Big Bore Airgun Hunting
Nearly 15 years ago I went on a ram hunt with Eric Henderson, a pioneer of big bore airgun hunting and Jim Chapman who is well known for writing several books about air gun hunting.
At only 14 years old it was a dream come true!
That’s me in the center of the group.
(Derek looks A LOT different from that now! But, you know, Jim Chapman still looks pretty much the same – Stephen Archer).
The sweltering sun beat down on me as I knelt in the heat scorched scrub brush of central Texas, closely hugging the small bit of tree cover available for concealment. To my left were my big bore airgun hunting companions as well as our guide. We were tracking a small group of exotic Black Hawaiian rams which moved easily through the cactus-laden underbrush I kept painfully kicking with my shin.
After spotting and being spotted ourselves by the rams several times we were finally in position to intercept the animals as they hoofed along a small path.
Shifting the rifle in my hands I moused a .50 caliber cast lead slug from the cartridge loop affixed to the rifle’s buttstock and loaded it into the chamber of the massive Quackenbush rifle.
“Don’t cock the rifle yet.” Eric whispered.
“Yes sir.” I clammered back
“Stop calling me sir”
“Yes sir..opps sorry…”
“Shhh here they come.” Jim whispered back silencing both of us as he peered through the dense tangle of mesquite and brush vine.
My heart beat quickened at the sight of the curved horns of the first ram appearing along the the path 80 yards away. As the rest of the herd came into view, one ram stood above the rest in my eyes. I shoved the butt pad into my hip and yanked the charging handle back fighting the strong hammer spring of the legendary D.A.Q. air rifle.
The rams were closing fast at a mere 50 yards away and Eric bleeted out, sounding remarkably like a goat.
The animals stopped in their tracks while the one I chose looked directly at us.
“Take him!” Someone yelped sounding as excited as I felt.
I threw the rifle into my shoulder and quickly set the crosshairs of the compact scope on it’s shoulder following him as he took another couple steps and looked up again. I felt the trigger under my finger and began a steady squeeze trying to keep the reticle on the kill zone as the rifle grew heavy in my arms. Time seemed to freeze and what was a good trigger became a maddening eternal squeeze. Just a bit more, just don’t move…
Like a small cannon the rifle belched a deafening roar and bucked in my hands as the slug came tearing out of the barrel. I didn’t hear the impact but the ram staggered and took a few steps backwards. After mere seconds his knees gave way and he sunk to the ground and quickly passed.
As we walked up to the animal Jim and Eric clapped me on the back in congratulations completing a hunt that I didn’t know at the time would help solidify my airguns for the rest of my life.
Below. The FX Boss is one the most accurate rifles in my stable. Utilizing the 44 grain grain .30 caliber JSB pellets and a repeating magazine, excellent sound moderation making it nearly the perfect airgun for hunting and long range target shooting.
Despite their recent surge in popularity big bore airguns have been around for quite awhile.
One of the earliest big bores that I’m aware of is the illustrious Girandoni repeating air rifle invented around 1779. Impressive even by today’s standards the .46 caliber Girandoni was used in the Lewis and Clark Expedition to demonstrate technology to the Natives who thought the rifle to be “magic”. It was also used by the Austrian army in combat to great effect as it could rapidly fire up to 30 shots on a fill; which was profound in a time before repeating firearms were discovered.
In the modern era big bore airgun hunting provides a terrific alternative to firearms for medium and large game. The world of big bores is an exciting one and you could write a book just on the topic alone. However in this article let’s focus on the four most common big bore airgun hunting calibers, as each one has it’s pros and cons.
Above. One of my favorite aspects of big bore air gunning is the ability to produce my own ammunition. Since most big bores utilize cast bullets instead of pellets it’s as simple as grabbing a couple bullets molds, a heat source to melt your lead, a bit of time and you’re well on your way to making your very own bullets. In a future article I’ll show you how to get started in bullet casting for less than $100.
When someone asks what makes an air gun a big bore it will usually mean any gun .30 caliber and above. To confuse things, there are actually two different .30 calibers available. Some of the first .30 caliber air rifles were true .308 calibers that shot cast lead bullets/pellets similar to those of an M1 Carbine with bullet weights ranging from 80-250 grains. These rifles were great for bringing down coyotes, hogs, and even small to medium sized deer. I’ve always favored the .308 for it’s flat trajectory, increased velocity and accuracy.
