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The Growth of Airgun Hunting

Posted by on September 8, 2014

I was working on an article over the weekend, and was thinking back over my perspective of the growth of airgun hunting in North America. In the 15 years I’ve been back in the States (after almost 20 years abroad), I have seen change. When I came home I thought I was about the only one hunting with airguns, until surfing the web showed that there was a hardcore group of airgunners hunting their airguns. Based on many years in Europe my worldview on airgun hunting had been formed around the British sensibilities at that time, with respect to my opinions on power, range, shot placement, etc.

With higher power gun we're using larger caliber to reach out a lot further. When hunting prairie dogs I'll often take the 100 yard shot.

With higher power gun we’re using larger caliber to reach out a lot further. When hunting prairie dogs I’ll often take the 100 yard shot.

I came back thinking only head shots should be taken for a clean and effective kill, that body shots were not consistently effective enough to guarantee a clean kill every time. I thought 35-40 yard shots were as far as anybody should (or needed) to reach out on live quarry, I thought 12 fpe was probably adequate for most hunting applications …. I was in agreement with all the conventional wisdom that still holds true for many of our cousins across the pond and think they hold true to this day.

But as airgunning in the USA started to evolve it also started to diverge in a direction that was sometimes in direct opposition to the core beliefs of the guys that arguably invented the sport. Why are these changes happening?  I think there are a few important reasons; the first is the advent of precharged pneumatic gun designs, the second is that we don’t have restrictions on the power output of our airguns, and finally we have a much broader range of quarry species and hunting environments than most airgun hunters in other parts of the world.

The first two points are related, the development of PCP airguns that were able to generate substantially higher power outputs than spring piston airguns and work efficiently with larger caliber projectiles. The second part of this is that we have no legal restrictions that place constraints on our ability to capitalize on the potential of the PCP design. This has a direct correlation to our ability to reach out to greater ranges than thought appropriate in the past, to have more latitude in shot placement, and to take larger game.

We also have quite a few species that are larger, tougher, and more aggressive than those hunted in the UK. A couple weeks back one of my buddies was calling coons and had one run right up his leg and chomp down!

We also have quite a few species that are larger, tougher, and more aggressive than those hunted in the UK. A couple weeks back one of my buddies was calling coons and had one run right up his leg and chomp down!

If I was hunting in the UK, for the species they pursue, in the agricultural environments they frequently hunt, and was limited to a 12 fpe gun; I’d typically stick with headshots, I’d stay inside of 40 yards, I would probably stick with .22 as my go to caliber. There is another element that the British hunters have to deal with, which is a very emotional and uneducated general public when it comes to understanding nature or management of a natural ecosystem. The UK based hunters are in a position of having to placate a generally anti-hunting population that can’t be reasoned with, and yet they must try. They have to convince that general public that the animal felt no pain and died in an instant, they have to vilify the animal as a vermin that threatens health and the ability of the British farmer to produce crops, and heaven forbid they come out and say they enjoy hunting for the pure sport of it. There’s a lesson to be learned, but that leson is not the focusof this post. I mention it to highlight some of the differences.

So without these constraints and with the quarry species we have, along with the vast array of hunting environments, we’ve started to reach out further ……. Sometimes a lot further. In the woods after squirrels I like to stalk in close, when hunting cottontails in agricultural areas I also prefer to move inside that 40 yard mark. But if I’m using a 25 fpe .22 or .25 I don’t have any problem taking body shots. When I’m out in the wide open grasslands after prairie dogs, ground squirrels, or woodchucks, I want to be able to reach out 100 yards and change. With higher power guns and heavier large caliber pellets, these are completely ethical shots to take.

And moving up to mid bores and largebore guns putting out 100 – 600 fpe guns, allows larger quarry species to be taken, plus there is  a growing list of states allowing appropriate airguns for predators and  big game. For our European counterparts the limited games species, associated costs, gun restrictions, lack of access, all converge to preclude the growth of this side of the sport.

So for me, Britain is the birthplace of serious airgun hunting and has a special place in the history of the development of the sport. There are large numbers of dedicated enthusiasts, there is a great infrastructure to support the airgun culture, and it’s where some of the most talented and knowledgeable airgun shooters and hunters come from. It’s also where many of the finest guns are designed and manufactured. However, it’s for all the reasons listed above that I think the future of airgun hunting is centered right here in the USA!

6 Responses to The Growth of Airgun Hunting

  1. Mike

    These are interesting points that illuminate a divide in the hunting culture of Europe and America, and I hope that you are accurate in forecasting advances in airgun hunting opportunities here in the USA, as I also am an enthusiast of the sport (why else would I read this blog). Unfortunately I fear that you may have overlooked three potential pitfalls that could and do affect our sport and which contrast us with the UK specifically…

    1. Firearms are legal and widely available – this is a substantially different situation than exists in the British Isles. Americans can purchase and use very powerful guns to hunt with, and can also use shotguns and small calibers. The British, in general, are much more limited with their availability of these tools, and so they incentivized to develop pneumatic technology for hunting purposes than are Americans.

