Since my early teenage years, I have always looked forward to the opening day of archery season like some folks anticipate Christmas or birthdays or summer vacation. The second week of October is what I lived for and nothing could keep me and my bow out of the woods on that most special of days.
Then, several years ago, for some reason I do not know even today, I decided to take my .22 rifle out on the opening morning of bow season in search for…squirrels. Crazy, right? But you know what? I had more fun that morning than I had experienced in many, many years. Ever since then, I make sure to carve out several days and evenings dedicated to the sole pursuit of Mr. Bushytail.
I can’t help it. It simply is that much fun. Of course, the fact that I absolutely love my wife’s squirrel pot pie may have something to do with it.
Ever since rekindling my love of squirrel hunting, I have pondered the idea of pursuing the critters with one of the newer generation .22-caliber air rifles. Turns out, I’m nowhere near the front of the curve on this form of hunting. Sure, I shot my share of BB and pellet guns as a kid, but the newest crop of hunting-grade air rifles was a foreign language to me. Now that I was hooked back on rimfire squirrel hunting, I had to see what this pellet rifle business was all about.
To be honest, my first steps were rather disappointing. I had visions of dropping squirrels left and right with an air rifle.
Didn’t turn out that way at first. In fact, it took a while before I figured out that air rifles are a lot like rimfire or centerfire rifles in that they can be finicky when it comes to ammunition.
Many hunters, despite years of shooting, never realize how dependent a firearm’s performance is on ammunition. Too many hunters grab a box of whatever-caliber ammo off the shelf and either praise it or curse it, depending on how closely the bullets group. They never once consider that it is the unique combination of the firearm and a particular load that is largely responsible for good or bad groups. A rifle may shoot sub-MOA with one ammunition and 3 MOA or worse with another. The loose-shooting ammo will be forever deemed “no good” in the eyes of that shooter, but the fact is that same ammo may produced tight knots in another gun of similar caliber that he or she owns.
Pellet ammunition, I eventually realized, is no different. Some air rifles like this type, some like that type. Had I understood that early on, I would not have had such a frustrating start of it.
Now that more and more hunters are picking up air rifles for recreational shooting and small-game hunting, we want to help shorten the learning curve. And what better way to drive home the point than to show you exactly how ammunition, as well as shooting technique, can mean the difference between enjoying a new way to hunt or getting so torqued off you’ll never want to touch an air rifle again?
A Tale of Four Pellets
To illustrate just how varied an air rifle’s performance can be per the ammunition used, I acquired four different hunting pellets from Gamo. Gamo is one of the leading air rifle ammunition manufacturers in the world, and since my current rifle (a Gamo Swarm Magnum .22) is made by the same company, I decided to stick with the brand just to keep things even.
The ammo tested included:
Gamo Rocket Pellets – a conventional-shaped lead pellet with a steel tip (essentially a BB) embedded in the front and a smooth skirt (14.3 grains). The steel tip is intended to boost penetration and induce greater impact shock.
Gamo Bone Collector Hunting Pellets – a conventional-shaped round-nose pellet with a grooved skirt (15.43 grains). The design is intended to deliver a high ballistic coefficient for improved terminal performance and accuracy at longer distances.
Gamo Red Fire – a conventional-shaped lead pellet with a pointed polymer tip embedded in the front and a smooth skirt (15.4 grains). The polymer tip is intended to balance penetration and expansion.
Gamo Raptor Power Pellet PBA (Performance Ballistic Alloy) – a conventional-shaped non-lead alloy pellet with a hybrid round/conical nose and smooth skirt (9.8 grain). The design and material construction are intended to increase velocity by 25% compared to lead and provide better penetration due to the harder material, nose design, and higher velocity. [This ammo reached supersonic speed in my test rifle.]
The objective of this test is to show how ammunition of the same caliber shot from the same air rifle on the same day can vary in group sizes. Since most shots at squirrels are taken from 20-30 yards, I chose 25 yards as a real-world distance for this test. To eliminate a potential variable in the test, I removed the factory scope and installed an over-the-top (for a squirrel rifle) Vortex I had on hand because its performance was a known quantity to me.
For the group evaluation, I chose to go with the standard 5-shot string for each ammunition type. Although I did zero the optic, punching the bullseye was not a concern. The point was to measure group sizes, which is the proof of accuracy (or lack thereof, as the case may be).
There is one variable that is difficult (if not impossible) to control when shooting air rifles, and that is the hold. Newcomers to the air rifle scene may not be aware of this, but how you hold an air rifle can have a large (sometimes massively large) impact on accuracy. The reasons are two-fold.
First, unlike a conventional rimfire or centerfire rifle, where the only moving component of the firearm is a small, lightweight firing pin and firing pin spring (assuming for this discussion you are shooting a bolt gun), air rifles have some comparatively heavy internal components, such as a spring and piston (depending on the model) that are on the move, creating shock and vibration that cannot be completely canceled out or easily controlled by the shooter.
