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.204 Shootout

.204 Shootout

Ruger's Mark II Target and Savage's Model 12 Varmint go head-to-head.

The Savage Model 12 Varmint (foreground), mounting a 6.5-20X Full Field II Burris, and the Ruger Model 77 Mark II Target, sporting a 36X Leupold, look like twins with their laminated stocks.

This late 2004 Sturm, Ruger and Company joined with Hornady to announce a brand-new cartridge. This new .20-caliber round is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case and promises to offer high velocity with low recoil, sharing some common ground with the .22-250 hot rod, as well. The new .204 is currently offered in 32- and 40-grain loads from Hornady, and it looks like an interesting concept right off the bat.

A .20-caliber rifle is nothing new. Walt Berger has been offering bullets for quite some time, and while the caliber hasn't been a household word, I recall seeing a .20-caliber Cooper rifle for sale some time ago at the local Scheels store. The new .204 Ruger is essentially a .222 Magnum case necked down to hold a .204-inch bullet.

Case dimensions are a difficult thing to find so far, but Hodgdon information states that the .204 should be trimmed to 1.84 inches while RCBS says the .222 Magnum should be trimmed to 1.850 inches. Both use the same .378-inch rimless base. The .222 Mag uses a 23-degree shoulder while chamber specs call for a 30-degree angle on the .204. Hodgdon data says the .204 should be loaded with Federal 205M primers while the data for the .222 Mag is based on a Winchester standard rifle primer. Overall load length for the .204 is 2.26 inches while the .222 Magnum is set at 2.22 to 2.28 inches.

Although the .204 is based on a .222 Magnum case, it performs more like a .22-250, using considerably less powder to achieve this high performance. Hodgdon's latest reloading manual suggests that a .22-250 needs 39.5 grains of Varget powder to launch a 40-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet at 4,135 fps while the .204 will launch its lightest bullet, a 32-grain VMAX, at 4,044 fps pushed by 28.3 grains of H335. Hornady's 32-grain .204 load is cataloged to leave a 26-inch barrel doing 4,225 fps while its 40-grain .22-250 VMAX load leaves a similar-length barrel doing 4,150 fps.

The downrange performance is similar as well. With a 200-yard zero both loads are .6 inch high at 100 while the .204 is 4.1 inches low at 300 and the .22-250 is 4.5 inches low. At 300 yards, the 32-grain .20-caliber bullet should be doing around 2,568 fps while the 40-grain .22-250 Hornady slug is doing 2,683 fps or so. The .204 is flatter than the .22-250 all the way out to 500 yards, and I'd suggest that both of 'em run out of steam past that distance, if not before in many applications.

The .223 Remington, a great cartridge by all accounts (and the ballistic twin of the obsolete .222 Magnum), makes for a great measuring stick. The .204 40-grain Hornady load exhibits more velocity at 100 yards than the Hornady 40-grain .223 load does at the muzzle. At 300 yards the .223 is 7.2 inches low while the 40-grain .204 bullet is 4.3 inches low. In a nutshell, the .204 looks like you should be able to hold dead-on a prairie dog out to 300 yards or so and get a hit. You'll have to throw in a bit of Kentucky windage to hit with the .223 at that range.


Savage Model 12 Varmint Low Profile
Manufacturer:Savage Arms
Action Type:Single-shot bolt action
Finish:Brushed stainless steel
Stock:Low-profile laminated wood
Trigger:AccuTrigger, adjustable from 1.5 to 6 pounds
Weight:10 pounds
Barrel Length:26 inches
Overall Length:46 1/4 in.

To get a good look at this new kid on the block, I got my hands on a pair of new American rifles chambered for the .204. Ken Jorgensen at Ruger sent a beautiful new Target Gray Model 77 MK II Target Repeater. Sporting an attractive laminated stock and matte-gray stainless steel action and barrel, this is one great-looking rig. Ruger's Model 77 is supplied with great, seemingly bulletproof one-piece rings and bases that engage the receiver in seconds. I took the time to lap the rings before slipping a vintage Leupold benchrest-style 36X scope into place. This scope is crystal clear and has magnification that can pick out a fly at 100 yards.

