The Modern Varmint Rifle
July 31, 2006
It's mostly about speed and accuracy...or is it?
The term "varmint rifle" is thrown about almost as loosely today as the term "deer rifle," and it can be just as misleading. In either case, it sort of depends on where and how you hunt. A scoped .270 is always a good deer rifle. But if you hunt in really thick cover, a good old lever-action .30-30, which is also a deer rifle, might be just as useful. Or, if you hunt big-bodied deer in really open country, you might feel better with a magnum .30 and a bigger scope.
A scoped .22-250 is always a varmint rifle, and I suppose the quintessential varmint rifle is a heavy-barreled, blocky-stocked rifle chambered to a fast .22 centerfire and wearing a big, powerful scope. But is such a rifle the ideal varmint rifle for all purposes, or for your purposes? Not necessarily.
Just as deer hunting takes many forms from coast to coast and north to south, so does varmint hunting. Let's start just at sunrise. You make a few calls for coyotes, changing locations three or four times and maybe bringing in two or three. A couple hours after sunrise you know predator activity has slacked off, but it's still nice and cool. So you wander a bit. In my area you can pick off ground squirrels. Elsewhere in the West you might run into rockchucks or prairie dogs. Back East you can stalk along fencelines and hedgerows, and you might get a shot at a woodchuck. After awhile you set up your portable bench or unroll your shooting mat on the edge of a prairie dog town, a cut barley field full of ground squirrels or overlooking rolling meadows where the occasional woodchuck will pop up. Sure, that super-accurate, heavy-barreled .22 centerfire could handle all these chores. But I submit that it's no more ideal for all of them than any given deer rifle is ideal under all conditions. Let's take an across-the-board look at the full spectrum of varmint hunting.
It seems to me that varmint hunting takes two forms that are highly specialized, and for altogether different reasons. These are predator calling and shooting smaller pests at long range. The latter calls first and foremost for extreme accuracy. Predator calling is different. The intent is to call the coyote, or fox, or bobcat as close as possible. In thick cover this may mean a matter of a few feet, in open country maybe a couple hundred yards, and this may change as you move from calling site to calling site.
Regardless of range, predators offer a much larger target area than the various rodents. Raw accuracy is not a big issue, and the better you are with a call, the less an issue it becomes. There are, however, two characteristics to a "calling rifle" that do not apply to many other forms of varminting. First, the setup must be fast-handling and responsive. No matter how carefully you've set up your calling site, you have no idea exactly where or how a critter might appear. There is no advantage to a heavy barrel because you won't fire enough shots from one stand to heat it up. I do prefer a barrel with a bit of weight since, at least for me, it makes the rifle steadier in an unsupported position and allows a smoother swing on moving targets. But a genuine heavy varminter is far from an ideal calling rifle because you have to carry the darned thing.
Also, and perhaps more important, the powerful scope that you will most likely mount on a heavy varminter is the last thing you want on a calling rifle. You want a larger field of view so you can acquire your target more quickly, and you want to be able to turn the power down so when a coyote steps into your lap, you don't see a fuzzy patch of fur through the lens.
Standard hunting scopes in the 3-9X, 3.5-10X and no more than about 4-12X are ideal for calling, and in the more open country I usually hunt, I keep them turned down to no more than 6X.
The other important characteristic of a calling rifle is that you need some level of power. I know of no animal in North America that is as tough pound for pound as a coyote. You don't need a cannon, but none of the rimfires is truly adequate, and if the range stretches out a bit, even the wonderful old .22 Hornet isn't enough gun. Good coyote cartridges start with the .17, .222 and .223 Remingtons and go up from there. In fact, you could make a case that the ideal calling rifle is your favorite and best-handling deer rifle, and using it will provide valuable practice. But I'd opt for a medium-barreled sporter in something like a .223 Remington as the ideal. My old Kimber mini-Mauser in .223 wears a compact 3-9X scope, and I consider it an ideal calling rig.
