularly if you are using a big bore gun for larger animals.
- Multi-shot airgun to allow for follow-up shots at game animals.
- The power source (for air compressors) or removable air source for a high shot count when shooting a PCP airgun.
- Pouch or carrying case for transporting pellets or bullets in the field.
- Sighting devices (e.g., laser rangefinder and/or scope).
- Manometer (i.e., air pressure gauge) to monitor the amount of air that is in your PCP gun.
- Accessory rails or mounts to add lights for night hunting (generally only for predator, varmint, or hog hunting).
- Swivel studs and a sling or carrying the gun in a scabbard are both good options to carry your airgun in the field.
- A shrouded barrel or suppressor to silence the sound will help you while hunting.
Because airgun hunting requires you to be so precise and accurate, using a scope is almost a necessity in many cases. As your prey animals gets smaller, more dangerous, or further away, you need to make absolutely sure you can put the bullet or pellet where it needs to be. You get what you pay for with scopes. Larger scopes with bigger objective lenses and better quality coatings will perform much better than cheaper options. Illuminated reticles provide some nice contrast for low light situations. Variable power scopes provide some leeway if you want to adjust in the field, but many people tend to use higher magnifications than they need.
Rossi’s Recommended Airgun Scopes
Leveling and Sighting in an Airgun Scope
When you get a new scoped airgun and want to learn to shoot it accurately, some people get intimidated. When first mounting the airgun (or rifle), you want to make sure that the reticle (crosshairs) look level to you. It’s different for everyone.
As you sight in your airgun, pick a reasonable range (e.g., 30 yards) that you will do a lot of your shooting and hunting at. For variable power scopes, turn it all the way up to maximum magnification. Take a shot and see where you hit the target. Then adjust the windage and elevation turrets on your scope until you start to shoot the bullseye. Afterward, you can dial the magnification down again to what you think is reasonable, and it should keep its zero.
Critical Airgun Hunting Tips And Useful Knowledge
When it comes to how to hunt with airguns, you need to understand a few important things that usually aren’t quite intuitive.
Most new airgunners don’t know what airgun energy is or how it helps. The energy of an airgun is measured in foot-pounds, which is the energy needed to move one pound one foot of distance. What that means for the average airgun hunter is that heavier and faster projectiles do more damage than lighter and slower projectiles. Having higher overall energy (foot pounds) means you can take larger animals or put them down faster. A big bore gun will deliver much more power/foot pounds than small bore guns, even if they are capable of shooting at similar velocities (feet per second). There are calculators to help you determine that energy.
Airgun Hunting Shot Placement
As mentioned earlier, airgun hunters need to deliver their shots exactly where they intend to. This is because airguns don’t offer the same foot pounds/energy (and therefore trauma) that firearms are capable of doing. Therefore, the pellet or bullet needs to hit the vital organs every time with enough energy to kill them quickly. For small game animals or predators/varmint animals, headshots are good options because they offer about the same size target as a body cavity shot, but they are extremely deadly and will generally drop an animal in its tracks. This is important when hunting in suburban areas or places where you don’t want the animal to run a long distance before dying. For big game animals, a broadside heart and lung shot is the ultimate goal because it should avoid hitting the significant bone structure and will quickly kill an animal.
Airgunners keep pushing the capabilities of airguns as they practice long range shooting. Depending on the gun you use, long-range might mean very different things – but anything past 75-100 yards is generally a good distance. You will need to consider the overall velocities of your airgun and how your ammunition maintains its energy. But a .308 is a good caliber choice for long distance target shooting.
If you haven’t thought seriously about going airgun hunting before, hopefully, this has changed your mind. Modern air rifles are very sophisticated and powerful when used correctly. And they’re a lot of fun to shoot too!