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My Journey into Airgun Hunting

Posted by on October 12, 2014

I get a lot of questions about how I got into airgunning and what changes I’ve seen over the last several years. In this two part post I’m going to look at one airgunners journey into an emerging hunting sport, grounded in Europe but gaining maturity in the United States. In this two part article I am going to talk about my experience as an airgun hunter, the people and events that have formed my worldview of our sport. A disclaimer; what I am presenting is a personal history and outlook on events, others have different experiences and views. This is mine!

We have a very strong hunting culture in the USA, and it can be argued that it is the most egalitarian and inclusive hunting community in the world. There is however one area in which we have historically lagged behind, and that is the sport of airgun hunting. I’m sure there will be some that read this and smile, or maybe laugh out loud, and based on the exposure many have had to airguns in the past this might be understandable. But two things I can tell you; awareness of what the modern airgun can do is taking hold, and there is a USA based airgunning subculture that is growing and breaking new ground. Hunting laws around the country are incorporating the use of airguns for a variety of quarry from small game to predators to big game species.

To frame this discussion up, let’s take a quick trip back in the history of airguns, and it is a long and storied past. There are examples of precharged pneumatic big bore airguns that are traced back to Bavarian Nobles of the 16th century, with reports of them being used to take large game such as Russian boar. During Napoleonic times there was at least one Austrian battalion of airgun riflemen that were known for their ability to direct accurate and high rates of fire in the direction of their enemies. Closer to home and in the less distant pass, it has become common knowledge that Lewis and Clark carried a twenty shot repeating big bore air rifle to impress the heck out of indian tribes they met along the way.

I didn’t know any of this when I relocated to Europe for school and work in the early eighties, though it was quickly apparent that my lifelong interest in hunting and shooting wasn’t going to go anywhere under the oppressive gun laws of my temporary home. But one day while whining about never getting to shoot, an Austrian friend suggested that I give one of his airguns a try. And what an airgun! It was an under barrel spring piston airgun that sported a finer stock than anything I’d ever shot before. We spent an afternoon plinking and shooting rats at a local tip, and I was hooked. But my real awakening to the sport occurred a few weeks later when I was looking through the international magazine rack at the airport in Amsterdam, and found a British magazine dedicated to airguns and airgun hunting! I’d grown up on Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Fur-Fish-Game and all the other great American hunting and shooting publications so this discovery had me floating higher than everybody else in Amsterdam.

When I got back to the states in the late 90's, I found that it was a very different type of airgun hunting than I'd experienced overseas, and the first time I had the choice to choose airguns over firearms.

When I got back to the states in the late 90’s, I found that it was a very different type of airgun hunting than I’d experienced overseas, and the first time I had the choice to choose airguns over firearms.

What I quickly figured out was that the British have such rigid anti-gun policies in place that the airgun developed in an atmosphere quite different than back home. These guns had become one of the only ways the rank and file Brit could shoot, and they had concurrently developed their guns for hunting applications. While we were running around small game hunting without .22 rimfires back home, our cousins across the pond were having at the rabbit, rook, and wood pigeon populations with finely crafted spring piston airguns. An interesting aside and not sure if this is factual or urban legend, but I’ve been told by several “in-the-know” UK airgunners that the reason for the 12 fpe limit was self-inflicted. UK manufacturers in the 70’s were building spring piston guns with most topping out in the 12 fpe range, when out of Germany and Spain a new threat appeared, magnum springers! To protect their markets British companies lobbied for limits to block these imports….. and as a rule it’s easier to get a law passed than to get it repealed. At any rate it seems as good a reason as any other I’ve heard for this somewhat arbitrary power limit. So I used airguns to hunt where legal, and did almost all my fun shooting with them for several years. After spending a decade in Europe followed by a few years in Asia and Australia, which also had a more developed airgun culture for the same reason as the UK, I brought my passion for airguns home to roost.

This picture was taken in the Mojave desert outside on the California/Nevada border in 1998, and became the cover of my first book "American Airgun Hunter" a few years later.

