Deer hunters will be able to pursue their game with one more option this season, thanks to a recent regulation change by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. During the annual hunting regulations review process, commissioners voted to legalize large-caliber air rifles that meet certain standards for deer hunting during modern gun season.
The change comes at the request of airgun enthusiasts and after being thoroughly reviewed by AGFC biologists with the help of subject-matter experts. Ralph Meeker and Jeremy Brown, the AGFC's Deer Program Coordinators, spent months researching airgun designs and ballistic data and personally met with several big bore airgun and ammunition manufacturers and airgun enthusiasts. Their research also involved contacting many other state agencies that allowed airguns for hunting to determine any issues they may have had in legalizing the weapons for deer season.
“Our primary concern was to establish a minimum set of standards that would be sufficient enough to provide an ethical harvest shot and recovery on white-tailed deer,” Meeker said. “Working with all those different groups and analyzing the data, we feel like we’ve been able to establish that.”
To be legal for deer hunting in Arkansas, an air rifle must be at least .40-caliber, produce at least 400 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle and be charged from an external tank.
“This isn’t a CO2-powered pellet rifle, but one that is charged with a scuba-style tank holding 3,500 to 5,500 psi,” Meeker said. “The bullet also must be a single, expandable slug, not just a pellet.”
The weapons that meet these standards are a far cry from the Daisy Red Ryder or pump-up pellet guns people may envision when the term airgun is used. Air rifles capable of killing game as large as Bison have been around since the days of westward expansion. In fact, Lewis and Clark carried an air rifle on their famous expeditions west. Although used primarily as a show of strength to prevent possible attacks from some American Indian tribes, the Girandoni air rifle was capable of firing up to 30 shots before requiring a recharge from a hand pump. This same design was in service with the Austrian army from 1780 until 1815.
The requirements to make and maintain large-caliber airguns, however, made them lag behind powder-burning firearms. Gunpowder-charged guns cost less to mass produce, could be mistreated in the field and averaged more velocity and power during practical use than their air-charged counterparts. High-powered airguns largely survived as a niche market, primarily in countries where traditional firearms are highly regulated.
“Airgun enthusiasts are a relatively small contingency in Arkansas,” Meeker said. “But it does appear to be growing. Airguns also offer some added opportunities in some of our deer zones.”
Meeker says a few deer zones along Crowley’s Ridge historically have not allowed modern high-powered rifles during deer season, only shotguns with slugs, muzzleloaders and handguns shooting straight-walled cartridges. Air rifles meeting the minimum hunting qualifications will be allowed in these zones as well.
“They may not be used for bear or elk, and they may only be used during modern gun season, but after our research we feel confident that they can be a good, ethical choice for harvesting white-tailed deer in Arkansas,” Meeker said.