Squirrel Hunting with Airguns
Squirrel Hunting with Airguns
Like most Hoosier hunters, as we roll into the fall months I find myself spending a lot more time afield scouting the areas I’ll hunt when deer season opens. Patterning deer activity and deciding where to set up my stand helps my success rate of course, but the other aspect that ups my enjoyment quotient is that I’m multi-tasking. Not only am I getting in my pre-season scouting but I’m hunting America’s favorite small game, the tree squirrel, with high power air rifles at the same time. I find that spending a day stalking inside of forty or fifty yards on gray and fox squirrels is the perfect exercise to get my hunting skills tuned for whitetail hunting. Most hunters that pursue squirrel use either a rimfire or shotgun, but there are many practical reasons to opt for an air powered hunting rifle. Let’s take a look at the guns, how they work, how they perform, and the shooting characteristics then look at the field experience I’ve gained over the last several years hunting bushytails in the Midwest.
The typical Midwestern squirrel woods, and a bushytail coming down for a look!
Sometimes you look up .......
And sometimes you look down. This is a black phase of the fox squirrel seen up in N. Michigan
And while your still hunting, keep an eye out for cuttings
Guns and Equipment
There are many airguns ideally suited to hunting bushytails, a few of my current favorites include both springers and PCP models. A quick rundown of the springers I’ve shot a lot thois season are; the Gamo Stutzen which is a Manlicher stocked carbine, the Webley Patriot and the Walther Falcon both in .25 caliber, and the Beeman C1 and R9 in .177. I’ve also used several others manufactured by Hammerli, Mendoza, and RWS. The PCP air rifles I’ve used for squirrel hunting over the last couple seasons include the Webley Raider, the Prairie Falcon, the Beeman Falcon – R (for the tail end of the season), the Twinmaster Carbine and Rifle, the Airarms S410, and the Evanix Renegade (pistol, Carbine, and Rifle versions), all in .22 caliber.
It doesn’t take a great deal of power to kill a squirrel, though they can be surprisingly tenacious. Most mid power guns are more than adequate so long as the proper shot placement is achieved. Accuracy is the key, as I prefer to use head shots when possible and the brain area of the little rodents is about the size of a quarter. However, once this level of accuracy is achieved, more power is always welcome and gives a bit for margin when taking chest shots or reaching out a bit further.
All of theses guns are scoped to achieve the best performance possible, and I like a 3-9x with a 40 or 50mm objective as these scopes do a good job of picking out hiding squirrels in the lower light conditions encountered early in the morning and late afternoon. I’ve used the Hawke scopes more than any other this year, and have been well impressed by the optical quality achieved in low light conditions; swapping them from gun to gun. But I’ve also had very good results from the Niko Stirling and Leapers scopes as well, which are two of my airgunning go to scope manufacturers.
A gun in .177 is fine for squirrels and the majority of my hunting springers, with the exception of the .25s I mentioned, are .177. In my PCP squirrel guns I prefer a .22 caliber, but have also used smaller and larger (up to .50) caliber guns with good results.
There has been significant development with respect to projectiles available for squirrel hunting over the last few years; polymer tipped hollow points, boat tail pellets, new non-lead materials, and refinement of existing designs. Airguns can be a bit finicky about which projectiles they shoot best. Even guns that are the same model will often have different preferences for pellets. I generally prefer roundnose pellets for squirrel hunting as they offer a good balance of accuracy and terminal performance.
In most guns, one roundnose pellet or another will yield good results. Crosman Premiers are a bulk packaged roundnose pellet that is fairly inexpensive, and is a consistent performer in both spring piston and PCP air rifles. In springers with a looser barrel, the RWS Superdomes work very well because the skirt of the pellet is blown out to better engage the rifling, and can really improve accuracy in some guns.
There has been a lot of work in the last couple of years with respect to the development of lead free pellets. Both Beeman and Gamo have brought lightweight hard alloy pellets to market, which work especially well in lower power guns inside of thirty yards.
