I stopped by my local outdoor shop last week to pick up a couple items for an upcoming hunt. In passing I mentioned to the salesman that I was heading out to California for the opening of their spring turkey season. He asked me “shotgun or bow,” to which my reply was neither. He then asked if I was using a muzzleloader or rifle. “Rifle” I answered, but then went on to explain the rifle I intended to use was an airgun. You mean like a BB gun? Believe me, this was not the first time I’d been asked that question and took the opportunity to inform another (seasoned) hunter about something he had no idea existed — air rifles for the serious hunter.
You might know that spring-powered air rifles are widely used for smaller game in many parts of the world. And more recently, precharged pneumatic rifles for small game, predators and larger game have been gaining traction. The air rifles in my gunroom run the gamut from .177 to .50 calibers and produce from 15 ft./lbs. of energy (fpe) to 600 fpe. Over the last 25 years I’ve taken everything from squirrels in Indiana to a kudu bull in Africa with them, and as a matter of fact find these are about the only guns I hunt with these days.
Unlike in Europe, especially the UK, airguns have not had much visibility within the mainstream hunting community in our country. But over the last decade this has been changing, and while still very much a niche market, more states are opening up their hunting regulations to airguns every year. Most states allow them to be used for small game, varmint and predators. As a matter of fact, there are only two that prohibit them for small-game hunting or pest control: Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. But many jurisdictions are opening their seasons not only for smaller game; at the present time Missouri, Virginia, Alabama, Michigan and Arizona allow them for whitetail. It seems that every year or so another enlightened state wildlife management agency comes onboard.
However, one area where the adoption of airguns has moved more slowly, which is a shame because I think they are the perfect option, is turkey hunting. There are three states with regulations permitting airguns as a method of take for turkey: California, Virginia and Maryland, though Maryland limits their use to the fall season only. California is arguably the destination trip for airgun hunters that want to bag a big tom — populations are very healthy, public and private land is abundant, and limits are generous.
So why would you want to use an airgun and what is the justification for saying they are the optimal tool for bagging a longbeard? When compared to firearms, airguns are quieter, have a limited carrying range, and generate modest power that is expended quickly, while at the same time being efficient and effective when used properly. They allow turkeys to be pursued where safety or noise restrictions make a shotgun a nonstarter. And though I am moderately skillful with a bow, I like to hunt with a rifle. Airguns let you approach the hunt as a bowhunter would — get in closer, use precise shot placement, and do it all in stealth mode without getting busted. That’s the challenge, but in the end you still get to shoot a rifle!
Appropriate airguns for hunting use two primary power plants: spring piston and precharged pneumatic (PCP) systems. The spring piston guns, also called springers, are the type you typically see at the big box stores, most often in .177 or .22 caliber. They generate power using a large mainspring to drive a piston that is compressed and then released with a squeeze of the trigger. The spring is compressed by cocking the rifle with either a break barrel, under the barrel, or side lever cocking mechanism. These rifles typically propel a Diabolo-style pellet at 800 to 1,000 fps depending on caliber, pellet and power of the gun.
You are unlikely to find rifles using the PCP power plant in the local gun store, but they are widely available through online airgun shops. These rifles have an onboard air reservoir that stores a volume of air that is incrementally released to send multiple pellets downrange. With standard calibers they don’t produce a great deal more power than the springers, but they are recoilless, intrinsically very accurate and often multi-shot, and if a larger caliber is used they can be much more powerful — in the .44 mag power range.
For turkey hunting with a springer, I think a .22 is the best balance of accuracy, terminal performance and range. For PCPs however, I have used a .22 but prefer a .25, and this season I have been quite impressed with the .30 caliber. My recommendation for shot placement has always been that when hunting big birds such as turkey, Guinea fowl and Egyptian geese, to take either a head shot or a shot at the base of the neck (when the bird is facing away). But I have a friend with a lot of gobbler experience in Virginia who swears by body shots when using a .25, and I have to say the results I had on my last hunt support this. My shot placement on a broadside angle was found by following a line straight up the bird’s leg, keeping the shot low and slightly forward. I recently shot two birds with this placement, including one very large longbeard, and they both dropped within 25 yards.
The techniques used for turkey hunting with an airgun mirror those used with shotgun or bow and essentially come down to hunting from a blind or running and gunning. When taking head shots, there is a lot to be said for hunting from a blind over decoys, as it’s easier to line up the precise head shot when you can move a bit and the birds tend to be more stationary. But when using a larger .25- or .30-caliber gun with the intention of taking longer-range body shots, I prefer to get camo’d up, grab my calls (used exactly as you would for traditional methods) and heading out on foot.
What turkey hunting with an airgun really comes down to for me is the challenge — once you give it a try it’s hard to go back to a firearm. As an airgun hunter, you need to get in closer, be more selective with the shots you take, and essentially be a better hunter and a marksman. The fact that it has the potential to open up a lot more hunting opportunities, and often closer to home, is the airgun advantage.