This leads to the second issue, which is lock time, or the time between completion of the trigger pull and the moment air pressure starts to push the pellet down the bore. In rimfire and centerfire firearms, lock time is not a huge factor (although some will argue otherwise) because that duration is so short that the shooter scarcely has time to disrupt the shot. Not so with air rifles. The moving mass (spring and piston) of an air rifle is slower and of longer duration than that of a conventional bolt rifle firing pin, so there is time for shooter-induced shot disturbance. Next, the shock and vibration resulting from the spring/piston’s inertial change puts the air rifle in motion before the pellet leaves the bore, potentially moving the muzzle away from your intended point of impact.
As a result, the way in which you hold an air rifle can greatly influence shot placement. Many seasoned air gun shooters favor what is called an artillery hold. This is and exceptionally light hold on the rifle that allows it to move freely back toward the shooter upon recoil. It’s done by using a light grip with the forend across the palm of your open hand for support. When the shot is fired, this hold allows the rifle to slide backward and, theoretically, maintain optimal bore alignment to the target.
That may be well and good for shooting on a bench, but if you are intending to hunt with your air rifle, achieving an artillery hold in a hunting scenario is not always possible or practical.
Thus, for this test, we shot on the bench using the same style of hold we would in the field, only varying them slightly. We did this in order to give a more realistic idea of the accuracy we could expect in the field, and to show you how varying the hold of an air rifle can affect your accuracy.
For the first group of five-shot strings, we held the air rifle with the same hold we would when shooting a .22 rimfire rifle, stabilizing the forend against a fixed support with our non-firing hand and holding the grip with moderate pressure.
1) Gamo Bone Collector 15.43 grain: 1.364-inch group/25 yds.
2) Gamo Red Fire 15.4 grain: 1.377-inch group/25 yds.
3) Gamo Rocket 14.5 grain: 2.466-inch group/25 yds.
4) Gamo Raptor Power Pellet PBA 9.8 grain: 2.48-inch group/25 yds.
Clearly, our Swarm Magnum rifle favored the Bone Collector all-lead round-nose pellets, followed closely by the polymer-tipped Red Fire pellets. Had we picked the Rocket or the Raptor Power Pellets and never tried the other two, we may have concluded that a pellet gun is simply not accurate enough for hunting small game like squirrels. This is why it is essential that you invest the time to shoot a broad range of hunting pellets to determine their respective accuracy potential.
For the next round of five-shot strings, we wanted to see if a change in hold would make any differences in shot groupings. For this test, we simulated our best “artillery hold” as we would attempt it in a hunting condition. This meant fully supporting the forend on a rest and placing our non-firing hand lightly on the bottom of the stock for stability. The grip hold was also light and the butt pad only lightly touched our shoulder. This basically would be the same hold as if we were shooting prone off a day pack or leaning over a large rock.
Gamo Bone Collector 15.43 grain: 1.019-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Red Fire 15.4 grain: 1.538-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Raptor Power Pellet PBA 9.8 grain: 1.986-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Rocket 14.5 grain: 2.326-inch group/25 yds.
Our most accurate pellets, again, were the Bone Collector and the Red Fire. The Rocket and Raptor Power Pellets shot the loosest groups, but the Raptor seemed to favor the looser hold, as did the Bone Collector. Overall, three of the four pellets delivered tighter groups with the light hold. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the pellets as much as it is the rifle.
For the final round of five-shot strings, we applied a tight hold on the air rifle. This meant pulling the buttstock hard into our shoulder, holding tight on the grip, and firmly supporting the forend with our non-firing hand. This would more accurately simulate the kind of “adrenaline hold” we may have when trying to bust a squirrel that is working hard to disappear.
Gamo Bone Collector 15.43 grain: 1.380-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Red Fire 15.4 grain: 1.605-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Rocket 14.5 grain: 1.956-inch group/25 yds.
Gamo Raptor Power Pellet PBA 9.8 grain: 2.449-inch group/25 yds.
This test held a bit of a surprise. The Rocket pellets shot better with the tight hold (although not enough for us to use it for hunting). The supersonic Raptor Power Pellets showed a clear tightening, although one wayward pellet turned that group from a potential sub-one-incher into a two-and-a-half-incher. The Bone Collector and Red Fire pellets both loosened up ever so slightly.
From our initial testing, we know that the Gamo Bone Collector pellets are what our rifle prefers out of this group of test ammo. We also know that we’ll need to give the Raptor Power Pellets another go using a tight hold, as their supersonic speed (even though the pellets are significantly lighter than the others) may prove them to be a viable alternative for short-range impact energy.
While this is an admittedly small-sample test, it is enough to show you that, just like rimfire and centerfire rifles, air rifles favor certain ammo over others. The only way you can determine what your air gun likes best is to try various pellet designs and weights to see which ones get the job done, and then spend time determining how well those pellets shoot with a particular rifle hold. Eventually, you will discover the combination that will provide the clean-kill accuracy you want in a hunting rifle.