Date: 7/2/2023 10:39
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Air Rifle Hunting | Best Powerplants & Calibers

Air Rifle Hunting

Caliber-by-Caliber Breakdown for Hunting

Hunting is an age-old pastime that is growing in popularity. Many years ago, hunting was the only way to acquire meat to eat. In modern times, people can get their meat in many ways, but hunting is still one of the most popular. Air rifle hunting is on the rise across the country as more states open hunting seasons up to airgunners and as air rifles become capable of hunting more than small game.

Keep reading to see which calibers are best for each type of game.

Table of Contents
  1. Air Rifle Calibers
    1. .177 Caliber
    2. .22 Caliber
    3. .25 Caliber
    4. .30 Caliber
    5. .357 Caliber
    6. .45 Caliber
    7. .50 Caliber
    8. Best Pellet Shapes for Hunting
  2. Common Questions
    1. Can you use an air rifle to hunt?
    2. Which airgun caliber is best for hunting?
    3. What is the most powerful hunting air rifle?

.177 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Quail, Dove, Pigeon, and Grouse
A .177 caliber pistol or rifle can be used for hunting small game that weighs less than 2 pounds and requires only 8 foot-pounds of energy to effectively kill. These animals include quail, dove, pigeon, and grouse and are best shot in the head to minimize damage to the meat.

If you are using a pistol, the effective range will be closer than if you use a rifle. The maximum effective range will also be determined by the powerplant of the airgun you choose. A break barrel has the shortest while a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) has the longest.

Preferred Powerplant: Multi-Pump, Spring/Gas Piston, PCP

  • Multi-Pump
    • Pistols will be effective up to 5 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 30 yards
  • Spring/Gas Piston
    • Pistols will be effective up to 10 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 50 yards
  • PCP (Pre-Charged Pneumatic)
    • Pistols will be effective up to 20 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 75 yards

The advantage to using a .177 caliber pistol or rifle for hunting small game is that a small pellet leaves a small hole in a small critter. The disadvantage is that it's only effective against animals that are small and have light bones and a thin hide.

.22 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Squirrel, Prairie dog, Pheasant, Rabbit, Hare, Groundhog, and Turkey
A .22 caliber pistol or rifle can be used to hunt small game weighting from 2 - 20 pounds and requires only 10 foot-pounds of energy to effectively kill. These animals include squirrel, prairie dog, pheasant, rabbit, hare, groundhog, and turkey and can be shot in the heart but should be shot in the head to minimize damage to their meat.

Preferred Powerplant: Multi-Pump, Spring/Gas Piston, PCP

  • Multi-Pump
    • Pistols will be effective up to 10 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 30 yards
  • Spring/Gas Piston
    • Pistols will be effective up to 15 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 50 yards
  • PCP (Pre-Charged Pneumatic)
    • Pistols will be effective up to 25 yards
    • Rifles will be effective up to 75 yards

The advantage to using a .22 caliber pistol or rifle for hunting small game is that it has the power to take animals up to 20 pounds at close range without being overpowered and destroying the animal. The disadvantage is that it's only effective against small game.

Medium and large-sized animals require more power to effectively kill than a multi-pump or spring/gas piston can achieve. So hunting medium and large-sized game or predators requires the power of a pre-charged pneumatic which has an effective range of up to 75 yards.

.25 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Beaver, Fox, Bobcat, and Coyote
A .25 caliber air rifle can be used for hunting predators and medium game weighing between 20-35 pounds, requiring 35-50 foot-pounds of energy to effectively kill. These animals include foxes, bobcats, and coyotes, and should be shot in the heart or brain.

Preferred Powerplant: PCP
The advantage to using a .25 caliber rifle for predator hunting is that it's lightweight and easy to carry in the field. The disadvantages are it loses power over distance, so you will need to get closer to predators and medium game than you would with a firearm in order to take them ethically and efficiently, and it requires an external air source to top it up when the pressure decreases after shooting.

.30 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Javelina, Small Hogs, Small Antelope, and Small Deer
A .30 caliber rifle can be used to hunt medium-sized game around 50-75 pounds requiring 80-100 foot-pounds of energy to kill. These animals include javelina, small feral hogs, small antelope, and small deer, and should be shot in the heart or brain.

Preferred Powerplant: PCP
The advantage to using a .30 caliber rifle to hunt medium-sized game is that many models pack a punch up to 100 foot-pounds of energy without destroying the animal. The potential disadvantages are that not all .30 caliber PCP rifles produce 80 FPE or more, so you need to be aware of that when making your selection. And you also need to ensure you're hunting at appropriate distances to maintain ethical accuracy and power on target.

