Varmint rifles are where you find them Essay

The sweet smell of fresh mown hay hung heavy in the moist morningair. An hour-old sun had been hard at work on the heavy ground fog yetthere was still nothing more than a dull glow barely coming through themisty gray backdrop. Visibility was less than 100 yards. I sat proppedagainst a bale near a partially loaded hay wagon listening to the soundsof an awakening countryside.

The clanging of a distant cow bell, adog’s bark, a tractor coughing to life, the drone of an 18-wheelersomewhere over the mountain all carried crisply through the saturatedair. Next to me, already having collected a generous layer of foggy dew,was my Sako Varminter .22-250 still looking very businesslike propped upon its Harris bipod waiting for something to do. Inches away was a50-round MTM box, each of its egg-crated compartments occupied by ajewellike cartridge looking like a tiny siloed missile. Atop the ammobox perched my Zeiss rubber armored binoculars, still kinda new-lookingdespite having logged a hundred thousand miles on hunting trips to hell’n’ gone. Completing the equipment ensemble was a rangefinderand a spotting scope, the latter attached to its tripod but, with itslegs not yet unfurled, looking crippled as it lay there.

Oh, almost forgot. In addition to all the equipment was . .

. abuddy. 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 forthe past five years. That’s just one of the nice things about thissport: it’s a physically relaxed, social form of hunting where youcan sit in the shade and shoot the breeze, as well as an occasionalpasture poodle.

There’s no pressure to “fill yourlicense” 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 shootingat a time of year when the regular hunting season is both long past andmonths away. But perhaps the most compelling reason why grown men would spendhours on end awaiting the chance to shoot at pint-sized rodents fromoften ridiculously long distances is that it appeals todyed-in-the-wool, performance-oriented gun buffs. Varminting offers theultimate challenge, as well as the opportunity to make use of all theaccuracy we can squeeze from ourselves and our equipment–much more sothan in any other form of hunting. As Tom and I sat waiting for the sun to suck up the last of thefog, seeing that specialized gear all spread out in front of us got meto thinking on how I started ‘chuck hunting back in northern Ohiomore than 25 years ago. I used a bolt-action .22 Magnum topped with a4X scope. I’d walk the edges of fields making mental notes ofwhere the occupied ‘chuck burrows were, then followed up later bystalking along the same route hoping for an offhand shot which averagedmaybe 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, agroundhog sitting 350 yards away was in a heap of trouble, and even one450 yards would have reason to worry grievously if conditions wereright.

As specialized and equipment-oriented as one can become on the onehand, entrance into this sport can be accomplished by simply pressingone’s deer rifle into service. As any serious ‘chuck hunterwill 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 orMarlin .

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’spossible to make a surprisingly effective 200-yard varmint rifle,providing one is a handloader. Since fast repeat shot capability is ofno concern to the wood-chuck hunter, the .30-30 owner willing to loadhis “Winlin” single-shot fashion can take advantage of themore efficient spitzer bullets he couldn’t otherwise use in thetubular magazine of his lever gun. Using Speer’s 130-grain hollow point or Hornady’s130-grain spire point at around 2,500 feet per second (fps) from atypical 20-inch barrel, we’re looking at a trajectory with a150-yard zero that won’t put us more than 2-1/2 inches above orbelow line of sight out to nearly 200 yards. And when that 130-grainslug arrives at that two century mark, it’s still clocking 1,950fps and delivering 1,100 foot pounds of energy–far more than needed todispatch a mere 12-pound rodent.

And if the truth be told, moregroundhogs are shot under 200 yards than over, so as unlikely a varmintrifle as a lever action .30-30 might seem, within that realistic200-yard range it’ll kill ’em just as dead as anultra-sophisticated varmint rig. That’s assuming, of course, thatmusket’s capable of the necessary accuracy to hit what amounts to a5 by 10-inch, vertically oriented target that is a sitting adult’chuck.

Most .30-30s are capable of that kind of accuracy withhandload development; some will do better than that. Non-handloaders have some options too, one of which isRemington’s Accelerator which propels its 55-grain, sabot-clad .224bullet out the barrel at 3,400 fps.

On paper, at least, that’s300-yard performance but in truth, accuracy in a typical .30-30 wouldprobably limit use to about 125-150 yards on a target the size of agroundhog. Federal also offers a varmint load for the .30-30, a125-grain hollow point at 2,570 fps with a flat enough nose to stuff intubular magzines; it’s a good load but that blunt-nosed bulletstarts 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’dneed to take full advantage of the accuracy and ballistic potential ofthe .30-30 and still have a rifle suited to its primary function ofvenison collecting. After all, one doesn’t buy a .

