How to prep at home before going airgun hunting
Work done at home before even stepping out of the front door is the foundation of success in the field, as Phill Price explains
That’s that old saying about “poor preparation providing poor performance”, or something like that? Well, it holds true for any airgunner who hopes to hunt successfully. There are so many factors that can make or break a day that preparing is vital. In the moment a shot is on offer, you should have confidence in your equipment and personal skills. Doubt has no place in those critical seconds.
The obvious place to start is in checking that your rifle is in good shape, delivering full power and fine accuracy. Check all the nuts and bolts, plus your silencer, are tight and there is no visible damage anywhere. If you own a chronograph, power testing is easy and quick, but if you don’t, most gun shops will run a test for you at a modest charge.
This will be well worth the money. Knowing all is well is confidence-building. Next, you need to test for accuracy and to see that your rifle is correctly zeroed. My rule of thumb is that I need to be able to put three shots in a group the size of a 5p coin at the maximum range I want to hunt. This represents a brain shot and a humane kill.
As an ongoing matter, target practice is hugely important. There’s no point in buying good kit and going to all that effort if you miss when the moment comes. Knowing the fit of your gun and the feel of the trigger intimately makes you feel at one with the process, and shooting becomes a more natural and instinctive activity. I cannot recommend regular practice enough. When practising, you gain the opportunity to learn your rifle and pellet’s trajectory, again vital to accurate shot placement.
Whatever people have told you, pellets do not fly in a straight line to the target. They in fact fly in a curve over distance and learning that curve is very useful. In support of that, I use a laser rangefinder for all but the simplest shots, so I check that my one is clean and that the battery is in good condition before setting out.
Checking the functions
Like many hunters today, I use pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) rifles, and each is filled to a different pressure, so I make sure I fill them correctly. (Read here for our list of the best PCP air rifles). The effects of under-filling are obvious, but over-filling is far worse and can lock the rifle up, so be sure you know the pressure you need before you begin. While filling it’s well worth checking that the connector or probe is spotlessly clean.
Any dirt that gets into the rifle’s internals will cause damage, so take no chances with your expensive equipment!
Next, I like to inspect a batch of pellets that I will carry with me, taken from the tin I used to zero. I look out for any dents or damage that might affect accuracy and only take ones that look perfect. Rejected ones can be used for chronographing or plinking. Never swap from one tin to another, even if they appear the same. Small manufacturing differences can affect zero, and you don’t want that at a critical moment. On that subject, never try to swap brands or shapes without thorough range-testing. You’ll be shocked at just how differently one pellet will shoot compared with another.
My selected pellets are loaded into magazines first, and more go into a protective foam-lined tin for safe transport in the field. (Read here for our list of the best airgun pellets) I also keep magazines in a clean pouch so that no dust or grit can jam them when I need a quick reload. They’re quite delicate things and are also expensive, so I take good care of mine. Loading mags at home in a warm, clean and dry environment eliminates the potential of dropping them in the mud when your fingers are cold and wet outdoors.
I care very much about seeing my quarry as clearly as possible, so I spend the extra money to own fine optics, but even these can become spoiled by dirt and dust covering their lenses. I’m staggered by just how dirty some people allow their lenses to become, greatly reducing the quality of the image they see. One of my favourite sayings is that “you can’t shoot what you can’t see”, and identifying the right spot on a squirrel’s head to hit the brain in deep shadow at 30 yards is difficult enough with good optics – and near impossible without. (Don’t miss our list of the best thermal scopes).
Lens cleaning should be done by first brushing and blowing away grit with a soft brush, and then gently polishing the lens with cleaning fluid and a soft cloth. Take good care of your lens-cleaning regimen, as once damaged, lens coatings cannot be repaired.
The list of accessories that a hunter might like to take is huge, but beware of becoming weighed down and rattling like a bag of spanners because you got carried away. I do carry a fair amount of kit, but each item has its place, is carefully chosen and is no bigger or heavier than is necessary.
Anything that stabilises me and helps me become more accurate is welcome, and the steadiest shot will likely be off a bipod. If you shoot in flat, open ground, a bipod is well worth considering. You gain a number of other benefits from shooting prone, including being harder for your quarry to spot, and the fact that there is generally less effect from the wind on your pellet’s flight low to the ground. My terrain seldom suits a bipod, so I don’t carry one. (If you do need one, then don’t miss our advice on how to choose the right air rifle bipod for you.)
