Varmint rifles are where you find them Essay

The sweet smell of fresh mown hay hung heavy in the moist morning
air. An hour-old sun had been hard at work on the heavy ground fog yet
there was still nothing more than a dull glow barely coming through the
misty gray backdrop. Visibility was less than 100 yards. I sat propped
against a bale near a partially loaded hay wagon listening to the sounds
of an awakening countryside. The clanging of a distant cow bell, a
dog’s bark, a tractor coughing to life, the drone of an 18-wheeler
somewhere over the mountain all carried crisply through the saturated
air.



Next to me, already having collected a generous layer of foggy dew,
was my Sako Varminter .22-250 still looking very businesslike propped up
on its Harris bipod waiting for something to do. Inches away was a
50-round MTM box, each of its egg-crated compartments occupied by a
jewellike cartridge looking like a tiny siloed missile. Atop the ammo
box perched my Zeiss rubber armored binoculars, still kinda new-looking
despite having logged a hundred thousand miles on hunting trips to hell
‘n’ gone. Completing the equipment ensemble was a rangefinder
and a spotting scope, the latter attached to its tripod but, with its
legs not yet unfurled, looking crippled as it lay there.



Oh, almost forgot. In addition to all the equipment was . . . a
buddy. Gots to have a shootin’ buddy when you go groundhog hunting. This day it was Tom rossman, a friend from Butler, Pennsylvania with whom I’d been coming to these same hay fields every summer for
the past five years. That’s just one of the nice things about this
sport: it’s a physically relaxed, social form of hunting where you
can sit in the shade and shoot the breeze, as well as an occasional
pasture poodle. There’s no pressure to “fill your
license” or to otherwise make the most of a limited-time trip.
It’s one of the best excuses I know to get out and do some shooting
at a time of year when the regular hunting season is both long past and
months away.


But perhaps the most compelling reason why grown men would spend
hours on end awaiting the chance to shoot at pint-sized rodents from
often ridiculously long distances is that it appeals to
dyed-in-the-wool, performance-oriented gun buffs. Varminting offers the
ultimate challenge, as well as the opportunity to make use of all the
accuracy we can squeeze from ourselves and our equipment–much more so
than in any other form of hunting.



As Tom and I sat waiting for the sun to suck up the last of the
fog, seeing that specialized gear all spread out in front of us got me
to thinking on how I started ‘chuck hunting back in northern Ohio
more than 25 years ago. I used a bolt-action .22 Magnum topped with a
4X scope. I’d walk the edges of fields making mental notes of
where the occupied ‘chuck burrows were, then followed up later by
stalking along the same route hoping for an offhand shot which averaged
maybe 60 yards. It was great fun and I was rather successful at it,
often getting three or four ‘chucks in a morning or evening effort.
Life was simpler then. Now, with the equipment I had in front of me, a
groundhog sitting 350 yards away was in a heap of trouble, and even one
450 yards would have reason to worry grievously if conditions were
right.



As specialized and equipment-oriented as one can become on the one
hand, entrance into this sport can be accomplished by simply pressing
one’s deer rifle into service. As any serious ‘chuck hunter
will tell you, anything short of a pure varmint rifle is a compromise;
in that they’re being a bit snobbish–but honest nonetheless.
However, the degree of compromise is not as great as one might think.



Take that traditional “deer rifle,” a Winchester or
Marlin .30-30, for example. As long as there’s a 4X scope on it
(so as to still keep it a reasonable whitetail and bear rig), it’s
possible to make a surprisingly effective 200-yard varmint rifle,
providing one is a handloader. Since fast repeat shot capability is of
no concern to the wood-chuck hunter, the .30-30 owner willing to load
his “Winlin” single-shot fashion can take advantage of the
more efficient spitzer bullets he couldn’t otherwise use in the
tubular magazine of his lever gun.



