Any kid whose ever had a pellet gun and an unsupervised Saturday knows that air rifles can take down small game.
But what about whitetails? These days, companies offer .35, .45, and .50-caliber air rifles that are more than capable of bringing down deer-sized animals. It’s safe to say that Ralphie’s mom would have a heart attack.
Make Sure It’s Legal Most states allow small game hunting with air guns, but according to Pyramyd Air, only 22 states allow air rifles for big game hunting: California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, and Maine.
Hunting regs change all the time and sometimes vary by county, so be sure to check your local laws before ordering a gun.
Some states also restrict the caliber and speed of the projectile. Texas, for example, requires air guns to use at least a .30-caliber projectile weighing 150 grains or more, travelling 800 feet-per-second and producing at least 215 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. Indiana requires a .40-caliber projectile capable of producing 400 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle.
For more information on the air gun hunting laws in your state, check out a helpful map here.
Rules of Thumb State requirements are a good baseline, but first-time air rifle hunters should also keep a few rules of thumb in mind.
First and most obviously, be sure you purchase an air rifle capable of bringing down a whitetail-sized animal. Tyler Patner of Pyramyd Air recommends a rifle chambered in at least .35 caliber, but he prefers .45- or .50-caliber guns that produce 700 to 800 ft.-lbs. of energy. For those keeping score at home, that means you’re looking for a projectile that weighs 350 to 450 grains and travels about 1,000 fps.
“You’re just talking about a bigger hole,” Patner explained.
Patner encourages hunters to think about air rifle projectiles like arrows. They don’t expand as much as centerfire bullets and they don’t impart enough energy to induce hydrostatic shock. You won’t be knocking down a whitetail even with the most powerful air rifle, so you’re looking to put a devastating hole through the heart, lungs, or brain. It's the same idea as a broadhead.
That’s why, even though hunters have taken whitetails at 100-plus yards with air guns, Patner recommends staying in the 40- to 50-yard range. Officially, Pyramyd Air recommends staying within 75 yards.
“It’s plenty of power, but since it’s a bigger projectile going a little slower, you don’t get hydrostatic shock. You’re relying on good shot placement. The closer you are, the better,” Patner explained.
Patner recommends either hollow-point or flat-nosed projectiles, but he said that accuracy rather than bullet expansion should determine what kind of projectile a hunter uses.
“You don’t get the same expansion,” he said of air rifle projectiles. “Even with hollow points, you’re not looking at exit wounds that are double or triple the size of your entry. If you get a pass-through, it’s not going to be that much bigger.”
The good news is that modern high-quality air rifles are more than capable of posting a 1-inch group at 50 yards. So, as long as you do your part, your shots are going to land where you aim them.
If you want to shoot at distances greater than 50 yards, Patner recommends keeping a few things in mind. First, since projectiles are traveling so much slower than most centerfire rounds, it’s crucial to practice extensively and know how much your bullet is going to drop.
Second, since the round is traveling slower than the speed of sound, a shot report will reach the deer before your bullet. Much like archers must think about deer “jumping the string,” air gun hunters should account for a deer that jumps or ducks when it hears an air rifle fire. While Patner has never personally lost a deer due to this phenomenon, it requires hunters to be even more confident in any long-distance shot.
From whatever distance you shoot, big-bore air rifles can only launch two or three shots before losing velocity, so you’ll want to put the deer down on that first shot. Knowing this, Patner said some hunters opt for head shots on does instead of poking a hole through the vitals.
Bottom line? Air gun whitetail hunters should adopt an archery hunter’s mindset. Set up in a spot where you can get a 40- to 50-yard shot, take your time, and make sure you put that first shot exactly where it needs to go.
A Few Options A quick search on Pyramid Air for rifles that meet the Texas Parks and Wildlife criteria results in 61 options ranging in price from $550 to $3,500. To help narrow things down, I asked Patner to list his top three.
The AirForce Texan line of air rifles is “the standard as far as big-bore hunting guns goes,” Patner said.
These guns come in a variety of calibers and configurations, but many fall within the criteria mentioned above. This LSS model, for example, can push a .45-caliber, 520-grain bullet about 820 fps, which results in 757 ft.-lbs. of energy. For context, a .45 ACP produces about 400 ft.-lbs. of energy while a .44 Magnum produces about 900 ft.-lbs.
Patner also recommends the Hatsan Piledriver and the Umarex Hammer. The Piledriver has only been out for about a year, but it’s already proven itself in the field. Some hunters like the Hammer because it’s the only multi-shot rifle in this category.
If you clicked on any of those links, you probably noticed that these guns aren’t cheap. But you also need to think about how you’re going to fill the air tank.
You can go with a hand pump, which is physically taxing and time consuming but by far the least expensive option. You can purchase an external tank, which you’ll need to have filled at a dive shop or paintball center. Or, you can purchase your own high-pressure air compressor. Unfortunately, your trusty shop compressor won’t get the job done in this case.
Last Shot Modern air rifles are fully capable of bringing down a whitetail. If you’re looking for a challenge (and an excuse to buy new gear), do some research, get some practice, and make your next whitetail season an air gun season.