    2. In the USA there is a bias towards firearms in hunting by state fish and wildlife agencies… In some states it may be illegal to truly “hunt” with an airgun. In most states it is at least limited to small game, based largely upon the assumptions that you referenced in your post above (that your weapon lacks the power and range to effectively kill an animal beyond a certain distance or size). In Arizona, where I live, I was satisfied this year to see that PCP weapons are acceptable tools for Javelina hunts and all pneumatic weapons can be used for small game. Big game – Deer, Elk, etc remain unavailable for pneumatic hunters. In some states I have read hunting regulations that reference the size of the caliber, or the power of the weapon as being considerations for pneumatic weapons being allowed as part of general deer hunts. That is awesome, but it also shows that there is a general wariness from many states about the need to even recognize pneumatic weapons at being tools for hunters. In general this is all over the board here in the USA, with some states virtually banning their use and others allowing hunters to use any kind of airgun that is powerful enough to take down any kind of prey. None of that matters too much to any state though, because they can always look at firearms as fulfilling the “real” hunters needs while the pneumatic lobby just consists of kids and hobbyists…

    3. Regulation… Where I live, it’s virtually nonexistent, because airguns are not firearms. My own favorite hunting gun is a “steroided” Benjamin that plinks with four pumps, kills bunnies at eight pumps and at 14 pumps… I dunno, – home defense? Unfortunately though, regulation will eventually come to us. Earlier tonight, while pricing .25 airguns on Amazon I came across the smg 22 full belt fed pellet gun – a fully automatic (12 rounds per second) .22 pellet sub machine gun. Don’t get me wrong – I immediately began to practice justifying the purchase to my wife (endless supply of squirrel meat) – but… I won’t actually buy that thing. What if a desperate criminal who could not legally purchase a firearm bought it though? At some point the ease of purchasing a fully automatic and actually lethal pellet gun online is going to create problems… a pellet gun school shooting, or at the minimum a number of gang related homicides will bring increased scrutiny to pneumatic weapons, and since they duplicate every real function of firearms (that are regulated) I can see them being regulated in power and type in the near future – which puts us in the same position as the UK airgunners, but still in competition with firearms. If that happens, Pneumatic technology will remain plateaued at it’s current state…

    In general, I hope that I am wrong, and that you are right about being optimistic for the future of American airgun hunting. Great blog posts, I find your information to be useful and at times inspiring…


    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mike;
      No, I didn’t overlook the fact that it is lack of access to firearms that drives airgunning in the UK and Europe. As a matter of fact, having spent a good part of my life living in Europe, Asia, and OZ I’m up close and personal to understanding this. But many of the drivers, such as urbanization are coming into play here as well, not to mention difficulty and expense of procurring firearm ammunition. However, a great number of hunters have migrated to hunting with bows and handguns to increase the challange, and this is what drives almost every airgun hunter I know. When I do have to use one of my centerfires these days, I am struck by how mundane it has become for me. In the past five years Virgina, Alabama, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan have legislated to allow airgun hunting for deer. Virginia permits deer, bear, and turkey while your home state allows everything except elk to be taken with big bore airguns. A majority of states allow predators and hogs to be taken with airguns, several permit small game, and I know of several states that are currently reviewing their regs with respect to airgun hunting in general. I think that my views are supported by industry trends with respect to demand for airgun related hunting products conncurrent to expanding regs. Time will tell, but I feel pretty comforatable. With respect to regulation, I think the parallel is more appropriately drawn with muzzle loaders that come much closer to centerfires than any airgun in performance, and at this point are lightly regulated. Regulation may come to airguns at some point, because society as a whole is becoming less interested in shooting or hunting …. which is something airguns could help to change by opening new shooting and hunting opportunities for those that don’t currently have the opportunity with firearms. Thanks for following the blog and taking the time to write, you bring up interesting points.

  2. Mike

    I made a mistake – after reviewing AZ hunting regs, it does clearly state that PCP airguns using .35 caliber or larger can be used to take most big game. I missed that, since the general big game seasons state “firearm” and make no mention of PCP or pneumatic weapons whereas they are explicitly mentioned for small game and Javelina. When I went to the index describing legal methods of take for each species, I found that they do include PCPs. I guess that I live in a particularly airgun hunting friendly state after all, although I still am a little less optimistic about the future of the sport than you seem to be. Now, if you’ll excuse me my daughter and I have to clean up a few cottontails we got this morning from the canyon down the road…

    • Jim Chapman

      Mike, I wish I could get either of my daughters to hunt with me …… Arizona’s airgun laws made it to the books last year. I shot my javalina there and this year am hoping to get the draw for a mulie and couys as well!

  3. Mark Smith

    Enjoyed your article. I think the surge in hunting with an air rifle is attributed to the magazine fed, powerful PCP. I know myself, I have always enjoyed taking an air rifle into the woods to take a squirrel . I started with a 5mm Sheridan, then a RWS 45 .17cal. I thought I had died & went to heaven, when a couple decades ago + -, I bought a .25 cal. Crow Magnum from Beeman. I killed a lot of squirrels with that Crow Magnum. Seems to me the biggest shortcoming with the CM & all break barrels rifles, is the noise & commotion to cock & load another round. On squirrels if I did not get it on the first shot, the nutcracker was on another ridge by the time I had another pellet ready. Even If I did get it on the first shot, it took several minutes before the woods calmed after the loading process. Well the arrival of the PCP changed all of that. Now with the PCP we have nearly hole for hole accuracy , with plenty of power, and fast follow up shots. Heck, last year I shot 3 squirrels out of the same tree in a matter of seconds. That just won’t happen with those break barrels.

    Then when we thought it could not get any better , the big bore PCPs came along. I almost don’t need a PB anymore.

    ” We have came a long way baby”

    I just recently started following this blog, thanks, for the no BS straight up articles.

    • Jim Chapman

      Hi Mark,
      Good to have you here. It’s funny but on American Airgunner I’m touted as their “big game guy” and my Predator Xtreme columns make it seem like I’m mostly about predator hunting, but the truth is that while I greatly enjoy the big game and predator hunting it’s the small game and varmint hunting that I live for. But regardless of the quarry, for me the airguns make it special and I think makes me a better hunter! And every year there are more great guns, ammo, and gear plus more places to hunt and more species to hunt for. I really do thging that this is the beginning of the golden age in airgunning.
      Again, welcome!

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