April 13, 2007

The Ethics of Airgun Hunting

Airgun Hunting Ethics

Airgun hunting is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, rebounding from centuries of obscurity due to the onslaught of first, the blackpowder rifle, and then the modern rifle using smokeless powder. However, as many hunting enthusiasts are learning, there is a lot to be said for hunting with an airgun.

Hunting with airguns isn’t new by any means. It was simply so expensive that only the wealthy, such as royalty, were able to afford the practice. But society has changed, and many more people now have access to airguns that are fit for taking game. With that increased access to airguns comes a need to develop a mindset when hunting that governs your actions as to what airgun is appropriate for the game animal you intend to shoot. And we’ll call that mindset the “ethics of airgun hunting.”

Now before I get started, you need to understand that here in America, with firearms readily available, airguns are often overlooked as a viable hunting tool. In fact, when you talk to hunters, they will often be somewhat skeptical about using an airgun. And if you are hunting large game, then you will really get some strange looks as well as inquiries into your mental health! Suffice it to say that firearm hunters are more or less in love with power, and airgun hunters are more inclined towards finesse.

A short list of considerations with respect to the use of an airgun for hunting would be; the accuracy of the gun in question as well as the shooter’s personal ability, the power level generated by the gun, and the anatomy of the animal being hunted. The combination of these three primary factors, as well as other peripheral issues, will help determine how best to accomplish our hunt.

The primary concern of an airgun hunter should be the accuracy of their rifle. Airgun hunting is an exercise in accuracy, and if your gun won’t put the pellet where you intend it to go every time, then you need to stop hunting right then and there until you have a gun that can consistently place a pellet on target. Notice I said you need to get an airgun that will do this…..but don’t forget the human term in this equation either. Once you have an accurate airgun, YOU, the hunter, need to gain the necessary skills to operate the airgun at the required level of proficiency. Many times, the unsuccessful hunter’s frustration is erroneously directed at the airgun, when in fact it is the shooter that is the cause of the problem.

Once you’ve solved the challenge of shooting accurately, take a look at your desired prey and the power level of the airgun you have chosen to use. If you are using a .177 caliber spring-piston airgun, such as a Diana 34 or similar gun, taking small game such as rabbits, squirrels, and small birds shouldn’t be an issue. You have the power on-tap to do the job efficiently. However, animals the size of a raccoon need to be accorded more respect. Can you kill a raccoon with a .177 springer? Sure, but you are much more likely to wound it needlessly than if you used a more appropriate airgun. 

In a previous article I used a graph provided by Dr. Robert Beeman on the power levels suggested for certain size animals. Here is the link again for that graph:

Read the entire article and note the emphasis on the power level needed at the POI (point of impact), not at the muzzle. And a second emphasis I would point out is the reference to the size of the kill zone on the animal you intend to shoot. As you can see from the article, Dr. Beeman shows a preference for the .20 and .25 caliber. However, in today’s market there is a more extensive selection offered in .177 and .22. If I had to have just one, I’d go with a .22, which allows a larger range of prey animals to be taken.

Along with aiming for the kill zone, it behooves the airgun hunter to have a good understanding of the anatomy of the animal you are shooting at. No matter the size of the kill zone, it is the path the projectile takes to get to the kill zone that is important. With smaller prey like rabbits and squirrels, the path to the kill zone is of lesser importance since they are soft-bodied prey. But when you take on larger animals, you must consider the anatomy of the animal concerned.

For instance, when I hunt feral hogs, I always try to avoid shooting the animal in the heart/lung area due to the natural shield of muscle that hogs possess. A head shot is much more desirable, and a profile head shot directly to the temple is more desirable than a head-on shot in my opinion. And the airgun I use for such hunting? Nothing less than a .30 caliber giving me well over 100 fpe, with 150 fpe and higher the better option. This is a personal opinion, for I know some fellow airgun hunters who can kill a pig with less power from their airgun. But for me, I’m going to stick with the above numbers I mentioned to give me an edge.

Now let’s scale back the size of our animal to an animal you are more likely to come into contact with….the raccoon. The average hunter needs 18-20 fpe minimum to effectively take on a raccoon. Yes, I know, there are many who have killed them with less, but I’m talking to the average hunter like myself who invariably makes a bad shot from time to time, and when that happens, we need a little more “oomph” behind the pellet to still make our shot effective. Is a head-on shot a good idea? I have spoken to firearm hunters who shoot coons between the eyes with a .22 rimfire, only to have the bullet ricochet off the skull. Behind the ear is a much better place to direct your shot, and with the lower levels of power available in airguns, I hesitate to recommend a head-on shot on a raccoon unless you are using one of the bigbores. Again, it is the path that the projectile has to take to get to the kill zone that is the issue here.

One of the peripheral issues I alluded to in an earlier paragraph would be the issue of what range should you be shooting at. The airgun hunter, by necessity, must close the range to his prey in order to make an effective shot. Remember, the skirted pellet loses velocity much faster than the firearm bullet, and the amount of energy arriving on target needs to be considered. The stalking skills of the airgun hunter play a much larger role than that of a firearm hunter as airgun hunting is a close-up affair by comparison. Where I will sometimes take a shot at a deer 200+ yards off with a firearm, all the deer I’ve killed with my airgun were 50 yards away or closer. Likewise, while on safari in South Africa with my airgun, closing within range was the greatest challenge we faced every day. It is very much like bow hunting in regards to the ranges with which I am comfortable, and a good stalk or stand position is of major importance.

So, hunting with an airgun requires an accurate combination of gun and shooter, an airgun of appropriate power for the intended game, and knowledge of your quarry’s anatomy in order to make the best shot possible. Much of this information is acquired through experience, while some of it can be obtained by reading and corresponding with other hunters. A good place to start is with pest control on undesirable avian species, followed by the pursuit of small game during the legal hunting season. As the hunter’s experience and familiarity with his/her airgun increases, there are additional challenges that come with the pursuit of big game with airguns.

In the modern era, some will question why airguns should be allowed for hunting. But if you will take the airgun seriously as a hunting weapon, you will find it up to the challenge. In any form of hunting, be it firearm, bow, or airgun, the hunter’s proficiency is what is in question rather than the weapon used. I grew up hunting squirrels with a shotgun and .22 rimfire rifle, and one shot kills were common, though not automatic. Likewise, with an airgun, I experience one shot kills, occasionally having to use further shots to finish off the prey. What I am finding, though, is that I am more careful using an airgun, and more particular of the kind of shot I desire in order to make that one shot kill. The by-product of this attitude, this emphasis on the ethics of using an airgun, is that my one shot kill ratio is going up since I often pass on shots that I would have taken had I used a shotgun or other firearm.

Airgun hunting is a thrilling challenge that is well worth the effort if you love hunting, for there is always something in season for the airgun hunter, allowing you to hunt year-round. And if you will take into consideration the ethics involved in using an airgun for hunting, your enjoyment of the sport will be assured.

If you'd like to read stories of airgun hunts, I would encourage you to drop by my personal website at:

And also visit the website of Jim Chapman:

You will find several hunting stories from individuals who have been there and done that, so to speak. Enjoy your airgunning!