However, the next best thing is a set of shooting sticks. These allow me to shoot from standing, kneeling and sitting stances, so are highly flexible. The improvement in steadiness is huge, and today I don’t leave home without them as they’re that good. Decent aluminium ones aren’t too heavy, and make a good walking stick for steep ground.
Going back to my saying about “what you can’t see”, binoculars are also indispensable in my opinion. Being able to spot your quarry at a distance hands the advantage to you. You can stand off while making a detailed plan of approach out of sight of the quarry rather than bumbling around in the hope of running into your prey through luck. Medium-sized binos are all that you need, so forget the huge, high-power jobs. A pair of 8×30 or 8x42s will be perfect. (Read here for our list of the best budget binoculars).
Modern roof prism models are quite small and light, and a good rubber armour version will absorb the knocks and bumps of life in the field. I never go hunting without them. If weight is an issue, there are some very good folding compact models that work, but can never match the full-size ones for performance.
If there’s one thing sure to ruin a day in the field, however, it’s uncomfortable feet. For that reason, I have a choice of lace-up boots and wellingtons to suit the various ground conditions and the temperatures that I expect to face. No one boot will be ideal for the whole year.
Wellies in the summer are as bad as trainers in the cold winter mud, so choose carefully before leaving home. I also find good socks well worth the money. Cheap socks can make any boot uncomfortable.
Clothing needs to be reviewed in much the same way. I never understand people wearing a thick, waterproof winter coat in summer, just because it has camouflage. Taking the right clothes needs time and consideration, but it can make the difference between an enjoyable day and being so uncomfortable that you end up coming home early. I’ll often put a few optional garments in the car just in case I change my mind as I’m travelling to my permission. (Read here for our best picks for shooting jackets, hunting trousers and shooting shirts).
I consider a hat and gloves essential in any weather, not just for comfort but for camouflage. A hat with a peak casts a shadow over your face to hide you, and I like to carry a lightweight mesh veil that I add when I feel I’m standing out too much. This is light in my pocket, but adds to my confidence in up-close situations. We move our hands all the time when hunting, which is why green or camo gloves make a big difference. Again, light ones for summer and warm ones for winter will be good to have.
Assuming that your hunt is successful, a sharp knife and some disposable gloves should be on your packing list. Disposable gloves weigh nearly nothing and take up no space, so are well worth carrying. Also, keeping blood off your hands keeps it off your gun and binos too.
As a back-up, I like to keep a multi-tool on hand just in case I need to fix something. It contains screwdrivers, scissors, saws, files and perhaps most usefully a pair of pliers. I’ve used it a thousand times to get out of a pinch when I would have been stuck without it. Not always necessary, but useful.
On to the hunt
I’ll freely admit that I’ve never been any good at sitting still patiently for any length of time, so spending hours in a hide is not my idea of fun. However, it’s very often much better to let our quarry come to us, so sitting still is what I must do to achieve my goals.
My solution is to take enough food and drink to break the boredom. This has a useful benefit which is that on a freezing day, a cup of hot coffee or soup can help you deal with the cold. A little time in the kitchen before you set off will be something you’ll appreciate later.
While you’re at it, ensure that you have a full charge on your phone in case of accidents. A slip or fall far away from anybody could be serious, so being able to call for help could save your life. It can also reduce stress in your relationship when you’re going to be late home… again!
I know my suggested items seem a lot, but everything listed here fits very comfortably into a small rucksack, leaving space to carry my quarry home.
My final recommendation is to make a plan based on the wind direction and weather the night before you plan to hunt. If our quarry scents us it will be gone long before we have a chance to see it, so think ‘wind’ every step of the way. I’m a great believer in careful planning, and the best hunters I’ve ever known thought the same way. Turning up ill-prepared with no plan is close to pointless.
I’ll get everything out the night before a morning hunt and check it over and leave it all in one place ready. I’ll also get the rifle slip out, but leave the gun securely locked up. In the morning I’ll make sandwiches and coffee, check all electronics are charged and ready, load the car and go.
In this way I need not worry that something vital has been forgotten. I’ve seen people turn up with no boots, no pellets and having no day’s hunting. The little time spent readying your gear will pay you back a hundred times over, I promise.