When a lot of hunters think of air rifles, they think of the old Daisy Red Ryders that hurled BBs so slowly that you could watch them leave the barrel. In fact, air rifles have been around a lot longer than the infamous weapon featured on the movie A Christmas Story. Modern air rifles are perfect for hunting small game.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition packed along a Girandoni Repeating Air Rifle on their trip across the American West in the early 1800s. It took about 1,500 strokes from an external pump to fully charge the cylinder, though once it was prepared it could launch up to thirty consecutive rounds of .46 caliber bullets.
Legality and Safety
There are plenty of air guns on the market today that are perfectly effective on squirrels, rabbits, and whatever game birds happen to be legal for that method of take in your state. California actually allows turkey hunting with air rifles! Rather than the BBs shot from a Red Ryder, they throw cone-nosed lead pellets.
You can’t get the same shooting distances from an air rifle that you can from a rimfire, but there’s still plenty to be said for them. They are quiet, there’s essentially no kick, and they are inexpensive to purchase and shoot. What’s more, they are safer to use in semi-suburban areas than longer-range rimfire cartridges.
Many air rifle shooters are able to work up delicious meals of small game by simply cracking the kitchen window and taking aim at rabbits or squirrels that have become garden nuisances. The neighbors never even knew it happened.
If you’re looking into an air rifle that will be dedicated to hunting, consider the larger .22 and .25 calibers rather than the traditional .17 caliber. Excellent air rifles are offered by Gamo, Benjamin, Beeman, and RWS.
When shopping for a small game air rifle, you want to make sure you’re selected rifle can achieve at least 12 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. For a .177 caliber air rifle, that’d be a 7.9 grain pellet flying at about 830 feet per second. For a .22-caliber air rifle, that’d be a 14.3-grain pellet at about 615 feet per second.
Good air rifles are tapped for scope mounts, though be aware that dedicated air rifle scopes have different recoil tolerances than scopes intended for rimfire and centerfire rifles. They are built to withstand vibrations from the pistons and springs. Some are also built to focus clearly on much closer targets.