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Small Game Hunting With Airguns

"Why hunt with airguns?" or "what's the best pellet gun for squirrels?" are questions we get when chatting with non-airgunners about hunting and taking game with air-powered weapons. 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, many new hunters have found that air guns have met their needs for various types of hunting, and not just small game. 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.

Many youngsters have 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 squirrels 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.

Airgun Power

Manufacturers often use FPS (feet per second) as a way to represent "power" to prospective buyers. But, FPS deals with Velocity and NOT Energy. Velocity certainly plays a role so let's take a very quick look at FPS before moving on. Velocity deals with how fast the projectile is going, without consideration for its weight. So when you see a number on the side of a box stating "1200 FPS" in a .177 caliber airgun you really need to know what that means. Generally speaking, the manufacturer has taken the lightest projectile, usually some lead-free alloy, and tested it over a chronograph to get the highest possible number.

Additionally, accuracy is seldom if ever part of the consideration when it comes to the numbers on the box. 1200 FPS all bright and shiny on the side of a .177 airgun box may look impressive, but when it comes to real-life hunting performance, a slower-moving and heavier .22 or .25 may be far more effective on small game.

Which now brings us to energy, the FPE part of the equation. FPE stands for foot-pounds of energy which is calculated using the velocity along with the weight of the projectile to estimate how much energy can be produced by your airgun. While some may argue that hunters should ONLY look at FPE both factors need to be considered. When hunting alert game, you may find that they are able to jump the shot because they hear the shot before the projectile gets to them. This is where a higher FPS along with a higher FPE becomes critical. In the end, you want to make sure that you are matching the right caliber along with the right FPE and FPS to get the job done.

Which Caliber Is Best For Small Game Hunting?

There are three main airgun calibers most often considered for small game hunting, .177, .22, and .25 calibers. While .177 and .22 have been the most commonly used in the past, the push for more power, range, and accuracy at longer ranges, has propelled the .25 caliber option near the top, if not at the top of the list when looking for the best small game hunting caliber

Let's look at the smaller calibers first.

Is the .177 caliber pellet adequate for small game 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. The old school thinking would be to say that .177 is for feathers and .22 is for fur. In the end, both are extremely effective provided you make a clean shot.

The advantage to the larger and often heavier .25 caliber is that you have a lot more energy to put on target which in turn does a lot more damage. You always want to be as precise as possible so going with a .25 does not mean you get to be sloppy. It means when things happen outside of your control, you have a much greater margin for error.

Additionally, the greater weight in both .22 and the .25 often means a more stable and predictable trajectory at longer ranges and in windy conditions, provided there's enough velocity to make the trip. Going back to the FPS and FPE discussion, once you know your intended game, look for the best combination of caliber, velocity, and energy to get the job done.

Do I Need a Scope to Hunt Squirrels?

Because the kill zone on small game can be very small, having a good scope can make the difference between a clean kill and just wounding your target. Not only can it increase accuracy, but it's also an aid for locating game that is doing its best to become part of the environment, holding still and motionless, depending on its camouflage to protect it. There are many airgun scopes to choose from, but a 3-9x variable scope with an adjustable objective (AO) can be very 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 in being very precise with pellet placement on shots.

Additionally, a variable power scope can be very useful in identifying your target amongst other targets in the field. For instance, if there are several small sparrows mixed in a group, you want to be sure to 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. In most instances, domed pellets are going to be the most accurate, especially at long range. But, if you're concerned that over-penetration or complete pass-through may be an issue, take a look at some other types of pellets.

Wadcutters, for example, may be very effective at close range. Other pellets like H&N Hollowpoint, Terminators, Predator Polymags, or the new JSB Hades may be just the ticket to give you accuracy at greater distances without passthrough.

Let's Go Hunting!

So, are you ready to go small game hunting? You've picked your air gun, found the pellet that shoots the most accurately, chosen a good quality airgun scope, and you know the effective ethical range you can shoot. Now let's head off into the woods, taking advantage of natural paths such as dry creek beds, logging lanes, game trails any means by which we can move quietly through the woods. Look for natural food and water sources. Point being that some scouting ahead of your hunt can (and will) make the difference between success and failure.

Squirrel season presents a great opportunity for airgun hunting. Here are some quick tips:

Tip #1

The conditions under which you 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, watch for the leaves and branches of the trees to sway abnormally as the squirrel makes his way through the canopy. Use the canopy against the squirrel by stalking closer, closing the range since he can't see you as readily as when there are no leaves on the trees. If hunting in late fall, place obstacles between you and your target, using whatever you can to carefully move into range - or wait and see if the squirrel will come to you. Lots of experience out in the woods will help you learn which tactic will work best at any given time.

Tip #2

After your hunt, don't forget to wipe down your air gun with Ballistal or a similar product designed to protect the metal from moisture, fingerprints, oils, as well as dirt and debris that can quickly impact the finish of your airgun. As for the barrel, there's really no need to clean it after every hunt. 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.

Tip #3

So get out there and get into the game! If you have questions or need help building the perfect airgun hunting bundle, just be sure to reach out to us here at Airgun Depot and we'll be more than happy to help you get the perfect setup!

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Updated September 2020