One of the most difficult things that anyone can face is having to admit that they might have been following the wrong creed all their life – particularly if they’ve been standing at the proverbial altar and pushing their beliefs. I’ve certainly been doing that for some years whenever the age-old .177 versus .22 calibre argument has come up. I’ve always given a few good reasons for my opinions, too. But recently, like the biblical Paul on the road to Damascus, I’ve been thrown from my beliefs in a blinding flash of light. In the interest of balance, it’s been a time to revisit some of those ’good’ reasons…
Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken the time to explore the .177 calibre pellet in the hunting field, rather than just as a plinking projectile for the youngsters I coach now and again. Armed with the new, bolt-operated BSA Ultra SE, I’ve had an exciting, revitalising time learning my way around the different trajectory and higher velocity at the sub-12ft/lb legal limit.
I’ve hunted with the .22 since Noah was a boy, and have always held it up to be the superior calibre, simply because of the ballistic expansion afforded by the larger pellet. As a kid, I’d only had the .177 option with my early rifles, but for shooting sparrows and starlings (yes, I’m really that old – they were on the legal list back then) it was adequate. I guess that, over the years, I came to associate size with power – which I now realise isn’t a logical assumption; accuracy and kinetic energy transfer to the vital organs is more important. So the higher velocity, matched to the lower weight of a .177 pellet achieves the same effect (energy transfer).
The big difference, of course, is mentally mapping the trajectory. Many years of shooting .22 has left an imprint on my brain, which calculates range versus the marker on my scope’s reticle almost instantly. Constantly using the same gun makes this an almost perfect science if your eye-to-quarry mental rangefinder is acute. What I’ve found (and, to be honest, many hunters have told me this over the years) is that the flatter trajectory of the .177 is more forgiving – much like the FAC powered air rifle.
In fact, after just a few sessions with the Ultra SE, I’ve already changed my primary zero range to 35 yards for it. That’s five yards further than the .22 calibre Weihrauch HW100K I love to shoot. The downside, however, is that the secondary zero is further out – I’d put mine at about 15 to 17 yards, depending on which pellet I’m using. So if any quarry pops up at about 10 yards, I have to think very hard about how low a point to use on the scope’s reticle.
The good part is that I’ve been practising this while walking about: I pick a knot on a dead stump at 10 or 12 yards and try to ‘kill’ it. Not surprisingly, this has become quite easy, but probably because I’m used to switching between a .22 legal-limit gun and an FAC one. It would probably be harder for a shooter solely used to the legal limit.
So, what about the most important aspect – killing power? For me, that was the make-or-break of this experiment. I’m not just an ordinary hunter anymore. Like it or not, I’m an opinionated and very publicly recognised hunter. So the results of this little diversion will, I know from experience, influence decisions for many readers. For me – a guy who advocates one-gun hunting – this made the trial an important one… and I even locked away the HW100K for a month… reluctantly, I hasten to add.
Regular readers will know that I’ve experienced over-penetration issues, even with the larger calibre – so worrying about it in the smaller calibre seems a bit silly when I look back. The only way to kill the myth and gain confidence was to get out there and hunt, trialling a range of pellets. Having done this for a number of weeks, I’m down to two which appear to suit my Ultra’s barrel – the 8.4-grain Air Arms Field and the 7.9-grain Daystate RangeMaster Li. I still can’t decide which is best, but interestingly, I have to re-zero massively to change between the two.
Unlike its .22 cousin, I haven’t found the Li to be guilty of over-penetration at all. The real test for these pellets will come over the next few months when roost-shooting woodpigeons… and I’ll give you an update then.
One of the other reasons I’ve given in the past for discarding the .177 calibre is the ‘fiddle-factor’. The diminutive size makes it more difficult to handle the pellets, particularly in the cold. This is true if you’re shooting a springer, when constantly reloading in bitter conditions can be an ordeal. I bought a spare 10-shot magazine as soon as I bought the Ultra SE – thus eliminating the fiddle factor, as I can preload in the warmth of the house or Jeep.
Air economy was another factor that deterred me from opting for a .177 calibre PCP but the addition of FAC rifles to my gun cabinet – whose air hunger is notorious – forced me to purchase a small, three-litre air bottle to carry in the vehicle as an air reserve. Unless you do a lot of target practice, air economy isn’t a real issue anyway. The 40 usable shots from a small carbine like the Ultra SE are more than adequate for a normal hunting session – and I’ll rarely empty more than two magazines unless I’m lamping.
So, as you can see, I’m rediscovering the calibre that I cut my teeth on as a kid – only this time round it’s with a modern PCP rifle and state-of-the-art ammunition… and I’m finding it an entirely different experience. The obvious question many readers will ask is ‘which do you prefer, then?’ I honestly can’t answer that. It’s too early. But what I am prepared to say is that I’m enjoying the experiment – and particularly this lethal little lightweight carbine from BSA.
I’m looking forward to getting into the rabbits with it – hopefully that’ll help me make my mind up.