Is it a bow? Is it a gun? In 2016, Benjamin Airguns said, “Why not both?”
The company’s Pioneer Airbow made a splash at the Archery Trade Association (ATA) Show that year, and MeatEater’s Spencer Neuharth recalls getting to test drive the first-of-its kind hunting implement.
“I shot one at ATA the first year they came out. The person before me shot two arrows and got a Robin Hood. Then, I shot two arrows and got a Robin Hood. They're crazy accurate,” he said.
However, just a few months after the show, the ATA threw cold water on that enthusiasm when it released a statement declaring that airbows are not archery equipment and subsequently banned them from being displayed at their annual show. Crosman, Benjamin’s parent company, fired back in a statement of their own and accused the ATA of misrepresenting the facts.
“The Airbow may not meet the ATA’s definition of ‘pure’ archery equipment; however, hunters that currently use archery weapons and firearms continue to petition their state wildlife and legislative leaders to make it a legal alternative to use in their preferred seasons,” the company said.
The controversy has calmed since then, but the airbow industry has continued to expand. Umarex, a giant in the air gun world, has released several affordable models of archery air guns and many states now allow them to be used in the field. So what’s the future of this quirky, hybrid rifle?
“Airbow” is technically the trademarked name of Benjamin’s product, but it’s become the generic name for all rifles that use compressed air to fire an arrow. The concept isn’t new, but Benjamin was the first company to offer a relatively affordable product that could compete with compound and crossbow velocities.
Most airbows use either a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) powerplant (in which users fill an air tank with highly compressed air) or a CO2 powerplant (in which users install a small, replaceable CO2 tank). The system uses hollow arrows that are fitted along a rod that runs down the center of the rifle. Depending on the rifle and arrow, airbows can fire an arrow between 250 and 500 feet per second (fps).
Compound bows can fire arrows at top speeds around 350 fps, so airbows usually win in the velocity category. But as Spencer mentioned, accuracy is an airbow’s real advantage. A magnified scope or other optic allows for a precise point of aim, and the traditional rifle shape is far easier to hold steady.
For these reasons, airbows are most often compared with crossbows, not compound or recurve bows. Anyone can pick up an airbow and make accurate shots. Plus, they lack a rifle’s recoil and report, so it’s even easier for new shooters to get out in the field.
Of course, many would argue that shooting an airbow doesn’t make someone an “archer” any more than driving a station wagon makes someone “Jeff Gordon.” That’s the position the ATA took shortly after the Airbow’s introduction.
“While the ATA certainly recognizes the airbow to be an innovative piece of shooting equipment, the airbow nevertheless lacks the basic components of standard archery equipment (e.g., a string system and limbs). For this reason, the ATA does not consider airbows to be archery equipment,” the organization said in a statement.
Archery, in other words, is not defined by the projectile. It’s defined by the bow, which airbows (despite their name) don’t have.
The ATA also pointed out that airbows are not taxed through the Wildlife Restoration Program (Pittman-Robertson). Unlike companies that make bows and firearms, airbow companies do not pay the excise tax that funds state wildlife management and conservation. Arrows are still taxed, as Crosman noted in its response, but the airbows themselves (which cost much more) are not.
Crosman says it is “actively pursuing” removing the tax-exempt status of large bore pneumatic weapons, including the Airbow. Unfortunately, as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) points out, changing federal tax code can take many years, and Crosman hasn’t been successful since they made that commitment in 2016.
States don’t have much incentive to allow hunters to use airbows, and the CSF discourages states from doing so “unless there is a mechanism in place through which…arrow-shooting airguns contribute to conservation funding.”
While no federal mechanism exists, some states require air rifle hunters of all kinds to purchase a Conservation Airgun Stamp. This ensures that hunters continue funding the state’s conservation agencies while expanding legal means of take to new products that are capable of ethically dispatching an animal.
Before investigating whether hunting with an airbow requires a special stamp, hunters should first figure out whether it’s legal at all. The majority of states do not allow airbow hunting. Others limit all airgun use based on minimum calibers, velocities, and ammunition grain weights, which isn’t always helpful for arrow shooters. If you’re unsure of your state regs, a quick Google search or a call to your local wildlife official should get you the answer.
Texas, for example, specifically discusses “arrow gun regulations.” They limit big game hunting to PCP arrow guns, and arrows must conform to the same standards as archery projectiles.
The biggest question, of course, is whether states allow airbows to be used during archery season. So far, the answer is a resounding “no.” No state has entirely legalized the use of airbows in archery-only seasons, according to the CSF.
This is probably why the initial airbow controversy has died down. Traditional archers would be understandably upset if, after months or years of practice, their game were being harvested by airbow hunters with rifle triggers and magnified optics. Airbows have been relegated to use during rifle season, where they have to compete with all other means of take.
However, adoption of airbows appears to be increasing both among state policymakers and the general public. Tyler Patner, a product manager for Pyramyd Air, said the last few years have seen major growth in the airbow market.
“It’s expanded more in the last two or three years than it ever did when it was just Benjamin,” he said.
A broadhead travelling 450 fps is even more devastating than a big slug from an air rifle, and Patner has spoken with air gun hunters who have switched to airbows.
“You strap a broadhead to something going 450 fps, you can’t stop it. There are few big game animals that will stop one of these bolts,” he said.
Thanks in part to this popularity, an increasing number of states are allowing airbow hunting during big game rifle seasons. It’s still less than half, but just last week, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission legalized their use for the upcoming big game seasons.
Airbows may not provide the seasonal advantages of traditional archery equipment, but they still offer a new and exciting challenge. Archery hunters with disabilities would also be able to implement archery hunting strategies and experience the up-close-and-personal nature of the sport without having to draw a heavy compound bow. If you’re intrigued by the wonderful world of airbows, here are a few things you should know.
First, as mentioned, make sure it’s legal to hunt with an airbow in your state and locality.
Next, choose an airbow based on those regulations. Benjamin’s Airbow was first in the ring, and it’s still the standard by which all other airbows are measured. The PCP airbow can fire a 357-grain arrow a whopping 450 fps. The bullpup design measures only 33.5 inches in overall length, and the package comes with three arrows, a scope, and a sling.
Air Venturi, Hatsan, and FX Airguns all offer airbows, but Umarex is the biggest player in the category. Their AirSaber offers similar ballistics as the Airbow but with a significantly lower price point. The newest iteration of the AirSaber, the Elite X2, features a double barrel for quicker followup shots, and the 240cc onboard tank can power up to 25 shots without refilling. The first five shots will all launch above 450 fps with 130 ft-lbs of energy.
Shooting an airbow might be easier than shooting an actual bow, but hunters are still limited by range and a lack of projectile energy.
“Treat this like an archery tool in terms of distance. You want sub-50-yard interactions. If you can get within those ranges, you are going to be extremely effective,” Patner said. “The closer the better.”
Airbows are also much louder than your childhood BB gun. The deer will hear the pop of the rifle before it feels the arrow, which is another reason to get as close as possible.
Much like hunting with a crossbow or a handgun, hunting with an airbow lives in the middle ground between rifles and true archery equipment. It’s far easier to shoot effectively than a traditional bow, but its range limitations require hunters to hone their woodsmanship skills to get as close as possible. If you’re thinking about getting into archery hunting but aren’t sure if you have those skills, an airbow might be a good stepping stone to true bowhunting. If nothing else, you’ll have a blast along the way.