This picture was taken in the Mojave desert outside on the California/Nevada border in 1998, and became the cover of my first book “American Airgun Hunter” a few years later.

When I got back home to Southern California in the late 90’s I started taking my beautiful German spring piston airguns out after jackrabbits and ground squirrels but never once ran into another airgun hunter. I thought I was all alone, but then I came across the Beeman catalogs and learned there were others taking the leap into high end airguns. As a matter of fact I bought a Beeman C1 (which I still have and shoot) and an R1 that went in a trade a few years back. A little historical juxtaposition; a few years later when writing a review on my first book “American Airgun Hunter” Dr. Beeman said “Jim Chapman is all about results, and will hunt with guns I wouldn’t be seen with” I try to keep an open mind and a sense of context when reviewing any new gun rather than my personal bias.  A bit later I stumbled across Tom Gaylord’s Airgun Letter and started to get a sense that there were a few others like me around.

My son was my hunting partner back in the early days, and we got to do some great trips together. He's off at grad school now, so we don't get out much any more.

My son was my hunting partner back in the early days, and we got to do some great trips together. He’s off at grad school now, so we don’t get out much any more.

Eventually my work took us to the Midwest, and coincidentally a perfect storm of events; I had my introduction to squirrel hunting, I started surfing the internet and found a few other hardcore airgun hunters, I discovered several domestic sources for quality gear, and the advent (actually the reincarnation) of precharged pneumatic airgun technology! All of these factors were impactful, but the latter was a game changer!

Spring piston Airguns were all we had early on and still have two obvious advantages in my view, they are generally much less expensive and they are fully self-contained. They are less expensive because they are simpler to manufacture, have efficiency of scale, and probably the most important factor is they require no additional filling gear. A good quality springer will cost you about 1/4 of the price of a budget PCP and high pressure air tank. This is also why they are self-contained, the energy required to shoot the gun comes from you physically cocking the rifle and setting the piston, for which the investment is 35-50 pounds of cocking effort. But you can take one of these guns and a tin of pellets and hunt as long as it takes you to shoot through 500 pellets, then get another tin and keep on going. Even with the availability of PCP guns, it is the springers that dominate the market still.

Another big step on my airgun journey was when I started tuning cheap Chinese guns and hunting them.

Another big step on my airgun journey was when I started tuning cheap Chinese guns and hunting them.

The primary disadvantages are also two fold; springers are much harder to shoot than a PCP, or a firearm for that matter. There is a bidirectional recoil to the firing cycle, which makes these guns more hold sensitive, and because of the lower velocities when compared to firearms a longer dwell time, or time between the trigger being pulled and the pellets exiting the barrel. Let me say right up front that I am a pretty good, but not a great, shot. Yet I cannot count the number of times a really good centerfire shooter has told me he got one of those damn BB guns, and that it is so inaccurate his targets look like he patterning a shotgun. Then I pick up the gun and shoot a clover leaf, not because I’m an intrinsically better shot (most probably I am not), but because I know how to shoot a springer. Springers don’t like to be rested, they don’t like to be gripped tightly, and all airguns regardless of powerplant are impacted more by trajectory. This is one of the reasons for the slow understanding of the potential of airguns as hunting tools; new shooters didn’t realize a different technique was required and there were not enough resources available to help them.

Precharged pneumatic guns are the ones that were being used a few hundred years ago, but then disappeared from the scene until relatively recently. Why? Because they were technically difficult to manufacture and they were very expensive so when rifled barrels came along firearms were more powerful and far simpler and cheaper to manufacture. But again, necessity is the mother of invention, the Brits wanted/needed a gun that was more accurate, quieter, more compact and easier to shoot accurately. Companies like Daystate, Webley, BSA, and AirArms jumped on the bandwagon and started to produce some truly superb small game hunting guns. These guns store a volume of high pressure compressed air in some manner of onboard storage container; a reservoir or bottle under the barrel, or a bottle in the buttstock, to store enough air to shoot several shots per fill.

