Winter can bring great opportunities for airgun shooters. Mat Manning explains how to make the most of your shooting and stay comfortable when the temperature plunges
A lot of airgunners are fair-weather shooters; they take to the fields and the woods when the temperature is warm and the days are long, then pack their rifles away as soon as the chill of autumn sets in. As lovely as it is to enjoy our sport when the weather is kind, those who opt for a winter layoff are missing out on some great opportunities.
Many of the pest species controlled by airgunners are much easier to pinpoint during the winter months, and pursuing them in inclement weather needn’t be at all uncomfortable. Wear the right clothes and take the right kit, and cold-weather airgunning can be hugely enjoyable.
Quarry location and timing
Most of my winter pest control with air rifles revolves around shooting grey squirrels. It’s much easier to pinpoint these greedy rodents when the mercury falls below zero. It’s not half as difficult to spot them in the trees after frosts and blustery winds have stripped away foliage to leave the branches bare, but there’s much more to it than that.
Natural food in the form of beechmast, sweet chestnuts and acorns is starting to run low, and any morsels that were stashed during the autumn glut will be difficult to unearth when hard frosts leave the ground frozen solid. For this reason, man-made food sources such as pheasant feeders act like magnets to squirrels when times are tough — you can also expect to find rats, corvids and even woodpigeon plundering grain put out by the gamekeeper.
If you don’t share your ground with a pheasant shoot, you can create your own feeding station by putting out a hopper loaded with corn or peanuts — hungry squirrels will home in on it in no time.
Timing your shooting trips is also easier during the winter months. Wild creatures that feed by daylight have a much smaller window of opportunity to feed up in readiness for the long, cold night that awaits them when it’s only light for about eight hours.
You can expect feeding stations to receive a steady trickle of visitors throughout the day, with a distinct spike at first light when they emerge ravenous from their slumber, and again just before dusk when they fuel up for the coming night. These two prime times can make for very productive shooting if you set up an ambush next to a feeder.
Dressing for the weather
Shooting on the move is a great way to keep warm, and you’ll soon work up some serious heat as you yomp around the fields and woods. Unfortunately, most winter airgun shooting is best done from a static position as you stake out a known hot spot, so you need to rely on your clothing to seal in the warmth.
Layering is the key to good temperature management. I always wear a long-sleeved bamboo-fibre vest, long-sleeved shirt and lightweight fleece beneath my shooting jacket when heading out in the cold, and I’ll add another fleece if there’s a really chilly wind blasting in. A pair of quilted trousers is a great addition to your winter wardrobe, and will certainly help to keep you toasty. I also wear two thick pairsof socks as standard, and will even slip hand-warmer pads into my boots if I’m planning to spend long periods sitting still in extreme cold.
Fingers are just as vulnerable as toes, so lightweight summer gloves aren’t going to do the job. Neoprene gloves are great for most winter shooting, but I’ll opt for chunky mittens on days when the temperature is unlikely to rise above zero. Gloves with fold-back fingers are really handy, as you don’t need to take them right off for fiddly jobs such as reloading and touching off the trigger.
Headwear also needs to be upgraded for winter stake-outs. I’d advise swapping your summer baseball cap for something made from wool or fleece, because keeping your head and ears warm makes a huge difference when trying to stay comfortable in wintry weather. It’s also worth wearing a scarf or snood to insulate the gap around your collar, and you can pull it over your face if there’s an icy blast.
No snow camo
When it comes to choosing clothing, I’ve never felt the need to opt for specialist black and white camouflage patterns for shooting in the snow. Even after relatively heavy snowfall, there’s usually enough vegetation breaking through for conventional camo patterns to blend in — especially if you’re shooting in woodland.
If you’re going to be waiting in ambush, it’s vital not to ignore the importance of proper insulation between you and the ground. You will soon become uncomfortable if you sit with your backside on frozen earth.
I use a beanbag seat, which not only provides a stable, comfortable shooting platform, but also does a great job of sealing out the cold thanks to its filling of polystyrene balls that are pumped into cavity walls to insulate buildings.
I’ve already mentioned how hand- warmer pads can be inserted into your boots to keep your feet comfortable, and it’s worth keeping a pack or two in your kitbag. Inexpensive, compact and lightweight, these pads heat up in seconds and provide hours of heat if you need to warm up your fingers or toes.
A hot drink has to be my all-time essential when it comes to effective winter warmers, as it gives heat and sustenance. Pour a mug of piping-hot tea or coffee from a flask and it’ll raise your spirits as well as your temperature when the cold sets in. I often take an extra one loaded with soup for long sessions.
Layers are key to keeping warm on a static winter session.
Stay safe out in the cold
Most shooters carry mobile phones these days, and it’s certainly something you wouldn’t want to forget when you’re heading out in cold weather, just in case you get into difficulty. It’s also worth letting someone at home know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so that they can raise the alarm if you get into difficulty.
It’s foolish to take unnecessary risks, and I’d advise cancelling a shooting trip when perilously harsh weather is forecast, but accidents such as slips and falls can happen at any time, so it’s always wise to take proper precautions.