30-30 for theprimary purpose of varminting. Our next category of “varminter” consists of theall-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’retalking about a gun purchased or already owned for the primary purposeof taking game–from deer and antelope to whatever–than at one point intime pressing it into service as a pest rifle. When compared to thepure varmint rifle, this type of rig requires some compromising but to amuch lesser degree when required of the .30-30 owner. Indeed, awell-tuned .270 or .280 sporter with a 3-9X or 4-12X variable scope willgive any ‘chuck hunter, regardless of how sophisticated andspecialized his rig may be, a run for his money. A .

270 handloaded witha 110-grain hollow point to 3,450 fps or a 7 Mag with a 120-grain pillat 3,500 fps can do things out at 350 yards that pure varmint cartridgescan’t. In one sense, it’s overkill in the extreme since onehardly needs that kind of power to dispatch a groundhog at even 500 ormore yards, but it does make hitting at that range more plausible. Thentoo, 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 twototally different jobs and do them both quite well.

But if indeedthat’s the case, what are those compromises we spoke of earlierwhen compared to an all-out varmint rig? Well, for one thing,availability of suitable factory loads is sparse. Both Winchester andRemington offer a 110-grain varmint load for the .270: there’s a125-grain 7 Mag option from Winchester, and there’s a number of 110and 125-grain loads for both the .308 Winchester and the .30-06. Butthere’s nothing in ready-rolled for the .280/7 Express, .270 and7mm Weatherbys, .

284 Winchester, 7mm Mauser or 7mm-08–good rounds all. Even if there were a couple of varmint loads available in each andevery caliber, chances are that accuracy would not be good enough for usto take advantage of the ballistic potential of the cartridge.Realistically, 1-1/2 to 2-inch groups with factory ammo is what we canexpect from a typical big-game sporter wearing a mid-range variable of2.5-8X or 3-9X.

In other words, we’ve got the punch and flatnessof trajectory for long-range varminting beyond, say, 250 yards, but notthe kind of accuracy needed to hit with consistency. If we’re to take full advantage of the long-range varmintingcapability of the modern big-game rifle, handloading is a must. Throughmeticulous load development using just a few of the many excellentcomponent varmint bullets available, it’s not uncommon to getgroups down around that magic MOA (one inch at 100 yards). With a 9Xscope and an MOA load in a .270, 7 Mag or .30-06, one can trulyterrorize any alfalfa field. Like I said: there’s not a lot of compromising you have to dousing a finely-tuned big-game sporter as a varminter. And there’sthe added advantage afforded by the familiarity factor.

There’s anadage “Beware the one-gun man”, the point of which is obvious.Year ’round use of the same rifle has got to make one moreconfident and adept in its operation under the stress and excitement ofhunting. Another debit side aspect to using such rifles for varminting,however, is the relatively spirited recoil compared to the smallercalibers.

All other things equal, all of us can shoot tighter groupswith a .223 than we can with a .30-06; that’s just undisputed fact.Moreover, most woodchuck shooting is done from the prone position withthe toe of the butt resting on the ground. From such a positionthere’s a tendency to crawl the stock and get a “magnumeyebrow” for one’s effort. A couple of those and yourshooting precision may well fall apart straightaway.

We may even enjoyshooting 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, thereare cartridges better suited for varminting. I’m referring, ofcourse, to the “dual-purpose” numbers the likes of the .243Winchester, 6mm Remington, .257 Roberts, .

25-06 and the .240 and .257Weatherby Magnums.

These cartridges’ claim to fame has always beenversatility; their being equally at home potting poodles in FarmerBrown’s back 40 as they are on the Pronghorn prairie. Truth of thematter is, these .24s and .25s are actually less versatile than a 270, a7 Mag or an ’06 because their use should be limited to animals ofthe deer/antelope class. They have an edge as varminters though becausethey offer a slightly higher level of accuracy, there are more efficientbullets of varmint construction available, there’s appreciably lessrecoil and cost per shot. And they offer one more advantage that otherclasses don’t: over-the-counter rifles designed specifically as”pure varminters’–guns with stout barrels that provide anextra level of accuracy and steady-hold qualities. Those very qualities,however, come at the expense of portability and handling therebyprecluding the use of such guns for anything but varminting.

Of coursethere’s no law saying you can’t a ten-pound rifle into thewoods or onto the prairie, but I sure wouldn’t want to. For those nimrods looking to take advantage of that dualpersonality by going with a sporter, if follows that one’s scopemust be a medium or high range variable; you’ll need at least a 9Xto even see a 400-yard chuck when only his top half is visible as hesits up in six-inch grass. And make no mistake: honest 400-yard hits onthe 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 usingthe same gun for our annual deer hunt, we can avail ourselves to theextra measure of precision afforded by a fixed power scope of highmagnification, say 10X on up.

