Suburban And Urban Deer Control With Air Rifles? Why Not?

July 10, 2013

So there’s a New York Times piece floating throughout the Blogosphere right now, about the tiny, New York town of Hastings-on-Hudson and their battle with the overwhelming deer population.  With multiple deer/vehicle collisions, destruction of the understory of parks and woodlands, an upsurge of lyme disease, and complaints from homeowners, the small-town mayor had to make a decision.  The choice… to partner with Tufts University and explore a new immunocontraception drug.

Picnic at the Manor!

This isn’t exactly the “suburbs”, but it’s a nice picture and I own the rights to it.

The problem of suburban deer isn’t a new one, particularly in the east.  Whitetail deer are particularly adaptable to the proximity of human habitation, especially when there is no threat from the human “neighbors”.  Without hunting or any other type of predation to control their numbers, the deer capitalize on prime browsing of backyard (and front) gardens and the availability of suburban parklands.  I recently reviewed Jim Sterba’s book, Nature Wars, which provides some intriguing insight into this issue.

Solutions to the issue vary widely, and are often driven by the demographic of the area in question. The most successful approach so far has been the use of professional sharpshooters to cull overgrown herds.  However, in more politically liberal areas, lethal options always seem to be a very last resort.  Hastings-on-Hudson fits this profile, hence the decision to try contraception instead of killing.  The approach is not particularly novel.  Several municipalities have tried it, although the only apparent success to date has been in island habitats where the populations are geographically isolated.  Nevertheless, the researchers at Tufts have continued to develop their solution and there’s hope that the new immunocontraceptive will be effective.

Besides the public relations perspective, though, lethal means of control in suburban areas definitely have their drawbacks.

First, and most problematic is the suggestion that the deer be trapped (netted) and despatched by means of a captive bolt gun.  While there’s a certain efficiency in this approach, the sheer (apparent) cold-bloodedness of some guy walking through a net of flailing deer and quietly bolting each animal will simply not fly with the general public… and the outcry by animal welfare organizations will make the whole thing quite unappealing to municipal officials whose careers rely on the good will of voters.

Managed shooting is also a challenging option in the suburban/urban areas.  While some municipalities have enlisted the assistance of sharpshooters (volunteer and professional), the use of firearms in a heavily populated environment is fraught with problems… from the noise of gunfire to the risk of stray bullets.   There’s simply too much fear of guns among the general populace… again, this is most pronounced in politically liberal areas… but even folks who tolerate guns and hunting often have issues when the shooting is taking place right outside their bedroom windows.

Archery is a good alternative to firearms.  Bows are quiet.  Arrows tend to travel a relatively short distance after release, especially when the shooting is done from an elevated position.   The problem with archery, though, is that it doesn’t usually result in an instant fatality.  Even well-hit deer can travel a significant distance before expiring.  This means there’s a risk that some suburbanite will wake in the morning with a deer bleeding out in his driveway, or the kids will run out to play and find “Bambi” stretched out under the swingset.  As you might imagine, a couple of these incidents can quickly turn public opinion against the archery solution.

But I think there’s another option that I think is missing here… air guns.

Benjamin Marauder and group

My .25cal Marauder and a representative group… 12 shots on a 1″ dot at 20 yards.

I’m not talking about the kid stuff here… Red Ryders and Crossman Powerlines.  But there are a variety of air rifles on the market that would prove more than capable of close-range deer culling.  They’re quiet.  They’re accurate.  They have limited range, as air gun projectiles tend to shed energy rapidly.  In all respects, they seem perfectly suited for this job.

One example, possibly on the lower end of the spectrum, is the Benjamin Marauder in .25 caliber.  At 25 yards or so, this rifle delivers a solid thump with a hunting pellet.  The shrouded, baffled barrel makes this rifle extremely quiet, and it’s capable of very precise accuracy.  A skilled sharpshooter could easily make headshots on deer-sized targets which would result in instant kills (and no deer thrashing out their last in some homeowner’s flower bed).

If the .25 is considered too small, there’s also the Benjamin Rogue, which comes in .357 caliber.  This rifle is definitely powerful enough at 20 to 40 yards to cleanly kill whitetail deer, and accurate enough to do so with headshots.  It is also designed to be relatively quiet, so it can be used in proximity to homes.

There are any number of other air guns out there that would do fine work on deer-sized game, ranging from .38 to .54 caliber. Some of them are pretty loud, but they are still safer in the suburban/urban environment than firearms.

So why aren’t air rifles being proposed as a valid option in suburban/urban deer control situations?  I’d love to hear any insight from folks who’ve been involved in these discussions.


