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Power for Airgun Hunting

Posted by on August 10, 2013

One of the common questions discussed/debated amongst airgunners is how much power is optimal for hunting? The short answer in my opinion, is as much as you can get while maintaining the accuracy required for whatever ranges you’ll be shooting at. I’ve read articles with guys saying “12 fpe is all you need” or implying there is something inherently better in using a lower power gun. I think there are three or four good reasons for opting for less power; a) it is all you are legally allowed to use, b) you are hunting in an area where you need to limit range or potential damage to property or wildlife with missed shots, c) you are in a situation such as culling pigeons in a barn, where high shot count is more important than power.

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A low power gun, like this Gamo Stutzen .177 12fpe, can be used to effectively take small game. But you need to be more selective, with respect to shot placement and range, for the shots you take.

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I’ll opt for a higher power gun even when shooting small pests like these N. Dakota ground squirrels. Not for the terminal energy delivered, it doesn’t take much energy to kill these diminutive critters, but rather because I’ll often reach out to 100 yards.

But all things being equal, if I have a choice between a 12 fpe gun and a 20 fpe gun that provide equivalent accuracy, I’ll opt for more power. The higher power option will allow you more latitude in shot placement, especially with respect to broadside and quartering shots, will allow you to reach out a bit further, and allow you to use heavier pellets without giving up too much in velocity.. therefore maintaining a flatter trajectory. I again stress that accuracy is the most important aspect, without accuracy a powerful gun is useless. The main reason I’ll grab a lower power gun, as mentioned, are the isolated situations where less power is a specific criteria for a specific use case.

This isn’t to say a low power gun isn’t effective, gajillions of rabbits, squirrels, and other small game have been taken in the UK where there is a legal limit is 12 fpe. This limit is arbitrary, and was a result of the British airgunning industry lobbying lawmakers in a misguided effort to protect their market from foreign competition, which were entering their markets with higher power models and putting pressure on the local manufacturers ability to compete. So there is now a limit, unless the shooters wants to apply, and justify their need, for a higher power gun. This permission is called an FAC, and is the same certification required for a firearm, and the applicant has to demonstrate a need and show they have a place to use it.. Unlike the USA where we can use any power airgun we desire, many of our shooting cousins across the pond buy airguns because it is their only option. I think that because of this, there is a tendency to rationalize that low power is a better option….. it isn’t… at least in most cases.

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I used a 150 fpe DAQ .308 to drop this springbok at 80 yards. Next month I’ll use a new 80 fpe .303 and 125 fpe .357 on my airgunning safari, but will stick to closer ranges and probably head shots. But I’ll use the same guns for jackals and Guinea fowl as well.

I can kill a jackrabbit at thirty yards with a headshot from a 12 fpe gun every time. At fifty yards there might be enough residual energy to make a kill, but the loopy trajectory makes the consistent shot placement less certain. And even at thirty yards the chest shot is less effective, it can work but won’t be as consistent. The other point is that I like .22 and .25 caliber hunting guns, and a rifle in this caliber doing 12 fpe is like chucking a brick underhand with respect to the trajectory. For this reason my lower power guns tend to be .177 and have a very specific use in my hunting/pest control applications.

While I generally opt for powerful guns, that doesn’t mean I’ll dial them up to maximum power (for adjustable power guns) or tune them up for the highest possible power. It depends on the balance between power, accuracy, and what the intended application might be. That is one of the reasons I like guns with adjustable power, such as the Airforce Condor or the FX Verminator, because I can make those choices and optimize the gun to match my specific situation or ammunition selection.

My (very general) rule of thumb, is that I like a 15-20 fpe gun for squirrel and cottontail, crows and smaller game, a 30-40 fpe gun for turkey, fox, raccoons, a 100-150 fpe gun for small antelope, coyote, bobcat, and a 200 – 400 fpe gun for deer, hogs, warthog, larger antelope, etc. But depending on the situation; such as the need to limit range, penetration, or noise I may go to a lower power or smaller caliber. When the situation does call for a lower power gun, a 40 fpe .22 for killing a coyote in an urban setting, the very important criteria for accuracy becomes absolutely critical as the importance of perfect shot placement is a primary requirement.

