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Small Game Hunting with Airguns

By Randy Mitchell

Written Exlusively For Airgun Depot

“Hunting? With air guns? You’re kidding me!”

That is the comment I hear on a rather frequent basis when I am chatting with a fellow hunter, or sharing my hobbies with another interested party. With the ready access to firearms that we in America enjoy, air rifles, pellet guns, and other air guns are often over-looked as a viable way to pursue the great sport of hunting, or as an alternative method of pest control versus the use of poison and traps.

Over the last few years, I have more or less dived headlong into the use of airguns as a means of hunting. As a matter of fact, I haven’t used a firearm for any kind of hunting except shooting birds on the wing for over 4 years. I have found that air guns have met my needs for all the hunting I do very admirably, up to and including the hunting of big game such as whitetail deer. However, that is a story for another day. For now, let’s focus on the issues surrounding the use of air guns on small game.

I’m an avid squirrel hunter, and have been since my youth. Many a youngster has found out, either by mistake or on purpose, that a pump-up BB gun or pellet gun is quite capable of taking small game such as squirrel and rabbits. But how many people do you know who use an air gun on purpose, setting out with the intent of harvesting their game with a device powered by some form of compressed air or gas? Let’s address some of the issues surrounding hunting small game with an airgun….caliber, sights, technique, and care of your weapon of choice.

Which Caliber Is Best For Hunting and How Much Power Do I Need?

There are basically 4 different calibers for air guns that are commonly found and that have ready ammunition available. They are .177, .20, .22, and .25 caliber. The .177 and .22 are by far the most commonly chambered for air guns, so we’ll just arbitrarily make a comparison of those two for now and save the .20 and .25 caliber for another day.

Is the .177 caliber pellet adequate for squirrel hunting? It certainly looks very tiny, and I suppose it is a fair question as to whether or not it is a viable hunting caliber in air guns. Now there is a school of thought in the air gun world that uses this rule of thumb: “.177 for feathers, .22 for fur.” In other words, if you are shooting birds, a .177 is sufficient. If you are hunting non-avian game, then consider a .22 caliber. In my experience, it really comes down to the issue of pellet placement on the target. I have had good luck using both calibers in squirrel hunting, and the caliber issue is less of a concern to me than the issue of what particular air gun do I want to carry around with me today.

In terms of power, Dr. Robert Beeman has a handy little graph that gives one an idea of what level of power is needed for dispatching the game you are hunting. According to Dr. Beeman, 3 fpe is all that is needed to dispatch a squirrel, provided you have placed the pellet in the kill zone. With a pellet weighing roughly 8 grains, that translates to about 415 feet per second at the point of impact. In a .22 caliber airgun, an average weight pellet only has to be going about 300 fps to achieve the same level of energy needed to accomplish the deed. You can look at the graph I am quoting from at the following url:

http://www.beemans.net/field%20use.htm

Now, using Dr. Beeman’s graph as a starting place for what kind of power is the minimum needed, one must also take into consideration the ability of the shooter. If you can’t hit the target, what caliber you use is of little consequence. My personal rule, especially with game animals, is that I need to be able to hit the kill zone, whatever the size, 80% of the time. So if you are hunting squirrels, you need to be able to hit a 1” circle 8 out of 10 shots. A 1” circle is the approximate size of a squirrel’s kill zone on either the head or the heart/lung area. That requirement often brings the range at which I will shoot downwards quite a bit. Depending on the gun, I feel comfortable shooting at ranges of up to 50 yards, sometimes a little more. However, most of my shots are in the 15 to 35 yard range. Air guns will kill at greater ranges, but it is my marksmanship that holds me to those lesser ranges out of respect for my intended prey. I’d rather miss than wound.

Do I Need A Scope?

Because the kill zone on a squirrel is so tiny, I almost always opt for a scope on my air guns. I do use some classic air guns of yester-year that have peep sights, but with my eyes, a scope is a great aid in hunting. Not only does it increase my accuracy, but it is an aid for locating the squirrel that is doing its best to become part of the tree, holding still and motionless, depending on its camouflage to protect it from my prying eyes. There are many airgun scopes to choose from, but I find a 3-9x variable scope with an adjustable objective (AO) to be adequate for most hunting situations. The AO is very helpful in bringing into focus the target and the crosshairs so that one or the other isn’t blurry. And the zoom feature aids me in being very precise with pellet placement on shots that are on the outer edge of my effective range. One other very useful feature to a variable power scope is that if my squirrel hunting gun is doing double-duty as a pest control gun, I need to be very sure of my target. For instance, if there are several small sparrows mixed in a group, I want to be sure that I only dispatch the English sparrow, and leave the indigenous song sparrows alone. One is a pest, the other a very desirable singing bird. Yet they look very much alike. A good scope is an excellent aid in identifying the correct target.

