by Christian Monahan
When I was a lad air rifles were definitely the ‘go’. Bigger guns were the realm of bigger people and I knew that even if I managed to have a shot with a larger calibre, I probably wouldn’t hit anything and would likely walk away with a bruised shoulder and ego to match.
But with an air rifle you could hold your own. The bigger kids didn’t shoot them as they’d ‘outgrown’ them but younger ones like me had a chance to show what could be achieved with these so-called ‘peashooters’.
I’d wager that youngsters gravitate to them for a few simple reasons - they’re quiet, easy to shoot, there’s no recoil and most young shooters have some sort of access to small game. Plus, for the majority of teenagers an air rifle is their introduction to hunting, usually from a father figure who used it to teach them the basic principles of shooting. We took a fair number of feral birds and the odd rabbit back then but, as much as I loved it, I grew bored and a bit frustrated with the air rifle’s lack of strength.
Fast forward to now and I couldn’t be happier with my .22 air rifle. Things have changed a lot since then and the technology and accuracy of air rifles is better than it has ever been. When I bought it I gave myself the choice of a regular .22 or an air rifle .22 and there were pros and cons to both. I thought the ammunition at around 0.05c a shot was a good selling point given my financial status at the time, plus that ammo never ‘goes off’. They’re solid pellets without gunpowder or the like so you can have a tin sitting on a bench for 20 years and still use them.
When it came down to it both were a great option and I went with the air rifle as it just held more appeal. Maybe it was memories of shooting one as a boy or the videos I’d watched when doing my research. I can’t really say what swayed me but when I held the firearm at the gunshop it was a good fit I’m still very happy with it.
The small game I like to hunt makes the air rifle an excellent selection. I’ve shot rabbits, foxes, pigeons and a few introduced bird species and usually receive more than a few comments saying: “You took that with an air rifle?” I can only assume people either don’t rate them or just forget about them as a rifle option altogether. If I had to give my top selling points for going with an air rifle, besides the ridiculously cheap ammunition, they’d be as follows.
The quiet aspect of firing them. My air rifle is a break barrel and pretty quiet, which is advantageous as my main quarry is rabbits. The bunnies usually come out of their warrens in pairs or small groups and one shot from a regular rifle and they scatter, purely because of the noise. With an air rifle I can get more than one shot away before they realise what’s going on, which means if I play my cards right and go for them in an order that dictates they’re not seeing each other drop, I can land two to three from one group. And the Pneumatic (PCP) air rifles are even quieter.
I would add a side note from my experience shooting at multiple rabbits. Don’t move after the first shot ‑ stay still, keep watching the group, shoot, reload, go again and you’ll be successful more often than not.
As always though, shot placement is vital. I can’t stress clean headshots enough, though I drop a lot from chest shots but the stopping power is somewhat lesser than a regular .22 so without good shot placement you’re stuffed.
The positive counter point to that is due to the cheapness of ammunition and the air rifle’s inherent accuracy, you can practise to your heart’s content and spend around $3 doing so! If you fancy an afternoon plinking, not only will you have a great time you’ll improve your skills and save money. Days spent punching paper will be repaid tenfold in the field.
Another great point for beginners is air rifles are an inexpensive option and you can find a very respectable one for $250 that will last a lifetime. You’ll most likely pass it down to your children as their first rifle. A friend inherited his wife’s grandfather’s air rifle which was made in Birmingham, England in the early 1950s and it’s a cracker. No doubt he’ll pass it on to his son when he’s old enough which would make four generations shooting the same rifle.
And air rifles are tough. I’m clumsy but reckon I could throw my rifle off a building, pick it up and use it without missing a beat. My current rifle weighs around 3.3kg and has a wooden stock which is tough but a bit heavy. Their calibres remain the same as well, so you can opt for a .22 or a .177. Some people claim the .177 is more accurate and I’m sometimes inclined to believe them, though I have a .22 and have never had any issues. Shooting at around 1000 feet per second it uses a spring piston and shoots with more of a ‘clunk’ than the regular ‘bang’.
A few people even stick with the regular iron sights though I much prefer using a scope. So before you buy ask your gunshop for recommendations as a break barrel rifle will be hard going on the scope, though there are certain brands who manufacture models with this in mind.
Cleaning is a breeze. As always, keeping your gun clean and servicing it regularly is a must. A few swipes up the barrel and general look-over every few hundred shots and you’ll be fine. Bear in mind an air rifle is reliant on seals, O-rings and the like so a harsh cleaning agent won’t do you any favours.
There’s also a good range of pellets to try. Most people I know, including myself, go through a few different types to find one that suits best. I use a rounded/blunt tip pellet as opposed to a sharp point for no other reason than it works for me and, because of that, I’m sticking to them. Considering a pack of 250 pellets will set you back about $7 you can afford to try a few types.
These are rifles for small game hunters, the ones who become excited about rabbits and hares. Our target is small, we wear stock-standard camo to get as close as possible and we sit patiently on the edges of fields and paddocks for hours on end. We can often be found in fold-out hunting blinds or in ones we’ve made ourselves, watching the landscape for any sign of movement. Most air rifle users like to be within 40-50 metres of their target so blinds come in pretty handy - any further and you risk losing accuracy.
I’ve been lucky with my door-knocking efforts of the past couple of years to have garnered a few properties. Most of the time owners are happy for you to come on to their place and reduce the small game population, especially in the case of modestly-run cattle farms which can’t afford a $2000 prize bull to break its leg from stumbling in a rabbit warren.
Rabbits, hares, pigeons and foxes are looked upon by most as pests and you’ll find that with a door-knock, a smile and a mention you’re using an air rifle, people will generally be happy for you to shoot on their property. I shoot on one property where the owner calls me every so often for a bunny cull to save her trees and garden.
When I think about it, maybe there’s a reason we air gunners are overlooked. With a common emphasis on bigger is always better as far as hunting goes, a lot don’t view the quarry we chase as much chop. But I don’t think it matters. Big or small, enjoy what you do, look after the landscape you hunt on, support the industry we’re all a part of and you’ll be a lot happier for it. See you in the field.