Because they produce much less power, hunting ranges with airguns tend to be closer than when a firearm is used. A common question I’m asked is “how far can a hunter stretch out with any given airgun”? The answer depends on the type of airgun being used and what the intended target is. Popping steel plates at 150 yards is a lot of fun, and a miss is not a big deal. I recently participated in a big bore airgun competition where we were shooting out to 300 yards. While my results were only so-so, there were guys consistently nailing the steel rams way out there. As I mentioned in last week’s post, at the upcoming Extreme Benchrest competition in Arizona shooters can use any gun in any caliber to shoot targets at 75 yards, and I am expecting to see some very high scores.
However, you don’t want to shoot at game when the holdover is measured in feet rather than inches. My longest shot on big game occurred in South Africa several years ago when I took a springbok at 120 yards, dropping him cleanly with a Quackenbush .308. With small bore guns I’ve gone out to 150 yards on prairie dogs, and have found that a 40 fpe gun still has the energy to anchor smaller varmint with well-placed shots at these extended distances. As I’ve often stated, one of the attractions of airgun hunting is to get in close to the quarry, and that I believe airguns are primarily a close range hunting tool. But there are situations where your best (or only) option is a long shot.
Long Range Airgun Hunting
My definition of a long shot with an airgun is 50 yards or more with a spring piston gun and over 75 yards for standard caliber precharged pneumatic guns. There are several variables when it comes to big bores and I’ll leave this topic for another time. Let me preface this discussion by saying that the gun and shooter have to prove themselves on the range before heading afield to hunt. Preparing for a prairie dog hunt recently, I took my gun to the range and shot groups at 10 yard increments from 50 to 120 yards, mapping the point of impact as a function of distance. This information was recorded on an index card and taped to the stock of my rifle so it was readily available while hunting.
I sometimes go out with the intention of employing long range shots; prairie dog, ground squirrel, or woodchuck hunting for example. These animals often live in terrain that doesn’t offer much cover for putting on a stalk, which can make closing the distance impossible. When hunting tree squirrels or cottontails on the other hand, it’s usually possible to get inside of 50 yards, so long range shots aren’t always necessary.
Long Range Hunting Rig
When selecting the small bore gun to use for long range shooting, something that can generate substantial power and shoots well with heavy pellets is preferred. One of my recent favorites for this type of hunting is the FX Royale. This is a high shot count, powerful, accurate rifle that stores a lot of air in the buttstock mounted air bottle. It handles heavy pellets better than just about any .25 caliber rifle I’ve shot.
This rifle can print MOA groups at 100 yards, and I feel very comfortable hunting varmint at extended ranges with it. The two stage trigger is adjustable, crisp with a good tactile response and I have it set for about a 2 lb pull weight. When I shoot this gun off my bipod Gorilla sticks, I am going to hit my target out to 120 yards just about every time (if there’s no wind). I’ve taken this gun out for prairie dog where I could get prone and shoot rested on my daypack, and when locked in to this position felt like I couldn’t miss.
Precharged pneumatics are the guns of choice when the plan is to focus on long shots. With respect to caliber, I don’t use .177 much as these small light pellets tend to shed velocity and energy more rapidly and are more susceptible to wind drift than the .22. In addition the .22 hits harder, makes a bigger hole, while the trajectory is still easily manageable. A .25 caliber can be used for small game at 100 yards, and though it hits like a hammer the trajectory is more of a challenge, yet still manageable. I’ll use the .22 and .25 caliber on coyote as well, but only at close range.
Aother rifle that I used recently to snipe pigeons at long range was the Daystate Airwolf, and was really blown away by its laser like accuracy. This is a heavier rifle, but my-oh-my the trigger is truly superb. It was like I just had to think SHOOT and the gun responded. I have never shot a gun, airgun or powder burner that compares.
I always try a number of pellets to find what performs the best in a given gun, but when setting up for long range hunts stick to heavy or extra heavy, round nosed pellets. The reason for this is multifold; experience has shown me that heavier round nosed pellets have superior ballistics, retain energy down range and are invariably the most accurate pellet at greater distances.
My scope preference on a long range gun calls for a medium or large aperture with magnification up to 12x or 16x. High magnification is only advantageous when the rifle is solidly rested, but once that criterion is met it becomes invaluable for hitting small kill zones. I also prefer a mildot reticle configuration that makes adjusting for holdover much easier than a standard crosshair. Lately I’ve been using the Hawke scopes with the MAP reticle, combined with the companies Chairgun ballistic calculator program to pinpoint the trajectory. This allows the shooter to precisely calibrate the reticle as a function of range.
One of the most useful items in the long range shooter’s kit is a range finder. If you’ve taken the time to check your POI at 10 yard increments, a range finder used in conjunction with your scopes mildots will allow you to adjust holdover rapidly, circumventing the need for multiple ranging shots. When shooting squirrels inside of 50 yards I don’t always use my range finder, because the drop between 30-50 yards is far less than between 100 – 120 yards. But I get out for prairie dogs, I use it constantly.
Long Range shooting techniques
Unlike spot and stalk hunting in the woods where quick offhand shots are the norm, long range shooting almost always takes place in situations that allows the hunter time to set up in a comfortable position and use a rest of some sort. My preference is to shoot off either a bipod from the prone position or shooting sticks from the sitting position. I find this provides both a solid rest, but also allows movement and readjustment when required. In last week’s blog post I discussed the different types of shooting sticks I use, and what works best for me.
It can be helpful to shoot with a buddy to call your shots, especially if there is anything more than a gentle breeze blowing. Even a powerful airrifle is operating at fairly low velocities, which leaves the pellet hanging out there for the wind to mess with. PCPs are virtually recoilless however, and it is usually possible to call
The decision to use an airgun to hunt at 75 to 150 yards should be predicated on having a range proven gun/pellet combination and taking the time to work out where the pellet will impact at these greater distances. Using the right adjunct gear such as a high magnification scope with mildots, a range finder, and a solid rest will go a long way towards improving your results. But most importantly, you need to put in the range time and be confident that you are able to hold up your end behind the trigger. Do that and there is no reason you can’t be an effective long range airgun hunter!