Whitetails and Airguns
Whitetail with Airguns
Over the last few years, a small number of hunters have been using airguns to take large game animals. These are not the typical BB guns remembered from childhood, but rather high powered big bore hunting arms. I have taken feral hogs, exotic game species and whitetail deer in North America with them, and duiker, Steinbuck, springbuck, bleesbuck, impala, warthog, and kudu in South Africa. I believe that I’ve harvested more big game animals with an airgun than any other modern hunter out there, and as more jurisdictions are considering regulations allowing this type of hunting, thought it might be of value to pass along some insight based on my experience. Before you go nonlinear over the prospect of some yahoo running around plinking at deer with a pellet rifle, read on and let me explain.
There are several types of airguns on the market today, running the gamut from low powered CO2 “replica” guns and spring piston designs to powerful pre-charged pneumatics. Pre-charged pneumatic guns are powered by high pressure air, up to 3600 psi, which is stored in the guns onboard reservoir and filled via a connection to an external storage tank (such as a carbon fiber SCUBA tank). Many of the smaller caliber .177 to .22 models are exceptional small game guns easily able to dispatch squirrels, rabbits and woodchuck sized animals at fifty yards cleanly and consistently. But when we discuss guns suited for larger animals, those larger than a coyote, only pre-charged pneumatics models provide adequate power. While there are a few .25 caliber guns available that are adequate for coyotes and other predators, larger calibers are required for big game. At the present time there are only two sources providing production guns in .308 caliber and above required for hogs and deer sized game. The first source is the largest manufacturer of major caliber guns, ShinSung Industries of Korea. This company produces models such as the Big Bore 909 in .44 and the Dragonslayer .50 caliber which generate energy in the 150 – 225 fpe range, though after a tune up by one of the handful of air-gunsmiths around can get another 50-60 fpe. The other source for big bore airguns is Dennis Quackenbush of Quackenbush airguns. He designs and builds guns in .308, .457, and .50 calibers; these guns are an order of magnitude more powerful generating 300 – 500 fpe out of the box. Additionally there is something of a cottage industry that has popped up specializing in wringing the last foot pound of energy out of these guns, getting up to the 700 fpe range. There are also custom rifles that have been built which produce up to 1000 fpe, I’ve shot a 20mm air rifle that tosses a one ounce chunk of lead down range at over 800 fps.
All of these guns have advantages and disadvantages; the Quackenbush guns are undoubtedly the most powerful, but due to limited production runs you may have to wait a year or more to obtain a gun. Another fact to consider is that most of the very high power models only get two or three shots before they need to be refilled, less if they are tuned up for extreme performance. To keep it in perspective though, I can refill the DAQ reservoir from a small buddy bottle in my pack as fast as most muzzle loaders can reload their powder burners. Still, there are times a fast second shot is desired and for that reason I prefer leaving my Quackenbush rifles in stock form.
The Korean guns offer the advantage of being readily available and moderately inexpensive (under $650.00), but are less powerful than the Quackenbush guns. Another positive attribute is that these guns get many more shots per fill (averaging around 5 – 10) before requiring a trip to the air tank. While the fit and finish of these mass produced guns is good, it does not stand up to the craftsmanship of the semi production and custom guns. I think this is fair enough, as you expect to get more when you pay more.
Since I mentioned price, it is worth a quick comment that these guns are not inexpensive. There are many reasons to hunt with a big bore airgun; the increased challenge, the coolness factor of the technology, the tie in with a rich tradition going back hundreds of years (yes they have been around that long), the low sound signature (far quieter than a firearm) are what appeal to me for instance. However, the cost is higher than you’d expect to pay when starting up with a traditional firearm. Between the gun, the air tanks and miscellaneous filling gear, you are going to lay down over a thousand dollars (not counting scope) before even hitting the range to sight in. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons these guns have been around for well over two centuries and remain relatively unknown is that they have always been expensive and more difficult to manufacture than firearms. In earlier times they were for the few that could afford them, a hunting tool of the noble and wealthy classes.
