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Ammo Ballistics Hunting Rifles

Varmint Rifle Battery

by Layne Simpson   |  April 21st, 2012 7


.222 Remington from bench

In the author’s opinion, for all-around varminting you can’t beat the .223 Remington cartridge, here in a Remington 700 VL SS Thumbhole. It shoots flat but doesn't punish you, which is important on a long day of shooting.

A varmint rifle battery capable of serving the needs of everyone does not exist. This is due to the fact that what works for a rifleman who spends all his spare time shooting woodchucks at extremely long range in the Finger Lakes area of New York State might be less than a perfect choice for the California ground squirrel shooter.

There are two reasons why I own a varmint rifle battery instead of just one or two rifles. For one, on a number of occasions each year I have the opportunity to shoot in several different parts of the country, and having several rifles in various chamberings allows me to pick and choose for specific field conditions and applications. Possibly more important, owning and shooting several rifles in various calibers is much more fun that owning just one.

Ruger 77 in .22 Hornet

The .22 Hornet, here in a Shilen-barreled Ruger 77, is a great choice in places for more-populated areas because of its relatively quiet report.

The varmint rifle battery starts with a rimfire. There are times when and places where a rimfire rifle is ideal, and even when I’m on a prairie dog shoot and am concentrating on centerfire rifles, I never fail to take along a rimfire. After a couple days of sitting in one spot with my double-protected ears being battered by centerfire muzzle blast, stalking and shooting with a rifle with a softer voice is a pleasant break.

If I had to pick one rimfire it would be the .17 Mach 2 because it shoots flat, is incredibly accurate and the ammo costs about 40 percent less than .17 HMR. Even so, I have had just as much fun with rifles chambered for that cartridge as well as the .22 WMR and .22 Long Rifle.

When it comes to centerfires, the .223 Remington is the most useful varmint cartridge to ever come down the pike. The .222 Remington is almost as good, and the .222 Remington Magnum might be a tad better, but brass for both is less abundant and more expensive.

Lesser cartridges don’t have its reach, and bigger cartridges burn out barrels too quickly during high-volume prairie dog shooting. The level of recoil generated by the .223 is easy on the shoulder, and double ear protection easily dampens its muzzle blast. The brass is both plentiful and affordable, a pound of powder will load close to 300 rounds, and about three jillion different bullets are available for it. Dozens of great factory loads are available

Remington SPS Varmint

A walking-around varminter such as this Remington SPS Varmint should be light enough to carry but with enough heft to help keep it steady—all while being able to make long shots.

While the .223 is my favorite, I am quick to admit that centerfire cartridges on both sides of its performance range are better for special applications for the varmint rifle. Some of the farms I shoot are quite small, with houses not all that far apart, and since making too much noise is a good way to not get invited back, I make it a point to shoot cartridges with comparatively soft voices.

In such cases when a rimfire just won’t do, I reach for a rifle in .22 Hornet or .218 Bee. Both cartridges reach out farther than the rimfires and speak more softly than the .223 Remington. Hornady recently tamed an old wildcat called .17 Hornet, and while I have not tried it as this is written, it too will be just the ticket for varminting in areas populated by citizens with sensitive ears.

Moving to the opposite side of .223 Remington performance level, we have the .22-250 and .220 Swift. I won’t say the Swift is more accurate than the .22-250, but I will say the varmint rifles I have owned through the years that were chambered for it were more accurate than those in .22-250 I’ve shot.

Then we have what has often been described through the years as the walking varmint rifle—light enough to carry over hill and dale but with enough heft for a steady hold. I have never seen an official weight for this type of rifle but somewhere around nine pounds with scope seems about right to me.

Since you have to carry a supply of ammo with you as well, the cartridge itself must be light in weight while still capable of reaching out several hundred yards. The .223 is as good a candidate here as in a sitting rifle, but I like something different, which means .204 Ruger or .17 Remington. Between the two I like the .204 better.

Remington 40XB/KS in .220 Swift

The author considers the .220 Swift, here in a Remington 40XB/KS, to be an ideal long-range varmint cartridge.