7 Responses to “Suburban And Urban Deer Control With Air Rifles? Why Not?”

  1. The Suburban Bushwacker on July 10th, 2013 14:55

    You make a good point about the pellet losing energy very quickly, although while I’m not a believer in the ‘use enough gun’ church I do wonder if those little pellets are prudent. In the interests of thoroughness I nominate you to do some testing, and post the results.


  2. Phillip on July 10th, 2013 15:56

    Sten, I’d love to do some more thorough testing… but even here in good ol’ “shoot anything, we’ll make more” Texas, you can’t shoot whitetails with an air rifle. Axis? Yes. Hogs? Yes. But I’m not in a hurry to use the Marauder for big game. I believe it’s capable, but I just don’t feel like it’s my best option. On the other hand, if I had one of the Rogues, I’d definitely be up in a tree over an axis trail waiting for that golden opportunity.

    Here’s what I do know about the terminal performance of the .25.

    • On eurasian collared doves, it’s havoc. D’uh… even a .177 is adequate for doves.
    • On racoon-sized mammals, it’s solid medicine with a head shot, and makes short work with a “boiler room” hit. It goes through and through if you avoid the big bones.
    • On turkeys… gotta be steady and wait for the shot. At 30 yards, it bounces off the wing feathers with a resounding thump. Haven’t managed to line up a head or neck shot yet.
    • On a propane canister at 85 yards… just enough penetration to be interesting.
    • On 1/2″ plywood at 50 yards… almost through and through (with domed pellets. I believe the hunting pellets would have gone through.)

    As far as accuracy, the groups shown in the post above were my first session with this rifle, sitting on the sidewalk with only a bipod (no bench or bags). The group tends to string downward after about eight shots. At 40 yards, once I settled in with it, I was shooting similar groups except the drift got more pronounced after six or eight shots. There’s no doubt in my mind that, with a fresh charge in the tank this rifle would be more than capable of four or five clean head shots on deer.

    I’m just not sold on the power for consistent kills on big game, and since I’m not currently involved with any depredation, I’ve chosen to limit this gun to smaller stuff. Personal choice. I know that there are modifications available to bring the terminal energy up, and better pellets than the ones I’m using right now… and both of these factors would turn this Marauder into a completely viable, close-range (25 yards), depredation gun.

  3. Suburban Bushwacker on July 10th, 2013 16:13

    Amazed to hear that itll do that to propane cylinder!
    I’ve seen 17’s bounce off pigeons/collared doves, but I’ve also seen them go right through.
    The best thing about mod-ing air rifles is shot count and consistency, but iys quite difficult and needs special kit so its not cheap. Living in TX id just but another 17HMR.

    You must have some skulls lying around?


  4. Phillip on July 10th, 2013 17:01

    I’ve got a couple of friends who’ve offered to help me out with a mod for the Marauder, but I don’t really want to go there. I’m pretty happy with it as it is.

    As far as a .17… got it. .22lr… got it. And a bunch more.

    Now that you mention it, I do have some skulls laying out in the boneyard. I think I’ll drag the Marauder and camera out there in the near future and do some more experiments.

  5. hodgeman on July 10th, 2013 20:31

    This whole high powered pellet rifle discussion is pretty interesting.

    With “oomph” equal to or greater than a .22LR they should do the trick for close range control work. Alas, I’m not sure the use of an air rifle will make shooting nuisance deer any more palatable than using a rifle or even a bow.

    I did recently see video of a .458 air gun intended for big game hunting and it was as loud as any other higher powered rifle….I still want one!

  6. Phillip on July 11th, 2013 07:06

    Hodge, I think the promise of the air rifle for depredation plays into that whole “ignorance is bliss” thing. Folks are generally more likely to accept lethal methods if they can pretend they don’t know it’s happening. It also makes it easier to work with individuals who are surrounded by folks who aren’t so sanguine about depredation.

    I know that on one of the CA pig depredation projects I was involved with, I couldn’t shoot at night because the neighbors would complain (hell, one of them complained during the day too). I couldn’t use archery because there was no way of being sure the hog would die before it reached the property line. It was a situation perfectly suited for a high-powered air rifle (except in CA, hogs are “game animals”, and air guns are verboten methods of take).

    All of that aside, I’ve been thinking hard about one of those real big bore air guns too. If I had more exotics on my place, or if TX would legalize air guns for whitetail hunting, I’d probably buy one.

  7. Phillip on July 12th, 2013 09:53

    Larry, a good one-stop shop for this sort of thing is Pyramyd Air. Tons of great info, and sources for guns right on up to the .50 cal Dragon Claw.

    Also, take a look at the Quackenbush site. I guess he’s pretty well booked right now, but he builds one of the best big-bore airguns on the current market… at least in the US.