Handgun hunting has become a very popular sport over the last couple decades. As a rule, handguns are more difficult to shoot than rifles and as the range is shorter than with a rifle it puts much more emphasis on closing with your quarry, and many hunters have found themselves drawn to the challenge. I took up the sport in the late seventies, hunting small game with a number of rimfire pistols and revolvers. Before long I’d graduated to the big bores, and spent a lot of time in the field tracking feral hogs up and down the coastal hills of my native California. I found a heavy centerfire like a .44 mag a great round for this up close and personal brand of hunting.
As my interest in hunting with air rifles grew, it crossed my mind that using an airpistol for small game and pest control would provide me with an opportunity to get in more shooting, and be a lot of fun to boot! I started looking around and found that while there was an almost unlimited selection of low powered CO2 plinkers (clones of popular Colts, Sig Sauers, etc) there was a very limited selection of handguns with the accuracy and power to reliably kill anything larger than a field mouse. I wanted a hunting tool that would be applicable for shooting pigeons inside of a barn, or rabbits around the garden. Many years ago a chart was published in the Beeman catalog that stated most small game and pest species required 3 to 5 foot pounds energy (fpe) to kill, and since I planned to use these guns inside of the twenty yard range thought that a muzzle energy around 9-10 FPE would be sufficient.
There were a few guns that came close to this; the Sheriden H Series multi-pump .20 caliber pistol, the Crosman 600, the Crossman 2240 CO2 in .177 and .22, and a few others. I found that that the stock Sheriden and the Crosmans produced around 8 fpe and were capable of making clean kills on pigeons, starlings and rats at close range, so long as I was close and could make the head shot. These results should not be surprising, British airgun hunters are limited to sub 12 fpe airrifles (without a special firearms permit), and have obtained excellent results using them for rabbit and pigeon hunting. When taken in the context of firearms, most airguns are relatively low powered, and the ability to precisely deliver a pellet on target is the critical piece. If you are keeping the range inside of twenty yards, it doesn’t matter if you hit a squirrel in the head with 8 fpe or a 12 fpe, what matters is that you hit him in the head!
Of course if accuracy is comparable, more power is better. A more powerful gun will allow a bit more latitude in shot placement and it will allow shots to be taken at slightly longer ranges. This simple truth lead me on a search to find ways to boost the performance of the guns that were available, and I stumbled on a small cadre of hobbyist that were hot-rodding production CO2 pistols; particularly the inexpensive and readily available Crosman 2240. This gun can be purchased for around fifty dollars, and with a Dremel tool and a couple evenings tinkering, can be turned into a 9-12 fpe hunting gun. The pistol is dismantled and the internal dimensions of the valve increased, and the transfer port between the valve and the receiver opened up to facilitate improved gas flow. The process of modifying the valve and transfer port, optimizing the hammer spring, and fine tuning the trigger is not only easy but a lot of fun. There are also a number of after market accessories such as complete replacement valves, receivers and bolts, and custom grips in exotic woods and laminates now available from several sources.
I have used the modified 2240 to take pigeons, squirrels, cottontails, and jackrabbits out past 20 yards. While not an absolute necessity, it is preferable to stick with head shots. The intrinsic accuracy achieved with most of these airpistols is more than adequate; sub 1/2 inch groups at twenty yards are the norm. It is a good idea to check several different brands of pellets to see what works best with a specific gun; I find that light weight round nose pellets are effective hunting projectiles well suited to the lower velocities of pistols. Hollowpoints tend to be ineffectual at these low velocities, wadcutters don’t penetrate very well but are efficient transferring energy at these close ranges, and pointed pellets are typically the least accurate. While caliber is not critical, one can argue whether the higher velocity and deeper penetration of the .177 or larger wound channel and increased energy delivered by the .22 offers greater advantage. This might be one of the few times an alloy pellet might be a good option; I have recently been shooting the Gamo PBA Raptor .22 caliber pellet with some interesting results. There is a substantial jump in velocity over standard pellets. Inside of twenty yards they are fairly accurate and the terminal performance is quite good. As a matter of fact I’ve had much better results using them in pistols than rifles.
There are three basic options available when selecting a sighting system for the hunting air pistol; at these close ranges iron sights are fine, but many hunters opt for either a scope or a red dot. Most of my guns are equipped with low power scopes, and as pest control often takes place at night some are also equipped with lights and lasers as well.
Up to this point we have been looking at the most common airpistols available, but there are some new high power PCP and CO2 handguns on the market that open up new territory for the hunter. The FX Ranchero is available in .177 or .22 caliber: this PCP pistol uses an eight shot rotary magazine and generates about 16 fpe, though the adjustable power can be dialed down when shooting in more enclosed spaces. These numbers place it in the same performance range as many full sized rifles. Another source for high power airpistols are the small custom houses specializing in providing components for conversions or producing ground up builds. Once an airpistol is above the 20 fpe threshold, it is capable of taking prairie dogs, woodchucks and raccoons. Dennis Quackenbush has a line of big bore (.308 and up) PCP handguns that put out well over 100 fpe and have been used to take feral hogs and coyotes!
If you are a handgun hunter and want to get in some practice, or simply want a compact shooting tool for taking care of pest control duties around the property, an air powered handgun might be the right option. Make sure you pick a gun that is up to the job, find the right ammo for it, and practice a lot to make sure you can hold up your end. Getting in lots of practice should present no problems; a tin of pellets, a few CO2 cartridges, and an open section of basement or garage and you are good to go!
What’s going on
I’m packing up for a business trip to Europe next week, first Austria then on to Scotland. I am going to try to stop over in Nuremberg for a day to visit the IWA, which is the European version of the SHOT Show, though there is much more focus on the airgun side of things. On my return I’ll be off to the studio for taping new “Round Table” episodes of the American Airgunner, which will air this summer. After that we are trying to set up a predator hunt in Texas, though we’re getting late in the season. On the other hand we’ll have prairie dog trips coming up soon!