Deer Hunting With an Air Rifle: Models to Consider and Laws to Recognize

Okay, we’ve talked a little bit on this site about using airguns to hunt, but now we’ll tackle a big question about airgunning. Can airguns be used to hunt big game like deer?

Airguns can be used to hunt big game like deer. Some precharged pneumatic airguns are made specifically for the task, usually being at least .35 caliber. Varying state and local laws may permit deer hunting with airguns, while others may not.

You are here to learn if you can use airguns to hunt deer, and how you can do it (if I am reading your mind correctly). We have some information that you will be able to use in your quest to do just that, so pull up a chair, grab your favorite air rifle, and remember: you probably won’t need to clean it any time soon.

What Kind of Gun Should you Choose?

“What kinds of airguns would I be able to hunt a deer with?” you might be asking, and if you are, I am glad.

Normal airguns would not be able to kill a deer. While it is possible to somehow kill a whitetail with your multi pump BB gun that your dad got you when you were eleven, the odds of that happening are incredibly low. So low in fact, that it is probably illegal to do so where you live.

See, while a hunter is trying to kill its quarry, that same hunter should be doing so ethically. That means quick, humane kills. An ordinary pellet gun will not be able to do that. Not even springers are likely to do that, as the energy used to power the shot is all provided by you, and then stored in the spring.

Instead, you should strongly be considering using a PCP (precharged pneumatic, not the drug) for deer hunting, if not for the added power then at least because it is (probably) illegal to not do so where you live.

The reasons for that go back to trying to be humane with the animals that you are hunting. A springer gun just likely won’t have the energy needed to finish a deer humanely. You don’t want to stick a pellet mostly inside of a deer, wounding it but not killing it. That would be rude.

Models like the Umarex HammerOpens in a new tab., the Seneca Dragon ClawOpens in a new tab., and the AirForce TexanOpens in a new tab., are worthy of consideration for the budding airgunning hunter.

You also need to consider the caliber of PCP that you use. Again, some locales will deem it illegal to use a caliber that is too small, like my native Idaho. For example, here in Idaho, the hunting rules for big game for 2019 and 2020Opens in a new tab. state that airguns need to be at least .35 caliber to hunt deer, and .45 caliber for elk (pg. 100).

They also recommend that your gun be working at 350 foot pounds of energy, though it is not required. That will allow for a quicker, more humane kill, though it won’t do you any good if you don’t hit the animal you are aiming at.

Because airguns are not as powerful as traditional firearms, you do need to get closer to your quarry before taking your shot. That is one disadvantage that airguns have, but that is often the appeal for hunters using these guns. In fact, those same rules we referenced earlier in Idaho allow airguns to be used during short range weapons seasons.

We mentioned that there are airguns specifically made for hunting deer, which is completely correct. One example of an over-powered pellet gun designed for big game is the Umarex HammerOpens in a new tab..

It is’t the only option out there for a budding airgunning deer hunter, but with a gun designed for big game hunting, not much will stand in your way.

These larger caliber PCP’s usually have fewer shots per charge than most other PCP’s, so be sure to bring your scuba tank with you on those hunting excursions.

You will find it interesting that there are ARROWS made to be fired from PCP’s. Yeah. ARROWS. When I discovered this for the first time, I was floored. I had no idea that something that cool was a thing, but they make arrows Opens in a new .357, .45, and .50 caliber that can be used to hunt.

Make sure that if you decide to use a PCP like an over powered crossbow it is legal to hunt the animal you are hunting in the state you are hunting in.

Laws to Recognize

So, we made mention of a few laws to be aware of when it comes to hunting, with a few coming from Idaho. In the United States, airguns are not recongized as firearms by the federal government, but some state and local governments do.

