by James E. House
If a survey were taken, I suspect it would show that the vast majority of hunters did not start out with a .30-30, a .30-06, or a shotgun. Nor did they start out with a rimfire rifle. No, the vast majority of hunters started the same way I did: with that first air rifle.
My hunting days began as a lad when I roamed around the farm trying to dispatch sparrows and mice around the barns with a BB gun. Some years later, a multi-pump Benjamin became my hunting tool and that air rifle was an enormously more capable tool for such work, although it also fired BBs. It was about that time that my cousin got a .22-caliber Crosman multi-pump, and I became aware how effective an air rifle could be on small game and pests. In those far off years, we had no idea how air rifles would evolve into the serious hunting tools they are today.Â
Hunting is carried out in many ways in many places. As “civilization” encroaches on the fields and woods that were formerly places to hunt, the sport has changed. The use of bows has attracted many people to hunting for the challenge it presents and the fact that bowhunting can be enjoyed in places where a firearm would be prohibited. For the same reasons, hunting with air rifles is becoming enormously popular. Moreover, air rifles are widely available today that provide the power and accuracy we only dreamed of three score years ago.
TYPES OF AIR RIFLES
Today, a hunter that wishes to use an air rifle can chose from a wide variety of models. Still popular are the multi-pump rifles that require the shooter to pump the rifle several times to compress air in a chamber so it can be released behind the pellet at the time of firing. Especially in .20 and .22 calibers, these rifles are capable of taking small game and dispatching pests.
Many shooters choose rifles of the break-action type (also known as spring piston or break-barrel). These rifles have a barrel that is hinged at the rear and pulling the barrel downward forces a piston inside the receiver to the rear against the pressure of a heavy spring. At the time of firing, the spring pushes the piston forward compressing air in a chamber behind the pellet driving it down the barrel.
Some such rifles are very powerful, but the combination of a single-cocking movement and that much power has consequences. When a break-action rifle is fired, the piston and spring fly forward while the pellet is still in the barrel. Only after the piston has made its way to the front of the cylinder does the pellet leaves the barrel, so there is actually some recoil before the pellet ever leaves the barrel. Even with practice, precision is often a problem for most.
Another drawback with break barrels is that the pellet is what actually creates the seal between the front of the cylinder and the bore, and if there is no pellet in the barrel at the time of firing, the piston will strike the front of the cylinder directly and in time, cause severe damage to the cylinder.
To remedy these idiosyncrasies, Crosman Corporation recently introduced break-action rifles that do not use a spring to push the piston forward at the time of firing. Instead, the cocking motion compresses a gas—nitrogen—in an enclosed chamber. At the time of firing, the gas expands to push forward the piston that compresses air behind the pellet. Known as the Nitro Piston, this design reduces the weight of moving parts and makes the rifle much quieter.
Another type of air rifle is the pre-charged pneumatic model, which is identified as such because the air is compressed before shooting occurs. The origin of today’s PCP air rifles date back to the early 1800s, when Lewis and Clark took an air rifle on the famous Voyage of Discovery in 1804 to 1806. That rifle had a reservoir that could be filled with compressed air by means of a pump. The reservoir was large enough so that several shots were possible without having to refill the reservoir.
The PCP rifles of today can be filled to pressures of 2000-3000 psi, which makes it possible for hunters to fire 25 to 30 shots before having to refill the reservoir. A special pump is required to compress the air, and the process may require 100 to 200 pump strokes.
When it comes to power and accuracy, the PCP rifles are hard to beat. They are available in .177-, .22- and .25-caliber models, and rifles in even larger calibers are available.
SCOPING IT OUT
Today, you rarely see a hunter using a rifle without a scope mounted on it. In fact, with the exception of .22 rimfires, the majority of rifles produced today have no open or iron sights. The same holds true for air rifles.
Numerous break-action and PCP rifles are marketed without sights. Because a hunter using an air rifle must place the pellet accurately in a lethal zone that may be no larger than the size of a quarter, a scope is almost mandatory. Here some insight is required.
A break-action rifle not only recoils when it is fired and the piston moves, but it is also yanked forward when the piston stops. Most scopes are not designed for this unusual stress in the forward direction, and break-action rifles have a reputation for being scope wreckers.
If a break-action is your choice for a hunting air rifle, choose a scope that is designed to withstand the stresses produced by such a rifle. With the huge array of scopes offered today, there are many available that can be used on break-action rifles.
This forward motion associated with break-action rifles is not a factor with multi-pump or PCP rifles because these types release only air at the time of firing. And because they produce virtually no recoil, multi-pump and PCP rifles can be used with almost any scope.
A scope that is designed for use on a centerfire rifle is usually free of parallax at a distance of 100 yards, so there may be a substantial problem with parallax at 25 yards when the scope is used on an air rifle.
Most scopes specifically intended for use on air rifles can be focused at different distances so the scope is free of parallax error at the focusing distance. This is very important to air rifle hunters because the game could be anywhere from 10 to 50 yards away, and a scope that is sharply focused at 10 yards may present a very fuzzy image at the longer distance.