Appropriate Calibers and power output
There has been a conventional wisdom that a gun generating 1000 fpe is required to cleanly and consistently bring down deer sized game. This is patently not true when it comes to airguns, the large and heavy projectiles moving at lower speeds behave differently than high velocity light bullets from a firearm. It is important to understand that airgun hunting is all about precise shot placement at the appropriate range. These guns do not impart a hydrostatic shock when impacting an animal, but kill by opening a large wound channel in the vital organs. Unlike a centerfire, an airgun offers little margin of error; for a broadside you want to puncture both lungs and better yet, hit the heart or aorta as well. As there is less margin for error it is important that the potential for sub-optimal shots is reduced, which is accomplished by limiting the range. I maintain that the correct range for airgun deer hunting is approximately the same as for bow hunting. Shots should be kept inside of 40 yards to ensure precise placement. The reduced range is not required due to lack of power, I have seen a 400 grain bullet from an airgun generating 500 fpe blow through a kudu at eighty yards. But the real objective should be to double lung them or get a head shot, and this is easier to do consistently when in close. When hunting pigs, many of us prefer head shots, and while many are opposed to head shots on deer I think this is a viable and ethical shot to take with an airgun. Why? Because when you combine the intrinsic accuracy of the gun with the selection of an appropriate shooting distance, it is a high percentage and (very effective) shot. The Korean guns in .44 caliber generating 150 to 200 fpe are fine for whitetail, but the range should be constrained inside of thirty yards. The guns could reach out further and many shooters can maintain accuracy further, but why push the envelope? With the higher power guns at 400 to 500 fpe I’d still keep inside of 50 yards and use a caliber of .308 and above.
The question most hunters will asked when faced with the use of big bore airguns is if they are an ethical tool for harvesting a deer sized animal? I will base my response on personal experience. The first large animals I shot with an airgun were feral hogs and exotics in Texas, the reason being that in Texas you can’t hunt a game animal with an airgun but non-native species are permitted. And there are a lot of non native species to choose from; pigs, axis deer, rams, and other exotics, which can be taken in fair chase hunts. I like hunting pigs, most exotics not so much, but they did allow me to try out the guns on bigger bodied animals. I have taken several pigs, some up to 300 lbs, with airguns in .308 to .50 caliber. Most shots have been inside the 40 to 60 yard range, and while preferring head shots I have taken broadsides with good results as well. This is in line with field experience using handguns in .357 and .44 mag for hogs. On broadsides these heavy slow moving projectiles either passed through or came to rest under the skin on the offside in every instance.
About four years ago I was invited on a test hunt in South Africa to see if these guns were a valid method of take on plains game. The hunt was set up by professional hunters Robert Dell and Andrew Myers, and monitored by the Eastern Cape Game Association and the Ministry of Tourism. We had permission to take a number of species including; springbuck, impala, duiker, steinbuck, and warthog. Several animals were cleanly dispatched with both the DAQ and the Dragonslayer airguns, and halfway through the hunt we were visited by officials for an inspection of the guns, the recovered bullets (when available) and the animals’ carcasses to determine their efficacy. Based on the results we were given the green light to continue the hunt, and I was allowed to shoot a kudu cow. At the end of the hunt, the officials, the professional hunters, and I were all impressed by the number of clean kills delivered on a variety of game species. Based on this outcome we were allowed to conduct another hunt the following year, and I brought along two other well known airgun hunters (Randy Mitchell and Eric Henderson) to hunt with me. We took many more of the same species mentioned, including new species such as bushbuck, with excellent results.
A couple of states have since opened their whitetail seasons to airgun hunters, in Kentucky it was ruled that these guns were legal method of take so long as they were configured as muzzle loaders and used in the primitive weapons season. The inaugural year Mitchell took the first doe in that state, anchoring her with a 40 yard shot from his .50 caliber muzzle loading Quackenbush. The following year I went to Kentucky and shot a nice 12 point buck using the same gun with a broadside at 50 yards. He ran another 75 yards and piled up, dead when we walked up a while later. Missouri is allowing their first airgun hunts this year, and have one of the best written regulations I’ve seen, a result of much lobbying and hard work by local airgun hunter Ken Cox. There are several hunters heading to the Missouri this year for the season kick off, and it is anticipated this will become an important airgun hunting venue in coming years.