One other consideration when using a scope…..be sure it is rated for the type power-plant your air gun uses. If your air gun is a spring-piston type of air gun, the vibrations from such a power-plant can and have sent many a scope to the graveyard. Air gun rated scopes are cushioned differently than most firearm scopes in order to handle the vibration that occurs when a spring-piston air gun fires. Other types of power-plants such as CO2, pre-charge pneumatics (PCP), or pump-up pneumatic guns need not worry about that issue. They will accept firearm scopes quite handily, though you may need to have the parallax adjusted since you won’t be taking very many 100+ yard shots.

Which Pellets Should I Use?

Practice with your air gun until you have achieved the necessary marksmanship needed to pursue your game. Try a variety of pellets and choose the most accurate for your needs. I personally find domed pellets to be the most accurate in most of my airguns, and if over-penetration is an issue, some of the wadcutter type pellets used in competition matches will reduce the penetration to a degree. This is very handy in the event you are clearing out a barn of pest birds and don’t want to damage the roof after shooting a pest bird.

So, are you ready to go squirrel hunting? Let’s go! We’ve got our air gun of choice, the pellet that shoots the most accurately from that gun, a good quality airgun scope if desired, and we know the range at which we should and should not shoot. As we head off into the woods, we take advantage of natural paths such as dry creek beds, logging lanes, game trails….any means by which we can move quietly through the woods. We’ve located food sources for our squirrels, such as the edge of the woods that borders a cornfield, or perhaps a soybean field. Maybe we are hunting the hardwoods where there is a good mast crop of acorns and beechnuts.  If we’ve done some scouting, we may already have noticed where the squirrel’s nests, called dreys, are located. If we arrive early, we can catch them coming out of them. If it is the evening, perhaps we’ll find them heading back to the nest. Using every bit of advantage we can, we sometimes sit and wait for movement in the trees or along the ground. Quite often we will hear the squirrel before we actually see him as he bounces along the ground over the dry leaves.

The conditions under which we can hunt squirrels may range from early in the season when there is a heavy cover of leaves still on the trees, to late winter when the trees are bare and the wind blows cold. In early season, we watch for the leaves and branches of the trees to sway abnormally as the squirrel makes his way through the canopy. We use the canopy against the squirrel by stalking closer, closing the range since he can’t see us as readily as when there are no leaves on the trees. If we are hunting in late fall, we place obstacles between us and our target, using whatever we can to carefully move into range….or we wait and see if the squirrel will come to us. Only time spent in the woods and experience will help us decide which tactic we use at any given time.

After we have finished our hunt, don’t forget to wipe down your air gun with a product designed to protect the metal from rust. There are several products on the market that achieve this, and I do my best to remove my fingerprints and moisture from the finish of the gun. The oils in your skin and moisture and humidity will quickly ruin the finish on metal. As for the barrel, I don’t clean the barrel after every hunt or firing session. Air guns don’t suffer from powder build-up like firearms, and unless accuracy begins to suffer, a patch run through every so often is sufficient. In the event you do clean your barrel thoroughly, avoid harsh firearm solvents. They are designed to removed powder buildup, and they will quickly deteriorate your seals and o-rings that are necessary to an air gun’s proper functioning. A product such as Goo-gone or another citrus-based cleaner is more than enough cleaning power for an air gun barrel.

In subsequent articles, I’ll try and cover more tactics and share stories of squirrel hunts that describe how you achieve the purpose for which you are in the woods. There are several scenarios that can change depending on how many hunters you have, what time of year it happens to be, and whether or not you are using a dog for treeing purposes. In any event, I encourage you to consider the pursuit of small game with an air gun. It is a rewarding experience that can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment.


Randy Mitchell

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Comments

Hi,
I'm new here and I know I want a very powerful .25 caliber air gun for larger varmits.
A springer-piston is preferable.
I've been doing some research and would like to know what y'all think as to what make and model gun and pointed heavy pellet would be best.
If you could respond to my email that would be cool.
kacoopr@iap.com
Thank you
kevin

Kevin,
I tried to contact your e-mail address, but got an error for some reason. So I'll answer here.