Generally, though, they will be treated as their own thing, which means you should know what is legal in your state and what is not. For example, the laws from the Idaho big game rules for 2019-2020 are:

“Any airgun used for big game must use pre-charged, pneumatic
power to propel a projectile (excluding shot and arrows) with
unignited compressed air or gas and bullets at least thirty-five
(0.35) caliber for deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, or
gray wolf, and at least forty-five (0.45) caliber for elk, moose,
bighorn sheep, mountain goat, or black bear” (pg 100).

They also state on that same page that airguns do count as a short range weapon and so they can be used during seasons reserved only for those types of weapons.

If you don’t know what your local laws are regarding airgun hunting, you can check with your fish and game office, or use this very helpful tool Opens in a new tab.put together by Pyramyd Air. Click on your state to find what species it is legal to hunt with your airgun.

What Ammo Should I Use When Hunting Deer?

You should hunt deer and other animals with ammunition that you can hit consistently with at the ranges you normally hunt at. If you can hit consistently with ammo that is designed to deform inside the animal, then you would be justified in using it.

Accuracy should be a top priority on your list of reasons to use a type of ammo. Me? I’ll take the arrows, just for the sheer novelty of having shot an arrow out of my gun. The arrows though do have more mass than just about any other type of ammo you will find, which will give it more oomph when it hits.

Pellets and bullets (yes, when we get into larger calibers, there is little distinction between pellets and bullets, and some pellets actually deserve the title of bullet) that lose their shape inside of the animal stop being aerodynamic, which allows the flesh of the animal to catch more energy from the projectile quicker, which means quicker kills.

Hollow point pellets and bullets will deform (or are at least intended to), along with other types of flat headed pellets or pellets with obvious structural problems. Again, if you can shoot these without destroying your accuracy, then go for it, but they will do you no good if you can’t hit your target.

You might need to do some testing to be sure which pellets your gun likes the most. Not all pellets of the same shape will work equally, and that might vary from individual gun, so be sure that you test properly and choose wisely before you go hunting.

Why Not a Springer?

So, like we said earlier, springer air rifles just are not powerful enough to deliver the force that you need to properly take down a deer. The power of a PCP is provided by a tank present on the gun. This tank is usually filled to 3000 psi. That’s like… a lot of air.

While you can provide the air to your PCP using a hand pump, if you are not 200 pounds or more, you will have a hard time trying to get those last few pumps into the gun. So if 200 pounds is just enough force to fill your PCP to full, how much more powerful do you think it will be than a magnum break barrel pellet gun with a cocking effort of 40 pounds?

The answer is about 100 or more foot pounds of energy. Yes, those 40 pounds are on the end of a lever, but the gun simply will not have enough energy stored in that spring to take down a deer. If you want to be humane, a PCP is the best way to go.

But Don’t I Need 1000 Foot Pounds to Kill a Deer?

There are some that maintain that you need to be shooting with a weapon capable of putting out 1000 or more foot pounds of energy in order to be ethical in your killing of the deer. That simply is not true.

Yes, you would be safe to say that the more energy you have, the better, but you don’t need to go that high up to kill a deer. Remember, Idaho only recommends 350 foot pounds to kill a deer, but does not require that much.

Why is this the case? Well, foot pounds is a measurement of energy defined as the energy needed to lift a one pound one foot into the air. So 200 foot pounds is the energy needed to lift 200 pounds into the air, or 1 pound 200 feet into the air, or any combination in which the math checks out.

Imagine that much kinetic energy concentrated into an object the size of a bullet, or a pellet, or a super cool .50 caliber arrow. Now imagine 350 foot pounds in a bullet, or a pellet, or a super cool .50 caliber arrow, and then remember that many PCP’s intended to hunt deer and other types of bigger game will exceed that number.

Instead of concerning yourself too much with the amount of energy that your gun is firing with, instead consider the terminal ballistics of your projectile (like a super cool arrow), which is how it delivers what energy it has to the animal.

Terminal ballistics is affected by things like shape, weight, material and so forth of your projectile. Remember how we talked about pellets and bullets with hollow points and things like that? Those are things that will have a primary affect on the terminal ballistics of your projectile.

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