.357 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Feral Hogs, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats
A .357 caliber rifle is recommended for large game weighing 75-250 lbs. These animals include feral hogs, deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, which require 150-250 foot-pounds of energy to kill and should be shot in vital organs.

Preferred Powerplant: PCP
The advantage of using .357 is that there are many pellets and slugs to choose from. It is a popular all-around hunting caliber and is easy to source. Most PCP air rifles get several shots per fill, if it's regulated it'll get even more. The disadvantage is that its power is limited. However, because of its popularity, many rifles are manufactured in this size and the power variability in the rifles is vast.

.45 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Large Antelope, Bear, and Mule Deer
A .45 caliber rifle is recommended for large game weighing 250-500 lbs. These animals include mule deer, bighorn sheep, alligator, bear, and caribou, which require 250-500 foot-pounds of energy to kill and should be shot in the vital organs.

Preferred Powerplant: PCP
The advantage of using .45 is they pack a hefty punch, especially under 100 yards. The disadvantage is there aren't many pellet choices in this caliber and they can be hard to source. These rifles require more air power and get fewer shots per fill. You'll most likely need an external air tank in the field. But it's even handier to have a personal compressor that you can use to fill your gun both at home and on the road.

.50 Caliber

Best for Hunting: Elk, Moose, and Bison
A .50 caliber rifle is recommended for large game weighing over 500 lbs. It can take nearly any game animal with 650 foot-pounds of energy or more using a heavy grain pellet or slug. These animals include elk, moose, large antelope, and bison, which require over 500 foot-pounds of energy to kill and should be shot in the vital organs.

Preferred Powerplant: PCP
The advantage of using .50 is that they will take any animal nearly any game animal in the world. The disadvantage is they are nearly as loud as a firearm and don't get many shots per fill. These are powerful rifles that get the job done. If you're taking more than one shot, you'll want to take an external air tank with you in the field.

Best Pellet Shapes for Hunting

A good hunting pellet will have deep penetration and expand out to do the most damage possible. Most pellet guns will perform well with one pellet type over others. So you may need to shoot several to find the one that performs best in your equipment.

Let's look at several pellets to determine the best pellets for hunting.

Pointed Pellets
Pointed pellets are designed for deep penetration. Some have a solid body while others have a penetration tip connected to a hollow point body that increases its expansion capabilities.

Domed Pellets
Domed pellets are designed to fly straight and hit on target. The "skirt" on the back provides wind resistance so the pellet doesn't tumble through the air, but instead remains pointed in the proper direction. The weight and composition of the pellet, as well as its velocity, will determine how far it penetrates and how much it deforms. Domed pellets seem to maintain their shape more than other pellets. There are a few variations in shape, but most domed pellets look the same.

Hollow Point Pellets
Hollow point pellets are designed to fly straight and expand quickly for maximum damage. They have the same aerodynamic properties as domed pellets but the hollow tip allows the pellet head to deform more than a domed pellet would.

Slugs
Slugs are designed to fly fast and straight and to expand on impact for maximum damage. They have the same ballistic coefficient as bullets but are made for low-velocity impacts.

Common Questions

Can you use an air rifle to hunt?

Many states allow hunting with air rifles. As long as it's legal in your area, you can absolutely hunt with an air rifle. In fact, air rifle hunting is nothing new. It's been going on for hundreds of years. Lewis and Clark (1804) carried a .46 caliber air rifle on their expedition to discover the Oregon Trail and they were hunting and trapping as they went.

Which airgun caliber is best for hunting?

Depending on your prey, you can use anything from .177 to .50 caliber. If you're shooting small game you could use .177 to .22, for medium game you could use .25 to .30, and for large game, you could use a .357 or larger. What determines the ability of each caliber to be effective in a hunting capacity is the foot-pounds of energy (fpe) in the air rifle. A .22 caliber pellet coming out of a 10 fpe air rifle will be very different than a .22 caliber pellet coming out of a 200 fpe air rifle. When you're choosing an air rifle for hunting you want to match the properly powered air rifle to the game. We have more information on how to match caliber and game size for hunting.

What is the most powerful hunting air rifle?

The most powerful production air rifle is the AirForce Texan. There are several variations to choose from. Some are available in .25 to .50 caliber, while others are available in .45 and .50 only. It shoots slugs at 1000 feet per second and produces over 600 foot-pounds of energy. It could easily take any large game in North America.

Additional Hunting Resources

See our Hunting Map for more details about which animals you can hunt with airguns in each state.

These blog posts give you some tips and tricks to get you through the season successfully:

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