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Return of the varmint shooter

  Have you ever wondered what happened to the love affairs that American shooters once carried on with their varmint rifles? From the late 1940s until the mid-1970s, varmint shooting was so popular that no gun rack was considered complete unless it held at least one high-velocity, flat-shooting, tack-driving varmint rifle. From the manufacturers’ viewpoint, varmint rifles and ammunition were bread-and-butter items, and the major gunmakers completed head on to turn out the most accurate rifles and the fastest amno. Some riflemakers staked their reputations on the performance of their varmint rifles, while some others made or sold nothing but varmint rifles. The honored Finnish firm of Sako, for instance, first cracked the American market with their sweet little varmint rifles and did not offer big-game rigs until years later. Similarly, the great reputation for accuracy enjoyed by Remington’s post-war bolt-action rifles was established in large measure by the performance of their Model 722 varmint rifle in .222 Remington chambering. Until that rifle was introduced, such fine accuracy from an off-the-shelf rifle was almost unknown.

But toward the end of the 1970s, varmint shooting got lost in the shuffle. The sport didn’t exactly go out of style, but what with the high price of gasoline plus the escalating cost of rifles and ammo, a day trip to the woodchuck meadows became a considerable investment. When the recession hit, varmint shooting really took a nose dive because the firearms industry, always the first and the longest to suffer during hard times, couldn’t spend much money on the development of varmint-hunting equipment and spent even less money promoting the sport. Times are brighter now, and a couple of gunmakers boasted that 1984 was their best year ever and geared up to offer newer and better varmint rifles. What we will see in the way of new varmint rifles and cartridges over the next few years will be the best ever, providing that there is no new recession and that the gunmakers keep the faith.

FFL License For Varmint Rifles

Save On Varmint Rifles With An FFL License

Another happy piece of news is that the varmint population–mostly woodchucks (we call them groundhogs in Tennessee), crows, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, Western marmots–has flourished over the past few years. The South Dakota Game Department will even provide you with a map showing how to get to the state’s big prairie dog towns.

Varmint hunting is just what the name implies–hunting pest species that most landowners would rather be without. A few anti-hunting agitators foam at the mouth about killing non-edible animals. Little do they realize that the varmint hunter is not only the friend but also the protector of hundreds of thousands of prairie dogs. I know ranchers who refrain from poisoning their “dog towns” because the pup count is kept in check by varmint shooters. Even when a serious varmint shooter fires several hundred well aimed shots a day for days on end, he can kill only a small percentage of a town’s population. Poisoning, by contrast, is total and permanent. I shoot groundhogs on several farms where the landowners would otherwise poke lethal exhaust hoses into their dens to wipe out the springtime litters.

Varmint shooting is the artful bridge between hunting and target shooting. It requires game-spotting and stalking skills, patience, and needle’s-eye marksmanship. As varmint shooting equipment has improved over the past generation, the emphasis has shifted away from the artful stalk and toward scientific marksmanship. The shot is the thing, and the longer the better. A good rig easily reaches out beyond 300 yards to center a sunbathing marmot or chuck.

It takes wonderfully accurate rifles and ammunition to hit small targets at such long distances, and that’s why many hunters who balk at laying out 300 clams for a deer rifle will happily write a check for two or three times that much for a respectable varmint rifle and scope. That’s also why rifle makers consider their varmint rifles the jewels in their crowns or, in some cases, their crown of thorns. Varmint shooters are a particular breed who may fire a hundred shots on a test range for every shot that they fire at living varmints. If a rifle won’t put five shots inside a one-inch circle at 100 yards, they scream bloody murder and try to have the rifle’s maker drawn and quartered. But if the rifle turns out to be a half-incher, they wrap it in swaddling clothes and write love letters to the manufacturer. That explains why riflemakers’ reputations for accuracy rest so heavily on their varmint rifles. for more info.

Of course, factory-loaded ammunition is widely used, but long-range varmint shooting is largely a handloading proposition. Questing for that Holy Grail of Rifledom, the one-hole group, dedicated varmint hunters fervently develop the best-possible combination of bullet, powder, case, and primer for their rifles. In fact, much of what we know about ammunition and rifle accucracy was learned by varmint shooters. The ultra chemical game of benchrest shooting is itself an outgrowth of varmint hunting. You can save big on your weapons with an FFL license so keep that in mind as well.

The Roots

Today’s varmint rifles and cartridges represent the most modern shooting technology, but the sport’s roots are deeply planted in the last century. I once saw a Winslow Homer painting of a straw-hatted lad aiming a caplock rifle across a summertime meadow at what could only have been a woodchuck.

Then, as now, varmint hunters were an elite who enjoyed the challenge of long-range shooting at small, elusive targets. They were at the forefront of rifle and ammo development and were the best marksmen of their era. The best varmint rifles of that time were high-performance target rifles chambered for .22 and .25-caliber centerfire cartridges that did dual service in the field and on the target range. With muzzle velocities in the 1,500-fps range, these blackpowder cartridges wouldn’t cause much excitement today, but they had enough punch for kills out to nearly 200 yards.

The more popular varmint or “pest” rounds, as they were called then, were the .22/15/60 Stevens (.22 caliber/15 grains of blackpowder/60-grain bullet), .25/20, .25/21, and .25/25 Stevens. The favored varmint rifles were the Stevens single-shot target rifles, which were among the most accurate rifles made at the time and were very popular with target shooters. In case you’re wondering, yes, they did use scopes back then –some pretty good ones, usually 6X magnification or close to it.