SHORT, MEDIUM AND LONG
Turning to the rodents: Gophers on up to 'chucks, I'm still not convinced that the heavy-barreled centerfire is the across-the-board choice. In fact, I'm convinced it's not, because not all ground squirrel, prairie dog or woodchuck hunting takes the classic form of setting up for the long shot. In California a lot of our best ground squirrel hunting takes place in small valleys, where long shots are uncommon. In the Rocky Mountain West some of the most fun I've had is wandering irrigated hayfields and shooting at the thousands of gophers that infest them. In hilly, small woodlot country throughout the East there are stalking opportunities for woodchucks in places where there's no way to set up for a long shot.
So it seems to me that, wherever you live, there's a place for short-, medium- and long-range varmint cartridges (and rifles that shoot them). I tend to think of short range as not much more than 100 yards. Medium goes on out to perhaps 250 yards, maybe 300. Long range is as far as you and your rifle are capable.
While long-range cartridges can certainly be used at short range, there isn't genuine need for the power and noise. On the smallest rodents--gophers and ground squirrels--the great old .22 Long Rifle is the quietest, least expensive to shoot and most fun of all. But if you take the small varmints as a class, this is not enough power--nor is the new .17 Mach 2. So, to my thinking, the short-range varmint cartridges are characterized by the .17 HMR, .22 WMR and .22 Hornet. The .17 HMR drops off very quickly in killing power, but it's wonderful for stalking the edges of a prairie dog town or ground squirrel hollow if you keep your shots short. With its heavier bullet, the .22 Magnum seems to me to be effective at slightly greater ranges, but my experience suggests that the .17 HMR is, on average, considerably more accurate (perhaps this is because it's a new development).
Personally, I just love the great old .22 Hornet. It's easily effective at much greater range than the rimfire magnums. But, truthfully, I've seen very few .22 Hornet rifles that were particularly accurate, and it's a great deal more expensive to shoot than the two rimfires.
There are also relatively few viable medium-range varmint cartridges. The three that come most readily to mind are the .17, .222 and .223 Remingtons. I reckon the wonderfully accurate .222 to be the best of these, but it's hard to argue with the runaway popularity of the .223. It is far and away the most popular of all the .22 centerfires.
The hot little .17 runs out of steam fairly quickly, but both the .222 and .223 are certainly capable of longer shooting than my narrow definition of medium range. The thing is, I think there are better tools for reaching out farther. What I like about these cartridges is their mild-mannered efficiency.
You can watch your hits through the scope and call your shots with them. Even a heavy-barreled .22-250 jumps just a bit too much to allow this. For this reason a lot of serious varminters stick with the .222 and .223 even for long-range work, even though wind drift and holdover are greater issues than would be the case with faster cartridges.
The long-range varmint cartridges start with the .204 Ruger, go on up to the .22-250, .223 WSSM and .220 Swift, then go on up as far as you wish to go. Some serious varminters like the fast .25s and even 6.5s, especially under windy conditions.
For most of us, this requires burning too much powder and, in high-volume shooting like a prairie dog town, withstanding too much recoil. For me, the .243 Winchester and perhaps the .243 WSSM are the most powerful cartridges I would consider viable as varmint cartridges. If you want to talk varmint/big-game combo rounds, that's different. If you want to talk about simple ability to hit varmints a long way off, that's different, too. But for the pure purpose of varmint hunting, there's no reason to go above 6mm in recoil, noise and power level.
You may note with surprise that I include the .204 Ruger in the long-range group. I wouldn't have when it first came out. In fact, when it first appeared I wondered what in the world it was for and why its designers wasted our time with it. But this was before I used it. The little 32-grain bullet is very fast, but at longer range it starts to lose steam.
