SQUIRRELS, DOGS, AND AIR RIFLES
Squirrels and air rifles go together like potatoes and gravy. And, appropriately enough, potatoes and gravy go very well with a plate of fried squirrel. It’s a beautiful (and very tasty) relationship!
Today’s air rifles are a far cry from the famous Daisy Red Ryder, the gun most of us used to take our very first shots. High-powered air rifles like those made by Gamo Adult Precision Air Rifles and other companies pack plenty of punch to take squirrels out past 35 yards. It was only a matter of time before an air gun/squirrel hunting event was created.
The Squirrel Master Classic has brought hunting celebrities and 4-H Shooting Sports S.A.F.E. shooters together for five years now. The event, held annually at Southern Sportsman Lodge just outside Montgomery, Ala., is hosted by Buckmasters and sponsored by Gamo, which provides the guns and ammo for all of the participants.
This year the gun was the Swarm Maxxim, the world’s first 10-shot break-barrel air rifle. Other break-barrel rifles are single shots, requiring the hunter to fumble for a pellet to reload while the squirrel scampers away through the tree tops. With the Swarm, all the shooter needs to do is break the barrel again to get another pellet ready—it’s automatically loaded into the barrel. The gun’s 10-shot magazine makes quick follow-up shots easy.
The rifle is available in .177 and .22 calibers, and for this event everyone shot the .22 caliber version. It pushes a pellet out of the barrel at 900 feet per second and is a real limb chicken terminator. This year’s ammo was the Gamo Red Fire pellet, which features a diamond-shaped polymer tip that provides true ballistic trajectory and big, controlled expansion on impact. It’s a deadly pellet.
The Squirrel Master Classic works like this: a group of hunting writers, vloggers, and TV show celebrities are split into teams with one 4-H youth, and hunt a morning hunt and an evening hunt, and the winner is determined by total squirrels killed on both hunts. Hunting is with squirrel dogs, so each team is paired with a dog and its handler. The dog trees the squirrel; the team scrambles to catch up to the dog and kill the squirrel.
Hunting media members included writers from outlets like The Airgun Wire, bloggers and vloggers from AirgunWeb TV and others, and high-profile celebrities like Michael Waddell (Bone Collector), and Ralph and Vicki from Archer’s Choice. And Jackie Bushman with Buckmasters, of course, who did most of the legwork and served as host and emcee as well as captaining a team.
The kids, all of whom are graduates of the 4-H Shooting Sports S.A.F.E program and excel in school and community activities, are invited to attend the event, hunt with a team, and compete in a range shooting contest.
As the outdoor writers and celebrities arrived throughout the day on Tuesday, Feb. 20, each was assigned his or her Swarm Maxxim, ammo, shooting classes, and swag. Then, it was off to the range to get sighted in. Afterward it was front-porch sitting, telling hunting stories, and catching up until time for the opening ceremonies. After introductions and a review of the rules, the teams were announced and a captain approached the podium and pulled the name of the 4-H youth who would be on that team. That 4-H shooter then pulled a card that indicated that team’s dog, dog handler, and their assigned hunting land.
Bright and early Wednesday morning the teams assembled and headed to their hunting grounds by the time the sun peeked over the horizon. February weather in Alabama can be a roll of the dice. Past events has seen freezing temps and cold rain, but this day was unseasonably bright and warm. The dog handler let the dog out of its box as the dust settled around the trucks. One dog was named Molly, and she scurried around limbering up and was ready to go. Within 10 minutes she’d treed the first squirrel of the day.
Two squirrel subspecies were available to us, the grey and the fox. The greys are smaller and fast. The foxes are the size of a small cat, and uniquely-colored in this part of Alabama. Chasing a dog through the woods may not sound like one of the most exciting moments in hunting, but each of the hunters wore big smiles while Molly’s barking rang out through the timber. The team struggled up and down ravines and crossed crisp, clear creeks to get to her. She’d treed a fat fox squirrel.
One quiet crack from the Gamo and the squirrel tumbled out of a tall pine. Molly pounced as soon as the critter hit the forest floor, grabbing it behind the neck and shaking it hard. She then retrieved it to her handler’s hand and was off in pursuit of the next one.
Most squirrel dogs are feists or a feist mix (all are feisty!), but many different breeds can be taught to tree squirrels. Molly is a feist mix, a little larger than the average squirrel dog, and black with a couple white spots. A good squirrel dog will range out 100-200 yards ahead of the hunters and use its eyes and nose to find squirrels, put them up a tree (or determine the tree the squirrel escaped to), then bay at the bottom of the tree.
As the hunters arrive at the tree, the squirrel often moves to the opposite side to elude detection. Multiple hunters should position themselves around the tree to prevent the squirrel from giving them the slip. Often, the panicked squirrel sprints through the treetops in a life-and-death chase, and hunters must pursue on the ground and try to take the squirrel before it finds the safety of a hole in the tree. This is when the Gamo’s 10-Shot Quick Shot technology really shines. Hunters can break the barrel and reload without taking their eyes off the target. The 10-shot magazine snaps into the slot on top of the barrel, and since they’re sold separately, hunters can purchase several extra and have them preloaded in their pockets. Then, after shooting 10 times, it’s as easy as snapping the empty magazine out and inserting another to get back to shooting.
In 2018, it was the Buckmasters team that took home the squirrel trophy. This team killed an unbelievable 42 squirrels over the two hunts. All told, more than 170 squirrels were killed by the crowd of hunters (43 good folks) and all were cleaned and consumed.
The 4-H shooters did more than just hunt. A special contest was held after lunch in which each was given a full magazine and shot at a target range created by Gamo representatives. Targets like the Daisy Shatter Blast (biodegradable clays), balloons, and exploding targets were set at varying distances, and the winner claimed an extra six squirrels to be added to his or her team’s total. For the second year in a row, a female shooter claimed top spot.
The Squirrel Master Classic opened some eyes to the effectiveness of adult airguns on small game. Accurate and powerful, there’s no reason to discount air rifles when it comes to harvesting squirrels. Plus, when you’re with a team of friends, chasing a hyper, barking squirrel dog through the woods, it’s just a stinking good time!
Swarm Maxxim Gets Big Brother
Gamo’s 10X Quick Shot technology was a huge breakthrough for break-barrel rifles, and for 2018 Gamo extended the line to include the new Swarm Magnum, a .22 caliber break-barrel that pushes the big pellet at 1,300 feet per second. The Swarm Magnum has all of the features available in the Swarm Maxxim, including Whisper Fusion noise reduction, a Custom Action Trigger, Recoil Reducing Rail, and a five-year warranty. It comes with a Gamo 3-9X40 scope.