Mat Manning delves into his gun room and explains how he chooses between his favourite airguns when he heads out hunting.
Some time ago, a reader wrote in to ask about the various guns I use for my hunting and, most significantly, how I go about choosing which one to use for any given scenario.
It’s something I had never really given a great deal of thought to in the past. My gun room contains numerous different air rifles, each one of them set up differently, and I simply take the one that seems appropriate for whatever it is I’m heading out to do.
Receiving that letter started me thinking a lot more deeply about the airgun collection I have amassed over the last 30 or so years, and how I came to end up with the guns I regard as my favourites. Literally hundreds of guns have passed through my hands over that time, and that certainly says a lot for the ones that I have decided are keepers.
I am in a very lucky position, because my job enables me to shoot a lot of different airguns, and that in turn means that I have an opportunity to try different models, often for several weeks at a time, before I commit to buying them.
It is a great privilege, but it’s a luxury that also has a downside. Believe it or not, you can actually have too much choice. It’s all very well getting to shoot a wide variety of brilliant airguns, but it’s not so easy parting with them, especially when you come across a really good one – and, as a result, it could certainly be argued that I have too many guns in my collection.
At present, my go-to airguns, the ones that get very frequent field use, are as follows: a Daystate Red Wolf, an Air Arms Ultimate Sporter, a Zbroia Hortitsia, a Brocock Bantam and an FX Impact MkII.
The guns I use for hunting also include a BSA Ultra SE, a Weihrauch HW 100 KT, an Air Arms S510 Superlite and a Weihrauch HW 95K, though these don’t tend to get used quite so much. Add several shotguns and a rimfire rifle, and it all amounts to a very wide choice.
That collection may sound extremely enviable, and I think it is, but I would warn once more about the disadvantage of having too much choice, and the fact that it breeds a lack of familiarity. There is an old saying which goes something like “beware of the man with one gun” and there is a lot of truth in it.
When it comes to accuracy, I was a noticeably better shot nearly two decades ago than I am now, and that is because I only used one gun back then. I knew my old Air Arms S400 inside out because it was the only gun I ever used.
Hunting and practising with the same gun, scope and ammunition combination gave me a remarkable understanding of its performance and enabled me to shoot at a level that I doubt I will ever achieve again. So, don’t feel at a disadvantage if you only have one gun; you’re probably a better shot as a result.
There is no denying, though, that there are advantages to having different guns set up to suit different hunting scenarios. Having a choice of guns with different power, calibre and optics won’t automatically make you a better hunter, but with experience it can help you to put more in the bag if you get it right. Here are the guns I use most at present, and what I use them for.
AIR ARMS ULTIMATE SPORTER
This is a sub-12ft-lb airgun, and it’s all the more versatile for it. It’s all very well having the extra wallop of FAC power, but it comes at a cost. Not only is the risk of ricochet and carry increased, high-powered airguns also get through a lot of air and are usually a lot louder than their legal-limit counterparts.
My Ultimate Sporter is the original version, not the new regulated model. It is still very consistent, churning out just over 11ft-lb with a very good sweet spot of around 60 shots. It loves Air Arms Diabolo Field pellets, and in calm conditions will land one on top of another at 30m. This gun is .177 calibre – my favourite choice at sub-12ft-lb, as I like a flat-shooting gun.
I liked the look of the Ultimate Sporter as soon as I clapped eyes on it, and had a lot of faith in the Air Arms brand after my original S400 gave so many years of great service.
The sidelever cocking and loading mechanism which drives the Ultimate Sporter’s 10-shot magazine is incredibly slick, the two-stage trigger is phenomenal, and the calibre-specific Q-Tec silencer, which comes as standard, makes it incredibly quiet. Although the stock is ambidextrous, its high level of adjustment facilitates an excellent fit.
This very stealthy and accurate air rifle gets a lot of use. Fitted with a bipod, it’s great for long-range rabbit work, while its quiet operation and moderate power level make it great for use around skittish livestock and when targeting very wary quarry. This is a real go-anywhere gun.
DAYSTATE RED WOLF
This airgun is a seriously impressive performer, and so it should be – it’s one of the most technologically advanced air rifles on the planet, and it costs the best part of two grand.
My Red Wolf is an FAC-rated .22, churning out a muzzle energy of around 35 foot pounds on its top power setting, which is what I tend to use most of the time.
High-powered airguns often perform better with heavyweight pellets, but this one actually groups brilliantly with 16-grain Daystate Rangemaster Sovereigns. That means it’s a very flat-shooting .22.
I wasn’t actually planning to add this airgun to my line-up until I reviewed it for The Airgun Show, and discovered just how good it was, particularly its electronic trigger.
High-power airguns can feel slightly rough in the trigger department, but the electronic unit completely overcomes that – it remains very crisp at any power level.
Add a large-capacity yet deceptively light carbon-fibre air bottle and a sleek walnut stock, and you’ve got a very nice piece of kit. So nice, in fact, that the Red Wolf was good enough to drag me away from my old FAC-rated Daystate MK4, which I had been using for more than 10 years.
