Capstick, ballistics and airguns

Monday, April 5, 2010

My rampant bookaholism is already known to the readers of this blog. I remain an unrepentant devotee of used bookstores because, like Jim Hawkins on Treasure Island, you never know what goodies you are going to unearth. Recently I scored on a stack of Peter Capstick volumes. Capstick was a professional hunter in Africa for many years, a frequent contributor to shooting and hunting magazines, and one of my very favorite authors of all time.

I was happily cruising through one of Capstick’s volumes entitled Last Horizons when I encountered some thoughts that might shed some light on the occasionally heated discussions of ballistics as pertains to airgun hunting that pop up from time to time on the online forums. It is a subject of great interest to me because, while I am not a frequent hunter, I am sometimes called on to do a pest control favor for a neighbor, and when that happens, I want a decisive, humane outcome.

In an article called “Use Just Enough Gun,” originally published in the Guns & Ammo Annual in 1976, Capstick said:

“It ain’t if you hit ‘em, it’s where you hit ‘em. Nothing counts like bullet placement, and if you expect to knock buffalo and elephant over with bullet energy, you’re in a for a rude and possibly fatal update in your thinking.”

Now, to be sure, Capstick was writing about hunting big game with large caliber rifles, but the principle remains the same even if you’re out to assassinate squirrels with your airgun: you have to hit the game where it counts, no matter what caliber you employ.

Capstick goes on in his inimitable way:

“It’s a sad fallacy of hunters unfamiliar and unpracticed with the cave-bore Magnums who have, mixed up somewhere in their awe of that great, gaping muzzle, the sure knowledge that all that is necessary for success is to hit meat and arrange of the taxidermy. I have been to some really nifty funerals that would refute that point.”

It’s probably a safe bet that none of the readers of this blog are likely to be trampled to death by a wounded ground squirrel or fatally gored by an enraged woodchuck, but just because you’re launching a large caliber pellet at your prey doesn’t mean you will automatically achieve the desired outcome.

Elsewhere in the book, Capstick says:

“Of course, many drop instantly to the shot, but only because of bullet damage to a vital spot such as brain, neck or spine.”

Capstick isn’t alone in this belief. One day I was googling “wound ballistics,” and I found It is a report by the FBI Academy Firearms Training Unit on “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness.”

Most handguns are, like airguns, pretty slow, so I was intrigued by the following:
“The human target can be reliably incapacitated only by disrupting or destroying the brain or upper spinal cord.”

A disclaimer: I am emphatically not interested in shooting people, but the principle still holds when hunting small game with an airgun: if you want an instant “lights out” shot, you have to disrupt the brain or upper spinal cord.

So it seems to me that there are four key factors in successful airgun hunting (beyond the bushcraft of finding and stalking your prey):

• an accurate weapon capable of hitting the brain or upper spinal cord at the range at which the shot will be taken,
• enough power to disrupt the brain or upper spinal cord,
• the patience to wait for the right shot to be taken, and
• an adequate knowledge of the anatomy of your prey so that you can aim at vital areas.

Having said that, Cliff Tharpe, producer of Airgun Hunting the California Ground Squirrel, observes that as he goes up in caliber, he sees more “bang-flop.” In other words, a larger pellet, properly placed, is more likely to produce instant lights-out.

Til next time, aim true and shoot straight.

– Jock Elliott

– end –


  1. John Ciccone says:

    Normally, we think of Peter Capstick as an African big game hunter, writer, and guide. But he also had a boyish, playful side. I came acros a collection of articles he wrote, for which magazine, I can’t remember. In it was a story he wrote about shooting dragon flies with a CO2 “BB machine gun.” Lead’em and spray.

    1. Jock Elliott says:


      Capstick is among my very favorites. He is the originator of mini sniping, and he wrote a piece called “Backyard Safari” that featured a Crosman 760.

  2. Tim BSA Devon UK says:

    Found an article on airgun hunting that recomended saving the skulls of the quarry removing the flesh give you some idea of brain placement and size.

    Maybe someone could show kill zone overlayed on x ray plates??

    1. Jock Elliott says:


      That’s a good idea. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

four + fourteen =