The use of high powered airguns for hunting appears to be gaining popularity in North America, with more and more states adding new regulations or modifying existing ones to allow air powered guns as a method of take. I hunt with firearms, handguns, archery, and airguns. While I love (my wife says obsess over) just about any type of hunting, I like nothing better than hitting the squirrel woods with an air rifle. This gets me out a couple months before deer season, and helps get my stalking and shooting chops tuned up before whitetail fever takes hold.
I’ve enjoyed hunting with airguns for several years, and whether out with a centerfire hand cannon for mulies, a .44 mag revolver for hogs, or one of my rimfires for small game, find that the added challenge of shooting a handgun enhances the experience. So considering my penchant for both airgun and handgun hunting, it is understandable that eventually the idea of hunting with an air powered handgun would take hold.
If you are going to us an airpistol for hunting, the same choices in powerplants exists as for rifles; spring piston, CO2, or pre-charged pneumatic. However, the physical dimensions of a handgun limit the practicality of spring piston designs for small game hunting; they are just not powerful enough. There are a couple of CO2 designs that do have the power for rabbits and squirrels, but for the most part these are custom built or modified guns that require a bit of gunsmithing to optimize. The bigger issue is the fact that CO2 is temperature sensitive and cannot be used in cold weather. That’s not going to fly in my region of the country, where most of the season is usually a cold weather affair.
If you want to seriously pursue hunting with an air pistol a precharged pneumatic is the way to go; these guns can be powerful and accurate, approximating the performance of many air rifles. This type of airgun is powered by compressed air operating at pressures between 2000 to 3500 psi, the air charge being delivered from either a hand pump or a high pressure air tank. The compressed air is contained in an onboard reservoir, and will generally provide as few as three shots per fill in the more powerful big bore guns to 20 shots per fill in most of the smaller caliber guns. There are limited options when it come to acquiring a PCP handgun; you can build your own, have somebody else build one for you, or you can buy one of the production AR6 or Renegade models manufactured by the Korean airgun company Evanix, which is distributed in the States by Pyramyd Air.
The Guns Over the last several years, I have built my own air powered handguns, had others build them for me, and purchased the newer production guns. The first handguns that I built were CO2 models based on the Crosman 2240 platform: by modifying the valve, the transfer port, barrel, and altering caliber I was able to build up guns that were producing approximately 12 fpe. This is more than powerful enough to take rabbits and squirrels at twenty five to thirty yards, so long as the weather is playing along and hunting temperatures are hovering around the mid sixties. Most of these CO2 guns were set up in .22, but a few were modified to .25 and even 9mm, though I have to admit the 9mm was kind of like chucking a brick down range with a pronounced arc of a trajectory.
The next step was when I found a couple of guys that would either sell me the parts to do a conversion from CO2 to PCP, or better yet do the work for me. An example of this is one of my favorite airpistols; it is a hybrid that many people had a hand in. The 9mm barrel and receiver were made for me by Dennis Quackenbush, the father of the Modern Big Bore airgun, the lower (air reservoir and valve) was made by Canadian airgun craftsman Walter Glover, the trigger was done by the Crosman Custom Shop, and the laminate grips were built by “Grips by Rick”, then I put it together. A great gun, but talk about taking a village! Now this single shot pistol will hurl a 9mm 77 grain pellet down range at around 525 fps for 28 fpe, and when it hits a rabbit at thirty five or forty yards, he is quick to give up the ghost. It is a pleasure to shoot and looks great, but has about $600 in parts and more time than I care to admit invested. I also had to rely on help from guys I’m lucky enough to know, like Dennis and Walter, assets which most potential shooters can’t draw on. It took me close to a year to get this gun put together and performing to expectation.
I have also used a high powered .308 hand cannon that was fully built by Quackenbush on a hog hunt down in Texas a few years ago. This gun is a limited production model owned by my hunting buddy Eric Henderson, that throws a 78 grain .308 slug down range at 800 fps and generates about 150 fpe. I shot a small porker in the head at thirty yards; he went down and did not get back up. I have seen Eric do the same on multiple occasions, and have been uniformly impressed with the performance of this gun. While being one of the most powerful air pistols I’ve ever heard of, it is a handful weighing in at well over four pounds with a twelve inch barrel. I had one in .25 that I preferred to use as a carbine finding it easier to manage. If you want one of these guns you’ll have to special order it and wait, and as a standard production Quackenbush rifle has a waiting list over a year long, you may be waiting forever unless you find one on the used gun market.
There is a production gun currently available that fulfills the requirements for a powerful, accurate, and affordable PCP handgun; the Evanix AR6 and Renegade models. These guns are almost exactly the same, the difference being that the multi-shot AR6 must be fired single action and the Renegade can be shot single or double action. The other difference is that the AR6 has been configured for maximum power at the expense of shot count, and the Renegade trades a bit of the power to get a better shot count. Both of these guns are based on the proven AR6 rifle action and use a six shot cylinder that is very similar to a standard revolver. They are available in .177 and .22, though for hunting I think the .22 is the way to go. These guns are large, and have a one piece grip / forestock. I have mounted a bipod on mine that allows me to shoot this gun quite accurately, producing approximate 18 fpe and half inch groups at forty yards
A quick word on power is necessary when discussing airguns of any type. It takes about five or six fpe to cleanly dispatch a rabbit or a squirrel. With a .22 rimfire producing around 115 fpe, an airgun producing 18 fpe doesn’t sound like much power. But in the UK where airgun hunting is arguably the most common hunting method practiced, they have been limited to a maximum power of 12 fpe without an almost impossible to obtain firearms certificate. And with these low powered guns the Brits have effectively taken rabbit, squirrel, crows, and pigeons in copious numbers and to great effect over the years.
On a recent squirrel hunt, I carried my gun, camouflaged coveralls, pellets, water and camera in a messenger style carry bag. I parked in the campground parking lot and hiked through the campground to get out of the designated no hunting/safety zone and into the state recreation areas hunting zone. Once across the boundary I slipped on my camo and pulled the Renegade out of the bag. There was no need to bother with a back up air source, fully charged I reckoned there would be more than a dozen shots, which should account for up to a limit squirrels any way you cut it. When heading out to shoot prairie dogs (where a large number of shots will be required) I carry a small 18 cf high pressure air tank to recharge the gun, but don’t find it necessary for most small game applications.
Working my way to the base of a tree with a fallen log next to it, I leaned back to wait. After twenty minutes I noticed motion up in the early fall foliage spreading out in front of me. Leaning forward I could see branches shaking and located a squirrel high up the tree feeding. Drawing a bead through the low magnification scope and squeezing off the shot, I watched as the bushytail tumbled down to the ground thirty yards away. Standing up to collect my downed prey, I heard angry barking behind me and slowly twisted around to find the author of this scolding sitting in a tree not more than fifteen yards away. Second shot, second squirrel. I quietly walked over to pick up the closer squirrel and as I headed back caught glimpses of a third coming through the canopy towards me. Opening the bipod and setting up on the fallen log, I was able to intercept my quarry and as the gun popped, the third squirrel was down. I found that the short barrel and compactness of the handgun was optimal for hunting in the heavy foliage still on the trees. I could maneuver through the brush with minimal noise and effort, and with my limited field of view didn’t have to worry much about shots past the thirty five yards mark. I didn’t see any more squirrels that morning, so packing up I made my way back to the car and after cleaning my game, headed home.