The most powerful springer in .25 that I am aware of is the Patriot/Kodiak. Beeman imports the gun as the Kodiak.

Depending on what size varmint you are talking about, this gun should do the job. I wouldn't shoot coyotes with it unless they were VERY close and presented a shot to the head.....but for everything else, you should be good to go.

If you are talking about coyote-sized animals, then you need to consider a PCP such as the Korean guns from Sumatra and the Careers. They will improve the power over a springer three-fold.

As far as pellet selection, I always go for the most accurate, regardless of design. Airgunning pests is a matter of shot placement.

Hi,
Could you please recommend some 0.177 unerlever or sidelever airguns? Thank you!

Here are some ideas for .177 caliber airguns that feature the sidelever and underlever cocking feature:

RWS Diana 48, 52 and 54, the
Gamo Stutzen and CFX models, and the Beeman HW77 and HW97. These guns run the gamut from low-priced to higher-priced guns.

There are also a couple of Chinese imports that feature an underlever cocking mechanism as well.

If money is no option, then the Beeman/HW guns would be the overall best in quality.

How accurate should my rws model 52 17 caliber be at 40 yds?Also,how often should I oil the spring and where do I oil it?

Hi Tom,
Once you achieve the proper hold to maximize accuracy, the RWS 52 should give you sub 1" patterns from a soft rest. Shooting freehand, expect that pattern to open up due to human error.

If your gun is new, put a few tins of pellets through it to break it in good before worrying too much about accuracy.

As far as care of your airgun, here is a link to an excellent article on spring-piston airgun maintenance. It is a reprint from a Beeman owner's manual, but the principles apply to spring-piston airguns in general.

http://members.fortunecity.com/airgunclub/infocare.html#beeman

Take special heed to the advice on petroleum byproducts in your airgun, and the possible detrimental results of over-oiling the gun. Less is more in piston airguns.

i want a pellet gun for squirrel hunting, and pest control, and like the things i see, and hear about the crosman storm xt. what do you think?

Hey i was wondering, if a gamo nitro would do the trick for rabbits, squirrels, and other smalle game? i currently have a powerline 880, and am tired of pumping and pumping, and want just one simple cock and shot. Also do you have any other reccomendations for under $200? Thaks in advance.

Awesome Post. My compliments to the author.

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I recently bought a gamo hunter 440 and was wondering what scope you would reccomend for hunting with it. it seems to perform well on crows and eagles, do you think it would be powerful enough to take out a rabbit with a well placed shot?

I really enjoy hunting small game with my Pellet rifle. It gives you a little bit of a challenge, and you can hunt those rodents like squirells and other small game. In my situation I live in the city limits, and you just cant go and shoot rodents with a shotgun or 22 like i would want to do. I found that hunting with a pellet rifle is a lot of fun. And say if you come across a tree with about 9 or 10 squirells in it you can shoot them and the want scatter like when using a shotgun. the best air rifle to use for small game hunting is an accurate air rifle with at least a gun that shoots 700fps + I use my Benjamin model 397pa, in .177 it shoots 800FPS, or my Evanix Renegade carbine it is a .22caliber air rifle and it shoots a whopping 1300 FPS and its a 6 shot repeater its single and Double action. It is very accurate and has knockdown power. Great for rabbits, squirells, crows, ect-.
Well thats it for know i will keep reading your wonderful web site and keep shooting. Be safe and considerate and keep shooting safe.
Jeremy Thompson

I would like to find a sidelever or underlever .25 caliber Repeater. Break barrels in time will suffer from barrel droop. Need a gun to keep at the cabin that will be a true hunter and most importantly a SURVIVOR rifle. I don't understand why in this modern age we are still have not developed magazines for multi shots. In the field sometimes a quick second shot will provide a meal for that night. These PCP models are great if you have a compressor near but in the woods this is not a reality. CO2 bottles are not found easily in the woods. The only dependable and available power plant is the spring. Appreciate any imput and expertise you can share.

Matt

Matt,
The best magazine-fed springer I'm aware of is a no-longer manufactured gun from BSA called the Goldstar. You can find some used on the second-hand market, but they don't come new anymore that I'm aware of.

Also, Theoben makes one...the SLR series, with a gasram. They are quite expensive, but superb guns.

Randy

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