The Big-Bore Air Rifle Revolution

Terry Tate holding his Pro 20, an air-powered 20-gauge shotgun.

The first deer I spotted looked like gray ghosts in the pre-dawn gloom. They were weaving along a treeline a couple hundred yards away, here on a Texas ranch northwest of San Antonio. But the light was coming up fast, and soon I could see details through my binocular. As we had hoped, they were Axis deer. Their hides were light brown with white spots running laterally along their sides. They made their way out of the trees and into the pasture in front of me, and I counted a half dozen does and a couple of bucks with small racks.

A minute later, I saw a buck farther back in the trees. Actually, I spotted his antlers first. I thought they were light-colored tree branches until they started to move. Then he stepped out from the trees, his body easily twice the size of any of the does that were moving slowly over the pasture.

I slid my rifle off my lap. With another rifle, I’d probably be lining up what looked like a 200-yard shot. But this rifle wasn’t a firearm. It was a large-bore air rifle, the Pro 308 made by Terry Tate of east Texas. While Tate had assured me it would drop deer-sized game, he also told me it was a 100-yard gun, though 75 yards and less was preferred.

“He’ll follow those does,” said Tate, who was sitting next to me in the blind. “Now, all they have to do it slide this way.”

A minute later, they did just that. By the time the line of Axis does stopped as a group, they were maybe 60 yards away from me. The buck was moving towards them.

“You ready?” Tate whispered to me.

I was a bit nervous—this was my first big-game hunt with a big-bore air rifle. Tate and other people I know had taken animals with air rifles in calibers from .30 to .45, so I was sure it could be done. But I had yet to do it myself.

The Axis buck was mingled with the does, feeding. I put the scope on him and waited for a clear shot. When the buck turned broadside to me and was clear of the does I squeezed the trigger. The buck leapt into the air, clearly hit, and started to run, but it slowed and dropped about 70 yards away.

Terry Tate charging an air rifle with a portable air tank.

On the scale, he weighed in at 240 pounds—a lot of good venison. The .308 caliber bullet had punctured his ribcage on the right side, put a good-sized hole through both lungs and ended up in the buck’s hide beneath the far shoulder, making for a quick and clean kill.

I was convinced. Under the right hunting conditions, big-bore air rifles are the real deal.

The Modern Air Gun

Mention air guns and many people think of the Daisy Red Ryder lever-action of their youth or a similar plinker—a spring-powered gun that flings out a BB at several hundred feet per second. They are guns and need to be treated with same regard for safety as with any other gun, but they are nowhere close to power or range of a firearm.

But in the last decade or so, air-gun makers started unveiling air rifles in .25 caliber and above, many of them packing a significant punch thanks to the pre-charged air tanks they use.

Today, a growing list of these pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air rifles are not only available, but are making steady inroads among big and smaller game hunters who want to take a slightly different approach to the sport. Manufacturers like AirForce,

Benjamin, and Hatsan USA offer larger-bore air rifles that are quite capable of killing coyote-sized game out to 100 yards.

The author practicing with the Pro 308 Air Rifle.

Hatsan USA’s newest, for example, is the Big Bore Carnivore, made in .30- and .35-caliber versions. When fully charged, the Carnivore can launch a .30-caliber pellet at 860 feet per second (fps) and a .35 caliber at 760 fps. That’s more than adequate to take down a coyote and smaller game. Benjamin’s Bulldog is a .357-caliber PCP, a 10-shot powerhouse that can harvest everything from predators to whitetail deer.

Even bigger is AirForce’s new Texan, a .45-caliber PCP dynamo that can drop deer and wild hogs. The Texan can shoot a .45 caliber bullet up to 1,000 fps and deliver 500 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle. Field tests have shown the Texan to be quite capable of taking aoudad, a very tough member of the sheep family imported from North Africa that currently makes the arid, rugged lands of south and southwest Texas home.

Note that these air rifles do not have the power of a similarly bored firearm. The Pro 308 I used, for example, propelled a 150-grain lead cast bullet at about 800 fps and packed about 250 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. Compare that to a standard .308 Win. cartridge, which drives a 150-grain bullet in the vicinity of 2,700 fps with about 2,600 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

“Big-bore air rifles, power-wise, are somewhere between a bow and arrow and a muzzleloader,” says Tate, who has been using and hunting with big bores for over 20 years now. “It’s more of a challenge for the hunter who is used to magnum firearms. You have to get closer, be a better stalker, and be more woods-wise.”

The Costs of Using Air

While your “ammunition” is certainly less expensive—it’s simply a bullet or round ball (versus a centerfire cartridge that can cost $1 to $2 each), getting that bullet or ball out of the barrel also requires that you purchase an air compressor and a portable carbon fiber air tank so you can recharge your rifle afield. Compressors start at around $500 and can run into the many thousands. A smaller carbon-fiber air tank with valve and hose will cost at least $300.

And the big-bore air rifles themselves can cost as much, and often more, than a good centerfire bolt-action rifle. But if you do a lot of shooting, an air rifle can eventually pay for itself.

The Carnivore big bore rifle by Hatsan USA.

Know the Law

Such powerful big-bore air rifles are so new that many states don't have hunting regulations on the books to cover them. Currently only a handful of states specifically allow you to hunt legally defined "game" animals with air rifles. Air-rifle manufacturer Crosman has compiled some existing air rifle hunting regulations.

However, these same states usually have no regulations concerning exotic species, and in some cases, varmints such as coyotes. In Texas, for example, it’s legal to hunt exotics with air rifles—including Axis deer, aoudad, and feral hogs—and coyotes, but not whitetail deer. Whitetails are legally defined as a game species and, so far, Texas has no regulations to address air-rifle hunting for them.

On the plus side, big-bore air rifles are generally not regulated by the federal government. So you don’t need to fill out forms and pay fees. Air rifles can be purchased online and shipped right to your front door.

The author with an Axis deer he took with the Pro 308 Air rifle.

Tate is selling his big-bore air rifles and shotguns online through Airhog Pneumatics. Right now, he admits, the market is relatively tiny compared to that of firearms. But he's already seen a big spike in the use of big-bore air rifles afield.

“These rifles and shotguns are a lot of fun,” says Tate. “I think they’ll appeal to many people, including some who are a little leery of firearms.”