BIG BORE AIR GUNS
Hunters have a new tool in their quest to take big game.
Story by John Goodspeed / Photography by Earl Nottingham
Camaraderie and competition go hand in hand for outdoor enthusiasts eager to see who can land the biggest bass or redfish, the highest-scoring buck or the spike with the longest tines.
One particular informal challenge between two long-term friends, though, may be destined for the record books — who would legally shoot the first white-tailed deer with an air gun after the weapon (along with the arrow gun) was approved for hunting big game and nonmigratory game birds in Texas last season?
Those unfamiliar with modern big-bore air guns may think of a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun that can barely puncture a can, and therefore assume there is no way these air rifles could humanely dispatch deer-size animals.
But, where legal, they’ve been used to take big-game species.
Eric Henderson of Talty, near Dallas, has been a proponent of big-game air gun hunting since 2000 and was instrumental in its legalization in Texas.
He was invited to harvest a doe before the opening of the white-tailed deer general season during a Managed Lands Deer Program hunt by Keith Warren of New Braunfels. Henderson introduced Warren to big-bore air guns a dozen years ago.
They videotaped their challenge hunts in separate blinds on Warren’s ranch in Guadalupe County. On the morning of their challenge, both shot does shortly after 7 a.m.
“I reached down, picked up my phone and … oh … Eric had just shot one, too,” Warren says. “So I don’t know who shot first — me or Eric.”
Warren later asks Henderson, who shrugs and says, “I don’t know.”
“So, we’re going to call it a draw, but we had a good time, huh?” Warren says.
In an interview later, Henderson says somewhat sheepishly that he thought he was first.
“OK. I’ll let him say that,” Warren says when he hears about it. “What air guns have done for me is to put a whole lot more enjoyment back in hunting.”
Big-bore air gun stocks can range from synthetic materials to more traditional wooden versions such as this .357-caliber Seneca Recluse.
Air gun projectiles are available in a variety of calibers and designs for everything from varmints to big game.
POTENT AND REWARDING
Most big-bore, pre-charged pneumatic guns require an attached reservoir that holds 3,000 pounds per square inch to launch a slug.
The AirForce Texan, billed as the world’s most powerful production air rifle, can fire a .45-caliber projectile up to 1,100 feet per second and produce more than 500 foot-pounds of energy, depending on the weight of the bullet.
That more than meets the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulations requiring an air gun to propel a projectile of .30 caliber or larger (weighing at least 150 grains) to 800 feet per second or more and produce a minimum muzzle energy of 215 foot-pounds. (Bullets are measured in a unit of mass called grains. One pound is equal to 7,000 grains; there are 437.5 grains in an ounce.)
Previously legal only for exotics and squirrels, air guns fill the gap between compound bows/crossbows and muzzleloading rifles.
“Bows and black-powder rifles are used everywhere, and I’ve always been into doing things differently,” Henderson says. “Centerfire rifles are so accurate and powerful, they’re like shooting a laser — sometimes I felt like I was cheating. I tell people all the time that air guns bring the challenge back into the hunt.”
Hunters need to be closer to their prey because of the trajectory of air gun projectiles, which produce a third or less the speed of most centerfire cartridges.
“You have to get to know your gun, figure out which bullet it likes and practice a lot at different distances,” he says, adding that he finds them to be very accurate, with little recoil.
Henderson sights-in lower-powered guns at 50 yards and higher-powered ones at 100 yards.
Most air gunners use a tank that holds up to 4,500 pounds per square inch to fill the reservoir on the gun. The tank requires a special hand pump or compressor that can be costly. But many enthusiasts fill their tanks at scuba, paintball or airsoft retailers, Henderson says.
“Most big-bore air guns can get off about three shots from the reservoir,” he says.
Henderson was hooked after he shot a coyote in the early 2000s. His daughter, Lauren Henderson, 15, a sophomore at Wylie High School, began hunting with air guns when she was 9 and killed an eight-point buck on a ranch near Abilene in December.
“Air guns are not for everybody, but I think hunters or anyone who likes shooting would be shocked,” Warren says. “They’ve developed air guns to the point that they’re highly sophisticated pieces of equipment — accurate, dependable, safe and affordable. And they’re fun.”
Warren thinks air guns will bring some new people into hunting and can retain others who may have lost interest.
“Air guns are more rewarding,” he says. “We all challenge ourselves to some extent. It’s a more intimate experience with the hunt and the animal.”