The second rifle came from Savage. Dubbed the Model 12 Varmint, this rifle too sports a laminated wood stock. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it came from the same manufacturer as the one on the Ruger. The stock on the Savage is the new Low Profile version with a wide beavertail fore-end.

Unlike the Model 77 repeater, the Model 12 Varmint is a single-shot version. The Savage is also available with a four-shot magazine. It sports a fluted stainless steel barrel and action.

Savage upped the ante on the M12 with the addition of the AccuTrigger. Long noted for great accuracy, Savage centerfire rifles were often criticized because good shooting took place in spite of a rough and creepy trigger. Those days are gone forever. The AccuTrigger, which was introduced in 2003, is fully adjustable from 1 1/2 to about six pounds in the Varmint series, and it breaks like ice.

I was short on centerfire riflescopes, so Pat Beckett from Burris came to the rescue by sending a new 6.5-20X Full-Field II scope equipped with a ballistic Mil-Dot reticle. I attached it to the Savage with Burris Signature rings and bases.

I took the time to break in both barrels carefully before the serious range sessions took place. The break-in procedure consisted of firing five rounds and then cleaning the barrel until the patches came out white. Then I'd follow with five more and do it all over again. I didn't pay much attention to groups downrange during these lengthy sessions.



Ruger Model 77 Mark II TargetVELOCITY/ES/SD@15 ft.ENERGY VELOCITYSMALLEST 5-shot gp.@100 yds.LARGEST 5-shot gp.@100 yds.AVERAGE 5-shot gp.@100 yds.
@15 ft.@100 yds.
Hornady 32-gr. VMAX4,207/130/46 fps1,257 fps3,573 fps.63 in.1.61 ins.1.21 ins.
Hornady 40-gr. VMAX3,715/168/41 fps1,225 fps3,353 fps.90 in.1.34 ins.1.16 ins.
Average for Ruger: .77 in.1.47 ins.1.16 ins.
SAVAGE MODEL 12 VLPVELOCITY/ES/SD@15 ft.ENERGY VELOCITYSMALLEST 5-shot gp.@100 yds.LARGEST 5-shot gp.@100 yds.AVERAGE 5-shot gp.@100 yds.
@15 ft.@100 yds.
Hornady 32-gr. VMAX4,117/179/47 fps1,204 fps3,523 fps.82 in.1.38 ins.1.01 ins.
Hornady 40-gr. VMAX3,729/67/20 fps1,234 fps3,335 fps.72 in..84 in..78 in.
Average for Savage: 77 in.1.11 ins.90 in.

For those who are interested, I typically use several cleaning solvents in my routine, starting with Hoppe's BR 9 first. I use three wet patches pushed through the bore from breech to muzzle (never pulled back through), followed by a thorough brushing. Then I patch it until dry and follow with Sweets or Barnes CR10-soaked patches to remove the copper fouling. Typically, it'll take a half dozen or so wet patches followed with about the same number of dry patches. Then I hit the bore once more with BR 9. If the rig is going into storage, I follow with a light coat of oil.

If a barrel refuses to clean up with this method, I'll add a thorough wet-down and brushing with Holland's Witches Brew, finished off again with BR 9 or a similar cleaner.

As you might expect, shooting and cleaning a .20 takes some .20-caliber equipment. I got my 28-inch Dewey cleaning rod, jags and brushes from Sinclair International. (The company will soon have dies and other supplies for the new cartridge as well.) I found that Pro Shot .22-.270 1 1/8-inch precut patches worked great, although they are snug. My vintage Pro Shot bore guide worked with both rigs.

I got the chance to use the Savage on a few long-range prairie dogs while shooting with Chuck Cornett's annual Prairie Dog Conference held in Southwestern South Dakota this past June. In the real world, the .204 looks like it'll stand alongside the .22-250 quite nicely. Even in gusty wind, I found it easy to hit to 200 yards by simply arranging the first Mil-Dot to either side of the reticle intersection and squeezing the AccuTrigger. To 200 yards, either factory load must be called explosive. Out to 300 yards the Savage/Burris/Hornady combination was deadly while the explosive bullet effect dropped off somewhat beyond 250 yards.

