Air Rifle Hunting Basics

Air Rifle Hunting

For many of us, me included, the main reason why we become interested in air rifles in the first place is to hunt small game or dispatch vermin close to home. And for these purposes most high-quality air rifles are excellent. Unlike conventional firearms, air rifles are relatively quiet, have little or no recoil, and because they have limited range, are much less likely to produce dangerous stray bullets that could impact nearby residential areas. In fact, even very powerful air rifles lose much or all of their punch after about 150-200 yards, whereas a .22 long-round rimfire shot can travel well over a mile and still hit with enough power to possibly kill.

This article primarily focuses on air rifle hunting for the type of small game most readily available air rifles are suited for – like birds, squirrels, rabbits, hares, woodchucks, etc. Of course, there are very large caliber air rifles, like .45 and .50 cal. big bores that can take down things like coyote, wild pigs and even deer, but these are fairly expensive PCP weapons and beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

Basic Power Requirements

As far as what constitutes a good small game hunting air rifle, there are really no hard and fast rules since there are so many different types of small animals that can be hunted, but there are some minimum power requirements that most hunters recognize and we agree with. The most fundamental of these is power, measured in foot-pounds-energy (“FPE”) at the muzzle. It’s pretty simple, an underpowered gun is more likely to maim or wound, rather than kill, either because the projectile doesn’t hit with enough force or cannot be controlled accurately. Obviously, this becomes an even more important consideration the further away you engage the target.

For instance, it is believed that an air rifle/gun should produce at least 12 FPE at the muzzle to kill efficiently and humanely for closer range hunting (i.e., within 35 yards or so). Fortunately, this is not a high bar to clear for most modern air rifles. For example, plug into the calculator below an 8-grain pellet traveling at 825 FPS – or a 14-grain pellet with a velocity of 625 FPS:

you will see that the 12 FPE minimum muzzle energy requirement in is met in both cases.

Of course, 12 FPE is a minimum power requirement. Additional power is definitely warranted if you want to hunt at longer ranges, well beyond 35 yards for example, since more FPE will be needed to maintain a proper flight trajectory and ensure sufficient knock-down power remains by the time you reach your targets. For example, a rifle with 30 FPE should easily handle game at or beyond 50 yards, but take care not to push it. We always encourage shooters to hunt game at closer ranges, regardless how much power you have, since the further away you engage, the less likely you are to deliver a precise kill shot (a head shot is advised for most small game).  Know your rifle’s limits – as well as your own. Even if you are eliminating pests, it is still bad form in our book to take a Hail Mary shot at any animal where you are more likely to wound rather than kill it.

Air Rifle Hunting - European StarlingWhich Caliber is Best for Hunting?

Most people hunting small game and with limited budgets will be selecting among the small to mid sized pellet rifles – from .177 to .25  caliber.  Again, hunting with .45 and .50 caliber air rifles is really a whole other “animal” and will not be covered here.

For many prospective small game air rifle hunters, you may need to choose between a .177 and .22, since many air rifles are available in either caliber.  Both of these air rifles are suitable for pretty much any small game (e.g., birds, squirrels, cottontail and jackrabbits, rodents, etc.) especially at close ranges and provided the minimum 12 FPE is met. However, the consensus of air rifle hunters, especially here in the US, agrees that the .22 caliber is the rifle of choice for hunting furred animals. Hence the old saying:  “.177 for feather, .22 for fur.” As a result, if you are pursuing more rabbits and squirrels than pigeons and starlings, the .22 is the better of the two, with the .20 caliber being a nice compromise for more mixed hunting.

Air Rifle Hunting - the woodchuck (Marmota monax)Of course this .177 vs. .22 question is an old one and always stirs up considerable debate, so we’ll just briefly mention the rationale behind this. Mathematically speaking, the larger, heavier .22 pellet makes better use of the potential energy stored in the rifle’s compressed air, allowing it to eject with more FPE (despite a lower velocity) compared to a .177 pellet – even assuming that both were fired from the same exact gun and powerplant. In addition, besides coming out of the barrel with more FPE, the .22 pellet also retains more of its energy as it travels through the air due to its greater momentum and ballistics coefficient. The result is that more energy is delivered to the target with a .22 vs. the .177 – again, even assuming that these bullets were fired from the very same rifle. This is why that the .22 is a harder hitting pellet than the .20 cal, and that the .25 cal. is harder hitting than the .22, etc.

