Don’t Shoot Your Eye Out!: Are Air Guns Legitimate Hunting Weapons?

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Whether it was a Christmas, birthday, or secret present from an uncle that we had to hide from our mothers, it’s nearly unanimous among hunters that the greatest gift we ever received as a child was our first BB gun. It was the gift that created us. The thing that, as we sat in the backyard for hours plinking away a soda cans and paper targets, instilled a deeper desire in us to do more. Bee-bee guns were the firs step on our road to becoming hunters. They taught us about gun safety – how to shoot and be responsible. And for some of us, bee-bee guns even brought home our first game in the form of birds and squirrels. As we evolved as hunters, however, we began to lean away from our bee-bee and pellet guns in favor of real firearms. This transition begs the question: Are air rifles legitimate hunting tools?

In recent years there has been a renaissance in the world of air rifles. The advancements in technology have caused the guns to evolve from your basic spring loaded plinkers which weren’t all that powerful (actually shot myself in the hand a couple times as a kid – didn’t’ even break the skin) to incredibly powerful and viable weapons. Gone are the days of air guns firing small barely discernible round balls; replaced now by heavily pointed projectiles of .22, .30, and even .50 caliber that can be fired at almost 3000 feet per second! These air guns have become popular and precision weapons that are not only taking the small game world by storm but are also being used now for larger game such as coyotes, wild hogs, and even deer. However, just because they are being used as such, doesn’t necessarily mean that these air rifles can be considered legitimate hunting weapons. Many hunters in fact consider these supped up BB guns to be exactly that, just big toys that people scared of real guns are using to poke holes in animals that could be otherwise ethically harvested with a firearm. However, the truth, as many hunters are discovering, is that these air guns are not only viable hunting weapons but can present hunters with a challenge reminiscent of being 10-years-old and trying to hit the bullseye on the box of your new Red Ryder BB gun.

When a game animal is shot with a rifle, the bullet is traveling at super-sonic speeds, which upon impact creates a sort of “killing shock,” hitting the animal so hard and fast it often dies without even realizing it has been hit. Air-rifles don’t do that, no matter how powerful or how large a caliber they are. What they can do however is fire a large cutting projectile into an animal with over 700-foot-pounds of force. That is more than enough to puncture or even shatter the skull of a game animal in the case of a headshot, or to pass through the body, penetrating vital organs and causing the animal to bleed out almost instantaneously, much like an arrow would do from a compound bow. In fact, that’s not the only similarity between hunting with a bow and an air rifle. Hunting air rifles have a limited range, with most only being lethal within 30-40 yards. Hunting with one means getting close to your prey, forcing a hunter to be a good stalker and to have incredible patience to ensure an ethical and accurate shot. Hunting with an air rifle forces a hunter to use all their hunting skills, sharpening and refining their technique and skills, making them better hunters all around.

Air rifles have become such effective and viable hunting weapons that many states such as Texas and Louisiana are establishing their own airgunning seasons and airgunning regulations for hunting areas. States with urban areas, too densely populated to hunt with rifles, are allowing hunters to harvest overpopulated game animals such as deer and turkeys with air rifles, and some states with specific laws, like Arizona and Virginia, against using air rifles to harvest anything larger than a muskrat are changing their policies to allow the use of air guns as hunting weapons. This means that airguns are being recognized as legitimate hunting tools opening up an entirely new world for the hunting community.

Last year on an elk hunt, I wanted to find a way to collect the plethora of cottontail and jack rabbits bouncing around my base camp for some camp meat and a change of diet without scaring the hell out of all the elk in the area by shooting a .22 rifle a bunch of times. So I brought along a .22 air rifle, though admittedly I didn’t have much faith it would work. However, by the end of the week I had nearly forgotten about taking an elk since I was having so much fun stalking rabbits in the sage brush. Not only did I discover that day that these air rifles are legitimate hunting weapons, but as I plunked away at bouncing bunnies, I found a remembered joy and satisfaction. One I hadn’t felt since that Christmas morning so long ago when I unwrapped my first BB gun and knew I was destined to be a hunter.

The author’s air rifle with one of the rabbits taken on his elk hunt last fall

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