Guide to night hunting with air rifles

With after-dark ratting season in full swing, Mat Manning shares some top tips for gear and tactics to tackle these resilient rodents at night

Rat shooting under the cover of darkness is a form of airgun shooting that I have been doing for well over 30 years. During that time, I have adapted my approach to ensure that I get real results when it comes to driving down the numbers of these disease-spreading rodents.

Having the right gear can make a big difference, but don’t be discouraged if you are on a tight budget – you can still make decent tallies of rats with a spring-powered airgun and a scope-mounted lamp if you get the groundwork right. For those who can splurge on hi-tech equipment, it certainly will improve your results, and you don’t need to buy it all at once.

Whether you’re planning to pick off problematic rats in the garden or dealing with a major infestation on the farm, I hope the following observations concerning tactics and gear will help you enjoy more success when heading out at night to target this notorious nocturnal pest.

Preparation

However much money you throw at your shooting, it won’t make much difference to your results unless you actually do your homework. Kit failure is annoying at the best of times, but it can be disastrous in the middle of the night.

Before heading out ratting, set up your kit and give it a trial run to make sure it’s ready. Head to the garden or club range and shoot some targets over the distances you expect to be targeting rats. Bear in mind that you’re going to be taking head shots, so you’ll need to be able to shoot accurately.

Preparation continues when you arrive at your shooting permission, and that’s why I always do my best to get out before nightfall. This enables me to have a good look round while there’s still some remaining light.

During my reconnaissance, I’ll be looking out for holes, footprints and droppings that reveal the places where rats are most active. Once I locate these hotspots, I will then turn my attention to finding suitable shooting positions that will enable me to take shots in a safe direction.

Don’t forget your own safety. Your recce is also a chance to ensure that surrounding livestock and machinery won’t pose a hazard to you, and to earmark any obstructions that you’ll need to avoid when making your way around the holding.

Reconnaissance will put you in the right spot – find a pile of droppings like this and rats won’t be far away
Choose an airgun with a large magazine capacity and you won’t be constantly fumbling to reload pellets

Gun choice

Any accurate airgun producing muzzle energy upwards of 9ft/lb will kill rats cleanly, but some make the task easier than others. A recoilless PCP makes for very precise pellet placement when taking supported shots, and a model with a multi-shot magazine will save you from fumbling with pellets every time you need to reload.

I also favour shorter models, as they’re less likely to get bashed in confined spaces. A decent silencer is also an asset as, apart from reducing the risk of spooking your quarry, a quiet muzzle report is also less likely to spook livestock.

I use an FX Impact MkII a lot for rat shooting, and really appreciate the massive capacity of its magazine. 

My Walther RM8 UC also comes into play when I want more of a workhorse that can take a bit of a bashing. The choice of appropriate airguns is huge, and there is something to suit all tastes and budgets.

Night vision

Although I never felt disadvantaged using a lamp, there is no denying night vision sights result in more dead rats at the end of the session. The fact is that with no obvious light source to put them on edge, the rodents don’t become lamp-shy and back away.

Thermal sights are increasing in popularity but I still prefer infrared – not just because it is more affordable but also because it shows more detail of what is behind your target. There are several good infrared riflescopes available for under £1,000, or you could fit an adaptor to convert your normal telescopic sight.

Having the right setup can make a massive difference to your results when targeting rats at night

I have been using the Sightmark Wraith more than any other night vision unit over the past year and am very impressed with it.

This sight boasts good image quality and is also very easy to use, which are two very important considerations. Other factors to consider include weight, battery runtime, video recording capability and whether the mounts are right for your gun or will require an adaptor.

Extra power

Modern night vision sights can devour batteries, especially if you use their advanced features. Carrying spare batteries is one way to ensure that your shooting session won’t be cut short, but an external power bank is a better solution.

I currently use the Sightmark Quick Detach Battery Pack, which is rechargeable and has such a huge capacity that I have yet to completely drain it. This unit connects to the Wraith, and other night vision sights, via USB. 

It even has a quick-release Picatinny attachment, which means I can snap it onto the accessory rail of the Impact or RM8 and forget it’s there.