Randy and I back in 2003-2004 with a couple of our early PCP's, he had a BSA Techstar and I had a Webley Raider.

Randy and I back in 2003-2004 with a couple of our early PCP’s, he had a BSA Techstar and I had a Webley Raider.

This onboard storage needs to be filled either manually with a hand pump (looks like a bicycle pump on steroids) or from a high pressure tank that in turn is fill with a compressor (think diving bottles or paintball tanks). These guns, at least in the standard calibers, are virtually recoilless and therefore very easy to shoot accurately. They can be tuned to be substantially more powerful than springers, and they can be made very quiet. Another advantage is that the gun is where the energy is stored, not the ammunition. Many PCP rifles offer adjustable power, so I can take my predator gun, dial down the power for practice in my basement, and then tweak it up when I hit the field. There is nothing like a lot of practice with the same gun you use for hunting!

The disadvantage of the PCP is that they are expensive, and the filling gear can cost as much or more than the gun. At some point you need to fill the guns and tanks, so unless you have your own compressor you are not self-sufficient. And my last critique is the flipside of the fact they are easier to shoot, they don’t require the discipline of perfecting your shooting technique that a springer does. I had worked closely with the old management of Crosman, and was on their Prostaff for a while, and got the first Discovery to test and hunt with, and provided a lot of feedback that was later found in their Marauder model, which made PCP technology affordable in a US based product. But even before this another US manufacturer by the name of AirForce came out with a relatively inexpensive PCP that could bump up the power for an honest predator gun. These guns did a lot to make PCP an option for the everyman gun. I would say that most serious airgun hunters eventually gravitate to the PCP, but many never give up their springers.

So we started getting the PCP rifles in our hands, tuning them to shoot at higher and higher energy outputs, shooting further and going after larger animals. This is where I believe the foundation of airgun hunting in the USA and the UK started to diverge. I write for one of the British hunting magazines and have to be very careful when discussing long range shooting, taking body shots, and going after larger quarry, because their hunting ethic is based on a 12 fpe worldview.

But the other paradigm shift related to no imposed power limits is that larger calibers became practical. A .25 caliber pellet restricted to 12 fpe at 40 yards has a trajectory of a brick tossed underhand, while at 40 fpe it is fairly flat shooting. A groundswell of powerful .25 caliber guns started coming on to the market driven by the acceptance of American Airgunners. Even ten years ago there were very few .25 caliber guns on the market with even fewer choices when it came to pellets.

The other part of the perfect storm has been the people I’ve met along the way. In the early 2000’s I was shooting many springers and had branched out to buying cheap Chinese imports and tuning and modifying them, and also doing some rebuilds and conversions on the Crosman 2240 platform to build up hunting air powered handguns. Then through the “Yellow Forum” where I was researching these guns, I met Randy Mitchel. He had one of the only airgun hunting websites at the time. Right now you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an airgun hunting website, but Randy’s was one of the first. He is a very solid writer, and was generating all the content himself.

Until that point except for a couple scientific books on the measurement of blood flow in adult and pediatric heart disease and several scientific articles in peer review journals, I’d only written a couple of articles on fishing and travel for regional publications, but asked Randy if I could do a couple pieces for his website. These were well received, and are really what laid the groundwork for all the other opportunities I’ve had in airgunning since. But just as important for me, was that Randy was one of the first guys I meet that was as fanatical about airgun hunting as me, plus he is a master in the art of squirrel hunting. Over the next few years I’d travel down to Kentucky to hunt with him, I took my first airgunning deer ( a nice 12 pt buck) sitting next to him in a treestand, and spent a great two weeks hunting big game with him in S. Africa on my 3rd safari. We eventually wrote a book together on squirrel hunting with airguns. I consider myself very proficient in this discipline of small game hunting, which probably would not have been the case if I hadn’t become friends with Reverend Randy!