Using Speer’s 130-grain hollow point or Hornady’s
130-grain spire point at around 2,500 feet per second (fps) from a
typical 20-inch barrel, we’re looking at a trajectory with a
150-yard zero that won’t put us more than 2-1/2 inches above or
below line of sight out to nearly 200 yards. And when that 130-grain
slug arrives at that two century mark, it’s still clocking 1,950
fps and delivering 1,100 foot pounds of energy–far more than needed to
dispatch a mere 12-pound rodent. And if the truth be told, more
groundhogs are shot under 200 yards than over, so as unlikely a varmint
rifle as a lever action .30-30 might seem, within that realistic
200-yard range it’ll kill ’em just as dead as an
ultra-sophisticated varmint rig. That’s assuming, of course, that
musket’s capable of the necessary accuracy to hit what amounts to a
5 by 10-inch, vertically oriented target that is a sitting adult
‘chuck. Most .30-30s are capable of that kind of accuracy with
handload development; some will do better than that.


Non-handloaders have some options too, one of which is
Remington’s Accelerator which propels its 55-grain, sabot-clad .224
bullet out the barrel at 3,400 fps. On paper, at least, that’s
300-yard performance but in truth, accuracy in a typical .30-30 would
probably limit use to about 125-150 yards on a target the size of a
groundhog. Federal also offers a varmint load for the .30-30, a
125-grain hollow point at 2,570 fps with a flat enough nose to stuff in
tubular magzines; it’s a good load but that blunt-nosed bullet
starts dropping rapidly beyond the 150-yard mark (with a 100-yard zero),
so its use should be limited to that distance.



In any of the aforementioned cases a 4X scope is all you’d
need to take full advantage of the accuracy and ballistic potential of
the .30-30 and still have a rifle suited to its primary function of
venison collecting. After all, one doesn’t buy a .30-30 for the
primary purpose of varminting.



Our next category of “varminter” consists of the
all-around big-game rifle as typified by a bolt-action .270, 7mm Mag,
.30-06, etc. As in the case of the deer rifle, here again we’re
talking about a gun purchased or already owned for the primary purpose
of taking game–from deer and antelope to whatever–than at one point in
time pressing it into service as a pest rifle. When compared to the
pure varmint rifle, this type of rig requires some compromising but to a
much lesser degree when required of the .30-30 owner. Indeed, a
well-tuned .270 or .280 sporter with a 3-9X or 4-12X variable scope will
give any ‘chuck hunter, regardless of how sophisticated and
specialized his rig may be, a run for his money. A .270 handloaded with
a 110-grain hollow point to 3,450 fps or a 7 Mag with a 120-grain pill
at 3,500 fps can do things out at 350 yards that pure varmint cartridges
can’t. In one sense, it’s overkill in the extreme since one
hardly needs that kind of power to dispatch a groundhog at even 500 or
more yards, but it does make hitting at that range more plausible. Then
too, by simply changing loads we can use that same rifle for deer,
caribou or elk in the Fall. Try that with a pure varmint rifle!



What we have, then, in the typical big-game sporter between the
.264 Winchester Magnum and the .300 Magnums, is a rifle that can do two
totally different jobs and do them both quite well. But if indeed
that’s the case, what are those compromises we spoke of earlier
when compared to an all-out varmint rig? Well, for one thing,
availability of suitable factory loads is sparse. Both Winchester and
Remington offer a 110-grain varmint load for the .270: there’s a
125-grain 7 Mag option from Winchester, and there’s a number of 110
and 125-grain loads for both the .308 Winchester and the .30-06. But
there’s nothing in ready-rolled for the .280/7 Express, .270 and
7mm Weatherbys, .284 Winchester, 7mm Mauser or 7mm-08–good rounds all.



Even if there were a couple of varmint loads available in each and
every caliber, chances are that accuracy would not be good enough for us
to take advantage of the ballistic potential of the cartridge.
Realistically, 1-1/2 to 2-inch groups with factory ammo is what we can
expect from a typical big-game sporter wearing a mid-range variable of
2.5-8X or 3-9X. In other words, we’ve got the punch and flatness
of trajectory for long-range varminting beyond, say, 250 yards, but not
the kind of accuracy needed to hit with consistency.



If we’re to take full advantage of the long-range varminting
capability of the modern big-game rifle, handloading is a must. Through
meticulous load development using just a few of the many excellent
component varmint bullets available, it’s not uncommon to get
groups down around that magic MOA (one inch at 100 yards). With a 9X
scope and an MOA load in a .270, 7 Mag or .30-06, one can truly
terrorize any alfalfa field.



