I?m often asked what is the maximum range for shooting with an airgun. Like most recurring questions, there is no simple answer, though the standard reply from behind the counter of most gunshops seems to be 40m, which presumably helps to shift a few airguns and inevitably results in more than a few disheartened punters.
Sticking to the legal limit ? sub-12ft/lb airguns that don?t require a firearm certificate ? many will probably be surprised to learn that the maximum potential range for clean kills on small pests such as rabbits, magpies and grey squirrels, is beyond 50m. The problem is that, while these airguns have the potential to despatch pests cleanly at such range, the small kill area presented by these airgun quarry species means it?s beyond the capabilities of all but the most experienced of shooters.
Modern air rifles are very accurate, but the shock energy delivered by a small pellet is incredibly low when compared with a bullet fired from a powder-burning rifle. To achieve a clean kill, the airgun shooter has to deliver his
projectile directly to a vital organ, which generally means head shots or a strike to the heart and lung area. In terms of the species recognised as legitimate airgun quarry, that kill area usually translates to a target about the size of a 10p piece.
With a telescopic sight of reasonable quality and decent roundhead ammunition, most pre-charged airguns are capable of hitting that tiny target 10 times out of 10 at 50m. Unfortunately, most shooters ? myself included ? are not.
Accuracy is compromised by many factors, the main one being human error. The tiny shifting movements needed to balance your body, the quivering of straining muscles, the rhythmic rocking caused by your breathing pattern, and the constant throb of your pulse all manifest as unwanted movement of the cross-hairs as you try to hold a steady aim.
Of all the stances the hunter is likely to employ in the field, the standing shot is the least stable. It?s virtually impossible to avoid the minute movements needed to balance when you?re standing upright and, in this position, your body is also most vulnerable to buffeting by the breeze. Combine this with the fact that gun support depends entirely on your own strength, and it?s easy to see that accuracy will be compromised.
Standing shots are often the only option presented to a hunter on the move, and it?s a question of shooting within your capabilities. For me, that means reducing the maximum killing range to around 25m. Thus the gun?s potential performance is halved by my ability ? or, more specifically, my inability.
Kneeling shots offer a more favourable compromise that can often be achieved in the thick of the action. The centre of gravity is lowered, the body has more contact with the ground and balance is, therefore, more easily achieved. Settled in a comfortable kneeling position, I usually feel suitably composed to take shots to beyond 30m.
Set up an ambush somewhere that you can take shots from a sitting postition and you?ll have an even steadier shooting platform. After confirming ranges and perhaps taking one or two confidence shots at inanimate objects, many experienced airgun shooters can produce the consistent accuracy required to despatch live quarry humanely at 40m from a sitting position. Nonetheless, this standard of marksmanship requires considerable practice and experience to achieve.
To glean ultimate accuracy from a precharged airgun, you need to get yourself down into the prone position and take advantage of the stability provided by a bipod. With the fore-end of the gun supported on a bipod, many of the human factors that hinder accuracy are bypassed and, when ambushing rabbits on a still, windless evening, and given plenty of practice, you may eventually find yourself approaching the 50m mark.
A little help
Apart from using a bipod, there are other ?cheats? the airgunner can use to improve accuracy. The recoil-less firing cycle of pre-charged airguns means it?s possible to lean them against solid objects without causing an erratic kick. Trees, gates and fence-posts often provide useful rests that can add vital metres to effective hunting range when taking standing and kneeling shots. In fact, I don?t regard this as cheating; it?s merely exploiting a useful opportunity to improve accuracy.
Recoiling air rifles that are powered by a spring and piston don?t offer the luxury of direct leaning shots. The recoil caused by the mechanism of these guns needs to be carefully managed to achieve a reasonable degree of accuracy. This usually means holding them with a gentle grip so they have the freedom to recoil through the same path consistently for every shot. Lean a ?springer? on a gate or mount it on a bipod and recoil becomes unpredictable, and therefore so does shot placement. However, you can still use these convenient rests to support your body, or even your hand, when lining up a shot. It?s just a case of ensuring that the movement of the gun is cushioned by your usual hold so it follows its regular course.
Even when you?ve mastered the various stances, there are other important factors to consider. The best way to identify and familiarise yourself with these is to practise on paper targets, which will allow you to read pellet groups and understand the ways in which trajectory is influenced.
Set up targets at 10m, 20m, 30m, 40m and 50m, and zero your sights at 30m. Shoot groups of five shots at each of these targets and you?ll notice that shots strike low at 10m because the pellet leaves the muzzle well below the line of sight. Thereafter, the point of impact rises, usually coinciding with the true zero at around 15m and then striking slightly high at 20m. At the 30m target, you?ll be back on zero, and the pellet will be striking noticeably low by the time it gets to 40m. At 50m, shots will be missing well low, and you can expect your grouping to have gone completely to pot unless you?re shooting with a recoil-less gun off a bipod.
This is vital information that will enable you to work out how to use various points of your scope?s vertical cross-hair to compensate for the rise and fall of the pellet. You can then use this hold-over or hold-under to hit the mark at differing ranges. And with that, we introduce the crucial need to estimate distance accurately ? another hurdle in the pursuit of extended hunting range.
Practising on paper will also allow you to see the influence of wind on the humble airgun pellet ? and it can be considerable. Get out on the range in a variety of wind conditions and you?ll soon see why you need a still evening to take advantage of the extra stability afforded by a bipod.
Ultimately, the maximum airgun hunting range boils down to the individual shooter?s ability to hit that 10p-sized kill zone consistently. Practice is the best way to find out how and when you can achieve it, and then it?s just a case of shooting within your limitations.