Springer airgun hunting w/ Rich Saunders

Rich Saunders goes back to his roots with his Webley Vulcan in an effort to recapture his youth.

Isn’t it funny what you think about when sitting in a bush, waiting for rabbits to emerge? Other than shooting, my passion in life is fishing. Coarse fishing to be precise, for freshwater species on rivers and in lakes. The fishing techniques and skills I learned as a kid, running a stickfloat through a swim or using the lift method to catch tench in a pond, have been replaced by high tech electronic bite alarms.

Even the humble tin of maggots is a rarity nowadays, usurped by high-protein man-made baits.

Don’t worry, you haven’t picked up the wrong magazine by mistake. Let me get this back on track. The fishing parallel reminds me of how the airgun scene has changed. You see, it strikes me that spring-powered air rifles are the equivalent of stickfloats, and are in danger of being replaced by the modern bite alarms that are pre-charged pneumatic airguns.

I’m sure it’s a generational thing. Modern angling techniques evolved because they are better at catching fish, just as PCPs now dominate largely because they enable us to shoot more accurately and consistently.

But here’s the thing; stickfloats still catch fish, and springers are as good today as they have ever been. In fact, many would argue that the spring piston rifles of a few years ago are better than their modern equivalents for which the accountants have had too much input.

Lying prone provides a stable platform, even if springers don’t lend themselves to bipods unlike PCPs

So, sitting in my bush, still waiting for the rabbits to turn up, I decided that my next trip would see me ignore my PCP rifles and instead roll back the years and take one of my 40-odd-year-old springers with me. Sadly, the first proper rifle I’d had a kid, a BSA Airsporter S, has long gone.

But the HW80 I replaced it with is still in my possession. A much more recent addition is a 1980s Webley Vulcan – a rifle that had competed with the HW80 for my hard-earned pocket and paper round money back in the day, but had until recently eluded my ownership.

I took the pair of them to the range to practise with. Both have been tuned – the HW80 by V-Mach expert Lyn Lewington and the Vulcan by Sandwell Field Sports – but the Weihrauch has the slight edge when it comes to power and accuracy, and has a better trigger. However, being three pounds lighter, and having never got the chance to hunt with one as a kid, I decided the Webley would join me on my next hunting session.

The chrono showed the Vulcan could just about manage 11 ft-lb with the wind behind me, so over the next couple of weeks I resolved to practise as much as my other commitments would allow to improve my technique. Before long we’d combined our close to 100 years’ experience to print one-hole groups at 30 yards.

With the hardware sorted, attention turned to where I should shoot. Back when the Vulcan and I were youngsters, I had a peach of a permission. I’d simply biked down to Bridge Farm and asked the farmer, who was in the middle of milking, if I could shoot on his land. He gave me a long, hard look and said “alright, but behave yourself” and that was it. 

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for airguns waned as my enthusiasm for girls, cars and beer in roughly that order took over and I lost the permission. The farmer retired long ago and the farm is under new ownership, but I still drive past it every day, wishing I still had permission to shoot on it.

Of course I’ve tried several times to get it back – but without success. But seeing as I had set out on reminiscence road I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to give it another try. Amazingly, when I explained I was writing this feature and gave him the back story, the new farmer agreed to let me have a couple of trips for old times’ sake.

Forty years ago I’d have jumped on my bike to get to the farm, rifle slung over my shoulder and pellets in my pocket. This time around, dignity, a dodgy knee and the need to be a little more discreet saw me load my gear into my truck.

Stepping out 10 minutes later was like going back in time as I walked the familiar route along the river to where I hoped rabbit warrens still thrived. I stopped by the same gate I stopped at all those years ago to scan the fields. Back then I used an enormous pair of binoculars, but this time I’d bought a thermal monocular. The relief at seeing half a dozen rabbits along the hedge line, just like all those years ago, was palpable.

I’d cut my airgun hunting teeth on the farm all those years ago, and as I made my way along the treeline I recalled the frustration of trying to stalk the rabbits and never getting close enough to take a shot. Back then my tactics evolved to what is now referred to as ambushing as I discovered the rabbits I’d spooked would come back out again if I laid down quietly for long enough.

Instinctively I felt myself drawn to the same spots that were productive favourites all those years ago and eased myself onto the ground, Webley Vulcan laid on the grass in front of me. The thought of shooting from a prone position without the benefit of a bipod seemed almost archaic.

The ravages of those 40 years soon took their toll; as a kid I could lay motionless in eager anticipation of the emergence of a rabbit for hours. Now, barely 20 minutes into my vigil, I was conscious of my aching shoulders and started to fidget, feeling every thistle and stone. Inevitably I began wondering if I was in the best spot and whether I should try somewhere else. 

A rusty old car used to provide superb cover to sit behind. I even looked around, half expecting the old hulk to be there. Of course it wasn’t, but when I turned back again, a fully grown rabbit had materialised from the thick grass of the hedgerow.

Decades may have passed since I last laid in that spot, and I’ve shot thousands of rabbits during that time, but as I raised the Webley Vulcan, the adrenalin rush I experienced all those years ago came flooding back. The rabbit was only 20 or so metres away and was sitting not quite in profile looking away to my left.

I waited for it to start feeding, aware that if I moved even an inch to bring the rifle to my shoulder it would spook. The rabbit seemed determined to stay as still as a statue and I realised that eventually one of us had to blink. It would have to be me, but as I prepared to get into a shooting position, the rabbit turned around and started feeding. Although I could now raise the Vulcan, it meant I had nothing to aim at as all I could see was the rabbit’s backside.

I placed the reticle where its head would be if it sat up and clicked my tongue. At such close quarters, the rabbit heard the sound immediately. Not only did it sit bolt upright but half turned in my direction, straining to locate the sound, and presented me with the perfect profile shot. I held my breath, placed the reticle just behind its eye and let the shot off.

The sound of the unmoderated springer sounded deafening, but when I looked up again, the rabbit was laid on its side, back legs stretching up to the sky and toes splaying. I left the rabbit where it lay, resisting the urge I couldn’t control as a kid to rush in and claim my prize.

Half an hour later I was rewarded with a second rabbit just a little further down the hedge line, about 25 metres away. Once again, the Webley Vulcan and I rolled back the years and I claimed my brace of rabbits for the pot with another pinpoint-accurate head shot.

This time I gave in to my now screaming shoulders and collected the two rabbits, stopping on the way back to the truck in the same place by the river as I did as a boy to clean them.

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