Airgun hunting in America

Although Americans have greater access to firearms, Tom Claycomb III explains why plenty of shooters prefer to hunt with an air rifle

I think anyone that was raised around guns here in the States started out hunting with an airgun. I know me and all of my buddies did. Then by the time I was seven I was using my sister’s shotgun for dove hunting and by 10 years old dad gave all of us kids a shotgun of our own. Now, like all normal Americans, I own a few guns.

So if you come from a background like mine, why would you digress and start hunting with airguns again? Maybe it’s something new? Or maybe you’re living your second childhood? I’m not a clinical psychologist so we’ll skip over the whys and I’ll cover the reasons that I’m big time into hunting small game with airguns.

Airguns have opened up a lot more hunting access for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been denied hunting access on a farm, ranch or feedlot if I tell them that I’m going to be using airguns. In fact, most of the cowboys tie up their horses and want to go out with me, so I always have to take extra rifles. 

Granted I think a lot of the ranchers think of little Ralphie’s Red Ryder in Christmas Story when they think of an airgun. They don’t realise how powerful they are.

A lot of small game and birds such as pigeons and doves thrive in an agricultural setting, so getting to hunt on farms and feedlots is a big deal. 

The downside of trying to hunt a feedlot full of cattle and around their horse corrals with a firearm is that you will spook the livestock. Not so with an airgun. I shoot pigeons in between steers and off the fence right by them. Same with horses.

Airguns have proved so popular with the cowboys and ranchers that Tom now brings along some extra rifles so they can shoot them too

Next, airguns allow you to hunt in suburban areas. If you live on a small five-acre plot, your neighbours won’t even know that you’re hunting. With my airguns I mainly hunt doves, pigeons and ground squirrels. 

Let’s start off with bird hunting. In America we finish off our fat cattle by putting them in feedlots that last 120 days and pour the grain to them to fatten them up. 

So the doves and pigeons have plenty of feed available. The pigeons love roosting in the barns and setting on the silos in the middle of the day. They poop in the feed bunks and on the tractors so the farmers and ranchers love for me to shoot them.

When I’m hunting pigeons, I’ll pull up to the barns first. I get one shot and then the rest fly out. They’ll fly around for a minute and then come back and settle on the silos. I usually get 20-25 shots and only miss maybe one before they leave. So I get quite a few right off the bat.

Pigeons are a larger bird and a little more difficult to kill than a dove. I used to use a .22 cal, but now I use an Umarex .25 cal Gauntlet. It works great on doves/pigeons. JSB domehead pellets shoot the most accurately in my airguns, so that is what I use. To breast out the birds I use a Smith’s 6.3-inch boning knife.

The format is I’ll get a shot and they’ll fly. I’m standing in the shadows in the barn and using a pillar for a rest. 

Within a couple of minutes a few will land and strut along the edge on top of the silos and I’ll get another shot. After the shooting slows down then I’ll drive around the feedlot. It’s a big feedlot, it holds over 100,000 head of cattle. So there are a ton of pens that hold 100 head each and more. There are roads running down the side of the pens. They drive feed trucks and dump feed in the bunkers as they drive along. So imagine a line of 10-20 pens on each side of the road.

With a safe and extensive drop zone behind the birds, Tom will be able to bag a few that are perched on the edge of the feed silos

Pigeons will feed on fallen grain in the roadways, in the bunkers and out in the feedlots among the cattle. A lot of the pigeons are in groups of two to six, but sometimes you’ll hit the mother lode and find a flock of 100-150 in the pens feeding. They usually aren’t exceptionally spooky and you can usually get close enough for a shot. 

Doves, on the other hand, will be a little more flighty. We have two kinds of doves here in Idaho. The native mourning dove and the Eurasian dove, which is an invasive species. You can’t shoot mourning doves with an airgun, but since Eurasians are invasive you can hunt them year-round with whatever type of gun you desire.

