GAYLORD, Mich. – The range at Northland Sportsmen's Club near Gaylord was "hot."
Chris Turek of Traverse City looked through the telescopic sight on top of a .30 caliber rifle, settled the crosshairs on the paper target 50 yards downrange, flicked off the safety and pulled the trigger.
That was no misfire. It was the sound of compressed air from a cylinder on the rifle propelling a slug with enough energy for hunting white-tailed deer and many other big game animals.
No smoke, no bang, no recoil.
"A lot to like, that's for sure," said Turek, a representative of the manufacturer of the rifle, FX Airguns of Sweden, and an advocate for the category overall.
The class of air rifles is known as pre-charged pneumatic, or PCP.
Turek and Brad Bonar of Albion, Indiana, also an FX rep, were demonstrating the products at a breakout shooting range session during the September 2021 annual conference of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.
My experience with air rifles was limited to a Sheridan Blue Streak .20 caliber pump that my parents had purchased for the family during my youth.
I used it to good effect collecting gray squirrels for stew and stroganoff and had fun plinking with it in the basement and backyard.
But air rifles are not legal for deer hunting in Wisconsin; I had never seen a "big bore" airgun in person until that day near Gaylord.
One of the first things I learned was air rifles were used in Europe hundreds of years ago.
Models built around 1580 are on display in Stockholm, Sweden, according to firearms historian Frederick J. Chiaventone.
Around 1780 a Tyrolean gunsmith named Bartolomeo Girandoni developed a rugged air rifle that was soon adopted by the Austrian military.
The .46 caliber rifle had a muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second and could put a lead ball through a one-inch thick pine board at 100 yards. They called it a windbuchse, or "wind rifle."
The Girondoni is best known in the U.S. because explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried the air rifles on their Corps of Discovery from 1804-06.
The airguns were used to hunt deer and other game along the route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back.
So there's nothing new about using compressed air to propel a projectile – as opposed to igniting powder in a cartridge – to hunt big game.
What is different is the modern trend of states legalizing airguns for such uses.
Hunters in 23 states can legally use PCP guns to pursue big game, according to the Airgun Sporting Association, a non-profit trade group based in Helena, Montana.
Effective July 1, Alaska will become the 24th. Its rules will require .35 caliber and larger and can be used to hunt caribou and deer.
Turek is a Michigan native who grew up hunting.
"I'm a typical Michigan kid," said Turek, 46. "My dad handed me a 12-gauge and I learned to flinch."
That developed a lot of bad habits which Turek was able to correct when he joined the U.S. Army in 1995 and shot an M4 rifle which had very little recoil.
After he got out of the service in 2004 he looked for new challenges and was introduced to airguns.
"It was eye-opening," Turek said. "Great, accurate and easy to use products I had basically no knowledge of."
At the Gaylord range outing, he took a .35 caliber rifle out of the box, attached a scope, charged it with a cylinder of compressed air, and sighted it in at 50 yards.
It took him just three shots to get it in the 3-inch ring on the target.
Then it was my and other attendees turn to punch paper. The .35 caliber had no more recoil than the old Sheridan I shot 35 years ago.
The differences were many, though. I didn't have to pump this gun. And it was far more powerful and accurate.
The sophisticated valving on the airgun keeps the pressure consistent from shot to shot, allowing exceptional accuracy.
Turek said the charge was good for 45 full-power shots.
It was the first shooting range experience I've had where ear protection was worn but not needed.
"I can't believe we're standing here having a conversation 10 yards behind the line while people are popping targets with big game rifles," said fellow AGLOW member Bryan Hendricks, outdoor editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The advantages of a low recoil, almost silent rifle that is also accurate and powerful enough for big game can be parlayed into hunter recruitment efforts, too.
It's a great option, for example, for prospective hunters with smaller physical builds, especially youth and females.
But they are by no means restricted to that niche.
Turek said he's been using airguns to hunt deer in Michigan since 2017. He takes shots of 150 yards or less, well within the normal limits of deer hunters in the Upper Midwest.
Air rifles are also legal to hunt big game in Indiana and Missouri.
A move to legalize them in Wisconsin could materialize in the coming years.
However, opposition has come from archery hunters who have fought measures which would allow PCP devices to propel arrows, commonly called airbows, for deer hunting.
Support was mixed (6680 in favor, 6686 opposed and 7950 with no opinion) in a Wisconsin Conservation Congress advisory question posed at the April 2022 spring hearings.
It asked: Do you favor the Wisconsin Conservation Congress working with the DNR and the Legislature to allow the use of pneumatic technologies to be aligned with current firearm hunting regulations and seasons?
More Wisconsinites would have likely supported it if the hypothetical framework hadn't included "arrow-based projectiles."
But if the national trend is any indication, airgun advocates will likely be working with the Wisconsin Legislature in the next session to expand at least some PCP use in the state's hunting seasons.
In the meantime, Turek continues to highlight the capabilities and advantages of air rifles. He has a video of hitting a golf ball at 600 yards. His goal is to get out to 1,000 yards.
And he is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for longest air rifle shot. He had to use a tiny, light weight .177 caliber pellet – it went 150 yards.
He also uses an air gun that has similarities to a 12-gauge shotgun: it is a .72 caliber, shoots a 500-grain slug and produces 1,500 foot pounds of energy.
Turek used it to take a deer last season in Michigan.
"Airguns have been around hundreds of years," Turek said. "And they just keep getting better. I think you'll be seeing more and more of them in hunting applications real soon."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Air rifles are used for big game in many states. Is Wisconsin next?