Any kid who’s ever had a BB gun and an unsupervised Saturday knows that BB guns can take down small game.
But what about the white tails? These days, companies offer .35, .45, and .50 caliber air rifles that are more than capable of taking down deer-sized animals. It’s safe to say that Ralphie’s mom would have a heart attack.
Make sure it’s legal
Most states allow small game hunting with airguns, but according to Pyramyd Air, only 22 states allow airguns for big game: California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi , Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, and Maine.
Hunting rules change all the time and sometimes vary by county, so be sure to check your local laws before ordering a gun.
Some states also restrict the caliber and speed of the projectile. Texas, for example, requires airguns to use at least one .30-caliber projectile that weighs 150 grains or more, travels 800 feet per second, and produces at least 215 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Indiana requires a .40 caliber projectile capable of producing 400 foot-pounds. of energy in the mouth.
To learn more about airgun hunting laws in your state, check out a helpful map here.
Rules of the game
State requirements are a good foundation, but first-time airgun hunters should also keep in mind some general rules.
First and most obvious, make sure you buy an air rifle capable of taking down an animal the size of a whitetail. Tyler Patner of Pyramyd Air recommends a rifle chambered for at least .35 caliber, but prefers .45 or .50 caliber pistols that produce 700 to 800 foot-pounds. of energy. For those keeping score at home, that means you’re looking for a projectile that weighs between 350 and 450 grains and travels at about 1,000 fps.
“You’re talking about a bigger hole,” Patner explained.
Patner encourages hunters to think of airgun projectiles as arrows. They do not expand as much as centerfire bullets and do not impart enough energy to induce hydrostatic shock. You won’t take down a whitetail even with the most powerful airgun, so you’re looking to blow a devastating hole in the heart, lungs, or brain. It is the same idea as a broad tip.
That’s why, even though hunters have hunted whitetails at over 100 yards with airguns, Patner recommends staying in the 40-50 yard range. Officially, Pyramyd Air recommends staying within 75 yards.
“It has a lot of power, but since it’s a bigger projectile going a little bit slower, there’s no hydrostatic shock. You rely on good shot placement. The closer you are, the better,” Patner explained.
Patner recommends hollow-point or flat-point projectiles, but said accuracy rather than bullet expansion should determine which type of projectile a hunter uses.
“You don’t get the same expansion,” he said of airgun projectiles. “Even with hollow tips, you’re not looking for exit holes that are double or triple the size of your entry. If he gets a transfer, it won’t be much bigger.”
The good news is that high-quality modern air rifles are more than capable of posting a 1-inch group at 50 yards. So as long as you do your part, your shots will land where you aim them.
If you want to shoot longer than 50 yards, Patner recommends keeping a few things in mind. First of all, since the projectiles travel much slower than most centerfire rounds, it’s crucial to practice a lot and know how far the bullet is going to land.
Second, since the bullet travels slower than the speed of sound, a shot will hit the deer before your bullet does. Just as archers should think of deer “jumping rope,” airgun hunters should consider a deer that jumps or ducks when it hears an air rifle fire. While Patner has never personally lost a deer to this phenomenon, he requires hunters to be even more confident on any long-distance shot.
From whatever range you shoot, large-caliber air rifles can only get off two or three shots before slowing down, so you’ll want to take the deer down on that first shot. Knowing this, Patner said some hunters choose to shoot them in the head rather than put a hole through their vital organs.
Bottom line? Whitetail hunters with airguns need to adopt the mindset of an archery hunter. Get in a spot where you can get a shot from 40 to 50 yards, take your time and make sure you put the first shot exactly where it needs to go.
A quick search on Pyramid Air for rifles that meet the Texas Parks and Wildlife criteria turns up 61 options ranging in price from $550 to $3,500. To help narrow things down, I asked Patner to list his top three.
The AirForce Texan line of air rifles is “the standard when it comes to large-caliber hunting weapons,” Patner said.
These weapons come in a variety of calibers and configurations, but many fall into the criteria listed above. This LSS model, for example, can push a .45-caliber, 520-grain bullet at about 820 fps, which works out to 757 foot-pounds. of energy. For context, a .45 ACP produces around 400 foot-pounds. of power while a .44 Magnum produces about 900 foot-pounds.
Patner also recommends the Hatsan Piledriver and the Umarex Hammer. The Piledriver has only been available for about a year, but has already proven itself in the field. Some hunters like the Hammer because it is the only multi-shot rifle in this category.
If you clicked on any of those links, you probably noticed that these weapons don’t come cheap. But you should also think about how you are going to fill the air tank.
You can opt for a hand pump, which is physically demanding and time consuming, but is by far the least expensive option. You can purchase an external tank, which you’ll need to fill at a dive shop or paintball center. Or you can buy your own high pressure air compressor. Unfortunately, your trusty shop compressor won’t do the job on this one.
Modern air rifles are fully capable of taking down a whitetail. If you’re looking for a challenge (and an excuse to buy some new gear), do some research, do some practice, and make your next whitetail season airgun season.