And then along came Mr. DAQ; Dennis Quackenbush is the father of the modern big bore airgun and he started building guns shooting .308, .457, and .50 caliber cast lead bullets. Dennis built rifles that a small group of us started using to hunt predators, feral hogs, and exotics (no states allowed larger native game animals to be taken with airguns at the time). Over the last ten years the ranks of airgun hunters in general, and big bore airgunners specifically, has exploded onto the hunting scene. Mainstream manufacturers such as Crosman, Evanix, Sam Yang, Daystate, and FX are building guns in the .30, .40, and .50 caliber range. And I expect to see several new big bores hitting the market at the 2015 SHOT Show.

Eric Henderson and I started traveling all over the country to hunt our airguns... I could even talk him into a small game hunt every now and again. We've been hunting together for over ten years now!

Eric Henderson and I started traveling all over the country to hunt our airguns… I could even talk him into a small game hunt every now and again. We’ve been hunting together for over ten years now!

In about 2004, Dennis Q introduced me to another guy by the name of Eric Henderson that was hunting predators, hogs, and exotics out in Texas, telling me I had to talk to this guy. He set up the call, and Eric and I hit it off from the start. Eric invited me to come down to Texas to hunt with him, and a few weeks later I was on a plane flying down to meet him, which started many years of us partnering up for hunts all over Texas, Kansas, Michigan, Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Africa with our airguns, most often those built for us by Dennis. Eric made the first big bore airgun hunting videos and got me in front of a camera for the first time. Eric was instrumental in getting recognition for big bore airguns, his videos, he got the airgun hunting segments of American Airgunner started in the beginning, and was the originator of the LASSO long range shooting competiton. Eric was one of the first big bore guys out there and our friendship had a real impact on me personally and the sport in general. I don’t think Eric gets the acknowledgement he deserves for his contribution.

Another good friend and hunting partner I met along the way was Brian Beck, who is in my opinion the best predator hunter in the country using an airgun. Brian competes in open predator hunting competitions against guys using high powered centerfires and consistently places in the top finishers. During my years in Indiana, we hunted a lot and tried a lot of new guns together. Over the years I’ve met and hunted with a lot of other guys that have each in their own way, had an impact on me and/or the sport. I’ve hunted with Terry Tate (he of the giant cowboy hat), Robert Vogel (Mr. Hollowpoint), Seth Rowland of BHD, airgun/hunting fanatics Chip Sayers and Charles Peebles down in Virginia, Dammion Howard down in Alabama, Brian Cook in Missouri,  Scott Dellinger down in Arizona and many others.

About three years back, I was talking with AOA’s owner (and himself an airgunning fanatic) Robert Buchanan at the SHOT Show, and he invited me to visit their shop on an upcoming trip to Phoenix. When I got there I was really impressed with his operation, the guns he carried, and his staff. Recently one of my main hunting partners has become Kip Perow, who is an airgun expert and the resident hunter at Airguns of Arizona. Kip and I have hunted jackrabbits, prairie dogs, javalina, and done a S. African safari together. Kip is a font of knowledge and information on airguns, and a great guy to hunt with. Kip has been doing some great hunting and review videos, and much to my envy took the first airgun mountain lion a short while back!.

One the media side, Predator Xtreme has offered me a home for the last eight years, and provided a platform with my regular column Airgun Advantage, then Fur-Fish-Game started publishing my work, and when I was asked to contribute to Tim Smiths efforts on Airgun Hobbyist to introduce hunting I jumped at the chance. Then I was offered the opportunity to write a semi-regular series for Airgun Shooter in the UK. And then about two years ago I was asked to join the Roundtable sessions on American Airgunner with Tom Gaylord, Rick Eustler, Steve Criner, Steve Fjestad, and AA host Rossi Morreale, last season being asked to co-host with Rossi and Steve to help out with the hunting segments of the program. Through the media connections I’ve been able to shoot, talk, and hang with a great group of talented airgun hunter/writers such as Nigel Allen, Terry Doe, Giles over at the Airgun Gear Show, and Ian Bartlett. Another source of awareness for airguns in the States has been provided by many other airgunning authors such as Ron Robinson, Robert Hamilton, and Tom Gaylord, who have also had an impact on me and helped me develop a better understanding of the craft.

