Tuesday, January 1, 2008

My Humble Origins: Episode II – A New Hope (Comes in .177 Caliber)

Happy 2008 to all! But before we get into the New Year, let's jump back into our tale of the past...

At the close of Episode I, we were in the late summer of 2005. I had just discovered a large Norway rat in the back yard, and had been frustrated in my attempt to dispatch it with a broke-down Crosman BB gun. I had acquired the Crosman for five bucks about a dozen years earlier at a garage sale. It was chipped and rusting, poorly maintained, only vaguely accurate and completely underpowered. But other than that it was a great gun.

But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up a new pellet gun

In case you missed it, you can read Episode I here.

After the BB gun debacle, I started to ponder other options. Quite coincidentally, we had just arranged for an exterminator to come spray the house for ants, spiders and such. So on his first visit, I asked him if he could get rid of the rats for me. He seemed strangely reticent about doing so. He said that if we put out poison or traps it could result in driving the rats into the house (huh?), and until we were able to seal up every possible point of entry into or under the house, he did not recommend taking any action. He told me he could manage the placement and removal of traps but I thought the price for the service was hefty. Frankly I had neither the inclination to go crawling around under the house on fix-it missions nor did I like the idea of paying someone to do something I felt I could probably do on my own. So I determined to be my own man of action.

Sure I had lost the first battle, but in this war, I was determined to become a more intelligent soldier. I started doing research online about rats and reliable ways to rid myself of them. There seemed to be three basic means of controlling the pests: 1) baiting them with poison, 2) setting out a battery of traps, or, 3) shooting them. Since shooting had been my first instinct, I was immediately inclined to further investigate option #3. I must be honest; the idea of developing and using my marksmanship skills was appealing not just from a functional but also from a sporting point of view. But I was primarily interested in what would be the most effective and there were pros and cons to all three methods.

Poison can be effective to a point, but rats are intelligent and will figure out what poison looks and smells like after one or two of their brethren have been affected (or if they themselves ingest less than a lethal dose). Also, poison can work very slowly and painfully, and as much as I wanted the rats dead, I did not want them to suffer if it could be avoided. Lastly, since I would be baiting outside, I didn't want any collateral damage either from the wrong creatures inadvertently taking the bait or from dying rats being eaten by other wildlife (or the neighbor's cat!).

Traps can also be effective if you are able to regularly switch up their placement and the type of bait you use to keep the rats from figuring out that they equal danger. But most traps are really intended for indoor use. If left out in the open, they carry the same risk of collateral damage that poison does.

The classic Victor wooden rat trap is still the choice of most trappers

Now it's true -- shooting will never completely eliminate a colony of rats, because you are restricted to taking only those that happen in front of your sights. But you can stack the odds in your favor if you have a food or water source to which you know the rats will be drawn. In this way you can at least do a fair job of keeping their numbers down and not letting them become a real nuisance. And for me, the most attractive benefit of shooting is, if you shoot responsibly, you will never kill anything that you do not absolutely intend to kill.

My online research led me, inevitably, to a site called Ratkill.com. There I found a community of folks who were united in the common cause of ridding their local habitats of rats. I learned quite a bit about others’ methods of control, and started to see that the use of guns, particularly air guns, was quite common for the task. Feeling significantly less marginalized, I was inspired to begin seeking out a new tool.

Ratkill.com - not for the faint of heart

As I studied the subject of air-gunning, I learned a substantial amount rather quickly from the knowledgeable folks online at Straightshooters and Pyramyd Air, particularly from the fountain of wisdom known as B.B. Pelletier (Tom Gaylord's alter-ego). I read reviews of air guns to find out what people liked, and what they didn't. I learned about different calibers and power plants, pellet velocities and shapes, as well as muzzle energy and what was required to reliably kill a rat. And I began to digest information on the extraordinary variety of guns that are available – it really is quite dizzying, especially for the beginner.

I was very interested in the German-built guns offered by Beeman/Weihrauch, but couldn't imagine spending that kind of money for a pellet gun (or more specifically, justifying to my wife spending that kind of money for a pellet gun!). I was also intrigued by the Diana guns from RWS, the Hunter series from Gamo, as well as the multi-pump rifles from Benjamin Sheridan. Based on B.B. Pelletier's strong accolades, I was nearly persuaded to go with either a Benjamin 397/392 or a Sheridan Blue/Silver Streak. But ultimately I began leaning towards a break-barrel style spring gun so the Benjamin Sheridans took a back seat. I also knew I wanted to get the maximum accuracy I could wring out of a gun, so I investigated gun + scope combo packages as well.

Eventually I went on a few reconnaissance missions to sporting goods stores and gun shops in the area (which as you can imagine in the San Francisco Bay Area are few and far between) looking at their woefully limited stock of adult air rifles. What air rifles I did find were all in .177 caliber -- I honestly don't remember coming across any other calibers in all my searches (except for one Sheridan Blue Streak I found which only comes in .20 caliber). I guess that most consumers are obsessed with velocity (I know I certainly was in the beginning), and since .177 pellets are the lightest and tend to travel the fastest, retailers only stock that caliber rifle. And there were very few high-end air rifles in stores. I do recall finding a Beeman R1 (it was buried in a back room in the single-most disorganized and messy gun shop I have ever seen). The gun itself was brand new and in perfect condition, but even if I had the money to spend, the $600 price tag was impossible to rationalize for a beginner's gun.

Shortly after that, I stumbled upon a Gamo 440 Hunter Combo with a 4x32 scope at Big 5 Sporting Goods. I liked the look and feel of the rifle -- it had a nicely-shaped beech stock, black rubber butt-plate with a clean white spacer, and laser-cut checkering on the grip. In .177 caliber, it was advertised to shoot a pellet at 1000 feet per second. Given what I had learned, I knew it was adequately powered to handle rats at my backyard ranges. It also had received mostly positive reviews, the bulk of the gripes coming over the notoriously squishy trigger. The 440 I found at Big 5 was the last one they had in stock, and the scope it was combined with had a few minor dings on its surface, so the salesman agreed to knock a substantial amount off the price. At that point I felt like I was getting a bargain on a gun that was in my consideration set, so I went ahead and made the buy.

The Spanish-made Gamo 440 -- affordable accuracy

Now that I had my gun, I needed to mount and zero the scope and get enough practice with it to feel confident I could hit and kill a rat with one shot. But having never fired an air rifle like this, I was entirely uncertain how loud it would be. From what I had read, a spring gun was substantially louder than a BB gun. Also there was this pesky thing called dieseling which some new guns were prone to (basically dieseling is the inadvertent igniting of residual oil or grease inside the gun). I had no idea how loud this might be. Would it be as loud as a firearm? With neighbors on all sides, and being in an area that we'll just say is about as far from NRA Headquarters as you can get in America, I was terrified of taking the many shots I knew I would need to zero the rifle and practice with it in the backyard.

So now I had the right tool, but I needed to find some time and a place to take the gun and get it ready to do the job for which it was procured. This would prove to be an adventure in itself -- one that would endanger my very own life and limb.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment of the saga in which a beginning air-gunner with a new rifle must pass a trial of fire (and shrapnel) before facing his scaly-tailed opponent in a final Thunderdome-style confrontation...

Two men enter, one man leaves

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