By: Tom McHale
Modern airguns aren’t much like your childhood Daisy Red Ryder. Whether break-action, pump, or pre-charged pneumatic, today’s airguns are marvels of technology capable of delivering accuracy and power levels that just might surprise you. Can you hunt with them? Absolutely. Let’s explore.
What Can You Hunt with Airguns?
The common perception is that airguns are useful hunting implements for … squirrels and tin cans. Not so! Modern airguns range from .177-caliber pellet and BB tossers appropriate only for tiny game all the way up to .50-caliber monsters capable of taking down epic four-legged beasts. As velocities are lower than centerfires, one can make a rough analogy to hunting with muzzle loaders firing lead slugs or round balls. Let’s consider a few examples.
In the fire and brimstone world, we talk about cartridge and velocity when pondering the terminal effects of ammunition. In the airgun world, the terminology du jour is “foot-pounds.” An air gunner rarely describes a rifle and ammo combination in terms of velocity, but almost always in terms of delivered kinetic energy. For example, the Umarex Hammer .50 caliber rifle is described as having over 700 ft.-lbs. of energy. Likewise, a .22-caliber air rifle may have 22 ft.-lbs. of energy. These are the primary measurements that indicate appropriate matches between rifle, ammo and game.
At the lower end of the ft.-lbs. scale, one might consider a break-barrel rifle like the Ruger Yukon. Offering one shot of .177 or .22 caliber with each cocking action, this rifle will deliver pellets with 12- to 25 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy depending on the caliber and pellet choice. Especially if you go with heavier .22 pellets ranging from 12 to 30 grains, it’s a good option for squirrels, rabbits and other similar critters. You can also upgrade to the Ruger Yukon Magnum for more power.
If you want to go bigger and enter the varmint arena, a .25 caliber might be right for you. With pellets ranging from 20 to 50 grains, you can move up to game including coyotes. Consider something like the Umarex Gauntlet. With an MSRP of just $299.99, you can get started without breaking the bank. You can get one in any of .177, .22, or .25 caliber. While the .177 shoots all week on a charge, about 90 shots, the larger game-taking .25 caliber will deliver 50 shots before you have to top off the air supply. You’ll pay an air consumption price with a .25, but the heavier bullets will fly more predictably and deliver 50 to 80 foot-pounds of energy.
Another option in the .25-caliber range is the Condor SS from AirForce. Combining quiet operation with high power levels, the Condor SS sports an 18″ barrel and the company’s “Sound-Loc” reduction technology. It is designed to deliver 90 ft.-lbs. of energy in .25 caliber and is ideal for hunting and pest control. It has an MSRP of $774.95.
If you’re a “go big or go home” kind of person, then you’ll want a big bore. With caliber options ranging from .35 to .50, there aren’t too many game animals that aren’t eligible. Even Bison has been taken with big bore airguns. Let’s do a quick ballistics diversion. The Benjamin Bulldog .357 is a .357-caliber monster that fires 145-gr. solid-lead slugs around 750 fps. That translates to 183.7 foot-pounds of energy – more than delivered by a .380 ACP handgun firing a 90-grain bullet at 950 feet per second.
The Bulldog looks like something out of the movie Starship Troopers with its angular stock configuration. It’s a bullpup design, so the 5-shot rotary magazine inserts into the comb about four inches forward of the butt pad. The entire receiver and fore-end are contiguous and topped with a 26″ long rail, so you can mount scopes, iron sights, or even a chainsaw if you feel so compelled. Under the muzzle is a 5 1/2″ rail segment for the bipod. Part of the reason for the unusual stock design is that in addition to the shrouded and integrally suppressed barrel, the stock and fore-end contain a tubular 3,000 psi air reservoir. Its MSRP is $849.99.
Things change fast in the airgun world. Companies are busy designing newer and more powerful airguns for hunting, and state regulators are trying to keep up. We can’t cover all the game laws here, but we can point you to a handy resource. Umarex has a vested interested in keeping people informed about hunting with their products, so the company maintains a listing of airgun laws by state. It’s up to you to know the regulations in your area, so check before you hunt.
Airgun Pellet Performance
So, most rifle bullets are designed to penetrate deep and expand when they hit organic targets. The idea is to maximize effectiveness and bring down the target quickly and humanely. What about airgun pellets? Will they, or are they even supposed to, perform similarly?
Fortunately, I just happened to have a Clear Ballistics Air Rifle gelatin block lying around just waiting to be perforated for the first time. I started with a .25-caliber Airforce Condor SS rifle shooting Hunters Supply 48-gr. hollowpoint mini slugs. By the way, before destroying gel, I clocked them at an average of 888.9 feet per second. That’s 84.23 ft.-lbs. — more than a .22 LR pistol and a hair less than most .22 rifles. The results? My plan was dumb. This ain’t your grandpappy’s air rifle after all, and it’s designed to hunt, so a 9″ gelatin block isn’t going to stop that mini-pellet-slug any more effectively than a tub of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” The “pellet” zipped right through and plowed into a box of old books I was using as a backstop. Time to get out the big jello.
Repeating the experiment with 16″ blocks, Those Hunters Supply hollowpoint slugs penetrated between 14″ and 15″. Guess what? They even started to expand. Not a lot, but to the point where they formed .29″ mini-goblets. I also tried out some more traditional pellet styles complete with rounded hollow-point nose and a big skirt to catch the air. The Barracuda Hunter 27.47-gr. pellets penetrated between 7″ and 8″ and expanded so much they shed their tops. A .40″ outer ring landed about 2″ short of the center core. Interesting.
Seeing how the .25 caliber mini-slugs performed I elected not to gelatin test the .45 versions in my garage. We’ll save that for another story. The important point here is that a versatile airgun caliber like .25 that gives you lots of shots still delivers enough terminal energy and penetration to hunt not only small game but some predators as well. If you want to harvest larger game, no problem. Just move up to a .45 or .50 caliber like the Umarex Hammer. You’ll still get a handful of shots from a single charge — plenty enough for a hunt.
So, what’s the bottom line? Can you hunt with airguns? Yes. However, just as with other firearms, it’s up to you to know the limits of your gun, ammo and skill. Airguns lose energy at shorter distances than centerfires, so be sure that you understand the performance of your rifles and monitor your game choices and shots accordingly.
To learn more, visit:
- AirForce Condor SS: http://www.airforceairguns.com/The-CondorSS-By-AirForce-Airguns-s/73.htm
- Benjamin Bulldog .357: https://www.crosman.com/bulldog-synthetic
- Ruger Yukon Magnum: https://www.umarexusa.com/products/ruger-yukon-magnum-air-rifle
- Umarex Gauntlet .25: https://www.umarexusa.com/products/umarex-gauntlet?variant=12142305476677
- Umarex Hammer: https://www.umarexusa.com/products/umarex-hammer
- Hunting Laws by State: https://www.umarexusa.com/blogs/airgun-news/is-airgun-hunting-allowed-in-your-state