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Air rifles improve to legal hunting status

Dog trainer Dan Hoke holds a pellet cartridge for his Air Venturi air gun by Sam Yang. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Dog trainer Dan Hoke holds a pellet cartridge for his Air Venturi air gun by Sam Yang. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

If your idea of an air gun is the official Daisy Red Ryder Model 1938 lever-action BB gun that Ralphie’s mom said would put his eye out in “The Christmas Story,” you’re two generations behind.

Modern air rifles can kill African big game and will easily drop deer at 100 yards.

Late last year, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the Game and Wildlife Code to make air rifles legal for hunting, as regulated by the Game Commission. Air rifles are the state’s first new category of sporting arm since the crossbow.

The introduction of a new sporting arm is always a big deal with wide-ranging ramifications.

The legislation signed by Gov. Tom Wolf law gave the Game Commission regulatory authority over the use of rifles powered by compressed air, gas or chemicals for the purposes of hunting. The commission is moving slowly on which species can be hunted.

The law brings no new class of weaponry into the state. Air rifles had been legal to possess and shoot on firing ranges and some public and private properties.

The new Pennsylvania law leaves New Hampshire as the only state that does not permit some legal hunting with air rifles.

State Rep. Matt Gabler worked for years, introducing several bills that would bring air rifles into the category of legal sporting arms.

“A neighbor pulled me aside and asked why can’t we use these for hunting,” he said. “He showed me how powerful and accurate air- and gas-powered weapons can be. It made sense … years ago to not use pellets or BB guns for hunting – people want a clean hunt. But these are totally different.”

Historically, among the first uses for pneumatic technology was the development of guns. The earliest guns didn’t use powder, they propelled projectiles with compressed air. By the 1700s, air rifles were widely used for hunting. Austria and France perfected their military use, and in the new United States the Lewis and Clark expedition was outfitted with air rifles.

When high-powered gunpowder cartridges gained popularity in the late 1800s, BB and pellet guns were relegated to children’s toys and the design changed little for 100 years.

“This is a technology that is very old, but the modern portion of that is very new,” said Tom Gaylord, a leading air rifle authority from Texas who has written about airguns since 1994 and assisted in the development of some models.

“The first modern big-bore air gun came out in 1996 – a .375-caliber round-ball gun that used compressed (carbon dioxide),” he said. “They improved rapidly – the air compression, ammunition, ballistics, everything. Air gun bullets have half the velocity of firearm bullets, but I can shoot five in a three-quarter-inch circle at 100 yards, and I have friends who’ve killed big game with air rifles at 200 yards.”

Air rifles can be powered in two ways:

    In spring-piston action guns, a compression chamber contains a coiled spring that is tightened with a cocking lever, which is often a hinged barrel and forestock. When the trigger is released, the expansion of the spring pushes pressurized air that projects a pellet at muzzle velocities that can exceed the speed of sound.

    Pneumatic air guns propel the pellet using compressed CO2 stored in the forestock or butt section. The air is compressed manually using a hinged barrel or side-action lever, or precharged from an external compressed air source or inserted cylinder. Like a firearm reloader, the shooter can optimize the propulsion by setting pounds per square inch for long- or short-range shooting, or number of shots desired on one “fill” of air.

“Big bores that get two to five shots per fill would use a scuba tank or carbon fiber tank that rescue workers use,” Gaylord said.

BBs are so Ralphie. Modern air guns have rifled barrels and shoot pinched-waist, hollow-skirt diablo pellets stabilized in flight by high drag on the projectile’s tail. Launching from the muzzle at speeds exceeding 1,100 feet per second, it’s far slower than a traditional bullet but fast enough to cause a “crack” when it breaks the sound barrier.

Some lawmakers argue that air guns still don’t have the one-shot killing power of firearms and are being pushed by the gun industry to sell more guns.

“Air guns are not a substitute for firearms, but they are a substitute for bows,” Gaylor said. “When the pellet hits an animal, there’s no hydrostatic shock (as when a powder-driven bullet sends destructive pressure waves through the body). There’s no fragmentation sending shards everywhere. The pellet doesn’t mushroom. A .45-caliber pellet leaves a .45-caliber hole and the animal bleeds out. Archers understand that.”

Like archery equipment, the discharge of an air rifle is nearly silent. Its projectiles don’t fly as far as firearm bullets and the sporting arms are mostly single shot, further decreasing the risk of hunting-related shooting incidents.

The sporting challenge increases because the hunter has to get closer, Gaylord said.

Unlike black powder firearms, air rifles shoot just fine when they get wet, and the virtual absence of recoil is a great advantage to some shooters.

Small bore air rifles are generally made in .117-, .22- and .25-caliber; big-game guns are bored at .30- to .50-caliber. Retail prices run from $150 to more than $1,000. With no gun powder, ammunition is cheap and plentiful.


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