Big bore airguns were used as early as the 1700s to take wild boar in Europe. There is extensive documentation on the use of these guns, though they were not widely known and very few huntsman of the day would ever get a chance to use one. They were expensive and complicated to manufacture and their ownership was restricted to the very wealthy nobles of the day. But over the last decade there has been a resurgence of this primitive hunting technique, which is rapidly growing in popularity.
I’ve shot a lot of hogs over the last several years; in Texas, Florida, California, wherever the opportunity presented. I’ve chased warthog in South Africa on multiple occasions and continue this activity on yearly trips to the Eastern Cape. I’ve been skunked on bushpigs the last couple years, but will spend as many nights huddled over the rotting carcasses used for bait as necessary until I add this species to my list. I am like most of the readers of this magazine, a committed hog hunter. There is however probably one fundamental difference; my hunting tool of choice (where permitted by law) is an air rifle.
The big bore airgun came on the scene in the 1700s, all but disappearing during the intervening centuries. However there is a new breed of airgun available that utilizes high pressure air to drive heavy large caliber bullets at 650 – 900 feet per second. My favorite pig gun right now is a Quackenbush .451, which propels a 245 grain cast lead bullet at over 800 fps yielding well over 340 foot pound of energy! OK, that’s not a powerhouse when compared to a centerfire rifle or even a .44 mag. But the tackdriving accuracy along with the terminal performance of these slow moving projectiles can really mess up a pig’s day, even the big tuskers. There is a growing fraternity of big bore airgun hunters in North America, and hogs are one of the favorite quarry because of availability, and the regulations in several jurisdictions allow them to be taken with air powered rifles. The two key aspects of air hoggin are to get into the appropriate range and select the optimal shot! I can tell you from personal experience on ferals, Russians, and warthogs that the penetration and power are more than enough to cleanly and efficiently anchor even the big ones.
All airguns that are appropriate for taking hogs are powered by compressed high power air. You may have seen the guy on the hunting show shooting a pig in the head from a few yards with a .177 springer propelling an alloy pellet, which at best is a stunt that no ethical hunter would consider. What I’m discussing is an appropriate tool for fair chase hunting. There are essentially three categories of big bore airguns available to today’s hunters. The first are the mass produced big bores, these are airguns manufactured in Korea by Shinsung and Sam Yung. Both companies have many years in the airgun business and produce guns in .308, .45, and .50 calibers. They are at the lower end of the power band typically putting out approximately 200 fpe, but are readily available and more than adequate for a forty yard pig gun. There are also some great tuners such as Will Piatt that can ramp up the power on these guns substantially, as well as smoothing out the action and the trigger. The next source is arguably the best, the semi custom production guns of Dennis Quackenbush. These guns are an order of magnitude more powerful than the Korean guns, but the downside is that you may have to get on a year long waiting list for a rifle. When it finally arrives however, you know it was worth the wait. And finally, we are seeing small start up shops that put out custom guns. The best of these should build into viable businesses with time. Demand is exceeding supply as the popularity of the sport grows.
Pre Charged Pneumatic airguns can store a fairly large volume of air and provide from a couple to many shots on a single charge. The guns are filled by connecting the air tank to the guns onboard reservoir using a hose fitted with a quick release connecter. A pressure gauge allows the fill pressure to be monitored during the charging process, and the line bleed and disconnected when the desired fill pressure (2500 – 3500 psi) is achieved. Once filled, the gun is ready for action. In the field I carry a small carbon fiber buddy bottle in my day pack that will allow me to refill the gun as needed, and the process can be accomplished quickly.
Texas Hog Hunt
On one trip to Texas, I carried a .50 caliber gun that had been setup to generate over 600 fpe. The projectile used was a 325 grain slug that a friend had cast from soft lead and was designed with a hollow base. We had experimented with flipping this bullet and shooting it back end first, finding that at 50 yards it was grouping at just under an inch. While this is not great accuracy out of this particular rifle, it was more than adequate for a fifty yard hunting gun. Hiking the ranch early one morning and glassing the river bottom from a low hillside, we spotted a group of hogs feeding. There weren’t any monsters, but there were a couple shooters in the group. Setting up the stalk, I moved quickly into position and set up on shooting sticks while remaining hidden by a thick stand of brush. As the herd stepped into view at about sixty yards, I picked out a small boar and lined up a broadside. The big slug went through both lungs, and after running a few yards the 180 lb pig rolled over and thrashed a minute before going still. While skinning the animal we retrieved the bullet from under the skin on the opposite shoulder, the projectile formed a perfect mushroom … a very big mushroom.
As I related in the beginning of this article, I’ve taken several animals with a variety of airguns; feral hogs, Russians (up to 300 lb), and several large warthogs. In just about every case the kills have been one shot and clean. Those of us that hunt hogs in this manner opt for headshots more than most firearms hunters do. The ability to deliver spot on shot placement due to both the intrinsic accuracy and low recoil of these guns routinely makes this a viable target zone. You don’t get the hydrostatic shock delivered by a centerfire, but a big .45 or .50 caliber hole in the right place does just fine.