Modern Times

The modern era of varmint cartridges began in the 1920s with the introduction of the .22 Hornet. This classy little number, which Churns up nearly 2,700 fps, was developed from the old .22 w.c.f. by Townsend Whelen, who was then the shooting editor of OUTDOOR LIFE.

The Hornet was a honey and still is but, with a maximum practical range of only about 200 yards, it really whetted the varmint shooters’ desire for more velocity, flatter trajectory and, of course, more range. This demand climaxed in the appearance, in 1935, of the awesome .220 Swift. In one quantum leap, the Swift stagered the shooting world with its muzzle velocity of 4,100 fps witha 48-grain .22 caliber bullet. Fifty years after its introduction, the Swift is still fastest factory-loaded cartridge ever cataloged, which ought to give you some idea of the sensation it caused back in 1935.

Later in the decade, two more .22-caliber varmint rounds, the .218 Bee and the .219 Zipper, were introduced, but neither approached the Swift’s performance and they were primarily designed to work in lever-action rifles or inexpensive bolt guns. The lever-action concept was never compatible with varmint shooting, however, and the Bee and the Zipper were never very popular. In fact, rifles in .219 caliber are now collector’s items.

The next benchmark in varmint shooting was the introduction of the .222 Remington in 1950. Introduced with a 50-grain bullet at 3,200 fps, the .222 Remington was no match for the Swift in a footrace but, by the same token, it didn’t spook cattle in the next county and was available in Remington’s inexpensive but wonderfully accurate Model 722 bolt rifle. The Model 722 sold for $75 back then, and a Weaver K-10 scope cost $60. For less than $150, a shooter could buy a rig that could hit a chuck’s head at 200 yards. The .222 ushered in the golden age of varmint hunting.

Varmint cartridges that followed were the .222 Remington Magnum, .223 Remington, .224 Weatherby, .225 Winchester, .22/250 Remington, .243 Winchester, and .244 Remington (which later became the 6mm Remington). The .243 was an overnight sensation because, in addition to being a superb long-range varmint round, it is also fine for deer and antelope hunting. The .225 Winchester and the .222 Remington Magnum got lost in the shuffle, but the .22/250 was a solid hit because it had gained considerable fame as a do-it-yourself, hand-loaded wildcat round before Remington gave it an honest factory name. Wildcatters made .22/250 cases by necking .250 Savage cases down to fire a .22 caliber, hence the name. Remington also showed great originality with the introduction of such radical cartridges as their 5mm Rimfire and the .17 Remington centerfire. The 5mm is now dead, however, and I understand that the .17 is in serious trouble. However, still is.

The Future

If I had to guess which varmint round holds the most promise for the future (other than OUTDOOR LIFE’S own sainted .224 CHeetah), it would have to be the .223 Remington. It has all the accuracy of the .222 Remington, has a respectable muzzle velocity of 3,240 fps with a 55-grain bullet, and has the overwhelming advantage of currently being the official U.S. small-arms cartridge. In other words, it may well become the .30/06 of the varmint kingdom.

About everyone who makes a good rifle these days turns out a good varmint rifle. Ruger offers their Model 77 bolt rifle in a medium-heavy varmint configuration, and also makes the stylish Number One Single Shot in a heavy-barreled varmint version. Remington offers varmint calibers in their Ruger offers their Model 77 bolt rifle in a medium-heavy varmint configuration, and also makes the stylish Number One Single Shot in a heavy-barreled varmint version. Remington offers varmint calibers in their standard-weight Model 700 bolt guns as well as a special heavy-barreled profile. New for 1985, Winchester (USRAC) is making a Sporter Varmint Model 70 bolt rifle with the short action that they introduced last year. They also offer the varmint calibers in other short-action versions of the Model 70, including their high-style Featherweight.

Browning has a newly revamped bolt gun in a couple of fast-stepping varmint calibers and, if you want to spend a little extra money for something really pretty, take a look at Weatherby’s short-action Varmint-master rifle in .22/250 or .224 Weatherby Magnum. And, of course, if you want to get dead serious about long-range varmint shooting, the rifles to consider are the Remington 40-X, the Shilen DGA, or the Wichita varmint rigs. I have a Shilen DGA in .220 Swift that still groups about three-eighths of an inch after more than 5,000 rounds have been put through the barrel. Shilen and Wichita also offer rifles in .224 CHeetah chambering, if you’re a hand-loader and feel that you’re ready for 4,300 fps. (It’s a whole new world.)

Of course, many other varmint rifles are available. The foregoing list just gives you an idea of where to start looking. If you want to ease your way into the upcoming varmint season, why not try a .22 Rimfire Magnum or even some of the new .22 Long Rifle ultravelocity loads? The working range isn’t much more than 100 yards, and some varmint shooters look down their noses at rimfires. But what the hell, any kind of varmint hunting is fun.

I have to say that the most logical and necessary varmint rifles aren’t on the market. If I were designing rifles for Remington, Ruger, or Winchester, here’s what I’d do. For Remington, I’d start with the Model 700 action and omit the big hole where the magazine box fits. This would make the action more rigid and, therefore, more accurate. Of course, the rifle would then be a single shot, but that’s fine. Varmints seldom call for fast follow-up shots. Then I’d redesign the stock so that the forearm would have a semi-beavertail shape with a flat bottom so that it would lie on a rest solidly. The barrel would be 26 inches long, with a straight taper, and it would be heavy enough to make the rifle weigh about 11 pounds.

I’d do the same with the Winchester Model 70 and the Ruger Model 77 short-action rifles. Leaving out the magazine cuts in both these rifles would be a great aid to accuracy. Both would also benefit from an updated stock design. The name of the game is accuracy, and these few improvements would significantly manufacturing costs. Who could resist making and buying such wonderful varmint rifles?