If there is one aspect of scopes that has changed markedly in recent years, it is the trend toward higher magnification. For many years, the most popular scope was a 4X. Compared to open sights, a scope of that magnification greatly reduces sighting error. Using the reasoning that “If a little does good, more will do better,” scopes marketed today are generally higher in magnification. In fact, fixed-power scopes are not very popular, and most models are variable in magnification with 3-9X, 4-10X and 4-12X models all being very popular.
Here the air rifle hunter has to beware. A 16X scope does not increase pellet velocity or flatten pellet trajectory. The air rifle is a short-range tool, and it must be used under those conditions. A hunter using an air rifle is not handicapped when using a bright, clear scope of 4X or 6X magnification.
Not only have air rifles evolved into accurate, powerful tools for harvesting small game and eliminating pests, but the ammunition they use has undergone radical changes, as well. When I first started using air rifles, pellets were essentially hollow shells with flat noses. The base—or skirt—of most pellets was hollow so that the thin portion would expand to provide a seal in the bore.
Although this is true of most pellets today, the overall configuration and construction have changed markedly. Available pellets today include not only wadcutters, but also pointed, domed (round nose), hollow point and polymer-tipped versions.
With increasing regulations on the use of lead projectiles and with the interest in producing the highest velocities, lead-free pellets have also become popular. These projectiles are made of an alloy that is less dense than lead so they are substantially lighter in weight. The result is a considerable increase in velocity, but as is true of other types of lightweight projectiles, they also lose velocity more rapidly.
Although I have read of shooters with other experiences, I have not found lightweight alloy pellets to yield accuracy equal to those of traditional construction. It may just be me or my rifles, but at least that has been my experience. If you have succumbed to the hypervelocity craze, do some testing to make sure that these pellets are sufficiently accurate in your rifle to hit a very small lethal zone at various ranges.
FINDING YOUR RANGE
Air rifle hunting is about accuracy. Because of the limited power, it is absolutely necessary to verify the accuracy of your air rifle with the pellets you plan to use and to verify your ability with the air rifle. Before attempting to take any species with an air rifle, do a lot of practice shooting at varying ranges. Use targets that resemble actual animals in life size to see how far it is reasonable for you to shoot at such species under field conditions.
Although it is important to conduct some tests from a shooting bench, that support will not be available in the woods or fields. Practice shooting from positions that will simulate those you experience during the hunt. It is absolutely necessary for hunters using air rifles to hunt ethically. The “anti” groups will only become all the more motivated if they hear about animals wounded by hunters trying to stretch their air rifles into the performance level of firearms.
If you think that a .22 LR is sensitive to wind, wait until you shoot an air rifle under windy conditions. Bullets used in .22 LR ammunition typically have ballistic coefficients of about 0.125, but an air rifle pellet may have a ballistic coefficient as low as 0.010-0.020. In fact, a ballistic coefficient of 0.040 is quite high for a pellet. As a result, pellets lose velocity rapidly and are very susceptible to wind deflection.
It is not uncommon today to read about hunters using some .300 Super Hyper Magnum to shoot game animals at a quarter of a mile or more away. The hunter who uses an air rifle is absolutely restricted to short range. The trajectory is too curved and the pellets are too easily deflected for it to be effective at longer rages.
Even though modern air guns are enormously more capable than those of a couple of generations ago, they are still air rifles. A PCP may operate at a pressure of 3,000 psi, but a .22 LR cartridge generates up to approximately 20,000 psi. In other words, a .22 LR fires a 40-grain bullet at approximately 1,200 fps, but a .22 PCP fires a 14.3-grain pellet at perhaps 900 fps.
The projectiles have kinetic energies of about 130 and 26 ft/lbs, respectively. A high-powered air rifle will cleanly dispatch a wide variety of small game and pest species, but the hunter using such a tool must accept the limitations of both the equipment and his or her skill level. To humanely dispatch an animal with a pellet from an air rifle requires the projectile to be placed accurately in a lethal zone. It also means that the hunter should choose a model that has considerable power but also delivers the accuracy required.
THE SAME LAWS APPLY
Air rifle hunters must realize that most states apply the same rules to hunting regardless of the type of rifle used. An air rifle is simply another “gun” with regard to bag limits, licenses and transportation of the gun to and from the hunting area. Be familiar with all regulations that apply in your area of jurisdiction and do not take an “It’s only an air rifle” attitude, because conservation officers don’t share that attitude.
In spite of its limitations, hunting with air rifles is increasing rapidly in popularity. Rapid advances in the capability of the rifles and ammunition have resulted in air rifles that are infinitely more capable than those we used half a century ago.
Air rifles are quiet and have shorter range, so they can sometimes be used to hunt in areas where it would be impossible to use firearms. The challenge of using a tool of limited capability places a premium on the ability of the hunter, and this aspect of hunting with air rifles appeals to many people. For those who choose to pursue small game and pests with an air rifle, the choice of equipment is the best it has ever been.
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