I make poppers out of my pigeons and doves. I breast them out and marinade them for four hours in a Tony Chachere’s marinade (which is available online here in the UK – Ed). I slice the Eurasian dove breasts in thirds and the pigeons in quarters. 

Cut a strip of bacon in half and lay on a slice of breast, a slice of jalapeno and a slice of onion on it and roll it up and pin it together with toothpicks. Throw it on your smoker and cook until the bacon is golden brown. They make great appetisers.

So I love hunting pigeons/doves with my airguns, but my funnest airgun hunt of the year is hunting whistle pigs in the spring. A whistle pig is a small ground squirrel whose actual name is the Townsend ground squirrel. They look like a prairie dog but are only seven inches tall and a lot more hyper.

We hunt them out in the high desert/high prairie country. You will know a good area because you’ll see their mounds and see them scurrying around when you pull up. To hunt them you’ll want a pad or a chair to sit on and a set of shooting sticks. 

I use the Alps Mountaineering Dash chair. It is a lightweight backpacking chair so it is easy to carry. If you sit in a low chair and use shooting sticks you can see over the grass and sage brush. Sitting on a pad will work too, but is less comfortable, but if you lay prone, you won’t be able to see or shoot over the grass and sage brush.

Set-up and wait a few minutes and then they’ll start popping out of their holes. You’ll get a lot of shots at them when they pop out of their hole and are partially exposed. But eventually they’ll scurry out to feed. 

They don’t hold still for long, so half the time you’ll have to take fast shots. Out here they’re hunted with .22s, .17 HMRs and sometimes with .223s. Due to the report of firearms though it takes them longer to pop back out. But I’ve noticed that when hunting with airguns they pop back out faster.

They’re a unique animal. They come out and breed on nicer days in February/March. So you can have some awesome hunts then, but the best hunting is the middle of April until the heat hits the first of June. Then they go underground for the rest of the year.

So I’ve had some really great hunts when they’re breeding, but the primo time is when it warms up and there are warm, sunny days. They’ll be out in droves and 90 minutes before dark they go on a feeding frenzy before they go under for the night.

To hunt, you’ll pull up and get set up. Usually within minutes they’ll start coming out. You’ll get a bit of shooting and then  wait a couple of minutes and they’ll come out. I carry a pair of binoculars and will notice a couple that have their heads out presenting a head shot. I’ve shot millions with a 3-9x scope, but a 4-12x or 4-16x scope is the best since they’re so small.

Early spring is especially productive because the young ones are popping out non-stop. With an airgun they’re going to pop back up faster since they’re quieter. One time I got 17 shots on one hole as fast as I could load my break-barrel. 

You have to always be looking because frequently you’ll be shooting at them 50 yards out and look around and there is one scurrying around not 10 feet away.

Here are three of Tom’s Umarex rifles that he uses for hunting small game, a .25 Gauntlet PCP, .22 Synergis underlever and .22 Origin PCP

At first, I hunted small game with a .177, but after a few years switched over to a .22 which has a lot better killing properties. 

Two years ago I switched over to an Umarex Gauntlet .25 cal. which has even better killing properties. I’d advise you to hunt with a .25 cal.

As we close, I want to cover a couple of unique situations that you’ll encounter while shooting whistle pigs. Many times hawks will follow you and eat your whistle pigs. 

One time my old 87-year-old buddy shot a whistle pig. I was watching through my Riton binoculars. He was bouncing around after being hit. I said: “You got him, Roy!” A hawk swooped down out of nowhere, snatched him up and flew off. I corrected myself and said: “You had him, Roy.”

Another time I shot one and a badger ran out of his hole, grabbed him and ran off to his den to eat him. And the best for last. I noticed that they’d come out and grab the dead ones and drag them back into the hole. But then I realised they aren’t rescuing them, they’re eating them. 

Rotten little cannibals. The worst I’ve ever seen was once I ran over one on the road. I came back a bit later and two were eating him. Eventually it ended up in a whole ball of them. So don’t lay down and catch a nap! 


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