The 40-grain .20-caliber bullet is different. I've used it in both the .204 Ruger and the wildcat .20 Tactical in prairie dog towns, and I've had no problems figuring out the wind and making hits at a quarter mile and more. Well, OK, I've had problems--but no more than I've had with anything else at that range. The .20 also has the advantage of less recoil than the fastest .22s, which means that, with rifles of less weight, you can easily call your shots through the scope. I like this.
The fastest .22s, however, are the most popular of the long-range varminters, with the .22-250 leading the pack. It is a fast, wonderfully accurate cartridge that, because of its popularity, is available in dozens of flavors and decades of load recipes. It's pretty hard to beat, but both the .220 Swift and .223 WSSM are slightly faster.
Many years ago the .220 Swift got the reputation as a barrel burner, and the WSSMs acquired this bad rep right out of the starting gate. Is it justified? Yes and no. Yes, any cartridge that approaches or exceeds 4,000 fps is going to erode throats and burn out barrels much faster than, say, a .223 Remington loaded to the low or mid-3,000s. But, no, more recent testing suggests that the WSSMs aren't inherently worse barrel burners than other cartridges at similar velocities. If you want barrel life, load 'em down a bit, and don't let 'em overheat. If you want the benefits of maximum speed, you will pay a price in reduced barrel life, and this applies to a .22-250 loaded to the max as well as a .220 Swift or WSSM.
The 6mms are also popular and extremely effective long-range varminters. The .243 Winchester is the most popular by a huge margin, offering (like the .22-250) a tremendous variety of loads, bullet weights and styles and a rich history of loading data, but there are faster 6mms, including the old 6mm Remington and the new .243 WSSM. The heavier 6mm bullet does better in the wind than any .20 or .22, so it is preferred by a lot of Western varminters who haul out their "big" 6mm (and in some cases .25) when the wind gets strong and the range gets long.
ROVING OR STATIONARY
Short-range varminting is generally a stalking game; because of the noise and your own presence, you generally have to move frequently to keep getting shots. But once you get out of rimfire range there's usually a choice between what I call roving-wandering a bit and taking shots as they come and setting up for deliberate, stationary shots. Some of us do a bit of both. Others like to use varminting purely as practice for big-game hunting, and also to get a bit of exercise.
Especially with prairie dogs and ground squirrels, you won't get as much shooting this way (or have as high a percentage of hits), but it's a lot of fun to move around and take shots from a variety of field positions. With rockchucks and woodchucks in small woodlot habitat, this is probably the most effective hunting tactic. Still others are more attracted by accuracy and precision. They unroll shooting mats and put up sandbags or set up portable bench rests, firing from one "stand" as long as targets are available, then packing up and changing location. I have seen wonderfully elaborate setups: bench rests mounted in truck beds, portable benches that include an umbrella for hot summer days, even custom-made flatbed trailers with bench rest, gun-cleaning table and reloading bench.
Almost regardless of the caliber you choose, the ideal roving varmint rifle is probably not the same as the stationary rifle.
The rimfires and even the .22 Hornet are roving varminters. There's no reason for them to be extremely heavy, and there's not much justification for putting a big scope on them, because the range is limited enough that you just don't need it.
The faster centerfires diverge a bit. When you're roving it's unlikely that you'll stay in one place to overheat the barrel, so the ideal rifle might as well be pleasant to carry, more of a sporter weight than a true heavy varminter. Choice of scope depends a bit on you, but if I'm shooting unsupported, even from prone, there's a limit as to how far I can hit a prairie dog or ground squirrel, and high magnification won't buy me stability. An upper-end magnification of 10X or so is truly plenty, and that helps keep gun weight down.
Stationary varminting is where the classic heavy-barreled varminter comes into play. Such a rifle can be used from a variety of positions, but it's really meant to be firmly rested. It is, essentially, the sporting application of a benchrest rifle.
Weight is not an issue; the heavier it is, the more stable it will be and easy it will be to call your shots through the scope. The stock is blocky and heavy, adding to gun weight. The bottom of the fore-end is flat, designed to nestle snugly on sandbags or a rifle rest. The barrel varies from heavy to extremely heavy. This adds gun weight and, more important, allows you to keep firing longer before your shots begin to walk.