Like I said: there’s not a lot of compromising you have to do
using a finely-tuned big-game sporter as a varminter. And there’s
the added advantage afforded by the familiarity factor. There’s an
adage “Beware the one-gun man”, the point of which is obvious.
Year ’round use of the same rifle has got to make one more
confident and adept in its operation under the stress and excitement of
hunting.



Another debit side aspect to using such rifles for varminting,
however, is the relatively spirited recoil compared to the smaller
calibers. All other things equal, all of us can shoot tighter groups
with a .223 than we can with a .30-06; that’s just undisputed fact.
Moreover, most woodchuck shooting is done from the prone position with
the toe of the butt resting on the ground. From such a position
there’s a tendency to crawl the stock and get a “magnum
eyebrow” for one’s effort. A couple of those and your
shooting precision may well fall apart straightaway. We may even enjoy
shooting our 7 Mags and .30-06’s more than we do smaller calibers,
but we can’t shoot them as well.



As good a pretender as one’s .270 or ’06 can make, there
are cartridges better suited for varminting. I’m referring, of
course, to the “dual-purpose” numbers the likes of the .243
Winchester, 6mm Remington, .257 Roberts, .25-06 and the .240 and .257
Weatherby Magnums. These cartridges’ claim to fame has always been
versatility; their being equally at home potting poodles in Farmer
Brown’s back 40 as they are on the Pronghorn prairie. Truth of the
matter is, these .24s and .25s are actually less versatile than a 270, a
7 Mag or an ’06 because their use should be limited to animals of
the deer/antelope class. They have an edge as varminters though because
they offer a slightly higher level of accuracy, there are more efficient
bullets of varmint construction available, there’s appreciably less
recoil and cost per shot. And they offer one more advantage that other
classes don’t: over-the-counter rifles designed specifically as
“pure varminters’–guns with stout barrels that provide an
extra level of accuracy and steady-hold qualities. Those very qualities,
however, come at the expense of portability and handling thereby
precluding the use of such guns for anything but varminting. Of course
there’s no law saying you can’t a ten-pound rifle into the
woods or onto the prairie, but I sure wouldn’t want to.



For those nimrods looking to take advantage of that dual
personality by going with a sporter, if follows that one’s scope
must be a medium or high range variable; you’ll need at least a 9X
to even see a 400-yard chuck when only his top half is visible as he
sits up in six-inch grass. And make no mistake: honest 400-yard hits on
the first shot are not uncommon with a well-tuned 6mm or .25-06 sporter,
though they’re a lot more common at 300!



With a pure varminter where we don’t have to worry about using
the same gun for our annual deer hunt, we can avail ourselves to the
extra measure of precision afforded by a fixed power scope of high
magnification, say 10X on up. I’ve seen guys using 16s and even
24s on varminters but I personally find the parallax and focus settings
to be too critical in these scopes which are really designed for
competitive shooting at predetermined distanced. I also find that
mirage and tremors (which are of course, present in lower power scopes,
too), are too distracting. It’s a case of ignorance being bliss.



So you can go either way with the dualpurpose .24s and .25s:
sporter or varmint. It’s a mistake to assume that the accuracy
difference between the two, all other thins equal, is going to be
dramatic. I’d say 1/4 MOA (minute of angle) is average and most of
that is due to the steadiness-of-hold that the heavy-barreled guns
provide. While on that subject, I’d like to challenge Ruger,
Remington, Winchester, Smith ; Wesson, and everyone else who offers
heavy-barreled guns in varmint caliberts to furnish the appropriate
stocks with ’em. With the exception of Savage and Sako, everyone
else simply sticks on their standard sporter handle with the barrel
channel hogged out. I realize the economics involved from the
manufacturers’ standpoint, but a straight, high-combed butt and
wide fore-end take better advantage of the heavy-barrled gun’s
capabilities both on the bench and in the field.



Getting back to accuracy, that quarterinch difference I spoke of
should translate into 1/4 to 1 MOA with tailored handloads from a 24 or
.25 caliber sporter, and 1/2 to 1/4 from the heavy barreled equivalent.



In the 6mm I’ve always preferred the 85 and 87-grain
bullets–the heaviest of the highly frangible pills offered in that
caliber. More popular though, are the 70, 75 and 80-grainers.



