Varmint Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

The typical varmint rifle is a specialized type of small caliber, long range hunting rifle. Great killing power is not required because the targets are usually rodents ranging in size from ground squirrels and prairie dogs to marmots (woodchucks or ground hogs), but accuracy and flat trajectory are at a premium. The small size of the targets means that the generally accepted maximum permissible bullet deviation above or below the line of sight is only 1.5 inches. It also means that high power telescopic sights are the norm. Their limited field of view is acceptable because the targets are small, far away, and shot only when motionless.

In addition, recoil should be light as many shots may be taken in one day. For the same reason, barrel heating can be a problem, so cartridges that burn a great amount of powder are not desirable. This explains why cartridges such as the .240 and .257 Weatherby Magnums are not very popular for varmint shooting, even though they are terrific in terms of ballistics, and the .25-06 is marginal. These cartridges kick too hard and burn too much powder to be ideal varmint calibers.

Serious varmint hunters are almost always reloaders. Most find it rewarding to fine tune their loads for maximum accuracy in their individual rifles. There is an excellent selection of varmint bullets in .22, .24, and .25 caliber, and a very limited selection in .17 caliber.

Bullets for varmint cartridges are specialized. They must be extremely accurate, withstand the heat of acceleration to very high velocity, and yet fragment explosively on contact with their tiny targets or the ground to prevent over penetration or dangerous ricochets in partially settled areas. They have been highly developed for their purpose, very limited penetration, which is why they must never be used on big game. And why, conversely, it is dangerous to use big game and FMJ military type bullets for shooting varmints.

Anyone who is spending sleepless nights hankering for a varmint rifle first needs to realistically evaluate his or her needs and budget. The most popular varmint cartridges today can be divided into three categories, based on their maximum point blank range.

The first would be relatively short range cartridges used close to civilization where maximum ballistic performance is less important than a relatively soft muzzle blast to avoid upsetting the surrounding livestock and landowners. People tend to equate danger with noise, which is not very valid in terms of rifles, but there you are.

The most common varmint cartridges for use in populated areas are the .17 HMR and .22 WMR rimfire magnum cartridges, plus the centerfire .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. These throw projectiles ranging from the tiny 17 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2500 fps of the .17 HMR to the 46 grain bullet at 2760 fps of the .218 Bee. According to the "Rifle Trajectory Table" the maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 1.5 inches of the popular .22 Hornet is 188 yards. A good quality 6x fixed power scope or 3-9x variable power scope will allow the shooter to take advantage of all these cartridges have to give.

Calibers such as the .222 Remington and .223 Remington represent the popular medium range varmint cartridges. The .222 typically uses a 50 grain bullet at a MV of 3140 fps, while the .223 drives a 55 grain bullet at a MV of 3200 fps. The MPBR (+/- 1.5 inches) of these cartridges, as shown in the "Rifle Trajectory Table," is 222-225 yards. Quality 8x or 10x fixed power scopes, and 3.5-10x or 4-12x variable power scopes will prove adequate on a rifle chambered for a medium range varmint cartridge.

Long range varmint cartridges start with the .17 Remington and include the famous .22-250, .220 Swift and the newer .223 WSSM, plus the .243 Winchester, .243 WSSM, and 6mm Remington. Occasionally one sees a .257 Roberts or .25-06 varmint rifle. The .22-250 starts a 55 grain bullet at a MV of about 3680 fps, while the Swift and .223 WSSM launch their 55 grain bullets at a MV of about 3800 fps. The .243 delivers a MV of 3400 fps with a 70 grain bullet, and the .243 WSSM and 6mm Remington are typically loaded to a MV of about 3470 fps with an 80 grain bullet. The .257 Roberts can achieve a MV of 3350 fps with an 85 grain bullet, and the .25-06 can start an 85 grain bullet at a MV of 3500 fps. The MPBR of these cartridges (+/- 1.5 inches) is 248-264 yards.

The advantage of the .24/6mm and .25 caliber cartridges is the superior wind-bucking ability of their heavier bullets, so they are particularly popular in the wide-open spaces of the plains states and the West. All of these long range varmint cartridges require high power scopes of superior definition. 4-12x, 6-18x, and 6-24x variable power scopes are common, and target type fixed power scopes of 12x to 36x are also employed.

Most of these varmint cartridges are available in sporter weight rifles with assorted actions for small game and predator hunting (and medium game hunting in the case of the .24 and .25 calibers), but the long range varmint rifle is a horse of a different color. It is a heavier rifle with a longer, thicker contour barrel. Its stock is designed to be fired from a rest, and often from the prone position. Serious varmint rifles are almost always of bolt action or falling block persuasion, and are often single shots regardless of action type. This is a one shot, one kill game, so rapid repeat shots are seldom necessary. Just about all of the major rifle manufacturers offer specialized varmint rifles, so I will describe only three as representative of the breed.

The Marlin 17VS is a rimfire, bolt action varmint rifle. It is chambered for the .17 HMR cartridge and features a 22 inch, heavy contour, stainless steel barrel. The substantial stock is made of gray/black laminated hardwood and incorporates a Monte Carlo comb, full pistol grip, and rubber butt pad. The detachable box magazine's capacity is 7 rounds, and the rifle weighs 7 pounds. This rifle is reasonably priced at a MSRP of $392 in 2003. An economical rimfire target scope such as the Simmons 1022T 3-9x32AO with an adjustable objective for parallax correction and target knobs carries a 2003 MSRP of $162 and would complete an effective and economical varmint rig.

The Savage 12BVSS is a centerfire, bolt action varmint rifle. It is available in varmint calibers .223, .22-250, and .243. It comes with a stainless steel, 26 inch, heavy fluted barrel. The heavy stock is made of laminated hardwood. Its receiver is drilled and tapped for scope mounts. The internal magazine's capacity is 5 rounds. This rifle weighs approximately 9.5 pounds and is 46.75 inches in overall length. Savage describes the 12BVSS as a "Short action precision long range rifle with dual pillar bedding." MSRP in 2003 was $616.

The Ruger No. 1V Varminter is a falling block single shot rifle. It is available in calibers .223, .22-250, .220, 6mm, and .25-06. Its polished and blued barreled action is bedded in a checkered, select walnut stock. The heavy contour round barrel is 24 or 26 inches in length, depending on caliber. It is supplied with target scope blocks and Ruger scope rings. The No. 1V weighs about 9 pounds. This is a varmint rifle for the connoisseur. MSRP in 2003 was $850. For more information about Ruger No. 1 rifles see the review on the Rifle Information Page.

Like others of their breed, the Savage 12BVSS and Ruger No. 1V are highly accurate long range rifles, designed to get the most out of their high velocity cartridges. They will typically be equipped with high magnification, variable power hunting type scopes or fixed power target type scopes. Either type will probably have some sort of fine crosshair reticle and an adjustable front objective that allows the shooter to correct for parallax at whatever range he or she desires.

The Leupold VX-II 6-18x40mm Adj. Obj. scope with target adjustments is a fairly typical scope for a long range varmint rifle. It is 13.4 inches long and weighs 15.8 ounces without a mount or rings. There is a review of this scope on the Rifle Information Page. Long range varmint scopes are big, specialized sights for big, specialized rifles.

It has been said that dedicated varmint shooters are also the deadliest big game shots because they have learned to dope the wind, estimate range accurately, and hit what they shoot at. It is hard to think of a nicer compliment to pay to a rifleman.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.