At 300 yards I used the Burris Mil-Dot reticle to hold off two dots or so for wind. Bullet drift in wind is a difficult thing to judge because rarely do we see a wind that is consistent anywhere in the West. I often checked the wind velocity and found it ranging from seven to 20 mph or so, but I knew it was doing different things downrange. Anyone familiar with long-range shooting and wind flags has seen flags at different ranges going in opposite directions. You can feel the same thing if you ride motorcycles or fly light aircraft, too.

Will a .17 or .20 drift more than a .22 or 6mm? I suspect that with 32-grain slugs they will drift about the same as a .22-250 40-grain load. Loaded with 40-grain bullets, the .204 might drift slightly less. It'll be tough to predict and even tougher to measure. At this speed it'll drift far less than the parent cartridge, to be sure. To 300 yards, anyone shooting a .204 on prairie dogs is well equipped, in my opinion.

Back home it was time to start the shoot-out. I picked a normal day with temperatures in the low 70s and the wind at my back. I used white Data-Targ benchrest-style targets stapled into position at a measured 100 yards. I started with clean, dry bores and quickly found that both rifles would put the first round from a clean, dry bore into the group that followed, routinely.

I had one Oelher 35P chronograph set up at the 100-yard targets with Skyscreens on a two-foot spacing and the second 35P set up to measure velocity 15 feet from the muzzle. I fired five 5-shot groups through each rifle prior to giving them a thorough cleaning. This gave me the opportunity to see if accuracy deteriorated measurably as rounds piled up. Both rifles proved consistent all the way through the range session.

Hornady's 32-grain VMAX load left the Ruger doing 4,207 fps while the Savage launched them at 4,117 fps. Since this velocity was measured 15 feet from the muzzle, it looks like the Ruger/Hornady advertising is spot-on. Downrange this load was doing 3,573 and 3,523 fps, respectively. Hornady suggests that the load should be doing about 100 fps more at 100 yards. The Ruger averaged 1.21 inches with this load while the Savage came in just a tick over an inch. The Ruger took group-of-the-day with this load, accounting for one neat .63-inch group while the Savage came in at .82 inch. By the same token, the Ruger combination also accounted for a rather large 1.61-inch group while I held the Savage/Burris/Hornady combo down to 1.38 inches, maximum.

Manufacturer:Sturm, Ruger & Co.
Action Type:Bolt-action repeater
Finish:Matte stainless steel
Stock:Laminated wood
Trigger:2 pounds, 11 ounces
Weight:9.75 pounds
Barrel Length:26 inches
Overall Length:45 5/8 in.
Safety:Three-Position Manual

The 40-grain VMAX load left the Ruger doing 3,715 fps and 3,729 fps out of the Savage. Both rifles preferred this load, with the Ruger holding things down to 1.12 inches and the Savage accounting for five groups that were all less than an inch. The Savage averaged .78 inch with this load. This load held on to 3,350 fps or so at the 100-yard target.

When the dust settled, the Ruger averaged 1.165 inches for 10 five-shot groups while the Savage averaged .9 inch. The Ruger accounted for the tightest five-shot group.

The Ruger is a handsome repeater with a great trigger. Rings are included with the package and attach to the integral scope-mounting bases.

Calling a winner here is easy on one hand. This new cartridge adds up to a great deal of fun. To 200 yards it's explosive on prairie poodles, and to 300 yards it's deadly. Recoil is light, and noise seems to be down as well. It'll play with the .22-250 in most games while the lighter bullet might do less pelt damage downrange.

Picking a winner between the rifles is tougher. The Ruger has a great trigger out of the box--averaging two pounds, 11 ounces--while the Savage averages one pound, 10.5 ounces. Both break like ice, and both triggers are great out of the box. All things considered, one might declare the Savage the winner because it performed slightly better on the range, and it carries an MSRP of $752 while the Ruger hits the charts at $845. Still, adding rings and bases to the Savage evens this score.

I believe there is room for improvement in both cases. Typically, tackdrivers get even better when carefully crafted handloads are worked up. I suspect that both of them would play around half an inch at 100 yards with great handloads.

All things considered, I've got to call both of them winners. They're both made right here in America, and both of them are chambered for a great new cartridge, too. Great job, Ruger. Great job, Savage.

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