Airguns and Ammo for Hunting Varmints

A marriage of the right airgun and accurate, lethal projectiles ensures optimal results in the field.

Airguns and Ammo for Hunting Varmints

The Air Venturi Avenger coupled with Hades .25-caliber pellets is a serious varmint combo.

In this column I’ll focus on one of my favorite airgun pursuits, varmint hunting. For this purpose, let’s define varmints as small- to medium-sized pest species — prairie dogs, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, groundhogs, raccoons and crows — that are hunted primarily as a means of removing them or significantly reducing the population. We’ll leave predators out of the discussion for now because hunting techniques, guns and gear are somewhat different. 

Varmint hunting typically takes place in open areas that require long-range shooting for species such as ground squirrels or prairie dogs, or in agricultural areas for raccoons and groundhogs that might also require shots at closer ranges. All these species are relatively small, and it is important to penetrate a vital organ for a clean kill. The projectile needs to be delivered with precision for either a brain or heart shot and with adequate penetration and a large enough wound channel to punch through organs and cause major blood loss. 

This places a couple of requirements on a varmint rifle, one being that it is relatively flat shooting, and the other that it delivers the projectile with precision and adequate power at maximum hunting range. It is not a linear relationship but shooting a 40 fpe .25-caliber air rifle out to 100 yards is a lot like shooting a .223 Rem. centerfire out to 400 yards with respect to managing the trajectory and terminal energy. An air rifle generates lower muzzle velocities with a lighter projectile than a firearm and a more arced trajectory. While it does not take much energy delivered to the head of a ground squirrel to kill it, a higher velocity and heavier projectile will get to the target faster, with less drop, and deliver a more decisive hit at greater distances. 

However, if the gun is delivering higher velocity/energy, there are a couple factors to keep in mind. For the gun to achieve these higher velocities it will typically use more air, resulting in a lower shot count from its onboard air storage system. This type of hunting is often conducted in a target rich environment, so you might need a supplemental air source close at hand. As an unregulated gun runs down the pressure of the air reservoir, there is a shift in the point of impact. This shift might not be so noticeable at 50 yards but is amplified at 100 yards. The unregulated gun needs to be set up to minimize shot-to-shot variability, but it’s even better if the gun is regulated. A regulator sits between the high-pressure onboard air storage unit and the valve, controlling the volume and pressure of air used for each shot to reduce variability.

  So, what are the other things besides the regulated action that should be looked for in a varmint gun? The rifle should be ergonomic and comfortable to shoot off sticks, prone or braced off the knee while sitting, because these are the most frequently used shooting positions in the field. I prefer a sidelever action because the mechanism is the easiest to cycle while staying on target, a reliable large capacity magazine and adjustable power for optimizing long-range performance with the chosen projectile.

The modular design of the FX Impact (top) makes it the most flexible rig of the group. The AEA HP Carbine (below) is an accurate fast shooting semi-auto.
The modular design of the FX Impact (top) makes it the most flexible rig of the group. The AEA HP Carbine (below) is an accurate fast shooting semi-auto.

Top Varmint Airguns

There are many great rifles out there and picking the best varmint rig is very subjective, but the examples I’ve selected from my personal collection are representative of what I would consider the best in their class. 

The Air Venturi Avenger .25-caliber is available with a synthetic or wood sporter style stock. It has large dimensions but the synthetic stock on my gun makes it lighter than might be expected. The Avenger uses a sidelever action and eight-shot rotary magazine that is reliable and easy to load. It is regulated and fully adjustable. This rifle can be dialed in for a specific pellet which is analogous to handloading for firearms. This is a great starter rifle, but also a solid choice for the hunter who wants a platform to customize. I have used this rifle on both prairie dog and jackrabbit shoots and achieved clean kills out to 100 yards. But what firmly establishes this gun at the top of its class is that based on the $300 price tag there isn’t much else in its class! 

