Arrow-Launching Airguns in 2020

Hunting with an air-powered arrow rig offers the best of firearm and bowhunting and is well worth a try!

Arrow-Launching Airguns in 2020

Two of Chapman’s favorite over-the-barrel arrow guns, the FX Crown and the Hatsan Harpoon.

Airguns are becoming more popular as a method of taking game, with new regulations coming into effect every year. Standard caliber (.177 to .25) spring piston and precharged pneumatic guns are widely used for small game and pest control, with the larger caliber pellet rifles (.25 to .35) gaining acceptance as effective predator guns. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of .30- to .50-caliber guns (generating up to 800 fpe) being used for big game.

In most states where airguns are permitted for deer or other big game, there are provisions on the powerplant used (must be a PCP), caliber (most states have a .30-caliber minimum) and sometimes power (as an example, must generate more than 215 fpe in Texas). Most, if not all, of the rifles suitable as big game guns are set up to shoot cast lead bullets as opposed to the traditional Diabolo style airgun pellet. Cast lead bullets tend to be heavier and have better ballistics and terminal performance compared to Diabolo pellets.

More recently, airguns that are configured to shoot an arrow, or a bolt have been garnering attention. These guns have been around for several years and were initially modified from existing PCP air rifles. A few years after these custom arrow guns made an appearance, Crosman came out with its purpose-built Pioneer AirBow. At about the same time, FX Airguns made arrow barrels available on its modular PCP rifles. Another impactful development rolled along after that, the AirBolts from Air Venturi that can be shot from a standard big bore air rifle.

Over the past several years I’ve taken hogs, deer and feral goats with the various arrow-launching rigs in the States, and several species of plains game in South Africa.

Why the PCP?

A question I’m frequently asked is, “Why must a PCP be used?” In a nutshell, this is the only power-plant that is able to generate the volume of high-pressure air needed to propel an arrow forward at a velocity/energy level matching or exceeding the performance of standard archery equipment.

Spring piston-powered rifles (conventional spring or a gas ram) simply lack the volume of air and the sustained pressure to be effective. I should mention that Umarex released two new arrow airguns at SHOT Show, a conventional PCP-powered rifle called the AirSaber, and a CO2-powered model called the AirJavelin. I’m interested to see how both guns perform and will test them soon.

There are two approaches to designing an arrow gun — either the arrow slides over a thin custom barrel like a sleeve, or a specially designed arrow is inserted into a standard airgun barrel. The first and most common method used in both custom and production guns was the over the barrel method. The second method is the inside-the-barrel approach, which utilizes a caliber-matched arrow or bolt launched from a standard rifle. I use both and find that each has advantages and disadvantages.

The over-the-barrel design was first used in customized rifles. My first encounter was a modified AirForce Condor rifle. At about the same time that Crosman released the Pioneer, Swedish manufacturer FX Airguns began offering a small diameter replacement barrel that could be retrofitted to its production airgun models such as the Verminator, and later the Crown and Impact models. That was facilitated by the modular design and adjustable power settings of these guns, which makes swapping the barrel and fill probes for a multi-caliber capability a simple procedure.

That approach was eventually followed by Air Venturi’s release of the AirBolt, which is an arrow with a caliber-matched knock-plug and tip with tapped insert for mounting standard broadheads. These arrows were first released in .50 caliber and are 23 inches in length and weigh 430 grains (with broadhead). The companion platform for use with the AirBolt was the .50 caliber Dragon Claw. That gun was launching a 430-grain Airbolt with broadhead at more than 500 fps.

I used the DragonClaw/AirBolt combo in South Africa to drop a large blue wildebeest at almost 60 yards, achieving precision shot placement and complete pass through. The Airbolts were initially offered in .50 caliber, but there are now .457- and .357-caliber versions available, which can be used in any rifle with a 23-inch barrel.

In my experience, all these rifles/projectiles can be accurate and effective, but some care must be taken is setting them up to hunt. In general, the AirBolts fired from a standard big bore airgun are the most powerful and will exceed 600 fps in the more powerful big bores. However, my main hunting gun right now is the Hatsan Harpoon arrow gun, which is throwing a 430-grain bolt at about 530 fps and doing so very accurately! Sometimes it’s necessary to dial back the power if the bolt destabilizes. 

Broadhead is Important

This is also dependent on the broadhead being employed. You can used fixed or mechanical broadheads. More recently I started using the “clover leaf” style such as Toxics with excellent results.

I have experienced problems with mechanical broadheads at very high velocity, as they can open in flight and cause the arrow trajectory to become unpredictable. If that occurs, it might be necessary to back off on the power.

Regardless of the gun, arrow and broadhead selected, make sure to do thorough testing on the range before hunting with the arrow and broadhead; don’t rely on target results using field tips as the trajectory can be very different.

Inside or Over?

As to the advantages and disadvantages when comparing the inside-the-barrel and over-the-barrel platforms, I’ve found inside-the-barrel (AirBolts) generally produce the highest velocity and energy output with good accuracy, and the over-the-barrel rifles tend to be a bit less powerful but often with outstanding accuracy.

But the primary advantage of the AirBolt is you can use them with your current big bore air rifle. The over-the-barrel models are easier and quicker to load, but AirBolts can be used in a standard rifle without requiring any special set up. I’ve taken the Air Venturi WingShot double barrel air-powered shotgun hunting with one barrel loaded with a .50 caliber roundball in case I came across a coyote, and an AirBolt in the other barrel in case I kicked up a big feral hog.

I like that modular rifle designs such as the FX Crown, the RTI Prophet and the Hatsan Hydra can use standard pellet barrels or an arrow barrel. That means the shooter doesn’t have to invest in a rifle that can be used for only arrows, or if they already have a rifle can simply order an arrow barrel, providing a flexible hunting rig. I often travel to hunt and, rather than pack several rifles, will take my FX Crown with .22-caliber, .30-caliber and arrow barrels that will cover me on everything from rabbits, to coyote, to hogs with no compromise.

Accuracy is dependent on many variables. You need to test your individual setup to determine the maximum distance at which you achieve acceptable groups. For some of my guns this is 35 yards and for others it is 60 yards. For all of them, once that range is established, my expectation is three arrows in a 3-inch group (using broadheads).

With respect to power generation, that is also dependent on several variables. Many of these guns have adjustable power as well. But all are generating at least 430 fps, with some exceeding 550 fps. Consider that the most powerful compound bows generate about 340 fps and the most powerful crossbows are in the 450-fps range, and you’ll appreciate the potential of these arrow guns.

The regulations, as is often the case, vary widely from state to state, so you need to look into your local laws. Some jurisdictions allow air-powered arrow guns to be used for deer, hogs, turkey, predators, small game and other big game species, but don’t allow their use during archery seasons. Considering the way traditional archery proponents bickered about crossbows, this will probably be the case with airbows and airbolts as well.

But I use them because I find it a challenging and satisfying method of hunting, and don’t feel the need for a protected season. Hunting with an air-powered arrow rig offers the best of firearm and bowhunting and is well worth a try.

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