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Small Game Hunting With Airguns

That is the comment I hear on a rather frequent basis when I am chatting with a fellow hunter, or sharing my hobbies with another interested party. With the ready access to firearms that we in America enjoy, air rifles, pellet guns, and other air guns are often overlooked as a viable way to pursue the great sport of hunting, or as an alternative method of pest control versus the use of poison and traps.

Over the last few years, I have more or less dived headlong into the use of airguns as a means of hunting. As a matter of fact, I haven't used a firearm for any kind of hunting except shooting birds on the wing for over 4 years. I have found that air guns have met my needs for all the hunting I do very admirably, up to and including the hunting of big game such as whitetail deer. However, that is a story for another day. For now, let's focus on the issues surrounding the use of air guns on small game.

I'm an avid squirrel hunter and have been since my youth. Many a youngster has found out, either by mistake or on purpose, that a pump-up BB gun or pellet gun is quite capable of taking small game such as squirrel and rabbits. But how many people do you know who use an air gun on purpose, setting out with the intent of harvesting their game with a device powered by some form of compressed air or gas? Let's address some of the issues surrounding hunting small game with an airgun: caliber, sights, technique, and care of your weapon of choice.

Which Caliber Is Best For Hunting and How Much Power Do I Need?

There are basically 4 different calibers for the best pellet gun for squirrels that are commonly found and that have ready ammunition available. They are .177, .20, .22, and .25 caliber. The .177 and .22 are by far the most commonly chambered for air guns, so we'll just arbitrarily make a comparison of those two for now and save the .20 and .25 caliber for another day.

Is the .177 caliber pellet adequate for squirrel hunting? It certainly looks very tiny, and I suppose it is a fair question as to whether or not it is a viable hunting caliber in air guns. Now there is a school of thought in the air gun world that uses this rule of thumb: ".177 for feathers, .22 for fur." In other words, if you are shooting birds, a .177 is sufficient. If you are hunting non-avian game, then consider a .22 caliber. In my experience, it really comes down to the issue of pellet placement on the target. I have had good luck using both calibers in squirrel hunting, so there isn't really the best pellet gun for killing squirrels. The caliber issue is less of a concern to me than the issue of what particular air gun do I want to carry around with me today.

In terms of power, Dr. Robert Beeman has a handy little graph that gives one an idea of what level of power is needed for dispatching the game you are hunting. According to Dr. Beeman, 3 fpe is all that is needed to dispatch a squirrel, provided you have placed the pellet in the kill zone. With a pellet weighing roughly 8 grains, which translates to about 415 feet per second at the point of impact. In a .22 caliber airgun, an average weight pellet only has to be going about 300 fps to achieve the same level of energy needed to accomplish the deed. You can look at the graph I am quoting from at the following url:

Now, using Dr. Beeman's graph as a starting place for what kind of power is the minimum needed, one must also take into consideration the ability of the shooter. If you can't hit the target, what caliber you use is of little consequence. My personal rule, especially with game animals, is that I need to be able to hit the kill zone, whatever the size, 80% of the time. So if you are hunting squirrels, you need to be able to hit a 1" circle 8 out of 10 shots. A 1" circle is the approximate size of a squirrel's kill zone on either the head or the heart/lung area. That requirement often brings the range at which I will shoot downwards quite a bit. Depending on the gun, I feel comfortable shooting at ranges of up to 50 yards, sometimes a little more. However, most of my shots are in the 15 to 35-yard range. Air guns will kill at greater ranges, but it is my marksmanship that holds me to those lesser ranges out of respect for my intended prey. I'd rather miss than wound.

Do I Need A Scope?

Because the kill zone on a squirrel is so tiny, I almost always opt for a scope on my air guns. I do use some classic air guns of yester-year that have peep sights, but with my eyes, a scope is a great aid in hunting. Not only does it increase my accuracy, but it is an aid for locating the squirrel that is doing its best to become part of the tree, holding still and motionless, depending on its camouflage to protect it from my prying eyes. There are many airgun scopes to choose from, but I find a 3-9x variable scope with an adjustable objective (AO) to be adequate for most hunting situations. The AO is very helpful in bringing into focus the target and the crosshairs so that one or the other isn't blurry. And the zoom feature aids me in being very precise with pellet placement on shots that are on the outer edge of my effective range. One other very useful feature to a variable power scope is that if my squirrel hunting gun is doing double-duty as a pest control gun, I need to be very sure of my target. For instance, if there are several small sparrows mixed in a group, I want to be sure that I only dispatch the English sparrow, and leave the indigenous song sparrows alone. One is a pest, the other a very desirable singing bird. Yet they look very much alike. A good scope is an excellent aid in identifying the correct target.