Your chosen sight should give a clear view of your target and what is behind it
Mounting up with a rechargeable power bank is a great way to extend your digital sight’s runtime

Illumination boost

Most infrared sights come supplied with an illuminator. These illuminators provide more than enough “invisible” infrared light for shooting over typical ratting ranges, but an aftermarket illuminator can give you an increased runtime, longer detection range and brighter sight picture, which can really improve image quality if you want to capture the action on video.

My go-to at the moment is the Brinyte T28-IR Artemis. Although compact, this lamp provides great illumination. Its stepless dimmer enables me to get the right output and it can be switched to white light if I need it to see my way around.

Shooting sticks

Gun support makes life much easier when lining up for those all-important head shots, especially when you’re using a heavy night vison setup. I have used everything from pallets and bales to stacks of grain sacks to take the weight of my gun, but nothing beats purpose-made sticks.

I have been using Primos Trigger Sticks for over five years and can’t fault them. They create a tripod that can be raised up or lowered down by squeezing on the front trigger, so you can adjust their height to cover sitting, kneeling and standing shots. Release the trigger and they lock into position, creating stability for your airgun.

Thermal spotter

This is a new addition to my ratting kitbag and, although the price makes thermal spotters a luxury item, it can make a very big difference for shooters who can justify the outlay.

Although I still prefer infrared sights, there is no denying that being able to see a rat’s heat signature, even when it is partially obscured by undergrowth, results in bigger bags. Scan around with a thermal spotter set on low magnification to give yourself a much wider field of view, and you will see countless rats that you would have missed with infrared or lamplight.

There is now a wide selection of thermal spotters and they are becoming increasingly affordable. I have been using the Zeiss DTI 3/25 for the past few months and it is excellent. Ease of use, size, runtime and image quality are the most important factors to look out for when making your choice.

Get comfortable

In my opinion, finding a busy spot and ambushing rats is more productive than wandering around looking for chances of a shot. While waiting, it’s important to have something to sit on and while I have used strawbales, upturned buckets and piles of feed sacks, I always have a backpack stool at the ready.

Because my stool incorporates a bag, it enables me to carry accessories, and its shoulder straps mean that I can lug it around without having my hands full when moving from one spot to another.

Most importantly, this seat keeps me off the ground and safely away from where the rats will be scuttling around, and it also makes for a stable shooting platform. It’s a cheap one that I found on the internet. I have had it for years and really should replace it before it collapses.

Thermal spotters provide an unrivalled ability to pick out quarry hiding in the darkness

Warm feet

Ratting often takes place in the depths of winter when temperatures are at their lowest. Most shooters know the importance of wearing hats, gloves and plenty of layers to keep out the chill, but many overlook the significance of having warm feet.

I used to regard having frozen toes as simply par for the course when shooting in winter – until the tip of one turned black whilst out one night. Fortunately for me and my shooting days, I recovered without any major damage, but from then on, I vowed not to neglect my feet.

Thick socks and boots that permit good circulation really help but Skee-Tex Boots will keep your feet toasty in the coldest of conditions. These boots are totally waterproof and guaranteed down to -50C. They are a bit too cumbersome for stealthy stalking, but they’re an absolute blessing when you’re sat waiting for rats to venture out in sub-zero conditions.

Skee-Tex Boots may not be ideal for stealthy stalking but they do a remarkable job of keeping feet warm in the coldest conditions

Headlamp

Although a lot of fuss is made about the advantages of light-free thermal and infrared optics, the value of a good light source should never be underestimated. 

Tasks like finding your way safely around the farm, reloading magazines and retrieving shot rats are impossible if you can’t see what you’re doing.

The solution is a headlamp, which provides light wherever you look. There are some very good affordable models out there but quality lights like my Fenix HM65R Shadowmaster are extremely reliable and will last for years. It has a choice of red or white light and various power outputs and, most importantly, is rechargeable so I’m not constantly forking out for batteries.

Grabber and bucket

If your ratting goes to plan, you will have dead rats to dispose of at the end of the night – usually on a fire site or in a slurry pit. 

Because they carry diseases, rats should never be picked up with your hands. You should be able to find a shovel on most farms, but I always keep a litter grabber in my boot.

It is worth having a bucket with you too. Carrying rats in a container is far less hassle than heading back and forth to the disposal site with one or two at a time.


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