A few years ago I was on a friend’s ranch in South Africa hunting plains game. We’d gotten permits to use bigbore airguns for these animals as part of an evaluation hunt to see if this would be allowed on an ongoing basis. My friends place had an over abundance of these African tuskers, and we ended up shooting quite a few to reduce the population. Two less than stellar shots stand out in my memory from this first hunt, even better than some of the picture perfect stalks and kills we’d put on. It underscores one of the basic principles of this type of hunting, shot placement is paramount!
In the first, we’d been after a kudu glassed from a distant hillside and had been stalking the bull for about a mile. As we poked our heads over a small canyon rim, I found myself staring at the largest warthog I’d ever seen. Massive body and massive ivory, he was standing broadside with the light wind in our favor. My hunting plans change immediately; this had just evolved from a kudu to a warthog hunt! Ducking down I slowly cocked the gun and stood back up, he hadn’t moved. Shooting downward at a steep angle, I placed the crosshair straight up on the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The hog was knocked right of his feet, I mean he didn’t kick, he didn’t squeal, just dropped like a bag of cement. We stood there a minute then started whooping and high fiving, I hadn’t bothered to reload when he went down and was carried away by the excitement. I bent down to pick up my pack and walk up on my trophy, but as I straightened back up was horrified to see the hog jumping to his feet and heading straight up the hill at a half run half drag. He was out of my range before I could reload, but my buddy (and a PH) snapped up his 30-06 and with two quick shots that both hit finally dropped him. Even though I badly wanted this pig I didn’t claim him as my own, it was my friends shots that had anchored him. A post mortem explained the event, I’d shot high and clipped the spine, temporarily stunning the critter. I guess I been thrown off by the angle of the shot, or maybe it was buck fever spawned by a really big animal, but I broke the first rule of airgun hunting and not made the right shot placement.
The second shot started off when glassing from a dirt road while driving cross country, we saw a line of Warthogs trotting down a hillside about three hundred yards off and parallel with the path we were on. We grabbed the shooting sticks and took off on a run down the road before finding a wash that led to where we expected the pigs path to converge on us. Half running half crawling through the heavy thorn bush, we climbed out of the gully and got to the ambush site we’d selected. Sure enough, after a few minutes we heard the sound of hoofs which resolved into a perfect line of warthogs appearing over a low ridge. The animals were only thirty five yards away and the big sow in the lead stopped dead when she saw us. My hunting partner hissed “take it, shoot, shoot” and I did. I hit that old sow right between the eyes with a 325 grain bullet that glanced off her sloping forehead, where upon she gave an indignant squeal and a snort, then turned tail and led her family off in the direction they’d approached from. Last sighting was the line of hogs disappearing over a distant hill at a dead run. My friend, who is also a PH, turned and looked at me saying “that’s why head shots aren’t great on that animal”. It wasn’t the guns terminal performance; it was my shot selection in both cases. But I learned, and have shot several more of these fantastic critters with much better results. As a matter of fact, the general sentiment of the PHs we’ve hunted with is that we are at least as effective as firearm hunters and more so than a majority of the bow hunters they guide due to our focus on shot placement and shot selection along with the ballistic performance of the big, heavy slugs.
Much more in line with typical results was last year, when we were driving to the far end of the property to scout an area to hunt bushbuck. We spotted a group of three nice little boars of a similar size, very slowly rooting across a hillside about four hundred yards away. We picked a line that had lots of brush covering our approach and started towards an intercept point. I’d broken my ankle a few weeks before and had the cast removed early so I could hunt, and was doing my best to keep up, but not moving real fast. At any rate we got into position behind a bush about fifty yards below the level of the hogs on the hillside, and about fifty yards ahead of them. My leg was pounding so badly that I couldn’t stand, so I sat down and laid my rifle across a detached bipod I had in my pack and waited. The lead pig kept moving parallel to the hill, but the two behind turned and started down. Deciding to shoot before the two rear hogs stumbled down and on us, I opted to take the boar in the front. I was just preparing to shoot when the pig started walking again then turned to look in our direction, offering a front quartering shot. I stoked the trigger and heard the bullet impact as he dropped with a grunt. The shot had gone through the right lung, traversed the animal in an oblique line, and smashed the left hip.
To my way of thinking, this penetration on an animal this big and this tough is proof positive these guns are an effective hunting tool. The fact that they are also quiet when compared to a firearm didn’t factor in while shooting in the African bush, but it does have the potential to open up areas closer to home where a gun isn’t currently an option. As feral hogs continue to extend their range and spread into more urban environments, and hunting space comes more difficult to find airguns will continue to grow in popularity as a viable means of take, Regardless of whether your motivated by pragmatism or simply the urge to maximize the challenge of your hunts, an airgun may be something you want to try.