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.
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.
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.