If you have purchased a lower power (12 fpe) gun for indoor pest control and decide to use it out in the woods on a squirrel hunt, there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But I’d stay with head shots and keep the range inside of 30-35 yards. You can also try out some different pellet types, alloy pellets or polymer tipped in these guns when you want to step up the performance, they will give enhanced penetration over standard lead round nose pellets. Just make sure before you start shooting at live quarry that the gun/ammo selection provides the accuracy you require.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can have too much power, or at least more than you need. A 150 fpe .357 doesn’t make sense for squirrel or rabbit hunting as it will blow right through and keep on going, but an 80 fpe .303 works fine on the smaller stuff while giving you an option if an opportunity for a bobcat or coyote comes up. It doesn’t hurt to have a 600 fpe gun when hunting deer but you don’t need it for a 75 yard shot. However if you’re going to have to stretch out to 150 yards the extra power is a plus. And that’s the point with a powerful gun, it’s not that the high power is always needed, but having it on reserve if something bigger comes along, if a less than perfect shot presents (chest instead of head), or you need to reach out, more power on tap is a plus. Now there is another side to this that I’ll mention; I have friends that are all about getting the highest possible power out of their big bore guns, even if it means utilizing a barrel that exceeds some of my fly fishing rods in length. I like guns that are compact and are handy to handle, so will opt for a shorter 20″ barrel even if I could obtain higher velocities with a 38″ barrel.

I was out shooting two of my favorite guns today, the Daystate Wolverine and the Daystate Huntsman Classic. I believe they are overall the finest airguns made, the performance, the balance, the styling… they are the complete package. Of the two, I like the overall design of the Huntsman better, but the .303 is a caliber I’m becoming quite fond of. Every time I go out shooting these guns I’m impressed, however the Wolverine is the gun I’ll be taking to South Africa next month. My reason relates to the discussion above, I can use the .303 to shoot small antelope (up to a springbok), predators, and Guinea fowl, which means I don’t need to carry two guns for a job one (the right one) can do.

So really, the question of what constitutes the optimal power in a hunting gun depends on what you’ll be shooting and under what conditions. There are many variables to consider such as; will you have to use the game for multiple species, is there a possibility you may have to reach out a bit further, or is there a compelling reason to tradeoff power for shot count? Unless one of these conditions exist however, I’ll generally opt for power.

12 Responses to Power for Airgun Hunting

  1. Jim Phillips

    Very nice article. Thanks very much! My bud in the UK and I both have AA Prosports, mine is .22 and his is .177. My Prosport will shoot a Crossman 14.3 gr pellet at 700 FPS yielding 15 plus Ft pounds of energy. My buddy’s Prosport shoots a .177 (Not sure which) pellet at about the same velocity and about 11 Ft pounds of energy. For shooting targets, either works, but, for hunting, I’ll take the .22 with 15 plus Ft pounds of energy every day.

    When you get up to hunting large game like deer, etc why not just use a center fire rifle? For deer, I use a Kimber of Oregon Model 82, 25-06.

    Thanks again for a most informative column.

    best,

    JimP

    • dane

      When you get up to hunting large game like deer, etc why not just use a center fire rifle?

      why some hunters use the bow in this modern time?
      To get the thrill of stalking and getting within 100 yards of your quary while not disturbing the whole of nature that takes real skill. I am from trinidad we are only allowed .177 smooth bore airrfles and Shotguns and you have to be someone special or know somebody in high society to get the FUL for the shotgun

