Mat Manning considers the maximum lethal range for sub-12ft/lb air rifles and decides that it is more about the shooter than the gun
How far is the maximum distance for hunting with a legal-limit air rifle?
It is something I get asked all the time but it is a question that has no straight answer. Gun shops that sell air rifles as a sideline but have no real experience of using them in the hunting field usually cite the default 40m, which is incredibly misleading. Fair enough, a pellet fired from a sub-12ft/lb air rifle will still be carrying enough energy to deliver a clean kill at that range — and significantly further — but most newcomers, and a lot of experienced Shots, would really struggle to achieve the accuracy needed to consistently land a pellet in the right place at that range.
The scant shock energy delivered by a pellet fired from a legal-limit air rifle means we usually need to hit our quarry in the upper part of the skull to ensure clean, humane kills. There are a few exceptions — small quarry such as magpies and collared doves can be swiftly despatched with a strike to the chest, and a shot to the heart and lung area can snuff out larger quarry such as woodpigeons, crows and grey squirrels if delivered with precision and at the correct angle. But for the average shooter, head shots are the most reliable option, and I usually stick to the same practice when using FAC- rated airguns.
When it comes to head shots on airgun quarry — and heart-and-lung shots for that matter — you are talking about a very small kill zone. I use a diameter of 30mm as a basic rule of thumb. So the best answer to the maximum lethal range question is: whatever distance you are able to consistently land shots within a circle just a shade larger than a 2p piece. That is an extremely small target but modern air rifles are very precise instruments — it is just a matter of choosing the right pellet and putting in lots of practice in order to learn how to get the very best from your gun/ammunition combo.
Choosing the right ammo doesn’t mean carrying out lots of tests on ballistic putty to find a pellet that does maximum damage. Pellet manufacturers make lots of claims — most of them probably cooked up by their marketing teams — about pointed pellets improving penetration and hollowpoints turning your airgun into a sledgehammer. It is a subject I don’t want to get too embroiled in here but, by and large, fancy pellet designs make very little difference to knock-down power.
The most important consideration in airgun pellet selection is accuracy — land a pellet in your quarry’s brainbox and the unfortunate critter is going to fall over dead regardless of the shape of your little projectile. For this reason, the high-quality domed pellets used by Field Target and Hunter Field Target shooters are usually the best option, and they also give a nice compromise between penetration and energy transfer. These pellets are not outrageously expensive — you shouldn’t have to pay much more than £15 for a tin of 500 — and tried and tested lines are available from the likes of Air Arms, JSB, Daystate, Bisley, H&N and RWS.
Airguns can be very pellet-fussy, and it is likely that your barrel will be better suited to one brand of pellets than another. A bit of experimentation can go a long way when it comes to finding the very best ammunition for your gun. My advice is to ask fellow club members or airgunning friends to let you try a variety of their pellets so you can find the best match — even if you have to buy them a pint, it is a lot cheaper than forking out for half-a-dozen or so tins of pellets and then junking most of them.
When you find a pellet that really suits your airgun, stick with it and don’t be tempted to switch to a cheap alternative for practice sessions. Practising with anything other than your favoured hunting pellets is a false economy and a waste of time. The downrange performance of different ammo can vary greatly, so chopping and changing will ruin your chances of fully understanding your pellet’s trajectory so you can use correct hold-over and hold-under to stay on target over varying distances.
With your ammo sorted, you can then set about practising from various stances in order to establish the maximum range at which you can expect to hit that all-important 30mm target — that distance will be your self-imposed ceiling and will vary depending on factors such as wind strength and your shooting position. Average expectations might be 20m for freehand standing shots, 25m for sitting or kneeling shots and 30m when shooting prone. If you use a recoil-less precharged pneumatic airgun, you can increase these ranges by using sticks or a bipod to take supported shots, and even by leaning against trees and fence posts — it is not cheating, it is exploiting the full potential of your airgun.
In still conditions, with the right kit, and with lots of practice, you can expect to achieve clean kills on rabbits at 45m when shooting prone and with the added support of a bipod — but it hinges on being able to confidently land your pellet between the eye and ear.
I would argue that a true sportsman should turn the initial question on its head, though. Rather than getting caught up in trying to work out the maximum range at which a sub-12ft/lb air rifle could potentially despatch live quarry, you should be asking “how close can I get for the shot?”.
Stretching range increases the risk of wounding, eventually to an unacceptable level and I’m always more impressed by shooters who demonstrate restraint and a sound knowledge of fieldcraft than those who try to use long shots to make up for the deficit. Getting close to your quarry is what makes airgun shooting so exciting, and there is nothing more rewarding than making a clean kill after putting in the groundwork to close down the distance.
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Watching rabbits scurry off into the brambles or hearing pigeons clatter from the treetops as you try to creep closer might be frustrating but it doesn’t linger like the sight of a wounded animal dragging itself into cover after a recklessly long shot goes wrong. Fieldcraft and sportsmanship should be at the top of the airgun shooter’s priorities.
There is nothing wrong with pushing the distance with your air rifle but shooting at extreme range is for paper targets, not live quarry.