For many of us, me included, the main reason why we become interested in air rifles in the first place is to hunt small game or dispatch vermin close to home. And for these purposes most high-quality air rifles are excellent. Unlike conventional firearms, air rifles are relatively quiet, have little or no recoil, and because they have limited range, are much less likely to produce dangerous stray bullets that could impact nearby residential areas. In fact, even very powerful air rifles lose much or all of their punch after about 150-200 yards, whereas a .22 long-round rimfire shot can travel well over a mile and still hit with enough power to possibly kill.
This article primarily focuses on air rifle hunting for the type of small game most readily available air rifles are suited for – like birds, squirrels, rabbits, hares, woodchucks, etc. Of course, there are very large caliber air rifles, like .45 and .50 cal. big bores that can take down things like coyote, wild pigs and even deer, but these are fairly expensive PCP weapons and beyond the scope of this particular discussion.
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Basic Power Requirements
As far as what constitutes a good small game air rifle, there are really no hard and fast rules since there are so many different types of small animals that can be hunted, but there are some minimum power requirements that most hunters recognize and we agree with. The most fundamental of these is power, measured in foot-pounds-energy (“FPE”) at the muzzle. It’s pretty simple, an underpowered gun is more likely to maim or wound, rather than kill, either because the projectile doesn’t hit with enough force or cannot be controlled accurately. Obviously, this becomes an even more important consideration the further away you engage the target.
For instance, it is believed that an air rifle/gun should produce at least 12 FPE at the muzzle to kill efficiently and humanely for closer range hunting (i.e., within 35 yards or so). Fortunately, this is not a high bar to clear for most modern air rifles. For example, an 8-grain pellet traveling at 825 FPS – or a 14-grain pellet with a velocity of 625 FPS would meet the 12 FPE minimum muzzle energy requirement.
Of course, 12 FPE is a minimum power requirement. Additional power is definitely warranted if you want to hunt at longer ranges, well beyond 35 yards for example, since more FPE will be needed to maintain a proper flight trajectory and ensure sufficient knock-down power remains by the time you reach your targets. For example, a rifle with 30 FPE should easily handle game at or beyond 50 yards, but take care not to push it. We always encourage shooters to hunt game at closer ranges, regardless how much power you have, since the further away you engage, the less likely you are to deliver a precise kill shot (a head shot is advised for most small game). Know your rifle’s limits – as well as your own. Even if you are eliminating pests, it is still bad form in our book to take a Hail Mary shot at any animal where you are more likely to wound rather than kill it.
Which Caliber is Best for Hunting?