Warren uses arrows for larger game because they carry more kinetic energy. At 500 feet per second, they fly faster from air guns than from compound bows, which top out around 350 feet per second.
Air guns can be very accurate, but as with any rifle, "sighting in" (adjusting the sights to hit a target at a certain distance) is important.
The first modern big-bore air guns were built in the late 1990s by Dennis Quackenbush of Missouri, but large-caliber air guns for hunting deer and wild boar date back to the 1500s.
The Austrian military adopted a pre-charged air rifle in the 1700s, proving its worth during the Austro-Turkish War (1787–91), but phased it out because of its complexity. One made it to the United States and was pivotal to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 (it's now is on display at the Pentagon). Capt. Meriwether Lewis bought a model and demonstrated its firepower to every tribe encountered to deter hostile acts.
Even with that legacy, Alan Cain, TPWD white-tailed deer program leader, had to make sure today’s big-bore air guns were suitable for Texas game animals after receiving a petition from the Crosman Corporation to legalize hunting with air guns. After testing a Crosman model in August 2017 at Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Cain thought air guns needed further evaluation.
Henderson agreed to bring a .308 AirForce Texan to a South Texas ranch to harvest three spikes for another trial in October 2017.
“I was skeptical that an air gun would be capable of taking down a big-game animal such as a white-tailed deer,” says Cain, who practiced on a target at 100 yards. “I was quite impressed. The Texan was like stepping up to a whole new world.”
That afternoon, Cain shot two spikes at 100 yards, another at about 110, and performed necropsies.
“What I learned is that shot placement is critical, which it is with any method of take,” he says. “It functions more like a traditional muzzleloader or arrow because the bullet does not expand like a bullet from a centerfire rifle would.It basically punches a hole and does not create a lot of hydrostatic shock. But it can be as effective as anything else out there.”
At the time, eight states allowed air rifles for big game and seven allowed arrow guns, but there were varying standards, so Cain began drafting regulations for appropriate requirements that would ensure lethality.
The formal proposal was finished in January 2018 and went through the normal approval procedure of soliciting comments and input at public hearings. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission finalized the regulations in August 2018 after considerable deliberation and discussion. Commissioners, many of whom are big-game hunters, wanted to ensure that the regulations minimized wounding loss.
“It is important to always remember that air guns, like other methods of take, have their limitations,” says Steve Hall, hunter education manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Every user, young or old, novice or experienced huntsman, needs to familiarize themselves with the capabilities of these sporting arms prior to going afield, and practice at closer distances than they are used to with centerfire rifles.”
Tips for air gun hunters follow the regulations posted on the TPWD website: tpwd.texas.gov/regulations/outdoor-annual/hunting/air-gun-arrow-gun-regulations.
The number of new customers at AirGuns of Texas in Abilene, the only dedicated air gun shop in the state, has grown some 30 percent, owner Edwin Bumpass says.
“It’s not a cheap sport to get into, but they want the newest, coolest toy to show off to their friends,” he tells me. “One guy drove up from South Texas, bought two guns, a compressor and a tank, and filled every tag he had in the first week of the season. Everybody is proud of the trophies they get with an air gun, whether it’s a spike or a 12-point.”
A big-bore air gun with a riflescope can range from about $1,500 to $3,000, but the cost per shot is much lower than for centerfire cartridges.
There are other benefits: The rifles don't need to be cleaned as often, and their shorter range may allow them to be used in areas where high-powered rifles are prohibited.
They are good for younger hunters, too, without the loud bang of a centerfire rifle that can cause shooters to develop a flinch when pulling the trigger, says Ton Jones, AirForce Airguns’ director of research and destruction.
“Yes, that’s my real title,” Jones says with a laugh. “Everybody else says development, but I do destruction. I take a product and do things until it breaks so I can figure out how to fix it. I want to make sure it’s right before it goes out to the public.”
Texas’ new regulations drew more state wildlife agencies to contact the Fort Worth-based manufacturer, one of a half-dozen producing big-bore models.
“A lot of agencies are realizing these are high-powered tools for taking big game,” he says. “We’re sending air guns out all over the country for agencies to test.”
The new rules do more than help AirForce’s sales.
“Our goal is to get more people outdoors, just to go outside and do something,” Jones says.
John Goodspeed is a freelance outdoor writer based in San Antonio.
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