More recently I was invited to visit a beautiful high fence hunting operation in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. This property is comprised a single unit of 1500 acres that contains everything from swamps to hardwood forest and is managed for exceptional deer. The owner of the property had heard about big bore airguns and was curious to see if this might be a hunting method he would allow on his property. I headed up with Henderson and Robert Vogel along with a selection of guns to see how they performed under a critical and impartial eye. Mostly the hunt was a success and several deer were taken with guns ranging from the 175 fpe Career 909 in .44 to the DAQ LA .457 generating over 500 fpe. Three of the deer shot (two bucks and a doe) went down within 75 yards of where they were hit. Three other deer (two bucks and a doe) ran further and presented some problems recovering. All three of the less optimal shots were longer range shots that were less than perfect placement. The efficacy of the shot was not as dependent on the power of the gun as on the precise location of the shot. One consistent finding was that only a light blood trail occurred, even when the bullet had complete pass through. What proved to be the most effective shot was when both lungs were transited and exited low enough that as the deer bled into the chest cavity it seeped out earlier than if hit high.
I have stated many times in the past that the attraction of hunting larger game with an airgun is that it combines many of the skills of bow hunting with traditional marksmanship. I think that similar to bow hunting, airgun hunting should be a close range proposition. My rationale for this view is that shot placement is tantamount and most hunters can precisely place a shot at 25 – 30 yards. At this range .40 caliber guns in the 160 fpe class are effective. A buck I shot at 25 yards out of a tree stand had the .454 roundball break through the nearside rib, transit both lungs, and come to rest under the skin on the offside. This was using a 160 fpe gun on a large bodied buck and he ran less than 75 yards before collapsing. The shot was perfectly placed with adequate power. Based on our test hunts, the owner of this property has decided that he will most probably permit airgun hunting in future. I am going back to help with a culling operation on his herd where we can collect more real world data on which he can base a final decision. We will conduct these hunts in stands and stalking situations that provide shooting opportunities inside of 30 yards, archery style.
There are a couple of issues that we have argued within our circle over the years; how big is too big and how far is too far? I know of at least two bison taken with airguns, though I think this is clearly pushing the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. However, the fact that it has been done demonstrates the power potential of the guns, even though I don’t support taking really big animals with them. The combination of limited penetration and lack of a hydrostatic shock component limits the effectiveness in very large bodied animals. After shooting two kudu with air rifles during the South African test hunts, I believe that deer size game is the right quarry for big bore air rifles. Even the lower power big bores at the appropriate range are highly effective in game of this size. The second item we frequently debate is shooting distance; there is no doubt that long shots (100 yards) are possible. This is also true with archery, there are archers that can arrow a deer at 65 yard, but this should not be encouraged for the rank and file. For most hunters using airguns, a range inside fifty yards is much more reasonable. While not an opinion shared by all airgun hunters, my personal view is that if I want to shoot a deer at 75 yards or more you should grab a centerfire. I very much believe in the old adage of using enough gun.
My first airgun buck was this 12 point shot with a muzzle loading DAQ .50 caliber taken while hunting with Randy Mitchel down in Kentucky
This year I used a Big Bore 909 in .45 to take a nice buck in Michigan
On the same trip Eric Henderson took what I think is the biggest buck taken with an air rifle, his DAQ .457
The use of big bore airguns for hunting deer is new paradigm for most wildlife agencies and hunters alike, and in most states it is not legal at the time of this writing. Growing numbers of hunters are taking feral hogs (which are legal in many jurisdictions) and see the effectiveness of this hunting tool. There are grassroots lobbying efforts to modify, expand, or write new regulations to allow airgun hunting in many states. I believe that progressive wildlife agencies should undertake studies to assess the efficacy and efficiency of airguns so that they can make informed decisions on whether to allow airgun hunting. These guns offer power and accuracy on one hand, but limited carrying range and low noise generation on the other. In this respect they make an ideal hunting tool as we see so much productive hunting land swallowed up by development. As a bow and traditional gun hunter, I have a difficult time understanding why big bore airguns should not be allowed, and would welcome an open and thoughtful dialog on where these guns fit into the scheme of things.