March 22, 2021
Shrill barking pierced the cold stillness of the surrounding woods and rolling hills, and I picked my way through dangling vines and wiry trees as I pursued the sounds echoing in the distance. All around me other hunters navigated similar mazes, ducking, sidestepping and climbing obstacles and slogging through mud in a mad scramble toward the barking dogs, which had no doubt located our quarry: bushytails. More specifically, Eastern gray squirrels and fox squirrels.
It was late-February, and we were all rushing through the woods of south-central Alabama as part of a one-of-a-kind hunting event, the 2020 Squirrel Master Classic. For seven years, Gamo, one of the world’s largest airgun manufacturers, has invited hunters and outdoor media to the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge 30 miles west of Montgomery to participate in this unforgettable event. Last month, the 2021 Squirrel Master Classic would’ve been the eighth iteration of the event, but due to COVID restrictions, this year’s Classic ended up being a virtual event held across the nation.
The brainchild of Buckmasters founder Jackie Bushman, the Classic is an intense but fun two-day competition that teams up outdoor television personalities, members of the outdoor media, dog handlers and 4-H youths. Each team has dog handlers and dogs, as well as a 4-H youth shooter—many of whom are often first-time hunters. And all team members are armed with a Gamo air rifle and pellets. I was lucky enough to find myself on the Bone Collector team during last year’s event, hunting alongside hosts Michael Waddell and Nick Mundt, among others.
Part one of the competition involves hitting the woods to see how many squirrels teams can bring back to the lodge. The total harvest is recorded after the hunt with a type of “weigh-in” event one might encounter at a bass tournament. This includes a fair amount of good-natured ribbing and trash talk among opposing team members. Part two, meanwhile, consists of a sophisticated shooting competition that tests every member of the team, but especially the youth shooters.
Regardless, the Classic is a tremendously fun event designed to get kids involved in hunting and shooting and to help promote the sporting lifestyle. And there is quite possibly nothing so fitting for introducing new hunters to the sport as squirrel hunting.
There's something particularly special, though, about hunting squirrels with dogs in the rolling hills and among the towering trees and moss-covered vines of Alabama’s "Black Belt," an area so named because of its rich black topsoil. Bounding through these woods chasing dogs hot on the trail of squirrels transports even adult hunters, if only fleetingly, back to childhood and adolescence, when many of us first began pursuing game in the woods. Among new and old friends, past becomes present once more, even as the world beyond the trees pushes ever forward into the future. In the simplicity of squirrel hunting, one is allowed to enjoy the moment and watch as old passions take root in a new generation.
It likely surprises no one to hear that hunter numbers have been trending down in recent years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation—the latest available—shows that there were 11.5 million hunters that year. Twenty years prior, in the 1996 survey, that number stood at 14 million. That amounts to a decline of roughly 2.5 million people, or an 18 percent decrease.
That’s a sizeable loss both in terms of participation in the sport and in money no longer being spent on licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition, bows and other outdoor gear. And, since most of these purchases, in some capacity, fund conservation efforts, it’s a big blow on that front as well.
More concerning still is that the decline in participation is most prevalent among younger generations. In the 1996 survey, a substantial 47 percent of hunters fell into the 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 age groups, while 31 percent of hunters landed in the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age ranges. In 2016, on the other hand, we see roughly a complete flip. About 30 percent of hunters fall into the first range—25 to 44—whereas 46 percent of hunters are between age 45 and 64.
The percentage of hunters above 65 also reflects this, with the figure doubling from 7 percent in 1996 to 14 percent in 2016. The number of hunters between 16 and 24 years of age, meanwhile, declined by about 5 percent in this same span of time.
What these statistics illustrate, and what most have come to realize on their own, if only anecdotally, is that younger people aren’t getting out to hunt as much as they once did. And some that do are not continuing to do so as they move into adulthood.
The result is an aging hunter population and a lack of new blood to keep hunting traditions alive and well—and diminishing funds to support conservation issues and initiatives. Particularly worrisome is what happens when those constituting the majority of hunters—individuals 45 and up—start aging out of hunting entirely. It’s at that moment when hunters and conservation agencies will experience the true effects of the decline in younger hunters.
This is exactly why programs, mentorship and events like Gamo’s Squirrel Master Classic are so crucial. Hunters need to get younger people involved if they want to keep hunting alive and well for years to come. And there’s no better way than safely instructing them and getting them out into the field after abundant species, such as squirrels, that offer fast action and a lot of fun.
KEY FEATURES: GAMO SWARM MAGNUM 10X GEN2
- 10-shot break-barrel air rifle; fire 10 pellets without reloading
- Up to 1,300 fps velocity
- New recoil-activated feeding system; never double feed pellets again
- New horizontal facing magazine allows for open sights
SWARMING ON SQUIRRELS
Fun, by the way, is something present in spades during the Squirrel Master Classic. If you’ve never hunted squirrels with dogs, consider doing so one day. It’s a show very much worth seeing, whether it takes place in central Alabama or in your own neck of the woods.
