Squirrel hunting with a springer

Richard Saunders turns back the years and hunts some squirrels with a Weihrauch HW 80 the old-fashioned way

Every time I open my gun cabinet to go hunting, I gaze nostalgically at my 1983 Weihrauch HW 80 Mk1 and then reach for one of my PCP rifles. It sits there like an old favourite at the bottom of a kid’s toy box, forever ignored and unable to compete with the latest, shiniest offerings.

As a teenager my first proper rifle was a beautiful BSA Airsporter S, but I soon coveted my friend’s HW 80 which punched holes through thicker bits of wood and sent tin cans spinning higher. Before long. the BSA was sold, and I had one of Germany’s finest as my own.

Back then it was paired with a Tasco 4×40 scope, and together they accounted for scores of rabbits, pigeons and squirrels. I’m sure I never missed, and no pest was safe.

It’s a familiar story, and one I’m sure many of you will relate to, but soon girls, cars and beer came along in roughly that order, and before long my HW 80 was consigned to the darkest recesses of garages, cupboards and wardrobes.

Thankfully, I never lost my love of airgunning – despite those and many other temptations – and after falling for the lure of modern PCPs, marvelling at how they could make the most of whatever abilities I had as a shooter, I started thinking of my old gun again.

When I eventually found it, tucked away in my parents’ loft, I could have cried at the state it was in. It still bore the battle scars of a thousand gates and barbed wire fences, but the rust that covered the metalwork was a sad sight. Gingerly I cocked it, loaded a pellet and fired it into the lawn.

Rolling back the years – the HW 80 is as good today as it was in the 1980s

It made a woeful clanking sound, then kicked like a mule and belched smoke out of the muzzle. Something had to be done. Fast-forward six months, and I had a born-again HW 80 thanks to the efforts of V-Mach tuning supremo Lyn Lewington.

The rifle is better than ever. The rust-free, coal-black metal sits in a fully restored and oiled stock; it looks a million dollars. And to shoot? It has that marvellously thuddy action that all springer shooters yearn for. 

It was far better than the gun I used as a kid, and yet, other than accompanying me down memory lane to the range every once in a while, it had only succeeded in upgrading its berth in mum and dad’s loft for a spot in my gun safe; the aging rock star forced to sit alongside the latest boyband pretty boys.

I do all my deep thinking, such as it is, when I’m sat in a hide, or laid on the ground waiting for rabbits to emerge from their holes. It was on such a trip that I started thinking about my HW 80 and the deadly duo we’d made together. And, like all good mid-life crises, I decided there and then I could recapture my youth.

That weekend, the HW 80 and I spent hour after hour down the range. I’ll admit that to start with I was pretty awful, but as we renewed our acquaintance and I re-learned my springer shooting technique, the groups got smaller and more consistent. Soon I was hitting half inch spinners at 30 metres every time.

A purpose-built hide provides concealment and protection from the elements, but you can make your own, or simply camo up and sit still in cover

A few more range sessions to build my confidence, and I was ready to roll back the years, sling the HW80 over my shoulder once again and head off to the woods to battle the squirrels.

I’ve written before about my 25-hectare wooded permission that’s used to harvest lumber – mainly oak, ash, cherry, walnut and beech – as well as to carry out forest management research and training. 

Unfortunately the grey squirrels love the place almost as much as I do. They especially like stripping bark, killing limbs and even entire trees in the process. That’s enough for the owner to want to see the squirrels gone. For me, I’m just as motivated by the opportunity to protect our native songbirds, whose eggs and young are eaten by the squirrels.

I am part of a small team – we like to call ourselves rangers – responsible for controlling the squirrel population. We use peanut feeders, marking their locations on a map to make sure we don’t get in each others’ way.

I’d recently relocated one of my feeders to a new part of the woods, and after baiting it for nearly two weeks, was confident that the amount of peanuts that disappeared each day was due to squirrels and not birds.

Despite the change in hardware, my tactics stayed the same. I arrived before the sun was up, erected my hide 20 metres from the feeder, and inserted a camping chair and a Trigger Stick tripod to shoot from.

Donning gloves, a face veil and hat, I opened the side windows a little so I could spot any squirrels sneaking up on me, and sat down, zipping up the doorway.

With those preparations made, I settled down to wait for the squirrels to show up. The first difference with a springer to register was the fact that unlike my PCP, I’d need a tin of pellets open beside me in case I needed a quick follow up shot – there was no magazine-fed sidelever or bolt action to help me out there!

The other was the decision whether to keep the HW 80 cocked for what could be an hour or more, or insert a pellet in the breech, break the barrel, but not cock the action.

I know that leaving a spring compressed for anything more than a few minutes stresses some people, but in my experience it makes no difference, so I cocked the HW 80 and sat back in my chair.

Always keep hold of the barrel or underlever on a springer when cocking and loading a pellet just in case

As the sun rose higher and started to fill the woods with light, I began to see the trees in more detail and before long the birds started up their song as they flitted to and from the feeder. I’m always encouraged by the sight as it’s a visual affirmation that the woodland creatures are up and ready for business. 

The woods were planted nearly 30 years ago and the trees stretch as far as the eye can see in long, regimental lines. As a result I was able to spot a squirrel on the woodland floor in the distance. I tracked it through the scope as it made its way to me. Clearly it knew all about the peanut feeder and was making straight for it.

Sure enough, with barely a pause, the squirrel approached the feeder tree and shinned straight up the trunk to the baited platform where it selected a peanut and sat on its haunches nibbling away.

My HW 80 was resting on the trigger sticks and I raised the butt to my shoulder. My hours of practice at the range had showed that resting the forend directly on the sticks resulted in less accurate shots. Instead I placed my hand on the sticks and held the rifle.

Squinting through the scope, I dialled up to the 9x maximum and settled the reticle between the squirrel’s eye and ear, taking even more care than usual given my relative unfamiliarity with the gun.

I needn’t have worried though – for once, I was able to relive my youth successfully and without embarrassment as the gun bucked slightly, sending the pellet straight and true.

The familiar sound of its impact was lost in the rifle’s crack as the squirrel fell off the platform, hanging on briefly by one foot before dropping to the ground. I watched it through the scope as it twitched its way through its nervous reaction for a second or two, and then lay still.

Being able to drive into the woods is a huge luxury when you have a lot of gear to take on site

The temptation to rush out and confirm the accuracy of my shot like I’d done as a teenager was strong, but I controlled myself and settled back. The wood seemed shocked by the sound of the HW 80 going off, and was quiet for a few minutes.

Its memory was short though, and the lure of the peanuts was too strong for the squirrels, who had clearly come to recognise the feeder as part of their daily feeding routine.

Over the next hour, I was able to add two more before calling it a day and packing the HW 80 away once more, though this time with a promise that it won’t have to wait so long before it sees the woods again.

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