Photo by Anthony Campbell.
Ronald Gene Bearden of Grant has been a tinkerer and a hunter all his life. He combined his two pastimes last fall to do the almost-unbelievable: He invented a .50-caliber air rifle — and then used it to harvest a pair of white-tailed deer!
“I think I’m the first man in Alabama — perhaps the U.S.; maybe even in the world — to harvest a whitetail buck with a homemade .50-caliber big-game air rifle,” he pointed out.
Mention the term “air rifle,” and most folks think of a Daisy BB gun — something that a kid might use to shoot at birds or tin cans. Bearden’s air rifle is more like a pellet gun on steroids. “I’ve always enjoyed inventing things,” he said.
Bearden’s job in a prototype shop in Huntsville involves solving equipment problems, so he’s very accustomed to modifying existing machinery. His self-professed hobby is working on guns, so his hobby and his occupation go hand-in-hand.
“I got that job because of what I did as a hobby,” Bearden noted. “It wasn’t the other way around.”
The gun he ended up developing has three interchangeable barrels — .22, .32 and .50 caliber. What he was doing was so new that he even had to invent the ammunition for the gun, molding special soft lead pellets himself.
He was using the .50 caliber barrel and one of his 200-grain pellets when he killed the bucks; both dropped in their tracks. One of those deer was a trophy-sized 9-pointer.
“I told my wife after hunting season the year before that I was going to build myself an air rifle,” Bearden explained. “She said, ‘You’ve got one.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand: I’m going to build a large-caliber air rifle and kill a deer with it.’”
That work consumed him throughout the off-season. “There were lots of nights when I would go to bed and he was still out there working on the gun,” recalled his wife Donna.
“I was just so excited,” Bearden admitted. “I would think up an idea and I couldn’t wait to work on the gun and try to get it to where I could shoot it.”
The very first victim of the inventor’s gun was a favorite peach tree in his back yard. He was so excited when he got the rifle into shootable shape that he’d often just fire off a round at the base of the peach tree, rather than wait to set up a target; remnants of lead still stick out of the tree today. It eventually took so many shots that it was killed.
Bearden’s previous tinkering prepared him well for building the big-game air rifle. His specialty is building heavy rifles in “wildcat” calibers that aren’t available commercially. He even invented one cartridge he named the .50 “Benjamin,” after his grandson.
Another big surprise regarding this project was its overall cost. Bearden estimated that he’s only got $4 or $5 in his high-tech air rifle! He had enough parts around his shop — like a Monte Carlo shotgun stock — just about to build the gun.
To accommodate the stainless-steel air bottle that attaches from the bottom of the gun, the receiver required a lot of machining. Bearden has a special English three-stage pump that he uses to charge a spare bottle. He calls that his “pony bottle,” from which he charges the main bottle on the gun. In the woods, it’s a lot more convenient to keep the pony bottle in a pocket than to carry the rather lengthy three-stage pump.
A pressure gauge on the side of the air rifle allows Bearden to charge his rifle to a consistent pressure of 1,150 pounds per square inch each time he readies the gun for firing. The highly specialized weapon will take a charge all the way to 3,000 p.s.i., but he keeps it at the lower pressure for consistency’s sake.
Here’s where it really gets interesting. Bearden configured the gun so that it could be set up as either a muzzleloader or a breechloader. But the breech was then sealed off completely, so that it could be used during the early muzzleloading season in November.
“I looked at the law very closely before I built this gun and went hunting with it,” offered Bearden, a devout church member and a stickler for playing by the rules. “All the law says about muzzleloaders for hunting is that they have to be loaded from the muzzle. It doesn’t say anything about having to use powder.” And since the air-powered gun met that requirement, its maker figured that it was legal.
As mentioned, the pony bottle goes into the woods with Bearden when he goes hunting. Holding enough pressurized air for a single recharge, it allows him additional shots if they’re needed after the first shot. “I can get four or five shots out of my pony bottle,” he asserted.
Bearden’s big-game barrel is a military surplus .50-caliber tube, the .32 (actually 8mm) barrel is from a Mauser, and the .22 is a barrel from a target rifle. He had to do some experimenting to find a bullet that would shoot well out of the gun. “You’ve got to play with it,” he pointed out.
He figures that his maximum effective hunting range with the air rifle is about 120 yards — a remarkable distance when you recall that nothing but air is pushing that 200-grain slug.
Bearden, 57, has been a deer hunter for 40 years or better. That experience in the woods paid off, for his very first hunt with the new gun was a resounding success.
