April 21, 2012
By Layne Simpson
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.
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
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.
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.