Beginning September 1, 2014, it will be legal in Texas to hunt squirrels with an air gun for the first time. While this might seem to be a regulation tailored for children, modern air guns are powerful and accurate enough for adults to enjoy, also. To use your “pellet gun” for hunting, it will need to be capable of firing a pellet at velocity of 600 fps. I have used an imported air gun said to be used as a Korean army training rifle to shoot “pests” . This category would include grackles that pooped on our boats in the marina as well as possums and coons around the house. I have never killed a coon or possum with a single shot, but it does kill them, and is a bit quieter than even a .22 short. To make sure it would be legal, I shot it over my chronograph last week, and came up with 590 fps. This was with a lead, “hunting” pellet. Something you will soon notice if you shop for an air gun for hunting is that a common claim is 1200 fps, but usually this is with a lighter “target” pellet made of an aluminum alloy. With the heavier hunting pellets, that speed drops to 1000 fps, or less. Still, this is nearly twice the speed of my older gun.
My old gun is also powered by a strong metal spring, while the newer and maybe pricier guns use a nitrogen filled cylinder, which is touted as being quieter, producing more power, and being easier to cock. It is also OK to leave the N2 powered gun “locked and loaded” by your back door where it will be handy for backyard pests – because the gas in the cylinder does not take a “set” like a metal spring might. To get a good sample for this write-up, I purchased a Benjamin Prowler air rifle with a nitrogen cocking cylinder rated to produce 1200 fps with the light pellets, 900 with heavier ones. The Benjamin has an adjustable, 2-stage trigger with a safety that is sort of a reverse Glock style. The safety lever is like a shorter trigger placed in front of the actual trigger that blocks the trigger from being pulled, because it cannot be moved reward to contact the trigger (as the Glock “safety” does). To fire it is pushed forward, making space between it and the trigger for your finger to get in and pull the trigger. It is a break barrel action, as opposed to the under lever type of my old gun, and has a plastic gripping section near the muzzle to “whack” with your hand to get the initial break of the action started. the cocking motion is then continued with the butt against the ground or the side or your foot. This gun has no open sights, so it pretty much must be used with a scope.
To get an idea of the effective power of these air rifles, first, lets compare a .177 pellet to a .22 Short, which would probably be considered marginal for squirrel hunting. The muzzle velocity of .22 Shorts generally runs from 605 fps for a “sub sonic” cartridge to 1105 fps for a high velocity round. with a standard Short running about 1000, which is actually a sub-sonic velocity, so don’t waste money on the more expensive sub sonics if you need to shoot a .22 with a suppressor. A pellet of .177 caliber in the “hunting” type will be fired at an average velocity of 900 – 1000 fps, which seems to be a good match for the .22, huh? There is also a .22 caliber air rifle, and velocity on those is usually a bit less than a .177, due to heavier pellet weight.
What we need to look at now, is bullet/pellet weight. The .22 Short will weigh 27 -29gr, while a .22LR will go 36 – 40gr. A .177 pellet of the lead hunting type usually weighs around 8.4 to 8.9gr, while the .22 pellet weighs around 14.5gr.These low weights are partly why air rifle range is generally considered to be 40 yards or less, for hunting animals up to rabbits and squirrels – and the two calibers are considered about equal when we look at velocity and bullet weight.
To check “published” velocities, I shot some pellets through each gun over my Prochrony chronograph – although I am sure the companies involved had more extensive testing done with better equipment. I had only two types and brands of pellets on had to shoot, a Daisy flat-nosed pellet that weighted an average of 7.7gr, and a Benjamin hollow point weighing 8.0gr. The results of 3 shots of each pellet, through each gun are as follows:
Daisy 596 fps 603 fps 693 fps
Benjamin HP 585 fps 588 fps 592 fps
Daisy 1003 fps 1003 fps 1003 fps
Benjamin HP 986 fps 1003 fps 978 fps
Basically, I got close to 600 fps with the old spring powered gun, around 1000 fps with the new Nitrogen cylinder gun. I was using an old fiberglass panel garage door as a backstop, folded so one side was stable. The old gun punched a couple of holes through the facing panel, but most made a deep dent and bounced off. With the Benjamin, ALL pellets punched through the front AND back panels, showing quite a bit more power.
