I’ve been hunting small game with airguns for the better part of three decades, and this grew to include big-bore airguns for larger game about 10 years ago. Besides the challenge of the hunt, big-bore airgunning presented another more frustrating aspect, namely finding a venue that allowed these guns as a legal method of take. Several grassroots movements have come into existence, with the objective of lobbying and educating game management bodies on the appropriateness of air-powered rifles as valid hunting tools. These efforts have resulted in a growing visibility and acceptance of the sport, with more jurisdictions allowing their use.
This year Arizona joined the ranks of forward-thinking states allowing the use of powerful big-bore airguns for taking big-game species. Missouri, Virginia and Alabama approved them for deer hunting, and many other jurisdictions now allow them for feral hogs and predator hunting. But Arizona will offer the airgun hunter a breadth of species found nowhere else: muleys and Cous deer, pronghorn and javelina, bear and mountain lion, and many other species of predators, varmints and small game. But it was the opportunity to go after javelina on a public-land hunt that pulled me in for this inaugural season.
For a short backstory: I’ve taken many warthogs in Africa and stacked up the hogs all over the USA with my airguns, but never a javelina. I’d seen many while hunting in Texas and could have shot a number of them, except that you can’t shoot game species in Texas with an airgun (even a squirrel). In fact, there was not a region in the country where an airgun was legal for peccary, up until the well-thought-out regulatory changes in Arizona. Once informed that Arizona had changed their regulations, I immediately put in for my tag and drew a great unit recommended by my friend and Arizona hunting guide Kip Perow. Kip came with me to South Africa earlier this year, and we’ve hunted together quite a bit over the last few years. I looked forward to getting back into the field with a guy that knows this region and its game better than just about anybody else. And the kicker is that when Kip isn’t guiding, he works for the Phoenix-based Airguns of Arizona, so he also know airguns and understands the requirements of this type of hunting. And chief among these requirements is the need to get in close — no 150-yard shots for the airgun hunter!
So the day before the season opener found me boarding a flight into Phoenix Sky Harbor, where I would pick up a rental car, then drive out to the old mining town of Globe, a few miles east of Roosevelt Lake. I picked up a full airtank along the way — you can find a dive or paintball shop almost anywhere — and pulled off the highway and down a dirt road to a spot where I could sight my rifle and get a few practice shots in.
The gun I’d chosen for this hunt was the Evanix Sniper .357 pre-charged pneumatic, which is a mid-powered (130 ft./lbs.) mid-bore that I’d been shooting for a few months. This is a sidelever-action rifle that indexes a seven-shot magazine, getting 14 usable shots per 3,000 psi fill. The projectile I opted for was the 77-grain Diabolo JSB Exact, which I’d used in another version of this rifle to take springbok and duiker in South Africa a couple months earlier, and believed it would be perfect for the little desert pig. I zeroed the gun at 50 yards, getting seven shots into a ¾-inch group. I wanted to stalk within 50 yards but would go out to 100 if necessary, realizing that with a projectile moving at 750 fps I’d need to work around a significantly arced trajectory if choosing to reach out that far.
I met up with Kip for dinner at a local Mexican eatery, and as we plowed our way through rellenos and enchiladas, we planned our approach for the morning hunt. I would meet Kip at 4:30 in town, then we’d drive out about an hour north, unload the Ranger, and take it up a desert trail a few miles. Then we’d go out on foot, climbing the ridges and glassing the hillsides and flats for javelina that would be moving into the morning sun to feed. It looked to be a tough haul from what the guys were telling me, and I’d wished I’d spent more time conditioning in preparation.
Everything unfolded the way we’d envisioned it. As day dawned I found myself hiking up a steep hill covered in sand, stones and loose shale. I huffed and puffed my way to the top of a ridge, where we sat and methodically scanned the desert. Nothing on the first stand, no matter how hard I looked, and the next two didn’t pan out any better. Javelina are one of those animals where you can make the hunt what you want it to be, but getting close to pigs in the rugged public-land terrain is one of the toughest hunts I’ve had this year.
