Rabbit hunting is a tradition for many people around the world. Hunting them in early July, with airguns, is a tradition I have come to enjoy immensely. Opening day here in California is July 1. That means hunting during warm, sunny mornings when the desert is starting to come alive with wildlife.
It is a relaxing hunt that typically ends before it gets too hot, so being home in time for a late lunch and some family time is never a problem.
I started hunting with airguns when I was a kid. Our parents would drop us off at the base of the hills in the San Fernando Valley (a suburb of Los Angeles). We would head off into the hills with a backpack, sleeping bag, camping stove, LOTS of water and a pack full of Top Ramen and extra pellets. We had pump guns back then and not very fancy ones. I packed a Daisy 880, but most of my buddies had Benjamin Sheridan rifles in 20 caliber. I was jealous of their extra fire-power, but it didn’t affect my kill rate on varmints, game birds and our most favorite target, cottontail rabbits! It was nice to have a quail breast on the fire when the day was done, but a rabbit really filled you up and everyone could share in the bounty! We would find Cottontail everywhere in those hills. They eventually built houses in the area and we would ride around in an old Willy’s Jeep shooting them off golf courses and people’s front lawns. It was some of the best fun I had as a teenager and the folks in the area appreciated us saving their lawns!
Although I had plenty of great memories, the real fun started as I got older. The competition aspect of hunting next to 3 other guys turned into a relaxing hunt where numbers were no longer the goal. Instead, the competition gave way to being out first thing in the morning and enjoying the hunt. Cottontail Rabbit hunting became an experience. I know what you are thinking, it sounds like I am becoming one of those hunters who are teetering between hunting rabbits or hugging them! I’m no where near that place, but let me explain my reasoning before I go on any further. Most of my hunting is done on ranches and farms where I am a depredation hunter. I look at it as a job, where the land-owner is giving me permission to hunt because I promise to kill any varmints he or she deems destructive. I take that “job” seriously and do my best to save their crops from hordes of critters! So most of my hunting is about removing as many animals as possible, whenever possible. Most times this takes away the enjoyable experience of hunting that everyone should have.
Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. Rabbit hunting with airguns has been an evolution of sorts. As I got older, into my late teens and early twenties, we would hunt rabbits almost exclusively with shotguns. A strong load of #5’s and a full choke would always suffice. My first cottontail was taken using a borrowed Mossberg pump action shotgun, with an extra-full choke. There are not many hunts I remember when I was that age, but I do recall that first cottontail with an extra ordinary amount of clarity. I recall coming up a small rise out in the high desert of California, near Palmdale. As I stepped off the top of the hill, I saw a cottontail hop towards a hole underneath a small Pinon Tree. It stopped just outside its hole, which allowed me to put the bead of my shotgun on it’s head. When I pulled the trigger, the recoil and dust prevented me from seeing if I got it or not. Once the dust settled and I composed myself, I saw the rabbit kicking around on the ground with part of it’s head missing! I picked it up and took a long look, then pulled the tail (which I still have) before I put it into my game vest. I was really excited! When I got back to the vehicle, my buddy, Dave, was there with his Beagle, “Trapper”. Since he was in photography class in high school, he took the picture of me holding my rabbit. Trapper, being the rabbit lover that most Beagles are, tried to jump and take the rabbit out of my hand, but was disappointed when he failed! This image is a scan of the original, which is now old and faded from time. You can barely make out the rabbit, but it’s there, along with the Mossberg and my shell laden game vest.
As I reached my late twenties and early thirties, rimfires became the weapon of choice. It took until I was in my forties to start moving back to airguns. I picked up a Beeman R9 in .20 caliber and used it to clean up on rabbits and quail up in the high desert. It put the fun and challenge back into hunting rabbits. Next on my list was the Benjamin Discovery in .22 caliber and then the Daystate Huntsman XL. I currently trade off between the latter two.
Still-hunting rabbits with an airgun is a deliberate hunt. You must take your time, checking the edges of wood piles or brushy areas. I like to use a pair of small binoculars to glass the area before I move through it. Cottontail can be difficult to spot when they freeze up. I also try to carry a shooting stick. Shooting rabbits with airguns requires you to place your shots properly, so having a rest is imperative. I always try for head shots, right behind the eye. In most cases, the rabbit will be dead on impact, feeling zero pain. In the video below, one of the rabbits was shot through the chest at about 35 yards. The shooter did not have a clear path to its head, but the placement in the heart area caused the rabbit to drop dead within feet of where it was shot. Remember, when you shoot an airgun, you do not have the hydrostatic shock that the powder burners have, so do not take marginal shots with an airgun!
If you have access to a healthy population of Cottontail Rabbits, I recommend you try putting the shotgun or rimfire away and trying to hunt them with an airgun. It can turn out to be a frustrating, exciting, calming and satisfying hunt!
For more information on the Cottontail Rabbit, visit our Cottontail Varmint Information Page.
I filmed this video recently on one of those “tradition” hunts. I was accompanied by my buddy’s Tom and Jim. They both shoot Benjamin Marauders in .22 caliber. Although we did not see a lot of rabbits, it was still a great morning and hunt!
By: Eric Mayer