There are also a lot of guys that I’ve spoken or communicated with in cyberspace that have contributed to our sport; Ken Cox spearheaded the drive to get airguns legalized for Deer in MO, Thomas Jue and Robert Hamilton besides being very good writers, did much to help craft the California airgun hunting regulations and get them approved. Cedric (AKA Tofazfou) has been a great influence on long range shooting with mid and big bores, Ted Beal that has been a shooting star on the YouTube space and gotten a lot of visability for airguns, Manny the Hawaian hog slayer has been a strong voice for the Korean guns, and many many others I’m not mentioning (sorry, not enough space). And of course Steve (in CT) , the owner and leader of the Yellow Forum, the biggest and in my opinion, best airgun forum to be found. Steve and I have become friends over the years, and I think his role has been key in the wide adoption of airguns in the States. Keeping independent minded airgunners within boundaries is like herding prairie dogs, and he does a fine job. This forum has been the source of a tremendous amount of information and has been a great asset for many airgunners newbies and enthusiasts alike,

My point is that I and a few others get a lot of credit for helping to get airgun hunting going in the States… and get a lot of the credit.  I have been lucky to be part of it, but the growth has been driven by a community of dedicated airgunners. I am also aware that what I am presenting is my view, and others may have another perspective, and that I have left out other key players, but after all I am talking about my journey in this post. There are many guys with a lot of experience, but the ones I’ve names have also had visibility and/or made a significant and last contribution.

Most states now allow some type of airgun hunting; it may be strictly varmint and nongame pest, small game, or predators. Feral hogs are probably the most available big game species, and a growing number of states either allow deer to be taken with airguns or have changes to regulations up for discussion. Small game hunting (squirrel, rabbit, game birds) with a standard caliber airgun, both springer and PCP’s, is one of my favorite outdoor activities. During squirrel season I go out 2-3 times in the week on short hunts within 30 minutes of home, and spend a couple of hours in the woods and typically bag a couple squirrels. Then on Saturday I’ll do an all-day out-for-a-limit session! This type of hunting is available, inexpensive, a lot of fun, and a great way to get more hunters in the field. More states are adding new regulations or expanding existing ones every year, a trend I believe will continue.

When I go out to shoot prairie dogs with my centerfires, it is not hunting but an exercise in shooting. There is nothing wrong with this and it is certainly more productive than using an airgun. But I like to hunt more than shoot, so when I get on the ground working my way through a prairie dog town with an air rifle, using cover to stalk in and camo to ambush resurfacing dogs, I’ve turned the shoot into an actual hunt. OK so 40-50 dogs is a good day, but when I head in at the end of an outing, I’ve put miles in on the ground and had to work for those 50-100 yards shots. It’s not for everyone, but for me it doesn’t get much better!

I do a lot of predator hunting with an airgun (raccoons, fox, bobcat, coyote), which roughly fall into two categories; the first is simply to increase the challenge. I hunt in the same area I’d normally use a rifle in, so the sound of a gunshot or carry of the bullet is not an issue, but we have to work a bit harder and a bit smarter to succeed. The second type is when we are going after problem animals in more built up areas where we have to be quiet and we are in tighter confines. In the former the airgun is purely to enhance the sport, in the latter it’s a more appropriate tool.

My community of friends have taken a lot of game across the categories, and my airguns have accounted for squirrels, ground squirrels, rabbits, jackrabbit, rockchucks, groundhogs, prairie dogs, hyrax, vervet,  pigeons, doves, crows, quail, turkey, Guinea fowl, Egyptian Geese, ducks (legal in SA), deer, hogs, warthogs, javalina, duiker, Steinbuck, springbuck, bushbuck, impala, kudu, mongoose, raccoon, jackal, fox, bobcat, coyote and many exotics. Next blog post I’m going to drill down on my thoughts on the development of big game airgunning, which is an interesting story in its own right.

Next: Part 2- I’ll talk about my views on the recent history Big Bores airguns and big gam hunting!

 

 

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