This airgun is used for a lot of my hunting, from stalking rabbits to decoying crows and pigeons. It performs better in the wind than my sub-12ft-lb airguns, but I rarely push my hunting range much beyond 50m. The extra knockdown power still puts more in the bag by delivering devastating heart and lung shots.
I started using the Zbroia Hortitsia because I wanted to prove that you don’t have to have super-expensive hardware to get good results. Regardless of the kit I use, my approach to hunting remains very traditional, and that means that fieldcraft always comes first.
This little gun costs about a quarter of the price of the Red Wolf, and certainly has helped me to achieve great results with affordable kit. It has more than exceeded my expectations – I thought it would be a decent performer, but it’s actually a fantastic performer.
I went for the 330/180 model, which, with a 33cm barrel and 180cc air cylinder, is shorter and lighter than the 450/220 option. Overall length is a compact 89cm, and it weighs a comparatively light 3kg. It’s stated as having a maximum working pressure of 300bar. That’s a big charge, and I stick to 230bar, which delivers about 50 very consistent shots at a little over 11ft-lb from my .177.
I wasn’t expecting too much from an affordable airgun made in Ukraine, but the Hortitsia’s build quality is surprisingly good. The 12-shot magazine, which is very kind to pellets, is driven by a straight-pull mechanism, which makes for fast reloading. Mine isn’t too pellet-fussy either – it groups well with Air Arms Diabolo Field, Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign and QYS pellets.
Being less expensive, I don’t feel as if I have to wrap the Hortitsia in cotton wool, which makes it great for farmyard pest control or hunting in wet or very muddy conditions. Its compact proportions also mean I’m less likely to bash the barrel when controlling rats and feral pigeons around farm buildings.
BROCOCK BANTAM SNIPER HR HILITE
This tough and very reliable airgun is used as a dedicated night vision set-up, and is usually topped with an ATN X-Sight. The X-Sight is a heavy piece of kit, but the Bantam’s light weight (just a shade over 3kg in HiLite format) helps to counter that and makes for a manageable combo.
The 480cc carbon-fibre bottle isn’t just light – combined with the Huma regulator, it also delivers a very high shot count. My .177 returns well over 300 per fill, which is more than I need for even the busiest night’s ratting. Thanks to its regulated action, my Bantam HR produces a very consistent 11.4ft-lb right through the charge, and it’s blisteringly accurate with a wide variety of JSB-type pellets.
Fast reloading comes courtesy of a side-bolt action, which drives a 10-shot magazine. I like the fact that the bolt handle is nice and big, which saves me from having to fumble when I need rapid follow-up shots in the dark.
Being a semi-bullpup, this gun is nice and short (88cm before you add a silencer) so, as with the Hortitsia, it’s much less likely to get knocked and scratched when shooting inside farm buildings in total darkness. Its tough synthetic stock is also very robust, and so it easily shrugs off water, muck, knocks and bumps.
FX IMPACT MKII
This is the newest addition to my hunting line-up, and as is often the case, I fell for it after being sent one for review. I’m not usually a great fan of bullpups, but this little gun gave such a great account of itself during the test period that I really couldn’t let it go.
My Impact MkII produces an extremely consistent 11.3ft-lb right through the charge. It has a maximum fill pressure of 250bar, and even though I don’t usually fill it much over 230bar, it can easily churn out 300 shots.
The .22 model comes supplied with a 28-shot Side Shot magazine, which I expect to come in very handy during night sessions this winter as it’ll save me from having to keep flicking a torch on to refill the mag when rat shooting with night vision.
This gun is equipped with FX’s Smooth Twist X barrel, which has so far proved to be extremely accurate with a wide variety of domed pellets. The barrel and its liners can quickly be changed to switch between different calibres. It’s something I have yet to start experimenting with, but it should make it extremely versatile.
The Impact MKII is a very compact bullpup, measuring just 75cm with its sliding silencer retracted. It’s still only 83cm with the silencer extended, and it’s deathly quiet. Although I’ve already had some very productive ratting sessions with this gun, its compact proportions and stealthy operation mean it’s also a great choice for hide shooting.
So, that’s the hardware that’s getting used the most from my current line-up. Ask me again in three years’ time and some are sure to have changed, but I’m certain that others will remain.
As I said at the outset, these are excellent guns, but they don’t automatically put quarry in the bag – fieldcraft and experience play the biggest part in achieving that end. To be perfectly honest, I have no doubt that plenty of seasoned hunters could easily match my results with a single gun from any of the major manufacturers.
Do I have more airguns than I need? I certainly think I do, but I also think there are gains to having specialist set-ups to suit varying hunting scenarios.
And of course, airguns are my hobby as well as my work, and collecting them really does add to my enjoyment of this wonderful pastime, even if it hasn’t done my marksmanship any favours since I switched from being a one-gun man.