      • Jim Chapman

        Hi Jim,
        That Kimber is a very nice gun, I had a .22 Kimber a while back that I really liked. I actually still have several centerfire rifles in my gun room; the Winchester Model 70, Remington Mountain Model 700, and a Ruger Model 77 international all in 30-06 being my go-to rifles for big game, though my collection includes a couple .223’s, a 250/3000, a couple .308’s, and another dozen or so guns along the caliber spectrum. I’ve been hunting all my life and was looking for more challange, moving from rifles to handguns, to bow …. and then I found big bore airguns. I liked the concept of bow hunting and getting in close to quarry, but just never really “took” to archery. I still hunt with firearms and bow a few times every year, mostly when I hunt in places where airgun aren’t legal for big game. After taking well over 100 big game animals with airguns I can remember every one of them clearly ….. which I can’t say about firearms. The short answer for the airguns on big game, it gives me a sense of accomplishment……. On the other hand I’ve passed on a lot of nice animals that would have been easy shots if I’d had a centerfire in my hands. I have a lot of friends that will take their centerfires when we hunt predators or big game, and bring their airguns soley for down time varminting … nothing wrong with that either.
        Regasrds,
        Jim

  2. Jim Phillips

    I understand. Thanks very much for your comments. I really enjoy reading your column. Keep up the great work!

    best,

    JimP

  3. Mike Johnson

    Jim, I’d like to hunt tree squirrels with my R9. It’s .177 caliber and tuned to 16 ftlbs. It shoots crosman premiers well, but I’m concerned that will not take them cleanly. Would I be better with Polymags? What is your opinion of Polymags?

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mike;
      A 16 fpe gun is more than enough on squirrels, and you don’t need anything exotic with a gun of this power, a good roundnose pellet will do the trick. Having said this, I do really like the polymags, they can be devaststing on small game. A lot of guns digest this round just fine, only make sure your gun is accurate with them. And if it is, go ahead and give them a go.
      Jim

  4. Mark D

    Jim,
    Regarding whitetail and the lower range of fpe, what sort of shot placement are you looking for? I’m primarily an air gunner, but I’m trying to figure out an effective range for my newly acquired black powder rifle. It is grouping rather nicely for me, and I am thinking that with proper shot placement I should be able to exceed the range considered standard, by many, for this sort of rifle (i.e. shot placement considering a reduced fpe). Thanks.

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mark;
      With respect to the FPE, I find that in most instances with an airgun it is a matter of getting the accuracy needed. I try to keep my airgun ranges in line with archery ranges, but depending on the gun and the situation I’ll stretch it out further. This is predicated on knowing what the gun can do…. if it sounds like I’m not giving you a firm answer, it’s because in the end you have to answer the question yourself. If you are sure you can hold up your end the gun/bullet will probably perform on the terminal end. On deer I generally use a broadside chest shot, but will take a headshot if that’s the highest percentage target I’m offered. Good luck with the hunting, let us hear how you do!

  5. Sean

    What can I hunt with a .22 caliber Gas Piston rifle ? It produces about 18 fpe with Crosman Premier HP and domes and H&N Barracuda 21.14 grains ? Raccoons ? Woodchucks ? I can get good groups out to 40 yards.

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Sean;
      I’d stay away from the raccoons unless you can get in a bit closer (inside of 30 yards). My own preference would be for something in the 30-40 fpe range for raccoons.
      Jim

  6. TheGDog

    I recently purchased an Umarex Octane in .22 and it claims 1050fps with lead… so lets go low and say it makes 1000 fps with lead.

    With Predator PolyMags at 16 grains that’s 35.54 fpe.
    With Beeman Kodiak’s at 21.14 grains that’s 46.95 fpe.

    I’m in SoCal (OC/LA) so besides Ground Squirrels (since Tree Squirrels apparently are a no-no down here in the regulations. What other game/vermin are these fpe numbers sufficient for?

    • Jim Chapman

      The combination can easily take jackrabbits, cottontail, quail, chukker, and turkey as far as you can accurately shoot. I was shooting Eurasian doves out to 45 yards with an Octane a couple days ago, worked fine.

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