|Predator Hunting with an Air Rifle
When, why, and how to use an air powered gun to effectively hunt North American predators.
|Airgunning for Predators
As more hunters are becoming familiar with the use of airguns for small game and varmint hunting, I am frequently asked if they can be used for larger predators. The short answer is yes, but with some qualification. It depends; on the gun, the quarry, and conditions under which they will be used. Many raccoons, fox, bobcats, and coyote have been cleanly taken with airguns. Many animals have also been lost when a guns terminal performance is not up to the task, or the shot is taken at an inappropriate range and the proper shot placement is either not selected or not achieved. In this article Iíd like to present my world view on predator hunting with airguns, though youíll find others with different outlooks. The basis of this discussion for me is that I believe no matter what you hunt the gun and the ammunition used must be able to cleanly kill the quarry. This is especially true with predators, as a poorly hit coyote has more potential to be a problem animal if wounded, and at any rate wounded once heíll be a lot smarter second time around. So if you are going to use smaller calibers or lower power because the situation mandates it, the hunter has to compensate by being that much more selective about distance and shot placement.
Raccoons and Fox
Smaller predators such as raccoons and foxes can be taken with standard caliber .22 and .25 rifles. While it is possible to kill just about any animal with any gun, when I talk about ďappropriate gunsĒ I mean those that will anchor quarry consistently and reliably when the shooter does their part. I believe that there are magnum spring piston airguns appropriate for raccoon sized quarry; for example the .22ncaliber Gamo Hunter Extreme, Walther Falcon and Beeman RX-2 have proven to be reliable for this application out to 40 yards. These guns generate adequate terminal ballistics; delivering power, accuracy, and when matched with a good hunting pellet, excellent penetration. Having quite a bit of field time with these guns I can say that when used to shoot a raccoon in the head, he is going down. Lower powered small caliber springers can be used to kill a raccoon with a well placed head shot, but Iíve seen several animals lost and donĎt recommend them for larger animals. This is where the .25 caliber spring piston rifles have impressed me; in my experience they have been consistent performers. If you start to stretch the range or stray from headshots with the smaller calibers the success rate starts to drop, but the magnum .25s provide a bit more latitude. The same guns mentioned above in .25 caliber are good selections. With a precharged pneumatic airgun the additional power allows heavier pellets in a smaller caliber to be used than does a spring piston gun, making the .22 a viable option. I have had a lot of success cleanly dispatching medium size predators with guns like the Evanix Rainstorm, Benjamin Marauder, AirArms 400, FX Royale and Airforce Talon SS, all in .22. These guns will kill a raccoon sized animal with a heart / lung shot at longer distances, but the potential risk of losing them still exists. When using a pcp I will stretch out to 60 yards, but prefer to stick with headshots when possible.
Coyote and Bobcats
When we step up to bobcats and coyotes, more powerful guns in larger calibers are advantageous, and that means regardless of caliber only pcp powered guns are appropriate. Itr is possible to kill a bobcat with a springer to be sure, itís been done, but there is no marguin of error and there is always some uncertainty as the trigger is squeezed that even a good shot is going toi anchor the quarry. There may come a time when the right combination of spring piston gun and new pellet designs may alter this opinion, but that hasnít happened yet. There are a couple ways to approach shooting bigger predators (by which I mean coyotes); one school of thought is that a big bore (.308 up) will deliver both the energy and open a large enough wound channel to allow chest shots to be a primary target. I and others have taken coyote out to eighty or ninety yards with guns such as the Quackenbush, Sam Yang and Shinsung large caliber rifles.
There is no doubt that these bigger bore guns will punch a hole through a coyote, but with less than perfect shot placement the animal might still escape before giving up the ghost. For this reason I like to keep my range around 40 - 50 yards, where I donít have to deal with the trajectory and over/under estimation of holdover that can result in a shot being slightly off. The best and most experienced airgun coyote hunter I know of is Brian Beck, and he uses his Haley .308 to shoot song dogs at over a 100 yards with head and chest shots, with very good results.
The other school of thought is that as lung shot predators can carry a surprising amount of lead, so the airgun toting coyote hunter should stick solely with head shots. Accordingly, subscribers to this approach believe that a large caliber gun is not required, and that a heavy .22 or .25 caliber pellet delivered by a high powered pcp rifle to the noggin will effectively drop a bobcat or a coyote. It is reasoned that a flat shooting, highly accurate .22 will enable the predator hunter to deliver the projectile more precisely and consistently than if having to compensate for the more pronounced trajectory arc and rougher shooting characteristics of the big bores. Airgun hunting pioneer Ron Robinson told me in a chat one time that this is his view on the subject, and his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.