While the .177 and .22 caliber air rifles will both work for pests and small game at close ranges, Benjamin’s Marauder PCP (pre-charged) rifle in .25 caliber is another step up. Also made in .177 and .22, the heavier .25 pellets pack more punch on larger pests, up to the size of ‘coons and fox. The PCP guns have an air reservoir that is pre-charged to allow multiple shots. The Marauder also has pellet “magazines” holding 8 to 10 pellets, making it a bolt action repeater. The power of air released may be set with a built in gauge, so the shooter can choose fewer, more powerful shots, or less powerful shoots for more of them. They may be either “charged” a a supplied pump, or from a tank.
Of course a gun of this quality is a bit pricey, running upwards of $400, and depending on options, it can cost close to $600 (list prices). This amount of money will purchase a pretty nice .22LR. So what would make an air gun worth so much? Besides being a bit unique and perhaps safer due to more limited range, they are much cheaper to operate. Even without the ammo scare that made .22LR both hard to get and expensive. A can of Benjamin .177 HP pellets cost me under $9.00 recently,and that was for 750 pellets! Considering the air that propels the pellet is “free”, that makes for very inexpensive shooting, and there has been no shortage of pellets. Since the Benjamin is sub sonic, it is quieter than a .22, and since it is not a firearm it might be legal to shoot in places a firearm is not. Not being regulated as a firearm, buying and selling air rifles does not require an FFL, nor does shipping.
Another option in air rifles is the really high-powered break action guns. Gamo has a gun that will fire a .177 pellet at 1450 fps, and the Umarex Octane is right behind at 1400 fps. These are higher velocities than all but the faster High Velocity .22 LR, and even the .22 Winchester Rimfire Magnum starts at 1530 fps (High-Vel cartridges can be had that shoot up to 2250 fps). Of course, these air rifles will be pretty loud, as they are super sonic, but they should pack a real whallop on small game. UPDATE: Gamo also makes a rifle that is rated to shoot light target pellets to 1650 FPS! Since air guns are not regulated like firearms, suppressors for them are legal, but with the super sonic guns you will have much the same problems as with a super sonic cartridge – but the air gun’s smaller “bullet” should still be more silent.
Some have told me they would not like to hunt with a single shot . Well, I did a lot of single shot hunting as a teenager – killed my first two deer with one shot each from a 20 gauge single shot with #3 buckshot – and I hunt a lot today with single shot Contenders an a .50 muzzle loader, so an air gun will not bother me much.
If someone really wanted to go to the ultimate is air gun power, Dennis Quackenbush builds custom PCP air rifles in .45 and .50 caliber that have had the power to shoot American Bison, Black Bears, large hogs, and some African game. His base model .50 caliber is priced starting at around $600, so it really isn’t much more than a Benjamin Marauder. In case you wonder how many people would have a need or desire for such a gun, Dennis is usually so booked up that he seldom even takes orders. These are custom quality, high tech rifles of ultimate power, but in Texas they could only be used for feral hogs, exotic deer, and other non-game species, and not for white-tailed or mule deer hunting. At least not for now.
At the TOWA Annual Conference in New Braunfels last February, when TPWD personnel announce of the coming rule on air gun hunting, I asked if, since I hunted in Brazoria County, where squirrels were not treated as game animals and there was no closed season for hunting them, could I start shooting them with my pellet gun immediately. That would seem to make sense, but I was told that because they are considered a regulated game animal by the state, I would still have to wait for September 1.
Most know that I am an advocate for suppressors on firearms, and I am very interested in air guns as well. I really hope not, but there could come a day when something of this nature might be all we are allowed to hunt with. I don’t know about you, but should this happen, I want to be ready for it.