My favorite gun for packing long distances is the Brocock Commander XR .25-caliber. It uses a sidelever cocking mechanism that reliably cycles a proven 10-shot magazine that is easy to load and works flawlessly. The rifle is regulated and provides a high number of consistent shots per fill from a carbon fiber bottle. A power adjustment control is used to select multiple velocities for precision tuning. My Commander has a folding buttstock in coyote tan with a Cerekote action finish. The Commander has excellent fit and finish, is ergonomic and lightweight, and has proven to be a great long-range varmint rifle with consistent kills out to 130 yards.

The Brocock Commander (top) and the Air Venturi Avenger (below) represent an entry point and an aspirational rifle for the dedicated varmint hunter.
The Brocock Commander (top) and the Air Venturi Avenger (below) represent an entry point and an aspirational rifle for the dedicated varmint hunter.

The FX Impact .30-caliber is a lightweight bullpup design with an adjustable buttstock that accepts standard AR-15 pistol grips. The air storage system is a removable carbon fiber tank, and the design allows extra bottles to be packed and changed in the field. The sidelever action is tactile and smooth cycling, reliably indexing the magazine. This gun is a standout because of a modular design that allows the shooter to swap out barrels, magazines and probes. I also have the .30-caliber slug barrel option that when combined with the FX Hybrid slug is a potent long-range option. 

The last gun is the newest in my collection, the .30-caliber AEA HP semi-auto. This bottle-forward carbine utilizes a removable nine-shot magazine and provides approximately 25 to 30 shots at 60 fpe. The LOA is 32.5 inches when fully deployed, 25.5 inches with the stock folded, and the airgun weighs in at about 5 pounds. I find the stock ergonomic and the carbine a pleasure to carry in the field. Where this gun stands out in my battery is that it is a semi-auto, and most importantly, one that has worked flawlessly from the very beginning. I have had this gun out calling raccoons and run-and-gun hunting jackrabbits and it shoots accurately and rapidly.

The FX Hybrid slugs (left) and JSB Hades pellets (right) are two important advances in airgun ammo for hunters.
The FX Hybrid slugs (left) and JSB Hades pellets (right) are two important advances in airgun ammo for hunters.

Airgun Hunting Projectiles

As with advances in airguns for varmint hunting, there are projectiles available that fit right in when setting up an optimized rig. Two standouts are JSB Hades Diabolo pellets and FX Hybrid slugs, both available in a wide range of calibers. 

I use .25- and .30-caliber JSB Match Diabolo Hades pellets for varmint hunting. The Hades pellets have a semi-cylindrical body with a waist that flares into a skirt. There are three slots cut in the middle of the head, designed to open on impact and deliver a seismic impact to the target. Unlike a traditional hollowpoint, the domed head design is retained and provides excellent accuracy, even at longer ranges. I have shot these pellets through several guns on the range and while hunting. They are consistently accurate and terminal performance is outstanding. The Hades has become my primary hunting pellet over the past year. 

The traditional Diabolo pellets work well in airgun barrels because the volume of released air through the transfer port expands the pellet’s skirt, causing it to conform to the barrel. But the negative aspect of the design is a rapid loss of energy (can be advantageous in some scenarios). One approach to improving long-range performance is a purpose designed airgun slug that combines attributes of the pellet and slug. 

The FX Hybrid slug is available in several calibers and combines the advantages of a slug and a pellet. It has the high BC shape of a slug, but a hollow core and a recessed base with a low overall weight. The design results in an excellent ballistic coefficient with reduced weight and can provide impressive expansion. In real world shooting the FX Hybrid slug provides a flatter trajectory with less wind drift, more retained energy and excellent long-range accuracy. I have used this for smaller quarry such as prairie dogs and jackrabbits reaching out to 140 yards, but have also taken foxes at 75 yards, and even small hogs with the .30-caliber slug.

As mentioned at the start, finding the right gun is a very subjective exercise. But I believe the guns and the ammo discussed here represent what you should look for in a varmint-hunting rig and can help guide you to finding your perfect setup.

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