Jim Chapman reveals his favourite hunting calibre for small game, and why he uses it most
I’ve found myself gravitating towards the .25 calibre as the gold standard for small game hunting in recent years, but as I’ve shot the .30 calibre more, it left me wondering if this might not be an even better choice for my shooting needs. This season I’ve used the .30 extensively to hunt small game, pest, and predators, and have taken a more critical look at the calibre and its performance in the field.
In a previous article, I’d suggested that the requirements for a hunting rifle in North America are different to those of most British hunters in a few ways; many of our small game/ pest species are larger, and some of the conditions in which we hunt require longer shots. Another point to consider is that we might need a hunting rig capable of taking a predator such as a coyote or bobcat when the opportunity presents.
For all these reasons I’d found the .25 superior to the .22 for small game hunting. It is true that you can take just about any small game quarry with a sub-12 fpe .22 rifle at the appropriate range with the right shot placement. However, a higher powered .25 will let you reach out further and hit the quarry much harder, and I thought the same advantages might apply when moving from the .25 to .30 calibre, I just didn’t have the experience to back up the assumption.
When taking game intended for the table, I generally opt for head shots because there is less damage to the meat, but for pest control I will take a chest shot, and believe that the bigger and heavier the pellet, the more reliable it is for anchoring the quarry. The larger pellet travelling at higher velocities hits harder, and when I’ve skinned out raccoons have noted that the pellets penetrate further, do more damage, and open a larger wound channel.
Whilst searching for the best calibre option for small game hunting on this side of the Pond, I used my FX Crown to help me answer a few questions on calibre-related performance. This rifle has a beautiful Desert Brush camo dip and came with three barrels: .25, .30, and an arrow barrel, with the corresponding pellet probes for the .25 and .30 barrels. The gun uses a carbon- fibre air bottle that fills to 250 BAR and incorporates an externally adjusted regulator, typically set around 160 BAR. Comparing the .25 and .30 calibre whilst hunting is an indirect measure, but I felt that using the same shooting platform, with a calibre optimised set- up, and the same style of pellet (JSB Exacts) would give some consistency to these observations.
When shooting the .25 calibre with JSB 25 grain Jumbo Exact pellets and the power dialled up, the rifle is achieving velocities of 875 fps, which translates to a power output of approximately 44 fpe. When zeroed at 50 yards, the pellet will drop the point of impact ( POI) about 3½” inches low at 70 yards. Conversely, when the .30 calibre barrels and pellet probe are installed on the rifle and using the JSB 44.75 grain pellet, the rifle is achieving velocities of approximately 865 fps which translates to a power output of 75 fpe. When zeroed at 50 yards, the pellet will drop the POI 3½” at 70 yards.
By setting this gun up for the .30 calibre pellet, I maintain close to the same velocity being achieved with the .25 calibre pellet, whilst coming close to doubling the output power and creating a larger wound channel. Terminal performance is enhanced; the hunter can cleanly kill larger game at greater distances, with a wider choice in shot placement than provided by the .25. I know that some might argue a .30 calibre is overkill, but consider that many of us started our small game hunting with .22 rimfire rifles generating about 125 fpe of energy. In fact, until regulations began allowing airguns to be used for hunting, the .22 rimfire was the minimum legal method of take in many jurisdictions.
During this evaluation, I’ve used the FX Crown in both the .25 and .30 calibre configuration on several hunts. Additionally, I’ve used my other .30 calibre rifles over the past seasons, including the FX Impact, with both .25 and .30 calibre barrels; FX Wildcat, Hatsan BullBoss, Evanix Rainstorm, Hunting Master, and Ataman M2. For context, I used the .30 calibre on several separate prairie dog shoots lasting about four days each, and took approximately 60 prairie dogs per day. My field notebook recounts well over a hundred jackrabbits, dozens of squirrels, and many other game and pest species that were taken with a .30. So, whilst anecdotal, my views are based on a large number of observations.
I believe that the .30 hits game much harder and drops it much more reliably than the .25. Quarry hit with a long shot out to 75 yards, was unlikely to take more than a couple steps before dropping. When shooting prairie dogs in the wide- open grasslands of the Midwest, where windy conditions are the norm, I had the clear impression that the .30 was less susceptible to being blown off
course than the .25, even with the former’s greater surface area.
When using the .30 calibre in the woods on squirrel hunts, I found that most shots were inside of 50 yards. The trajectory was almost the same for the .30 as obtained with a .25 or .22, once the shooting platform had been optimised. Regardless of whether a .22, .25, or .30 calibre was used on a head shot, a squirrel would drop cleanly, but body shots with the .30 calibre were unquestionably more decisive than with smaller calibres.
The .30 calibre guns can be very accurate, are powerful enough to take even larger predators reliably at closer ranges; they can reach out further for long- range pest control applications, and are less affected by wind on these longer shots, yet still have a more limited carrying capacity than a .22 rimfire. When the gun is properly set up, which implies that there is no constraint on velocity and power generated, there is very little difference in the trajectory arc out to 75 yards.
The price paid for these advantages is increased air consumption because a .30 calibre gun will require more air to operate than a .25 and substantially more than a .22; .30 calibre pellets are more expensive, and availability more limited. However, for my intended use, the air consumption and pellet costs are far outweighed by the performance and versatility of the .30, and as most airgunners over here purchase pellets in bulk and online, the availability is likewise a non-issue.
To those that would argue that a .30 calibre rifle generating 70 plus fpe is more than you need for most small game and pest species, I would say of course it is. If you are restricted to a sub 12 fpe rifle, then obviously a .30 calibre is not even a reasonable talking point. Likewise, if you are focusing on smaller pest species, or shooting in areas where long-range shots are not required, the .30 (or even the .25) probably doesn’t make sense.
Having been frequently asked to suggest the best small game calibre, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I believe the .30 is the best all- around calibre in North America, providing a one- gun solution for a broader range of quarry. A legal limit .22 is often all one needs, yet there is no disadvantage to having more power on tap, and having that power when it is required, can be very advantageous. I guided several hunts this year, and for the first time saw more rifles in .30 than any other calibre! This seems to be a trend that is gaining traction with many American hunters.
ABOVE: The FX Crown has both a .25 and .30 barrel, great for comparing performance
LEFT: The JSB 44.75 grain Exacts seem to work well in almost all my .30s
ABOVE: TSix pellet, 50-yard group shot on a windy afternoon
BOTTOM: I used my .30 Rainstorm to call in fox after a day of rabbit hunting. It was very effective
ABOVE: Evanix and Ataman rifles were some of my first .30s a few years back