An Airgunner's Nighttime Hunting Kit

Airguns offer opportunities where you can’t use firearms, and hunting at night increases your chance of success.

An Airgunner's Nighttime Hunting Kit

Building your perfect nighttime air rifle predator hunting kit involves trial-and-error before you discover the right combination. (Photo: Jim Chapman)

There are many reasons to hunt with airguns, but arguably the lower power output and a significantly lower sound signature makes them ideal for hunting in more built-up areas. This is particularly interesting for predator and varmint hunters as areas around industrial areas, golf courses and suburban housing development often draw in predators and varmints.

Discharging a firearm in those areas may be frowned upon. Even if you’re a dedicated powder-burner you’ll probably see where an airgun could fit into your hunting repertoire. To be most effective, you need to hunt at night because that’s when these animals are active.

Over the past several years I’ve hunted exclusively with airguns. For almost as long, I’ve been trying to determine  what would make the best nighttime hunting kit. I’ve used artificial lights, infrared (IR) and thermal imaging devices, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. 

When calling raccoons, I am happy with a .25- or .30-caliber PCP in the 40-80 fpe range. You can go smaller or larger, but for this size quarry, the 40 fpe .25 provides all the power required, generally provides more shots per fill and is designed to be very quiet. Stepping up in quarry size to coyote, my choice is a .308 or .357 generating 70-150 fpe, once again striving to reach the optimal balance of power, shot count and sound level. If hogs are the target species, my preference is a powerful rifle in the 150+ fpe range because I want the animal to drop on the spot, especially when hunting in the dark. 

There are two categories of devices I use: spotting devices (binoculars/monoculars) for locating incoming targets and sighting devices (a scope) used to acquire the target and place the shot. The foundational technologies behind these devices is visible light and laser light, infrared light and thermal imaging. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages.

Spotlight Strategies

The first technology that I tried was a standard spotlight. These can be either white light or filtered red/amber/green light. They’re designed to be handheld or mounted to either the gun or the scope. I’ve taken more nighttime predator and varmints with a spotlight than any other means, mostly because I’ve used them much longer. If hunting with a buddy, we take turns manipulating the light and the other guy on the trigger. When hunting alone, it’s more challenging to control the call, sweep the light and get on target for incoming quarry. There are several attachments available for mounting a light to the rifle, however I don’t like sweeping an area with my gun so I need a second light and that ups the complexity.

Having said that, lights offer some key advantages. They generally cost much less than night or thermal vision, the hunter can use their standard shooting rig without any modification, and it’s effective, especially when hunting with a partner. I don’t have a strong opinion on what light color is better overall; the light should be used to halo the animal, not directly shine it on them, or they may spook. I find target acquisition to be much easier under white light. Red filters don’t appear to spook the animal as much, even if a more intense light is directed toward them. This is a consideration for the airgun hunter as we tend to get closer to our quarry.

My experience with green light is limited to the Laser Genetics ND3 laser designator that utilizes a collimated laser. For spotting game, it’s intensity and focused beam can really light up an incoming target. It also seems to be less intimidating to most species than white or even red light, however my eyes struggle with locking onto the target through my scope, though I know others who don’t experience the distorted image I see. Not sure of the reason, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work through this but kept drifting back to the red filtered light. Regardless, I carry a high intensity light in my pack to use for tracking wounded animals as this gives me the best clarity.

My next experience was with IR scopes and spotting devices; and I searched a long time for a cost-effective device that worked for me, before finding the ATN X-sight HD. This relatively compact device utilizes IR technology, which provides a good sight picture even in low ambient lighting, though an IR locator can always be used in total darkness. Two of the features that I find very useful are a) the ability to capture HD video and b) the scope has both daytime and nighttime functions. A problem encountered with the earlier IR scopes I tried was that they could not be used in daylight, so I either had to carry multiple guns or swap and re-mount scopes if I wanted to hunt day and night.

I think the image quality is quite good, and the video is better than I get with a scope mounted GoPro I paid twice as much for. The negative aspect of this scope for me was that it consumes battery power at an alarming rate. I’ve just received and started using the next generation of this device from ATN called the X-Sight 4K. On first blush, it has even better image quality and higher resolution video, but the thing that I appreciate is the lithium batteries keep the scope going for a much longer time. ATN states that it provides 10 hours of continuous use off a full charge.

The other place I’m using the IR technology platform is in my spotting gear. Rather than sweep a visible light while calling, I now scan the area with my IR binoculars. That has two advantages— I’m less likely to spook incoming predators and at the same time I am less visible to observers. I’ve had the police called a few times when night hunting with my airgun and spotlight. Even though I was legal, it still put a damper on my set. So much potential airgun hunting is in suburban and industrial areas that a stealth approach is beneficial. The disadvantages are that IR technology is moderately expensive and battery life can be an issue. My other major complaint can be circumvented by obtaining an IR scope with daytime imaging capabilities.

Thermal Imaging

The final technology I’ve been working my way through is thermal imaging. The first scope I had was big, bulky, had a short battery life and I found it awkward to use. But at about the same time I received a test sample of the Sellmark thermal imaging monocular, and it was a game-changer for me. I started using this device to scan for incoming predators, then switch to my IR scope to make the shot. I am convinced that I saw more animals using the thermal imager than I ever have with standard lights. The problem, and this was a big one, was the price, and I shed a tear when it was time to return it.

While at the last SHOT Show I spent a lot of time looking at the IR and thermal imaging devices and was impressed with the lineup I saw at the ATN booth. I arranged to try a few of their products, but the one I jumped on was the ThOR LT scope. It was lacking a video function (which I need for video production), but otherwise is a compact, fully-featured scope that’s priced around $1,200 — less than half of what most thermal scopes cost.

I’ve been using this for a couple months now with good results. Based on anecdotal observations, I believe I’m seeing more animals while calling at night using the thermal imager than with either a spotlight or IR. The things I like about this scope for my airgunning predator rig is it functions well at close to mid ranges (probably long range too), is lightweight, compact, easy to operate, has a long battery life and the price is attractive.

So, what does my current nighttime predator hunting rig look like?

It’s based on a .357 Evanix Sniper Carbine putting out about 80 fpe with JSB 81.02 grain Diabolo pellets. I’ve mounted the ATN ThOR LT thermal scope on it. My Sightmark Ghost Hunter IR binoculars are kept easily accessible and I use them to sweep the approach while calling. Though I have several calls that work well, the FoxPro Firestorm still ticks all the boxes for me — compact, good sound quality, an extensive library (especially coon calls) and a decent battery life. I’ve used this setup to take predators, jackrabbits, raccoons and hogs and it works pretty much to perfection.

In the future, I want to investigate getting another thermal monocular or binocular to supplement my rig, then I think I’ll have it nailed down!

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