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Small Game Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

The most common small game animals, at lease in North America, are the various species of rabbits and squirrels. Both are sporting targets and good to eat, but not very big. So a cartridge of great power is not required, but a high order of accuracy is necessary because they are small targets. And the rifleman may get numerous shots in a day, so the cost of ammunition is a consideration. These factors make small game hunting the natural province of rimfire cartridges.

The .22 Long Rifle is by far the most popular small game caliber in the world. The High Velocity Hollow Point version of this old cartridge seems to be just about ideal for the purpose. CCI Mini-Mag, Federal Classic, Remington Golden Bullet, and Winchester Super-X .22 LR-HP ammunition are all examples of the type. These use 36-38 grain copper plated LHP bullets at a muzzle velocity (MV) of about 1280 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 131 ft. lbs. (Remington figures). They are powerful enough to kill quickly, but not so powerful that a chest shot blows the animal apart. The trajectory of the .22 LR cartridge is such that its maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 1 inch is about 85 yards. Zero a scoped rifle using one of these high velocity HP loads at 25 yards and the bullet passes through the line of sight for the second time at about 75 yards. The mid-range rise of a .22 so sighted is about 1 inch.

A step up in killing power are the Hyper-Velocity Long Rifle cartridges, such as the CCI Stinger and Remington Yellow Jacket. The Yellow Jacket uses a lighter 33 grain copper plated LHP bullet at a MV of 1500 fps and ME of 165 ft. lbs. These expand more rapidly than the high velocity hollow point bullets and are more destructive. These cartridges shoot slightly flatter and extend the MPBR by about 5 yards.

The .17 Mach 2 is based on CCI's .22 Stinger case necked down to accept the same .172" diameter, 17 grain bullet used in the .17 HMR. This cartridge provides velocities comparable to those of the .22 WMR (2000-2100 fps), but less energy. It is devastating on small game at ranges out to around 100 yards, so head shots are called for. The price for .17 Mach 2 ammunition is pretty high, about five times that of the .22 LR and comparable to that of the .22 Magnum, although about 20% cheaper than .17 HMR ammo. The .17 Mach 2 is offered in most of the rifles available in .22 LR, but it has yet to become as popular as the .17 HMR.

The newest magnum rimfire cartridge is the .17 HMR. The flattest shooting rimfire cartridge ever, the .17 HMR uses a 17 grain jacketed, plastic tipped spitzer bullet at a MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. Its MPBR (+/- 1.5") is about 165 yards and that it is deadly on small game and varmints at that range. At normal small game hunting ranges of 25-100 yards, head shots are necessary if you expect to eat the remains. The Henry lever action .17 HMR hunting rifles are excellent examples of small game .17's and I really enjoy the ultra-smooth action of my Golden Boy.

At present, the most powerful rimfire cartridge is the .22 WMR (.22 Magnum). In its original form it launched a 40 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 2000 fps. Current 40 grain loads have been reduced to a MV of 1910 fps and ME of 324 ft. lbs. 30-34 grain and 50 grain JHP bullets are also available. Head shots are a must with the .22 WMR, as body shots are likely to literally blow a small animal apart. Due to its substantially higher velocity the .22 WMR has a significantly longer range than the .22 LR, and it can be zeroed at 100 yards with a mid-range rise of about 1 inch. Avoid the FMJ bullets also offered for the .22 Magnum; they seem to have little shock effect on game and are prone to ricochet.

In addition to the .17 and .22 rimfire cartridges there are several centerfire cartridges useful for small game hunting. These would include the .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .25-20, .30 carbine, and .32-20. Because of the extra power of these cartridges head shots will generally be necessary on any game intended for the table.

The .22 Hornet and .218 Bee are the smallest of the .22 Centerfire varmint cartridges. They shoot .22 caliber bullets of about 45-46 grains at around 2700 fps, and out range the .17 HMR rimfire by about 25 yards. Both have a reputation for excellent accuracy in modern varmint rifles.

The .25-20 and .32-20 are old cartridges designed for lever action rifles such as the Winchester Model 1892 and Marlin Model 1894. Once nearly obsolete, they have gotten a new lease on life because of the sport of cowboy action shooting. However, neither rifles nor ammunition for these old timers are widely distributed or particularly inexpensive. The .25-20 drives an 86 grain JSP bullet at a MV of 1460 fps. The larger caliber .32-20 drives a 100 grain lead bullet at a MV of 1210 fps. Due to their low velocity the .25-20 and .32-20 are the least destructive of the centerfire small game cartridges. Neither shoots as flat as the .22 WMR.

The .30 Carbine cartridge is a modern, rimless counterpart to the .32-20, loaded to considerably greater pressure and velocity. It starts a 110 grain JSP found nose bullet at a MV of 1990 fps and ME of 965 ft. lbs. This is far more powerful than required for small game hunting and represents the upper limit of acceptability. Its trajectory is flat enough to permit a 100 yard zero, much like that of the .22 WMR. As with any of the centerfire cartridges, head shots are desirable. This can be a problem for the .30 Carbine, since the cartridge and the rifles normally chambered for it (typically the U.S. M1 Carbine) have a reputation for indifferent accuracy. The .30 carbine has found a home in the Ruger Blackhawk and T/C single shot pistols, which will often outperform the M1 carbine (rifle) in terms of accuracy.