For extremely long shots in country where hard winds often blow, heavier bullets of larger caliber seem to have more of an edge in the field than in the ballistics charts. At one time I used the .25-06 a lot on groundhogs in open country, and it seemed to slice through winds and breezes a lot better than a friend’s .224 Weatherby Magnum.

One of the most fun windy day prairie dog shoots I have been on was with Lex Webernick of Rifles Inc. shooting rifles in .257 STW and 6mm-284—with loads in the former pushing 4,100 fps with an 85-grain bullet and 4,000 in the latter with 70-grainers. Both rifles weighed 20 pounds, so recoil was not an issue.

While taking turns spotting and shooting, Lex and I kept extending the range until our misses eventually began to outnumber our hits. Despite the wind, 500-yard shots were quite possible, and some of the more unfortunate pasture poodles bit the dust a lot farther away than that.

Both of those cartridges are terrific on windy days, but barrel life is much too short to make them practical for high-volume varmint shooting. I do, however, like the 6mm-284 for slower-paced rock chuck shooting at extremely long distances.

  • fred

    This is more a cartridge comparison instead of an article on rifles. That being said, what about a nice, heavy barreled AR rifle such as the new Stag 6 varmint? Having my share of bolt action .22-250s, .220 etc., I can honestly say that these new platforms are a revelation for an old time shooter as myself. No more screwing around with endless load combinations. Just grab a box of any type of V-Max type ammo and these things will hold .5 moa all day long! No more working the bolt and losing sight of your target, just spot and fire.
    See you in the field.


    I enjoyed Layne's usual comprehensive discussion of the topic. His rationale for owning several different rifles and calibers was spot on. The comment about his overlooking the AR-type rifles for varminting has merit, but I guess one can't cover every possible option in a short article. That said, much to my pleasant surprise, my new scoped DPMS heavy barrel flat top in 5.56 NATO is a consistent half-MOA shooter with good ammo. It should wreak havoc with our local coyote population, not to mention smaller vermin. I am a senior shooter who owns most of the calibers Layne mentions, and I resisted the "Black Rifle" craze as long as I could. I didn't "need" this AR, but I'm awfully glad I finally bought it!
    Look forward to more of Layne's fine writing.

  • D.K. Soto

    I'm a old school guy the one rifle I seem to use the most is my Savage 110 in 220 Swift. It works well past 400 yards. I just like working the bolt.

  • Bob U.

    I'm old school too @ 82, but sure enjoy the AR, 17 HMR, 204, 222 Rem, 222 Mag, 22-250, 22 BR, 243 & 6 BR.. All of those calibers are in HB's and in a Dog Town, i never let a barrel get to hot, so I normally take a 4 gun battery. Getting ready to make my 15th trip for PD's and plan to take about 1600 rounds…a Buddy is driving and taking all the guns, ammo, and bench stuff. To all, good shooting this year and be safe.

  • DennisKsmith

    I prefer a good bolt action. My next endeavor is a Mossberg MVP in .223 Remington. The 200 Yd. field test was great.

  • Starky

    I would take a half a dozen rifles in a half dozen calibers to the dog towns. Finally down to two calibers. .223 Rem. and .243 Win. Use the .223 till the wind kicks up then switch over to the .243. Spending far less time at the reloading bench and am enjoying the shoot just as much. Also like the much lower cost of reloading for just these two calibers when going to the dog towns. I agree, I like a good bolt action with good glass on top, but the ARs are fun to.

  • Gary Couch

    I read articles where an author expresses his opinion with interest, regardless if I agree with the premise or not. The latter being the case here, I have never been a big fan of the .223 in a varmint rifle, again this is just my opinion. However when an author cites an example that to me is ridiculous I must comment. In the early eighties my father purchased a Rem. 700BDL in 22-250, I still shoot that rifle today, everything is as it was when purchased and thousands of rounds have been fired through it. This rifle consistently shoots 1/4" 5 shot groups at 100 yards, and sub 1" at 200 yards. I don't know how much more accurate a .220 swift could possibly be? If I were to move to the AR platform it would be in a 6mm caliber, something such as the 6mmAR round. (Since were talking about owning multiple varmint rifles.) With all the advantages of the various calibers from rimfire to 6mm the 223 seems to me to be a poor second choice.

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