One other consideration when using a scope be sure it is rated for the type power-plant your air gun uses. If your air gun is a spring-piston type of air gun, the vibrations from such a power-plant can and have sent many a scope to the graveyard. Air gun rated scopes are cushioned differently than most firearm scopes in order to handle the vibration that occurs when a spring-piston air gun fires. Other types of power-plants such as CO2, pre-charge pneumatics (PCP), or pump-up pneumatic guns need not worry about that issue. They will accept firearm scopes quite handily, though you may need to have the parallax adjusted since you won't be taking very many 100+ yard shots.

Which Pellets Should I Use?

Practice with your air gun until you have achieved the necessary marksmanship needed to pursue your small game. Try a variety of pellets and choose the most accurate for your needs. I personally find domed pellets to be the most accurate in most of my airguns, and if over-penetration is an issue, some of the wadcutter type pellets used in competition matches will reduce the penetration to a degree. This is very handy in the event you are clearing out a barn of pest birds and don't want to damage the roof after shooting a pest bird.

So, are you ready to go squirrel hunting? Let's go! We've got our air gun of choice, the pellet that shoots the most accurately from that gun, a good quality airgun scope if desired, and we know the range at which we should and should not shoot. As we head off into the woods, we take advantage of natural paths such as dry creek beds, logging lanes, game trails any means by which we can move quietly through the woods. We've located food sources for our squirrels, such as the edge of the woods that borders a cornfield, or perhaps a soybean field. Maybe we are hunting the hardwoods where there is a good mast crop of acorns and beechnuts? If we've done some scouting, we may already have noticed where the squirrel's nests, called dreys, are located. If we arrive early, we can catch them coming out of them. If it is the evening, perhaps we'll find them heading back to the nest. Using every bit of advantage we can, we sometimes sit and wait for movement in the trees or along the ground. Quite often we will hear the squirrel before we actually see him as he bounces along the ground over the dry leaves.

The conditions under which we can hunt squirrels may range from early in the season when there is a heavy cover of leaves still on the trees, to late winter when the trees are bare and the wind blows cold. In the early season, we watch for the leaves and branches of the trees to sway abnormally as the squirrel makes his way through the canopy. We use the canopy against the squirrel by stalking closer, closing the range since he can't see us as readily as when there are no leaves on the trees. If we are hunting in late fall, we place obstacles between us and our target, using whatever we can to carefully move into range - or we wait and see if the squirrel will come to us. Only time spent in the woods and experience will help us decide which tactic we use at any given time.

After we have finished our hunt, don't forget to wipe down your air gun with a product designed to protect the metal from rust. There are several products on the market that achieve this, and I do my best to remove my fingerprints and moisture from the finish of the gun. The oils in your skin and moisture and humidity will quickly ruin the finish on metal. As for the barrel, I don't clean the barrel after every hunt or firing session. Air guns don't suffer from powder build-up like firearms, and unless accuracy begins to suffer, a patch run through every so often is sufficient. In the event you do clean your barrel thoroughly, avoid harsh firearm solvents. They are designed to removed powder buildup, and they will quickly deteriorate your seals and o-rings that are necessary to an air gun's proper functioning. A product such as Goo-gone or another citrus-based cleaner is more than enough cleaning power for an air gun barrel.

In subsequent articles, I'll try and cover more tactics and share stories of squirrel hunts that describe how you achieve the purpose for which you are in the woods. There are several scenarios that can change depending on how many hunters you have, what time of year it happens to be, and whether or not you are using a dog for treeing purposes. In any event, I encourage you to consider the pursuit of small game with an air gun. It is a rewarding experience that can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment.

Randy Mitchell