Can airguns be used for hunting? The answer is yes, but there are some things to think about, and this short article addresses them.
Are airguns humane?
Yes, and there are two key areas to address. The first is accuracy: if you can't hit the target, nothing else matters. Since airguns are best-suited for small game like squirrels, rabbits and many birds, the area that must be hit to ensure a humane kill is small. How small varies from animal to animal, but as a general rule it's no larger than an American quarter -- which is just under one inch in diameter.
At what range can you hit this quarter with every shot? That's your maximum effective range for hunting with a smallbore airgun.
The most effective shot is a brain shot. If it's done right, the animal dies instantly. If you miss and hit the animal elsewhere, it can escape to die slowly. So, you must know where to hit each animal you hunt. On larger game such as deer, a heart/lung shot is preferred because the kill zone is about eight inches in diameter. Deer don't always die instantly from this shot; but when they run, you can usually track them. They don't climb trees or burrow into the earth. Small game often stays close to a burrow in the ground or a nest that's high in a tree. When they run, they can get to a spot that is inaccessible to the hunter. The kill must be instantaneous, or you risk losing the animal. Limit your shots to as far as you're assured of hitting a quarter-sized target every time. You must exercise discipline to take a shot only when everything is clear. If the animal's head is half-hidden, then the kill zone isn't the size of a quarter anymore. If that's the case, use your best judgment to decide if you can make the more difficult shot.
How much power?
The second thing to consider about airgun hunting is the power the airgun generates. Velocity without power is meaningless, so airgun hunters speak in terms of muzzle energy -- never velocity. This subject is hotly debated by two groups: those who believe in using all the power that's possible and those who feel it's possible to kill with very little power. The truth is that it's possible to kill game humanely with very little power; but the lower the power, the more important it is to hit exactly the right spot. In the end, this gets to the ridiculous point of almost no power that must be delivered by a million-to-one shot to be effective. Sportsmen do not like taking chances where there's a possibility that an injured animal will escape, so there are practical lower limits to the power recommended for airgun hunting. These limits are supported by decades of successful hunting experience, both in North America and the United Kingdom. The recommended lower limit for a hunting airgun is one that produces 12 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. That equates to a .177-caliber pellet gun shooting a lead pellet weighing 7.9 grains at 827 f.p.s. at the muzzle or a .22-caliber air gun shooting a 14.3-grain pellet at 615 f.p.s. at the muzzle. Other pellet weights will obviously produce different amounts of energy at the same velocities, and you can use Pyramyd Air's handy energy calculator to determine the velocity of your airgun. Of course, the pellet doesn't retain its energy after leaving the muzzle. A lower-powered airgun has a more limited range of effectiveness, while a more powerful airgun can reach out farther. You'll be limiting your shots to distances at which you can place all your pellets inside a one-inch target. With a 12 foot-pound gun, the maximum range you should engage targets should probably be 35 yards. A 30 foot-pound gun would be useful out past 50 yards, which is a distance where it will become harder to keep all your pellets inside the one-inch target. The maximum range at which game can be taken humanely is limited both by the power of the airgun as well as its accuracy.
What is small game?
Say "small game" to any hunter, and the two most common animals that come to mind are the cottontail rabbit and the gray squirrel. But those are only two of an incredibly long list of animals suited to hunting by airguns. And even those two are not equivalent. The cottontail rabbit is fairly easy to take with an airgun. They can be taken with a heart shot as well as a head shot. Gray squirrels, on the other hand, are far more difficult to dispatch. They can absorb body hits and still run a long distance to escape.
If you open the topic to all rabbits, there's the wiry jackrabbit -- one of the toughest of all small animals. They are to cottontails as bighorn sheep are to domestic sheep.
Though small, the gray squirrel is tough...like a jackrabbit. It takes a very precise shot with sufficient power to anchor him.
Then there are larger critters such as woodchucks, raccoons and opossums. Not only are they many times the body weight of a gray squirrel, they're also tough to take down. What constitutes small game is really a pretty broad category. When you consider hunting small game with airguns, it isn't enough to just lump all the animals together in one bunch and get an airgun for everything. You need to actually know what type of animals you intend hunting and plan for them accordingly. This topic deserves its own article because of the intricacies of the subject matter, so this is all I'll present at this time.