As we worked our way up yet another rise, we heard javelina grunting and caught movement about 150 yards away. It turned out to be a small group of four pigs, with a couple good-sized animals in the mix. They topped the rise still out of shooting distance, requiring that we move back around the hill and cut them off at the next ridge. As we stalked in, the sound of grunting followed by flashes of fur through the mesquite, rocks and cactus drew our attention.
Somewhere along the way the herd grew, and now we saw more than a dozen javelina running around. They hadn’t seen us yet, but they were moving into our scent cone, and I was nervous that they were going to bust us. Kip spotted a pig heading through the bush that would cross an opening about 70 to 90 yards to our side.
I was in an awkward shooting position, trying to keep my footing on the aggressively sloping hill, but I brought the gun up and got a solid hold with the crosshair high on the javelina’s shoulder. I had the scope magnification at 7X and estimated the shot at 70 yards. Unfortunately I’d carried my shorter sticks, which precluded their use from a standing position, so I had to take the shot offhand. As I looked through the scope, Kip was ranging the distance and whispered “85 yards,” causing me to raise the crosshairs to the ridge of the pig’s back. Pulling in a couple of deep breaths, I felt my heart rate drop back to a more normal range, and I squeezed the trigger.
The dampened sound of the subsonic projectile was followed by the thump of the hit, and I watched the javelina stagger and move slowly over the rise. As we stood watching, there was an explosion of activity as pigs we hadn’t spotted started moving off all around us in the heavy brush. We heard my pig grunting and were sure it had gone down, but we stood our ground for about 10 minutes before starting to follow. We moved along the side of the hill where we’d marked the hit and looked for spoor, and though we located some disturbed ground where the pig had been hit, we found no blood. This is not uncommon with airgun kills, even when you get a complete pass-through; there is not the explosive impact and concurrent trauma that is seen with a firearm. That’s why it’s important to mark the animal and be prepared to logically map out the route the quarry might move within a 100-yard radius.
Slowly hiking over the rise, we saw some animals moving about 150 yards away, and Kip started grunting. A couple of the javelina started back at us, with one making a beeline toward our position, only turning (at 20 yards away) when Kip stopped the dialog. As we crept along on the downhill side, we caught a glimpse of coarse hair over a small clump of brush. I slowly stepped around to the side and saw my quarry lying on its side, and even though the lights were just about extinguished, I dropped a second shot in just to end it more quickly. As I walked the last few yards to look at my little trophy, I was beyond happy, having achieved a goal that might never have been possible if the laws hadn’t changed! We got some pictures, dressed the pig and hiked back down to the Ranger for the drive back to the truck and then into town for a late lunch.
On dressing the animal we found the first shot had been an almost perfect broadside, perhaps a bit lower than I’d have preferred, but it had effectively double-lunged the 50-pound animal. The Diabolo-style pellet had clipped a rib, transited the lungs and come to rest under the skin on the offside. The pellet had held together, slightly flattening out where it contacted the rib, and penetrated very well considering the range. The second shot had not really been necessary, but had moved the inevitable along more rapidly. The pellet from behind had hit the spine and passed through to bury itself in the viscera. All in all I was very pleased with the performance of both gun and projectile, feeling they’d done everything I could have asked.
This is a trip I’d recommend for anyone with a desire to step up their airgun hunting to the next level. There are a couple of points to consider; first is to get into shape. This has been my first winter living in Minnesota — I’d gone into hibernation because of the miserable cold, and I was carrying more weight than usual and was in poor condition. A couple more days running this vertical landscape would have done me in. I’m going back to hunt bear in a few months, and am going to kick off 25 or so pounds and start running again! The second item is that I’d look into hunting with a guide. This is big country and the game is spread out; unless you have plenty of time to scout, and most out-of-state hunters don’t, you will limit your chances for success. Give Kip and Steve at Copper Country Guiding or Airguns Only Adventures a call before next season rolls around. Definitely also don’t miss the change to sign up for a hunt you’ll long remember!