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. Next week the agency’s board of commissioners will determine a regulatory structure for the first new category of sporting arm since the crossbow.
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.
The introduction of a new sporting arm is always a big deal with wide-ranging ramifications. But in November, when Gov. Tom Wolf signed the legislation into law, most of the buzz focused on its other “big deal” provision, the legalization of semi-automatic rifles for hunting. The same 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 law brings no new class of weaponry into the state. Air rifles are currently legal to possess and shoot on firing ranges and some public and private properties, and while it’s technically illegal to use them for plinking at rats, chipmunks and songbirds, prosecution is extremely rare. All states permit some legal hunting with air rifles except Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
“Now is the perfect time for air- and gas-powered weapons,” said Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield-Elk), following the passage in October of the legislation he sponsored. “It’s been a great project to work on.”
Gabler has worked on it 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 in Title 34 (the state Game and Wildlife Code) years ago to not use pellets or BB guns for hunting — people want a clean hunt. But these are totally different.”
In recent years the General Assembly’s main objection, he said, has been giving up control.
“From our position in the legislative process it made sense to amend that language,” Gabler said. “We should be putting modern weapons in the hands of modern sportsmen — get over (the legislature’s) historic aversion to putting modern firearms in the hands of the Game Commission.”
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 pre-charged 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.
In Pennsylvania, opponents of air rifle hunting say they’re uncomfortable with the impending changes to the Hunting and Trapping Digest.
“There’s an ethical problem,” said Stephen Bonner, a lifelong hunter. “If it won’t drop the animal right away it shouldn’t be used. This is just something being pushed by the gun industry to sell more guns.”
Gaylord suggested the sporting arms have not prompted prolonged ethical debate among hunters in 48 states.
“Air guns are not a substitute for firearms, but they are a substitute for bows,” he 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, Gaylord said, because the hunter has to get closer.
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.
The Game Commission may quickly authorize all hunting uses of semiautomatic rifles, but the board appears more likely to go slow with air guns. Commissioners have signaled their interest in sanctioning only small game hunting and the corresponding calibers when it meets March 27-28.
New seasons on rats and chipmunks? Hmmm.
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