Basic airgun shooting: Mat Manning keeps it simple on a squirrel hunting trip
Tasked with keeping the hopper-raiding grey squirrels in check, Mat Manning goes back to basic airgun shooting, relying on fieldcraft skills to do the job
Modern airgun shooting must seem quite baffling to newcomers or those who grew up in simpler times. I would even go as far to say that the expensive and cumbersome kit and all the must-have accessories could even be rather off-putting for anyone thinking about having a go.
Basic airgun shooting
I am as guilty as anyone for falling into the new kit trap. Modern gear such as super-accurate precharged airguns, sophisticated thermal optics and expensive camouflage clothing can help to put more pests in the bag — if you use them properly — but the truth is you only need the simplest of kit to enjoy the satisfaction of successful airgun shooting and squirrel hunting with an air rifle.
Hi-tech gear is not much use unless you have mastered the basics, and I will be the first to say there is no item in any shop that will serve as a substitute for good fieldcraft. Whatever hardware you use, airgun shooting is all about being able to get in close enough to take a decisive shot — and it has to be said that the best way to learn how to do that is with basic, no-frills gear.
Over the past 30 years, the vast majority of my shooting has been done with air rifles. This is because their discreet, precise operation is perfectly suited to where and how I like to shoot. Over that time, I have acquired a fair set of fieldcraft skills — more from studying my quarry and spending time in the countryside than obsessing over guns and accessories. The biggest advances in my long apprenticeship came during the first few years, when I used an old spring-powered air rifle that wasn’t consistently accurate much beyond about 20 yards. That meant I had to learn how to get within that distance of whatever critter I was pitting my wits against.
Unsurprisingly, more of my stalks and ambushes ended in failure than success, but I devised all sorts of ruses to help tip the odds in my favour during that steep — and often frustrating — learning curve. Relying on technology to put more in the bag sometimes dulls the edge of fieldcraft skills, and going back to basics can help you to stay sharp. So that is what I decided to do when the opportunity to enjoy a more relaxed outing cropped up for basic airgun shooting. No precharged gun, no fancy optics and no shooting sticks, just my spring-powered Weihrauch HW95K, a simple Hawke scope and a pocketful of pellets. (Read our list of the best airgun pellets.)
However much you want to strip down your shooting, it is vital to ensure that you and the kit you are using are capable of ensuring a swift despatch for your quarry. With that in mind, I spent an hour on the garden range to refamiliarise myself with the little springer, which shoots very differently from a recoilless PCP. It didn’t take me long to get used to the Weihrauch’s deliberate but consistent kick and I was soon able to confidently land pellets within a circle the size of a 10p piece out to about 30 yards. Beyond that, shot placement became somewhat less predictable, so that range was to be my self-imposed limit.
As far as I’m concerned, deciding to simplify your approach doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be sneaky. I would say that using no-frills kit usually means that you need to be even more sneaky. And anyway, using sly tricks to get closer to your quarry when targeting pests isn’t cheating — it is simply ensuring that you do the job as effectively and humanely as possible.
Squirrel hunting with an air rifle
With the above points in mind, I knew exactly where I was going to base my outing with the HW95K. The gamekeeper in one of the woods where I am tasked with keeping grey squirrels in check had been complaining about the bark-stripping rodents making a nuisance of themselves around the pheasant feeders next to one of his release pens.
Greedy squirrels that have their minds set on the extraction of grain from feed hoppers often overlook the fact that an airgun shooter could be lurking nearby — and perhaps even close enough to pick them off with a springer. My visit to the woods coincided with a cold, windless December afternoon; just the sort of conditions that make grey squirrels want to really gorge on grain.
The plan was a simple one: I tucked myself next to a tree that gave me a clear view of two pheasant feeders, both about 25 yards away, and waited to see what would happen. Grey squirrels tend to feed hard during the latter part of the day in the colder months. They know that a long night lies ahead and are eager to fill up before they tuck themselves away, so I expected to see a few unwelcome diners at the hoppers as evening began to set in.
Waiting in the woods is always something of a treat for me. With no phone signal, no emails and no radio, it’s a great opportunity to be alone with your thoughts — not that you are really ever very much alone.
Treecreepers were busy in the oaks around me and I was treated to a close encounter with a flock of goldcrests as they bundled their way through the bushes and past my hiding place.
I was so absorbed in what was going on around me that I didn’t even notice the arrival of a squirrel at one of the feeders. It was just there, scratching around at the ground beneath the hopper, when I looked across to check for developments. The squirrel was far too engrossed in its grain raid to notice me hiding in the shadows and actually had its back to me as I raised the Weihrauch to my shoulder.
Framed in the sight picture, the oblivious rodent shuffled around to offer me a clear side profile, so I pushed off the safety catch, steadied the crosshairs and squeezed through the trigger to knock it over with a wallop to the head.
Forget about airgun shooting being difficult if you don’t have all the right gear. It has to be said that that shot was actually a very simple one, and that’s because I had done the important job of making sure I was in the right place at the right time, which is a key step towards success in pretty much every shooting scenario.
Another squirrel made the same mistake to nudge my tally up to two before I had to head for home. It was far from the biggest bag I have made during my recent airgun forays, but I have to say that it was easily the most enjoyable, and that’s largely because I wasn’t bogged down with heavy, sophisticated gear.
I had forgotten how gratifying it is to cock the action ready to power the next shot simply by breaking the barrel and compressing the mainspring, rather than having to rely on a pump or scuba tank for refilling. Of course, it won’t be long before I’m back out using hi-tech equipment to maximise my results. In fact, I will be doing just that when I head out to target farmyard rats tonight. I will, however, make a concerted effort to indulge myself with the occasional low-tech outing to enjoy the simple pleasures of basic airgun shooting. If you have a half-forgotten spring-powered airgun stowed away in a cupboard or attic in your house, perhaps it’s time for you to dust it off and do the same.