We have a fairly large community of hunters in the United States, and are favored with a lot of game and plentiful land to hunt on. In addition, there are few restrictions on gun ownership and the price of firearms is fairly low. As a result, airguns have remained relatively unknown here as they have not historically filled a need. But in the last couple of decades the visibility and availability of air powered guns has been on a steady upswing. This increase in awareness was especially apparent at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas in January. Where in the past only a few airgun relates businesses were around, and they were not heavily trafficked, this year there were several vendors and a lot of interest from the mainstream hunting/shooting community!
This is to some extent driven by the fact that airguns are now being distributed through shops online, so a specialty store with a physical location is not required to obtain a selection of guns and ancillary gear. I assume all the readers of this blog are familiar with the AOA shop, which is both an online business and a physical shop. As an aside, I think a physical location is especially important for an importer, because it indicates stability and longevity, I am uncomfortable with an import business that is run out of a garage or spare bedroom. I don’t want the company I just purchased a $1200 rifle from to go belly up and one day not be there to answer the phone.
Many mainstream hunters have come to realize that based on the lower power, range, and sound signature, airguns open up new hunting territory for the urban and suburban sportsman. I am an avid big game and upland game hunter, and have several places to hunt within a few hours drive from my home. But by using air rifles to harvest small game and pest species I can be out in the field after squirrel, rabbit, or calling raccoons and coyotes in twenty minutes from doorstep to shooting area. I shot one of the biggest coyote I’ve seen 20 minutes from house a couple weeks ago, where there is no way I could have used a firearm. A two or three hour small game hunt on Saturday morning becomes possible, and is well suited to a busy schedule. It is also something that is possible just about everywhere in the country, west coast to east coast, urban to rural, to open country.
There are some local regulations which control sales or usage of airguns, but these are the exception rather than the rule. This means that regardless of their geographic location, all shooters have access to online shops and products purchased from these businesses can be shipped directly to a private home address. The other impact of the regulatory status is that the power of airguns is not restricted. This is why sub FAC power levels are not as popular with the hunting crowd, and most of our field guns are in the 18 to 30 fpe range. It lets us hunt the bigger animals at greater distances than say British airgun hunters. This is a reason we see the trend of European manufacturers building guns expressly for the US market growing at a rapid rate.
Guns and Gear
As previously mentioned, firearms are readily available and inexpensive here. The average spring piston airgun will be priced at around $300 – $400 and a precharged pneumatic hunting rifle will cost $600 – $800 (add another $400 for an air tank and fittings). However one can walk into a gun shop and after an instant background check, walk out the door with a semi auto rimfire and a brick of ammunition (well they used to be able, though rimfire ammo is now scarce and expensive) for under $400.00. The attractiveness of air powered rifles is therefore not a low cost of ownership or to circumvent legal restrictions, but rather all those attributes (low power, limited range, and reduced sound signature) that are unique to airguns. Most of the rifles that are popular here are in line with those used by our British counterparts; indeed many of our most popular quality guns are of British, Swedish, and German manufacture. There is increasing availability of American made guns as well, in both small and big calibers though mostly PCP’s. As in the UK, the trend in this country is moving toward PCPs for most hunting applications, I have several springers that are pulled out a few times a year for a squirrel or rabbit hunt, but I have to admit this does become less frequent and a conscious decision to keep up on my springers with each passing year.
The production pcp rifles in my gun rack provides a snapshot of the models many of us are hunting with. I have many guns from Daystate (Wolverine, Wolverine C, Huntsman Classic), Brocock (Specialist, Concept Elite), FX (Verminator, Boss), AirForce (Talon, Talon-P, Escape, Talon, and Texan), Crosman (Discovery, Marauder, Rogue, Bulldog) and many others from RWS, AirArms, Weihrauch, BSA, Falcon, Evanix, Hatsan, Walther, Gamo, etc. in a range of calibers from .177 to .50.
The types of quarry we can pursue in the US include several pest species, some the same as those shot in the UK; rats, pigeons, rabbits, squirrels, crows. It is interesting to note that rabbits are considered game animals in most states, whereas the most abundant hare (jackrabbits) are considered pest species. Pest species do not receive protection whereas game species have bag limits and seasons that offer a higher degree of protection and allows management of the resource. Tree squirrels (fox squirrels, gray squirrels, etc) are also considered a game animal, while ground squirrels are considered a pest species through most of their range. Ground squirrels can be found in towns that contain hundreds of individuals and can cause a great deal of damage to pastureland. Other species we hunt include prairie dogs, marmots (woodchucks, groundhogs, and rockchucks), possums, nutria, European starlings, crows and pigeons. Some states permit game birds such as quail, pheasant, and turkey to be taken by airguns, while others expressly prohibit their use. Other animals such as raccoons, fox, and bobcats, ringtail are considered furbearers and depending on the state have different regulations, some allow airguns and some do not. As you have probably noted, each state has their own set of regulations which range from enlightened and pro airgun to those that expressly prohibit their use (which is thankfully the minority position). We also have a growing number of big game hunting opportunities opening up to big bore airguns, MO, VA, MI, AZ, MI, AL allow deer to be taken by air, and many (if not most) allow predators, feral hogs, and exotics to likewise be taken by air. There seem to be a couple new states opening up every year and I expect the trend will continue. You do need to be careful to check, understand, and follow state regulations when hunting.
State of Airgun Hunting in the States
So while we do not have the tradition of airgunning that our British friends have, we do have a range of quarry species, plenty of land to hunt, a growing selection of guns and airgun specific gear, and a developing distribution network across the country. As mentioned any states are adding regulations to the books which make airguns a legal method of take, and there is a growing awareness by both hunters and wildlife management professionals that airguns are uniquely suited for use in more built up areas where pest and small game populations need to be controlled.
Travel to Hunt
Another aspect of airgun hunting to consider is the ability to travel for hunts. Traveling for big game can be very expensive, in fact more than a couple of out of state trips is not within the reach of most hunters. The cost of licenses and tags, outfitters and guides, limited access to huntable land are all impediments for many hunters. However, the cost of small game / general licenses tend to be pretty reasonable, distances and cost of travel lower (you don’t have to go to Montana to hunt rabbit or squirrel) are doable around a normal schedule, and there is a lot of public land spread across the country where the big game populations are under a lot of pressure but small game and varminting is there for the asking. And yet, the excitement and adventure of traveling to hunt, and the challenge and fun of the hunt is still very high. If you don’t have feral hogs in your state, you wont have to travel far to find one that does. If you don’t have prairie dogs or jackrabbits where you live, go to a place that does! Last year I hunted with my airguns in Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California, North Dakota, South Dakota and a couple others for all type of game…… and it was a blast! OK it’s true that this is kind of a second career with writing, etc. for me… but I will bet almost everyone here could manage a couple out of state trips in a year. Plan something, do it, and let us hear about the trips…. I’m sure you’ll have some stories!