by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
This report is in response to what blog reader David Enoch said happened at this year’s Malvern airgun show. He said several firearm shooters attended — I assume for the first time — hoping to find out something about airguns, since firearms have recently become more difficult to shoot. That refers to the general difficulty of obtaining ammunition.
Presumably, these shooters want to know if airguns can augment their shooting experiences. That’s what I intend to address in this report.
The short answer is — YES — airguns can shoot just like firearms, but not out as far as you may want to shoot. But let’s qualify that, shall we? I shoot at a firearm range that has separate ranges for 15, 25, 50 and 100 yards. There’s a separate berm on the 100-yard range, where shooters can engage targets at 200 yards, if they desire.
The huge bulk of shooters shoot on the 15- and 25-yard ranges. Maybe 75 percent of all shooting is done there with handguns, with the slight edge going to the 15-yard range. When they come over to the 100-/200-yard range, they mostly shoot rifles, and about 99 percent of their shooting is at targets on the 100-yard berm. There’s a steel gong at 200 yards, and about 10 percent of the shooters will take a few shots at the gong after they’ve fired 25-50 rounds at 100 yards. Putting an actual paper target at 200 yards is an extremely rare occurrence at my range.
In my 65 years, I’ve shot on over 100 different ranges — both public and private — and the private range I now shoot on is very representative. I’ve been to ranges with 300-yard berms and to several that go out to 1,000 yards; and the bulk of the shooting on all of them was still done at 100 yards.
I say that to put this report into perspective. I know a lot of shooters who own super-magnum rifles such as a .300 Winchester Short Magnum and even .338 Lapua, and even they all shoot at 100 yards. They may talk about long-distance shooting and some of them may shoot long distances when they hunt; but at the range, the bulk of their shooting is at 100 yards.
One more thing is the rimfire shooters. They’ve always been closer to airguns than those who predominantly shoot centerfires, and perhaps many more of them made the crossover years ago when air rifles started to challenge rimfires at 50 yards. But one drawback has always been in the category of repeating air rifles. While good repeating air rifles are not hard to find, they do cost a lot of money compared to, say, a Marlin model 60 or a Ruger 10-22. However, when the cost of a brick of .22 rimfire ammo tops $60, as it now does for anyone who doesn’t camp out at the local big box store, then it doesn’t seem to matter as much that a good repeating air rifle will cost $400 and up. And these repeaters will also deliver the same good groups as the single-shots, so there’s very little to complain about.
Air rifle distances
When I started writing about airguns in 1994, 50 yards was a very long distance for an air rifle. It’s still pretty far if you shoot 10-shot groups; but for 5-shot groups, 50 yards is starting to become very reasonable. One-hundred yards is the new 50-yards for accurate air rifles. That also means that distances in the field have stretched, as well.
Here in Texas, we hunt prairie dogs — ground-dwelling rodents that build mounds and dig destructive holes that can break the legs of running animals unlucky enough to step in one. Prairie dogs live in groups called towns that can have thousands of mounds and occupy hundreds of acres of territory. This territory is typically dry scrubland that doesn’t support many head of cattle, so when a dog town moves in, it represents a big loss to the rancher.
So, prairie dogs are pests of the first order. As long as the hunter can guarantee the safety of livestock and people in the surrounding area, getting permission to shoot is usually pretty easy. Imagine, if you can tell the landowner that you’re shooting something that doesn’t even carry past 500 yards! What a plus that is?
The problem in the past was that no airguns were powerful enough and accurate enough to reach out to prairie dogs; because when you get within about 100 yards of them, they get skittish. It can be done, of course, and I’ve done it. I’ve gotten as close as 25 yards to a prairie dog following a long, slow approach and an even longer wait…but that was rare. A hundred yards was much more common. And with an AirForce Condor, I had the perfect rifle to reach out those 100 yards and get the dog.
Some airgunners are using smaller-caliber big-bore guns for prairie dogs. Airgun hunter Eric Henderson has been successful with a Quackenbush .308 out to as much as 185 yards. Now, that’s some shooting!
What airguns can’t do
Airguns are not loud, nor do they recoil much. So neither of those firearm experiences can be duplicated, and that may dissuade some shooters.
And airguns are not made in the same way as certain military arms such as Garands, SMLEs or Mausers. So, if the tactile experience is what the shooter is after, there are no airguns that can give it.
Finally, an airgun isn’t a firearm, and that, by itself, bothers some shooters. For some people, it isn’t a matter of hitting the target or trigger control — it’s knowing that they’re firing a .357 magnum that defines their shooting experience. For them, only the actual firearm will deliver the goods.
But for all those shooters who just want the feeling of a good sight picture and precise trigger control, the size of the hole downrange isn’t that important. I’m in that group, so I understand that the act of doing is more important than the definition of what’s being done. For all who like to shoot for these reasons, airguns are a wonderful way to keep squeezing the trigger.