Beyond having more punch and carrying it’s energy payload further than the .177, .22 pellets also suffer much less from target “overpenetration.” Due to their faster velocities, .177 rifles can often shoot right through game, rather than transferring more of their energy to the animal’s tissues where it’s most needed to take them down. Of course, this can be mitigated to some extent by optimizing your pellet choice (e.g., using a hollow point or wedge cutter for close range hunting), and over-penetration is still a problem with .22 caliber rifles at close range too; it’s just that their slower velocities and larger pellets make this much less likely.

Don’t Forget About Accuracy

Having said all that, there is more to consider than simply hitting power, and that’s accuracy. If you can’t hit the target, then even the most powerful rifle isn’t going to help you. Further, if you are even slightly off of the small kill zones required for this type of game (generally a head shot in most cases), then you are likely to maim an animal, or allow it to flee where it may die slowly. And on the accuracy score, there is little question that .177 pellets have the flattest trajectories and therefore make accurateshooting the easiest. This is not to say you can’t be accurate with a .22 rifle, but it generally takes more time to get a feel for the relatively bowed flight path of these pellets – especially if you are shooting at some distance. The same holds true for the .25 caliber as well.

Concluding Thoughts

Air Rifle Hunting - grey squirrelSo, what’s all of this boil down to? In our opinion, if you plan on hunting birds and occasionally furred game, and want to be shooting with laser-like accuracy quickly and without much concern for range finding, the .177 is excellent. And if you want even more of a middle ground, go with the .20 caliber, that is if you can find one and don’t mind spending more on ammunition.

On the other hand, if you are fairly confident that you are going to be hunting a lot of squirrels and/or rabbits – and maybe a woodchuck here or there – then the .22 and .25 calibers make the better choices in our opinion and, with a bit more patience and skill, can be just as accurate as the .177. The only thing we’d caution here is that with these larger calibers a bit more FPE is advisable, since you are firing a much larger pellet. More power means higher velocities; and higher velocities mean a flatter trajectory and improved accuracy – this is one reason why the largest hunting calibers primarily use PCP systems. Imagine cocking a springer designed for a .50 cal?? Consequently, if the rifle you want to buy is borderline in terms of FPE, get it in the smaller bore.

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  1. Zipp says:

    It is often overblown that the .25 is not a good or better long range shooter than the smaller calibers. If given a choice, I think most shooters would choose to adjust for elevation rather than windage. Windage is a dynamicaly changing varible, while elevation remains fairly constant from your given location. In fact, not only does the .25 buck wind better, but it also resists instability better than its smaller brethren, making it accurate under varying conditions. That being said, everyone knows that the .25 carries more momentum and thus, more power to the target, as well as more power to greater ranges than the .177, .20, and .22. The .25 will whack um at distances where the smaller calibers will simply bounce off. This too is a factor of momentum. The .25 will take a bit longer, or cover more distance to slow down being that it’s heavier. A simple test that may well be over-simplification would be to throw a BB at a glass window from 10 feet with all your might. Most likely, the BB would bounce off with little or no effect. Now in turn, throw a billard ball at the same window from the same distance and see what happens. The billard ball is just as solid as the BB, but the billard ball is obviously bigger and heavier. It takes a lot more to slow down the billard ball than the BB. You would have to throw the BB at extremely high speed to get the BB to penetrate the glass, let alone make a crack. Still this “high speed” is often counterproductive, as pellets are not made to the exacting tolorences or same tolorences that bullets for powder firearms are. Speed, as in too much typically destabilizes pellets and this is especially true with the smaller caliber pellet. Trajectory alone is deceptive if you do not account for the many other factors involved.

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