So which approach do I subscribe to? Well I think that there is a certain amount of validity to both views, and that either can be ethically applied so long as certain conditions are met. Most airgun hunters Iíve spoken with have had consistently good results with chest shots on coyote using large bores inside of 50 yards, but the success has dropped as the shots have moved further out. Yes, animals are still (assumed) killed, but with more lost animals occurring. For that reason I think chest shots with big bores are fine when the range is kept around 50-75 yards. If the range goes out past that mark, I will try for head shots as this tends to result in either a clean hit or a clean miss.
Sticking to head shots with smaller caliber guns also works, with more clean kills and not surprisingly more clean misses, and as a result fewer wounded animals being lost. However, when using a standard caliber there is a need to utilize every foot pound of energy that the gun produces and drop the pellet into a target zone the size of a fifty cent piece. For this reason I believe that the acceptable range of these guns on coyote is no more than forty yards. Closer is better. It is worth mentioning that the smaller caliber guns, many designed with a shrouded barrel, are a natural choice when hunting in urban areas. The sound signature of a .22 caliber AirArms 410 generating 30 fpe is a fraction of that produced by a Dragonslayer .50 caliber (which in turn is quieter than a rimfire), so this gun is perfect for head shooting fox or coyote in settings where noise is a concern.
All of the predators discussed can be hunted in much the same way; where legal I think the most effective approach is lamping. This means hunting at night with a light; and makes a lot of sense as this is when most predator species are out hunting themselves. I like to set up in an area the use either a mouth blown call or an electronic call for a couple minutes then sweep the area with a light, and repeat. Here in the Midwest Iíll put about 30-40 minutes into a set before moving on, but when out west only spend 15Ė20 minutes before moving on. When I see a set of eyes coming in, I hold the light high so the direct beam is not on the animal. Some guys use a red filter, but I have a hard time seeing in these conditions and any advantage related to not spooking the animal is lost on me because I have a harder time seeing them in the first place. It is helpful to have a scope mounted light to switch over to as the animal comes into shooting range, especially if hunting alone. I have been looking at a new ND 3 collimated laser locator light that is mind blowingly good at picking up an animal at night, but will write about this in detail in an upcoming article. I think this lighting system with shrouded high powered tackdriving airguns is the future of urban predator control.
Regardless of whether you hunt in the day or at night, calling with a distress call is one of the most effective means of encountering a predator within airgunning range. I use a lot of rabbit distress calls for coyotes, fox and bobcats day or night, but have found that baby squirrel and woodpecker calls work surprisingly well for raccoons in the very early morning and late dusk hours. Some people donít consider coons a predator, but Iíve just about had them run me over when charging in on baby squirrel distress squeal.
You will hear people argue that big bore guns, and small bores for that matter, can kill a coyote further or with less than perfect shot placement. This is undeniably true; over the years I have seen and heard of many predators taken under a variety of less than perfect conditions. I have also seen too many lost animals due to pushing the envelope and ignoring the requirement fir perfect range selection and shot placement. So my answer to the question we opened with is now qualified; yes, airguns are effective, efficient, and ethical predator getters so long as the right gun, the right shot placement, and the right range are selected. In this respect it is no different than the judgment exercised by a bow hunter or firearm hunter before taking a shot.
|Spring Piston air rifles provide the power and accuracy to cleanly kill medium sized predators such as this raccoon at closer ranges. In my experience headshots is the most effective placement. This is one of the instances when the hypervelocity hard alloy pellets work well.
This photo was in my files, but I'm not sure where it came from. If it's your photo let me know and I'll give you credit.
|Big bores for bigger animals give a bit more latitude in shot placement. I used the .457 to do a heart lung shot on the dog to the left, which ran about 40 yards and dropped. The dog on the right was hit in the head at 60 yards with a .50 caliber roundball fired from the Dragonslayer. This one dropped dead on the spot.
Another gun I find interesting is the Benjamin Rogue, which is a .357 caliber rifle designed to be a predator hunting gun. It has a shrouded barrel, uses a 6 shot magazine, and can be set up for a specific bullet weight. I'll be writting more on this gun after using it more this season.
|Brian Beck is a coyote killing machine, and uses a .308 caliber rifle to take coyotes near and far using both headshots and body shots .... and it's hard to argue with his success!
You need to be practiced cocking, loading, and shooting quickly as more than one coyote will often come into the call. You may also make multiple sets before returning to your air tanks. I like a short barrel for moving around, but you need to have multiple shots on tap so it's a balancing act which is best for your style of hunting. I use a carbine and carry a small CF tank.