The hunter’s hometown of Grant is in northern Marshall County, close to the Jackson County line. It’s a prime territory for deer hunting; both counties offer excellent prospects for big bucks. Wildlife managers in the region say that the deer in Marshall and Jackson counties haven’t exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. You don’t see as many deer in this area as you might in South Alabama or some other deer-rich hotspot, but the ones you do see are likely to be good ones. Bucks sporting racks with 140 to 150 inches of antler are taken in the area every season. Bearden’s deer weren’t in that class, but the buck was still a nice one, and taking it with such an unusual weapon made it a truly unique trophy.
Bearden started the action by taking a doe on his first hunt with the rifle. That initial adventure saw the ingenious deersla
yer sitting on stand when a doe walked out at about 30 yards from him. When he took the shot, the animal went down — but it was the hole that the 200-grain pellet put in the whitetail that told the tale.
The damage turned out to be something of a surprise to Bearden, who was expecting a hole similar to what you see with a regular muzzleloader or even a high-powered rifle. But the air rifle wound was unique. “It was like the bullet pushed into the deer,” Bearden said in describing the wound, “and sort of turned everything it came into contact with inside out.” In short, it was just absolutely devastating.
A few days later, Bearden was back in the woods with his improvised weapon. This time, the deer that appeared was a 9-point buck. The hunter connected on this whitetail with a shot of about 80 yards. The pellet hit the deer right in the heart and dropped it on the spot.
“I was just thrilled,” Bearden said, “especially with the 9-pointer.”
At the time of that second hunt Bearden was on private land on the edge of Jackson County. “I can’t say much more about where I got it,” he noted apologetically. “The landowner allows me to hunt, but he doesn’t let many other people, and I know he doesn’t want a whole lot of other people asking him for permission to hunt.”
Bearden is one of those guys who can justly be called Renaissance men. In addition to being a very talented designer, small-arms craftsman and all-around fix-it man, he’s a painter — that’s as in art, not barns: Murals that he’s painted grace the interior walls of his spacious home. He’s also a student of history, and well read, particularly with regard to air rifles and the role of those weapons.
“They go back to the 1700s and 1800s,” he noted. “A lot of people don’t know this, but Lewis and Clark had air rifles on their expedition to explore the American West. But the Lewis and Clark air rifles weren’t large enough to kill deer. There was an outfit of French soldiers who were outfitted with air rifles way back in history.”
One of the real highlights of putting this profile of the inventive hunter together was getting the chance actually to fire his creation. “You’re the first person other than myself to fire the air rifle,” Bearden noted at the time. “It seems funny to watch someone else shooting the rifle.”
For the amount of power that the rifle packs, there’s no recoil. The shot is louder than a small-caliber pellet rifle, but doesn’t make a great deal more noise. “I doubt you would hear it at 100 yards,” Bearden said. “It’s rather quiet for the damage it does.”
There was a louder pop when the bullet reached its target, but that could have been the projectile hitting Bearden’s tin barn on the other side of the target. “If you look at the barn, you’ll see a few holes in it,” Bearden admitted with a grin.
The relative lack of noise of the rifle can’t help but lead you to believe that it might be an ideal weapon of the future. It’s the sort of gun that could be ideal for deer hunting in urban and suburban settings, since it’s quiet, and has limited range. But Bearden isn’t too interested in exploiting the technology commercially.
“He’s like that,” said son-in-law Chris Sutton, himself a tinkerer building hot rods for a living. (He recently delivered one of his creations to former heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman.) “Ron has invented lots of things over the years that he could have made a fortune on, but he’s not interested in that.” Instead, Bearden is content with inventing firearms to satisfy himself. He doesn’t care whether he could market them and make money.
The air rifle is equipped with peep sights, but it also has quick-release-style mounts for a scope that can be put on and removed. Bearden had a scope on it when he went deer hunting with it last November.
The inventor has already had quite a few people ask him to build them an air rifle just like his, but he’s pretty sure that won’t happen. “I don’t think I would build another one for $1,000,” he mused.
With all the late-night work he put into the project and all the obstacles he overcame, it was a rewarding project. But getting the rifle just the way he wanted it scratched his creative itch; retracing that sleepless journey of discovery isn’t in itself appealing.
Some of the engineering drawings that he made during the design phase are framed in his workroom at his home. They hang next to framed 8-by-10-inch pictures of Bearden, this gun and the buck he downed with it.
His home-built air rifle will eventually go to his young grandson, as will the other custom firearms he has built. He’s taken deer with all of them.
“What means the most to me is that my grandson will own this gun one day and he’ll know that I built it with my own hands,” Bearden remarked. “He’ll look at the picture and know that his grandfather built that gun and killed a buck with it.”