Two types of pellets that I don’t use very much are hollow points and pointed pellets. Hollow points don’t serve much purpose for air rifle hunting in my opinion, because at the velocities these guns operate at there is only limited (if any) expansion. One time I may use them is when shooting light bodied pest in an environment where limited penetration is desired. Pointed pellets (also call field pellets) don’t provide good accuracy in most of my rifles, and as a rule I’ll take accuracy over the slight improvement in penetration when compared to roundnose designs. An exception to this is the Polymer tipped pellet, which is essentially a hollow point with a pointed polymer tip stuck in the mouth. These pellets penetrate well, and the frangible tip does open a larger wound channel. And most importantly, these pellets are accurate in many of my rifles, especially the mid powered models.
Though squirrels are tenacious little critters, they are not that hard to kill if hit in the right place. Besides the roundnose pellets accuracy, the domed head and heavier weight are just the right medicine for both fox squirrels and their smaller cousins the gray squirrel, which are abundant in our forest.
When I hot the squirrel woods, I have found that there is ancillary gear that consistently improves my success rate. Most important is camo; in the spring I like a light weight mesh camo overall and in winter a camo jump suit and always include a face cover and gloves. I also like a compact set of binoculars for scanning the branches and shadows in the trees, I often finding a bushytail staring down on me that was missed by the naked eye. If you intend to stretch out the shooting distance a bit, a range finder can be an asset, as can a mouth blown call to coax a hesitant squirrel into view. I also throw a sharp pocket knife and some latex gloves in my pack for when cleaning time rolls around.
Camo will up your success rate, match the pattern to the woods and time of year.
A moderately priced (and moderately powerful) springer such as this BAM B26 is an effective way to get started.
The Talon SS is a compact, powerful, and quiet little carbine with a high capcity tank that will keep you in the filed all day long.
The big bore .454 I was using for deer hunting, doubled up as a squirrel gun on my way back to camp.
I have a couple of strategies for hunting squirrels; my favorite is to slowly stalk the woods and listen for chattering or scolding calls. Once I’ve pinned down the general vicinity I’ll start to slowly move towards the sound while scanning the canopy for the tell of a twitching tail. This is one of those times I find a good set of lower powered binoculars very useful in picking up a set of eyes peering down from a fork in the branches or the flicker of fur in the breeze. Another technique that has proven effective is to go out in full camo or a ghillie suit and find a mast producing tree such as walnut or hickory, and settle in for a wait. The flip side of this approach is to find a den tree or a drey and set up an ambush as the squirrels move between home and their food source. Wearing camo for a squirrel hunt may sound like overkill, but I can tell you that based on a lot of experience your success rate will take a quantum leap when you cover up. A face mask and gloves are important as these are the parts of your body that move the most. Calling can help, and I’ve had some success with the pup distress call early in the season. This can bring adult squirrels charging in to see what’s going on. Latter in the season I’ve gotten squirrels to poke their heads out for a look by barking and chattering.
I prefer to take head shots, especially if hunting with .177 caliber guns. The point to remember with this shot is, that even though called a head shot it is the brain you’re trying to hit. This leaves a lot of the head that will result in a non-lethal shot, so try to place the pellet right between the eyes on a frontal shot, and just under the ear for broadsides. However, if the only shot presented is a heart/lung shot I’ll take it. With the .22 or .25 this will invariably result in a clean kill, though some times the results are less stellar with the .177.
A day in the squirrel woods with an air rifle will get you tuned up for big game season and is also a great way to introduce new hunters to the sport because it combines challenge with pretty high odds for success. To carry an air rifle makes sense because it gives you more than enough accuracy and power to anchor your quarry, but because of the shooting characteristics of these guns (reduce range and noise) allows them to be used just about anywhere one might legally hunt. I enjoy this sport so much that when I score my deer, I am ready to get back on the squirrels!