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Can I hunt with an airgun?

J. Kirsch

Can I hunt with my airgun? This question, or some variant of it, is one of the most common airgun questions on Yahoo! Answers. It is also one of the more difficult questions since there are several factors that have to be considered.  The answer really depends on the power of the airgun in question, the accuracy of the airgun in question, the animal you want to hunt, and the hunting regulations of your state. Answering this question completely would require a fairly substantial book. To keep this manageable I'm going to approach the topic in a fairly general manner and try to create a framework that will guide new airgun shooters in answering this question.

Ensuring that your airgun produces enough power to hunt a given animal is a key consideration. This is because sufficient impact energy, combined with the destruction of vital internal organs and blood loss, is what quickly and humanely kills animals when using an airgun. And the absence of sufficient impact energy causes unnecessary suffering for animals when using an airgun. For this reason, it is extremely important to know the power level of an airgun and the minimum amount of impact energy needed for an animal.

I generally defer to Robert Beeman and Jim Chapman's greater experience when it comes to answering questions about the minimum amount of impact energy needed for a given species.(1)(2) This has led to my general reply that 3 ft-lbs of impact energy is needed for squirrels, 5 ft-lbs of impact energy is needed for rabbits, 8 ft-lbs of impact energy is needed for jackrabbits, and at least 25 ft-lbs of impact energy is needed for raccoons. For larger animals such as coyote, feral hogs, and deer extremely powerful, big-bore airguns that produce in excess of 100 ft-lbs of impact energy are needed.

Now that I've raised the issue of sufficient energy levels, it would probably be a good idea to talk about how to determine your gun's energy level. Ideally, you would simply be able to plug the muzzle velocity from your gun's manual and the weight of the pellet you're shooting into one of the on-line kinetic energy calculators and be done with it. However due to the emphasis marketing departments put on velocity, that is no longer possible since companies now test their guns with extremely light pellets to get the highest velocities possible. This leads to people over-estimating the power of their airguns. As a result you either need to use a chronograph to determine the actual velocity you're getting or find a review written by someone who has already used a chronograph to determine the actual velocity with a given pellet to determine the approximate power of your airgun. If you intend to hunt only squirrel or rabbit there is a third alternative, which I'll call the can test. If you can shoot a pellet through both sides of a Campbell's soup can at the maximum distance you will attempt a shot at then your gun has sufficient energy for rabbit or squirrel, provided you limit yourself to head-shots.

Even if your airgun produces sufficient energy to hunt the animal you wish to hunt, you must also be able to place a pellet either in the brain or the heart-lung cavity of the animal. And that presupposes a certain level of accuracy. For squirrel and rabbit, the area you must be able to hit consistently is approximately the size of a quarter. For larger animals the target area may be a bit larger, but it will rarely be much bigger than a US fifty-cent piece. So even if your airgun produces sufficient energy you should not use it for hunting at distances beyond which you can reliably deliver acceptable hunting accuracy. For most people shooting the vast majority of “hunting” airguns, that means they are limited to 20-30 yards. With some of the better quality airguns this may go up to 40-50 yards, but with a few exceptions hunting accuracy is usually difficult for most people to achieve much further than that.

The final factor, and probably the most important factor really, in whether you can use an airgun for hunting is what your state's hunting regulations say. Some states like Ohio allow airguns to be used on squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, feral pigs, ground-hogs, raccoons, and the like. Some states, like Missouri, add white-tail deer to that list provided your airgun meets specific requirements. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, don't allow people to hunt any animals with airguns. And others only allow people to hunt non-game animals with airguns. And finally some states don't specifically address the issue one way or another at all. The patchwork nature of hunting regulations in the United States means that before you go hunting with an airgun, you must first check your state's hunting regulations to make sure you are legally allowed to do so. That may be as easy as a quick trip to your state's game management agency's website or a phone-call to the local game warden to ask. It may also turn out to be more involved if you live in a state where the regulations are unclear. However it is your responsibility to check your state's hunting regulations before you go afield.

This is not intended to be the last word on this topic. As previously mentioned that would require a substantial book to explore all the complexities. Instead this is intended to provide a framework through which someone new to airguns can approach the topic and begin to answer that common question, "Can I use my airgun for hunting?".