In recent years air gun manufactures like FX and Daystate have brought to the market a new .30 caliber that actually measures closer to .303 caliber. Since the .308 cast slugs are too large to fire through these rifles, these companies teamed up with JSB which developed a splendid little diabolo pellet weighing 44 grains, later coming out with a 50 grain design. These pellets, coupled with the new rifles, were simply ground breaking with the guns producing from 70-100 ft/lbs of energy.
The diabolo pellets gave a huge edge in accuracy over the conventional cast .308 bullets, albeit sacrificing some energy. The .303 offers better ballistics than the .25 caliber for long range shooting and provides even more bone crushing energy on small to medium game. However .308 will have the edge in big game hunting and I cannot recommend the .303 for anything much bigger than coyote.
I tend to favor the .303 for it’s insane accuracy and performance on small to medium game, while the .308 wins my heart with outright stopping power and novelty.
Below. Sample pellets from the calibers discussed in this article.
The 9mm is typically most popular with the Korean manufactures like Sam Yang and Evanix. Typically it will shoot cast lead bullets from 106-220 grains, although JSB also produces a diabolo style pellet weighing in at 81 grains. This gives the rifles a much needed boost in accuracy.
I have mixed feelings about the 9mm. It doesn’t seem to offer much more energy than the .308 caliber and most of the bullets available tend to be pistol bullets designed for .357 Magnum and .38 Special firearms. The problems is these bullets don’t perform as well at long range as the .308 which has actual rifle-specific cast bullets available.
The JSB 81 grain pellet is a step in the right direction and rifles like the RAW HM1000X and Benjamin Bulldog shoot this round very accurately. I have known some folks to take animals as large as deer with the .357/9mm caliber, though I would urge on the side of ethics and keep your ranges reasonable at around 60 yards for those size animals.
We’ve really reached the true definition of a big bore when we’re talking about the .45 caliber! Available in several different flavors from the Sam Yang 909 Light Hunter or the cream of the crop Air Force Texan, which is currently the most powerful production air rifle producing over 500 ft/lbs!
One of the advantages that .45 caliber has over all the other the big bores is the huge array of ammunition available. The .457 Texan will do very well with bullets made for the .45/70 Govt. ranging from 300-400 grains, while the Sam Yang Light Hunter will perform with pistol specific bullets ranging from 180-250 grains. Additionally, I find that the .45 caliber provides that awesome balance between outright stopping power and a flatter trajectory than the .50 caliber.
Make sure that when choosing bullets you are choosing the correct head size for your gun for the best accuracy. Typically the pistol sized bullets will be sized around .452-.454 while the longer and heavier rifle bullets are generally .457.
Impressive in both bore size and stopping power the .50 caliber was one of the original eye opening large bores. Dennis Quackenbush, a semi-custom rifle builder, was one of the first guys to produce a .50 caliber airgun and his Bandit model is what I took my ram with. His waiting list is tricky to get on, but if you can stand the wait his rifles are the ultimate culmination of craftsmanship.
The Sam Yang Dragon Claw – while less powerful than the Quackenbush – still provides game stopping power and a reasonable number of shots per fill. Many folks like to shoot round ball used in .50 caliber muzzle loading firearms, but for the best accuracy I recommend cast bullets as the spherical round ball doesn’t seal in the chamber quite as well.
The disadvantage of the .50 caliber is that is just doesn’t perform as well in airguns as the .45 caliber. The bullets available tend to be very heavy which are devastating at shorter ranges, but tend to taper off in performance past 75 yards.
We’ve just scratched the surface on the information available for big bore airgun hunting. Whether you’re pursuing groundhogs or whitetail deer there’s a suitable caliber for your needs. While these guns are capable of amazing things always be sure to check your local game legislation to see if hunting with these arms are legal in your area. By responsible hunting and speaking to your local Fish and Wildlife Service, we can increase awareness and open doors for hunting possibilities. I wish y’all the very best and happy big bore airgun hunting!