How powerful the scope should be depends on the shooting you like to do. A heavy varminter might be used at just 200 or 250 yards, or it might be used at twice that and more. If you like to stretch your range envelope, there's no better place than a prairie dog town because even at extreme range it's still a matter of hit or miss, with minimal concern over wounding game. Most rifles set up for long-range varminting will wear powerful variables--6.5-20X, 6-24X and larger. Keep in mind, however, that mirage and heat waves become big issues, and these are magnified along with the size of the target. I've had very few days in a prairie dog town when I could actually utilize the full magnification of the most powerful scopes.
The predator caller and the roving rockchuck hunter are both varmint hunters. They may not be interested in setting up a portable bench and stretching their barrels. The guy who likes to do this is also a varmint hunter, but he has an overarching requirement that the others do not. Faster is probably better, because less flight time reduces wind drift. Heavier is probably better, because heavier rifles are easier to get perfectly steady. More powerful scopes are probably better, at least up to a point, because they help you see tiny targets at greater range. But the most important factor in long-range varminting is accuracy. Lots of it.
It isn't always essential to pay huge amounts of money to get good accuracy. Modern factory varmint rifles are very good. This is primarily because modern manufacturing techniques are very consistent and because you, America's varmint hunters, have demanded increased accuracy.
I have an over-the-counter Savage 110, one of the least expensive factory varmint rifles (also one of the heaviest), a .22-250, that will shoot sub-inch and occasional half-inch groups with the least expensive factory ammo. I have a carbon-barreled Christensen Arms rifle, another .22-250 on a Remington action, that will do better--sometimes. Come to think of it, my over-the-counter Ruger Number One in .204 does exceptionally well for a two-piece stock rifle, occasionally turning in a sub-half-inch group. Come to think of it further, I've seen factory varmint rifles from a variety of manufacturers--Browning, Sako, Remington, Winchester and others--that easily provide this level of performance.
For my purposes, rifles like these do most of what I need to do in a prairie dog town or ground squirrel field, and most of us would consider them accurate rifles. Truthfully, however, much more is possible--but generally not straight out of the box. My buddy Geoff Miller at Rigby is a true accuracy freak and a benchrest shooter from way back. In a ground squirrel shoot he likes to stretch his barrel and concentrate on head shots.
To demonstrate what is possible, for the purpose of this article I took one of his personal varmint rifles to the range. It started life as a 40XB Remington, a rifle legendary for accuracy, but this one wasn't good enough for Miller. He trued up the action a bit and replaced the factory barrel with a heavy, 271?2-inch Pac-Nor match-grade barrel chambered to plain old .243 Winchester. The trigger was replaced with a Jewel single-set trigger of just a few ounces. The rifle weighs 121?2 pounds with a 6.5-20X Leupold 30mm scope. The rifle happens to like Winchester Premium 55-grain Ballistic Silvertip (this isn't the only .243 I've seen that really shoots this load). With that long (and fairly tight) barrel, chronographed velocity is 4,235 fps. Zeroed three inches high at 100 yards, it's dead-on at 385 yards, an inch low at 400 and a foot low at 500.
Yes, that light bullet starts to shed velocity and drops quickly as it runs out of gas. But in such a heavy rifle, recoil is nonexistent, and accuracy is dramatic. Geoff's best personal group--with this factory ammunition--is .047. Days are days, and people are people. My best group on that one day at the range with this rifle was .169 inch. That, by the way, is four times larger than the rifle's best-ever group--still a whole lot smaller than a quarter-inch. This is the kind of accuracy the most serious long-range varminters demand. Not all of us need this, and indeed such a rifle would be a poor choice for calling predators and awfully heavy to walk around with. But isn't it wonderful to know that accuracy like that can be obtained if you want it?