In the .257 Roberts I like the 87-grain bullets for groundhogs, but
the 100’s in the bigger .25-06 and .257 Weatherby. In any case,
one’s final choice of bullet and load should be based on what
provides the highest level of consistent accuracy.



That leaves us with the .22 centerfires, the most specialized-class
of rifles because their use should be restricted to pests and predators.
It is ballistics rather than physical characteristics, i.e., sporter
versus heavy barrel, that puts all .22s in the varmints-only category.
Barring the kinds of terrain and/or tactics that dictate the
“carryability” of a sporter, I prefer to let the specific
application determine the cartridge and, in turn, the cartridge
determine the type of rifle. If typical shots are under 250 yards (or
can be closed to that distance by stalking), then a .222 or .223 is
enough cartridge. Because a sporter can deliver all the accuracy I can
use on out to that distance, that would be my choice. Going along with
the ballistics and handling characteristics of such a combination, a
small 6 or 8X scope is all I feel I can effectively use.



For longer shooting requiring the likes of the .22-250 or .220
Swift, then I prefer a heavy barreled rig with at least a 10X scope to
take full advantage of what these cartridges are capable of doing. If
after a reasonable amount of handload development I can’t get 1/2
to 1/4-inch groups from such a rifle, something’s wrong.



In the smaller .22’s I like the 52 and 53-grain match HP
bullets; in the .22-250 and Swift. I like Nosler’s or
Hornady’s 60-grain spitzers or Hornady’s 60-grain hollow point
bullets.



An important point yet to be made is that if you opt for a
heavy-barreled gun, whether a .22, a 6mm or a .25, it means investing in
a rifle that’s not going to be much good for anything but
varminting. Assuming a new rifle, a scope, reloading dies, etc.,
you’re looking at a minimum 500 dollar investment. For the
would-be ‘chuck hunter, the best approach is to draft your deer or
big-game rifle into service as described earlier. If you like the sport
enough to want to invest in another rifle, you’ll be in a better
position to decide not only on what sort of rifle/cartridge/scope combo
you want, but what you need.



Varminting is not all artillery; you need other equipment, too, if
you’re going to do it right. Two “must” items are
binoculars and some sort of rifle rest. Regarding the former, the old
cliche “buy the best you can afford” is good advice but
doesn’t go quite far enough. Money spent on binoculars the likes
of Bausch ; Lomb, Leitz or Zeiss is a good investment, even if you
have to scratch a while longer to come up with the tariff. Groundhog
hunting is 99 percent glassing and one percent shooting so the
investment in a really good binocular will pay off in the long run.



For decades the 7×35 has been considered the “all-around”
binocular but I myself prefer 8-powers. Apparently I’m not alone
since sales figures show the 8X glass becoming increasingly popular over
the past few years. Even a 10X glass is quite usable but I find its
size and weight a bit much for game hunting unless it’s one of the
“mini” types.



To even being to take advantage of the kind of accuracy a
well-tuned centerfire rifle is capable requires a dead steady rest. Many
varminters simply drag along the same tripod and sandbag they use for
bench shooting and set up on the ground. It is the steadiest
combination but falls short in the rapid deployment and convenience
departments. I like the Harris bipod–the shorter of his two
models–which adjusts fore-end heights from 7-1/2 to 12 inches above the
ground. I find his other model, which adjusts from 13 to 28 inches, too
high for prone shooting and not high enough for sitting. The Harris
bipod folds compactly under the barrel when not in use, doesn’t mar
the stock, and is easily transferred from rifle to rifle.



Another commercial rifle rest is the one offered by Bill Minneman
of MTM (5680 Webster St., Dept. GA, Dayton, OH 45414); it’s a
sturdy, yard-long fiberglass walking stick with an adjustable-height
fore-end rest. Driving its sharply pointed end into the ground, the MTM
Shooting Stick makes a good rest from the sitting or prone position;
however, being a monopod it can’t provide quite the steadiness of
bipod or sandbag set-up.



Or you can use plain ol’ “buffalo sticks,” two
sticks planted on the ground and crossed at the desired height to
provide a remarkably steady rest once you get the hang of it.



A spotting scope and a rangefinger are two other pieces of
equipment frequently used by serious varmint hunters. Occasionally a
spotting scope is used to positively identify that that little brown
spot out in the alfalfa is really the head of a ‘chuck

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