None of these centerfire cartridges do anything for the small game hunter that cannot be accomplished by the rimfire cartridges. The extra range of the Hornet and Bee is generally unnecessary, since tree squirrels and cottontail rabbits and are not normally shot at long range. I derive great pleasure from walking the woods with a .22, and I have killed far more than my share of small game with .22 LR and .22 WMR rifles. I can't remember ever feeling that I needed more power or range. However, the person who owns a good centerfire rifle chambered for one of these calibers and enjoys shooting it can have a lot of fun hunting small game with his or her pet.

I recommend head shots with all of the above calibers except the .22 LR to avoid excessive meat damage and I generally try for a head shot even with the .22 LR. The result is usually a miss or a kill, and no meat is spoiled.

A good small game rifle should have a petite action to match its cartridge and a solid feel. A smooth action is always desirable and a light, clean trigger pull is crucial for accuracy. Production standards being what they are today, that almost inevitably means that a trigger job will be necessary for any new rifle.

Adults need a full size stock that fits correctly. The small game rifle needs good balance and a stock design amenable to fast handling. Most shots will be at fairly close range where the prey is likely to detect the hunter at any moment, and most small animals are wary and not inclined to sit still for long periods of time in any case.

Ultra light rifles are hard to hold steady and shoot accurately, so a good small game rifle should be light but not ultra light. I consider a catalog weight of 6 to 6.5 pounds just about ideal. The rifle's action can be of any type, repeater or single shot, as long as it shoots accurately; barrel length should be chosen more for proper balance than ballistics. The relatively small amount of powder in small game cartridges burns quickly. I generally prefer the balance of a medium weight barrel in the 20-22 inch range. A sling is as convenient on a small game hunting rifle as it is on a big game rifle.

A good small game hunting rifle does not have to be fancy, but it does have to be accurate. The adult hunter can choose among fine autoloading, pump, lever, and bolt action repeaters and falling block or rolling block single shot rifles. The most popular calibers are .22 LR, .17 Mach 2, .22 WMR and .17 HMR. There are many suitable rifles from manufacturers such as Anschutz, Browning, CZ, Henry, Kimber, Marlin, Remington, Ruger, Sako, Savage, Thompson/Center and Winchester, among others. To conserve space I will mention only a select few representative models, but there is something for everyone in every price class.

The .22 autoloader to which all others are compared is the Ruger 10/22. It has earned a reputation as perhaps the most reliable autoloader ever designed. The 10/22 uses the proven Ruger rotary magazine. It is typically supplied with integral scope mounts and iron sights, a carbine style walnut stock, an 18.5 inch barrel and weighs between 4.5 and 7.5 pounds, depending on the exact model.

Among the fine bolt action rifles chambered for all of the various .17 and .22 caliber rimfire cartridges is the Anschutz Model 1700 line. These top of the line, premium priced rifles are based on the Model 54 sporter action with a detachable box magazine, dual locking lugs, claw extractor, recessed bolt face and an outstanding single stage trigger. The 1700's come with checkered walnut stocks, free floating barrels with a target crown and are drilled and tapped for scope mounts.

My personal small game rifle is a lever action Marlin Golden 39A Mountie in .22 LR. This rifle has a 20 inch barrel and a traditional straight hand stock. It wears a Redfield 4x fixed power scope. It delivers very good accuracy with most brands of ammunition and excellent accuracy with Winchester Super-X and CCI Mini-Mag HP cartridges. I have primarily used the latter for the last 25 years. This rifle has killed everything from tiny ground squirrels to (one) deer.

The Model 39 is the original adult .22 rifle. Model 39 actions are still machined from forged steel parts. All Model 39's take down for cleaning or travel. The standard model comes with a 24 inch barrel, a tubular magazine that holds nineteen .22 LR cartridges, iron sights plus a scope base, and a checkered walnut stock. It weighs 6.5 pounds. You can read more about these fine rifles in the review of the Marlin 39 on the Rifle Information Page.

Any good rimfire rifle deserves a good scope. Good rimfire scopes are not cheap, but they are not overwhelmingly expensive, either. Any small game rifle will be well served by a fixed power scope of about 4x, or a variable in the 2-7x range. Among the brands and models I would consider for a new small game rifle are the Sightron SIIB 1.25-5x20mm Compact, Sightron SII 4x32mm Compact, Sightron SII 2.5-10x32mm Compact, Bushnell Banner 1-4x32mm Rimfire, Bushnell Compact 4x20mm Rimfire, Leupold VX-II Compact 2-7x28mm Rimfire Special, Weaver Classic Rimfire RV7 (2.5-7x28mm) and Weaver RV4 (4x28mm).

A picture of a good small game hunting rifle should be coming clear. It should be chambered for an accurate cartridge at least as powerful as the .22 LR, and no more powerful than the .30 Carbine. Rimfire cartridges are most popular choice. It should be light for convenient carry, but not ultra-light, as it must be shot accurately and quickly from unsupported field positions. For the same reason it should balance and swing properly. The type of action is optional, but it should be petite and the rifle should have a stock that fits the hunter properly. The trigger pull should be light and crisp, which probably means some work by a competent gunsmith. The ideal small game rifle should wear a good quality scope of medium power and a sling if the hunter prefers to use one. As with any hunting rifle, quality will prove to be its own reward, and economy will prove to be expensive in the long run.

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Copyright 2003, 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.