When I hunted with the Bone Collector crew in February 2020, we hunted with two dogs, TC and Diesel. Both were mountain feists, bred specifically for this type of work, and watching them at their task was a true joy to behold. The dogs find squirrels using their eyes, ears and nose and, unlike hounds, they don’t bark or bay until they’ve treed a squirrel and are circling the tree.
When the chase is on, their single-minded pursuit sees them leaping over logs, zooming past rocks and crossing creeks with supreme speed and agility. Your job as a hunter is simply to follow behind—albeit at a slightly less breakneck pace—and then race to catch up once the barking starts.
Of course, once you do catch up, you have to perform. And on this hunt, that was made easy with Gamo’s new Swarm Magnum 10X Gen2 air rifle in .22 caliber. This air gun has many unique features, but one of the most notable is the 10X Quick Shot Technology. This allows shooters to fire up to 10 pellets without reloading—something decidedly unique among break-action air rifles.
And, as an added bonus, last year the magazine system was tweaked as well. Previous Swarm models utilized a vertical-resting magazine; this one has a horizontal-laying design, which allowed Gamo to incorporate a usable set of open sights on the rifle (earlier models did not have this capability).
Another great thing about the feeding system is that it is recoil activated (inertia fed). That is, once you’ve cocked the action to load in a pellet, you cannot load in another pellet until you’ve fired the first one. So, there is no double-feed potential here.
This is tremendously helpful with the fast-paced hunting we faced in Alabama, where we might load up for one squirrel, lose sight of it and then later try to load up again for a new squirrel that had been spotted. It just ensures that you as the shooter don’t introduce a problem by trying to load two pellets at once, which is a great feature—whether you hunt with dogs or in a more leisurely fashion.
The ability to shoot 10 pellets without reloading is certainly valuable. However, if the rifle isn’t accurate or powerful enough to knock down squirrels, the number of shots you fire is largely irrelevant.
Thankfully, neither is true with the Swarm Magnum 10X Gen2. With its IGT (Inert Gas Technology) Mach 1 gas piston, the air rifle is able to produce velocities up to 1,300 feet per second (fps) in the .22-caliber model. While Whisper Fusion technology reduces the overall report of the gun, when the pellet’s traveling at those speeds, you still get the sonic boom or ballistic crack as it breaks the sound barrier. But, the pellet’s high speed definitely translates into additional power on impact, as we observed through our two days of squirrel hunting.
The Swarm Magnum 10X Gen2 also proved quite accurate, regardless of whether we used the included 3-9x40 Gamo scope or the open sights. We were able to harvest a bunch of squirrels on our morning and evening hunts, and we hit targets with ease during the shooting competition portion of the event as well.
All this being said, if you’re in the market for a new air rifle for hunting, give this one a look. Air guns are a great way for novice or youth shooters and hunters to inch their way into the shooting sports. Given their lack of substantial report, they’re perfect for training and developing good, flinch-free shooting habits.
While the 2021 in-person Squirrel Master Classic event in Alabama was cancelled this year, Gamo did host a “virtual” Classic that allowed teams that traditionally participate in the event—as well as youth and veteran air gun hunters across the country—to share their harvests on social media. It may not have had quite the same flair and feel as prior events, but it still helped get people out into the woods chasing after squirrels, and that’s what matters.
Incidentally, if you’re in that "in between" stage of your hunting year right now with nothing going on, it’s always a good time to try to get new hunters into the sport with an air gun. Whether they’re 7 years old or 70, it’s pretty difficult to not have a good time shooting a quality air rifle.
And, if you’re fortunate enough to live in or near a state that has a dedicated spring squirrel season—or where squirrel hunting is open year-round—you can plan to get a head start before the fall. Ten states have spring seasons. These include Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, eastern Texas (western Texas has a continuous season) and Virginia.
Some of these states—Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma—have spring seasons running all the way through the fall and winter. Others only run in May, June or parts of both months. A few states even consider tree squirrels as nongame animals, meaning they’re open all year.
Check your state’s regulations and get out there if you’re able. Otherwise, it’s never too early to start getting ready for the fall. Likewise, you’re never too old to outgrow the joys of hunting squirrels with a break-barrel air rifle.
GAMO SWARM MAGNUM 10X GEN2 SPECIFICATIONS
- Type/Action: Break-barrel air rifle, Inertia Fed magazine
- Caliber: .22
- Capacity: 10 pellets
- Barrel: 21.3 in., metal jacketed rifled steel
- Overall Length: 49.2 in.
- Weight: 6.88 lbs.
- Stock: Automotive grade glass-filled nylon, all weather, thumbhole, SWA (Shock Wave Absorber) recoil pad
- Grips: Non-slip texturing on grips and forearm
- Length of Pull: 15 in.
- Trigger: Two-stage adjustable CAT (Custom Action Trigger)
- Trigger Pull: 2.6-3.2 lbs.
- Sights: Open
- Optic: Gamo 3-9x40 air rifle scope
- Rail: Recoil Reducing Rail (RRR)
- Cocking Effort: 41 lbs.
- Powerplant: IGT (Inert Gas Technology) Mach 1 gas piston
- Velocity: up to 1,300 fps
- Noise Dampening: Whisper Fusion
- Safety: Manual, and automatic cocking safety system
- MSRP: $329.99