I’ve seen guys using 16s and even24s on varminters but I personally find the parallax and focus settingsto be too critical in these scopes which are really designed forcompetitive shooting at predetermined distanced. I also find thatmirage 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 accuracydifference between the two, all other thins equal, is going to bedramatic. I’d say 1/4 MOA (minute of angle) is average and most ofthat is due to the steadiness-of-hold that the heavy-barreled gunsprovide. While on that subject, I’d like to challenge Ruger,Remington, Winchester, Smith ; Wesson, and everyone else who offersheavy-barreled guns in varmint caliberts to furnish the appropriatestocks with ’em. With the exception of Savage and Sako, everyoneelse simply sticks on their standard sporter handle with the barrelchannel hogged out. I realize the economics involved from themanufacturers’ standpoint, but a straight, high-combed butt andwide fore-end take better advantage of the heavy-barrled gun’scapabilities both on the bench and in the field.

Getting back to accuracy, that quarterinch difference I spoke ofshould 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-grainbullets–the heaviest of the highly frangible pills offered in thatcaliber. More popular though, are the 70, 75 and 80-grainers. In the .

257 Roberts I like the 87-grain bullets for groundhogs, butthe 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 whatprovides the highest level of consistent accuracy.

That leaves us with the .22 centerfires, the most specialized-classof rifles because their use should be restricted to pests and predators.It is ballistics rather than physical characteristics, i.e., sporterversus 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 specificapplication determine the cartridge and, in turn, the cartridgedetermine the type of rifle. If typical shots are under 250 yards (orcan be closed to that distance by stalking), then a .222 or .223 isenough cartridge. Because a sporter can deliver all the accuracy I canuse on out to that distance, that would be my choice. Going along withthe ballistics and handling characteristics of such a combination, asmall 6 or 8X scope is all I feel I can effectively use.

For longer shooting requiring the likes of the .22-250 or .220Swift, then I prefer a heavy barreled rig with at least a 10X scope totake full advantage of what these cartridges are capable of doing. Ifafter a reasonable amount of handload development I can’t get 1/2to 1/4-inch groups from such a rifle, something’s wrong. In the smaller .22’s I like the 52 and 53-grain match HPbullets; in the .22-250 and Swift. I like Nosler’s orHornady’s 60-grain spitzers or Hornady’s 60-grain hollow pointbullets.

An important point yet to be made is that if you opt for aheavy-barreled gun, whether a .22, a 6mm or a .25, it means investing ina rifle that’s not going to be much good for anything butvarminting. Assuming a new rifle, a scope, reloading dies, etc.,you’re looking at a minimum 500 dollar investment. For thewould-be ‘chuck hunter, the best approach is to draft your deer orbig-game rifle into service as described earlier. If you like the sportenough to want to invest in another rifle, you’ll be in a betterposition to decide not only on what sort of rifle/cartridge/scope comboyou want, but what you need. Varminting is not all artillery; you need other equipment, too, ifyou’re going to do it right.

Two “must” items arebinoculars and some sort of rifle rest. Regarding the former, the oldcliche “buy the best you can afford” is good advice butdoesn’t go quite far enough. Money spent on binoculars the likesof Bausch ; Lomb, Leitz or Zeiss is a good investment, even if youhave to scratch a while longer to come up with the tariff. Groundhoghunting is 99 percent glassing and one percent shooting so theinvestment 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 alonesince sales figures show the 8X glass becoming increasingly popular overthe past few years. Even a 10X glass is quite usable but I find itssize 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 awell-tuned centerfire rifle is capable requires a dead steady rest. Manyvarminters simply drag along the same tripod and sandbag they use forbench shooting and set up on the ground. It is the steadiestcombination but falls short in the rapid deployment and conveniencedepartments. I like the Harris bipod–the shorter of his twomodels–which adjusts fore-end heights from 7-1/2 to 12 inches above theground. I find his other model, which adjusts from 13 to 28 inches, toohigh for prone shooting and not high enough for sitting. The Harrisbipod folds compactly under the barrel when not in use, doesn’t marthe stock, and is easily transferred from rifle to rifle. Another commercial rifle rest is the one offered by Bill Minnemanof MTM (5680 Webster St.

, Dept. GA, Dayton, OH 45414); it’s asturdy, yard-long fiberglass walking stick with an adjustable-heightfore-end rest. Driving its sharply pointed end into the ground, the MTMShooting Stick makes a good rest from the sitting or prone position;however, being a monopod it can’t provide quite the steadiness ofbipod or sandbag set-up. Or you can use plain ol’ “buffalo sticks,” twosticks planted on the ground and crossed at the desired height toprovide a remarkably steady rest once you get the hang of it. A spotting scope and a rangefinger are two other pieces ofequipment frequently used by serious varmint hunters. Occasionally aspotting scope is used to positively identify that that little brownspot out in the alfalfa is really the head of a ‘chuck

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