Beginners guide to airgun hunting w/ Phil Siddell

Phil Siddell examines the benchmarks that any aspiring airgun hunters needs to meet before heading to the field for the first time.

In my estimation, air rifle hunting is one of the toughest field sports around. It has a bit of everything that is challenging: fickle ballistics with a short effective range, wary quarry with a tuppence-sized kill zone and the need for tip top fieldcraft skills. It’s perhaps odd then that airgun hunting is often an introductory discipline. On the other hand, perhaps it’s fortunate that the gateway to both small and big game hunting is guarded with such rigour.

Because I didn’t have a mentor showing me the ropes when I started out, my early exploits were marred by failure. I was more like a greyhound ineffectually chasing the rabbits around in circles than a human hunter. With hindsight, I suspect that my time would have been far better spent in working towards a few carefully chosen benchmarks before testing myself on live quarry. But then I do tend to have to learn things the hard way!

In reflecting on these early days I’ve been given to ruminate on what those benchmarks ought to have been. What in fact constitutes the standards we should have achieved in order to be considered ready to hunt – and indeed, in which areas?

Accuracy and consistency of marksmanship is the first and most obvious topic to tackle. If we can’t reliably deliver a pellet to the kill zone under field conditions then we have no business hunting small game. To my mind, the normal hunting range is between 20 and 40 yards. Shots beyond 40 yards with a sub-12 ft-lb air rifle can be achieved humanely, but in my experience the ballistics become unpredictable and the chances of a non-lethal hit increase exponentially. 

Clover leaf, or even pellet on pellet, accuracy on paper targets at these distances is within the reach of most of us using modern airguns. However, achieving this from a shooting bench or lying on a cushioned mat is one thing; delivering the same level of performance whilst getting stuck by brambles or buffeted by a side wind is quite another.

There is a world of difference between shooting at steel targets and live quarry, but it’s hard to know how you’ll feel beforehand

Once a reasonable level of marksmanship has been attained at the range it makes sense to prove it under realistic hunting conditions. It’s easy to do this by taking a knockdown target out into the same environment you plan to hunt in and running through different shooting positions at various ranges. 

It’s important to note that there is a distinct difference between shooting at an inanimate target and a live target. Even the most experienced hunter will still get the jitters from time to time. A long stalk or a challenging shot can get the adrenaline coursing, and this can have a dramatic effect on performance.

There is no way of knowing before you start hunting how you’ll respond to pressure in the aim, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to take the shot. So if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. A good tip if you’re struggling to stay calm is to wait and take the second target that presents itself. Letting the first opportunity go by choice is generally enough to ease the pressure.

Of course, all the trigger-pulling prowess in the world means nothing if we can’t get within range of our prey. To watch a house cat stalking a field mouse or a songbird in the garden is to receive a masterclass in the hunter’s approach. This portion of fieldcraft is akin to a game of grandmother’s footsteps in that the hunter moves only in response to the body language of the prey. 

In the example of rabbits, we sneak or crawl forward only whilst the animal has its head low grazing; but we freeze if the rabbit raises its head, sniffs the air and rotates its ears. For the wary woodpigeon only the tiniest movements will go undetected. A calling bird that goes silent is an indicator that your cover is blown. In terms of proficiency, if you can stalk to within 30 yards of your chosen quarry without a rifle, then you are ready to start stalking with one.

Now that we are able to close the distance with our target and, in theory, place a pellet in the kill zone, it’s critical that we are sure of what we’re about to shoot. Being able to identify with certainty the animal in the crosshairs might seem simple in broad daylight.

However, it becomes tricky in the lower light of dawn and dusk when most quarry species are active. Rabbits are fairly distinctive (although may be mistaken for the brown hare), but corvids all look alike at dusk and water voles and field mice might be mistaken for the brown rat. Being able to identify species of UK wildlife is critical if we want to stay on the right side of the law.

In the moments after your first successful shot it’s easy to forget that the work doesn’t end there. For rats, it’s paramount to wear gloves and avoid handling the bodies directly before disposing of them in a way that does not cause a risk to public health. 

Other species that we choose not to eat, such as corvids, should be disposed of in a way that will not pose a health risk. When it comes to converting quarry into meat, it’s worth learning how to paunch and dress small game in advance.

Few of us see butchery being carried out in our industrialised, sanitised world, so we might be forgiven for being deficient in these skills. If a shot animal is to become safe and tasty table fare, its organs, head and fur should be removed cleanly and without much delay after death. If you aren’t in a position to learn this directly from someone, the process can be easily learned from books and videos.

With the practical considerations in hand I’ll add a note on the legal side of things. The law affecting the use of airguns for hunting small game is for the most part clear and the consequences for those who breach it are serious. Knowing what the law permits and prohibits is essential for all those wishing to start (and indeed continue) hunting with an air rifle. While there isn’t space here to cover it all I would offer the following counsel:

  • Only hunt where you have been given explicit permission to do so (in writing).
  • Never shoot over boundaries.
  • Only shoot at what you are sure is legal quarry, and never take a shot you have any doubt about, as knowingly causing unnecessary suffering to wildlife constitutes an offence.
  • Always err on the side of caution when out hunting, as mistakes and missteps affect not just you, but will have an impact on the whole hunting fraternity.

Airgun hunting is a challenging and exciting pursuit that is in many ways more accessible than other forms of hunting. It takes patience and demands excellent levels of fieldcraft. Each small success becomes a source of pride. Those just starting out in the field will do well to get their marksmanship on point, work on their fieldcraft and be prepared to make the best of their harvest before setting forth in earnest. Being thus prepared they’ll certainly have much greater success much earlier on than I did!

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