What are pests?
There are two different definitions of a pest. The critter that is bothering you personally can be considered a pest. There's also a much broader category of animals that society and your community consider a pest. Rats are on everyone's pest list, but the red-headed woodpecker who's ruining the shingles on your house is a protected species throughout North America. That didn't stop NASA from obtaining airguns to shoot them when they attacked the insulation of launch vehicles at Cape Canaveral, but they didn't publicize the program, either. The snowy egret is a large, majestic waterfowl with brilliant white plumage. They're protected everywhere except at the airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, where officials hired airgunners to get rid of the birds from the inside of hangars. Their acidic excrement was blistering the paint on the wings of airliners, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and grounding costly capital assets. So, the term pest has two important points of view. When you hunt pests, there can only be one viewpoint, and it has to agree with the laws -- local, state and national. Because this is a very popular segment of airgun hunting, there will be a separate article devoted to just this topic.
Can air pistols be used?
Like air rifles, air pistols must satisfy the two essential criteria of power and accuracy. Twelve foot-pounds is the lower limit recommended for all airguns. That excludes most air pistols because they typically do not produce much more than 6 foot-pounds. Those that can generate more power are always the more expensive models. The TalonP precharged pneumatic air pistol generates over 50 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, so it's one of the better-suited air pistols for hunting.
Just as the air rifle is limited to the range at which a one-inch target can be hit reliably, the same holds for an air pistol. Since air pistols are much harder to hold than air rifles, the accuracy requirement is just as limiting as the one for power.
What about calibers?
This article addresses only the four smallbore airgun calibers of .177, .20, .22 and .25; and they're all effective for hunting as long as the accuracy and power requirements are met. But there are some subtleties the hunter should be aware of.
The four smallbore calibers are (left to right) .177, .20, .22 and .25. Read further to see how each fits into airgun hunting.
The .177 caliber is the smallest of all pellet calibers, and it has the unfortunate reputation for shooting through game without touching vital areas. This caliber is also the fastest of the four smallbore calibers, so the energy minimums for hunting can be met by many more airguns in this caliber than in the three larger calibers. But the hunter needs to restrict himself a bit more to compensate for the very small diameter of the .177 pellet. Where the general rule for accuracy is hitting a one-inch target, for .177 we'll reduce this to about .75 inches. Instead of being able to hit a U.S. quarter, the shooter who uses a .177-caliber airgun should be able to hit a nickel. The reason for this restriction is because the kill zones in small game are not perfect circles. The brain of a gray squirrel looks more like a large piece of candy corn than a marble. If you're using a .177, you must be able to hit even this smaller target every time, regardless of how much velocity or even energy your air rifle produces.
Because it's so small in cross-section, the .177 caliber should only be used to distances at which you can hit a nickel every time.
Calibers .20 and .22 are so much alike that I'll discuss them together. They're the most successful calibers of all for hunting when everything is taken into consideration. They give the hunter a broader impact and punch a larger hole in game, so they're much more effective than .177 caliber. The .25 caliber should be the most effective caliber of all for airgun hunting; but until recently, there haven't been good pellets in this caliber. The guns existed without anything to allow them to realize their full potential. That has changed in the past couple years, and a .25-caliber pellet can now hold its own with a .22. The only drawback the big caliber still has is cost, and that's never going to change. This isn't the caliber for casual shooting, because the pellets cost so much more than pellets in smaller calibers.
Safety above everything
One of the best things about hunting with an airgun is also one of the most challenging things. Hunting is limited to close ranges at which perfect shots can always be made. The small kill zones restrict the distance at which you can shoot, but so do your surroundings. Airguns are often employed in more urban settings where firearms simply cannot be used. But even an airgun pellet will carry beyond the target, so the airgun hunter must be aware of what is downrange -- beyond the intended target. You must also be concerned about where your pellet goes after it hits the game. Does it go through the animal and travel on in a dangerous direction? The most important thing for any hunter is to leave the environment as good as you found it -- if not better. And at the top of the list is protecting the safety of people and property. A hunter must conduct himself in such a way to ensure that he does everything as safely as possible. There's no room for accidents in hunting.