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Finding the best varmint rifle and ammunition

| Friday, July 15, 2005

It was the middle of October, but the temperature was more suited for late November. In other words, it was cold, and quick gusts of wind didn't help matters. I knew this would be the last chuck hunt of the year, and I had made a special effort to get one more chance at a large chuck that had a series of den holes under a stump in a fence row some 292 steps from where I was seated behind the remnants of a stake and rider fence.

During the summer, I had missed a chuck at the stump twice, and I wanted to have one more chance.

A glance at my watch showed there was only an hour of legal hunting time left, and that could be cut short by dark clouds swirling overhead. I sat in eerie silence wondering if my long drive had been a waste of time.

From force of habit, I checked the stump every few minutes through my 7 x 50mm Steiner binocular, but nothing was in sight. I was tempted to leave, but with so little time left, I decided to stick it out hoping for the best.

Normally, I don't load a chuck rifle until I'm ready to shoot, but, with nothing to do, I dropped a round on the loading plate of the 220 Swift and closed the bolt and set the safety. I didn't load with a lot of confidence, but at least I would be ready if a chuck appeared.

I sat lost in thought for a few minutes and then checked the stump, but nothing was changed, or so I thought. After removing the binocular, I suddenly realized there was an object directly in front of the stump. After a 10-second check, I could see a chuck's head and shoulders just above ground level. This was somewhat of a surprise since I was expecting the chuck to come out of the main den to the right of the stump.

I cranked the 6 x 24X Bausch & Lomb variable power scope to around 20x, but the evening haze literally blocked out the chuck. Turning down to 12X gave a better sight picture, and I froze the reticle on the neck and touched off the two- pound trigger. A dull thud floated back indicating the bullet had hit the stump. I was zeroed for that range, but the my 53-grain match bullet might have fallen victim to one of the wind gusts.

I stuffed the empty case in my pocket and headed for the stump I knew there would be no further opportunities for a shot, but I always check out each shot even if I think I missed.

My suspicions about missing were confirmed when a quick check showed nothing but a gaping hole in front of the stump. To see if I could find where the bullet hit the stump, I dropped down on my knees to get a closer look. Instantly, I saw signs of a fresh hit, and several minutes later with the aid of a forked stick pulled a large chuck out of the hole.

To a dedicated chuck hunter, this was a perfect way to end a season. A long shot with an accurate rifle topped with a high quality scope.

The bullet had just nipped the front of the shoulder making an instant kill. The chuck simply dropped down the hole which was about a foot straight down before leveling off As I carried the chuck to my four wheel drive, the wind gusts didn't seem as strong and I thought there was a bit of warmth in the ait which I realized was just wishful thinking as whirling snowflakes danced past my face.

Varmint hunting is a precision-type shooting sport. Admittedly, the 292-yard shot I just described is not a super long shot for a varmint hunter, but 876 feet is not exactly a short shot, either. To come right down to brass tacks, it's really not so much the distance, but the precise placement of the bullet. Just making a kill at a super long range is not indicative of precision shooting; bullet placement is. My shot struck within an inch or so of where I was aiming, but there's more to it than that.

If you noted, I pointed out that my 220 Swift was zeroed in for 300 yards. Several sessions at the benchrest along with the use of a factory trajectory chart assured me the Swift would be on target if weather conditions were right.

Although I had zeroed in for this particular shot, by understanding the trajectory arc of the bullet, I could make high or low adjustments with the reticle. It's worth mentioning that today's reticles are superior to some degree that the straight crosswire or “plex” type found in many older scopes.

For instance, both the 4 x 14x Springfield Armory Government Tactical scope and the 4 x 16x Schmidt & Bender Varmint scope have range finding capabilities.

Space doesn't permit a complete description of each reticle, but I will touch on the Schmidt & Bender. Let me assure you that I'm aware this is an expensive scope, but for a dedicated varmint shooter, it's a lifetime investment. The Schmidt & Bender's new varmint reticle incorporates a series of vertical dots.

Without going into detail, zero the rifle in at 100 yards with the main dot that is on the intersection of the crosswire. Using the same load combination, hold the first dot under the main dot in the center of the same bull's-eye and shoot a three or five-shot group which should form above the bull's-eye.

Do the same thing with the second dot and then the third. By knowing the velocity of the load combination and using a trajectory chart, it's a simple matter to figure out the range at which dot is sighted in.

The reticle also has two windage dots on the horizontal hair of each side of the main dot. Understanding a little about these dots aids in aiming when faced with windy conditions.

I'm often asked which is the best cartridge for varmint shooting. That's as tough to answer as which girl is the prettiest in a beauty contest. Generally speaking, the 22-250 Remington is tough to heat, and that's doubly true when it is improved to the 22-250 Ackley Improved.

The Ackley Improved straight lines the case somewhat and sharpens the shoulder angle to 40-degrees. The end result is more powder capacity. better powder combustion with certain powders and more velocity.

Nosier's Reloading Guide 4 shows muzzle velocities from the 22-250 Ackley in the 3,900 fps category with 50-grain bullets. I stopped short of a maximum powder charge behind a 50-grain Nosier Ballistic Tip but still generated a muzzle velocity of just over 3,800 fps.

I think the best advantage the 22-250 Ackley Improved offers is the plus 3,700 fps muzzle velocity with a 55-grain bullet. That's roughly several hundred feet faster than a conventional 22-250 Remington can push a 55-grain slug. Maybe that doesn't sound too impressive, but adding 200 fps to a 55-grain spitzer point adds another 75 yards of accurate bullet placement. I have no hard statistics to prove that statement, but I have observed it in the field.

There are other fine varmint cartridges in the .224 caliber such as the 222 Remington, 223 Remington and 220 Swift. Those interested in wildcatting will find the 22 SR Remington hard to beat. The case is made by necking down Remington 6mmBR brass, trimming and turning down the outside of the neck. With 40-grain bullets, the 22 RR will match the 220 Swift's 4000 fps, and maximum loads of certain powders will shove a 50-grain bullet over 3,600 fps. I used a book load of 28.5-grains of AA2015 ignited by a 7 1/2 small Remington primer behind a 50-grain Sierra bullet that exited the muzzle at 3,362 fps.

One important thing to remember about a varmint rifle is that sheer velocity is not the only factor to consider. Although it's possible to get Swift-type velocities with 40-grain bullets from the 22 BR Remington wildcat, I settled for 55-grain bullets exiting the muzzle at only 3,362 fps. Dropping down to 50-grain bullets will allow me to push the velocity figure to around 3,700 fps, but I'm not certain what the accuracy potential will be, and accuracy is the heart of the matter, Speed means nothing if accuracy is poor.

This coming summer, I will run range tests with 52-grain match bullets exiting at around 3,650 fps.

I have learned from almost five decades or shooting and reloading that a good varmint rifle is an accurate rifle.

The paramount goal of the varmint hunter is bullet placement, and bullet placement is impossible from a load combination that does not print tight 3-shot groups at 100 yards.

Other ingredients for a top heavy barrel varmint rig is an adjustable trigger, fouling-free bore and a high quality variable power scope such as a 4 x 16X or 6 x 20X. Burris has a dandy 8 x 32X that is ideal for varmint rifles. Powers up to 12X can successfully be used in the field, and the top powers can be used for range work.

Varmint hunting is a precision-type shooting sport. Even with the best equipment, not every shot connects, but that's the challenge offered by hunting the insignificant woodchuck.

(Don Lewis is a longtime outdoor writer for the Leader Times as well as other publications. He is also the author of several books. His column appears each Friday on the Armstrong Afield page in the Leader Times.)

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